#39 Tunnel No. 1

 I started writing this in January after having a strange dream which was partly a memory from a recent holiday, and partly a weird mixture of things I’ve been researching lately. I’ve tried to coalesce these ideas here in a kind of magic realist monster story. Hope you enjoy!

Image: Ponttovuori tunnel by Tiia Monto: Wikipedia Commons.

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Victor stood on the dark river bank and watched the small motions of the water. It would have been generous to call them waves, he thought. It made him sad just looking at the lapping futility of those tiny ripples touching his shoes. Something about being cooped up in that place, hour after hour in the dim light with the smell of stagnant water all around him made him feel scooped out; hollowed like a shucked oyster. Faces of co-workers blurred in and out of his field of vision, blobs on the periphery, flitting in between trees. They ceased to be individual people, and became like darting shadows, or memories. The sounds of the boats creaking into their moorings, of chatter, and of the last passengers disembarking onto the bank had now died away to almost nothing. Victor had finished his final sweep of area and was simply waiting to be sent home. A headache was clustering behind his eyes. It had started as he began extinguishing the torches. Now he could see their flames every time he blinked, and he could smell the paraffin on his clothes.

Over on the other bank, Tim was flirting with someone. Victor knew who it was without having to look up. She gave muted responses Victor could barely hear. He should have asked her out years ago, but there was never a good time. The music was cut off abruptly. The main spotlights extinguished with a finality, a resounding click which echoed around the cavern. A kind of strained calm descended like a heavy curtain falling. Feelings on top of feelings layered up at the back of Victor’s mind like a scrap heap. He tossed them into some hidden part of himself as if they held nothing of value. He worried that they were worse than useless, that they were slowly but surely poisoning him; rotting carcases poisoning a stream. It was the end of a long day, and he had worked too hard. He had been staring too long into the water.

On the other side of what passed for a sand bar coated in a chattering of palm trees, he saw Rose looking at him. She was pulling an empty boat back in to shore, securing it with a thick rope to the jetty. Her black hair glinted liquorice in the almost moonlight. Her arms with their fine hairs were strong. She had a sweet face. Victor wanted to love her more than anything else in the whole world, but he never had the energy. Words just fell out his mouth like accidents. It wasn’t that he was too nervous, or didn’t have the courage. He was incapable. Someone had cut all the wires inside so he no longer worked properly.

“Hey bud,” he felt a hand slap his shoulder.

“You alright?” Joseph’s hand was wet. Victor felt it soak through the back of his polo shirt.

“Fine, fine.”

Joseph shifted a little. “Almost done for the night, but there’s a boat got stuck back in Tunnel One.”

“You want me to go get it?”

Joseph’s face fell down into a sloppy sort of smile, like someone had pulled away a beam somewhere.

“Oh, would you? That would be great, my shoulder’s getting a little, you know,” he made a show of rolling the shoulder round in the joint, rubbing it with a long pale hand. Joseph probably had a date tonight.

“Sure, go on home.”

Tunnel One was a quite a walk away. You could follow the route the designated path led you along, winding up and through several cold, stone corridors lined by torches. With these now extinguished, and only the guide lights to walk by, it was easy to miss the right turning. Besides, it would be quicker to stay on the bank and just stumble across the scenery. You weren’t supposed to, strictly, but everyone did it. Rose called to Victor as he hopped his way along the sand towards the first of the tunnels, but Victor only waved at her. Her downturned eyes had a haunted look as she watched him pass out of reach. She might wait for him to be finished with this last task so that they could walk to the carpark together, she might, or she might not. Maybe this time she would just give up.

When you really love someone, truly, you will do everything you can to keep from hurting them. It’s as simple as a reflex. Victor had observed it. Had felt it for himself. You could want to hurt them in an instant, but the minute you see what that hurt might mean, you pull back. You can’t really do it. Victor knew that, and so it was easier to be with girls who didn’t think twice about hurting him. That way, he didn’t owe them anything. He appreciated rather than enjoyed the machinations of the girls who wanted the things they could achieve through him. It made him feel needed in a way he could easily dispose of. Victor just couldn’t take Rose pining for him gently all the way over there on the bank like that for no good reason at all except that she loved him. It felt like that kind of investment in him, as a man, was something beyond him. It was more than he had been brought up to expect.

Tunnel Four was short enough. It had a thin lip on either side that allowed you to slink along with your back to the wall. Victor had gotten pretty good at moving that way, he was light on his feet. The truth was that he liked to explore the cavern sometimes. He liked being alone in the dark, it was only sometimes that he felt that ache in his stomach and the feeling that he was choking. It was the people, mostly, not the river, or the darkness, or the artificial palms. People had expectations, and he liked it when he could fulfil them. When he couldn’t, he choked.

Victor passed out into his favourite part of the ride. It was the main scene, where the huge model pirate ship loomed out at you from the third tunnel with the sound of cracking cannons and the sulphurous smoke billowing automatically from her sides. The ship was silent now, all her lights extinguished, but the smoke still lingered to give the air a sickly sweet smell. The waters here were rippling still, though no boats troubled them. The tourists were long gone. It gave Victor pause. He stood at the entrance to Tunnel Three and watched the little waves reverberating outwards. His walkie talkie buzzed at his hip. It was Maurice in the command tower.

“Anyone in there still?” the voice crackled.

Victor pulled the walkie talkie up, and pressed the button with a quick flick of his thumb.

“Can’t see anybody here, Chief. Ride closed half an hour ago.”

He could almost feel Maurice sighing. It made him nervous.

“Ah, forget it. You getting the boat?”

“Yeah, how come you asked?”

“What?” The signal was a little jumpy.

“About there being someone here.”

“Oh,” there was hesitation which might just have been a time lag.

“Oh, well, it’s just our numbers for the last boat were off by one, that’s all.”

“…when you did the transfer?”

“Yeah, switched folks from Boat Two to Boat three. Boat Two got stuck in the tunnel again, but it was the last of the day so we just left it there.”

“Better than being on train tracks eh Chief?”

“Yeah,” Maurice chuckled. He had worked for all the major themeparks at one time or another. Too many animatronics, he used to say. Too much to go wrong. Here they had real sand with real boats, even if the palms were plastic.

“Maybe someone miscounted when they loaded the boat up. It’s late,” Victor’s voice had a shrug in it.

“Yeah, yeah maybe” Maurice seemed to be receding into the static. “But you know, Tunnel One…”

There was a pause.

“Yeah. It’s that Déjà vu feeling again,”

Victor didn’t really know what to say. He aimed for flippant but missed.

Maurice’s voice said something which sounded like “Bermuda Triangle,” but the words became distorted and the walkie talkie cut off.

Victor became acutely aware of where he was. It was as if the immediate silence caused by the cut off signal had pounced on him from all around. The waters rippled and the great ship sat, fat bellied, empty of life, staring at him.

Victor continued on through Tunnel Three and out into Pirate Town. Only the guide lights shone so the parapets and mannequins cast uneven shadows onto the set. Bluebeard’s beady black eyes glimmered under the small spotlights beaming up feebly from the ground. These lights were hidden in plastic shrubbery, covered in coloured gels, so that they bathed the figures in an eerie crimson glow. The pirates’ skin had a waxy look up close. Some had scuff marks, peeling patches you couldn’t see from the boats. Their hair was stiff with dust. Only some had the capability of movement. All looked as if they might have some deeply disturbing level of sentience when you turned your back on them, as if there was something staring out beneath the waxen surface that resented imprisonment. Victor stopped and rubbed his face with his hands. His skin felt creepy. There was a breeze coming from somewhere. He was tired. He pushed on past the inhabitants of Pirate Town and into Tunnel Two.

The Cove had a different kind of light. It shimmered in lilacs and aquamarines and the underwater lighting gave the river a lagoon-like quality. Victor enjoyed being in The Cove like this, without the larger spotlights on it seemed even more magical. It didn’t matter to him that he couldn’t clearly see the rag-tag skeletons or the fake treasure chests with their plastic rubies and tin foil doubloons. Two mermaids’ tails hung down over the peak of a rock, and their scales glittered. Engorged, naked breasts sat on their chests like crème puffs with cherry-red nipples, but the top half of the bodies were cast in heavy shadow. There was only the suggestion of something round and inviting, nothing parents could complain about, if they saw it. And if they saw it – as Maurice always used to say – then they really had to be looking. Victor gazed longingly up at them. They were grotesque and silent. Their bodies had no heads. Victor wondered whether Rose had waited for him after all. Shame crawled over him like insects. He usually enjoyed being in this part of the ride most of all, but today it seemed somehow alien to him, like he was seeing it for the first time.

Tunnel One lay ahead, just a wide gaping mouth. There was no light from within, and no sound except a rhythmic slapping. The boat must be trapped inside, its rudder caught on something on the river bed, its prow jammed in an outcropping of rock. It wasn’t the first time. Tunnel One was a bugbear for the guides, and it was the first tunnel they came to. The traffic jams were a major headache for Maurice, who said he was waiting on the go-ahead from the Operations Manager to close the ride for a few days to get that section patched. It was just everyday stuff. But Tunnel One had this reputation. Sometimes people were miscounted when they were placed in boats. Sometimes you could have sworn there were people who went in and didn’t come out. Lone travellers, always. Never families, never couples, never children. Rose swore blind she knew a man who had vanished in Tunnel One. That was six months ago, and she was still jumpy. Then there was Gloria, who had worked with them for a little while. Tall, always in pigtails, Gloria had a loud laugh and liked to pinch the other guides in the dark just for a joke. One day she forgot to clock out at the end of her shift, and never came back. Last time Rose had seen her she was heading into Tunnel One.

Victor pushed his thoughts away like he was pushing hairs out of his eyes. They did him no good, he told himself. The breeze was starting to annoy him. He thought he could hear rain tapping on the roof of the cavern above and felt a momentary chill sweep through him. This was no time to get the ghoulies. He got to moving. He passed through the entrance to the tunnel and the sound of rain vanished. The tapping of the boat against the cave lip was constant, and gentle, but on the other side to where he was poised. Victor made a calculated hop, which should have been enough to carry him across, but it wasn’t. It was if the air had pushed him, mid step. He had slammed into something which couldn’t have been there. Victor landed on his back in the river with a splash, his mouth filled with the rancid taste of stagnant, chlorinated water. He gasped and pushed towards the boat, treading water until he could find his feet. The waterline came up to his neck. It was dark; Tunnel One had no lights. It was supposed to freak out the passengers while spooky pirate music blared out of the speakers before dropping them into The Cove with a splash. The way the tunnel rose up slightly towards the entrance and curved around meant that only a meagre amount of light from the scene ahead spilled in. Victor fumbled for the side of the boat and tried to shake it loose, but something had it well and truly jammed. He struggled with it, having to hold his breath for bouts while he dipped beneath the water. That was when he felt something touch him. Reaching under his shirt to place a cold hand on the small of his back. He spun round, spluttering water but it was too dark too see anything.

“Hey!” he shouted, not liking the way his voice echoed throughout the tunnel. It sounded afraid.

Nothing answered.

Victor swam around the boat and tried to climb up onto the stone lip, but his feet couldn’t settle on a foothold. The stone edge was too slippery for his hands. It was like the water wouldn’t let him go. Panic started in his stomach and spread upwards. He tried to stay calm, and breath deeply. He placed both his hands on the ledge and tried to think of the coolness of the stone and the water seeping into him and making him numb, emotionless. Somewhere far off he thought he heard Rose’s voice calling for him, but he couldn’t seem to call back. The little mind-trick was working, though, he was starting to feel a numbness creeping through his limbs, like slender hands stroking his skin. They reached up and around him, over his waist and chest, down his legs and up towards his collar bone. Whispers rose in the Tunnel, like twin voices. He felt a tugging.

“If I don’t feel anything I won’t lose it,” he said, mechanically.

The hands began to drag him slowly away from the edge, into the water. He saw shapes above him. He was being tugged from the waist downwards. The ground that had been beneath his feet moments ago now just seemed to fall away.  In the last of the light, Victor saw their roundness; their glittering bodies. It made him go limp. He knew them like he knew himself, he thought, and so he let them take hold of him. Their faces were not at all how he imagined them to be. Their skin was puffy and loose. They had cherry-red lips, but their eyes were pale and insipid, almost devoid of colour. He looked into their faces, longing to see the joy, and familiarity he felt, but their expressions were utterly passionless. Workmanlike, they pushed him down beneath them, wrapping his body in their long muscular tails. His hands flailed for them, but they were inconstant. They moved too fast for him to hold anything but air. Their greed for him was rabid, hungry and desperate. He would give them what they wanted for as long as they needed him. It was easier than resisting. It was good to be needed, to give until the point of exsanguination. To feel your own ego, obliterated by another. The waves licked his body in undulations as they pulled him down. Whispers slipped between his ears but breaking through the murmurs he heard Rose calling to him for the last time. There was a sharpness in his heart, and in his stomach. The hands which had been stroking him were claws. The two thoughts converged. He ripped open his lungs to scream but the water swallowed him up with a snap, leaving only ripples.

Rose had waited for Victor, but he never came. When his walkie talkie couldn’t be raised she and Maurice had converged upon The Cove without bothering to consult one another. Tunnel One was a empty; a silent column of darkness. The blue water shimmered as the rogue boat, now turned loose, drifted aimlessly. Rose began to shout out for Victor again, flashing her torch beam in wide arcs, its light penetrating beyond the tunnel mouth to reveal only walls and water. A feeling was creeping its way down her neck like an icicle. Maurice looked over her shoulder. He was making laboured breaths but no movements. He seemed to be trying to come to a decision. Together, they stood like that for a moment, staring into the tunnel, each thinking their own dark thoughts, and the boat slipped gently away behind them, carried off by the lapping waves.

It was then that Rose caught a faint suggestion in the air of a scent. Aftershave. The sound of rain on the cavern roof. A memory of an experience that wasn’t hers. Her name being called. She handed Maurice the torch, and jumped into the water. There was the remnant of a whisper in her ear and a vision of floating, bloated faces. She whirled around as an instinct pulled her gaze upwards towards the rock.

Nothing but a pair of plaster sphinxes. Headless, in the shadows.

Rose plunged into the tunnel, and tasted blood. The water was deeper than it should have been.

Somewhere in the depths, a voice was calling to her.

#34 The Lighthouse Men

Image courtesy of prozac1 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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A face has been cut into the rock on the walls of the lighthouse, battered by waves since before my grandmother was alive. She would stoop a little once we reached the spot, and run her hands over the rough surface of stone, when the tide was out, and the sea was calm. As we stood watching the moon rise over the rocks she would say to me,

“This is where I’ll always remember him, just like the first time I saw him, standing tall under a winter dusk, and all the stars coming out. He always smelled so good to me then, how I drank him in! He was warm and wild. Standing here, it’s as if I can still feel the salt from the wind off the sea all caught up in his thick, black hair.”

We crossed over to our sitting spot, and there I laid a blanket. On the hard ground of the jetty we ate cheese and pickle sandwiches. My grandmother stretched her shins out in front of her and caressed them roughly with her hands as if trying to rub the stiffness out.

“You don’t believe in curses do you, Herrie?” she asked me. The wind was whistling over the cliffs, making the jetty boards creak, and the gulls squawk and beat their wings.

“Do you, Herrie?” she repeated.

I never answered her, preferring instead to just let her talk. Let her have her visits, three, four times a year to the lighthouse. She came here to relive the same experiences whenever the seasons turned. Now, the wind had slivers of ice in it.

My grandmother looked out to sea. I waited for her to begin the old story I had heard since I was a child. This was how she began.

“He was the lighthouse keeper. He had beautiful seashell eyes, grey-green eyes with flashes of silver. They were shot through like marble, with those thin, silver trails. He had a boat he would take out, and would catch crabs and little fishes to sell when he could. His hands were rough from pulling on the ropes, wet and heavy from the saltwater. I used to bring him a salve I made myself, full of fat and beeswax. At first he scowled at me when I put it on him, but after a while, you know, I think he liked it. He didn’t have anyone. His father had died years ago, and as for other family, aah, I don’t know that he had any. He was gruff and didn’t talk much, and I thought he was the most sophisticated man in the whole town. He was older than me, by a good stretch, and I thought that made him sophisticated. He always looked like he had seen something of the world, things that he didn’t care to talk about, and I liked that. I was entirely enchanted by the mystery of him.

“That night I saw him, he was down by the water and struggling with something. I ran over to him and wanted to help but once he heard my shoes clacking on the wet boards he whirled round and waved me away. Do you know what he had caught in a net that night?”

I did know, but I waited silently for her to continue. She swallowed, and swept a long, steel strand of hair across her face which the wind had caught and played with.

“Well, the thing bit him.” She said.

“I saw it jump out of the net and snatch at him, and he cried out and tried to beat the thing back. Now you know that I’m tall for woman, Herrie, and heaven knows I was stronger then, I went rushing to him. I took a plank of broken wood and I beat at that dark thing until it let him go, and slipped back down into the water. But, before it went, I looked into its eyes, and it saw me. They were like great, white, shining saucers with burning red coals at their heart and behind the redness, a blackness. A darkness without any kind of life at all. It saw me as me as it slipped back down into the tide, with the water gushing into that awful gaping mouth.

“I half-hauled him into the lighthouse, but when I got him to bed, I saw that the wound in his leg wasn’t bleeding at all. He saw it too, and he looked up at me with these sad eyes and pushed my hand away. I tried to put my salve on it but he told me that there wasn’t any use trying. I just didn’t understand what he meant by that.

“Over the next few hours, with me holding him, he changed, of course. I watched it happen. I couldn’t get my head around it, but he knew all about it because it he was a lighthouse man. All I could do was to try and make him comfortable, but it was hard to watch him twitching underneath the blanket of the bed. I loved his face so much.”

At this, my grandmother put her hand up to her face, she covered first her eyes, and then her mouth. Then she spoke again,

“Before the change took hold, he had shown me a book made by someone in his family. It was the old lore I suppose, barely legible, of the lighthouse men. That thing must have taken his father too I suppose. He never had children, or so he thought, but you know what nature is like.”

Tonight, the telling of the story seemed to be affecting my grandmother more than usual. In the moonlight I could see the trails her tears had just taken down her cheeks. She said,

“I took him down to the water, like he had asked me. As I said, I was a strong woman. Still, it was so hard because my heart was broken and I wanted to jump in there after him. Instead, because it was what he wanted, I let him just fall out of my arms into the sea. I barely recognised him. He had become a sleek thing, with a long mouth full of sharp teeth, jagged like rocks, like razors. But his eyes never turned, never became like the one that bit him, because in his heart, he couldn’t be evil. He had a strong soul, and it stayed with him the whole time he was changing and even afterwards. I saw it there in his eyes as I carried him. I couldn’t hold back my tears, knowing there would always be a bit of himself that was left inside.

“He sank out of my sight. My hands were slippery from holding him and I cried all night, and into the next day. When my father found me I was soaked through. They put me to bed for months, and I refused to speak to anybody. Now, here I am, an old woman, and here you are, and I think, out there somewhere, he is too.”

Perhaps because there was something a little different about the way she had told the story that night, I asked her for the first time,

“Did he drown grandma?”

My grandmother just laughed. “Men like that can’t drown,” she said. “Neither could you, if you went into the water.” She looked at me so fiercely then that it made me uncomfortable.

“Promise me something,” she said, taking one of my hands and placing it in hers. “Promise me you’ll never take your father down here.” She gave my hand such a squeeze.

“Okay,” I said, but she worried me, there was something eerie about her that night.

“I love you Herrie.” She said.

We hugged for a while, and she patted my hair, and her tears fell in warm droplets on my cold cheek.

“Now go on to the car,” she said, finally.

“I want to watch the moon rise up over the lighthouse.”

The moon had climbed while we had been talking. Tonight, it was about as large and white as I had ever seen it. I stood watching her for a while as she made her way towards the lighthouse. Her hair flew out behind her, and she raised her hands to catch the wind, making her shawl billow around her tall, frail body, but as I watched her, my vision was torn away towards a shining object in the sea. I thought I saw something flash amongst the waves, two bright orbs of iridescent light shone like other moons in the water. In an instant the orbs had slipped out of sight, making a smacking sound as they vanished.

I saw now that my grandmother had lowered her arms and was crouching down towards the water’s edge. I turned to go back to her, but then I had a sudden change of heart. It had only been an old wives’ tale she had told me after all to cover up some love affair of her youth. The thing I had seen in the water must only have been a trick of the moonlight. I decided to leave her in peace.

Then, I heard the splash.

When I turned back there was no one at the base of the lighthouse. I ran as fast as I could down the jetty. I called her name and gazed out into the water, now rough and rolling in. Somewhere out to sea I thought I saw a shape being dragged away into the darkness of the water. I put my hand on the rock of the lighthouse wall to steady myself, but the sharpness of the rock snagged my skin. I pulled my hand away, I was shaking all over; there in the lighthouse wall I saw it, the face peering out at me with eyes fathomless and empty, utterly dwarfed by a long, gaping mouth like a void, and within it, the rows upon rows of jagged teeth, like rocks, like razors.

 

#33 Now That They Are Gone

 

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What happens to the house now they are gone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One question remains.

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

What happens to the house now that they are gone?

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

Image by Witthaya Phonsawat, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

 

 

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.

22: The Guest. Part Two.

Image Simon Howden, freedigitalphotos.net

ID-10025542

Julie eventually called the police.

To be honest I was surprised that none of the other guests had, but then really we were the last of the immediate family, I suppose everyone just assumed I would do it.

When they came they asked the usual questions, and we all sat in the ballroom and drank tea and answered them in bewilderment. No one knew anything. No one knew Uncle enough to know anything.

“He was something of an enigma you see.” Julie said. I just laughed at her.

“He wanted everybody to think he was an enigma,” I corrected her. He was just an arrogant prick I was thinking to myself. The letter my grandfather had written to him was etched into my mind. I hated that there were family secrets that my uncle had withheld from us, that he might have gone against Grandfather’s wishes on anything.

“Are you alright, do you want to head back to the city?” Julie asked me anxiously after the police had left to search the grounds.

“No, of course not. We can’t leave not knowing a thing.”

“But you look so tired, and I’m tired, it’s this place, it’s so–I don’t know…”

“You go. I can take care of things from here.”

Julie looked up at me through pink-tinged eyes.

“Are you sure?I really don’t want to abandon you here.” She was desperate to leave.

I told her to go home and she was gone that afternoon. As if taking that as their cue, most of the others abandoned ship too. In the end there was only myself, Marshall and Frank. Frank stayed as he and I went back a long way, to university, he was a friend of the family, Marshall stayed I think because my uncle owed him money. I don’t blame him one bit, but he never got a penny of it back.

We, the three of us, spent the evening discussing events in minute details. When was the last time anyone had seen or heard from Uncle? What correspondence had we had with him? What had we discovered in our searches of the house? Most of it was fruitless chat that led nowhere, I got the distinct impression that all of us knew things about my Uncle that they didn’t want to discuss with the others. Enemies? Of course he had none.

The police found nothing on the first sweep round. They said some officers would come round in the morning to continue the hunt.

“What are you looking for exactly?” Frank asked them. Marshall and I exchanged a look between ourselves and the officer he addressed shifted awkwardly.

Frank cleared his throat. “I mean, you don’t think they’ll be bodies do you?”

That night I dreamt I heard the sound again, that bellowing. I dreamt I was being hunted down by something I could never fully see. It was like a whirling mass of dark hair, sticky with blood which glinted where the moonlight struck it whenever I happened to turn to see the thing advance upon me. I ran until I stumbled, I cried out for my grandfather and I thought I could hear him shouting to me from somewhere through the mist. I called for him, but even in the dream I was still searching for my uncle. The beast was right up behind me and I felt like it would catch me at any minute, I felt myself slowing, and as I did so, it did too. It hunted my steps and drove me forwards. I looked up and saw, illuminated by a ghostly glow, the copse. The mists parted and I saw it clearly; there was a little chapel with a light in the window nestled right in its heart. But something moved and suddenly the light was extinguished. I looked again and the chapel was a ruin. I ran towards it, but it appeared to crumble away to rubble as I advanced. When I reached the copse, I saw that it was as I had always known it, nothing but straggles of overgrowth and mournful, barren trees. I turned then, and looked for the beast, but it had completely vanished. I woke, thinking I heard a howling, and could not get back to sleep.

The police found the room my uncle had been sleeping in. Frank owned up and said he had thought it was just a storage room on the ground floor, and I can’t say I blamed him. It was filled with junk. There were mops and ruined towels covered in paint; some broken cabinets and a couple of pieces of awful wall art. The bed had been almost totally obscured by boxes. Over in the corner, tucked under a mass of bed linen, they found a suitcase.

I don’t know why, but something about seeing that suitcase filled with my uncle’s possessions finally made me feel something. Perhaps I had only ever seen him as a caricature, now, gazing at the open case I saw his life encapsulated in the few things he treasured and had chosen to hide. The police showed it to me, they asked if I could identify it as belonging to my uncle. His name wasn’t on anything. There was a diary, his shaving things, a newspaper clipping from the restaurant he had owned many years ago. There was a battered copy of Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and tucked away within it, a photograph of a woman.

I shan’t go into the rest. I don’t like to think about it. There was a diary too which the police showed to me. I immediately recognised my uncle’s handwriting. How badly I wanted to get out of there! I didn’t want to read his words, but I was suddenly gripped with a desire to find him as I did, to put an end to all the mystery and the waiting. As my eyes scanned the scrawled paragraphs, brief passages about minutiae seemed to me to be obscuring something. I read on a little more and then stopped short.

“Anything in there you think relates to his disappearance?” The officer asked me, waiting.

“No, not a thing,” I lied to him. I didn’t tell him how scared my uncle must have been, to write some of those things. They would find out for themselves.

Kristen has just reminded me to check the blue bathroom on the ground floor, she thinks there might be rats. She says she can hear them scurrying about near her room and thinks they may be nesting in there. I think she’s being jumpy but I’ll check now anyway. I could leave it til tonight but I hate turning my back on that window that looks out onto the lawn. I keep thinking I can see a light in the copse…

It’s 6am. I had that dream again. Every time it’s like I feel the thing’s breath on my neck. I keep waking thinking it’s tearing me apart.

As soon as I read those final lines, I put the diary back and stepped away. They took what remained of my uncle away in that suitcase and I never saw it again. Julie kept it. I wouldn’t have it anywhere near me.

I told Frank and Marshall that it was pointless to stay. The police would do everything they could. Frank being the affable soul that he was offered to stay but I convinced him to go, Marshall packed up in a hurry, with a face like thunder. The last I saw of him was his bent frame hunched over a telephone in the reception area, speaking to someone in hushed, irritated tones. “This is all some ploy of his, I know it is,” he was saying.

I could have gone then and there, just taken my things and left. But I told the police I would stay one more night and then leave in the morning. A mad idea perhaps, perhaps I should have just left with the others. But for whatever reason, I stayed. I think it was this fading hope that my uncle would return once the police left. I kept looking out for him, listening for the door.

As I watched the others drive away I was greeted with a sunset like a bleeding wound, a red light spilling onto the grounds and a bitter wind. I made a dinner of sorts in the kitchen, and then resolved to head straight to my room, but as I turned the corner on the landing I thought I heard something, a rustling, like rats. Remembering the diary entry I followed the sounds to the blue bathroom and peered inside. The light illuminated a huge bath tub and the usual toiletries, but no rats. I was about to turn to leave when I saw, tucked down behind the bath, a pamphlet. I managed to extract it from where it lay nestled in amongst the pipes and flicked through it. It listed the history of the area, and several pages in, I saw an etching of the old copse as it had once been, complete with the little chapel. The page had been folded over at the corner, as if the reader had specifically marked that spot.

There was a brief paragraph detailing the history of the chapel and its uses, and it remarked how the site had fallen into disrepair generations ago. There was even a little legend about the place, about some goings on between the lady of the house, and a local man of the cloth. It was pretty standard fayre for the most part; the head of the house was rumoured to be involved with the occult, several servants deserted their posts due to strange noises and visions. It was all the usual stuff they put in those sorts of amateur guides, but right at the end there was something odd, about how they had found the two clandestine lovers horrifically mauled inside the chapel.

This part of the pamphlet had gotten wet and was wrinkled enough to make reading difficult. Someone had scribbled something in pen, which had bled in the damp, all I could make out were the words: “- guest”

I resolved to take the pamphlet with me to bed, and scrutinize it further. As I stood up I felt a cold chill on the back of my neck and turned around to see the window, and a light in the copse.

Without thinking I ran out to it. I was afraid and I stumbled as I ran but some vain hope made me think that it might be my uncle. That he might still be alive. I couldn’t stop thinking about that suitcase, about the fragmented life that it contained. We had never seen eye to eye but he was still my uncle, in spite of it all.

As I rushed out to meet the light I never once looked back, I could see, in my minds eye the beast from my dreams at my heels. I thought of the passage in my uncle’s diary and knew that he was haunted by a similar monster. Real or imaginary, it didn’t matter. I arrived at the ruins, panting, fog had descended and made the air painfully cold as it entered my lungs. The grass was squeaky with dew and the ground muddy underfoot, Up ahead the trees loomed, thin and miserable. I hunted for the light, I pushed my way in and trod on jutting gravestones as I did so, but I saw nothing, just the last rays of the sun going down. That was all I had seen.

I had no nightmares that night, not that I slept much. The house was eerily silent, as if it was finished with me, as if it had toyed with us all enough and was now dormant again. I closed the heavy door and locked it, wondering if I would ever return to that place. I’d persuade Julie to sell it; if uncle was really gone then it would pass to one of us, surely. In the cold light of day it seemed plausible that he had simply abandoned the place, that he had run off with that woman, Kristen, determined to leave it all behind. I told myself that as I walked towards the car. Before I could get in, something caught my eye. A man was walking towards me from the grounds, he was waving and I had to stop, frustrated, and wait for him.

“You’re his nephew aren’t you?” The man said, his accent thick, his clothes muddy. I nodded and waited for him to continue.

“Are you for the off then?” Was all he said. “Yes,” I said. “Did you know my uncle?”

He seemed to find this amusing, “Lord no. Spoke to him once maybe, that’s about it.”

I made as if to go but he stopped me.

“They won’t find him.” He raised a bushy eyebrow at me as he said it, and it made me pause.

“Why, exactly?”

“Do you want to know where he is?” He asked.

I nodded. I’ll admit I was a little afraid, but looking at the man I decided that he was too old and slight to be a murderer, so I followed him across the fields in the damp morning.

“You know the place.” He said, we were heading towards the copse.

“Yes. But the police searched in there.”

The man snorted. “Police!” He said and shook his head.

We came upon the copse, it looked a lot meeker, and smaller in daylight. Last night it had seemed so infinite, sprawling, almost alive with menace.

“He tried to get them to dig it up, all this ground, he said he wanted to build a, what do they call it? A spa. That was it. It was gonna be a small, heated shed, something like that, that’s what they told me.” The man gestured to where the sunken tombstones protruded through the grass like parts of a spine.

“A sauna for the hotel?” He nodded. “Why didn’t they? Why didn’t he build it.”

“Ah.” The man wiped his head. “Well I know why. I mean, they were local boys. But officially, they said it was because the ground wasn’t right. That it would be take too long and cost too much and your uncle didn’t want to listen to all that so he sent them away and tried to clear a lot of the rubble by himself, with the woman.”

We wandered into the heart of the copse, scattered remains of fallen masonry littered the ground under our feet.

“Not far now, though I hope I’m wrong.” The man took me to a spot, bordered by trees and stones.

“The police won’t have looked in here.” He said. I went over to him, and watched him kneel and pull back a covering of thick branches which disguised a hole in the ground, like a rabbit warren big enough for an average man to crawl through.

“Do you want to go or shall I?” He asked.

“What is it?” I didn’t move. I didn’t want to look like a coward but I trembled at the thought of going into that dark tunnel alone.

The man sighed, “It’s a grave, it’s where they buried it, long ago, and they built the chapel over it. But one of the masters got wind of that and tried to bring it back, then when that all went wrong, instead of blocking it in, they just built a trapdoor over the grave and threw away the key. Stupid, foolish thing to do. Your uncle must have found the spot, see how the door’s rotted clean away-” He pointed to the hole. I tried to digest the information he had rattled off at me.

“I don’t understand, what did they bury?” But the man just looked at me as if I was an idiot.

“Do you think my uncle might have fallen down there, is that what you’re saying?” I felt panic mounting, it was looking as if I might have to go down into the dark after all.

The man just pointed to hole, “see for yourself” he said, and handed me a little pack of matches. “For when you get to them,” he said, without optimism.

I got down on my knees and stared into it. I steeled myself and inched forward into the hole. The cloying smell of the earth was rancid, and the air in the tunnel, unusually warm. I pulled myself forward a little way, until I felt the passage begin to slope downwards. I called out my uncle’s name, but the earthen walls deadened the sound of my voice almost immediately. I scrambled along, my heart pounding, desperate to turn back, but compelled by pride and morbid curiosity to keep going.

My hands touched something cold. A stone floor. In that instant I could smell it, that cloying scent stronger, mixed with something foul. My hands shook as I tried to light a match but when the flame ignited I had to struggle not to blow it out. In front of me lay the bodies, a mess of bones and flesh atop a mound of collapsed rubble. I closed my eyes and clapped a hand to my mouth to keep from retching. When I opened my eyes again I saw the same scene of guts and spilled blood, and on the floor, line after line of carvings into the stone. They might have bee words, or just patterns, I only caught a glimpse of them, I can’t be sure what they were exactly, but they encircled the room. A few feet away from me the carvings were disturbed by a hole in the stone, a pick axe lay nearby. It looked relatively modern.

I scrambled out of that hole as fast as I could go backwards. I didn’t dare turn my back on that place. The man took hold of my legs and pulled me out onto the grass, his face pale and etched with concern.

I had no idea what to say to him, I couldn’t erase from my mind the image of those eviscerated bodies.

“Did you not know.” The man said, with pitying eyes. He produced something from his pocket and handed it to me, pointing to a page, on paper I recognised.

“That’s my wife’s handiwork. I gave the woman a copy when I saw her out here, hunting around, I thought it might help but they just laughed of course.”

I looked down at the pamphlet, the same as I had found in the bathroom. I realised that it had been in my jacket pocket since last night.

I brought it out to show him.

“Aah yes, that’s my writing there too,” he pointed to where the words had faded in the water.

“The missing letters, they should be B…A…R.”

The name came back to me, from stories of my youth of black dogs on the moors. I saw again the image on the book my uncle had sent me.

“Barguest.” I said, and the old man nodded.

“I saw the bodies, they were lying on broken stones.” I found it hard to tell him what I had just seen, but he appeared unsurprised, his weathered face long and forlorn.

“Broken stones,” he said, and tutted. “It’ll rise again. Have you had the dreams?”

I stared at him terrified, because I knew what he meant.

“Yes, yes a few times.”

His face grew even darker, “then you best be off. Sell the house, but before you do, send some men to fill in that hole. Cement, anything solid. I don’t know if it will make a difference but it might stop someone new from tampering with it. Your grandfather knew all about it from my father, that’s why he didn’t go poking around, you don’t want to risk the same happening to some other poor fool who thinks you can ignore these things.”

“What do I tell them police?” I asked.

“Not a damn thing.” He said, and he began to walk off. “You must never come back here, never, none of your family can.”

“But what if it’s not them?”

He motioned me to follow him, “what do you think,” I knew in my heart he was right, and that it was my uncle and that women who had been so brutally annihilated.

I followed him out of the copse, and I did as he said. I still have the dreams.

 

 

20: The Guest. Part One.

Image Simon Howden, freedigitalphotos.net

ID-10025542

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

 

19: Daedalus

Image by Winnond, freedigitalphotos.net

ID-100283191

Someone once made the mistake of telling my Grandfather that, being the greatest shipwright the province over, he could build a boat out of anything. I remember him laughing at the man, grabbing his chest, his white beard quivering, but his eyes were starting to mist over. Something then, gripped him, and never let go.

First it was a boat made of hair. He sent my sister and I throughout the town, and then the neighbouring town, and on and on down the roads to collect all the strands. I remember standing there in the sweltering heat, holding the bucket as the old women went round shaving heads, their deft old hands working so quickly as to become a blur before our eyes. Those with the strongest, darkest hair took our money, and we gathered up the hair newly fallen from now glistening heads. We took the buckets back to our Grandfather who hugged us in excitement when he saw how much we had collected. He would comment lovingly on the good quality of the hair, what a great job we had done. He would reward us with biscuits from an old tin adorned with a smiling lady holding a bursting cornucopia. Later, when we were afloat in that other boat, I would think of her, and wonder where she had gathered such wondrous fruit, and if we would ever see land again.

The boat made of hair was not seaworthy. It pained us all to see my Grandfather abandon it, but everyone knew it was a fool’s errand. Suddenly where once we had a house full of laughter and industrious excitement, now even the walls radiated with silence. My Grandfather was thinking, he was grieving for his dream, surrounded by all the swathes of dark hair left here and there in every room that seemed to become entwined in everything. But he did not give up.

Next there was the boat made of heavily salted butter, but you know how that turned out. I think pretty much everyone heard about that one. There was not enough salt in all the land to make that ship sail, and you know it’s funny because the sea is full of salt, but there it is. My Grandfather abandoned that too, and everyone we knew said (by that stage) that it was a good thing my Grandmother was not alive to see it. It would have cut her two, they said, to watch him turn his hand to all these follies.

It was only one day, when I was sitting under the willow, that I heard my Grandfather shout from out of a window somewhere, and I knew he had done it at last. It was the most unlikely design, but it was beautiful.

“A boat made from paper! But of course! So simple, even a child could make one!”

He was leaning out of the side of the house like that, clear out of the window into the sun. I can still see him now, and yes I think he really was half in and half out of life. Each day and each new design brought him a little further away from reality.

But the boat made from paper was the greatest of all his successes. That’s what everyone said. Grandfather was so proud, he stood at the docks and beamed at it, and beamed at us and now when I remember what it was like to look upon that ship it fills me with wonder still. She had the tallest sails, ivory white, and her sides were tinged with blue. The cabin walls were smooth as glass and the bunks so soft to lie upon, I’ll never really know how he did it.

“It was all in the folds,” he told me as if that were the secret. “I folded all my dreams into every plank, into the mast; as I shaped the body of the figurehead, I thought about what it would be like to have made the ship that no one could make – and I have done it!”

We set sail one quiet autumn day and half the province came to wave us off. They all brought picnics and there was singing and dancing and fires burning all along the wharf as we drifted away like a feather on the wind. I remember having some misgivings. I was sorry to leave so many of my things behind but Grandfather said I would be able to buy new things, once we got to some new place. My sister grew dark as she heard him say this, her face became stuck, pained. She asked him how he knew where we would go and what we would do there and he just said that the boat would decide. He actually laughed at our concerns.

“I built this boat, and this boat will not fail me.”

But my sister whispered into my ear one night,

“Doesn’t Grandfather realise that this boat is made of paper?”

“Of course he does,” I said, “don’t be silly.”

She sighed, her hair glinted where the moonlight cut across it to make a path out of the darkness.

“A paper boat would sink with all of us in it. Only magic is holding this boat up in the water, and magic comes at a price.”

I thought about what she said, the thought had never once crossed my mind.

“What price?” I asked. But she never answered. Still I could hear her thinking in the dark all night.

It took a few days but soon I saw it. The change in her,

I found her down below, in the belly of the ship. She was sobbing. My Grandfather was up on deck singing, oblivious. But when I came to my sister to see what was wrong, I found she was bent over a sheet of paper, she had a pen in her hand. It may as well have been a knife. A pen. On a magical boat made of paper.

“I can’t stop.” She had, by way of an excuse. She had been writing.

“What is that?” I asked her, I felt my hands shaking, something strange was happening to us.

“It’s a page from the galley table.” She said. “But it’s just a page, it won’t be missed.”

That was what she said then. That night I heard her scribbling away again.

“What are you writing?” I asked her. But she could not reply. I found some of her notes and began hoarding them in case Grandfather might see. I tried to read them but they made no sense to me at all. They were just strings of words, some weren’t even spelt correctly. Soon her bed was gone. She had ripped it up to write a book of nonsense verse in a language she had invented. My Grandfather, who slept on deck, was still none the wiser until she started attacking the very helm. She tore the great wheel apart in her madness for paper to write upon.

When my Grandfather saw what had happened to her he fell down upon his knees and wept. Carelessly he tore a sheet from the deck to use as a tissue to blow his great nose in. He knew then that all magic comes at a price. He had been willing to pay any deficit for our sakes, he said, but no one had come asking, the magic had just taken the thing it wanted most, or what was most easily taken.

My sister went raving mad when we took the pen away and so we had to lock her in the brig. Still she ripped at the sides of her cell and so we had to restrain her. Lying awake at night I could hear her screams and I even took the pen and hurled it into the ocean but it did no good. My Grandfather and I both beseeched the ship to leave my sister be, and to torment us instead, but to no avail. You cannot unchoose a choice made by magic.

“Sink it.” He said to me one night in a storm. “Sink it and we’ll try and swim away.” The storm raged so loud that night we were almost grateful because it drowned out the cries of my poor mad sister. Every cloud has a silver lining they say.

“To the bottom of the ocean with her.” Grandfather cried, and he downed the last of the whiskey, and crushed the soggy bottle with one hand. In his ship, even the bottles were made of paper. We had run out of food by that stage, and as my Grandfather said, we could not eat the paper.

“How are we to do it though? How do we sink her?” I asked.

“Magic.” Was all he said.

The next morning I woke to the sound of seagulls and a face full of sand. I turned my head to my right and saw my sister, lying on the beach, her hair extended in beautiful honey tendrils. For a moment I felt like I was only dreaming, and I wanted only to put my hand out to touch those soft strands, to feel them under my fingers, something safe and familiar and beautiful. But I knew in my heart I was awake. It was then I saw my Grandfather waving goodbye to us, I watched him sink below the waves and rubbed my eyes because it seemed impossible. How had we come to be there? Could it really be my Grandfather sinking away into the water, leaving us? The reality hit me like the waves, full in the face, stinging and blinding and relentless.I screamed and screamed but he came no nearer to us, in one moment he was gone, swallowed by a wave, his boat of dreams, obliterated in an instant.

I turned back to my sister who was waking. She too rubbed her eyes as if emerging from a great sleep.

“Oh it’s beautiful here!” She said, as if she had quite forgotten my Grandfather and the boat made of paper.

People were coming towards us now, tall people with beautiful eyes holding baskets, some held children.

“Mermaids!” Said one.

“No, see they have no tails.” Said another.

“Please help us,” I ran to them. “Our Grandfather will drown, he’s out there now in a boat made of paper.” That’s what I said to them. I pointed out to sea but someone said.

“There’s nothing at all in the waves child.”

And she was right, where my Grandfather’s boat had once been, was now the ocean, and the long horizon.

I felt a last cry gather in my mouth and then stiffle. I saw my sister smiling and chatting to the people on the beach, I saw her take a shell out of her beautiful hair and act as if nothing had happened. I felt utterly at a loss, and so I put my hands in my pockets and it was then that I felt something crumple. It was a sheet of paper. I took it out and opened it up and saw the words my sister had written start to make sense at last.

“I had to give everything up to get anything back.” It started off, the words slanting this way and that, twirling round each other like twine.

“I had to loose everything to gain anything worth having.” Here and there the letters twisted so I had to twist the paper to follow them, like a road into a labyrinth.

“I needed to be empty, in order to be full again.” The words neared the centre.

“I needed to be wiped away, and in order to be written again.”

The words stopped. They had finally run aground. I shook my head and tried to say something to my sister, about the things she had written, and about our Grandfather, and about that emptiness in the centre of the page but she was already moving away. The sun was rising high above our heads, and above the people who led her away up into the trees. Someone was singing, the smell of food was drifting down the beach and catching me up in it.

One woman came and stood beside me for a time as I grieved for my Grandfather and his boat.

“Better that you should live, and that he should go.” She said by way of a kindness to me.

I nodded and screwed up the paper into a ball. I tossed it away from me.

“He was all we had.” I said.

“Are the kinds of dreams one makes out of paper, really worth sailing off in?” She asked me, her head cocked to one side, her eyes large and taking me in as if I were a mirage.

“Yes.” I said. “They got us this far.”

We watched the ocean for a while longer, and then she told me her name and asked if I was hungry. and I thought I may as well follow her to where the trees met the sand, to where all adventurers go eventually.