The Faceless Brides

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

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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