I’m delighted to have my dark fiction story ‘Patterned in Ebony‘ published today at Gobblers & Masticadores. This is my contributor’s post for December. As always, a big thank you to editor Manuela Timofte for trusting in my work.
Gobblers & Masticadores is a wonderful online magazine of poetry and prose with a new post almost every day. I would thoroughly recommend trying it.
We plumbed forever’s depths, mined eternity’s fields, tipped our caps to infinity, and came to one startling revelation: Death was the end.
Kara and I closed our eyes together, holding hands as we always did. Sleep soon came. But unlike those times when one awakens to a glimpse of an imagined world that pops out of existence, out of memory, out of reach, this was the beginning and there was no forgetting.
The stars swirled around us, we the centre of our own galaxy. Residual particles sparkled in the vermillion and cobalt light like so many gems in a universal crown, those remnants of the beginning. This place was a tangible, sensual revelation, and we smiled for the first time since the sombre policeman said, “Missing.”
“Do you think?” asked Kara. Her wide eyes implored. Her fingers grasped.
There was no ‘How?’ or ‘We?’ or even a surprised ‘Oh!’, just a complete acceptance of being together here, now, in this place.
I shrugged, for words were never my friends.
We soaked ourselves in splendour, familiarised ourselves with every speckled area of night. Then, once we’d appraised everything, like a compass pointing the way, moved.
We flew. With our hands clasped together and hearts already one, we flung ourselves into heaven. Our search had begun.
To explain what we saw, what we felt, would relive the disappointment of losing it, and we’d already lost our everything, but after all reality’s magnificence, we came to another place. An un-reality, one might’ve termed it, though it felt more real than the blood in our veins.
The cosmos is darkness made magic, but darkness, nevertheless. This place, this domain, however, was only darkness. Light was as foreign here as an ant in the Arctic.
“Where?” she said.
I shook my head.
This absolute darkness folded around us, sucked us into itself as grapes pushed into jelly. There was no pain, nor fear of it, just acceptance. We moved from one plane to the next. We sped through this nothingness with more hope than ever, for it is what you don’t see, not what you do, that offers possibilities. Then we arrived, and she was there.
Little Corrine sat upon her knee like she once did on Kara’s. The child giggled. It broke my heart again.
“No!” screamed Kara at the top of her lungs; the darkness snatched it away.
She saw us then, not Corrine, our sweet girl, but her hostess, her keeper, Death.
I like most had expected the Reaper to tower in dreadful, skeletal manliness. I was wrong. I was so wrong!
Death wore the visage of the afterlife, porcelain and wan. Her tumbling hair glittered a raven waterfall. Her form shamed all other goddesses and queens. The ghost of all ghosts, she appeared in her sable litheness. And then she opened her eyes.
They held everything and nothing at once. All that had passed and all that would come in all its manifested sadness. She bore its brunt. Knew it all. And she did it for us, for everyone, and more so for our darling Corrine.
“It’s not fair,” wept my Kara. “It’s just not fair.”
I pulled her closer.
“At least we know.”
“But we don’t know how?”
“We don’t need to, my love. She’s safe now. That’s all that matters. No one could care for her more.
We awoke together as we had fallen asleep. Our only regret, our one misfortune, that she’d never known us there.
The alarm clock makes a mess of the morning, drowning out the blackbirds and scaring away the crows. A fire engine charges off to douse angry flames. A police car wails its siren song; attentive thieves stop to listen, whilst I carry on dreaming by design.
I hold the cosseting darkness close, bathe in its obsidian cool, feel it course through my veins as liquid night. There are no stars, no moon, no higher angels here, just an ever-stretching moment sandwiched between last and next. I squeeze my eyes tight as a shrink-wrapped shroud, but the reason for this preservation slips away.
There are still brief moments of lucidity where golden dawns merge to cerulean days and the nights are nothing but places to lay one’s head. They are rare, flashes of a past once lived, and most days I turn my back to them. But not today. Today is special. It’s the day I wait for every week.
I dress in my Sunday best even though it’s a Thursday. The weightless white lilies lay across my outstretched arms like a tightrope walker’s pole, offering a balance I should otherwise lack. In this fashion, foot before foot, I make my way there.
The deserted cemetery mires in a morose nod to the forgotten. How I wish it would laugh and sing, awaken.
I follow the well-worn path through these winding monuments to other people’s memories in search of one of my own. It is the last stone of the last row of an extension abutting a hedge. Ready for a quick getaway, I tell myself.
A quick glance and I lay my flowers and leave, passing the same woman who tends her mother’s grave every Thursday. We often smile, nod even, but today she offers some words.
“Back again,” she says. It is not a question.
I nod, unwilling to risk more.
“A family member?”
She pauses as if to say more might offend me, but her desperation for contact wins over. “A parent?”
She looks aghast as I shake my head.
I repeat the gesture and make to move away, my cheeks reddening.
I am already weeping when I turn to say, “Me.”
My eyes rest most mornings, my heart too. I have never loved and never grieved. Some might claim me dead to the world, and the world dead to me. I lay flowers at a grave I have paid for in advance, near a woman who does not know my name. One day, I shall lay there as I have practiced here. One day, she shall do the same.
I pretend to sleep until the day takes over, testing myself against an overly loud alarm and a window open to the world. This is my ritual, my darkening of the mind. I block out all that would disturb me and ponder the woman in the cemetery, she who the flowers are truly for. It is a meditation of sorts. I dream by design in the hope I’ll be ready when we meet on equal terms. For ghosts may pass and smile and chat, but only in death be together forever.
She buried my body deep beneath the winter snow. There, where autumn’s rotting foliage tickled at my face and branches aplenty dug into my naked flesh, I festered. The dead do that, fester. What else is there to do?
There is being cold and being of the cold. The former is remedied by a cardigan or two, an extra pair of socks, or a berth by the fire, whereas the latter, now, this is something altogether more chilling. There is nothing one can do but succumb. I lay immobile as the mycorrhizae tied my body in knots, just waiting to emerge as fungi bearing my deceased features. To think some sweet child might turn over a log to my unyielding, sunken flesh instead of a house for a gnome, disgusted. No, this would not do.
Spring came in a burst of sound and a sudden blast of warmth. Even deep below my now melted mantle, where the light failed to illuminate, it still infused. And I was infused with an unshakable desire to escape. Yet, earth is earth, and dead is dead, and I was going nowhere. For now, anyway.
This particular summer grew so hot it burnt the flowers and scorched the ground. Birds stopped singing to conserve energy. Worms hid, preferring a possible drowning on those rare days the heavens wept to certain incineration. As for mankind? The hum of their air conditioning rattled my crumbling bones.
Winter returned. It was a mild affair, never having quite got over the Saharan months. Green remained long into the white season. Leaves fell only when bored. The soft soil invited excavations. Three badgers and a fox later, I was out.
Release is a dish best served once. To have sampled another would have lessened the effect of the first. I had no desire for diluted freedoms.
I rose from the ground like vapour from a pond, slipping through the woods unnoticed, through the city streets, back home. She was there.
I came upon her suddenly like a sea fret localised to her bed. “Why?” I demanded, my voice rising and falling like the sea I affected.
“George? Is that you?”
She sat up and put her glasses on. Her dentures remained in the bedside glass.
“Why did you kill me, bury me, forsake me? Why?” By now I was closer to a wailing gale. The curtains flapped. The walls shook. A black-and-white photo of our wedding day smashed on the floor.
“Because you were dead.”
“You buried me in a wood beneath the snow like a dog.”
“Not this again!” She almost shook her wig off.
“It’s what you wanted!” she exclaimed.
“But you killed me, you Babylonian whore.”
“Life killed you, George. You were ninety-six. You couldn’t handle it anymore. It had to happen sooner or later.”
What residue of my mind remained dizzied. I felt a vortex tug at my feet, sucking me down, down, down. This, my one chance for revenge, threatened escape, and I redoubled my efforts. “I… must… kill… you…”
“I wish you’d kill me,” said the clean-shaven young man who emerged from under the covers. “She is.”
With that, I vanished back to the cemetery in the woods and the laughter of those who lay there, my grave more turbulent than ever. My festering renewed.
For those who fear to tread the streets, it is not the leering faces, the waves of crashing humanity, nor even the lines of cars who patrol as fuming anacondas that scare, it is themselves. I am no less a person. I would not wish it on anyone.
The palpitations begin at the city limits, as the towers rise like reflective mountains into a disrupted sky, my heart quickening. I gasp, seek to steady my breathing to the train’s repetition, a synchronising of man and machine. There is even a moment when I think it works and a sigh escapes my lips. It is short-lived. It is always short-lived, never lasting beyond the next batted lash. How life continues to disappoint.
Swamped by suburbia’s blur, the train gears up for one last dash, and we charge into the station like Usain Bolt for the finishing line: the tape broken, we stop; no one is victorious. One journey over, another begins.
Disembarking like so many ants from an anthill, we follow the chemical signatures laid down by history out into the glare of a city more on the rails than the train. People are everywhere. Like fish on a decaying reef, humanity teems across the porous concrete, searching for a purpose where there is no purpose. Some look to have hope in their eyes, most not. The difference between the believers and the sceptics is stark. Some might term it enlightenment versus resentment. I prefer reality versus dreams.
A stoplight glares in crimson; a double-dare to death. I have forgotten who waits for whom, so go with the flow and strive to remain somewhere in the middle. It’s only when I reach the other side that I realise I don’t want to be the last to go, the final smear on a Japanese car’s bonnet. I make a mental note to not make the same mistake, but an unhappy seagull, lost and far from home, squawks a distraction and the memory is lost.
The coffee district extends forever. Yes, there are intermissions in the chain of cocoa-driven madness, but not many, and nothing meaningful. I choose one that looks emptier than the others and order the same drink I do every single day. One day, I’ll risk a Latte, but I feel an Americano defines me. The smell of the bean soothes my mind. I wish to take the stuff intravenously, feel that brown warmth tickle beneath my skin. It is a dream I have in a world where dreams are scarce.
I linger at the coffee shop for longer than I should, but less than I wish. Before I know what’s happening, my feet are leading me out of the door and down the canopied street to my own private hell; the roof keeps the weather out and us in. My eyes remain on the ground wherever possible, striving not to look up, not to provoke a response. Not even the three false palms set to equidistant perfection fail to disturb my concentration. Like a robot, I approach the working district.
This world is glass. This world is made of a million versions of me. Everywhere I look, I am there. Even when I close my eyes. The last person I wish to see in repetition is myself. Anyone but me! Alas, life deems to torment me in refraction.
I open the doors to our office building; as I enter, another me leaves. A brief paisley respite — if ever paisley wall coverings can be called this — and I take the stairs. I work on the tenth floor but would rather ascend a hundred flights in preference to the glass elevator and be surrounded by those leering, sneering doppelgängers. Each step takes me higher, ever higher. Soon enough I see the world as a pigeon, a rat of the sky. There are more rats all around me. I feel swarmed by them.
I collapse into my office seat and a faux leather embrace. A moment. All I require is a moment. I don’t get one. Curlicues of steam flit like intangible faeries before my eyes. Where am I?
The office do-good has seen, found and presented before I’ve even taken my jacket off. I nod a thank you whilst contemplating stabbing her with my pencil; my pencil is blunt, typical!
My work provides a distraction, nothing more. The turgid rigmarole of everyday mundanity allows my mind the freedom of thinking itself elsewhere, somewhere where walls are rock and skyscrapers consist of trees. I wish myself away to a world without triplicated others and reciprocated frowns, but never for long enough.
A colleague wakes me from my stupor, even though my fingers continue to type in a fallacy of actual life. I smile, but he’s already gone. It is time to leave. The worst time of the day.
Most look forward to their return, the drive home, the commute. I do not. I hurry down the stairs and out of the revolving door. Too late, the sun is setting.
Everywhere I look, everywhere, a million others are doing the same thing. Each is crowned by a halo of liquid gold. The glass makes angels of all. All except one. The original, me. They mock me from their mercury sanctums, point, and laugh. Every face in every window, every man, woman, and worse, observe me. They know. Oh, how they know! I am abhorrent to them. I am abhorrent to me.
The train is stifling, dark and full of eyes. But as the lights click on, catching me off-guard as I gaze out into the nothingness, I realise there is only one certainty in this reflected face: these glass coffins have me captured and everyone’s watching me die.
There is an unfashionable feather tickling at my throat, not hard enough to gag, nor soft enough to seduce. This constant pressure delights at first, but soon irritates. I wish for it to stop. I hope for it to slice.
Beneath the moon, this weeping almost-woman rubs her throat like a pensioner might a knee. I feel the invisible noose, the fingers of the ripper, regardless. I know I shall always feel it. Destiny or fate, this truth is unavoidable. I retire to bed.
The next morning, and the pain is lessened. Time seeks to diminish what the feather seeks to impress. Time is my new best friend, and I celebrate with a walk.
Green shoots pepper the park. A few random daffodils make galaxies of the area, popping up between the dying snowdrops like blazing suns. I smile, then wish I hadn’t. The corners of a mouth better used to misery tug at my neck and throat. The discomfort returns. I run the rest of the way.
I have always had a thing for bridges, one of humanity’s least imposing constructions. Sometimes, they even improve the view, as does this one in its curved steel and towering stanchions. Strength, I think. It projects strength.
I sit all day like a lazy gargoyle having tumbled from a church, pitching to one side. The rabid traffic rushes past in blurs of colour. Every vehicle stinks.
Night. My second. The feather presses harder now. More dagger than lover’s fingers, the feather would cut if I’d let it. And I will. I must.
Midnight slips over me like a warm, favourite jumper. There are no stars and the moon is a celestial stranger. This night is as dark as that night. My mood lightens.
I jump without the rope this time. There are no mistakes. There is only a steep dive and a shattering liquidity. The plunge is less than I expected, but more than enough.
I lay in a crate some call a coffin. There’s a pressure on my throat, soft and continuous. And despite the darkness, the fact I am clearly dead and should feel and realise nothing, I do. The feathered fingers are mine. I’m almost home.
The fade from dusk to permanent night passed in shades of doom. I deserved every bit of darkness, most men do, but was ever thankful for the moments before. I think it was a gift, a final farewell, an ‘at-least-he tried.’ And I did in my own way.
I had waited in my bed with the curtains flung wide. The window glass was dirtier than I would have liked, smudges like spectres haunting the pane, unmoving, critical of all I’d done. Yet, these questionable fractions of a life made torrid departed as the sun failed to illuminate them, blending into the background as I had for all my eighty years.
There’s a pivot, a hinging of self, when you realise, it will happen to you, it won’t last. All those years of pretending Death a visitor to others, slumped. Reality hit. An unorthodox life — a good word that, I always thought — for an otherwise pointless existence, was over. I gritted my teeth, said I was ready, glad to go. I was neither.
This moment came at ten o-clock one September evening as a bat whizzed past the glass, looped in a fluttering, flittering arc and came to rest on the outside ledge. It stood there on two legs like the world’s ugliest doll.
I squinted like the old fool I was, as if in doing so, the bat would disappear. But it didn’t disappear, not yet, anyway. The leathery creature tapped a tiny claw upon the glass to a perfect percussion, and then waved its almost transparent wing like a thrown shroud. I’d have ducked if I’d had the energy.
I was a skeptic and always had been. Omens were for others, and fate didn’t apply. I was beyond such things. People told of the ridiculous to bring false amazement to their otherwise inept existences. And, yet, here I was with such a story to tell, with no time to tell it and no one to hear it screamed.
The bat grinned as I shook my head, and then flew away.
I was a goner. I was about to meet my maker, or his darker self, if I was realistic. Bats did not do what the little one had, and chests only felt this much pain before they burst.
I contemplated pulling the telephone closer, stabbing those three particular numbers in an effort to save my skin, but instead, pushed it off the sideboard.
I settled into my pillows as best I might and watched the last light fade.
Everyone knew that dusk came in grey and left in black. There was no reason for any different. Still, I wanted to die with my eyes open. Closing them would give whoever found me something to do.
There was a mountain in the distance and a forest I couldn’t see. I imagined it all spiky haired spruces and pines, all ancient oaks and weeping willows.
That’s when the tears came. All the years I’d lived there, or rather inhabited the place, as I never really lived anywhere, and I’d never walked among them. What a pity. What a waste.
Every saline drop hurt to shed. Every slug-like trail stung my skin. Until it didn’t.
I woke with a start and a stab to the chest.
I was still in my bed and, if judged by the rasping breaths ghosting across my bedroom, alive. And yet…
Magenta moonbeams blazed from outside, filling my room with unnatural light. The night cringed at its brilliance, as did I. All those things, all those bits and pieces of paraphernalia accumulated in a tedious lifetime, be they sat upon shelves, the carpet where I’d kicked them, even the posters on the wall, shone in that rarest of colours. Not red. Not purple. A brilliance somewhere between what was never really seen in real life, yet everyone knew. This magenta moment was mine and mine alone. It was my colour. It was my gift.
There was no reason for it other than unadulterated joy. The magenta light pooled in my eyes, coursed into my open mouth and into my lungs, streamed around my veins. There were no golds, no blacks, no lava reds, none of those colours associated with the world beyond. There was only magenta. There was only me.
They came through that bruise in forever, all those I’d known. They came because in age and befuddlement I’d forgotten, twisted, corrupted a life well-lived. I was never worthless, dangerous, useless or the rest, just long-lived, too long for the rest of them. There was my father, mother, brother and sister, too. Rebecca was laughing; she always laughed. There were classmates and colleagues, brothers in arms, sharers of medals and more. And somewhere at the back, there was you, Alice.
She wore magenta lipstick, my Alice. It accentuated her lips, distracted others from the beauty that was the rest of her. But not me. Not ever. I’d remembered it until the day I died. Just like I promised.
I feel very privileged to have had ‘The Silent Raven Calls‘ published by the wonderful Gobblers & Masticadores magazine. This is a dark fantasy story telling how strong the bond between a mother and her daughter is regardless of the circumstances.
If you want a good read offered in many styles (and languages) then you could do far worse than giving Gobblers and Masticadores a try. The good people who operate the magazine have also asked if I would contribute to them monthly, and I’ve agreed, so be prepared.
I hope you have time to read my story, and as always, thank you for reading this.
I once watched an artist paint the sky. His brush caressed the canvas like a lover’s kiss. His every fluent movement was poetry in motion. At least, I thought so. The painter did not.
Whether it was frustration, or a lack of imagination, who knew? But the fellow grew so incensed, he snatched each sheet from his easel and tossed them into the wind. There they drifted like enormous snowflakes off to decorate unfamiliar landscapes.
The trees provided shade and anonymity. These I used for hours. The painter remained unaware of my presence throughout. And although I couldn’t see what he painted, I took a certain satisfaction in knowing I would.
As the sun evaporated into the river in tangerine bursts, things changed. The poor fellow’s inability to capture what he wished gained momentum until, in one shrieking outburst, he threw his palette away. It landed upside down in the water.
I expected to see a brief flash of vermillion, perhaps a touch of violet, cerulean or emerald green; there was only black. The paint bled into the river like a cut vein during an eclipse. Spilled ink might have described it, but ink had a purpose and this did not. What a waste. What a terrible waste.
I clasped a hand to my mouth, but too late. The cough echoed into infinity.
The painter turned. He wept. Tears streamed from his old, rheumy eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I spluttered.
The painter looked right through me, right into my soul. His eyes took in my colours, my personal palette. He refused to stop swamping me in his sorrows. I feared we’d both drown.
When the sun disappeared below the horizon with a pfft of extinguished flame, only then did he look away. To heaven, actually.
“Ah,” he crooned. “Now I remember.”
“Remember what?” The words left my lips without permission.
“Raven. Her hair was raven. If only I’d not tossed my paints away. Ah, well!”
Head drooped and feet shuffling, the painter packed up his belongings and made to leave. He paused as the moon came out in mercury silvers, turned back. “Never forget what she looks like, young man.”
“I won’t,” I promised.
With that, he departed. I never saw him again.
I often looked back and mulled over his words. He’d seemed so genuine. But only as I too regarded her bone white features and robes of liquid obsidian, did I know who he meant. I couldn’t have captured her raven hair either, as her ebony eyes already held my own.