“Is this love real?” she asks.
Sitting on a bench near the other end of the room, her words are unmistakable, magnified by the reverence and strange acoustics of the museum. He turns from the glass case filled with the desiccated husks of seahorses to look at her. Her hair is down, her glasses bright. She’s wearing the coat he bought her last winter. It’s not quite winter yet but the evenings are getting cooler. It is evening now. At least, it must be. They’ve been in here for a hundred years already, it seems.
“Obviously,” he replies. “Duh. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.”
At the sound of his voice, she looks up. “Not you, silly.” She raises the paper cup to her mouth and sips. “Arabica. Instant pick-me-up.”
“I’m an instant pick-you-up.”
“You’re fast, I’ll give you that.”
With a lingering glance at the contents of the cabinet, he walks the short distance to where she’s sitting. She pretends not to watch him as he approaches but he sees her peek sideways. She taps the cup as he takes a seat next to her, her short nails making a hollow sound against the cheap Styrofoam.
“I’ve missed you,” he says.
“From the other side of the room?”
“If you’d just think about moving in…”
She taps faster, then stops altogether. The silence is sudden and alarming. He hadn’t realised how big the room was, how empty. They haven’t seen anyone else in probably ten minutes. He wonders how much longer they have to spend here.
“What were you looking at over there,” she asks, “in the cabinet?”
He catches her peering his way again, decides to play her at her own game. The rows of cases in front of them are too far away and the objects inside too small for him to make them out. He finds himself studying the ceiling. “Why do you ask, when you already know?”
“You were looking at the seahorses,” she tells him.
“How did they look?”
“Like they’d crumble to dust if you touched them.”
“Don’t touch them. Anything else?”
From where he is sitting the exhibits are tiny flecks, almost invisible on the glass shelf. He recalls them, their withered tails, needlepoint snouts, eyes like used cigarette cherries, ashen and black. Beside him, she shifts, her hand finding one of his knees; he realises she’s watching him.
“Thirsty,” he says.
She stares at him a second longer, then laughs. He loves her smile and her face when she laughs. There isn’t much poetic going on his head but he knows what he loves and that is it. Smiling back at her, he buries his head into her shoulder.
“You’re an idiot,” she says.
“Can we go soon?” Muffled by her coat, his voice is small and thick.
“Had enough of me already?”
He wraps his arms around her but does not remove his face from her neck. She smells of perfume – he couldn’t say which – and still a little salty, from the beach yesterday. He loves the beach, almost as much as he loves her. Yesterday had been a good day.
“This place creeps me out.”
“I think it’s romantic.”
“What’s romantic about shrivelled-up fish? I swear I feel like I’m hanging out inside a shipwreck.”
“Come on, seriously?”
He shakes his head, some of her hair falling across the back of his neck.
“The memories,” she says. “The feeling attached to the objects. The objects themselves, so small, so fragile. Your delicate seahorses. The secrets. The stories.”
He feels her set the paper cup down before she moves, her weight shifting underneath him. She leans carefully to one side and stands, lifting him with her. She is not strong enough to carry him and yet she moves him with the lightest suggestion.
Taking his hand, she leads him to one of the cabinets. Like the others, it is made of glass. Like the others, a spotlight shines down over it. It is a bright, impersonal space, considering the nature of the objects housed within. He almost thinks he understands what she means.
“Is this love real?” she breathes. He follows her pointed finger to a small item just below head-height. It is a ring. At least, it used to be. The years do not appear to have been kind to it, battering the metal, creating pocks and eroding away much of what might once have been a design. It is crusty and matte and covered in tiny discs, almost like it has been carved out of rock.
“Why does it look like that?”
“It’s a tentacle. Crafted in the likeness of one, anyway. No one knows where it’s from. There was a theory, but that’s just another name for a story, and there are already lots of those.”
He is watching the ring and the reflection of her face around it. She is still smiling, her glasses bright. The eyes behind them brighter. He doesn’t know what she is talking about but he loves that smile. He gives her hand a squeeze; she squeezes back.
“Where did they find it?”
“Washed up, technically, 1973. Inside a shark’s guts. The gulls were pulling ropes for their morning feast and some children spotted it, still red, still wet, sticking out the sand.”
She looks as beautiful with her glasses on as she does without. When she leans forwards, like she does now, her hair falls around her face. It is shoulder-length hair, dark but with red undertones, caught in the right light. With her free hand, she tucks a stray strand quickly behind one ear.
“Some say it was made by primitive island people. This story goes, they worshipped the sea, and the things that lived in it, so they carved jewellery that resembled them. Seeing the ring now, I can believe that. I can see the waves in its grooves, the strength in its shape, the beauty in its suckered likeness. I can see something divine in the brine and the blood and the cut of coral.”
“You really love this stuff, don’t you?”
She leans in closer and he moves with her. His face inches towards the glass, the coarse sea smell filling his nose again, and for a moment he too finds himself staring at the ring. He slides deeper, its grasp tightening, feels a hand through his hair, the suggestion of darkness filled with pale shapes and submarine depths. He realises he is breathing heavily.
“What happened to the island people?”
“No one knows, but I have a theory, professor.” She winks at him, and he feels himself stirring. Here, of all places, in this wreck of a museum! “I think they died. Thousands of years ago, swept away by a storm. The sea they worshipped gave them life, then just as quickly it took it away. Now that’s love.”
He stands there for several minutes while she admires the exhibit. His breathing steadies. His arm finds her waist and she stirs slightly, but no more. He wishes she looked at him the same way she does those antiques. He knows she’s interested. No, it’s more than that. She loves him. He’s certain. She just won’t admit it. He doesn’t know what that means.
“Come on, it’s getting cold and the table’s booked for eight.”
“It is getting cold, isn’t it? Did you see that?”
He looks over her shoulder as he helps her to button up. Sometime between sitting at the bench and checking out the display, the lights in the hallway have gone out. He hopes they haven’t been locked in. He hasn’t seen any staff but assumes they’d check every room first.
“Almost done. See what?”
“There.” She squints behind her glasses, then stiffens. He feels her tense bodily in his hands. “There.”
This time he sees it. A single light, hovering about head-height in the dark. It flickers intermittently, soft, dull pulses that fill him with a sense of contentment. It has to be a torch.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
The hallway swallows his words. He stares harder, wishes his eyes would adjust faster, but the flashes are playing games with his sight.
He hears her behind him, throws an arm out protectively. “Stay back.”
The light is weak but there is something satisfying about its rhythm and the vague illumination it casts.
“I said stop!”
Gradually the light grows fiercer. Shadows squirm across the boards and up the walls. He smells the sea, gently at first, then the sudden rush of damp and decay. It had not smelled so strongly at the beach yesterday, amid the rock pools with the crabs. Already that seems like a lifetime ago.
It occurs to him that he is standing in the hallway. Her hand finds his, and he realises she is by his side. The light is right in front of them. It is not a torch; the thought is laughable now. It hangs in the air, swaying slightly, dimming, then glowing brightly. This close, he sees himself in its gelatinous mass, distorted but hand-in-hand with her. It has always been her. It is everything he could have wanted to see.
The light flickers, fading before their eyes. The darkness rushes in, then wavers again. His stomach turns at the smell, his trainer slipping on something wet. He could reach out and touch the light, if he wanted. It would be the easiest thing.
The orb begins to glow again, brightening, filling his eyes, and for the first time he sees behind it into the rubbery lips, the rows of teeth, the vast mouth that contains them.
As the light dulls, the mouth gapes open, wider, wider than he could have ever imagined.
Still smiling, he extends his hand into the darkness.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2016 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.
As tempestuous as the seas and equally unpredictable, Wrath sweeps through the skies, her shouts of hatred falling like shards of ice on those far below. Riding the storms and accompanied by a flurry of shrieking Sins, her Court watches with hawk-like eyes those passing beneath them. Sparkling spear in one hand, her other a clenched fist, Wrath leads her troupe in dizzying descents. They hurl insults, abuse, and hateful jibes even as they beset those unfortunate enough to be caught abroad, tearing them apart limb from limb in a bloody shower of malignant spite. Her goal is to ascend to the rank of Queen of all Sin, when she can rule with iron fist and steely gaze, and she is not afraid to destroy any who prevent her from achieving this.
From The Book of Sin
Screams of undiluted hatred did sing over the cliff tops.
22. Curses as ancient as the world itself were spoken, and they did corrupt the fair blue sky with their poisonous presence. Bound and chained in iron trappings, like some beast of the earth, a figure did scream. Her horrific voice did scold the air with its violence.
23. And like a plague of locusts the mortals did surround her, jeering and jabbing with gleaming swords and sharpened spears.
24. Cold iron clasps did restrain the captive, searing her skin and burning her to her very bones, and WRATH did writhe in vain.
25. The men did cry to stab the beast, and burn it, and behead it, such was their vehement hate at the creature bound in their midst.
26. The calls for vengeance rose viciously over the crowd; the assembled men shouting out for the death of the monster amongst them. For too long it had plagued their cities, dealt devastation to their caravans, wrought death as though it was a blacksmith at an anvil, and murder was its trade.
27. Now they did rejoice, for they had it at their mercy, but there was sorrow in their hearts too, and their eyes were alight with righteous vengeance.
28. The SIN gazed through slits of fury at those who did dare to approach too near, and her awe was such that all fell back before her.
29. Lean arms strained at their shackles as this goddess of death did strive to break free from the ensorcelled iron that imprisoned her. The chorus of cries only served to infuriate her further. They screamed for the beast to be doused in fire and showered with flames. They begged that its wings be torn from its back and the monster thus disgraced.
30. They raged that it should be cast, flightless, from the towering cliff, a final, fatal fall from grace.
31. Then the SIN did speak, and her voice was as a scythe through the cries of the crowd, and she did say I will flay your flesh from your hide and your pain will be so great that never before has one experienced such agony, and such was her fury that those who had been edging closer leapt suddenly back, their eyes wide, their skin pale.
32. Still she did scream, her tongue a flurry of fierce words and threats, and such was her undeniable temper that the maddened mob did believe every word she spoke, and they were mortally afraid at what they heard.
33. And the air was rank with their fear.
34. And into the madness atop the cliff a figure did stumble. Her dress was befouled with dirt and earth and sweat, but the daughter of Eve seemed not to care.
35. A single thought did flicker in her eyes, like a furnace, waiting to be unleashed.
36. Words ripped from her throat, hoarse though it was from her unyielding cries. She screamed bloody murder, crying SIN did slay my husband, It did murder his brothers and ruin their farmstead and now It shall pay the price for Its crimes.
37. Accusations flew fast from her lips, even as some relative, or piteous bystander, did try to restrain her. She flung him aside.
38. Grief did envelop the woman completely, as though she were in a valley and it lay a shadow across her.
39. Unashamed tears did stream down her fair cheek, and spying a sharp rock on the ground, she grasped hold of it. Before another word was spoken, she did hurl the heavy lump of hatred at the SIN.
40. With divine retribution it did fly where she cast it.
41. The rock struck hard the cheek of WRATH, and the wound did sting her, and it was the sting of shame.
42. The furnace of her heart now a conflagration, the woman did parade herself before the crowd. The SIN did see the fires burning in her eyes. She did recognise the pain that did gnaw at the woman’s insides. She did feel the hatred as it spilled out of the inconsolable woman.
43. The presence of so much anger did fill WRATH with vigour. It inspired her limbs. It flooded her veins, and it did nurture her own fury a thousand-fold.
44. An angel of unadulterated anger, the SIN’s own hellish hatred did cause her iron trappings to scream.
45. They did scream and scream and scream and with a clap like thunder break from around her limbs.
46. And silence did envelop the cliff top.
47. The men did run. The crowd parted like the sea before WRATH’s vengeance, but lo it was too late for those who had gathered to bear witness to the SIN’s demise.
48. With godly grace the SIN did swoop amongst the men and women and children. Her spear was lost, but she was not hindered by this, and her claws did exact a rich and bloody toll on the lives of those around her.
49. And she did wrench the still warm souls of those who had dared to trespass against her, and then discard them, and in doing so left lifeless husks to cover the earth.
50. And her anger was so absolute that none could flee her. Heads did roll, blood spilled like wine, and the air was alive with the chorus of screams.
51. And all the while WRATH did laugh at the slaughter she dealt, for she was above these lowly mortals, she was all-powerful and she was free.
52. And then her thoughts, though clouded by fury and fueled by ferocity, did turn to one thing and she did utter it aloud so that all did hear her, Who had gifted the men of the earth with such ensorcelled iron that could bind her?
55. She did scream to be told, but even as she did so, she knew already, for she also knew it beyond the craft of mortals to make such artifacts of power.
56. Even before the whispers of SIN did evaporate like water from the lake of death below, she knew that one of her siblings had betrayed her in this act and passed the iron over to the mortals. Another SIN had provided the means of her imprisonment. One of her own treacherous siblings.
57. And she knew wrath like never before.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2016 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.
It was a dark night, full of clouds and shadows. Whispers carried on the wind, racing through the forest and brushing the trees. The monotonous chanting of a hundred voices lingered on the air.
A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood. . .
A figure hurried along the winding forest path. Overhead, the clouds shifted so that the moon emerged just as the figure did from the tree line. The forest was illuminated, a picture of viridian mist and boughs. Even the lake glittered under its glare.
A heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief. . .
The figure ran on, its hands slipping from beneath its sleeves and revealed for a moment in the moonlight. They were slick with wetness and black as the figure’s habit, which fluttered furiously as it ran.
A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren. . .
A long shadow stretched across the lake. Offset by the moon, an abbey rose into the night, its bell-tower cutting into the sky.
“I must not tell lies,” muttered the figure. Reaching the lakeside, he started across a walkway.
“I must not tell lies.” The raps of the knocker, when he reached the doors, rang leaden into the night. It was several minutes before they opened a crack, the wind rushing instantly inside.
“Please, let me in.”
“We do not take to strangers in these parts.”
“Please, some charity.” The words seemed to have a strange effect on the doorman, the sliver of his face illuminated in a flash of lightning. “I am a man of God, like you.”
“There are no men of God. Not here, not anywhere.”
The door widened nevertheless and the tiny figure slipped inside.
The dining hall was empty. An air of reverence hung about the room, thick like incense or a guilty conscience. Dust coated the armaments and windows, visible as tiny motes in the flashes of lightning. Sin burst into unholy life with every jagged crack, their monstrous forms depicted in the stained glass of the windows
“I was caught unawares, travelling from Glastonbury. The weather fell foul, but we thought we could endure it. We took shelter, set up camp. . . We were wrong.”
“You were caught abroad?”
“By more than God’s rain. It was no ordinary storm but a Sin, come to claim us. Wrath, in all her vitriolic glory. We died. I ran. And now I am here.”
A startled gasp. “They chase your heels? You brought them here?”
“I lost them. I fled into the woods while they stayed to tear at the corpses. . .” The monk began to shake again, his hands rattling against the sturdy wooden table top. Cutlery clattered, the quiet sound reverberating within the heights of the dining hall. “My God, I still have their blood under my nails. . .”
“Robin,” said the newcomer. “Brother Robin.”
“You will be safe here, Brother. I am Brother William and, for tonight, all that we have is yours.”
The room might have been magnificent, once. Figures decorated the ceiling with beautiful intricacy; depictions from The Book of Sin brought to life in vivid brush-stroke. Above the flickering candlelight, the painting seemed almost to move, a trick of light and Robin’s own heightened imagination, as if the Sins were in the very act of being banished from the world by God and His children. Except, of course, no such thing had ever happened, nor ever would, not so long as men were men.
Both men tucked into their food. Robin ate voraciously, as though afraid his plate might be taken unfinished from before him. The chanting continued; a hallowed, reverential hymn hanging like the dust in the air, and something else. The patter of claws, or tiny feet, skittering through the walls.
“Rats,” muttered William.
“You said earlier that there are no men of God? These do not sound like the words of a man in His service.” Robin peered across at the monk, who twitched but made no move to reply, raising instead a skewered sliver of meat to his mouth. It glistened, pink and bloody, reminding Robin of his own hands. He lowered them self-consciously beneath the table.
“Come,” said William suddenly. Spittle and ham flew from his lips.
“Where are we going?”
“You may be alone, but here we’re many. You must meet the others, before you retire. The Abbot is leading them in prayer.”
The two figures slipped noiselessly through the passages of the abbey. All about them, the hymn hung heavy on the air. They passed through great halls, their footsteps echoing on the cracked flagstone floors. Archways towered over them, engraved with signs of the cross, and every corridor was dimly lit with tiny candles. They wavered and danced, like the dying light in a man’s eyes, as the two monks ghosted past.
“I’ve never seen such architecture. I must admit, I’m somewhat in awe.” The two passed a statue, the edifice staring down at them righteously from its pedestal. An engraving beneath said St. George, who Robin remembered well as being the military saint responsible for casting back one of the Seven.
Outside, black clouds amassed in the night sky. Robin could see them as William and he strode through the cloisters towards the church, the monastic heart of the abbey. The church reared up before them. Windows watched them, more Sins staring monstrously at their approach. Then they were passing through the church’s doors and into the building proper.
Reverent song prickled at the back of Robin’s neck. It was holy, sanctimonious, resonating within his bones as if he’d been struck by one of the very bolts that danced through the night sky. Goosebumps ran the length of his robed arms.
“The hymn. . .”
From beside him, William nodded. “I know. I know.”
The church was humbler than the rest of the abbey but no less beautiful. Rows of benches led up to a dais at the front, atop which three small altars could be found. The place was old, as old as anything of the abbey Robin had already seen, but lacked the dust and decay that he had so far grown accustomed to. The church looked attended to. Cared for. Perfect, in every way.
At each row of benches stood a dozen monks, their backs turned, hoods covering their heads so that only their voices could be heard. More stood at the front on the raised platform, and at the pulpit a lonely figure: the Abbot himself, leading his congregation in solemn song.
“I recognise the hymn,” whispered Robin.
“They sing for God and to ward off evil. To ward off the Sins, in all their guises.”
“Such a thing is not possible, you realise.”
“We do our best, given the times.”
Robin’s eyes flashed with the lightning. ‘There are no men of God. Not here, not anywhere.”
William hung his head. He looked tired, suddenly. A hundred years old. “Perhaps I spoke rashly, before. Certainly I regret those sentiments. There are many on God’s earth who would. . . well, who would kill to be so close to Him, if you will excuse the expression.”
“You’d say they envy you?”
“And in doing so, they would sin.”
William glanced back at Robin, a stranger, at the heart of their abbey. His hair was still drenched, although it had been well over an hour since he’d been admitted past their walls. The blood of his comrades was no less slick about his hands. Surely it should have dried by now? Surely he should have wanted to wash?
“Forgive me, Brother, I forget; to which order did you say you belonged?”
“I did not, merely that I was travelling from Glastonbury.”
“Ah, I assumed. . .”
“Indeed. You know, it really is an abbey above all others that you have here. Beautiful. God would be proud.”
“Pride, Brother, is a sin like all others.”
“Envious of you, then, to live in such luxury.”
Something was happening to Robin. His waterlogged hair was lengthening before William’s eyes. A pallor overcame his flesh, such that he looked more like a statue or – God forbid – a corpse, than a living, breathing man. The blood began running like dirty water from his hands, two puddles growing around the monk’s habit .
“What’s happening? What trickery is this?”
“I have enjoyed your company, Brother, so much so in fact that I’ve decided I would quite like to be you.”
Time slowed, everything illuminated in a single flash of lightning. Robin span on his heel, habit fluttering like the wings of a bat as he descended on William. Hands closed around the monk’s neck, even as William plunged a knife into Robin’s shoulder. The iron blade slid smoothly and without resistance into skin and bone alike, and Robin shrieked obscenely. Bladeless, his weapon buried to the hilt, William dropped to the floor. Bloody handprints circled his bruised throat.
“Sin!” he screamed. “Brothers, Sin! See how the iron burns its flesh!”
The assembled monks did not rise to his aid. They did not fly in defence of their abbey. They did not move but continued to sing, their monotonous moans carrying far into the night.
“It is always dark, where I come from. There is no light. No warmth. We have no birdsong, save the screams of the crows. The screaming. They do not stop screaming.”
Scrabbling away, William backed against a statue. He felt alone. Trapped. But the statue brought him comfort. It was another of St. George; tall, defiant, clutching an ancient sword in its hands.
“You will always find screaming. This abbey is no different. Can you not hear the wind, Beast, as it races through the woods? It screams to feel, to touch. The dying, they scream as their lives are extinguished. The living scream when theirs are not. God’s earth is a chorus of cries.”
“Poetic,” hissed Robin, haggard, the knife still steaming in his shoulder. “I like you even more.”
William wrenched the sword from the statue. It came free with a lurch, sent him spinning, the blade careering towards Robin’s twisted face. He swung it with all his might, a prayer to the Lord on his lips.
A stony hand grabbed his chest from behind. It held him still even as another punched into his back. His vision failing, William had just enough time to look down, to see his bloody heart in its fingers, before he slumped to the church floor.
Giggling obscenely, St. George sprang into the air. Two glassy wings burst from its back as it took flight, twitching and euphoric into the rafters. Its skin rippled like liquid shadow.
Robin watched his child as it flew. “Silly monk,” he shrieked, casting off his own glamour. Slick hair cascaded from her head, clinging to the infantile body beneath. Pale flesh glinted wetly in the candlelight and two shards of broken emerald shone where there should have been eyes.
Envy plucked the steaming dagger from her shoulder. Black blood spat from the wound, not unlike that of the congregation’s, murdered earlier by her hands. Not that it had stopped them singing, of course. She did so enjoy their singing.
“Silly, silly monk.”
Movement, in the shadows. Shapes ghosted in and out of the darkness, flitting between this world and another. Faint shrieks and triumphant barks joined the unending hymn. Envy watched the unholy procession with a wicked grin; the flutter of crow wings, the clicking of bones, screams of malediction and joy alike filling the despoiled church. Scuttling down the aisle like a spidery spinster, she sprang atop the central altar.
“And now, Lesson One,” she crooned, her voice cracked, sing-song. “Lesson One. Lesson One. . . We must not tell lies.”
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2016 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.
Lambing season arrives with fine rain and the moan of distressed ewes. John has just sat down to dinner when he hears them, the sheep’s cries mingling with the whistle of the kettle. He hasn’t been through the door for an hour and his feet ache. Evening sun catches the dust and makes silhouettes of the shattered window pane. He eats alone with his thoughts and his chipped mug and the scratching of mice in the walls.
When his plate is cleared, he takes it to the sink and runs it under the tap. Brown water catches the worst of the stains. Outside, a crow laughs. Looking up from the sink, he stares out across the back garden to the bird and the plot where his father is buried. It isn’t much, but it means something to him, and it is ritual; the first day of every March he books time off from work, packs an overnight bag, and makes the long drive into the hills to visit his dad.
A wooden cross marks the spot, and another, and another; generations of Shepherds, laid to rest in the earth. Retrieving a dishcloth and an old knife, he wanders outside, crouches by the crosses, and scrapes the worst of the moss from the wood. Cobwebs cling to the crossbars; he brushes them away. He smokes while he works, lips sucking and twitching around his cigarettes when his hands are busy. Across the hills, the ewes continue to bleat.
When the worst of the nettles are stripped back and he runs out of cigarettes, he retires indoors. Lying on the single bed in the room where he grew up as a child, he listens to the house, the groan of the floorboards, the tapping of the rain on the windows, and he waits.
At some point the sun sags, wavers, dips below the rolling mounds. The rain hammers down, then peters out. Eventually he hears the bleating of lambs. The sound draws him from the bedroom, across the dark hills. One a.m. nips at his fingers and the tip of his nose, turning his breath white on the air, and as he leaves the yard he almost slips on the dark stone of the step.
He does not have to walk far before he sees them. Moonlight illuminates the parade as it winds its way through the trees. Where the branches allow it, the light makes silver outlines of pale limbs, bare footprints pressed into the mulch and, held by thin hands, clutched close to sunken breasts, severed heads; the old dead nurturing the new with ageless love and sour milk.
The stiff-legged procession stretches both ways into the trees. They might always have walked here; an endless wake marching solemnly beneath their cowls. He moves silently closer, his approach masked beneath the clicking of bone and wet sucking sounds, which he hopes is feet sunk into mud and not cold mouths hungry at stiff teats. He does not speak, but in his head repeats an old hymn, hoping it might help him, ground him, keep him sane and safe from demons and the dark.
It is many years since any sheep have grazed here. Not since his father passed have livestock of any sort dotted these hills. Idly, he wonders what he is doing here. Not just tonight, but last year, and the year before that, and the one before that. He thinks about his guilt at having abandoned the farm, and his love for his father, and his shame at the generations of slaughter committed in the family name. He can never shrug that shame, but he can pay his respects to the dead. For one night a year, he can manage that.
He is still standing, watching the march, when a piece of deadwood snaps underfoot. The branch is small, the sound weak, but it still cracks like a gunshot in the dark. For the most part, the procession continues heedless, all except one of their number. Closest, it stops in its tracks. The mud at its feet is a mess of cloven tracks. With the inexorable slowness of the ages, it turns its face towards him. A scream fills his mouth.
Night has sapped the colour from the world but he can still make out spring: ghostly lilac blossom, branches heavy with shoots, fat roots, and the bleating of lambs, long since taken to market but revived on this night when life courses renewed through the wet, blood-soaked loam.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2016 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.
I had been single for nine years when I met Spider. The sky was overcast. I smelled fried onions, heard the sizzle of hot oil from the kebab van by the side of the road as I made my way to the park. My watch still sat on the bedside table; it could have been any time between five and seven. The last nine years could have passed between these hours; that halfway time after the evening but before nightfall, when clouds and shadow obscure the sky like muddied waters and the streetlights seem premature. As I approached the van, I found myself wondering if there was such a thing as any other time. It didn’t feel that way to me.
I visited the park often in the evenings, but rarely this van. It was the same park where I used to play with my friends as a small boy. I liked to watch for dragonflies in the spring, and pond skaters, and the fat worms that emerged from the soil when summer turned and it began to rain.
There was no rain that night. Three silhouettes huddled around the light from the counter. Stronger than the streetlights and nearer, the glow reminded me of a lamp, the people like fat moths in their vast overcoats. Two of them stood slightly apart, mouths close to their food, chewing slowly behind their collars. I can still remember the sound of their chewing, the gradual motion of their jaws, the grinding of pitta or grey doner meat between their teeth; a ceaseless mastication.
The third man stood by the serving hatch while the van’s occupants prepared his order. He didn’t turn, but stepped slightly to one side as I came up behind him. This close to the van, the aroma of vinegar, cheap aftershave, and hot Middle Eastern spices was almost overpowering. I ordered quickly, my mouth watering, eyes burning slightly from the onion and the cold.
I didn’t realise the man had spoken to me until I felt his hand on my shoulder. My flinch startled him, but his hand had startled me first. After nine years, the loneliness had become a part of me, and it wasn’t used to being touched.
“You dropped this.”
He wasn’t tall, but he had a couple of inches on me. He looked older, maybe mid-thirties to my twenty-nine. A thick crop of blonde hair gave him a youthful aspect, as did his smile, but his eyes were honest. I wondered if he was doing the same to me; reading my face, my mouth, my mother’s brown eyes. Still teary, cheeks flushed from the chill, I thought I must have looked one-hundred and nine.
He extended his hand again, and I realised he was holding a tenner. The note was crumpled between his finger and thumb. I took it quickly, careful not to brush his fingers with my own. Behind us, in one of the many tiny gardens squashed between the rows of terraced houses, a dog began howling.
We spoke while we waited for our food. Mostly it was he who spoke, but I replied when it was polite and, afterwards, when I wanted to. I learned he was Swedish, that he had moved here for work eight months ago and was missing his homeland dearly. The dog did not stop howling, but it was not unusual for dogs trapped in the small gardens here to sound off. I realised it was night. Even without my watch, we must have been speaking for hours. I had said very little, but the time had flown. I couldn’t have begun to imagine where it had gone.
We continued speaking at the park, and the week after in a coffee shop. One evening we visited the cinema where we caught a late showing of an indie film from his homeland. I didn’t – I don’t – understand the language. There were subtitles, but these paled in comparison to the sweeping panoramic shots of black lakes shining with starlight, and black cities lit up with little lights of their own; Stockholm, Malmö, Gothenburg, cities and the streets that made them up shivering like bright nests in the dark. I had not lived anywhere else than home, except for three brief years at university in Nottingham, and certainly not abroad. When the film was finished, he asked me whether I had enjoyed it. I told him I didn’t know what it had meant, but it was beautiful. He smiled.
I will never forget the day he met my parents. I think they had grown lonely in their own way from lack of any significant other in my life. It is a parent’s job to worry. Then they met him, and they seemed better. Though they had met him only briefly, that made me feel better, too.
It was summer when he asked me if I would visit Malmö with him. We were drinking red wine on the stained patio that amounted for my back garden. The paving slabs were cracked and hot. Weeds tickled the soles of my feet. He had not said how much he missed home, not since the first time we had met, but I caught him looking in the mirror sometimes. His was a pale face. I recognised guilt, and an emptiness that could have been my own. My Spider. Of course I said yes.
We flew that autumn, before the trees bared their branches and cobwebs glittered with more than flies. I had never flown before, but I was not afraid. I slept most of the way; the flight passed in the blink of an eye. The last six months had been a blur. After nine years of struggling like one of those flies trapped in silk, my life was speeding around me, and I was happy.
I couldn’t wait to explore the city; from what I could see as we navigated the roads, it actually shone. The night was black, the streetlamps tall, the buildings of a different sort to any I had ever seen before. I have never given much thought to heaven, or imagined what it might look like, but after last night, I would imagine it looks like this.
It did not take long to explore his apartment. One of the rooms was locked. The other two I surveyed in minutes: a main room, and a bathroom that doubled up as a storage cupboard. The main room featured a stove and several bare shelves. Dust coated the solitary windowsill like a second layer of paint. Looking back, he had seemed anxious, although I couldn’t tell why. We shared a futon and a heavy duvet to keep the draught at bay. Spiders fought over dust balls by the skirting boards. I fell asleep in his arms.
In the morning – this morning – I woke up to find myself gagged. The pain at my wrists told me they were bound, although I couldn’t see them from where I lay. I felt for Spider; his weight, his aftershave, the tap of his boots on the floor, anything to let me know he was still here. The house made sounds of its own, but none I could attribute to him. When I realised he had gone, I thought I was going to be sick. The back of my neck prickled, and my chest closed around my lungs so that every breath was small and tight. I felt a crushing sense of hollowness, like someone had reached inside of me and scooped everything out.
Outside was still black, but brightening, growing lighter with every passing hour. I am still lying here now, my face in the futon, knees tucked under my chest. I am on my side. The door that had yesterday been locked swings slightly ajar. A mattress spring buries uncomfortably into my naked hip.
I can’t hear the tap of Spider’s boots, but I can hear other things, moving behind the unlocked door. I have been listening to them for what feels like hours, scratching in the darkness, testing the stairs. The first I see of them is a white hand, fingers curling around the doorframe. The digits are long, skeletal. I think that whoever the hand belongs to must be very Nordic, or very ill.
The figures slink cautiously into the light. From where I lie, I can count three of them; I don’t know if they are his family, but there is a likeness in their arms, their slender legs, the long curvature of their necks as they scuttle closer. They too are naked. I don’t recognise their bald heads, or their mouths, except maybe to liken them to the mouthparts of newly-hatched dragonflies.
They move cautiously but with an eagerness that bears them quickly across the floor. Behind them, on the other side of the room, I can see the apartment’s sole window. Outside, the sky is grey, muddied with swirls of darker cloud, like gutter water run through with grime. I don’t know what time it is, or where my watch is, but I know that it is sometime between five and seven. I wonder if time ever sped up, if I ever escaped the spider’s web, or if that was just another illusion; the distorted perception of a thing struggling its last, trapped for months, years, almost a decade in a life from which there is no escape.
I am not struggling now. Somewhere outside, a dog begins barking. Perhaps it senses my fear, but I don’t think so. More likely it hears the wet chewing sounds that are filling the room; sucking, crunching, the roaring of blood in my ears. I think of two men, huddled around a van, nuzzling strips of grey meat, then a city doing likewise, then the world; for one moment billions of men, women, and children bent prostrate, heads bowed, mouths quick as they devour their hands.
I am not struggling, and I am not afraid. The mattress sinks around me as they shift, biting harder, bringing me to tears. My vision blurs. I think about last night, about the city streaming past me, and my place in it, tiny and awestruck. I remember the magnitude of the blackness, and the lights below, like golden pinpricks. I think about that first conversation with Spider, and the ensuing six months; the first and only time when I have ever been happy. It seems a small price to pay. As I drift away, I remind myself I am in heaven, foodstuff for angels with black eyes and butterfly’s skin.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2015 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.
They say the apocalypse is coming. In five years, they estimate, a meteor will strike the earth and wipe it clean of life. Five years is not a long time, but it is long enough. It is long enough for weddings and funerals for those who cannot wait, for that walk down the beach, where he first holidayed with his family at St. Bees. It is long enough for work, long enough that the world still turns, for now at least. So he finds himself on a train platform each morning, stepping onto a carriage, staring through dirt-smeared windows as the world passes him by.
Sometimes he thinks he could sit there forever, watching the countryside slip past. Trees blur into fields, which seem to stretch, longer than any field should, until there are no boundaries, no roads, no thicket hedgerows, only a palette of greens and browns beneath blue shining skies. The carriage rocks beneath him, lulling him slowly in his seat, while far above cerulean clouds blossom with wind and rain. He has only eyes for their phosphorescence, their purple twilight tinge, and for the twenty minutes it takes him to reach the next station he is lost in their depths, rolling with them through the sky; a fish caught in their awesome ocean pull.
Then the train shudders, stops, expels its load, and he is back inside his business suit. His mouth sighs. His shoulders sag. The Underground drinks deeply of his soul.
People swarm up escalators, spilling out of the station into the road. Traffic screams after them; a chorus of sirens and sudden brakes. Women wobble past him on heels too high while men with faces shaven clean march briskly in their wake, and in between their legs dogs gambol, vagrants dance another day with life. He wonders when it began; when things first showed signs of ending up this way, then remembers he need not wonder about anything anymore, ever again, for more than the minute it takes to type as much online.
His offices are tall, grey things overlooking a grey Thames. His room is on the fifth floor, next to administration. At eight-fifty he takes the lift, in the foyer beside the stairwell. His shirt is hot and wet beneath his arms. Inside his office, he closes the door, sits at his chair, which sinks beneath his weight, and stares at the face reflected in the blank computer screen. Drawing a deep breath, he begins to type.
He does not know why administration is called administration, why it is singled out when they are all administrators; every man in his pin-stripe business skin, every woman with her pay-check pulse, record-keeping, number crunching, so that the world will keep on turning. He thinks about love, and what it might feel like. He thinks about death, and when it was that they all died. Sometimes he turns in his chair and stares at the plant in the corner with its plastic fronds, its sterile soil, its bright, synthetic stem, until it is all he can do not to close his eyes, ball his fists and scream at the top of his voice.
He does not remember weeks in terms of days. He does not remember working weeks at all. There is only one day repeated, in which he wakes up, travels by train, pushes through crowds, through streets made black with rainwater to stinking, sweaty offices built of old brick the colour of dried blood, peopled by corporate puppets in black suits with empty eyes and long thin fingers twitching by their sides.
They say the apocalypse is coming. In five years, they estimate, a meteor will strike the earth and wipe it clean of life. He wonders if it has not come already. Not by fire and smoke but a commuter contagion; this, the human condition, made better for a few minutes each morning by the birds in the sky, the distant glimpse of a dream in the clouds.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2015 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved
Aislinn crawls under her covers, which feel cold against her skin, like her mother’s lips on wintry mornings when she kisses her goodbye for school. Goosebumps prickle her arms but she is not uncomfortable; she is in bed, the place of dreams and sleep and snug familiarity, and there is no discomfort in these things. Besides, the bed will grow warm quickly. It does so every night. At least, it has done every night beforehand.
Small fingers in the darkness find her bedcovers. Dragging the cotton sheets up her body to beneath her chin, she glances one last time across her room. This is her bedroom. Her private place, where she can host tea parties, entertain her dolls and read eagerly from glossy teen magazines, secreted beneath her mattress, without fear of being judged or, worse, disarmed.
The curtains flutter. Her rocking-horse creaks. From across the room, her Gameboy console flickers briefly into life. For one moment its blue light illuminates her shelf of smiling dolls – she sees Molly, Blossom, Lady Honeypaw, clutching tight the jar of her namesake – then it cuts out again. The room falls still.
She is half-asleep now. Her eyes are closing and she is drifting off. Her legs slip either side of her bedcovers, relishing the feel of them, the coolness against her skin, and in this half-sleep state she wishes for a bedtime story. Her thumb finds her mouth, as it always does when she is in bed and it is dark. Her thumb precludes dreams and sleep and a snug familiarity.
She wishes for a bedtime story. She wishes so very hard.
Her mother hasn’t read to her this evening. She can hear her some nights, through the floor, laughing with her father; the sounds of glasses clinking, of shrieks and the murmur of the television. Her mother reads less and less of late. Aislinn isn’t sure why. She sucks harder on her thumb, coats the digit in a glistening layer of saliva, and wishes her mother would read to her again, like she used to, like before.
The flutter of the curtains. The creak of the rocking horse. And another sound, like a crying dog, from somewhere nearby. She leans forward, peers over her crumpled covers, searching for its source. Her eyes scan her bedroom: the wardrobe, the night stand, the shelf where her dolls sit, glassy eyed, their lips stitched into beatific smiles. She knows those smiles. They are ‘supposed-to’ smiles. She wears them often enough.
And then she sees them. Three figures, no taller than Aislinn herself, standing quite still next to her mirror, beside the chest of drawers. She isn’t sure how long they have been standing there, hidden in plain sight by the dark. She doesn’t suppose it matters. Clutching her covers, her heart begins to race inside her chest.
Stepping through the darkness, they approach her silently. Perhaps they have come from the mirror, she thinks, or birthed from the shadows, or the fluffy insides of the dolls. The shadows cling to them like veils. Shrouded in blackness, they seem inscrutable, except for their whimpers, like Toby when he would trap his tail in the kitchen door. They smell like Toby too; wet fur, hot breath, rotten scents ill-fitting with their spirited movements.
They all three sweep towards her, limping across the bedroom floor, and she shrinks hurriedly into her covers, warmer now, infused with that sleepy smell. She takes a deep breath and, for one moment, the figures are forgotten for that smell.
Then they are around her bed.
They lean over the sheets, their chipped nails dragging delicately across the covers. Swathes of lace – or it might be lank hair – hang from their pencil-thin arms, and it is only when the first leans down, into Aislinn’s face, that she notices they wear veils, like those princesses from the animated films she loves to watch on Saturday mornings. Except they are like no princesses she has ever seen, and certainly no prince would ever march to save them, or slay a writhing serpent in their honour. She is a tight ball of trembling limbs beneath the covers.
Something thick and bulbous presses against the veil of the first; a tongue, long and swollen like a pale leech, and she wonders if these three are not the serpents themselves, in wicked disguise, come to claim her with their scaly claws. Her mouth opens, to shout, to cry, except no sound escapes her lips –
The curtains flutter, the rocking horse creaks and the three crones shudder to a stop. For a moment they seem to stare at each other through the murkiness of their veils. Then they spin slowly on their heels.
Something is happening to the rocking horse. It sways forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards, steadily at first but with increasing pace, just like it does when she mounts it. The dolls are twitching too, their legs swinging, button eyes blinking. Then, with deliberate slowness, the horse’s broad, white neck curves round. It whinnies, snorts a steamy breath, and its pearly black eyes fix themselves onto the Harridans.
They all three whine in unison. A long, twisting horn winds its way from out of the rocking-horse’s forehead, and then it is no longer a rocking-horse but a proud stallion, thickly-muscled and fierce. His solitary horn shines silvery and hard in the moonlight and even from across the room she can count the age-rings, smooth and marbled, on its surface.
He paws her bedroom carpet, strikes the fabric with his hooves, and snorts steamily again until he has the crones’ attention. He is her defender, she realises, wiping away the tears from her eyes. Even though she has not ridden him for a long time now, he remembers her hands on his neck. He remembers her weight on his back, her legs pressed tight to his sides, and he will fight for her.
The crones stagger with horrid purpose towards him. Shadows bleed from beneath their arms and the long strips of lace that hang there, and with every step closer to the horse their lamenting wails intensify.
Aislinn shrinks further beneath her covers as, with a dreadful lurch, the first crone reaches the stallion. He whinnies and rears up as she draws near, shining hooves pedalling beside the toy-box. The crone cowers on the floor before him and for a moment it looks as though the stallion might triumph, his eyes two glistening marbles in the dark.
Then the other two reach his sides. Their lamenting cries made all the more horrible for what they are about to do, they claw him, their fingers shearing long, thin rashers from his flanks. Cackling and weeping they bury their fingers deeper into his pale coat, drawing blackness from within, only this blackness is wet and drips from their hands to stain the carpet below. He throws back his head, his eyes rolling. Giddy sounds erupt from his throat.
One by one her dolls drop from the shelf. The room fills with soft sounds as they hit the carpet, then the patter of their boots as they rush across the floor. Reaching up they tug at the crones, grasping the strands of lace and hair, pulling them back from the horse with Lilliputian might. She sees Molly and Blossom, their stitched lips pursed tight, and feels hope again.
With a voiceless heave, they bring one crone to the ground. She screams as she topples into the sea of smiling faces, her grey dress floating around her. They grab the dress and pin her down, Lady Honeypaw climbing triumphant onto her chest. She upends her pot of honey over the veiled face.
The last crone scatters her assailants. She snatches them up, tears them in two and tosses them away. Stuffing spills from their broken bodies, buttons plink across the room, then she returns her hands to the steed.
He stumbles. Aislinn feels him fall and she trembles. Screams judder from his throat and he sinks down to his knees, the toy-box shattering beneath his bulk. Its contents scatter across the carpet. Sheared flesh covers the broken dolls, blood splashes their button eyes and then the stallion’s mane darkens, until it might have been one of the scouring pads her mother uses to scratch out dirt from the sink. The stallion lies still amid her toys.
The crones regroup and turn, together, to her bed. She trembles harder beneath her sheets. Her eyes brim with tears again, although she is otherwise motionless, frozen by a mixture of fear and something else, something strange, a feeling of familiarity. Downstairs, all is silent. Her mother and father must have gone to bed. She has no brothers or sisters. Toby is long gone now, ‘to be with the angels in the sky,’ though she knows he really occupies a shallow hole in the back garden, behind the roses. She remembers dank soil, his short fur and cold flesh.
As she drags her covers over her, so that only her eyes are visible, she realises she knows these crones. They are her long-dead dog, her slain steed, every bedtime without stories; fears made half-physical in the dark and the night. She sees something of herself in the crones’ withered forms; and her mother and her grandmother, and realises they are not just crones but brides, manifestations of age and motherhood, come to claim her at last, as they must claim all growing girls –
The three rise up once more around her bed. They lean in close, and even through her covers, their salty breaths catching in her throat. It seems like everything warm, everything nice, everything she knows is good and right, is swallowed up by the black void of their veils. Their fingers rise to their veils, clasping them even as their other hands brush Aislinn’s covers. For a moment their hands hover there. Then, with one quick motion, they tear the delicate net cloth from their faces.
A scream fills Aislinn’s mouth. It fills her bedroom too, piercing even the blackest shadows as she looks upon the faces of the brides. Then the brides are gone and she is sitting up in the darkness, her mother rushing to her side, concern and sleep in equal measures in her eyes.
Slowly Aislinn calms down. Her mother switches on lights and reads to her. After a while, her breathing steadies. Her eyes regain a languid glaze. Guided by her mother’s words, she sinks back into her bed; that place of dreams and sleep and snug familiarity, except not so familiar any more.
Unable to place what has changed, in a room that has not, she drifts uncertainly back to sleep and dreams of riding down the aisle atop a snorting stallion, delicate lace trailing after her, a thin net veil before her face.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2015 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved
The Number Forty-Nine lurches as it pulls away from the curb. Hydraulics hiss, and through the settling fog Max makes out brake lights, blinking indifferently in the drizzle. Teeth clenched, he gives chase, struggling against the stream of evening commuters.
Men and women obscure his way, laden with laptop cases and rucksacks, lost in their cell phones, oblivious to all but the hot jargon blowing from their mouths. He breaks from the crowd in time to see another flash of faltering brake lights in the fog. Then the bus slides into the haze and is gone.
Frustration flares inside him, to be swallowed by a void of overwhelming helplessness. Running a hand through his wet hair, he wishes again that he had left the office earlier. There had been a team brief. That file he could not leave unfinished, the conversation with Frederick in the meeting room, it all seems meaningless now in the absence of his lift home. The rain picks up, driving him to take cover beneath the bus shelter. A mad whinny, perhaps the screech of car tyres, fills the street.
In the wake of the six-ten, the shelter is abandoned. Max takes a seat on one of the benches, then stands and wanders over to the timetable. Graffiti obscures the arrival times beneath green stars and ugly swear-words. The next bus might be ten minutes or forty. His shoulder finds the metal post, cold but supportive, and for a moment he is tempted to wait. With a little luck he could be home within the hour.
The thought no sooner enters his mind when he turns up his collars, steps out beneath the sky, and makes for the nearest Underground station. Luck has not been on his side today.
The rain is merciless, and in moments he is drenched. His navy jacket darkens, his white shirt clinging to him like a second transparent skin. The commuter current drags him along.
The street blurs around him. Men and women become base silhouettes; shadows of people glimpsed in his periphery. Shapes sag, stooped against the weather, darkening like his jacket, and it is easy to imagine the rain is responsible; soaking the street, weighing it down, waterlogging the pavement and the people forced to use it. The fog lingers around the road, a blank canvas into which the silhouettes vanish, or reappear suddenly, chased into sight again by headlights and the breathy snort of car engines.
The entrance to the Underground yawns ahead. The current pulls him closer, and even though it is raining, and the station is his destination, he cannot help the wave of panic that crashes over him. Bodies press closer as the stream narrows; flesh and blood and corporate bones digging into his ribs, knocking his shoulders, finding the small of his back. As he approaches the turnstiles, he fumbles in his wallet for the monthly pass that will activate them. Then he is through them, and stepping onto an escalator.
He hates the Underground. If the city’s streets are its thumbprints then these subterranean channels are surely the bare soles of its feet; cankerous, black with grime and ripe with trapped human smells. He detects sweat, and smoke, and the imagined flavour of despair in this place where people crowd and the wind cannot reach –
Despair, but not darkness. Fluorescent strip bulbs line the ceilings, built into the brick or guarded behind strips of wire-mesh, their harsh light as merciless as the deluge outside, every cracked tile, every broken bottle, every billboard plastered with adverts illuminated in the unforgiving brightness. More graffiti covers one of the tunnel walls, language and art reduced to expletives in this place where there is no air and it is never dark –
A train roars through the station without stopping, and he realises he’s standing on the platform. He doesn’t remember stepping from the escalator or escaping the current, but he is here. Carriages shudder past, axles rocking, and he finds rhythm in their terrible speed. He thinks of carousels, and their bobbing steeds, and the motion of real steeds thundering across open fields with nothing but the breeze in their manes and the vast empty sky overhead for company. He used to ride, when he was little and he would visit his grandparents in Sussex.
He knows what it feels like, to take off with an animal and say goodbye to everyone and everything left behind. He didn’t appreciate it then, of course, but increasingly he has been remembering it now. He clings to the memory, covering himself with it, drawing it into him, soothing against his tired skin.
The times on the electronic board inform him that his train is due. He hears it first, its arrival announced by something halfway between a sigh and a mechanical scream. Then the carriages slide into view and he finds himself stepping on-board and finding a seat.
The inside of the carriage is no less bright than the rest of the station. Each seat is mostly plastic, with a covering of something intended to be softer. Stains and daily wear have made the fabric almost unidentifiable. He finds a seat at the far end, slightly away from the other passengers, as the train sets off again.
Alone, he stares at his reflection in the glass window opposite him. In the blackness of the tunnel, the window is a mirror. The harsh light is as unforgiving to his face as it was to the rest of the station. The bags under his eyes are heavy and dark, his skin pale, lips tight. Any traces of humour have been banished by the missed bus. Any traces of youth have been drained by the long day. He thinks again of his grandparents’ house in Sussex, and the horses in their stables, and the young boy who rode them. Eagerly, perhaps desperately, he searches his reflection, looking for some sign that his younger self lives yet, somewhere inside.
“Where are you?” he asks, watching the slight movement of his lips. “Where are you now?”
Lights flash behind the speeding carriage windows, and for a moment he thinks he sees something else through the glass; a horse’s head, thrown back, lips speckled with froth and blood. The glass clouds with hot breath as another giddy scream fills his ears. Then the train is slowing again, and he realises it is braking. Standing, he moves towards the door.
The rest of the carriage is empty. He does not know how long he has been sitting here, or which station they are pulling into. The name of their destination appears on a small screen above the connecting doors but the letters swim in and out of focus. Rubbing his eyes, he fumbles for the button that opens the carriage doors and disembarks.
The platform is similarly empty. He moves slowly towards the stairwell, possessed by the insane notion that he is on an abandoned film set after hours. His life up to this point feels like an act, a supporting part in someone else’s show, or less than that; a walk-on role for which he is not even acknowledged afterwards. He repeats his name to himself, to prove that it is real and it is his. The word echoes around him.
He is at the bottom of the stairs when he hears another sound in the station. Turning, he cranes his head. He is still alone, but the sound is clearer now, growing louder from the darkness either side of the empty train: the casual clatter of hooves against metal.
A part of him is drawn to the darkness of the tunnel. It seems an impossible thing here, where the harsh lights are unfaltering. In darkness there is comfort; respite enough from the rest of the world to draw real breath and find relief. It would be an easy thing, to wander to the edge of the platform and climb down. Then he hears the clip-clop of hooves again, and heavy breaths. When two white eyes appear, floating in the gloom, he turns and flees.
The steps are slippery, or perhaps it is his haste that makes him trip and fall. With delayed dream-momentum he stumbles away, up the stairs and the escalator long since switched off for the night. He races past the turnstiles, all set to open, and into the night-time street.
He does not stop running. He cannot remember ever having run so fast or with such wild abandon. Nor is he quite sure what he’s running from. He cannot see his pursuer but he hears its snorts, feels the warmth of its breath on his face and in his mouth. He tastes blood and sugar-cubes. Puddles shatter underfoot.
It has stopped raining, at least. The fog has lifted, too, the city glistening as though iced. He races faster through the streets, sometimes stumbling, other times reaching new found speeds, but the alleyways are never-ending. He wonders if he could run forever and still not escape, if there will always be another road, another side-walk, another set of street-lights illuminating his face, casting shadows beneath his eyes.
Headlights turn into the road ahead, and through a different kind of fog he remembers something; lateness, another run, the bus he should have caught to take him home. Lowering his head, he gives chase. The wind tousles his hair. The sound of his shoes marries with that of hoof-beats in the night.
It might be the same bus and it might not; the detail does not seem remotely relevant anymore. Exhilaration presses at his ribs, his belly, running like electricity through his limbs.
He remembers other missed buses, and board meetings in which his colleagues may as well have been speaking different languages. He remembers missing files and the inane chatter that spills from Frederick’s mouth whenever his colleague corners him in his office. He remembers the helplessness that consumed him, when he realised that he had missed his lift home. But he is not helpless now. In the cold night, with the wind in his hair and his eyes, he feels free.
The bus is slow, and in moments he has caught up with it. As he pulls parallel to the vehicle, he catches sight of his reflection again in the row of windows and finds himself changed. Slabs of muscle in his legs ripple with each stride, a vast belly swinging beneath him, hooves striking fiercely against the ground: Great Nyctaeus, reborn of this modern Hades!
Moonlight picks out his monstrous shape in majesty; slender but powerful as he thunders onwards. His eyes gleam like two pearls in his head. He glances once more at the windows, tossing back his broad neck. Pink foam from his muzzle flecks the glass.
A dream flits through his head: the sight of an open field beneath empty skies. Then it is gone again. Charging ahead, nostrils flaring, he chases the night through dark satanic streets.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2015 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved
The forest is starving. Overhead the sun dies, bathing the branches in the pink glow of dusk. Walkers do well to avoid these parts but John knows them like the lines of his own face. His trade depends on them. Allerwood Jam sells as far as Netley, so it seemed only natural that his wife and he should move close to the forest’s borders, when they finally decided to settle down. They first met picking raspberries in the bracken behind what is now McCready’s farm. Grace loves natural produce at least as much as he does. Out here, on the outskirts of the village, they are free to live a quiet life, largely separate from the rest of Lynnwood. Almost twenty years later, they have not looked back.
The ground crunches beneath his boots as a wind sighs through the trees, rustling the few leaves and testing the branches. Their creaks carry on the air, a hundred groans bringing the forest to uneasy life. Knotted faces with deep grooves stare at him from the hollows of trunks and on more than one occasion he fancies he sees movement through the black glassy trees. The trees are weary of the winter and he is no different. He can hear it in their creaks as surely as he feels it in his own bones. Stepping around a bend in the path, he emerges into a small clearing.
This is one of his private places. There are several, in the vicinity, from where he harvests fruits and berries the year round: rhubarb in the spring, blueberries and raspberries when summer is high and blackberries in autumn. Sometimes, if the winter is mild or he gets to them early, he finds apples too, but not often, and not this year. This year there is only cold, and death.
He found the rabbit not far from here, almost two weeks ago. Ribs had pressed visibly against its thin underbelly, its black eyes trapped behind a layer of frost. One of its paws had snapped clean off. This in itself was not shocking; he has grown used to such sights over the years. It was the sudden similarities between this dead thing and his daughter that had weighed heavily on him.
The ground is sparse, save a carpet of thin roots, winding their way into the earth. Moving to the edge of the clearing, where the barren undergrowth makes something of a return, he begins his hunt. He cultivates beetroot here, where the shade is weak in the day. The root is hardy, even against the bitter frost. He slips a knife from his long overcoat pocket and begins to scrape at the soil. His fingers are white, or blue. It is hard to tell in the fading light.
He will find the beetroot and return home, before the coldness truly sets in. He left the house first thing this morning and hasn’t seen Bianca since last night, when he tucked her in for bed. He thinks of the rabbit again, and shivers.
Bianca loves beetroot and he won’t disappoint his little one so close to Christmas. Boiled, pickled, in sandwiches and on salads. He would bring her an armful, if he could find it, to keep her strength and her weight up. For several minutes he goes on, his efforts fruitless. The leaves are here but he cannot break through the earth to the taproots. Determined, he takes to stabbing the soil with the knife-blade.
A flash of purple leaps from the earth. His hopes leap with it, only to be dashed when the thing squirms violently from his touch. The fat worm lingers for a moment before burrowing away. The encroaching cold nips at his flesh as, wrapping his overcoat tight around him, he rises from the ground. It is too late now. He will have to return tomorrow, with daylight and a spade, and dig properly.
His teeth chatter, his breath white on the air, as he turns and strides from the clearing, alone except for thin trees and thinner shadows stretching from their trunks.
Grace’s breath clings to the window; a delicate whiteness that turns the glass pane foggy. Her eyes crease then soften as a shadow at the forest’s edge steps out towards her cottage. Its confident stride bears it purposefully closer and she fancies she can see John’s face; the warmth of his brown eyes, his sleek black hair and delicate lips, offset against that proud jaw.
The wind howls, the trees shiver and the man is but a shadow again.
She turns from the window as Bianca’s bedroom door swings open. The cottage is old, its layout mostly confined to the ground floor. There is an attic, where they store furniture, and a small basement filled with their jams. When Bianca is older they might have to address the issue of space but, for now, the build suits them well.
“And what are you doing up, young lady?”
“I had a dream.”
Her daughter stumbles sleepily into her arms. Her pajamas are deceptive but, pressed against her, she is as hard as ice. Bones protrude where there should be soft flesh as she trembles in Grace’s arms. Kneeling down slowly, she reaches out to sweep the hair from the girl’s eyes.
“Let’s get you some blankets to warm you with.”
“No, I’m not cold!”
“Well let’s find some blankets anyway, for me, then. You can tell me about your dream.”
“I was lost in the forest.”
“And what were you doing out in the forest on your own?” she asks, carefully pulling the throw from the sofa. Bianca stands unmoving while she drapes the throw around her daughter’s shoulders.
“I was looking for Dad. It was dark but I could see everything below me clearly. I felt like I was flying.”
“Did you find him?”
“No, but I saw other things, moving between the trees. Swarming like ants, or the spiders you sweep from under my bed. All arms and legs and they were covered in blood –”
“But they were, and when they looked up their eyes were wide and white, so white –”
“Nightmares aren’t real,” she comforts, leading the child over to the glowing fireplace. “And besides, your father will be back soon.” The fire smolders in the hearth. Chunks of charcoal bake in its embers. Already the girl is starting to feel warmer in her arms. “Forget it all, it was just a bad dream.”
“It wasn’t bad.”
“It wasn’t a bad dream. I could feel everything, like it was all me. I was in the trees and the ice and the blood of the things below –”
“Cold but hungry –”
“Stop, Bianca. That’s quite enough of that.”
They sit together by the fire for a while longer, toasting their hands and feet, before she sends the girl back to bed. Not until the bedroom door clicks shut does she move, returning from the crackling fireplace to her previous post at the window. Snow has started falling, blanketing the night-time forest in a crisp white cape. Although she has stood at the window a hundred times before now, she decides the forest looks different tonight. She sends a thought to John, wandering somewhere beneath the old aller trees. She wishes he would hurry up. The beet doesn’t matter anymore. There are other days to forage. It will do more harm than good for him to linger in the dark.
He will be home soon, if he picks up his pace. In a matter of minutes he could find himself looking across a steaming casserole and a generous pint into Grace’s face. Even after twenty-two years, she is no less beautiful than the first day they had met.
He has always felt different to other people. The world is moving faster than he can keep up with. Their traditional ways are almost dead, but the village offers some respite. Here, between the trees, they are free to be themselves. Grace understands this. Tired, hungry and alone in the cold, he has never missed her more.
The wind whines through the treetops, carrying with it a flurry of snow and ice and something else that Midwinter’s evening. He turns in time to see an owl as it soars overhead.
The bird is beautiful. It glides silently, like a ghost, its creamy feathers stark against the blackness of the night sky. There are not many left, now, here or anywhere; ghosts in more than just appearance. Perhaps the cold has driven it here. Perhaps its business is not so different to his own. The night-time forest is full of hunters and their prey.
He is about to resume walking when another shape catches his eyes. Pale against the black night and thin enough that he had taken it for outstretched branches, the silhouette springs from a tree onto the passing bird. The owl’s scream pierces the woods as it is snatched from the sky.
A mass of shadows erupts from the undergrowth around him. Limbs flail like leafless branches, skeletal and pale in the moonlight. Moans of relief rise over desperate gasps. He turns to run, but makes no more than a few steps before long fingers find his neck. They are a woman’s hands, stained red, reminding him of Grace’s fingers, all those years ago, their tips coloured bright with raspberries. Then other hands grasp his arms and the softness of his stomach and he crumples to the earth, blanketed by a frenzy of feverish activity.
Grace has just set a saucepan of water to boil when something scuttles overhead. She shouts as she jumps, knocking the pan to the floor. Warm water spills out, running quickly into the wooden cracks, but her attention is fixed on the ceiling. There is movement in the attic; a definite scrabbling, as though something small is seeking entry to the house. If the squirrels are back, there will be blood on her hands this evening.
Bianca does not seem to have woken, at least. She offers a silent prayer of thanks. It would do the girl’s childish imagination no good to hear the noises petering down from the above.
After a minute of silence she stirs, and in ten steps has retrieved a broom from the utilities cupboard. The broom feels reassuring in her grasp, like it belongs with her, and she it. There isn’t much in the world she can’t shift with this broom, she reminds herself, or else beat senseless. Moving to stand beneath the attic trapdoor, she brings her weapon of choice to bear on the old wood.
Three thuds reverberate throughout the cottage before the trapdoor falls open and a thin ladder slides out. Peering upwards, she places a foot on the first rung.
With a splintered crash the cottage door blows inwards. The window shatters and her world with it, shards of ice and glass scattering across the room. The ceiling spins as she tumbles from the ladder to the floor, her heart hammering in her chest. The cold rushes inside and, with it, a dozen figures.
She guesses a dozen, but there might be more, the room seeming to blur around her. She does see thin arms, long-fingered hands and pale skin made pink and blue from the cold. The icy air fills her eyes and mouth, and with it the sweet tang of spoiled meat. She has smelled it once before, when their dog had crawled beneath the cottage to die three years ago.
One of them hovers by the doorway, neck stretching as it seems to scent the air. Eyes flutter as its mouth opens and in a moment of sickness she feels its hunger inside herself. The room is still spinning, her surroundings stretching, the open mouth gaping wider and wider until there is nothing else but the blackness of its throat, impossibly black, an abyssal blackness with no end.
She has heard tales of the Gluttons, had been warned about them when she was a young girl, but she had never taken them seriously. Perhaps it is the nature of the hungry, to forget. She had heard that before, too, at the Christmas market one year. Witnessing the stark truth of these bony limbs, these wasted arms and mouths dark with old blood, she knows she will never forget again.
She seems to feel their hands on her all once. The famished throw themselves over her, claiming her for their own; joined by every thumbprint, ever finger, every palm wrapped tightly around her skin. She burns with their cold touch. Light flickers overhead as faces swim before it, and she imagines the winter sun, speeding low through the sky, its dappled light fractured by the treetops. In this moment she is one with these ghouls, made whole by their beating hearts, their desperate breaths; their endless hunger on this, the longest night, when the stomachs of every man, woman and child roar in anticipation of the coming festivities.
It is their human hunger, and it is the hunger of the trees around her. Branches bite her arms, and the back of her neck as she tumbles into the cold outside. It is the ravening winter, gnawing at her eyes and hands and the soles of her feet, and the insatiable night, stripping her of sight, of self, of any awareness save that of appetite. She screams, and her voice is voracious. She howls and her song is hunger. She moans and the swarm moans with her; a chorus at once nourished by the abyss and obliterated by it. She lives and dies and feeds in the darkness.
~ Thomas Brown
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