I am absolutely delighted to be included in my favourite magazine once again. I’m a luck boy with how many places I’ve been published, but there’s something about Noctivagant that stirs the soul. Always beautifully presented, and full of top quality work, I cannot recommend reading it enough. Now available to view on Noctivagant Press’ website and soon to be released as a book, I hope you can take some time out of your busy schedules to enjoy some good old fantastical reads.
This season’s topic was dark romance, and my own story, ‘To Indigo Lost‘ is about as dark as they come. Please do enjoy.
My first death hurt the most, not from the pain, but from the injustice. The second came as the biggest surprise because I was still dead from the first. A kiss spurred my third departure, a faint fluttering of the heart. My fourth death was so subtle, I didn’t realise until the fifth. There were more, many more, but death becomes as boring as life.
My deaths came in many forms, at many times and places. There was no preempting it. Experience of the thing failed to give a single heads-up. Apparently, having died a multiple and often inexplicable number of times counted for nothing. I was a duck in a pond just waiting for the sharpshooters to strike.
There were benefits to my ailment, this legacy of mind. They might not have counted for much, but for something. I grew hardened, cocooned, insulated against death. My resolve strengthened. My will hardened.
I approached my many deaths differently upon this magical realisation. I expected them, thus the events themselves became less torrid. No longer would I toss and turn at night, clutching at my heart and sweating profusely. No, sir, I was a changed man. Well, boy.
The last turned me down before I’d even opened my mouth. ‘Not you,’ she sneered. ‘Not you.’
That was the last time I died. It didn’t bother me then, as now. Although, the woman with the scythe and the ebony eyes is grinning as though it should.
She smiled the way a fox might, inviting but deadly. Her dark blue lips like liquid evening pursed as though lost in deepest thought. She contemplated something the rest of us struggled to grasp. Slim through the face with prominent cheekbones, her skin glittered in a moonlight outshone only by her eyes. They blazed. It was these that drew me, though any number of her exquisite accoutrements might have. Closer to oval and slanted down towards her slender nose, her eyes were like autumn when the leaves began to turn, not gold, not red, but somewhere in-between. Her eyes said more in one gleaming moment than another’s in a lifetime. She was spellbinding. I was spellbound.
The lady oozed style. Hers was the kind of body made anything look divine. She didn’t even try! I suspected she didn’t want to either. There was something about her air, a certain nonchalance that bordered on arrogance when viewed by another, but never by her. She emphasised this with the cut of her raven locks, or lack of cut, left long like a velvet curtain of night. Each strand in this dark web fulfilled a purpose. Each fibre intimated something different: an outstretched palm; a look away; a violent glare; the night; oblivion. But worst of all, when she inclined her head, her hair falling forward like twilight to reveal the porcelain skin of her perfect neck, it hid her eyes. For this, I never forgave her.
She lived in the last house of the last road headed out of town. There she’d sit on her porch each evening reclining in a hammock that swayed back and forth in unfelt winds regardless of whether she sat upon it or not. Bewitched one might’ve said. Yes, bewitched. She’d settle into oversized pillows as dark as her hair and raise a glass of red wine to the moon. A salute to a lost lover I imagined. That saddened me, when it should’ve provided sweet solace, her being widowed, single, or at the least, unattached. It didn’t, though. Her loneliness pooled around her like a spilled drink. I drowned in it.
I made my home from home in the lowest branches of a dying oak located across the way from her home at the edge of an ancient wood. A dark place full of shadows, it suited my needs. An imagined guardian, a sentinel who’d never rest, never sleep, never look away, I patrolled those hours when others dreamed until she returned inside and my heart beat again. I couldn’t have looked away if the world had broken and Heaven dropped from the sky. If Death had come for me scythe in hand, I’d have bade him get on with it so I might come back as her personal ghost. I’d have haunted her forever without one complaint. She meant everything, and I didn’t even know her name.
She grew an array of plants which she displayed in earthenware pots. There were many flowers of many colours but most prominent were her snowdrops. This wasn’t unusual. But if I told you those snowdrops bloomed all year round, through summer sun and shine, it might’ve. And they did. They sat there bobbing their little white-capped heads like settled ghosts in a miniature graveyard. The same wind that always stirred the hammock, stirred them. I often licked my finger and held it to the sky, but never once felt a waft of breeze.
This was her world, her dark fantasy. For the longest time, it became my world, too.
Many early dawns, I’d return home from my vigils more desperate than when I’d left. Which one could be assured was a great deal. I’d slip under the sheets of my bed and weep. I wept regularly. She was the last thing I thought of when I went to sleep and the first when I woke. Spellbound. Always spellbound.
The greatest thrill came on the rare occasions she stepped from her porch, one revealed leg at a time. Eternity paused. She did this only when the world at its darkest, in those obsidian midnights where the moon feared to tread. She’d slide from her hammock with the poise of a hunting panther, stretch, arcing her back in a perfect curve, and tiptoe out onto her lawn. She never wore shoes. Her feet were always bare, toes twiddling, whatever the weather, season or shade. She painted her nails, both hands and feet, with black varnish and glitter so they sparkled like stars. Ten tiny galaxies were at her command, and every soul within them looked upon her as their nocturnal goddess.
Her walk was a thing of graceful beauty. She drifted rather than paced, slid rather than strolled. Her long skirt of claret red, crimson in the streetlights, black when not, gathered around her to conceal the limbs beneath. My own personal spectre, she led me away on a monthly regime of forest wanderings. Without a thought to feet which must surely have hurt, the pine needles and thorns scattered with such abundance, she’d silently sashay along paths only she knew. I trailed her without knowing how.
The river that marked the border between one place and the next was her favourite haunt. A dark shawl around the forest’s neck, this waterway beckoned her. She’d slip out of her garments like a snake shedding its skin and step into the oil dark water even if coated with ice. I’d shiver. She’d laugh. She never bathed, never swam, never even moved just allowed the water to coat her in liquid darkness, the moon strangely absent and stars fast asleep. When she emerged, I’d dare a step closer, a great lump in my throat and weight on my heart. Not for lascivious reasons. No, never this. For one reason and one reason only, that split second when she’d shake out her hair and I might spy her eyes. I longed for those moments each and every evening. I breathed them.
And so our dance went on, night after night, month after month, life after life, until it suddenly stopped.
I found her disappearance hard to swallow. Her porch remained empty, yet the lace that curtained her windows closed and drew back every single night and day. There was never a switched on light, but illuminations never were her thing. That was not odd but normal. Neither was there smoke from her chimney, but, again, she seemed not to require the warmth. The salient truth, she simply deigned not to appear. Was this through choice or persuasion? It bothered me. I was bothered.
The waiting was the hardest game. To want but not know almost killed me. I waited for three full moons to elapse, muscles tensed like steel, mind about to explode, before I made my move. If I hadn’t, I’d have gone mad. Some might’ve said I already had.
The night stood black as pitch, a thick soup that coagulated between one day and the next. I dressed all in black, not to impress, nor to cultivate her favour, but, instead, to remain unseen. Yes, it was my best suit. And, yes, I did wear a tie of black silk over a shirt the same, but they were all I had. How could I have saved her in anything less? As for the kitchen knife? Protection or provocation most likely, but I soon forgot. The streets were deserted, the short passage to the outskirts of the old town and her home, unimpeded. I stole upon her like a cloud the stars, venturing where no other dared.
The hammock fabric froze my fingers. I had to touch it. With no ocular stimulation, I sought to find her in a tactile memory. This failed. The snowdrops ducked and weaved as if in mockery.
As though oiled for my expected visit, the door opened into a kitchen bereft of all but empty cupboards, all their doors either removed or hung askew. I tiptoed into a hallway even more dilapidated, where cobwebs hung instead of pictures and dust made carpets of the floor. The place was as stale as three-week-old bread.
I should’ve spun on my heels and run away. Just fled to the hills and never turned back. I couldn’t though, for I knew her there.
Next came the staircase, like the river, a passage from one world to the next. My story grew stranger here. The staircase was of onyx or some such mineral, not wood, nor stone, nor crafted by man. Every step glistened like a universe polished to glasslike perfection. Every placed foot carried me a step deeper into magisterial night. The air thickened and clogged my throat. My eyes and feet grew heavy. Regardless, I advanced.
I stepped onto the first floor as through having scaled Mount Everest in one night without oxygen or aid. Tired to the point of exhaustion, I scoured the area; it was all changed. Like a weary traveller, lost and found, I appeared from obsidian caves into fabled Xanadu. Gone was the destruction, a place starved of life, instead, awed wonder. How could it be? Why didn’t I care? I couldn’t help but gasp.
The sounds of the night came as a great crescendo of wolf and owl and bat and more. Dipped in the infinite wonders of a world I’d never known, I reeled, swayed, fell to my knees. A cold sweat cascaded from my skin like a sponge wrung out by a giant. My hands clenched, throat gulped. I gasped… I grasped… I focused… I fought… And panting like a dog in the darkness, I slowly lifted my head. She was there awaiting my obeisance. My dark queen. She was everything! Everything and more. I dropped the knife that had found its way to my hand; it fell soundlessly to the floor.
She came to me as a midnight fog all curlicued darkness and unravelling mystery. She twirled like the most beautiful ballerina, one wrist raised, pale skin exposed, pulsing veins beating with life. But her eyes! How I died for her eyes. They burned my world in that unknown colour, her lips of darkest blue an oceanic accent to the sparkle above. She drew me. It was all she’d ever wanted. And although I should’ve known it madness, and although I might’ve wept, I kissed her, a lingering impression of death. I was glad I kissed her. It lasted forever.
She made me hers. I was hers.
Through oceans of night and dimensions the same, we travelled. She and me. Me and her. Two lovers in an endless embrace, we tripped over stars and dined on moons. Bliss, in some ways. Torture, in others. It had to end. Reality would not suffer our love. And so we returned, if ever we left? And so I changed.
A flower sunk in a soil of unknown origins, her porch became my home. Spellbound, just one of many flowers stirred by her winds, I died every day, only for her darkness to revive me each evening. And though my roots dove deep to tangle with all those others, and air and water and light were all I should’ve desired, still, I awaited her nocturnal visits. I craved them, nodding away the seconds of every single day until darker than dark, she appeared. She’d take up her rocking birth whispering words of sweet solace, her loving temptations, sitting so close as to touch, each of us hoping it he or she on whom she’d lavish her attentions. She never did. Instead, she’d smile from behind her curtained fringe as if to appease us, whilst I dipped lowest of all.
All I longed for was her eyes. It’s all I ever would.
“It washes across you like a mother’s first kiss. You don’t remember the sensation, but it’s always been there. That tactile moment of skin on skin, of what was within being without. There’s nothing more magical.” He waved away the horseman and drew his guest further into the fields. Tall and dark, only his flashing, bright eyes proved him there, unlike his guest, who wore scarlet. He assisted her over a small, uneven fence, the poorest of barriers, and led her on by the arm. He renewed his soliloquy as though never having missed a beat, he the actor and she his audience. “No words written or spoken may explain nor surpass it. No other feeling comes close. This is the bliss of a perfect night. Alas, you only truly remember the last.” He turned away as though moved by his own words, a shadow within a shadow within a dream. She spoke for the first time, light and hopeful. “And tonight, my love?” The girl shook out her usually ink-black hair to a deluge of silver, so bright was the moonlight, batted long lashes the same. “More than any.” She took him in all his brooding majesty. And despite his obvious melancholy, an almost perpetual predilection, and how the moonlight shied away from his form, she smiled a smile of utter contentment, of getting just what she wanted and when. “I think I’ve waited long enough.” “Yes, my dear. I believe you have.” The two nestled down in a quicksilver ocean of rippling grasses, disappearing beneath those unusual waves like breaching whales bound for an ultramarine abyss. Neither the hooting owl nor the gathering wind disturbed them. Not a watching ghost disrupted their repose. Time passed. # It was many hours before they resurfaced, one head at a time, eyes rubbed awake and blinking. She of the waist-length hair came first and him second. The moon had barely moved, giving no evidence of time having altered, as though hung there by some invisible cosmic thread. The stars surrounded it still like a celestial shawl. Those ebony spaces between them engulfed the rest. And so it was her amber eyes wandered, whilst his remained on her. Up they rose, higher and higher, defiant against both nebulae and shooting stars alike. Her head cocked to one side like an inquisitive robin, a look her outfit enhanced. She grinned as the moon winked daggers. Secure in his gaze, she reached into her jacket and pulled out a tortoiseshell comb. There, beneath infinity, she brushed out that which marked her beauty, defiant in her belief that to him, at least, she rivalled the eternal night. “Do you bring many women here?” “Not here.” “Then, I am the first?” “Beneath this moon, at this time, and this place, yes.” “I’m honoured. You, so privileged and dashing, might have chosen any woman.” “Just any woman wouldn’t do.” Her cheeks glowed a crimson to rival her dress. “Do you think we might return here every evening? Beneath this same moon? This same space?” “We need never leave.” “Good,” she said. “Though I am a little hungry.” “As am I.” He leant in close, closer, closer still. Her heart beat like a moth’s wings, fast and silent. The night breathed long and deep. His lips met her neck and kept on going. Strong hands pinned her arms as his mouth bit deep. It was soon over. The fields kept rippling as the moon shone brighter, and a man who’d seen more than he ought, wept. Time stalled. # When his anguish seemed inconsolable, he stopped, as though God had suddenly dammed his eyes. He licked stained lips. “I shall bury you, my love, as I have them all.” He used his hands to scoop the soft earth from the ground, powerful arms to drive them. He excavated more soil in a minute than a dozen gravediggers might shift in a week. Once finished, he stepped back. Looked down. Sighed. The hole stood not empty, but full. It brimmed with sloshing moonlight. The man removed his jacket, ancient in its styling, bursting with brocade and lace. Next came his shirt revealing a milk-white torso, then his shoes and britches. He lowered himself into the hole-made-grave and, a second later, was gone. One might have feared for the fellow then, but he had other ideas. Rising from those false, silver waters, he lifted the one whose life he’d taken and lowered her gently into the pit. He spoke as though in a trance. “I shall make right what fate corrupted by sacrificial blood and flesh. For this, I thank you. Truly, yours was a gift. Thanks to you, I endure, not in hate or violence, but nocturnal bliss. Thanks to you, my dear. Yes, thanks to you. And I say this with a sincerity others would claim absent, I loved you. For a time, I have loved you all. But nothing, nothing, my love, rivals the serenity of the moon.” Time pooled.
There’s something about the cello that ruins the soul. It’s as if whoever first built one had fallen from grace, and in so doing, torn their heart from their chest and strung it from ear to toe. Before bleeding into the land, into history, into nothingness, they’d picked up a twig and begun to play. Death was not an option. Only a life of unending sorrow remained.
I recite this story to my secretary as I sit here and play. The notes rise and fall with her breaths. My fingers rest only when she blinks. I pour my everything into this most personal performance, not to impress, but to explain.
A scimitar moon slices the dunes in twain,
rippling sands in obsidian curves,
twisting mercury tinges of diamond-bright light:
A fantasy made real.
And though this throat constricts,
I take one final breath of midnight;
the mirage remains the same
of you in silks wrapped loosely,
dark eyes beaming onyx bright
with desert dangers of old.
Dangers reflected in my own.
They are the merest flashes, glimpses of eternity,
where dunes, moon, oasis and mirage
merge into the same Arabian dream.
My dream. Our Dream. Us.
Londinium’s streets filled with merchants of every description. Some purveyors of fine silks set up stalls in such-and-such an alley, others of fresh produce in this and that, the retailers of jewels and gold settled closer to the constabulary’s arterial junction. It, or rather, she, sat somewhere in between.
Less an organ grinder’s monkey, but not quite a ventriloquist’s dummy, she rested, her coiled legs draped over the side of a wooden cart. Her creator, or owner, or whatever he was, poled people to guess her name at a sovereign a head. He promised great riches to the soul who guessed correctly, though I ventured no one ever did.
Entranced, I squeezed through the gathered crowd to better gaze upon her, excusing myself more times than decorum demanded. Nevertheless, it felt nowhere near enough. At my last muttered apology and doffing of my hat, I looked up: there she was.
She was stunning, beautiful, yet made. Plaited horsehair adorned her bonnet-less head, which stood against convention, but looked right on her. A face of chalked perfection rested on a frame of awkward, angular imperfection. The contrast made for an uneasy balance. Yet, it was not her body I looked upon, but her eyes. Even though I knew it was wrong, evil even, an affront to God, I could have stared into them forever.
The almost-woman had the sort of eyes that dreamt of oceans, a blue so deep as to swim to the stars. She stared out across her audience impassively, searching for something, searching for me. I was hers, and she was mine.
“Hey, that’s a sovereign’s worth of a gawking you’ve given. You gonna guess ‘er name or not?”
I paid the man his money and walked away.
“Hey! Hey, mister! Ain’t you gonna guess then?”
“Sapphire,” I replied.
“Wrong,” he expounded. Maybe to you I thought, but Sapphire she remained. My dreams would be eternally painted blue.
She had no status, no place in this world. She barely had a life. Then again, neither did I.
We met one Easter morning and had married by tea in an unorthodox ceremony involving a stray cat who fussed our feet like catnip. It then peed on the floor. We laughed like hyenas. The pastor didn’t. The next day became our anniversary, and the next, and the next. Not a great legacy but something. We all must have something.
We left the city for the coast on an empty bus, a move in direct opposition to the latest trends, and got off at the last stop because the driver made us. He smiled as he did so like a man in the know.
We found a tiny house with a bed, a toilet, a door, and a view. This was all we required. This and each other.
It began soon after.
She forgot my name by Halloween and my face by Christmas. My voice went last. Perhaps it reassured her? A somnambulist by day, worse still by night, she wandered. I wandered with her when I could. It was only a matter of time.
New Year’s Day. I found her mangled body upon the rocky shore. She’d stepped from the cliffs as though them our lawn, whilst the sea fret tickled her eyelids and vindictive gulls egged her on. I was sad, but not inconsolable.
I buried her deeper than I ought, marking her grave with a simple cross of two bound sticks. There, I scratched the message: To My beloved Wife.
Later, when malicious gossip made the pastor aware of my situation, he visited one gloomy afternoon.
“It’s untitled, anonymous!” he exclaimed.
“What is?” I replied.
“Her grave, man. Her grave!”
“As was she.”
“Because she had no name?” he ventured, calming at my obvious heartbreak.
Isabella’s pros outweighed her many, many cons. After all, one may only sing the praises of one’s maid to so many people before they wish to meet her. I had extolled Isabella’s virtues from the moment she opened her big, blue eyes and smiled at me. I melted that day and have many days since.
Isabella busied herself about my mansion with the verve of a bee overloaded with nectar. She buzzed from here to there with her feather duster in one gloved hand and cleaning cloths and bucket in the other. She would start her cleaning before I awoke, tend to my needs when I did, then return to her incessant sanitations. At first, she was a godsend. Later, she was a hazard.
The problem with Isabella was everything. She understood that I required hygienic conditions for my work and took that knowledge to quite dizzying heights. One day, I walked in to find she had scrubbed so hard that the raised patterns of my carefully chosen wallpapers had been extinguished, buffed away, gone.
My decorating conundrum paled into insignificance once she started on my guests: faces, buffed; nails, trimmed; clothing, stripped and washed. The latter proved the final straw for one elderly dowager who walked out of one particular party with more than just an agog visage. Orders were given. Isabella was to be expunged.
I apologised to my guests, some senior clergy and parliamentarians amongst them, promised to do the deed that evening and made my excuses to bring the shindig to an early conclusion so as to facilitate said task. If only it had been that easy?
As I looked into Isabella’s beautiful glass eyes, those that had once been my beloved wife’s, I crumbled. I wept like a fool as Isabella tried her best to comfort me, her metal arms almost wringing my neck in her supposed embrace. She meant well, but as usual was not made for such things.
I reached around her back, slipped my fingers under her blouse and flipped the termination button, then backed away.
Isabella had no understanding of what occurred. As the steam of self-destruction engulfed her, she even fetched her mop and bucket and began to dab at herself. She only saw something that was not right, as did I.
Once Isabella’s violent juddering ceased, her head coming to rest with her eyes open and fixed on my own, I did the one thing I should’ve from the start. I opened up the trapdoor between her steel breasts, extracted that which powered her, my darling wife’s heart, and held it in my hands one last time.
If only those fools had known my wife wasn’t the only one to be resurrected that day, but they did not. With that I reached under my shirt, flipped the auto-destruct and waited for the boom before heaven to engulf me. It didn’t hurt, not this second time around, not too much, anyway.
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