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
‘Your Winnie,’ she mutters, pressing harder with the face wipe. ‘Your dragon, your beautiful dragon girl…’
Sitting before the mirror at her dressing table, she doesn’t recognise the woman staring back at her. There is familiarity in the face, as there is familiarity to be found in anything if a person is subjected to it often enough, but that is all. Still, she keeps looking. She must look, every night, before Seth turns in for bed, desperately studying the features that emerge from beneath her makeup. The ritual of recognition is on-going.
The bedroom is dark, save for the light from the first-floor landing, which spills through the open doorway. It is easier when the bedroom is dark, as though that makes it all right; as though it is acceptable that she cannot properly see herself when she can barely see anything else. Canned laughter carries through the house, and the sound of audience applause, as Seth’s own evening ritual comes to its close. Soon he will ascend through the house, as if chasing the vestigial laughs, the sound of company, until they lead him into the bedroom and are silent.
The evening had begun like any other. Dinner was ready for when Seth returned home from work. She had cooked lamb, rubbed with rosemary and a selection of other herbs. She ate silently while he told her about his day. She nodded when encouraged, smiled when he smiled, laughed at his jokes.
He told her the lamb was nice, that his ‘dragon’s done herself proud with this one.’ They drank wine; his white, hers red. He said the white went with the vegetables. Her palate favoured the red; rich, velveteen flavours in her mouth, against her tongue. She agreed with him regardless.
Seth loves it when she agrees with him. He says it shows their unity, that they are two made into one. ‘In sickness and in health. Till death do we part. My Winnie, my fierce, beautiful dragon girl.’
She turns her attention to her lips next. Pulling a clean tissue free from the box to her right, she dabs it to her mouth, as though kissing it gently good night. Her lips have not kissed anything gently for a long time now. Seth does not like his love gentle, and on the occasions he does press his mouth against hers, it cannot be called a kiss. Once, before all this, he might have kissed her in the proper sense. There had been tenderness then; enough to tempt her from her family home into his arms.
She presses harder, then begins rubbing, until all of the lipstick is gone. Underneath, her lips are thin, and slightly raw. The tissue comes away red and streaky in her hand.
When they had both finished eating dinner, the dragon washed up while her white knight took the wine into the front room. Heat seared her hands as they dipped in and out of the sink. Drowsy with wine and the silky, sudsy water on her skin, she thought things that she had not dared to think before. ‘What ifs’ uncoiled themselves in her mind; fiery thoughts roused and riled.
Staring into her bright, shining eyes in the dressing table mirror, she remembers every slight, every wound, every wicked word intended to belittle her. This is not love, she thinks. She dares to think it again, giving voice to the doubts that have for a long time now been hatching in her head. This is not love. It was never love. She is no better off than when she left home; lost and lonely and unloved by a world that does not know the meaning of the word.
She remembers the feel of his hand against her face, the sound it makes; a ringing slap that sinks beneath the skin and seems to burn. His dragon, scorched!
She thinks of all these things, as she had thought of them at the kitchen sink, her eyes fixed firmly on the wedding ring by the taps. Her hands had moved automatically through the water, her mind caught up in a twister of realisation. So much pain, she thought, so much upset for so little; a small piece of jewellery and their names on a certificate. God, she was sure, played no part in this; an ancient force dead to the modern world. But there were yet more ancient forces, not dead but sleeping, and they stirred now, suffused with heat and hunger –
Tears cling to her long, black lashes, before breaking free and running down her face. Most of her make-up is removed now but she does not stop wiping. She covers all her face from her forehead to her neck, and with every wipe she feels more familiar, less false to her own eyes. And what eyes, she thinks, reaching to rip off her fake lashes. The lids come too, peeled clean above her sockets, revealing mad, majestic orbs underneath.
Silence falls suddenly over the house. As her opened eyes regard themselves in the mirror, she hears Seth at the bottom of the stairs. He comes perhaps to slay her with his lance, to penetrate the folds of her flesh, to pierce her in her most vulnerable place until she is stilled beneath him, and he spent.
She wipes harder, with less care, and it seems to her that every movement sloughs skin from her face. Her flesh smears like concealer, revealing new skin underneath. The tissues tire quickly, turning red and rancid in her hand. Their remains litter the dressing table, and in the mirror, her new face; sharp and scaled. His dragon girl, a woman!
He reaches the top of the stairs, and she senses him on the landing. Then she sees him in the mirror, a silhouette in the doorway. His body blocks the light.
‘You’re cold again.’
‘I’m fine,’ she says, still staring in the mirror.
‘Come off it, I can see you shivering from here.’ Seth moves into the bedroom, his silhouette reappearing by the window. The cross-framed sheet of glass stands open; the bedroom exposed to the black sky, the silver stars swallowed by that blackness so that they barely seem to shine at all. ‘What have I said about leaving this open at night?’
He is still talking but she does not hear. Time seems to stop as she considers him; not Seth but a silhouette, featureless and without meaning. He is nothing. It is nothing. She feels herself shaking as she considers what she has given to him. Every smack scalds her skin, embarrassment sears her cheeks, abuse burning between her thighs until she can barely contain the heat inside her. Her mouth stretches into a silent scream, jaws wide, like the dragons of old. Lipstick and lashes, for lamb!
‘– to make an effort. You know I love you, Winnie? Your knight in shining –’
She rushes at him through the darkness. They stumble into the en-suite, half in and out of the bedroom. His head hits the smooth white of the wash basin and he lies still beneath her. Heat spills from her mouth in hurried words.
‘Lamb,’ she breathes hotly, ‘lipstick and lashes, for lamb!’
His eyes flutter, head lolling on the linoleum, and she wonders if he can see her, if he recognises that she has changed now. Her breath rattles in her throat; a beautiful, crocodilian croak, which seems to say I am a woman and you have wronged me. Then her mouth closes around his face, jaw loose, like that of a great snake. Her teeth sink into his skin and he burns beneath her, this modern knight, this meat, this man.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2013 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture.
Just get people to stop reading them.”
– Ray Bradbury
The sexton of Barnestone Cemetery hears the hum of nearby street lamps before he sees them, lighting up the road like an airport runway. Their activation might be a nod to the whole city, which seems to shine brighter, bearing down on him and the shadows in which he stands. The darkness scatters from around him. Alone, he drowns in light.
Windows illuminate even the tallest buildings against the backdrop of night, interposed with glowing billboards, bearing pixelated faces with wide, white grins and hair the colour of gold. Skyscrapers scratch the clouds. The roads beneath are no better; red rivers of brake-lights stopping-starting by the bright glow of the street lamps, which shine harsher than any lamp should, flashing, always flashing, burning spots into his eyes, his soul, like a strip of old film reel, grown hot and ashen–
He turns sharply from the city, his hand shaking where it grips the metal gate. Flakes of black paint rub from the railings, floating slowly to the ground, as anger wells inside him. He can only imagine the sight he must make; a solitary figure, small, barely a speck on a patch of grass against the enormity of the city around him. And yet it is the little things that he misses; the stars in the sky, bedtime stories, the owls, which he had once used to watch for through the window with his father and a pair of black binoculars. Stars and stories mean different things now; glossy magazine spreads, lurid as the lights around him. The owls mean nothing at all. There are pictures online, if anyone knows to search for them, and footage from old documentaries. He even found bird bones once, inside an old oak tree. He buried them where Rowling rests, in a grave by the north gate. That which he once thought fitting now brings a lump to his tight throat.
He focuses on the flakes of paint and their delicate descent, his anger slowly settling with them. His grip on the railings relaxes. So much is dead. So much is gone. The world, the word, everything that mattered now mad, or meaningless. The old ways are almost forgotten. But he remembers. He remembers the rituals, the rites, in this place where they might still be found, if one only knows where to look.
Returning to his work, he secures the cast-iron gates with lock and key. Chains snake through the bars, which he shakes, to make sure they are secure. Moving along the railings, he repeats this at the north and south entrances. He has worked in the cemetery his whole life, as his father did before him, and is intimately familiar with the grounds. When he reaches the east gate, he does not lock it but stands and stares a little longer through the bars. The city blurs, light running down his cheeks, and it is several minutes before he comes to himself again.
With the gate ajar, he turns from the railings and walks slowly back through the headstones. Sirens scream in his ears, traffic roars, and above that the digitized voices of a hundred adverts, proclaiming their products to passers-by. He laps the graveyard twice, depositing flowers at certain graves – roses for Hawthorne, lilies for Stoker, a basket of poppies for Faulks – before turning back toward the mausoleums.
The squat, grey buildings mark the hallowed heart of the cemetery. Approaching the closest, he climbs cracked steps to the entrance. The weather has done terrible things to the architecture, which has suffered – bled marble blood – beneath electric storms and acid rain. It is still more beautiful than anything in the surrounding city. He supposes he has always seen beauty in dead, ruined things. Now he appreciates them because he must. Because there is nobody else. Because otherwise they mean nothing, and the sad, sorry world has won.
Unlocking the rusted gate, he slips inside. Strangely, it is not the cold that he first notices, or the dark, but the silence. Only his boots continue to make sound, where they scrape against smooth stone. For a minute he descends through total darkness, feeling his way along the walls. He moves slowly, so as not to slip. Fingers find grooves they have found many times before, then he sees faint light ahead; the fire from the brazier he keeps lit here. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, he steps into a small chamber. Words drift through his mind: sanctum, sepulcher, tomb. The fire paints shadow shapes across the walls.
He approaches the sarcophagus, which dominates the center of the shallow room. The cold, or perhaps the silence, prickles his skin, but he is not uncomfortable. Quite the opposite, he stares down at the lid and the human shape engraved there. It is a knightly figure; proud, learned, like no man or woman he would encounter now. People no longer talk to each other but at each other. They curse and croon; incoherent sounds for an incoherent age. Fuck flows like poetry from furious lips, except they do not know the meaning of poetry, have never heard it, never read it, can barely speak let alone read. Language is lost, buried beneath a weight of blasphemies, generations buried with it, bones broken beneath text speech, abbreviated brutality, bound conscious to the internet, the Ethernet, the Ethernot, no sense, no individuality, no life at all beyond the small black mirrors in their palms, the bright, gaudy billboards outside their apartment windows–
Movement at the bottom of the stairs makes him turn. A man is standing by the brazier. He is followed by an old woman, and moments later two more. Gradually the room begins to fill, until a dozen people stand around him. There is no need yet for conversation. He thinks they look sad, and excited, and tired, although he could just be seeing himself in their faces.
When the chamber is full and everyone still, he removes the lid from the sarcophagus. The lid is made from marble, and it takes six of them to slide it from its place. Once, he thinks, as he applies himself to the task, it was a sin to disrupt the dead. Now it is required; a necessary necromancy, such that the written word might live again, that they might read, as writing was intended to be read. Together they lower the lid through the silence, resting it carefully against the ground. Reaching through the grave dust, he places his hand in the sarcophagus. When he lifts it up, he is holding a book.
There is no speech, no revolutionary jargon or ancient incantation. It is enough that those assembled can see the book, with its worn spine, faded font and tired, tattered pages. It has been a month since they last met; a month trapped in their wayward, prostituted world, and the sight of the volume is a visible weight from their shoulders.
As he opens the book to the first pages, some people sink cross-legged to the floor. Others perch on short statues, or lean against the walls. Firelight captures attentive faces, and in that moment, seeing their eyes shining back at him, he feels one thing, so powerful it is almost overwhelming; the rare, quiet rush of relief. They are a group; his group, the last literary coven. If it is necromancy to commune with the dead, to raise written spirits from their tomes, then they are necromancers; not death-dealers or charlatans but people, just people, who would read together and remember in this graveyard, this forgotten place, this library for the dead.
“We read,” he says quietly, remembering an old quote from a book buried now beneath a grave marked Lewis, “to know we are not alone.” Then he opens his mouth, draws breath, begins reading from the pages in his hands, and twelve people listen patiently, and for a chapter or two in a cold, dark tomb know peace.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2013 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.
Heed the Tale Weaver: Celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Damned. Through May 7, 2013, upon each new post, a comment you will leave. A package of ghoulish goodies tainted with an offering from every member of the Damned awaits one fated winner – glorious books, personalized stories and eternal suffering at your feet. Now Damn yourself, make your mark below! But remember insolent ones, you must leave a comment, a “like” will not earn you a chance at our collection of depravity. Do not make the Damned hunt you down.
The babies are coming. They’re coming and Friedrich is not there. After everything they have been through; the heartache, the treatments, he is not going to miss this moment. He puts his foot down on the accelerator. The sigh of warm air from the heater blows against his face. He drives fast through the snow-flecked night.
The road seems endless. A stretch of black tarmac and black ice and black night. Eventually he sees lights. Not the moon, which is full, swollen in the sky, but other lights. City lights. He navigates the icy side-streets as only an expectant father can. Two minutes now and he’ll be home and everything will be all right. He has waited for this day for so long. He has wept at the thought of this day coming, and at the thought of it not coming, when it seemed that way. Her blood, his tears. They said she was barren. But now the day is here. One minute, if that. He brings the car round the corner, faster than he should –
A figure lopes across the road, running towards him, beside him.
There is a dull thud as it hits the driver’s side of the car. He catches it with the front wheels. Then a bump; violent, horrible, to match the feeling in his stomach, as it vanishes beneath the chassis. It might have been a dog. He only half-glimpsed it, before it was drawn under the vehicle, flailing then gone. He knew dogs didn’t flail; that helpless, human gesture, but then he had not seen it properly and a car’s wheels could do terrible things to an animal’s shape. Broken apart by wheels, a dog could flail. A dog could die –
He takes the turn and pulls into his drive. The car grows quiet beneath him. He tumbles out into the cold night, which hits him with a force; stings his face and brings sharp tears to his eyes. He moves towards the house.
It doesn’t strike him as odd that the front door is open. It saves seconds in unlocking it himself. He steps into the hallway with its long, lavender walls and family pictures: their wedding, that holiday in Morocco, Christmas with her parents last year. The hallway is cold. It is filled with night air. Why was the door open? he wonders briefly. He calls out to his wife.
Screams reach his ears. Infantile and distressed, they are the most beautiful things he thinks he’s ever heard. Almost slipping, he follows them to the front room.
His steps falter. He is unsure quite what he’s seeing. Two figures roll on the sheepskin rug. They are baby-sized with four limbs each but malformed mouths, like battered snouts. Their eyes, thin, unseeing slits, are his wife’s pale blue and each is covered in a growths of matted hair, black and slick with birthing fluid. On hearing a presence they scream and mew and roll a little faster on their backs. Short, angular limbs peddle the air.
His stomach heaves and he turns from the things to vomit. His sick splashes the expensive curtains his wife and he bought when moving in together. He is wiping his eyes when he sees the spots of red across the carpet – a heavy flow, petering out as he pursues it through the hallway, a bloody breadcrumb trail leading back into the cold dark of outside. He follows the trail; the movements of his wife, he guesses, as she sought to reach him, to escape the wolfish things that have crawled out of her.
He reaches the street. The night seems vast, as though he could drown in its depths. Struggling for breath, he follows the blood spots to the misshapen figure in the road. He realises that they would always lead here. He studies the shape, which is heaving and moaning. It rolls over, hand-paws slapping the pavement, and he stares into the face of his wife.
Lights flicker on down the street. Figures appear in their doorways, drawn, he supposes, by the sounds. His wife is crying, her jowls quivering, a whimper slipping from her throat. He begins crying too. He kneels beside his lady, taking her matted fur in her hands. He thinks of the first time they met, in a queue at the bank. Their first date on the seafront, the salty breeze in their faces. The first time he cooked for her. He tells her their babies are beautiful, and that their curtains are ruined.
He smells salt now, but it is coppery and rank. A crowd is forming, shapes drawing closer. The vastness of the sky is replaced by a pressing constriction, formed by the figures around them.
He smells other things too. His wife’s blood, the stench of exhaust fumes, the hot wetness of animal breaths. He hears panting and the slop of tongues against teeth. Under the light of the moon he sees his neighbours, his friends, their snouts long, eyes shining in the moonlight.
Kneeling over his wife he takes her in his arms, to cover her, to protect her from the circling beasts, before realising his hands are also paws. His flesh is covered with hair, his teeth long and sharp in his mouth.
He hears a mewling again. His ears twitch, rising to attention. He turns, smelling blood and urine, and finds their neighbour walking towards them. She moves upright as a person and is fully clothed, but sloped eyes bridge her face, her muzzle glistening in the moonlight. In her arms she carries their two children, struggling in that way all new-born babies do, when first faced with the enormity of the world. As she approaches him, one of his neighbours howls. Another joins it, then another, until the city fills with the haunting sounds.
The pups are deposited against his flanks. Beneath him, his wolf-wife turns her face and smiles. Then she shudders and expires. The wolves continue to howl, their cry at once celebratory and mournful. They sing of life and death, blood and heat, the earth and the sky, and the night sings back at them.
~ Thomas James Brown
© Copyright 2012 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.