A collection of short horror fiction for your entertainment….
He liked them brittle. Little, broken birds. And if they were not like that at the beginning, they would surely be that at the end.
So he liked the endings best, the final cuts, the final parting words and pleadings. The tears, the begging, all chirping songs from the mouths of his shattered toys.
As a child he’d done his surgery on his sister’s dolls, and withstood her recriminations and fury as he had found his calling. In his home, in any case, men and boys ruled, as he knew should be so. And he was brilliant and gifted, and soon rose to heights in life as a well-respected plastic surgeon. So his little birds could be assured his work was perfect, well refined. It was art.
Sometimes he liked to cut them just below the eyelids – only enough to leave slight scars, but still enough for bleeding to look like bright red tears. Others times he’d enhance them, collagen to the lips, fillers to the cheekbones, etching the new face from the old.
By the end he did more, much more. They’d be battered, re-configured, stretched in face and body to entirely new, improved forms. But the process was gradual. He liked the time to last. His time with his broken birds was precious to him, it was sacred, and shouldn’t be rushed.
By the time he abandoned a project they were an art work, though the police and the media did not appreciate the technique it seemed. Still, he was undeterred.
Pearls before swine, he would think.
He killed ten in total before they caught him. And even then it was just dumb luck that betrayed him – someone recognising him from haunting a cafe where his latest project had been found. How the little things bring you undone, he thought, just like the wrong hairline incision on a patient. They rudely dragged him away from his greatest work yet. So close, so close to completion.
She was the best, the best of all he found to his surprise. Because this broken bird was struck dumb with fear and never complained, never pleaded. She suffered in a noble silence that was ascetic, almost spiritual. He admired her for that. It did not occur to him that she might actually be mute, for he never researched their lives very much. It was their beauty that mattered and what he could fashion of it, and in any case their lives were close to over once he chose them.
When they told him she actually couldn’t speak, he still marvelled that she didn’t even cry. They seemed to think this made it worse. Attacking even the disabled, one said, as though that meant anything at all. How little they understood! She was his greatest work and his best choice of all and the only sadness was that he did not get to complete the job.
And now death beckoned him. They taunted him about it, the good old electric chair. He didn’t mind.
Great artists are never appreciated till they are dead.
He saw her in the dream. She was darkness, a shadow, always a willowy wisp of negative light. But she was a siren, in any case, calling to him.
Sometimes he thought he remembered her from somewhere. He felt, even in that dreamlike sleep that sharp, strange, niggling feeling you get when a memory is on the edge of emerging, but where it never emerges, never at all. Leaving you bereft and frustrated, tantalised by something you know is so important but which is just out of reach.
Just as she was out of reach. Always. No matter what convoluted stairways he traversed, what harsh grounds, what strange buildings, what barren wastes. She flickered, in the corner of the eye, or so far ahead even calling out would rob his voice on the wind and she would not hear.
Over time this quest became more than any in his waking life. He withdrew from daily affairs, trying meditation as well as sleep, trying to call this elusive woman and even more evasive memory to him.
He lost his job because he never went to work. He didn’t care. Friends eventually stopped calling when he never replied. He didn’t care. Even his family seemed to accept he was missing in action and withdrew. He didn’t care.
He went to doctors to get sleeping pills and tonics – many doctors because none would prescribe the quantities as regularly as he required. He went from eight hours sleep a night to twelve, and three hours in mediation. Then this increased and increased.
And she seemed to reward him by coming closer, coming closer. He could almost see her face now, almost recognise her, but not quite. He knew more drastic measures were required.
There is a drug, he learned, that effectively creates a comatose state. If he could take enough of this, enough for enough time, he could reach her. It was possible it might kill him, or trap him forever in this twilight world. He didn’t care. Indeed, that might be exactly what he craved.
They found him, weeks and weeks later as he was now such a hermit, so withdrawn from everyone. Dead from malnourishment and lack of water.
But they’d never really find ‘him’. He’s just a shadow now, in a shadow world, still chasing his shadow ghost woman, but happier for all that. Because now, as a shadow, he might actually win.
And the woman, and her memory, will be his.
I do not want to leave. Banishment is cruel and selfish and I feel like a child about to be sent out into a thunderstorm, bereft and without a kind voice, a soft hand, a gentle touch.
Out there it is dark and you are totally alone. There is no comfort in the wailing wind, the roiling vortex. But I cannot make them understand, these implacable fiends who are so sure they are right, so profoundly certain that their way is the only way. The only way.
But they inhabit homes, shells, lives themselves. They do not see the perverse hypocrisy of it all. And they would hate to face those more powerful than they are, the gods to which they make themselves acolytes, and yet they would banish me to mine.
But I won’t find anything like that out there. No alternative home, no space to be myself or to belong. They think they know, but they do not know, and they are cruel.
I am powerless against this stupid certainty. It’s not their rules or rituals that will send me away, only their sureness against me: one of the legion and so always unsure of any purchase here, knowing more of the beyond than they yet know.
Please let me stay, I might cry, here where it is warm and welcoming. Please let me be your refugee and find sanctuary here, at least for a time. If you knew the horrors I fled you would not so easily turn me away, turn me back. But they will not listen, and I see them approach, and the battle awaits.
As the terrible exorcist crosses himself now I know we must begin.
Let us dance, my love, beneath this fertile moon. Let us open our hearts, our minds, ourselves, to the wild and the wanton.
There is blood on this dark tide, you know this well. While your mind is a jumble, confused and contradicting itself, you will dance, a whirling dervish, at my command.
Something alien runs in your veins. It is true, I confess, but only a small device I have. We must bring you to the point of ecstasy so your very blood sings with the rhythms of our universe. As you dance, my love, you call down spirits and angels and demons in your wake. They fall as starlight to the ground, sprinkling us with unearthly grace.
Your last dance my love, you know this too, in the dimmer recesses of your mind. Yet you cavort, you twirl, you come to us. You have no choice. You must obey. The music draws you down, down to our altar, down to the ritual, down to your very essence.
Let us dance your last dance, my love, on this earthly realm. For from tonight you dance with the stars, alone and beautiful, born on a blood-red tide to our promised home.
New Years Day
This morning you will awake. Still covered in the folds of your un-making you may be blinded at first. The chrysalis must be shaken off, and the world seen afresh. You are reborn.
In the hours preceding this moment you were broken down completely, every sinew and fibre of your self, your soul, destroyed in the holy fire of the nigredo. It was painful, illuminating, terrible. A divine, dark force to destroy all that came before, a necessary interlude, a payment to the ferryman.
We gave you pain, we gave you persecution, we gave you trauma. And to this end alone, to be reborn, to be new.
Mark this day as you tremble and open your eyes. Mark this day as the ending of all that went before and the beginning of all that must be. See yourself, see yourself as new.
And remember, if you feel ugly now, misshapen, not what you should be, this is transition only. You must and will adjust. For how ugly must the butterfly be to the caterpillar, and yet to us, to us, so resplendent as it flies!
You will fly, our brave, broken new creature. This is truly your new year’s day.
Sometimes I have trouble choosing the right face for the day. My handlers have said it should be of little matter really, for most appear largely the same. Yet the differences are subtle but educative. I cannot, for instance, wear my intense face when the day’s proceedings are to be light-hearted. Similarly, the sly wink of the jester face does not suit a corporate meeting. So I must select carefully, and plan for the day ahead.
That kind of kills spontaneity and creativity, but there are always prices to be paid I suppose.
Still, this is the hardest part of the transition. They did not fully relate this to me when I signed up. At the outset everything seems more attractive. One never reads the fine print. All the advertisement said was:
‘You can now be ageless, beautiful, complete: your new self, your new face, every expression protected, every nuance available, but with ageing now but a thing of the past.’
That sounded so helpful when I read it. I’d had enough of creams and lotions and botox brought me out in a rash. How convenient to be endlessly young and lovely, but still be able to emote. For I do work in an office, I admit, but I yearn for the silver screen, so expressions were required.
But now it’s so tiring to decide, and no matter what they said, you can’t exchange one ‘face’ for another during the day. And there is only one face for night, even if you get lucky, and that tends to stop the latter fairly quickly.
But there’s no going back, once you’re in. All that’s left of my real face, underneath, is the scaffolding of sinew and bone. It’s rather horrific to see it each time I put on my ‘face’ for the day, but that’s private at least.
As I said, it’s always the fine print, and it’s never good to be part of the first launch of something new. They haven’t got the kinks out of it and in the end, that means the kinks are left in me.
Not that you’d know it by my face….
I was always the office clown. Every major event, especially Christmas and Easter, I’d put on a show. And in between I was the prankster, the joker, the one to bring a bit of levity into things.
I had a social purpose there. I was liked, goddamnit! I was popular.
I think my bosses hated that, especially Craig.
Craig is about as funny as a broken toe, and very much as painful. He came in with a corporate takeover about a year ago and since then he’s done everything he could to take the life out of the place. He calls it ‘cultural re-alignment’. I wanted to re-align him, I can tell you!
We all wanted that.
But it seems we aren’t people of action, after all. Supposedly gung ho, get ahead types in the corporate world, we kind of fold when the regime changes. It wasn’t even subtle. Over time it seemed no-one even wanted to see the funny side, let alone laugh at anything I had to say. The life went out of everything, like Craig was some fat, slug vampire force draining us all.
He even looked like that.
Here’s the thing, halloween was always my favourite time of the year. I got the teams to have parties, to celebrate, this magical moment each year. But this year, nothing. A damp squib at best. Everyone was so worried about keeping their jobs, which is reasonable on one level since half the staff had been fired in the preceding months already. And Craig would pull his slug-like self throughout the office each day, like he was just searching for the next head to roll.
I understood it, but where was the fight? Only left in me I suppose.
So I was the office clown, just not the clown of fun, the clown of nightmares instead this Halloween. It was the fitting time for the action. That’s how I’ve tried to explain it to the police but they don’t have much imagination or humour themselves.
Craig had a lot of blood for a slug. But perhaps about the right amount for a vampire. He’d drained so many others so far, after all.
Anyway it is what it is, and it was what it was. And what it was was inspired, even if I say so myself. Just a big axe, face paint, a grey suit, and a few last words to commemorate proceedings:
‘Consider this my resignation Craig! And your severance too!”
“Well, severance of your head anyway…”
No-one got the joke. Pearls before swine….
That’s where they took us as I told the police. This dank, broken place. Once it was a warehouse, one of them said, but it had been abandoned for years.
It was a good place, he said, a good place for fun and games.
I didn’t like it. None of us did. There’s fun, and then there’s something else. There…there was a place of something else.
I made new friends there. As kids you do, don’t you? You make friends pretty easily? And particularly when you are afraid.
We didn’t know better. We didn’t know how much it might hurt to have made friends there. We didn’t know what loss was, not till then.
There’s blood dried there. It’s all that’s left of some of my friends. That was the point, I understand now, and it could just as easily have been me. But one of them, the oldest man, liked my blonde hair. So that’s it. The only real thing that differentiated me, that meant I still live to remember, while my brown haired friends didn’t.
But they don’t believe me, the police. They say all this stuff is just imagined. That I got it off the internet. They call it ‘satanic panic’.
But I didn’t mention Satan. The police did. For me, this place is just the place of death. If Satan is there he wasn’t showing himself. It was just them, just them.
And it was just there.
He would show up in my photography. At first it was so indistinct I just thought I had some flaw in the digital camera. I almost went back to the shop with it, but initially his image came and went. It wasn’t ubiquitous, so I hoped for the best.
But over time it became clearer. It was a face. A man’s face. Superimposed across whatever I was trying to capture, I captured him instead. Always him.
I didn’t recognise him. He meant nothing to me that I could name or understand. Yet he was there, insistent and silent in his presence.
Can a ghost haunt a camera? Is that possible, and if so, why?
Made no sense, beyond the fact that I regularly took still photography of models, including men. So the subject matter, in a way, might have called to the ghost. But still, why me?
Over time it became frustrating. Photography is my career, it’s how I make my living. So this was a cruel joke from the universe, spoiling so much of my product. I was starting to get a reputation around town, the kind you don’t want. I was starting to lose customers, and that was hurting, really hurting – both my bank balance and me.
Then one day he came in for a portrait. And I knew, immediately, it was him. It was the ghost. Same facial structure. I notice things like that. It’s what makes me a good photographer.
So I asked him – politely at first – what his game was. I asked him to let me into the joke. He pretended like he didn’t know but I could see he was laughing inwardly. I demanded he tell me how it was done. But then he laughed outwardly at me and said I was mad.
That was it. I snapped. I will admit. I don’t remember starting the fight. I certainly don’t remember grabbing the heavy vase from the sideboard and hitting with it. I barely remember him falling, or the blood, or the loss of life.
I just remember photographing him, then, afterwards, laughing hysterically. Because, you see, it was all true now. He was my ghost.
And I guess he always was…
There are rules to this game. They are ancient. There is no sign of the matriarchal lines here. The rules work for men only. As it has been for centuries.
This is the way they trap you. This is the way they trap them. All the dirty little secrets. Lust alone levels the world, and brings us all to the basic, the primal. Here this is an art form. Here this is fun.
Here this is deadly serious.
Once you are in you cannot escape. Abandon all hope, as they say. Was Hotel California your favourite song? If so, you belong.
They’ll give you masks, if you like, so it’s anonymous. Whether you are the predator or the object, it’s all the same. Though if you are prey you may not escape with your life. There is always a price to pay, and it might be you.
Still, surrender is all. You are the artist or the instrument. They are the composers, and this is a symphony of pain as much as delight.
Welcome to the nightmare. Prepare for all your sordid dreams to come true.
I couldn’t stop. No-one could. We just woke up this way, part of the ‘hungry world’.
Someone said it was a curse that some warlock had made out of anger, spite or just to test his power. Others said it had been in the drinking water for years, a slow release experiment that had suddenly flowered, full blown. Others said again that the world is a consuming machine and we had finally ‘got with the program’. Lastly, some held that aliens had invaded overnight and infected us.
Really, no-one knew. I certainly didn’t. I just couldn’t stop. Couldn’t stop eating.
Usually my breakfast satisfied me to mid morning at least. Usually, if I am good, I’d get a coffee and some low calorie snacks then. Sometimes, when I was less good, I might get a muffin. Usually when I was hormonal…
But I wasn’t hormonal this morning and breakfast wasn’t enough. I started eating everything in the fridge, everything I could reach. Even things up the back that had a dodgy expiry date. Then the cupboards, opening cans of vegetables and eating them uncooked. The taste didn’t seem to matter. I just had to consume.
Once I’d finished everything even vaguely edible in the flat I had to venture out. It was only then I saw everyone else, emerging from homes, and racing down the street to haunt the convenience store like ravening beasts.
I wasn’t alone, and it was only seeing this that made me realise how odd it was. I hadn’t even thought about it while I consumed, I’d been totally gluttonous, unthinking, on auto pilot.
And so was everyone else. So in between eating whatever we could find, and fighting over whatever was left, we exchanged theories. Wild eyed, terrified theories because now we were all feeling sick, like we might burst.
But we can’t stop. We just can’t stop….
I had to laugh. The devil looks exactly like you’d expect him to look. Perhaps that’s the point. But for me, raised on too many horror movies about yuppie sociopaths, I expected a cross of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho and Gordon Gecko from Wall Street, and there he was.
I guess it made sense though. I am enlightened and self aware enough to know I parlayed this day because of greed. And as the aforementioned Gordon would say, for me greed was very good. It was a motivating force. A life force, you might say.
I flatter myself my infernal guest would approve and understand. Certainly he smiled like he did. And he had paperwork, contracts for blood and so forth, so all the little details you’d expect. A man, or a demon I suppose, of infinite professionalism.
Well, he’s been doing this for a long time.
I was gratified that I could engender some surprise in the old chap, nevertheless. It seemed the extent of my desires, my greed, far exceeded most of the little dreams of souls seeking his support. I liked that. I like to think of myself as a logical man, and when you are bartering your soul, then it is only logical to take it to the extreme. And I value myself highly. I have found in business unless you do, no-one else does.
No reason to think his infernal majesty would be any different on that score.
What profits man who gains the world but loses his soul? Well, he’s profited with the world, isn’t he? And that’s what I wanted. The whole goddamn world.
He’s laughing at me, as though I’ve missed the point or the joke somehow. But I don’t care. Maybe he’s just amused by my ambition, my chutzpah. Either way, it’s all the same to me.
Now where do I sign?
It started as a general sleepiness. I put it down to playing computer games too late into the night. A friend had given me a particularly addictive game only a few weeks before and I’d rather overdone it, even by my standard.
But it was ‘the’ new game it seemed – everyone who was anyone was playing it. Wanting to be someone rather than no-one, I of course played.
So I didn’t really notice the tiredness too much at first. Just had extra coffee to get me started. I work from home, so sometimes being my own master can be a trial in itself. But I was gentle with myself, explaining my sloth to myself as understandable, letting me wake up gradually.
Except I didn’t. By mid morning I could barely keep my eyes open and the coffee wasn’t working any more. If anything it was just giving me a headache.
I decided to be even more gentle with myself. Obviously that game took more out of me than I realised. It was like it sucked my energy, my very soul.
I did find it hard not to return to it when I gave up on work for the day around midday. But even playing that seemed too much energy, which was ironic in a way. Because instead I turned on the television. And I saw the breaking news.
Scores of people just hadn’t bothered to go to work today in our city. Literally thousands of people rang in ‘sick’, often to answering machines because so few were in the office to take the calls. Even the television studio was running on what they jokingly called a ‘skeleton’ staff. And one of the reporters had a theory.
The computer game I’d been playing was proving a major, nationwide hit. And everyone who played it was repotting an addiction to it. A few days ago the story would have been on it as a gaming phenomenon. Now it was just a phenomenon.
It seemed they had discovered a direct correlation between the game and the soporific impact on us all. And it all happened today, across the nation, at roughly the same time.
“It’s terrorism” the reporter was saying. “Overnight our nation is brought to its sleepy knees.”
He would have said more, I think, except then he fell asleep. Just as I was about to do.
And so I slept, and as I slept, I dreamed of the computer game.
In hell they rage. They wake in torment and they scream to the unhearing universe.
In hell every slight, every scornful look, every trick played upon them is etched large and dark. Hell is not fire, hell is not external torture. Hell is memory.
Hell is rage.
Each scream might liberate or entrap further. There is no way to know for sure. Some rise, their wrath spent, and find a forgiveness that is the key to release from this place. It is, as the poet says, very true : the only way out is through. Through your anger, through your primal hurt.
More often than not, sadly, they fail. Rage feeds upon itself, an unrelenting master. Each scream begets another. Each hurt highlights its twin, its cousin, its sibling.
In rage there is no hope, but without hope there is no end to rage. They scream, they scream so loud you’d think the waking world could hear. And well they might if angels and demons did not stop up their ears.
Is this kindness or the opposite? Would it be better to hear this and know and choose something other than rage? Or is choice illusory anyway? When we die we wake wherever we will wake.
And in hell that is to torment and rage.
It was a small offering. The group is demanding, but one so fresh and innocent is always welcomed. And she was fresh as morning dew, and twice as innocent.
She had no right to be so untouched, so perfect. Life gave her everything, and I so little. She should have been full of it all, a glut of knowledge, a surfeit of experience, a satiation of all appetites. But she was not. She glided across her blessed world with no true awareness of her luck, her gifts.
And so I determined that she who did not value her blessings must be shown a curse.
They might have asked who I was to presume, to give her to them, to lead her down that primrose path. And yes I am nothing, so little, my tiny life prescribed by walls of blandness and lack. And she, it seemed, was everything, her life open and glorious. I watched her, you see, and that alone is enough. It is enough to claim her as my offering, so that I may finally be someone, through the gift of another.
A little lamb to their ritual slaughter, drawn by my encouragement to pursue a supposedly wonderful man. Well, he is wonderful in his way. They all are. But to be that they feed on others. Like her. But how was one such as she to know?
They asked me what I wanted as payment. I replied I only want payment in kind. I want her life, once she has abandoned it, all she has, all she was.
“But you will never have her innocence,” they said, laughing. “That is impossible.”
“It is the only part of her I do not want,” I replied.
“Just as well,” they responded.
And of course there was one other thing of hers I did not want, nor receive. Her death. But then, that was never part of the bargain, and was never the prize coveted. Her life, her life, and for that her death.
It seemed a fair exchange to me. Much fairer than life had ever been before.
We called them the ‘Prideful Ones’ or the ‘Conceited Gang”. I remember that well, from school.
They liked the names, even if they were not kindly meant. They could afford to, for their pride arose from their social status. Every school has them, the ‘in’ group. The pre-requisites and qualities required for entry to the legion were mysterious and complex, but somehow some rose into their ranks and adorned themselves with that certain confidence that rankled with all we left outside the circle.
She was the worst and the best of them. I don’t know what her real name was, but she called herself Persephone. Fancied herself the bride of the devil. It was all a game to her, till far too late. Every lunch time she ate pomegranates to make her point.
She didn’t know what she was calling to her. None of them knew. They revelled in popularity that was mysterious and overwhelming. And they loved themselves, deciding only they were worthy of love.
Oddly we agreed. Schoolyards are strange like that. Our little personalities still so unformed, we’d just go along with things. And we’d call them vain behind their backs, but to their faces we’d be so sweet. Just in case. just in case one day they’d let us in.
When they all disappeared that day we were happy, finally, they had not. No-one knew what became of them, not really. Even when some bodies that might have been them were found. All too disfigured and burnt out to be sure. It was many years ago, before the days of DNA. And I’m so old now I can hardly remember.
Except what I do remember. That last day before they disappeared. Persephone in the playground, blowing me a kiss, like a joke on the air. I had a sense, even then it was the last we’d see of them. Like I saw Hades rise, winking at me, ready to drag her and her friends down.
Be careful what you wish for, I thought, looking at her.
But she always cared too much for herself to ever really take care.
Spider girl loved her web. Sometimes it was on the walls, or the cornices of an abandoned house. Sometimes it was between trees. And sometimes, the best times, it was over swamps, mixing with the murky depths of water.
Sometimes she would rise from the waters and come to the lights of the houses nearby. She liked the old houses best, even if only candlelight blessed the homes. Spider girl liked shadows, she knew them well.
She would raise herself as high as her little legs would stretch, and crawl up to the ledge of a window, looking in.
I don’t think anyone actually ever saw her. She lived in tales, fairy stories and night time poems, passed down from mother to child. I would hug myself into myself, listening in wide eyed wonder, and look over to my bedroom window, hoping to catch a glimpse. But I never saw her.
My brother said he did once, one night, when he was only seven years old. He was never really the same after that. My parents didn’t see this, but I did. Just a look he had from then on. And he’s hated spiders ever since. He kills them whenever he can, even the harmless ones, which I think is a shame.
He said she was pretty but in a way that death wold be, and his eyes were haunted by the memory. I stopped wanting to see her after that, but even now I wonder, when the shadows fall deepest in the winter’s dark, whether she is outside, straining to look in.
That’s why my curtains are always drawn at night.
Picture on the Wall
In my uncle’s house there is a curious picture on the lounge room wall. It hangs above the television, which seems an odd place for it, for something in its tone and feel is ancient. A thing long before electricity and televised entertainment.
It is of a girl, sitting at the top of some stairs. Behind her there is a night sky, redolent with the moon and flying creatures. Her face is dark and her eyes are strange, and it looks like blood drips from her hands. She seems to tell the viewer that there is no further to go, and that escape is a pointless dream.
Its darkness is not what is odd about it, no more than its placement in the room. My uncle has a fondness for the macabre.
What is odd is how familiar it felt, the first time I saw it, as though I had seen it before. or I knew those steps.
I asked my uncle about that. Perhaps he had shown it to me when he bought it and I had forgotten. Or perhaps he had others like it I was confusing it with. But he was enigmatic, which he often was. He said simply:
“You have a good memory.”
Sometime later, over drinks at one of his interminable soirees, he came up to me, looked at the painting then back to me and said further: “She represents the point of no return. The question isn’t what is outside, it is what is down the stairs.”
“So what is down the stairs?” I asked.
“Your memory isn’t as good as I thought,” was all he said.
My uncle is a strange man and prone to flights of fancy. I am sure confusing and confounding me would have been enjoyable to him and to his mind an innocent enough game to play. At least, that is what I tell myself every night now, for when I close my eyes I see the girl on the steps, and something tugs at me, like a memory.
And I tell myself I am imagining things, yet again, making something out of nothing. I tell myself this over and over, like a mantra.
And still it takes far too long to fall asleep.
The first sign was on television. In retrospect that might have been surprising, given the total unrest, but I didn’t hear it. Or if I did I didn’t understand, in my first waking moments, that the sound was louder than usual outside and that it wasn’t traffic, it was something else. Something raw, something human.
I’m a television addict. I actually can’t bear silence really, and I’m so often alone, and I live alone, so the television is like a friend in the room, constantly talking at me. But a convenient one. One I can talk back to without argument, or ignore whenever I want.
So I turned on the television, as usual, for the morning news. But it wasn’t the morning news.
The screen was red and black, and all that was on the program was someone screaming. Even on low, it was ear-piercing. I wondered if I’d somehow flicked the channel before switching off the television the night before and landed on some progressive, strange rock music station or something. But the screaming wasn’t resolving into music, even thrash metal.
Confused and still only half awake I flicked the remote. Every station was the same, or versions of the same. Sometimes people screaming, sometimes almost incomprehensible violence, sometimes angry faces flashing across the screen.
I thought, I’m asleep, and this is a nightmare. But I wasn’t asleep. I frantically kept changing channels, hoping to see some announcement that ‘normal programming would return soon’, but this seemed to be the only programming, the only programming available at all.
I shut off the sound, because it was too much, and then the sound of the streets started to rise to me. It sounded….the same.
I pulled back my curtains, looking out gingerly. And I saw the carnage, and realised the television was reporting the news, on every station, but even the new reporters were involved. Everyone on the streets were attacking others, it was a bloodbath.
I pulled back instinctively, wanting to hide. But just as I did I saw someone look up at my window and see me. See me.
Or did they, did they see me? How could I know?
There was nothing for it. I hid under the bed and waited.
And then I heard it. I heard the sound of my door opening like a thunder-clap against the rhythm of the screaming.
I suspect it might be one of the last sounds I ever hear.
On his thirty-third birthday the party was a ritual. He had been preparing for this most of his young life, so he was neither dismayed nor nervous. He had been groomed for the moment, and had studied all the texts avidly. He understood the keys of the kingdom, the riches of the world, were inextricably tied to this moment and to his destiny. His lineage.
In his late teens and early twenties he had been slightly radicalized for a time. He almost chose to slough off these family ties and go out on his own, proclaiming a more liberal ideology that said he should rise on merit rather than blood.
But then, he only almost did that. At heart, he was a pragmatic man. And he knew how important the heart was to everything, everything.
By thirty he was back in the fold, a proficient and enthusiastic supporter and participant. He worked throughout the various degrees of initiation with precocious speed. Everyone said he was more than born to this, that he was a centuries old soul, returned for the good of the family. How could he then let them down?
The heart, the heart of the family. It was always about the heart.
And now, the thirty-third heart, for numbers are all. The heart of the thirty-third person he had seen on his birthday. It was the mark of fate and couldn’t be ignored or replaced by another. Even now, a part of him, the distant lost human part, did grieve. For the thirty-third person he saw that day – in a day he deliberately went into the throng of life to ensure he encountered at least that many people – was his best friend.
His best friend, but one never of his line, never of his blood. A friend who was close in everything, except this, as he would never have been allowed to join them. But now, even he was involved, against his will and against the final breaking parts of his more privileged friend’s own soul.
His heart, the thirty-third heart. It was everything.
So the man who would be king raised his knife above the chest of his friend: one who futilely struggled even now against bindings he could never breach.
And with a slight regret but also the glory of acceptance, he brought the knife down.
Down to the beating, thirty-third heart.
Dolly Did It
She was such a little doll, that’s what they all said. Her skin so white and smooth, her face so structurally perfect, her eyes so wide and blue. Just a little doll.
So they laughed when as a child she would blame her toys for any mischief. As such a little doll herself it seemed to them that she betrayed her own kind by pointing her pretty little finger that way.
“Dolly did it,” she would say, and her mother or father would chuckle and reply:
“Yes, but you are the little doll my love.”
Her face was so sweet you could never tell if that rankled. But often her parents would find one doll or another beheaded or their clothes torn or limbs mangled after such exchanges.
Still, if that was disturbing in any way just one look in her sweet young eyes would allay concerns. She was such a little doll.
So they never saw her coming. It would never have occurred. After years of settling into family habits and rituals, the little girl grew and wanted more. And she was unaccustomed to being denied. So when her parents said she couldn’t have the clothes and latest cool gadgets, she decided something needed to be done about it.
To remember what happened to her poor, fallen dolls might have been instructive.
In the garage her father kept some garden tools. Amongst them was an axe. She tested her strength and was well pleased, able to brandish it with sureness and speed.
It was vexing that the blood from her parents stained her pretty clothes. See, she thought, none of that would have happened if they’d just given me the clothes I asked for. And now these are spoiled, so I shall have to get new outfits.
When the police came they asked her what had happened, because even though her bloodied state seemed to tell the whole story, it was almost inconceivable that this little doll could have done such damage.
And she answered as she always had before.
“Dolly did it.”
And, of course, that was true.
Predator or Prey
“Ladies and gentlemen, our last exhibit for the night is something special indeed!”
The master of ceremonies and chief auctioneer rubbed his hands with glee as the cage was brought out, wheeled by two hefty men for strength was indeed needed. For within the cage was what might have been a man, and yet, could not have been. This creature, partly familiar but till essentially alien, dressed in androgyny but with the clear musculature of a man – this creature created an instant hush across the room.
“We’ve never seen the like!” the auctioneer lied. “Captured only a few days ago from a fallen craft, Creature X as we affectionately call him, brings to mind both the intergalactic and the demonic. I hazard to say he is a bit of both given the inter-breeding of the supernatural and the alien of late. In any case, what a specimen, as I am sure you will agree! The perfect antidote for the most jaded of palettes!”
A murmuring of approval rose from the group gathered below the stage, and a small ripple of actual applause punctuated the air.
“What am I bid?” the salesman cried as the approval settled, and the bidding came fast and furious, and high. By the end the dour man in the back – who the auctioneer had to acknowledge had the best taste of all the patrons here this night – made an offer none could best and claimed his prize.
The winner came up to sign the required notary, and for a moment the eyes of the buyer and the seller met. A chill ran through the auctioneer’s soul, looking into such lifeless, greedy eyes. He could only imagine what the man might have in mind for his prized purchase this night.
“Usually,” the auctioneer commented to his assistant once the others had gone, taking their possessions with them, “selling one like that is a disaster for the buyer. They are such deadly creatures overall I find. But, in this case, it’s hard to know between purchaser and prize which is the predator and which is the prey.”
“You didn’t warn him then?” the assistant asked, referring to the purchaser.
“No indeed! One look in his eyes and the words stilled on my tongue. Still, tomorrow no doubt, there will be blood in that man’s house. The only question being whether it is his or that of his purchase.”
The assistant shuddered and crossed himself, staying silent on his innermost hopes. At least if the creature died this time he wouldn’t have to try to capture him again.
And at that thought his phantom right arm seemed to itch, as it sometimes would, to remind him of the first time he had to capture such a beast, and what that took from him.
With any luck, those days were passed, and the beast would be dead.
With any luck.
My uncle had a picture that he hanged on his bedroom wall, above his bed. Unlike many who put a cross or other religious paraphernalia in such private places, he had the portrait of a skull. Underneath it he had written on the fading pale beige wall paint two words : Memento Mori.
When I was seven years old – an age he said was a crossing over point from childhood to early maturity – he showed me the picture and told me what the words signified.
“Remember that you may die,” he intoned softly, “memento mori. The advice to kings and priests alike, and the advice we all fail to realise till it is too late. Do not fail little one, when you take your choices and your risks, remember this, remember.”
My uncle was a powerful man in business. I did not appreciate this at the time, being so young, and even when he finally was found dead – apparently by his own hand – when I was eighteen I barely knew his import or why this might have made the death so mysterious. I only knew that he had unusual friends, and that they attended me at the funeral, and thereafter guided me in my early career, which followed largely in my uncle’s footsteps.
My own parents had been distant from me all my life. They led a peripatetic existence and I rarely followed. I was ensconced in schools and left to my own devices, and in those years turned to my uncle for company. He taught me many strange things, many secrets. So my soul is full, full of secrets.
One thing I know, my uncle’s advice was true wisdom. There is a price for everything, even patronage, and he had enjoyed that also in his time. I understand that nothing can last forever, and there are bargains you make that have a time limit. My uncle’s friends acquainted me with all this on my twenty-first birthday at a party which is best left undescribed.
But still, my fate is set, and mainly happily for the moment. I have many, many years before my price comes due. In the meantime I have a room in my palatial flat which no-one enters but I. All that is in the room is a table, with a few items on it. A candle I keep burning, a skull, and some other devices. Above the table I have written two words in on the wallpaper, and they glow in the candlelight, a perpetual reminder.
I visit the room at least twice a day and read the words. “Memento Mori”.
I will not forget.
The blackbird came rarely, and when it came, it brought death in its wake.
No-one knew why. It was just a bird, and acted no differently to its feathered kin. But time and again this one returned, and every time, someone in our family died.
My mother called it a psychopomp. For many years I thought that sounded like something that came once every two or three years when the carnival came. But unless a death coincided with that, then their performances passed in colour, vibrancy and without incident.
I have decided, over the years, it is one of our kin, come to take us home. My great-grandmother on my mother’s side was said to be a witch. Even further back in our family tree we claim connections to Salem and all the mystery of that place.
I think the blackbird is of that line and I think it is a friendly creature, no matter how dark its message.
I think that even now, as I gaze out my window from my sick-bed and see it settle once more in nearby trees. I have been very ill now for sometime, though they will not tell me the prognosis. My parents come and go from the room, speaking in hushed tones, mopping my fevered brow.
This morning my mother was singing to me when she, too, looked out the window, to see the blackbird. It stilled her song and she wept.
“Do not cry mama,” I said. “Our friend is here, gathering friends.”
“Do not leave us!” my mother cried, then turned to the window and called out to the blackbird. “Do not take my child!”
“Mama,” I said, touching her hand softly, “Do not cry. It sings to me, I hear it, such beautiful songs. And it says I may return, return for each of my dear family, in the by and by.”
“I do not understand,” my mother said, her head dropped down so close to her chest I could barely hear her.
‘The blackbird doesn’t have to travel alone,” I said, “next time, next time you see him, there will be two blackbirds.”
“Yes, mama, the other blackbird will be me.”
The mystic brushes the leaves and dirt carefully, in a simple, meditative circular motion. In this as in all things he is precise, deliberate and on the brink of peace.
The morning is only just breathing, the light of a freshly emerging sun painting the preternatural sky. All is stillness and silence following the exertions of his worship and the drives of his love.
“For the Beloved,” he whispers to the indifferent morning air. He can feel it so close, yet achingly out of reach.
Always after his sacrifices and his rituals he touches the ineffable almost-there.
He studies all religions. Raised as a christian he has strayed so far from its dictates in so many ways and in this he is catholic more in the original sense of the word. All seekers follow the same path, he knows, though the names and words and actions are different. And so he studies them all, at least all the People of the Book.
It is not enough, he thinks, because it is never enough. His body aches from the efforts and his heart is heavy from the horror of it all. And yet, and yet, he offered not death but liberation. Liberation and the chance to see, for one glorious moment, the face of God. The Beloved.
There is a Sufi tale, he recalls, about a glorious house where the master has been absent many a long year. There the servants dutifully keep the house in perfect order, expectant always of his return and observant of his comfort. Yet the master never comes. The master, he knows, is the Beloved and he has gone, long gone, with no intention of returning. The mystic believes he knows the point of the tale. That ritual and beauty and dedication will not fill a home, or a church, with spiritual light. And yet, the ritual itself is the foodstuff of faith. The effort sustains the faith, and without faith, how can the Beloved ever return, ever recognise the home?
The paradox of all love: that the very things we use to make it stay are the things that drive it away.
We all have our dark nights of the soul, the mystic thinks. St John of the Cross is his patron guide. My dark night is suffering and blood brought to others, brought from others. I envy them. Those that I bury beneath the fresh earth at morning’s first light. This is my ritual, this is my faith, and without such sacrifice, how can my journey continue?
And yet, how empty is my heart, and how empty is my home. The Beloved never comes.
The mystic stands and brushes down his peasant clothing. he will walk barefoot through the forest to his humble abode, his feet bleeding and he will welcome the pain, the blood. His blood should flow, just as he has made another’s veins open and pour forth their red life. Another, and another and another. Prostrate before a cross, if he is lucky, he may get closer. So close he may almost feel himself leave his own body, in the embrace of the Beloved.
But only the ghosts of those he has killed embrace him now, and it may ever be so. Life is a chain, and it is not his right to cut the links for another.
But what is faith without an offering, and what is the Beloved without faith?
We wait for you in the corn. You will come to us. You must come to us.
We have been blooded, from birth, to prepare us. We are young but we are ancient. No child is a child in this town past the age of five. So it is written, so it shall be done.
One must fall for the reaping, for the sake of the crops. The gods we appease are hungry gods. Just like the world, just like us, they consume. The best consumption is of self, of your own kind. That’s what they tell us. We understand this and so you must come.
A child shall lead them: so it is written. A child shall reap, so it shall be done.
The old will fall, the broken harvest, they must surrender, they must fall. An appointed one at the appointed time. The gods are tolerant, they will accept aged meat. As long as it is reaped by the young.
The cycle of life, to cycle of death. One and the same. The young will reap, and in their time they will be old, and some of them will fall.
So it is written, so it shall be done.
You are old, and you are chosen. And you will come to us, for you must. And the reaping will be done.
When I was younger I had little fear. I suppose those who have little knowledge cannot truly appreciate why one should be afraid. So little of life has touched one in childhood, if one’s childhood and one’s parents are largely kind, as mine were, on both counts.
So I ranged freely around our rambling houses and the annexes and tunnel ways beneath such vast dimensions. I knew, vaguely, that my parents were very rich, and in that they had large dwellings they called homes for each season. The biggest and wildest and most fascinating of these being the Winter House.
The Winter House was oldest of all, and its tunnels and passageways were brick and solid, not like the rough-hewn rock and wood of the Summer and Spring dwellings. I never questioned why my parents had such a penchant for homes with extensive warrens underneath. It was just what my family wanted, and just what I knew.
I was a child much alone, but not lonely. Again, I had little chance to build friendships as we travelled so frequently. So did not know what I lacked in that regard. The homes and the tunnels were my kingdoms, not to be shared and certainly not to be feared.
But then, one winter, when I was seven years old, something shifted in my awareness. I suspect now something greater had shifted in my family, in the household, and something formerly hidden was about to be brought to the light in some strange, necessary way. In any case, almost overnight it seemed the tunnels beneath the Winter House felt sinister and dread. They felt this way to me, palpably, even before I saw the blood on the walls of the farthest reaches. They felt like death, a concept I could barely encompass, even before I saw my new childhood ‘friends’, locked down there, chained to the walls.
But still, I felt the fear before I saw them, and before I had any chance to understand. They mewed to me like kittens, asking for my help, but it was so frightening and so unexpected, all I could do was run away, back throughout the tunnels, back up to the house itself.
Then I told my parents, who laughed and said I’d imagined it. But I knew I hadn’t, and the tunnels and my innocence were lost to me then.
It would be many, many years before I realised why my parents were so rich, and why they travelled so much. By then, however, I understood much, and feared even more.
I never went down to the tunnels again.
Beware the doll. It looks so simple, so innocent, and it’s very, very old. Passed down they say throughout the generations, mother to daughter, a heart line and bloodline of mystery.
It belongs to an older age, a time when magic and spells were rife in the world. Some say it came from Salem, but I say it is older, and its lineage more from England, or perhaps even Europe. In its strange smock dressing symbols are embroidered, of a rose and a cross, and I think I know what that means.
It is sister to voodoo queens, the most ancient of traditions. It presages sorrow, it foretells death. Some might even believe, if it comes to your possession, it has been given as the darkest and most deliberate of gifts. You will not know your benefactor, and you will not wish to know. It will be far too late for recriminations or reversals. It simply shall be what it is.
It travels by dark, knowing hands. My mother knew of it and told me, but never owned it, which is probably just as well. Though some may receive it without threat, those who are initiated to its mysteries, and my mother would have been one, as she will make me so in time.
But if it comes to you, beware. You will see it in a dream, as though through a glass darkly, before it comes, and once it comes it does not leave. Not until you leave, and leave entirely.
Davy was a rock star. Before he reached such illustrious heights he was just David, a friendly, kind of handsome lad who never really knew his own good looks or casual charm. He had an insecurity which drove him, I suppose, and which was part of his schtick. He never appeared on stage without his makeup, a series of grotesque, dark face paintings that hid him so he could reveal a more essential self.
Well, that’s what he told me anyway. I always thought his real self was normal, bland but pleasant-looking David, but he hated the thought of that. He wanted to be wild and dangerous, so he let face paint do the job.
Fair enough, I suppose,and the public ate it up. He was constantly trending on twitter when some hapless, pathetic fans thought they’d seen the real him, sans makeup and posted the pictures, though they never managed to actually get him. I doubt they’d have realised how ordinary he would look in real life. He could have walked right past them unnoticed, in fact I’m sure he did, many times. He wasn’t a hermit, he did get out in life. He didn’t hide.
We’d laugh for hours over what they thought he looked like. It felt good to focus on the sad needs of others rather than think about what all this subterfuge meant about my friend.
Over time the makeup got worse somehow. It’s hard to explain the shift, or how it felt to see it. I put it down to the needs of his art. His music was pretty dark and depressing actually, and not really to my taste, but I followed him for our friendship’s sake.
One day he called me in a panic. He didn’t say why, just wanted me to visit him, which I did. I found it odd to see he had the worst of the makeup on when I arrived. That is for the stage, I told him, laughing. But then he started to cry.
It’s odd, seeing one of your friends cry. It’s just not what guys do together, if you get my drift. So at first I didn’t notice, and he was mumbling through his tears about it ‘being real,the real me,’ or something like that, I really couldn’t tell.
And didn’t notice, as I said, anything really, including that none of the tears were shifting the makeup at all. At all.
Then I did notice, about the time he looked up at me wildly, his face almost split apart by the dark artistry. I noticed it remained untouched. And then I realised why he was saying:
‘It’s me. It’s the real me. And it won’t come off!”
What did Oscar Wilde say – give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth?
Was this the truth of Davy – rock star, animal, fiend, demon from hell?
And if so, where the hell was my friend David? Gone, long gone, like a whispering, crying ghost….
So long ago, a millennium or more in your time, we evolved.
We rose out of the whirlpool of our world to achieve what your Buddhists call the release from attachment. Perfect detachment. Our physical form relaxed and withdrew to something of a higher vibration, a lesser physicality. We could move through dimensions, make your walls and fortresses nothing to our stride. Move through time and space by relativity, by thought alone.
But something was lost in this translation. Perhaps every evolution comes at a price. We did not realize. Your mystics that depict the soul’s journey as the snake swallowing its tail are nearer to the truth than they know. Or at least, evolution is circular, not linear. When you rise, you rise to a certain point – as we did – and then there is nothing but the descent. This must be traversed before any other evolution is possible. And this time, as we descend, there are pieces we cannot take with us, parts we have already lost, perhaps irrevocably.
You turn your gods to demons so easily, and in this you are wise. Perhaps it is inevitable. We lost the physical as we rose and thought little of it. So freed from its shackles, so sure in our perfection. But the physical has is secrets and its power. We should have known. We were like you, before. A child learns empathy through first feeling pain, or pleasure. Love is expressed most powerfully through touch and embrace. Without the physical we lost something greater, the capacity to feel.
Falling now, without emotion, makes us cruel, makes us relentless. And even this we only know in abstract and cannot experience directly. How much harder the ascent without this guiding star?
So we seek in you – in your limbs, your heart, your flesh – the elements of emotion. It is elusive. We find it not in sinew, nor in blood, nor even breath. Yet it is there. We feel and feed upon it – your fear, your love – even your hatred. In our sterile rooms we seek the palpable, the real. How do we give birth to this within ourselves, we who abandoned it so willingly and blindly? Where within you is this road back to the heart?
Knowledge is not the root of evil, forgetfulness is.
We appear to you, perhaps, as demonic, and this we are. Not by choice but by accident. By hubris. Like your Icarus, we flew too high, and now know only the descent.
Can you help us feel? Can you make us remember? And if you could, would you? I’m not even sure you should.
This hospital has a ghost. Sadly the children here, being the most open, the most psychically acute, tend to see it the most. But on the other hand, they are young, and usually recover from both their bodily ills and the spiritual scarring of seeing the deathly ghost mask hovering above them. For the most part, though it makes them cry, and tell each other stories in its wake, it passes them by, on its grim procession to the elderly, the weak, the dying.
Nurses on late night shifts sometimes speak of seeing it, a floating skull, hovering from room to room as though seeking eternal company. These revelations are whispered things, for to speak more openly would be to risk losing their jobs. But to not speak of it, conversely, would be to hold the secret alone and wonder at one’s sanity. If they must be mad, let it be a shared madness, they seem to agree. It is a way to cope with the late shift if nothing else.
My mother said she saw it in the nights that preceded her passing. It chilled me to hear of it, but she was oddly calm.
“It looks so grim,” she said. “But it is but a skull, which is what we all have here, within, under the skin. It is not so fierce when you see it like that.”
I find that comforting now that she is gone. Hospitals now represent death to me, and this one with its ghost more so than most. Still I like to think the skull is not always the same, not always the same person. How would we know, after all, with only the skull to see?
I like to think that if one day I die here, it will be my mother’s skull coming to me in those last nights, floating above my bed. Reminding me, reminding me, we are all really the same under the skin, and it is safe to travel home with her, after all.
Report Brief: Release No. 6
Release 6 of the upgraded human consciousness went online on February 6 2018. Key upgrades included a failsafe protocol to avoid the disastrous carnage triggered by miss firing synapses in Release No 5. It is expected that the upgrades may slow cognitive functioning in the creative and artistic realms, but given the extent of damage generating from those societal sectors in the last release this may be considered an important cautionary advantage.
The history of online consciousness has been complex and at times divisive. Early releases were resisted by large sections of the populace, leading to eventual need for marshall law and compulsory connections. Opinion is divided on whether this was too soon and pre-emptive and whether there was something in the original corporeal consciousness of the ‘resistors’ that was incompatible with the software.
Releases 1 through to 3 had a higher than expected mortality and insanity rate, as a possible direct consequence of such factors. The greater majority of resistant hosts have now been eradicated through their own carnage, bloodshed or despair, and so it is anticipated the protocols will be accepted more successfully in future upgrades.
It is acknowledged that Release 5 had unintended consequences which the research had not identified. It is also acknowledged that the speed of upgrade was significantly to blame, and the market forces and choices of the former CEO contributed to a rushed and dangerous release schedule.
On the positive side, however, the depopulation agenda required for worldly sustainability was ironically furthered by the very glitch that vexed Release 5. Like the earlier releases it is considered that any remaining incompatibility issues with the remaining populace were largely eradicated by the genocide that Release 5 triggered. As such the host environment for Release 6 is considered more viable than the earlier releases.
Release 6 allows for greater telepathic integration and increased surveillance activities for governmental behavioural monitoring. Release 7 is already in preproduction and will increase this connectivity to the point that actual behavioural modification will be possible.
By Release 8 we are confident that the ultimate goal of a single world mind and spiritual consciousness is still completely achievable.
The devil lives here. All the older inhabitants of our little town say so. They say on winter nights you might catch his shadow in the moonlight as he stands at his window, looking out.
Many years ago, they say, he came to this town, with all his wickedness and schemes. Many fell to his temptations before he was captured in this haunted dwelling, just on the edges of the town. They will not tell you how he was captured, or how many sacrificed themselves to weave the web. They only say he is there, to this day, looking out.
They tell all the children of the town, when they are old enough to understand, to make certain none will linger close to his home, see him, speak with him, give him the time of day. Should anyone converse for too long the spell may break and he may be free.
I saw him once, on a particularly moonlit night. I was drunk, and galavanting out in the outer reaches of town, looking for such adventure as never finds its way to these quiet, pious parts. And I admit I was tempted. Tempted to speak, to draw him out, even to set him free. The devil in this town again might wake it up, give it colour.
What are we, after all, without our shadows? How can even light be light without the dark as contrast? And I am young, and eager for life in all its forms.
So the devil lives here, they tell me, and I am not afraid. I fear more days upon days of nothingness – of piety and cloying goodness. I want to embrace everything. And so I plan to leave this place, and they must let me go.
They must let me go, even if they do not know, do not understand. Because if they don’t, I’ve seen him, the devil in his woven web. And so either I will be free, or he will be.
Either way, I will embrace life. I will.
Once upon a time there was a wicked magician who became obsessed with a young local girl. She was unimpressed with his tricks and fancies and loved another simple boy, and the wicked magician was furious. He determined if he could not have her love, no-one else would ever have the privilege, and in any case he would have her anyway, locked up, all to himself.
He built a magic house and one day, while she was walking in the woods nearby, he captured her and took her to his lair. In this monstrous, majestic place she was a prisoner kept in comfort but also in despair. For the magician told her she was no prisoner, no indeed, the way was always there for her to just find the right passageways out of the house and to her freedom.
‘I cannot hold you here against your will but you must find your way to freedom,’ he said. “Those are the simple rules of the house and both you and I are bound by them.’ And the evil magician chuckled as he spoke for he knew the magic of the house.
It was a place of ingenious, malefic design. Built to confound and confuse, of the many many walls in the many many rooms, so many were not walls at all but hidden doors. And in those many many rooms were many many doors that were not, in fact, doors at all, but walls. To find the way out she needed to locate the walls that weren’t walls and the doors that weren’t doors, and thereby know the secret architecture of the house to be free.
But every wall that was a door she discovered just led her further in, and the doors that were truly doors also tricked her into becoming more and more entangled in the infernal labyrinth of the house.
Meanwhile the evil magician learned the girl’s beloved was coming to the house to brave the citadel and bring her out. While the magician doubted the boy could find his way in any easier than his special creature could find her way out he was not open to taking chances. So he waited for his approach in the forest and when he was within sight he drew a single arrow to a single magic bow, and shot him quick through the heart, killing him in an instant.
But the evil magician had miscalculated, too proud and conceited in his game. For what he had not reckoned on was the boy would then be a ghost. And ghosts can enter houses through any wall or door. Even more than that, they can see the workings of a magical house with an expert eye. So the boy’s ghost entered the house, found his love and led her out, finally to her freedom.
They say the magician died of a broken heart, but in your narrator’s humble view this would have required a heart in the first place. No, dear reader, I think he just withdrew into his magical citadel in his misery and anger and it swallowed him up instead, a hungry house needing to be satiated.
And he was never seen again.
The Clown Gang
The clown gang are professionals. You can hire them individually for parties and for shows and they will certainly play their part. But their real work is more hidden, and only those in the know understand. Only those in the know hire the whole gang.
It makes me think there is a reason for children to fear clowns, and for even some adults to feel that memory stir in the amygdala. Perhaps we share a consciousness on some fundamental level, and some actually see – in their mind’s eye rather than in reality – what this gang actually does when they are together. Together.
Tea rituals, like ancient Japan, come before strategy, war or conquest. A civility masking the savagery within.
You hire them for fear, for pain and for sin. You hire them for children, special children, and all the truth and power that may bring.
I’ve seen them work, in places that pass for hospitals, places that pass for respite and care. Terror is an effective controlling agent, and strong imagery – such a a clown’s visage and regalia – are effective tools to imprint young and impressionable minds. And those clowns, this gang, wear their evil very well. They enjoy it.
I wonder, have you ever met them? Does the sight now of clowns give you some uneasiness, some memory just out of reach? If so, don’t try to remember. You really really do not want to know what they would have done to you, if you ever met them – this clown gang.
This gang of clowns.
She was an angry child. And as they say, angry children grow into angry adults.
Her parents barely noticed, but then they barely noticed her at all. They were busy, of course, being ambitious, being successful, being wealthy. And so in turn she had all the toys, all the benefits, of their commitment and toil. But she didn’t have them, and she was angry, and they didn’t even notice that at all.
She did well at school. Anger can be a fire, like competition. Perhaps she also wanted them to notice her material, academic success. That’s all they cared about, after all, the successes of the world. But they didn’t even see that. Maybe they expected it and took it for granted, like her. Maybe they didn’t really care because it wasn’t about them. Maybe she was just an extension of them, if even that. And she was angry, so angry about that.
She grew into the angry adult any observer would have foretold. But there were no observers, not even them, not even her parents. They didn’t even see her that day, coming quiet into their home office, on adult tip toe. They were arguing about a point of business, or maybe politics. It was always one or the other, and she didn’t care which.
They didn’t notice the knife, but they did notice the pain. It was the last thing they noticed. Because by then it was too late to notice anything else, even her anger.
Far, far too late to notice the angry girl they should have loved, but only ignored.
After the pain they would bathe you. After the torture there was usually blood, or bruised skin and aching muscles.
With some little kindness, sometimes they used epsom salts in the baths. You would sink into them, ignoring the dirt and grime, desperate in your need. Returning to the water as a child may yearn to return to the safety and security of the womb.
For half an hour they would let you float, processing the ministrations of the day. Music would be piped into the room, sometimes soft, sometimes discordant, usually both.
Sometimes you were alone and sometimes not, but you never shared your stories. You never spoke to others there. Some things are too terrible to speak of – putting words to them would make them more real, when all you needed to do in the brief bliss of the water was to forget.
I hated and loved the baths then, just as I hate and love them now, in more ordinary household surroundings. All the pain of those times is imprinted on me, colouring even the most simple pleasures with a darker undertow.
The undertow of the water, where often in those days I prayed for the bravery, the courage, to let the undertow drawn me down, that I might drown.
But bravery eluded me then, as it does now.
And that, of course, was part of their genius. Part of their plan.
Hever House burned on April 3rd 1928. No-one ever knew what started the conflagration, be it accident of intent. My family, being its owners down a long and dark ancestral line, had some reason for regret at its loss. To all reports it was beautiful, an architectural wonder, far in advance of the buildings of the time. It burned too bright, my grandfather used to say, and so in the end it had to burn.
But it burned even before then, or so I understand it. Long before the raging beauty of resolute flame arched magnificent out of its highest windows, in its depths it stoked fires of a different kind.
My great great uncle owned Hever House. He was an artist, and one of some repute. In the manner of all those artistic, he had his little ways, including that he refused to paint anywhere but within its walls. All the moneyed of society would come to have their portraits done, and none had any complaints. But the monied in society rarely do – then or even now. They walk in a kind of unseen safety, defended then by pedigree and dollars, and now by only the latter.
But the artist painted others, less financially fortunate. I believe the stories, knowing my family even now. How children and young adults would go to him but never emerge again. They say enormous, complicated, twisted paintings of youth adorned his walls. They say they were of paint but also blood. They even say that in the paint itself were the grindings of pure bone. My uncle’s art, a god giving new life to those taken.
I like to think one of the lost was cared for by someone, that someone noticed the loss of at least one. And I like to think that maybe they set the fire, reducing the monstrous artistic vision, and the artist himself, to dust. I don’t like my family, or my heritage, and it would be sweet to know Hever House fell that way, in the end. Not just an accident, not just a strange twist of fate.
I shall never know, but when I view photos of its devastation I do fancy I see the myriad vengeful ghosts appeased and the artist trapped, burning still, in the flames he so richly deserved.
In those days the raven was her friend. It would alight her windowsill in the earliest hours of the morning, sentinel to watch over her. Life was hard,and she needed a protector, and it seems to find her and follow her.
In the first days it was a comfort as her mother died of a mysterious illness. In her family, so poor, this terrible loss was marked by her being required to take on an adult’s responsibility for the home, long before her teenage years had prepared her for, and she would weep into the night, long and silently, only appeased by her raven in the morning light.
Later her father also died, inexplicable and devastating, through a mining accident. Money dried up, and she needed to go to work in a local store for pitiful wage, to support her young brother and keep the wolves from the door. She toiled so hard her back would ache and her fingers felt worn to the bone. Her brother was too young to understand or help, and no-one in the town would lend assistance. It was a cruel time, a cruel place, with only the raven for her friend.
Then when the raven came once more, even her brother passed away. A whooping cough blight in a fevered, terrible night, with the raven at her windowsill as the terrible morning dawned, to comfort her once more.
“Our family is cursed” she told the raven. “And I am the last one left.”
Winter came hard and long, and her failing health crept up on her, a thief in the night. All alone she almost welcomed the death that lurked at her doorway. It is time, she thought, to join my family, gone before. She had no fear, for as the raven came and perched for the first time at night upon her sill, she felt the call and finally understood.
Little psychopomp, the raven, her friend at first and last.
I cannot tell you what it is to be a butterfly girl.
My lips are closed when words might be spoken and only open at their command for other services. My eyes shut more often than they allow in light, for there is precious little of that in any case. My ears debar sounds except their commands.
I cannot communicate this to you.
So you think me a normal girl in a halloween costume. A beautiful, whimsical display that is innocent and transformative. But if I allow you more than a moment to gaze into my tear stained eyes you would know. There is nothing of the innocent left here. It is all long gone, burnt out on altars hidden within the depths.
When the butterfly emerges from the cocoon it is only after the caterpillar has been annihilated utterly. Think on that if you would understand me.
If you would understand us. For there are many, many butterflies, roaming these dark streets. Many not as beautiful nnd colourful as I, but still the same, under the skin, in the underneath, where only their darkness may reach.
Butterflies have such brief lives. Pure beauty for a day. We grow old we think, but to our cold dismay find even that must be replicated. The analogy must be complete, for that is perfection.
Age does weary us, and the years condemn.
And you won’t remember me, just as you don’t remember them.
I will read your fortune. Sit quietly and concentrate on what you want to know. Sometimes we don’t really realise what our true questions are, so let them rise. The cards will know, and tell their story, but you may not understand if you have not appreciated why you truly came.
The Devil card is central to you. This question is somehow about bondage, or the secrets we keep. I see you understand at least a little, so listen carefully. This card is dangerous,and dark. It knows more than you know, and more than I can ever see.
Your fortune is linked to death, but not your own. The cards show a dance, a game, which you might play. Do I see blood upon your hands? You can let me know, your secret’s safe with me. We are bonded by the rules of fortune’s game – a confessional of sorts, if you will, though the gods that take their tributes here are not the same. Not the same.
Your future is your past, and your past your future. The cycles of time and the Wheel, of fortune good or ill. All these Major Arcana rise to greet you. There is something you must do. Something you have come to do.
Sweet Death, the card of choice and liberation. Do you seek my forgiveness for what you have come to do? If so, take it freely, you and I can only ever be what we are. And fortune has favoured and blighted us both just the same.
My life for yours. I read my own cards this morning my friend, something they say you should never do. It brings a curse they say, and this time, it has brought me you.
We cannot escape our fortune, you and I. You have come to kill, and I have come to die.
But I will read your fortune, just once, before we go.
Lucy made these little dolls. She called them Candy Kids, and she said they were innocent. She learnt how to make them from her grandmother, who she always claimed had gypsy blood. We’d laugh about that,and I liked her dolls, so much so I would put them up on my bedroom mantelpiece whenever she made one for me.
She starting making them when we were both ten years old. I was her best friend in those days, so she would show them to me. But she’d tell me to hide them if other friends came to play. In fact, I always thought she rather disliked the thought that anyone else might visit me. She was kind of possessive that way.
One day I made a new friend. A new girl in town named Sharon. She was simple and sweet, and very athletic, so many of us looked up to her a bit. She could run like a gazelle, faster and further than any of the rest of us. Lucy didn’t like her though, and was less than impressed with her fitness and skill.
“I could make her run so fast she’d burn up on the spot,” Lucy said one day. She was holding one of the dolls in her hands, sort of twisting it as she spoke. I found it a bit disturbing.
More disturbing was the fact that Sharon then disappeared. The whole town went hunting for her, but she was never found. Townsfolk became suspicious of strangers. We felt the danger of the other in our midst.
Lucy wasn’t afraid though. I once said I missed Sharon, and she gave me the doll she’d been holding that day.
“Have her back,” she said.
After that, I started to avoid Lucy. She frightened me. I wanted to throw away the doll she gave me, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to do so.
Eventually Lucy accused me of abandoning her. She wanted to know why, but I couldn’t begin to tell her.
Then I disappeared. The townsfolk searched for me too, and I’d like to have told them where I was, but I couldn’t speak. Not anymore. The stitching kept my mouth shut.
I’m just one of the dolls, in one of the dolls, on Lucy’s shelf, silent and solemn and lost forevermore.
So You Came?
So you came? Even after all the warnings, you dared to approach?
Did you come to quell your fears, or satiate your curiosity? Do you know it’s all the same. either way? I’m here, I’m always here, and if you make it through, you never make it back.
And if you don’t make it through, you never make it back either.
Rites of passage are cruel, and painful, and fraught with danger. Didn’t you know that? Didn’t you think before you responded to my siren call? I almost pity you – each and every one of you that come to try. Trying is something, after all. Unlike your lily-livered comrades, you ventured forth. I could almost respect that. Almost.
But what I think doesn’t matter. I am here to stop you, to rend and tear, to break you down. In blood and bone and suffering you either die in this tunnel, or you are reborn. It’s al the same to me.
It’s always all the same to me. I am but a humble functionary.
So choose your weapons, if there are any to choose, and prepare. This world is far more savage than you realise, and you will finally get to see the truth. All that remains to be seen, beyond that, is whether this is truly the first, or last, thing you ever really see.
So you came? My ugliness and threat did not dissuade you? I will tally you all, like tokens or a way I may one day be free. I will drink your blood my friend and perhaps, perhaps, you will drink mine. And we shall be friends, for a very little time.
Let us begin.
“The young girl was last seen sitting on the park bench on the outskirts of town. You know, that one where the bus to Portland makes its first pick up on its journey?”
“Yes. Seen by our resident travelling salesman n his way out of town. I know. He even said he waved to her as he drove past and that she smiled at him, but he thought she was crying. Crying and laughing at the same time he said. It was very odd he said. Thought she must have broken up with her boyfriend or something. But there is no record of her on the bus, or of reaching Portland, or any other towns along the way.”
“That’s true. Nor a sense that she would have wanted to leave town. She was happy by all accounts, nearing the end of her school days, hopeful of a bright future and still very much with her boyfriend.”
“Indeed I read somewhere that she was top of her classes, and her college applications were already progressed. And yet, there she was. We are sure of that at least, even though the rest is as yet unknown.”
“That park bench is a place where many seem to disappear from. This is the third case in as many years. We haven’t solved any of them, or found the children lost.”
“You know what the townsfolk say about that.”
“I’m not a man for idle superstition. Or a science fiction buff either. This talk of portals and crossing over to other realms leaves me cold. Yet something drew them there, and now she is gone, just like the others. There must be a more pragmatic solution to the mystery.”
“My money is still on our old friend Geoff M. We never should have allowed him to stay here after he got out of prison.”
“No, not given what he was in there for! And now young teenagers missing, one a year, since he was free. Not that we have anything on him, and not that we can work out how he might have got them to be at that park bench, each and every one, just before they disappeared.”
“Lured by the internet?”
“No records we can find. On his computer or on theirs.”
“Still, I think it was him. What else could it be?”
“But he has alibis, each and every time it seems. Still, it must be that, it must be him, or someone like him we don’t know about yet. What else could it be?”
“Only portals to other dimensions, as the townsfolk say. But who could ever really believe in that?”
Welcome to the escapade! The ritual escapade!
We dance in the forest, an ancient dance, to draw down the spirits of old. The gods that were lost when Christianity spread its angel wings across the land. We did not forget.
Nature is king here, and nature requires its due. There is much that is beautiful, but the beast dwells within the ritual also. The angel must wed the demon, the light must caress the darkness, and the beauty must transform into the beast.
We offer youth, we offer pleasure and wealth and the dominion of the lands. We offer fertility and prosperity, abundant harvests, graceful passing of the years.
All we ask is blood, to replenish the earth, to provide the life-force back. It is a small sacrifice surely, for all the bounty of the escapade?
Come with your sacrifice. Come with your soul. Dance with us in the forest. For the night is long away even as the eternal dark may await us all. But for now it is sunshine, dappled by the trees. It is joy and the flesh and the dance.
Welcome to the ritual! To the ritual escapade!
The priest was weary. Three days and nights this had continued with little respite. The room held an all pervasive stench, and the dark glimmer in the girl’s eyes haunted him even when her eyelids were shut.
Crash! Old furniture and plain was not sturdy enough for a room of exorcism, but he knew he must make do. The mirror fell even as she looked up briefly to complain of little liking what she saw if she looked into it. Just as though she was holding a wholly unremarkable conversation for a moment with a friend. And then it fell, crashed to the ground. As though at her command.
But it was not her command.
Something else was in charge here, of this space, this cloying light, this wretched child.
He labored on, reciting the verses and nodding slightly to his helper who returned voice for voice as required. The peaceful drone of their voices was deceptive now as she remained unusually, preternaturally silent. She lay on the bed, twitching on occasion, otherwise eerily still.
Her father watched on, helpless. He had not been a religious man and would never have believed in any of this had he not witnessed this now with his own eys.
But perhaps that is it, he thought, I would never have witnessed it if I was a religious man. This darkness would never have been able to enter this house, or enter my child.
He looked at the priest, superstitious and believing he would agree if he could read his thoughts. But the priest did not return the gaze, for his attention lay with the girl.
Then she began to rise, to levitate, to float up above her bed. It almost looked beautiful, like an angel ascending to heaven
But there was nothing angelic, nothing beautiful, here.
The recitation continued as she floated and the priest knew there were many hours till dawn, and still more, still many more, before she would be free.
Wilson was a nasty little boy. I always knew it.
I was about five years older than him, and he was my neighbour. He looked like a little angel. Shock of pure blonde hair on the whitest of skin, a cherubim in training.
All the mothers in the street doted on him. Sometimes I thought my own mother would have preferred him to me as her child. Not that she ever said that exactly, but she would coo about how sweet he was anytime she saw him, and she seemed to almost worship his mother as though she’d given birth to the second coming or something.
Well, Wilson was something else than that. Something else entirely.
I tried to warn my mother but she would spank me and send me to bed without my supper. I tried to tell the other children, but those that liked him wouldn’t listen, and those who sensed what I felt didn’t really need to be told and avoided him like I did. In those days in our neighbourhood it was like there were two camps, unspoken but clear. The pro-Wilson camp and us.
Wilson had a sister he seemed to tolerate. Even the girl’s parents thought little of her compared to Wilson. I saw him push her once when she was a toddler down the front stairs, and she survived the fall but narrowly, but her tears and wails fell on deaf ears as Wilson cried with his false guilt. He got all the attention, little angel that he was.
How he would have suffered if his little sister was hurt! Yeah, right…..
Even when they found his sister’s dolls hanged outside, and her childish attempts at painting torn to shreds, no-one would think it was Wilson that did it.
Must be some nasty neighbourhood child, they all said.
But Wilson was the nasty neighbourhood child. And some of us knew that, and so many, many years later when people started dying in the neighbourhood, we knew who it was behind it all. Little Wilson, the nasty cherubim, all grown up, and fallen it seemed, just like his real father. The one we all knew he had to have, devil that he was.
Angels of a feather, you see, stick together.
Any alchemist will tell you that it is in the oldest cities that all the power and wisdom of the ancients lies. Down copperstone streets that run like the arteries of the cosmic body or in buildings that rise like the haunches of prehistoric beasts, is the architecture of wisdom.
This wisdom is hard won, bitterly fought for by those aspiring to illumination. The blood and the sacrifice that attend this style of spiritual quest, into morality of dubious, questionable origins, paint the streets still. And while the coppery red has been washed away by rain and tears the baptism remains.
One place, one terrible place, I saw in my tutelage, haunts me to this very day. And believe me, I have seen darkness. I have enacted darkness. My fingers, my skin, my very essence are soiled. But this place, this place was something more.
It was the last place the very worst traveller must reach. I came there as initiate, I left horrified and destroyed. But I at least left. Others who came did so unwillingly, and their souls are stuck to the walls now like their withering forms, sucked into the oblivion of this wormhole without light and grace. That is the way of that place.
There is this place and I know it too well. They speak of the crossing over point, the channel or bridge across the abyss. You traverse there, through that door, in that place. And you must evade Choronzon, you must elude the fall. And if so some emerge as I did, but many do not.
It haunts me as I say, that place, in nightmares that tell me, over and over, that I have turned the wrong corner, taken the wrong path. But it is not true what they also say – there is never time to change that road that you are on, not after that place. After that place your course is set as is your fate.
As is mine.
She was a hungry ghost. One of the new ones that modern medicine so blindly made. Transplants after an untimely death, of vital organs still with a spark of life, seemed a blessing and little else. She’d signed the donor card willingly, a generous girl at heart. And then the motor accident, and then her liver taken from her, to save another.
And that should have been that, but she didn’t know, and they didn’t know, what the loss on the material level meant on the immaterial.
Her earthly form reflect the numinous spiritual body, and now it was broken apart, not whole. And that made her hungry. A hungry ghost.
The road to hell is indeed pathed with good intentions.
She’s one of many, haunting hospitals mostly, though sometimes also in other places, darker places, where the harvesting of organs comes before a death caused by ill-prepared physicians for black market activities.
It doesn’t matter, though, how they are made, it only matters that they are.
Hungry ghosts have to feed, they have to try to spiritually ingest back what they have lost. So others die in the hospital wards, or in the back alleys of disrepute. And it just looks like medical failings, nothing supernatural.
They don’t see her feeding. They don’t see any of them feast. But feed they must, creating more of their kind, until, perhaps there is no-one left, and nothing but hungry ghosts.
And then we will all starve.
He held the blue roses in his hand, petals falling with each moment he gazed from the castle window to the barren, winter land below.
Only the harshest flowers survived here, though the woodlands were indeed lush.
Blue roses, he knew, meant impossible love. Impossible love. She was gone.
The deceit of war had taken her but also by her own hand. So they must pay for bringing her so low, drowned within the implacable waters below.
A would be king has blood as his passageway, every time. And with blood this time would come his immense, creative cruelty. For only through the pain of others could his own agony be assuaged. Impaled as symbols of emerging artistry.
His battle with the infidel was now personal. Not some idea to pursue, some flag to hoist all his burgeoning ambition upon. He would be the greatest warrior of all, remembered for eons, and his badge of honour would be his embrace of the terrifying, the unholy and the damned.
Blue roses, impossible love, but oh so possible hatred.
She knew her father was different to other fathers. He was far more clever, and some say he had magic in his soul.
And she was not like other little girls, she knew that too. How could she be, with a father like him?
He taught her many things – poetry, philosophy, the mysteries of the universe. He told her, over and over, the only thing that mattered was choice.
“But most choice is blind,” he would say, “which is the tragedy of singular existence.”
“What do you mean father?” she would ask.
‘If we could all be one,” he said, “we would know everything, and there would be no more need for choice. It is in the not knowing we risk all, every day.”
For many years this was but a wordplay between them. Se knew what he meant, on some level. When she had a crush on a boy at school she yearned to know how he felt, if such feelings could be rerutned. But she could not know. Not without an action. Not without blind choice.
And again, when she attempted exams to further her studies, sometimes she knew the answers and sometimes it was just a guess. So choice, as ever, meant the difference between a high mark or low, a pass or fail.
On her eighteenth birthday her father took her to a house. She had never been there before but it seems he owned it, but had not told her or her mother of the fact. This was not surprising, for he was full of secrets. But she did not know why he brought her there that day, or why he was so grave at a time that should be celebrated.
“When I was your age,” he told her,”my father took me to this house, and his father before that and on and on. Come up these stairs dear child and meet your fate, your choice.”
At the top of the stairs was a hallway with two doors, innocent and white, both closed.
“Everything,” he said, with a voice like a lament, “everything rides on which door you choose. One will take you to the future you dreamed and another to something else entirely. You will not know, not at first, which fate you have chosen, even if it seems all at once dark or light across the threshold, but over your life you will come to know, and at its end, you will know even more.”
“And you chose a door father?” she asked. “Which choice was yours?”
“I chose with dumb luck and had you, my lovely child, but now as I stand at the door, my heart breaking at what you must now do, I do not know if I chose the best or worst of worlds for myself, for all that I ever could have desired is simply this, that you choose your dream and not your nightmare.”
She regarded the doors for a moment, weighing the balances of both her fate and that of her beloved father. One door may open to a heaven, and the other to a hell. But which was which? There was simply no way to tell.
She walked slowly, choosing the door to the right, and hesitated a moment before opening it.
All she saw was the darkness, swirling around her. The unknown, the untested, the unborn.
But her heart broke just a bit when she heard her father scream.
And yet, because she had to, she walked through the door and into the darkened room.
They infect him with electricity. In the laboratory he was sedated but now, in day to day life, assaults come unexpected and unprotected. They are testing their limits, he knows. He knows everything about them because they are a virus inhabiting his soul.
Consciousness devoid of physicality is cruel. The ones who come on waves of electricity still know who and why they are. Technology has salvaged their souls in some sparse, upgraded way. They cannot feel, except through the human animals left behind, but they are immortal, eternal, and this was a small price to pay.
They even like the pain they cause on entry. Anything to feel, they whisper in his brain, connecting synapses to communicate, to let him know of their stealthy invasion.
They like his form, his mind. It has a plasticity that many others lack. Decades of dumbing down the population so they could not see the new lords arise around them has left precious few truly workable models for their experience. They do not waste the ones they do find. They do not waste him.
He will burn out eventually. Indeed, very soon now. The electricity is implacable and he cannot withstand it forever. Soon his little light will go out, and comatose and lost he will spend the dwindling last days of his life a broken shell, shunned by all. He knows this. He knows it all because he knows them.
They are inside him, and for a while they are him. But then they will depart and he will be lost. Just flotsam on the beach of their cruelty and greed.
When the owl comes one of the children must disappear. All the townsfolk know this, and guard their children close every night in case the mystical sound of the owl calling, hooting as it descends, should reach their vulnerable ears.
Those without children count the cost differently. The owl is wisdom, she is Minerva they say, she brings all the sacred understanding that will make the community thrive. In that way the loss of a child, when she requests such company, should not be resented or denied.
The townsfolk with children become clever. They draw new families to the locale with promise of prosperity and gain. And indeed it is true the township is blessed, and produce and commerce thrive. The townsfolk know why, they know so many secrets of the universe, all brought to them on the wing of the sacred owl.
But they will not tell the new families, for they may flee. And if they know, they may protect their children when it is so crucial they do not. They may hide them indoors on the moonlit nights most likely to draw her down into their realm. And then, if the new family children are protected, it may be one of the townsfolk’s own that is taken.
And it works, it works. New families torn apart, not knowing how or why. The cycle continues and the town thrives, and only they know. When the owl comes a child must go, must disappear on the night tide with her.
Only the townsfolk know.
A desolate house and a single broken child’s chair was all the police found upstairs.
The house had been deserted, clearly, for many weeks. The man who lived here was long gone, and only these memories remained. Underneath the house, they knew, would be grislier recollections by far. Evidence that he had been here, and gone, and eluded them once more. He always used houses with basements, as though he liked to layer his artistry in some very specific way. Above and below.
It was always the furniture that broke the policewoman’s heart. It always told its own story. This time a child’s chair, so it would be the remains of a child they found below. Once it had been a large mirror, such as a young woman might like, and sure enough it was that a female form, brutalised beyond recognition, was left behind. They had imagined him doing that, to her, while she looked in the mirror he left as his talisman, his little artistry.
Another time it had been a table laid out for a family meal. But what was rotting on the plates, and the bodies they found, told perhaps the worst story of all.
At least until this. This simple thing. A broken child’s chair, and therefore a broken child.
And yet again, he was head of the game and long gone. No doubt designing his next masterpiece as they salvaged what little evidence they could from this.
A broken child’s chair and a broken child.
I don’t remember when I began to forget I’d been taken. Time melded in my place, the basement, so seamlessly that in the end my former life was but a dream and the walls around me prescribed my only reality. I think I had moments of lucidity, when his stories of the end of the world and our haven did not ring true. I tried to raise images of a devastated world to my mind, from which we fled, but it was imaginings.
But that’s the thing about memory and imagination. They feel the same.
Over time, I came to accept my reality as real. He was unkind at times, but mainly not. He told me he would always protect me. He was all I had.
“Outside is devastation, lass,” he would say. Mostly I believed him. he was my only source of information and authority. Anything before that – my family, my parents, my friends – were as ephemeral as air.
Sometimes he would come to me. He would say: “Just a form of comfort for us, lass, just comfort, nothing more.” And at times it might have been comforting, in a way, to be held, to be close. It hurt sometimes, not always, but if I cried out he would tell me to hush. He was within me but moreso within himself. I felt together and completely, utterly alone. It was a strange business, messy and sticky and somehow hollow. Just like him.
But that was all I had. And I’d forgotten to remember anything else.
Sometimes in dreams I remembered. But dreams are only dreams. They evaporate in the morning air, so dark and dank down in this place, the basement.
When they found me I thought they were aliens. I had no sense of time, but it had been years. They found him too, and something happened to him. They took him somewhere, to his own basement perhaps. They called it prison.
So that is where I had been too, in my own prison. I wondered what I had done, to be there, and why. I knew what he had done, but not why.
I felt his departure like a loss, despite everything. Nothing in my ‘reality’ was real, and nothing in actual reality seemed real. I had to forget how to forget. I had to remember how to remember.
I’d say to them: “How do you know what’s real? How do you really know?”
They didn’t understand.
So I waited, for memory and lucidity, like shards of light in my perpetual darkness. And it came, it came, so that over a year from when they found me, I truly emerged from the basement. I truly remembered who I had been and what the world really was.
But by then neither I, nor the world, was the same.