#38 The Ravine of Umrian

 

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The Faurians clustered around me in the near total darkness, their damp fur bristling with voices. I was their translator. They spoke only in movement, having no mouths to vocalise sound. Each ripple was an intricate message which the other Faurians would interpret and pass on with their own shivering undulations. They operated only in unison, one after the other. The silent music of their speech was so linguistically exquisite that I lamented my own limitations in having to rely on a machine to understand their song.

The Faurians had been at war with the Umgorians for decades, they told me. Venturing out of their dark caverns had cost the tribe hundreds of warriors, and a great many had perished in the Ravine of Umrian. They had longed to regain a foothold in the bright, icy world beyond, but, cave-dwellers, their eyes were ill-equipped in the light. Adjustment would take time, they knew, but now the quest was becoming a matter of necessity. Their resources were dwindling. They had enlisted my help via the company, as an intermediary in the war. For the Faurians, who all spoke with one movement, one voice, the mocking, contrary motions of the Umgorians who would not come out of the ravine to join with them were tantamount to sacrilege. They could bear no more deaths, however.

I stood at the lip of the Ravine of Umrian now, the brave few Faurians who had ventured out to lead me here, hung back. They bristled nervously in the biting wind and hid from the light. Scattered about at the ravine’s base at intervals lay protruding the bones of Faurian warriors, a bed for newer carcasses broken by the fall. Scavengers did not pick all bodies clean, but left some frozen, hideously preserved by frost. But in spite of their numbers, piled awkwardly in clumps, they could not obscure the true marvel at the base of the Ravine. The bodies appeared like stick men on the surface of what was the most perfect ice sheet I had ever seen. It was utterly vast and stretched for miles, clear and sparkling. I saw myself faintly reflected in it; my snowsuit a small, beige blob on that mirror of ice.

In that moment I wondered how the machine would fair in translating the message now forming in my mind. For, when I raised a hand, reflected in the ice sheet the mirror version of myself did so too. I saw there what the Faurians could only glimpse in the hazy agony of their fading vision – my own Umgorian.

Photo by Lydia Torrey on Unsplash

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37# The True Ancestors

Moon Heart header

 

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

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

Hope you enjoy the story!

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

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

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

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

“I can assist you. I am Kora”

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

“Come,” she said.

“But what about him?”

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

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

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

Cobex looked blankly back at her.

“Your designator. How should we address you?”

“Zed Cobex. Captain of the Bison.”

“Your ship.”

“Yes. It was.”

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

They reached a small cave entrance.

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

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

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

Another, older, masculine voice joined her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kora paused for a moment, her eyebrows furrowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And there,” the voice said, defiant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

35# November (For Portsmouth Bookfest)

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

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

It was November.

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s alright,” I said, shaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I apologised for the arrangement but he simply replied:

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

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

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

“Not the backdoor,” I thought.

“and what?”  he said.

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

The next day I found the astronaut, monitoring.

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

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

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

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

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

After that he came inside.

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

As the sun came up I said,

” I don’t know what to call you.”

“November is fine.” He replied.

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

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

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

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

“I love that book.” I replied.

“Do you mind me – ”

“Keep it,” I said. “Keep it forever.”

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

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

but it was empty,

and he was gone.

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

Image FreeDigitalPhotos.Net by franky242

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well I wonder about that,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were my hands.

 

29# The Sled

Image by Blamethechicken, Freedigitalphotos.net

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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.

 

National Poetry Day: For My Friend, the Dragon.

Image cbenjasuwan, freedigitalphotos.net

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

For My Friend, The Dragon.

The moon has been cut in half,

I can only see the head of the dragon.

This fabled dark side a ghost,

Only visible to those who look for it,

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

Because we, such upward dreamers,

Could not, even for a second,

Bear to believe that half the moon

Could ever possibly be missing.

These moonbeams we bury our face in nightly

Greet us

And we are, in that instant only,

like long-lost lovers, kissing.

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

Remembering now,

That I was bequeathed so long ago,

To my friend, the dragon.

 

 

18: The Land Without Hope

Image Evgeni Dinev, Freedigitalphotos.net

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I woke up in the Land Without Hope, and had almost forgotten that I had been chosen as one of the legion in a long line of demonic sacrifices. For a second I couldn’t fathom where I had landed. It was only when I looked up from the horizon and realised that the black sky was utterly devoid of stars that I knew that I was in that other place, that no one comes back from. Stars, for us, represent hope, a past, a legacy. Without stars you don’t know where you came from, and you can’t go home again. Your soul has no celestial way of navigating, and in this place, no earthly purchase either.

But stars must also be striven for and towards. In that darkness I saw no possibilities at all, and heaven knows I looked.

The Land Without Hope was pockmarked, and strewn with old objects that no one had a use for anymore. As I looked about at the the strands of metal peeking out from under dunes, and the old bones, and the tattered books, and the odd socks, I felt a misery in knowing that here, I belonged at last. Finally they had found a place for me where I would not stand out.

I smiled slightly as I discovered the truth of it. A lot of humour has no hope in it at all. Or rather, as Manthorn would say, joyless laughter is the very sound of hope leaving. You deploy it because there is nothing else to say. That empty laughter filled the foothills of the Land Without Hope. Foothills that held black-hearted vultures at their peaks. They made the laughter ring. Purple-eyed fiends who feed on empty-socketed creatures roaming the tundra.

I surveyed them for a moment and wondered who had rejected them. I was there as a sacrifice, thankfully, I knew that. It made me think that at least I would be swallowed up whole and not left to wander like one of those pathetic creatures which had ceased to be human. You could only see them after a few minutes, their melting bodies blended into the monotony of the yellow scrub, and hid amongst the shapes of trees, casting no shadows. There were strange trees in that land. Their branches were twisted into shapes of suicidal agony. I remember thinking how melodramatic it all was – whoever had fashioned this landscape had wrought pain and anguish into its folds in the most unimaginative fashion. No wonder the vultures are laughing, I thought.

Getting tired of that hellish landscape I sat down, and became maudlin and introspective. I wondered when exactly the Demon King would come for me, when I might be eaten, and what he might look like. Did he speak? Was there any point in negotiating? I looked down at my hands, the palms had healed. There were no blisters now. Nothing to remind me of the hours spent trying to escape from those bonds, from the ropes that bound me, and from the darkness of the cell I had languished in for months; even when it was a fate I had initially chosen for myself, for a while I still fought it. It broke my heart to see those smooth hands, devoid of scars. It made me appreciate the loss of my humanity. They told me once, -and I from my prison cell believed them – that humanity is a thing you can’t win back in the Land Without Hope.

One of the melting walkers approached me. Its limbs dissolving as I looked. There are so many of them. I thought. They were everywhere, the more you looked across the wasteland the more undulating, stumbling corpses revealed themselves. I wondered if this walker would get close to me before it melted away all together. In the corner of my eye I saw another one rise, and another, moaning, their mouths a sticky maw of frustration.

I looked down at my feet, and sought around for something to throw. I like throwing, I had always been good at it. I had the aim of a professional, and more passion than the other girls. I could always throw farther, I never stopped to think about what I looked like when I pitched the stones into the water. When I killed the Priest of Gold it was with a stone. The blow shattered his skull. He died a good death and that was all that mattered. I did what I was told because I didn’t feel then I had any other choice.

“They put you in the path of destiny, and on you blithely go.” Manthorn said to me, when I he saw I had taken on the commission. I had put on the ceremonial robes of an assassin.

“You do know where they will send you, don’t you?” He asked, one eyebrow raised so high as if were looking for a way to float off his old face altogether.

“You do this, and no one is going to think to thank you afterwards. You don’t get a handshake and a pat on the back.” Light was streaming through the slit in the wall onto his gown. It was a pale dying Winter light. I knew there would be no more Summers where I was going.

“One hell is the same as another.”

“No, you see that’s where you are wrong.” He answered. “They could send you to any number of hells for killing a High Priest.”

“Who decides?”

He shrugged. “Who can say? I don’t know the inner workings of these people, these chancellors. I’m just an old magician.”

I shook my head at him and put on the gloves.

“Find me a rock.” I said. “A stone.”

Manthorn’s face grew pale and a thousand years swam about in his eyes.

“There are convicts who could do this job, true believers, I don’t know why you want to do this. Only a fool would volunteer to martyr themselves for no good reason.”

It was my turn to shrug at him. “I have reasons enough.”

Now, standing in that place alone with the walker in front of me, I felt the anger return. When you loose everything over and over again it becomes meaningless, and yet you don’t for a minute learn to stop accumulating things to love. At last I was in place where there was nothing, absolutely nothing to love. I could never loose anything ever again.

“Aah!” I picked up a chewed sandal, bearing the teeth marks of an animal, and I threw it. The walker recoiled from the the blow and stopped in its tracks. I picked up another object, a metal poker this time.

“I have an appointment with the Demon King.” I said to the walker. “You’re going to take me to me or I’ll run you through.”

I knew it didn’t matter what I did to that shape, it couldn’t look anymore monstrous than it did now. Perhaps it knew that. The shape just slunk away. For a while I followed it until its limbs just evaporated into the wind and left a rancid odour that stayed in my nostrils wherever I went. And go I did. I searched up and down for my destroyer, but he never came.

It was only one day – I say day, but there is no time in the Land Without Hope – that I happened to feel a shift in the thick dust of the air. I looked up from the shapes I was drawing in the sand to see a figure materialise.

“Manthorn!” I ran to him, not even looking where I was going, but he vanished.

This went on for a sizeable eternity. This game of cat and mouse with Manthorn’s shade. In the meantime I traced my way through the wasteland avoiding the staggering shapes and the tortured trees and instead seeking out things to keep from amongst the debris. Perhaps it is a human thing, to want to always be hanging on to something. More often than not I lay in the dust and wondered is there really nothing left to loose now? –As I acquired marbles and watch straps, letter openers and combs with broken teeth. I picked them up and left them in piles. I made my mark on the landscape without hope, and slowly but surely, I felt a purpose, growing here and there in the heaps of things that he been thrown away. But I had a use for them.

When Manthorn finally became corporal it was a shock. He appeared behind me while I was stacking some chipped statuettes, one on top of the other to make a tower.

“So this is what you’ve been doing all this time.” He said, his tone caustic, his eyes fading in and out of his head where the magic waxed and waned.

“You’ve come through at last then, that took some effort didn’t it.”

“I thought you would be a bit more pleased to see me.” He folded his arms. I got up and walked right through him, just to be insolent. Just to show him I lived in the Land Without Hope now and didn’t care about his magic.

“Are you are just here to have a look round is that it-” I paced, encircling him like a cat. I heard him sigh.

“I thought this might happen. I told you they’d send you somewhere like this.”

“Enough of that.” I found myself shouting, but away from him, I had turned my back. I was still looking up at the void that was the sky and fighting something that felt like tears but which never manifested. “You may as well make yourself useful – help me find the Demon King and get this over with.”

“The Demon King.” Manthorn just repeated my words back to me. It made me howl in frustration. I felt for a second like one of those walkers with their gaping sorrowful mouths.

“You heard me.” I said. Manthorn nodded. “Let me take you then.” He said. “Follow me.”

I remember thinking what’s the old fool up to. But I followed him anyway. We stalked through the dunes and past the piles of oddities I had collected. Manthorn made a show of examining a fair few of them. He bent over the sad little heaps of broken treasures and hummed and haahed over them. I wanted to hurry him on but I had somehow lost the heart to.

We came at last to mountain of dust and dirt and scree that blocked out anything beyond it. Here the walkers wouldn’t venture, and even those damned trees wouldn’t grow.

“Is this the place then?” I asked Manthorn.

“See for yourself.” He said, and beckoned with one ghostly hand forward.”May I ask what you intend to do?”

“Do?”

“Well yes. When you encounter the Demon King.”

I paused. I looked back and saw in the distance the mounds of broken things and felt a weird pride in them. In my collections, how I had made something out of nothing.

“Manthorn,” I said to him, “find me a stone.”

I took what he gave me, his face still creased in wonderment, and I climbed to the top of that ridge and gazed out. I had pulled at the earth with my hands to get a purchase and I felt the beginnings of pain. It made me stop for a moment and try and remember why that sensation mattered. I looked down at my palms and saw they were blistered. I looked out and down and there, sitting on his own heap of rejected ornaments, was the Demon King.

When I looked he looked too. His eyes were the most truly hopeless thing in the Land Without Hope. In fact, they were the epicentre of all it held. Reflected in his eyes I saw the vultures with their black plumes, and the branches of the strangled trees. I saw the melting walkers and the darkness without stars. I heard the joyless laughter as if it were carried on a whirlwind around that figure sitting squat, and unfathomably huge in the middle of that hoard. His head held eight horns, he had four thick legs, his two arms where constantly moving over the objects under his stump-like feet.

I felt my pulse race, I gripped my rock. I had to ask myself, why doesn’t he rise? Why doesn’t he rush at me with those horns and tear me to pieces. Why is he just watching me with those eyes?

Then he rose, he came slowly towards me. A new realisation came over me. I couldn’t work out what it was.

Throw it

The voice said.

Kill me

I froze. There was an eternity in which I watched the Demon King and he waited. In his eyes then I saw all the sorrows I had ever known, and all the dejections, the bereavements. I let my arm fall slack. I waited for him to make everything right, to fulfill his side of an ancient bargain but he never came at me.

You can destroy me.

The voice said finally, pitifully.

I cursed him then, and put down my rock. I let it just roll away.

The Demon King slunk back. He began to diminish in size until he could burrow under the mountain of broken objects, until he was gone.

Manthorn appeared at my shoulder, suitably smug.

“You didn’t fancy becoming King of the Land Without Hope then?”

“No.” I said. “Now there really isn’t any hope at all, is there. No hope of being devoured I mean. Of leaving here.”

Manthorn wiggled his eyes brows in answer, his arms folded again. I turned my back on the Demon’s hoard and made to walk back down the mountain. But Manthorn called after me.

“The Demon King isn’t gone you know.”

“Oh?” I called back. Utterly disinterested now.

“-But you know now that there is no devouring. You either walk away or you take his place.”

“Fascinating”

“Wait.” I waited. I don’t know why, perhaps Manthorn still had some real magic in him that was not for conjuring illusions.

“When you picked up that rock you meant to kill him. What did you hope to achieve?”

I struggled with the answer.

“To fight back. I suppose. I don’t know. Perhaps I hoped I could change everything by killing him.”

I felt a sudden twinge, I dropped to my knees, winded.

“You hoped did you?” Manthorn said.

I looked up then, my hands round my ribs. The guards had broken them when they threw me down the stairs after I had killed the Priest of Gold. I had forgotten the pain, but it came over me in a relieving wash. As I said, I felt the pain in my ribs but I looked up, I felt my gazed being dragged skywards. Stars were bursting out all over the night, burning through the blanket of darkness like stray coals on a carpet.

“Why is it doing that?” I cried out to Manthorn, but his figure was shimmering and loosing its focus.

“There,” I heard him say, and he pointed out towards an island forming up ahead of us in the night, suspended in the sky. It was a green place, it was bright, I almost thought I saw the twinkle of water gushing out into nothing.

I gasped as I felt my blood surging in my veins, and my eyes now truly watering with tears.

“Only humanity has the capacity to find something to hope for in the Land Without Hope.” Manthorn said from the mountain top.

“I’ll never reach it from here.” I shouted out in disgust at him, the novelty of the pain was wearing off, but he was laughing with joy

“Anything visible, feasible or tangible is surmountable. To enter the Land Full of Hope, all you have to do is hope for it,”

Then, as is characteristic with all magicians, he vanished.

I sat up and having nothing else to look at or for, stared out at that glittering island in the distance. I grasped my ribs with my blistered hands and I stood. Somewhere down below I thought I heard the Demon King howling.

“Come on.” I shouted down to him, painfully motioning him to get off his hoard and follow.

The Demon King looked up at me with curious eyes now.

“We are going on an adventure,” I told him, “now get moving.”

He shuffled to his feet, his horned head bowed, sulking, but compliant.

“And find me a stone.” I said.

How? The voice asked.

I cleaned some sand out of my eyes and thought of Manthorn.

“Try hoping for one.” I told him.

The Demon King looked at me perplexed for a moment, before a memory appeared to surface in his eyes and we set off as somewhere behind us, the eyeless corpses began rooting through the piles of dis-guarded things as if finally seeing them for the first time.