Shooting Stars

I smell the burning varnish used to coat the stalls long before I first notice that the stables are ablaze. My initial thought is that someone is having a bonfire. I sometimes light bonfires myself, when the pile of broken fence slats and posts behind the tack room grows too great. Those fires smell of burning varnish too. The chemical tang of solvent fills my throat.

After several minutes of the smell, I am drawn from the kitchen, where I was cooking myself dinner, to the conservatory. I cannot remember how I came to be standing in the kitchen, or what I was cooking, but that must have been what I was doing. It is then, as I move towards the glass, that I see the distant glow of flames in the darkness. My chest tightens, but I do not move. I can do nothing except stare, transfixed, at the uncertain orange in the night.

The house sits at the top of a hill, where it has a clear view of the paddocks and the surrounding countryside. Mine is the only house for miles around. I have seen many things, standing at the conservatory windows, but never this. Even as I watch, the flames scatter higher, the tips of their tongues licking the moon and the stars. Most of the stars have vanished. The same chemical that fills my nose and mouth gives off a dense black smoke, through which even starlight cannot shine. The stables were recoated recently, to protect them from the coming winter. The coat was fresh. The smoke makes monstrous clouds before the moon.

From the cool, bright confines of the conservatory, I might be watching a television screen, or peering through space into a different place where there is no glass, no pale spotlights, no lace doylies or marble Olympians; only blackness and heat and the savage light that comes when these two things collide. The paddocks that I have fenced off and knocked down and re-fenced for twenty years flicker ominously. Jumps and their poles cast long-legged silhouettes across the ground. The stable walls lose definition, sagging on their frames, slumping softly, cracking and becoming black before drifting hotly on the wind; new stars, made for a blacker, more noxious night.

I realise that I should call the fire brigade. The telephone is in the hallway, at the bottom of the stairs. It will take me moments to walk there, lift the handset, dial the number that will bring fire engines, but my legs will not move. Even before I hear the screams, I know it is already too late.

The wild sounds stir me to movement. My hand slides to the key on the coffee table. Automatically I open the door and wander outside. The wind is strong. I can feel it against my face, see it as it toys with the flames. The taste in my mouth is poisonous, the breeze cold, my cheeks wet. I realise I am crying.

I first see them as I wander down the hill. It is not a long walk from my house to the stables, but it feels like forever in the darkness. I marvel how anything can burn for so long and not be consumed. I wonder if time is passing or if I have died and am forced to endure this endless conflagration forever.

The first of the horses bursts like a fireball from the stables. A bright orange mane of another kind streams from its hair and back. It does not seem like my horse anymore; this burning mass of muscle, fat, bone and primal terror. I cannot see its eyes at this distance, but I know they are white, its mouth frothing, if the froth has not been scorched away.

A second animal tumbles madly in its wake. It emerges from the next stall but does not make it far before crumpling to the ground. The smell on my tongue accrues a meatiness that is not altogether distasteful. Licking my lips, I turn to the hedgerow and dry-heave.

Three more of the horses scatter like cinders into the night. Theirs is the screaming; fire-song composed of ash and agony. I realise that I should call the fire brigade. The telephone is in the hallway, at the bottom of the stairs. I wonder if I have died, and found my way to Hell. Over and over, the giddy screams of the horses pierce my ears.

My feet guide me to where the nearest of the horses fell. It does not look like a horse anymore; reduced to a smoking heap of charred blackness. There are glistening spots, which I assume are bone or some other internal structure made liquid and shining by the heat, and protruding sticks that might once have been its forelegs. The wood-fires behind the tack shed go much the same way, when they burn themselves out. The iron nails that once held the fences together grow black and white and twitch like slim maggots. Perhaps the horse and the nails are not so dissimilar after all. Perhaps we are none of us so different; metal, flesh, warped wood and old bone made up of the same base structures, atoms and molecules revealed now, unmasked by firelight, released by heat into the sky, stardust to stars again, like barbequed meat on my tongue!

At some point, when the fires reach their zenith and begin to quieten, I find myself walking back up the hill. In the hallway, at the bottom of the stairs, I lift the receiver and dial the fire brigade. I tell them I was sleeping, and when I woke my stables were ablaze. There is nothing else I can say.

The sight from my conservatory is much different, now. The fires have almost exhausted themselves, but there is still a bright glow, a smouldering redness in the night. I imagine it is the fire’s pulse, beating low, almost spent as it licks its lips and yawns and succumbs to death. I close the conservatory door, to keep out the cold and the smell, but the smell has already saturated the house.

Shortly, the night will fill with screams again as the fire engines carve blue flashing paths through the vast night. The darkness seems bigger now, emptier without the fire.

The smoke is thinner too, almost run out, and I can see the stars again. They wink down at me from the coldness of space, and I imagine they are my horses, some skeletal, others plump and round-bellied, running through the night, manes and tails and thundering hooves alight and glorious.

I do not think I will ever stop seeing my horses, galloping overhead. I will never forget their stench, burned into my soul and the walls of my house. And when I turn in for bed, and close my eyes, and fall asleep, I will hear their mad whinnies again; this nightmare, luminous and alive.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2014 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved

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All These Voices

The sound of the tape slides soothingly into Nicholas’ ears. Not the music itself, although that is certainly pleasant, but the mechanical whir of the reels as the tape’s innards wind through the machine. He doubts if he could write so well without the quiet whirring. He doubts if he could write at all with the noise of the world at his window and under the soles of his feet.

The pub beneath his bedsit is busy tonight. Voices slice through the floorboards as though the wooden planks do not exist. He might be sitting at the bar himself, submerged in the chorus of cries and thoughtless laughter: the White Ship on stormy, booze-wracked seas. Pouring a glass of wine he sits back in his chair and drinks.

Sometimes he can make out word-for-word the different conversations at the bar. Drunkenness seems only to increase people’s volume, as though for a few hours the fugue imparts a sixth-sense: a glimpse of more than just the pub, the street, the city, the entire world as it really is. So the patrons below shout and scream, laughing madly into their drinks, looking anywhere but the frightened whites of their friends’ eyes, the hollow blackness of their mouths; the window panes, dewy with the cold empty night.

The unmistakable pop of breaking glass shatters his reverie, followed by a collective cheer. A bottle or a pint glass, perhaps, caught by an elbow or dropped from careless fingers. Putting his feet up on the desk, he breathes in deeply through his nose. Air inflates his lungs, his chest, the narrow curves of his ribs, forcing everything else out of him and away, except for the pinkish blur behind his lowered eyelids and the gentle flutter of the cassette in the player. Exhaling, he concentrates on the sound.

It was a week after he’d moved in before he discovered the tapes, in a locked drawer under the desk. There was no key that he could find but the wood gave easily enough when forced. The drawer has not been the same since.

He found other things in the drawer, besides the tapes: yellowing sheet music scratched with skeletal notes, a ragged doll with faded red hair, a desert of seashells still coated with grit. When he had finished inspecting these things, he let the drawer keep them. As much as he loves music, he cannot read it. If he was in the doll’s place, he would not like to be brought from out of the shadows looking so sad. The shells are sharp, and he finds them repellent in the way all things decayed seem to repulse. Mostly, the drawer tells a story, and he respects that. A hundred possibilities might have led to these cast-offs finding their way into the locked confines of the desk. Who is he to disturb their tale, their private narrative?

Finishing his glass, he pours a second. The wine is cheap but not altogether unpleasant. Downstairs, the party continues to bloom.

When the noise reached new heights one evening last year, he left his room to complain to the owner. Screams echoed up the stairs and down the hallway. Shrieks ricocheted from the walls, laughter bouncing into his ears, over and over. As he moved down the corridor, he heard chanting and a count-down; a human rite reaching completion, a spell to keep another day at bay, or to guide it in, like a pale boat coming to moor. The owner – his landlord – had laughed in his face. He can still remember the bite of the sound in his chest, the cold spittle as it sprayed his cheeks. The argument had been short and one-sided. As ever, Nicholas had not won.

“Why take a room above a pub if you don’t like noise, or a drink now and then?”

“I like a drink,” he had replied. “I drink often. But there’s no excusing the disturbance tonight.”

“It’s a pub,” repeated the landlord, “and it’s New Year’s Eve, for Christ’s sake. This is where people come to make noise. If you don’t like it, you can bloody well leave.”

It is true that he likes a drink while he writes. Sometimes he celebrates a moment’s peace with a finger or two of single malt. On the nights when he cannot hope to hear himself think, let alone lift pen to paper, he knocks back whole bottles of wine; crisp, heady reds that stain his lips and dazzle his tongue before soaring to his stomach and his head. Sometimes, when he is two bottles down, he returns to the broken drawer. He imagines that he can read the music sheets, and that they are the same dulcet sounds drifting from the cassette player. If he is especially drunk, he imagines their script tells of a different sound; the last, sonorous cry of a world beset, heard by some lonely composer, a man not unlike himself, and recorded here in ink where those who chance across it might read of its agony; its submarine moans.

He did not leave, that night on New Year’s Eve, because there was nowhere else for him to go. There is nowhere else when he hears every ragged wheeze, wherever he is; the shuddering breaths of a world on the brink of expiration. As best he can remember he has always heard these sounds. He did not always know what they were, or what it meant to hear the death-rattle of the stones and the trees and the earth, but he felt them all the same, and stood slightly apart from everyone else because of this, while the others ran laughing after one another, or played hopscotch, or made daisy-chains in the grass, oblivious.

A rare few people are not quite so blind. He read about them in newspapers and on the internet, when he still wasted his time with such trivial things. These men and women scrabble through the soil, digging the earth, scattering seeds, which they hope might germinate, take root, become trees and so heal the world that other men and women have made sick. Give a dying man a cushion, feed him painkillers, sit at his bedside and pray for his soul – he will die all the same, trembling alone as the last of his sorry life departs from his veins.

Sometime after midnight the pub falls quiet enough that he can hear his tapes and write. There will always be noise, but at times like this he is not really aware of it; lost in the depths of his literature. Some men and women write to create. Others write from personal angst, or to entertain a crowd, or perhaps to remember who they are, or were at another time. Nicholas does not know much about these things except that he writes to feel.

On paper, darkness shines. Words convey savagery with the finesse of bright bouquets. Language illuminates the broken back of the world, its atrophied limbs, its eyeless face: a rotten leviathan floating in space, quivering with parasites while it sings its last whale-song through an ocean of distant stars, almost inscrutable except by those who dare to pause in their furious lives and, for a moment, listen.

The tapes whir, his pencil scratches, and something not quite happiness but more like contentment simmers in his chest, until he can write no more and, with a slight smile on his wine-stained lips, he climbs into bed, and dreams of sweet oblivion.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2014 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved