Evening raindrops clung to a broken spider web, and fallen leaves held water like tiny crumbling cups. Silence draped across the forest; the animals fled at sunset when the sky shed its first tear. Even the carrion birds flew away, and the rodents scampered deep down into their holes.
The animals knew.
Like a drumbeat, the chill rain pummeled the forest earth, slapping a copper stench into the wind. The air glided with the taste of elder blood, careening, coating the tumbling raindrops as they soaked back within the dirt. The greedy soil drank of the tainted water, as it once drank the soup of decaying flesh, and the trees rattled as bones.
Somewhere, came a moan.
Beyond the eventual and gentle hush, the rain ceased, but the sky stayed black. No moon graced the shrouded firmament, and no starry luminosity scattered the inky air swallowing the trees. A fog crept like silky spiders, thick and velvet over the ground, obscuring earth and flora. Grey met black and swirled, mingling, melding in a darkling kiss.
And the night waited.
It waited in stillness, the breath of air grave and expectant with longing. It waited cold and cavernous, as if time gave this occasion pause. And then… past the midnight hour it stirred. A faint noise from beneath the onyx soil. Scrabbling, scratching, a shiver sound of creatures crawling, of fingernails groping through the dirt.
The ground trembled, softly, gently, as if a lover’s touch caressed it. The wind sighed, dancing among the trees and twirling with the hoary mist. Slowly, slowly, the earth gave way, in splinters and snaps and clefts of soft loam. The soil parted, cracked, and a bony hand burrowed out from beneath the world. A sallow, deformed hand smeared in grime and filth, its reaching skeletal fingers smelling of long rotted meat and crumbled skin. Strange grunts followed, and a heaving of dirt as a shoulder bone, and then a skull, pushed from under the tomb of earth into the interim of night. It crawled forward on jointed bones, hollow eyes somehow seeing, a throat void of words somehow screaming. It dragged and squirmed and writhed, this awakened remnant of what once was human, fumbling out of the dirt and standing upright. One step, then two, a stumbling walk through the woods, towing leaf and bark along its path until it escaped the confines of the forest.
There it stopped. There it shrieked.
Loud and strident, an articulation grotesque, yet wrenching in its suffering. A ballyhoo of noise to clatter the trees and jangle the ground. To echo past all the desolate unholy, far into the dark depths of the forest and beyond.
It gave voice to its eternal pain.
A single, howling voice, offered to the night…
To be answered by a thousand snarling cries.
By a thousand sounds of scrabbling and scratching.
By a thousand things digging upward.
~ A. F. Stewart
© Copyright 2017 A. F. Stewart. 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.