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

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

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

Blackwell's Christmas

The lights go out and there is a profound silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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#33 Now That They Are Gone

Image by Witthaya Phonsawat, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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What happens to the house now they are gone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One question remains.

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

What happens to the house now that they are gone?

 

 

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.

 

27# The Lovers

Photo: Sira Anamwong. Freedigitalphotos.net

mermaid

“If you come any closer I’ll drown you,” she said from the rocks.

“If I pull you out of the water you’ll die,” he said, reciting the line as he always did when he came too close to her.

The man and the woman from their separate vantage points stood sadly surveying each other from a distance, as they had done, year after year. The man had kept a weekly vigil by the lake for so long now, that people had stopped asking him when he would settle down and take a wife. Now the local people avoided him because they had watched him grow into someone strange. “Handsome, but witch-touched,” the old women would say about him as he walked alone down the street.

Tonight, a lilac moon hung over the heads of the lovers; the last pink of day mingling with the black of night over the dark waters and the sloping pines to the east. The man’s back was to the pine forest, he faced the water’s edge and felt in the pocket of his woollen coat for the gift he had brought.

“I have something for you,” he said, producing a wooden box. It was small, made of dark wood like mahogany, and criss-crossed with a lattice filigree of darting silver lines. It glinted in the moonlight as he held it out to the woman in the water.

“What is it?” She asked.

“Would you like to see it?” He stepped closer, somewhat timidly holding it out towards her. Seeing her reaction he cried,

“No don’t go back, you won’t hurt me!” but she was afraid. “My family will be watching,” she said, and made as if to swim away, but then he opened the box with a click, and laid it on the ground between them.

“What do you wish, more than anything?” He asked.

She looked up at him, blinking her wide iridescent eyes, then answered plainly, “for us to never be apart.”

The man smiled, and a light caught like a spark inside the box. It soon became a glow which spread into the air like smoke, and was sweet smelling, and made a noise like chimes as it floated above them.

“You can drown me now,” he said, and held out his arms.

“You have made magic!” She cried, feeling the smoke tingle as it settled upon her skin, each contact blazing like a star.

“Love makes even ordinary men magicians,” he said, as she gave in at last to her nature, leaning in to grasp him with soft, wet, ivory arms.

At last embracing, with a kiss they froze, and became two stone lovers. The box which had lain between them closed with a click. The waters lapped ferociously at the rocks, and cries filled the air like bleating gulls. A dark hand grasped out to grab the box, and pull it beneath the waves.

Years passed, but no one came back to the lake. It seemed as if the Lovers had been forgotten.

* * * * *

Centuries later, a young couple wandered down to the lakeside. The man was a stranger, but he held the hand of a local girl.

“That’s a funny sort of bridge isn’t it?” he said, pointing to a misshapen stone edifice by the rocks.

“Oh,” the girl shrugged. “Those are the Lovers.” Seeing his blank look she continued with a playful glance back at him. “A man, and a mermaid, it’s an old folktale – oh never mind.” They were quiet for a moment, and both stood surveying the huddle of weatherworn stone which now resembled a little bridge from the land to the water.

“My Grandfather thought there were really mermaids in the lake, so he would never let me come here.” She said. “I once had a joke with him – said that mermaids only drown boys, but he insisted that the mer-people had been very angry about their daughter getting seduced and turned to stone, and that they would likely try to do me a mischief anyway.”

She picked up a stone and hurled it towards the lake. It hit the surface, then seemed to hang right on the edge for a moment, before slowly sinking below the waters. The girl rubbed her eyes, there were ripples spreading all over the surface of the lake like a shudder.

“Let’s go,” she grabbed the boys’ hand and pulled him away from the water, but he said “wait a moment,” and dashed off towards the rocks. He had darted down towards the stone bridge snatching something up from the water’s edge, it was a box. The couple set off back the way they had come, as behind them, a green hand slunk back down below the water.

“Where did you find that?” The girl’s voice could be heard to say.

“I saw it just sitting there, on the rocks.”

“That’s funny, I don’t remember seeing it. What’s inside do you think?”

“Don’t know, I can’t open it.”

“Wait until we get back, we can use my brother’s tools.”

“But I don’t want to break it,”

“Then take it to the Friday market,” Her voice was barely audible now,

“There’s an old man I’ve seen down there who sells things like that…”

Soon they were gone, and the forest had swallowed up the sound of their voices. In time a light rain began to fall, washing over the faces, hands and bodies of the stone lovers, now merged together, indistinguishable from each other, half in, and half out of the water.

26# Ghost Train

Image by ponsulak, Freedigitalphotos.net 

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By the light of our lanterns we gazed at the train, Mandy, Amelia, Roberta and me.

Part of the driver’s cab and a lone carriage was all that was left, hanging out of the bushes in bits and pieces as if it had made a break for it. There were no tracks in sight, just a trail of debris around the carriage that disappeared off into the darkness behind the trees.

It began to rain. We huddled a little more closely together and Mandy and Amelia began whispering to one another so Roberta turned to me.

“There was nothing here before,” she said. “The trains haven’t run here for like, years.”

“How do you know?”

Roberta shrugged. “My brother Cam did a project on it, all about how the trains stopped coming here, and how they closed the tracks and got rid of the old railway bridge.”

“Why?” I asked, as we followed the others towards the carriage in the lashing rain.

“Oh,” Roberta’s face took on a sort of knowing look, her mouth forming a dramatic oval.

“Well, people kept throwing themselves off the bridge,” her voice dropped to a whisper, “I think they hung themselves.”

I shuddered and she nodded with that same knowing look in her eyes.

“And they had to shut down the train tracks because of the accident.”

“What accident?”

“Oh a big crash or something, no one talks about it anymore but lots of people died. It was a really long time ago though.” Roberta said, growing disinterested in the conversation as we approached the train.

It was in a real mess, all broken bits of wood and twisted metal just lying there with the rain bouncing off it. It gave me the creeps but I stood there with the others, just staring at it until my arm got tired holding the lantern.

“Let’s go home.”

Amelia shot me a look. “Are you kidding? This is cool. We’re not going yet, I want to look inside.”

Shivers passed over me as the storm beat heavier on our backs, but I didn’t say anything because Amelia was the boss. We all moved forward, swinging the meager light from our cheap, battery-powered Halloween lanterns at the wreck.

“It must be really old,” said Mandy, uncertain. “It looks like an old steam train, like it’s been here forever but I don’t remember it.”

“That’s because it wasn’t here.” Roberta repeated, hanging back a little, but Amelia shot her a look like murder, and so she trod forward.

“Somebody must have cleared the trees around here, it must have been hidden before that’s all. Don’t be such a baby.”

We got up to the cab and Amelia said for us all to hold our lanterns up so she could see inside. Mandy’s lantern went out with a POP; the vampire face with the plastic fangs suddenly vanishing from view.

“There’s nothing in there anyway,” Amelia said, banging the side of the cab. We all followed her in silence as she moved further back towards the carriage section.

“Gimme that,” Mandy said, snatching at my pumpkin lantern.

“Get lost!” I snatched it back, but it made me stumble and feel stupid. Mandy was older than me, so was Amelia. I didn’t want to go along with it but I was afraid to look like a coward.

“Give her the lantern and stop being such a child.” Amelia said, but again I shook my head, I was tired and cold, and just then I thought about my parents and how late it was.

“I’m going.” I said, and practically ran off because I didn’t want to hear them making fun of me, and I didn’t want them to try and make me stay.

“Pathetic!” I heard Mandy shout after me. I turned after I’d crossed the street and saw Roberta standing a little way behind the other two, looking back at me. I felt bad then for leaving her, because she wasn’t as bad as the others. From where I was standing at the crossroads I could now see Roberta join Amelia and Mandy, her skeleton lantern bobbing along until it joined Amelia’s werewolf. They were trying to get into the carriage, I could hear their voices but not what they were saying.

I was about to give up and head home then when I heard a noise. It was like a door creaking in the wind, and there was a rattling sound too, it was so strange that it made me stop where I was. A light appeared in the wreck, it lit up Amelia’s face and showed her shock. She raised her hand up to cover her eyes as Roberta grabbed for Mandy and pulled her away from the carriage. I heard steam hiss and a whistle blow and suddenly the carriage was moving; the cab reared up in front like a dancing cobra, pulling the carriage back underneath it. Fallen, rusted metal rods leaped up from their place on the grass and reached out like grasping fingers, sweeping the girls off their feet with a roaring whooosh as their bodies disappeared into the darkness inside of the carriage. Their screams lasted only a second before cutting off dead.

I was frozen to the spot, watching speechless as the light within the train-thing flickered on and off in the lashing rain. It stood up tall, big metal arms hanging limp at its sides now somehow attached to the body of the train-thing.

It watched me for a while, and I suppose it was thinking. I couldn’t do anything I was so afraid. In the corner of my eye I could see Roberta’s skeleton lantern fizzle out and die by the roadside. That changed things. It made me want to move as fast as I could to get away from there, and I’ve never run so hard in my life. I ran so hard that I tripped and fell, skidding on the wet concrete and cutting my jeans open. I cried out in pain and looked back because I was convinced the train-thing was closing in on me.

But it was gone. I was all alone in the street.

 

23# The Building.

Image by gubgib, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

ID-100138707

I was so proud to work there. Every morning as I rounded that final corner I would catch a glimpse of the building basking in rising sun. It dominates the skyline from every direction, you can’t escape it. As a feat of architecture it’s not only functional but aesthetically captivating, it has a terrible beauty about it which makes even the locals stop, and stare when they come near it.

When I first started there I was on top of the world about it. I mean you would be wouldn’t you? Starting at a firm like that. My decision to re-train, at my age, was such a gamble. I really thought it had paid off. It wasn’t the firm, not at first, I mean it was, but it was the building. I know you won’t understand until I explain it all, but the people were a delight to start off with. Most of them were very nice, and very sociable people, you know, always inviting me to their houses, and barbeques and all that. I never went of course, being me, I sort of wish I had now because maybe then I would have sensed something from them. But then, I still don’t know who knew about it, about the building.

It really started one day when I was in at the weekend, on my own. I remember waking up that day and thinking that I could do a thousand things with my time, that I was on top of all my work and so could spend the day doing anything, or nothing, and yet, suddenly there I was, on the way to work. I just needed to be there. Suddenly I felt as if not being there was a waste of my time.

Here’s a picture I took. You can see how the surface of the copper on that side catches the sunlight so beautifully. It’s a sculpture really isn’t it. All those layers, those jutting edges. Yes, that part does look like a face doesn’t it? You could almost believe it was watching you. I have so many photos like that, all from different angles. Even in the rain it looks majestic. Perhaps, especially in the rain.

I have no idea who built it. I tried to find out but it isn’t even on the net anywhere. The design is always credited to the firm and what they call the C.C.C, “Collective Creative Cooperative” which is a kind of employee program I suppose you could call it. It was brought up in meetings but I never seemed to be able to find out much about it either. Some sort of extracurricular artistic collaboration I thought it was. You know modern businesses are so hellbent on teamwork and bonding and expressing yourself, all that gumpf.

Where was I? Yes, the day I went in for no reason.

I stayed there all day, I worked on a project, idly. I remember thinking, as I ate my lunch, I should feel lonely here. But I didn’t. I was almost glad to be alone. To have that space to myself. I remember looking at the walls and marveling at how I thought there were must have been paintings up, but there were none at all. Just the wall, but it in itself was fascinating. The way it seemed have that natural flow, like water, like a river. It was part stone, part metal, it seemed to shift with the eye.

It got late and I suddenly realised that I hadn’t typed anything or read anything, or even thought about anything in at least half an hour. It was so peaceful, like being in a womb. Because at night the lights would go dim naturally, and the huge windows would let the soft sunset in. The sunsets up on my floor were spectacular, it was like bathing in a watercolour, every night.

It became a habit. I couldn’t stop going back there on the weekends, and during the week I’d stay late. Sometimes others would stay too, but we kept to ourselves. It was as if no one wanted to disturb the atmosphere, that strange, calm movement the place had, like sitting in a giant rocking chair.

One night I thought I could make out voices. Whispers. There was no one in the office, and I had to check my phone to make sure I hadn’t called anyone by accident, I hadn’t. The whispers were coming from all around me. I thought I had been dreaming, but In a few minutes of getting up, standing very still and listening, I realised where the sound was emanating from. It was coming from the walls. I lent my ear up against one and heard it. The voices all whispering. I think there were actually speaking loudly, maybe they were even shouting, but all that material was blocking the sound, trapped it in stone and iron.

Don’t even bother to look at me like that until you’ve heard the rest of it.

Yes it dawned on me that they must be piping sound in through the walls somehow. It could have been one of those arty ideas, to make the building a talking installation or something. They do that in art galleries sometimes don’t they? And the building is a work of art, or rather it’s even more than that.

One day I was invited to join the C.C.C. My manager showed me a leaflet with lots of vague statements on it about “giving back” and “rewarding loyal employees”, “personal enrichment” that sort of thing. I glanced at it and said I would love to be a part of it, at once, without even asking what it was.

By this stage I was in work all the time, and I had begun to notice how quickly people came and went in that job. Many faces remained to treat me kindly or to give me increasingly unsettling stares in the corridor, but there was also a high turn-over of nobodies. I guessed they were just part-timers. I never really made an effort to get to know anybody who I didn’t have to directly work with. Every so often one of the managers would talk about the “dispatchables”, and I soon realised that they meant those come-and-go staffers whom no one really knew but who seemed to fulfill their roles and then quietly fade into obscurity. I remember my own manager, the man who had given me the leaflet, say,

“Jim, you’re special. You’re an indispensible. A future custodian, It’s people like you who eventually maintain us all.”

The business was ludicrously successful. When he said that, I pondered my future at the company, and it wasn’t even about a promotion or the money, it was about what he had said, about maintaining. I wanted to be a custodian, of that building. It had become my whole world.

Finally, they took me aside and said that they would explain the CCC to me. They said that I had shown enough dedication and had been there long enough to enjoy its benefits. It was in a meeting at 6pm on a Friday, when everyone else had gone home. I remember watching the last rays of light glide down onto the table, and looking around at the faces of the others who had fallen into shadows. I was suffering from exhaustion. The voices in the walls were now everywhere and when I left that building I couldn’t sleep because I missed them. I felt disconnected without their chatter.

The managers led me away from the conference room. One of them explained the architecture of the building to me in terms of  flows of energy, like in Feng Shui. As we passed room after room, down flights and along more corridors her voice mingled with the wall whispers and her hands pointed out this feature and that. She imparted the wisdom of the structure to me, how it caught all the positive energy like a trap, reached out and grasped energy from its surroundings, and from us. But people like me benefited from this. We were wrapped in this flow, our energies becoming one with all the others; streams and eddies of opportunity, of luck, of wisdom, all caught up in the building’s every living breath.

“Imagine that this building is a beast, that every twist and turn you see is a coil of its body. That we are all existing inside it, protected and nurtured by the air its breathing circulates.”

I didn’t really think much about the validity of what she was saying as we walked. Of course it sounds ridiculous, but I just listened. Everything made perfect sense to me then because my work was my life. Whenever I entered that building I came alive, and when I left I was emptied of it.

We ended up at a small door down in the basement. It was dark and hot down there, like a boiler room. They opened the door and we all stepped inside. You wouldn’t believe what I saw in there, how majestic that room was for all its inauspicious appearance from the corridor. The walls were like gold with glints of copper, bronze, I don’t know what. They whispered and writhed. The floor was a dark red, like a resin, like a very deep amber, and in it floated shapes, seemingly borne along by a current.

In front of me I saw two men and a woman. They stood before a patch of wall marked like a doorway without a door. They all had their backs to me. The man was limp, as though drunk or asleep, held up by the man and the woman.

My manager turned to me and said, “I wish I could have my first time, again. Just watch.” He smiled wistfully.

Then the man and the woman woke the slumped man. They said some things to him which seemed to distress him, before leading him forward. They propped him up against the wall and everyone waited.

Nothing happened for a few minutes, then I saw his eyes widen, and swivel. He moved, he was being pulled backwards, sucked. His shoulder went first and he struggled, but fingertips appeared to grasp him, and pull him further in. A foot appeared, more limbs, it was as if a struggle was going on between those behind the wall and the man in front of it. I saw a palm go up on the golden wall, beating against the material, but it couldn’t break the surface. The man was now pinned, both his arms behind him, screaming at us.

The last I saw of his face was his gaping mouth as the wall consumed him. Then it was all over, as if nothing at all had happened.

The woman who had given me the tour quietly said,

“I almost envy the Dispatchables.” Then we all left.

After that day I started to notice, more and more, the missing faces in the office, in contrast to the voices, to the sudden shapes that I would imagine I could see in the walls. I say imagine, but really I knew what I was seeing.

“They have to be alive.” My manager had said to me after we left the golden room. “We need their energy.”

I gave three people to the wall. Not that many, not as many as the others. I knew their names because I had to research them first. They couldn’t be sick, mentally or physically. That would affected us all.

But one day I got sick. I nearly died. Something I picked up from a late night meal on the way home. I was in hospital for weeks.

At first not being near to the building was unbearable. But as I grew in strength I started to forget about it, it lost its hold on me. I mean I still knew that I was guilty of hideous things, but somehow even my guilt was tied up with the building. It wasn’t a part of me, because when I was there I wasn’t myself. Strangely enough, it was only when I passed the building on the bus that it hit me. All of what it was. A living, breathing thing. Hungry, insatiable. And I had fed my colleagues to it. I looked out at the building from the bus window, and something looked back at me. We were both remembering.

I never went back. The firm never even contacted me, except once. They sent me a chatty letter, reminding me that the C.C.C was “the future of corporate business”, and that I was always welcome, should I wish to return. It mentioned they were planning on expanding.

A branch in every town by 2020, the slogan read.