The Howlers

The problems began seven turns after the great settling. 

At first, this spot by the winding river seemed ideal. Nature’s bounty abound with sumptuous fruits, hare and aurochs, seeds and striplings. 

After the decades-long trek from Africa, Lin’s people had found a home. 

Few of the tribe remembered the plains and savannah of their motherland. Lin himself, leader of the group, scarcely remembered it himself, being only a baby when the tribe left for their unknown destiny. 

His grandfather had led the exodus. When he perished, Lin’s father took on his duties. Lin himself followed. 

In the turns since, babes had been born, grown to maturity, and died, to be replaced by others. Songs were sung of them, tributes etched into stone, blood sacrifices made. They were with the Gods now. 

And Lin and his people had found their home, here on the banks of a river Lin had named for himself. 

The problems started with the howl. Every night for five consecutive nights, as the moon sat round at the heart of the sky, an unearthly howl carried on the breeze. 

The noise caused consternation amongst the tribe. It was only the beginning.

Soon, scouts uncovered strange rock carvings and red paint daubings. These were littered across the landscape. As the five nights of howling came to an end, new paintings began to appear, ever closer to the tribal encampment. 

The howlers were getting closer.

One night, they fell silent. The tribe began to settle into the natural rhythms of their new home, fishing in the river, scouting the woods for new sources of wood and nuts.

Twenty three turns later, and the howling began anew. 

On the final night of this latest round of howling, Lin sent a scout to investigate. The boy came back wan, with fear in his eyes. He reported that he had seen a group of monstrous women gathered on a hillside some distance away. They were almost human but, as the scout drew closer, he could see that they had strange features- a heavy brow, jutting jawline, and arms the width of tree trunks. The women collected the monthly blood from between their thighs and performed some bizarre ritual beneath the light of the moon. All the while, their menfolk were beholden to them.

Lin went immediately to Akkan, the tribal elder, one of the few men who had known- and advised- his grandfather in the early days of the exodus.

The old man reacted fearfully, his ancient, rheumy eyes wide. 

He had heard tell of such things before, he imparted to Lin. Women who are the chiefs of their tribes, who worship the blood and rise only at night. Akkan explained that the moon women would soon infiltrate the tribe and steal the womenfolk away.

The following day, Lin made an announcement to the tribe. Women in their bloods were to be locked away for the duration, until their fluids ran clear. They would be guarded by the menfolk for their own good, to keep them safe from the monsters of the moon. 

The scout had suggested that the moon women used their left hands, where Lin’s people used their right. Henceforth, he announced, we shall sacrifice the little finger of our left hand. Chop it off that the moon women cannot enter us through it.

The moon women were night-dwellers. Henceforth, none were to stray from the camp after darkness came, and the rising of the sun would be greeted with a cheer and a celebration. 

They worshipped the moon, these strange women. We shall worship the sun, for the moon is the vehicle of the sprites. 

The morning after making his announcement, Lin awoke to find that seven of the tribe’s women were gone, including his own sister. They had left to join the cult of the moon women, he surmised, gone to join the monsters, the Others. 

Very well, he decided, we shall round up our women and keep them in penury, to ensure they can never leave us. 

Advertisements

Ghosts We Forgot

It is cold down here, and dark, and clammy, and lonely.

All the company I have is a pile of moist bones that sparkle against the dark. Even their lustre has faded. 

A thousand years I have sat at the foot of this well, in Linfield Abbey, since the bones of St Burnis were dropped. St Burnis and I, and the wishes of ten thousand desperate men and women.

Those men and women no longer come to us, to the bones and I. Perhaps there is no more suffering on the earth. Perhaps the Lord called his children home, and we were forgotten. Left behind to moulder forever at the foot of a dank well beside an abbey in an abandoned town. 

The bones of St Burnis once glistered like diamonds, like a child’s tears of joy. Their power diminishes now, their sparkle has dimmed, and I am alone, a discarded and forgotten ghost unseen. The granter of wishes with no wishes to grant.

What can I do but wait? 

Once we eradicated despair in the hearts of those who most needed us. We spread joy and wonder amongst the desperate. Now I wait, and wait, and wait. I have waited a hundred years or more to bring a smile to a face cracked with pain and hardship. 

Once I lurked unseen and unthanked as I stripped away the layers of agony that enwreathed undeserving sufferers like smog around a spire. Now, I wait. Now, it is I who despair. I breathe in the clammy air of loneliness and strain my eyes to see it pour from my mouth as steam. 

Immortal Oils

Sammy lowers his brush. That is it, he thinks. That is her. Immortalised in oil paints. As she grows old and tired, this painting will enframe her beauty forever. 

Now she can never age. Now she can never die. 

He casts his gaze around his studio,  at all of the paintings of her. Esme reposing in an Edenic orchard. Esme raising a toast to a Jacobean noble. Esme nude, abstract, pointillist, art nouveau… 

This masterpiece is the 57th addition to his Esmeralda canon, and perhaps the finest. It is a pre-Raphaelite interpretation of Esme in a lily-wreathed pond. Her golden hair forms a halo around her exquisitely delicate face rendered pale in death. 

It is a shame, Sammy reflects, that Esme will never see it. 

The woman he has spent most of his creative life capturing knows nothing of Sammy’s works. Whilst he sees her in the street and in the Rattlers Arms almost every single day, she does not know he exists.

Esme is a barmaid in Sammy’s local pub. He never used to drink until he first laid his eyes on her. Soon he found himself sequestered at the bar every time she was on shift. He tried speaking to her of mundane things- current events, mutual friends, the price of lager- but she simply smiled, nodded her head and walked away. 

A woman as awe-inspiring as Esme deserves better than Sammy could ever give her. With his squashed face and ruddy cheeks, his receding hairline and jutting jaw, he is certainly not pleasant to look at. His art is all he lives for.

So he paints her instead. He captures her and lays her down, possesses her in a way he could never possess her heart. 

The Esme paintings sell for reasonable sums. The art nouveau of Esme, her hair sharp coils converging with whiplash ivy fronds, sold for thousands. 

Sammy, through Esme, is making a name for himself in the art world. He does not want fame, however, or success. He has no need for money so long as he has enough to record her beauty upon a canvas. 

All Sammy wants is Esme, and she is the one thing he will never know. 

Pink Pegged Slacks

Tommo watched the old man achily raise his fork to his mouth. The tremble in Alf’s hand sent peas bouncing across the plate, across the table. 

The peas gleefully rolled away, escaping from the old man. Tommo envied them.

It wasn’t that he particularly disliked his father. It was just…

It should’ve been him. Tommo hated himself for having such thoughts. He still had them, though. 

Alf, defeated by the Christmas dinner, carefully set down his cutlery. “Nearly ten years,” he grunted, without looking at his son.

“Ten years,” Tommo mumbled in reply. And it should’ve been you, he thought. 

Alf fixed his deep brown eyes on the rim of his dinner plate. There was a long silence. 

Finally, the old man muttered, “Any plans for New Year’s?” 

“Seeing friends.” 

This was a lie. Tommo hadn’t celebrated New Year’s Eve in over a decade, not since… Instead, he spent the night in his flat, with a glass of wine, some old rock’n’roll records, and his memories.

Ten years ago, on Christmas Day, his mother had been taken ill. She was gone within a week. 

Before that, she was a vibrant, intelligent, kind and fun-loving woman. Their family Christmases were wild occasions where the wine flowed free, conversation flowed likewise, and music played all through the night. 

He never had that bond with his father. Tommo often wondered what his sainted mother had ever seen in such a dried-up, stilted old prude. 

“You doing anything for it,” Tommo asked, more as a courtesy and way of escaping his thoughts than out of genuine interest.

A pause followed, in which Tommo imagined his fusty old father in his slippers, reading a book as fireworks crackled and bells chimed beyond the drawn curtains. 

Alf blinked heavily. He cupped his throat with a bony hand as he formulated his words.

“Same thing I do every year. Listen to her records with a glass of wine and pretend she’s here with me.” 

Tommo bit back his surprise. His father had never spoken to him so candidly, especially not about his… not about her. 

Alf continued, still staring fixedly at the cusp of his plate; “I’ll tell her how much I miss her, discuss my plans for next year with her. She’ll tell me off for being so boring, and we’ll share a good chuckle at my expense. God, son, I thought it would get easier, but it doesn’t.” 

Tommo’s head reeled with the realisation that his father, too, mourned for her. “I know, dad. Nothing is the same. Everything is worse.”

“Little Richard,” Alf smiled. 

“Sorry?”

“That was her jam. We first met on a dance floor as Rip It Up played. That was our first dance.”

“I love that song,” Tommo said, his eyes widening.

“You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that. As the clock strikes twelve, that is what I put on. I dance around the sitting room and it’s as if she’s still here, dancing with me. God, that woman could move.” 

“I didn’t know that.”

There was another pause. This time, Tommo broke it.

“Dad,” he said, carefully placing his words, “Would you like to come to mine this New Year’s Eve? We can put on some Little Richard, maybe some Eddie Cochran, and drink as much wine as we can handle and then some more.” 

“Eddie Cochran,” Alf exclaimed, “He was my favourite. Your mum found him a bit maudlin at times, but as soon as Pink Pegged Slacks came on she would be jiving with the best of them!” 

Alf turned from his recollections. “Son,” he said, looking Tommo straight in the eye, “I would love that. She would love that.” 

The Gravedigger In Repose

A light sprinkling of snow fell over Linfield that night. 

All along the streets of the city centre, delicate fairy lights were strung between buildings, wire frames holding them into likenesses of angels, stars and candles. 

Shops, open late for the tardy santa, bustled as customers tussled for the last television, last games console, last plush for little Jacobs and Jades. 

The pubs were packed with roaring revellers, men with clips on their ties or holes in their trainers, exiles returning for Christmas and stay-at-home parents who thought ahead and booked the babysitter a month in advance. 

It was Christmas Eve, and the whole of Linfield flowed with goodwill, commerce and excitement. 

Somewhere in the shadows, aside from all the revelry, a lone figure skulked in the shadows of Melborough cemetery. He chipped away at the hoary earth with a dented shovel, grunting in displeasure all the while. 

Gordon Grombel was not one for merrymaking at this or any other time of year. He lived for his work, and his work was death. As he liked to say to bemused drunks after a few pints of stout, “I make the coffins, I fill ‘em and then I bury ‘em.”

He was not a great conversationalist, it must be said. But then, men like Gordon seldom are. He was miserly with money, time and attention, preferring to keep the company only of the dead. After all, they do not answer back or retort. They have no troublesome opinions or families to dash off home to, no prior engagements or irritating habits. They simply rest silent in their repose. 

The mechanical digger packed in on the 23rd. The repair man said it needed new parts that had to be shipped in from overseas. It would surely be out of action until the new year. 

Gordon doubted the veracity of this. These repair men are a feckless, lazy sort, he always thought. They would rather see a viable business go under than get their hands dirty changing a crankshaft.

Gordon’s own team weren’t much better, truth be told. Feckless and lazy. As soon as the digger died with a curl of black smoke, the three lads on his staff left immediately for the pub. “See you next year Mr Grombel,” they bellowed facetiously as they skipped down Coffin Lane. 

Gordon was no great admirer of modern technology. No other funeral director could cope without their excel spreadsheets and their iPads to show them where to be and who they were burying. Gordon could. No other funeral director would spend his Christmas Eve chiselling into the frosty ground to make a grave for someone he had never met in life, and yet here he was, doing just that. To him, it didn’t matter if the coffin he buried was seven feet long or two; it didn’t matter if the mourners wore pearls or Primark plastic. As long as he was paid for the work he did, that was all that mattered to Gordon. 

As the distant bells chimed twelve times, Gordon hauled himself out of the grave and sat on a nearby headstone. It was reasonably comfortable in an austere, bleak sense; it suited his demeanour perfectly. He plucked a flask of brandy from his pocket, raised a silent toast, and took a hearty sip. 

As he sat there on the snowy headstone, feeling the brandy course through him, warming his extremities, a vague recollection came to him. A story his sainted nan read to him years ago, when he was a small boy and she was circling the grave. It was the tale of a sexton digging in a graveyard one Christmas Eve. The sexton, resting with a bottle of gin, found himself swarmed by goblins who stole him away to their lair and showed him the error of his miserly ways.

No such thing would happen to Gordon, oh no. No goblins or bechained ghosts would have the audacity to try to teach him about life. He learnt all he needed to know at the age of seven, when his nan- the one who read him the story of the sexton and the goblins- was spirited away to the grave. 

Somewhere afar he heard a roar. The pubs were kicking out. The streets of Linfield would soon be filled with men and women singing gaudy songs of mistletoe and turkeys, of ringing bells and stockings, of snowflakes and wine and other such festive nonsense of the type such idiots sing of. 

None of that for Gordon. He took another sup from the flask of brandy and returned to his work. 

The Things We Do

It started not long after Barbara passed on, now that I think of it. I mean, fifty years is a long time to be married- being on my own again took some getting used to. 

The telly broke down and the kids were too busy with their own lives to come round and fix it for me. You know how it goes.

So I spent my days just looking out the window. I’d invent little stories in my head for each of the people passing by.

The stories started out as caricatures, but soon I was making whole lives up for the people strolling along Flint Mount Drive. They became my friends, in a strange kind of way.

It’s funny, the things we do when we’re…

There goes young Jack home from school. His teachers think he’s quite the tearaway, his friends see him as a rebellious hero and all the girls admire the twinkle in his eye. What none of them sees is that Jack, not yet thirteen, in the only carer for his ailing mother. Jack cleans the house, cooks the tea, and sees no future for himself. 

There goes Terry in his pinstripe suit, anxiously swinging his briefcase. He was made redundant months ago, but is too ashamed to tell his wife. Each morning he kisses her goodbye as he leaves for the office. He spends the day lolling round the park, worrying about the future. When he gets home he will kiss his wife and tell her about his stressful day and complain about his workload. She’ll run him a nice hot bath and sip Chardonnay as she prepares his favourite tea, all the while riddled with guilt for spending the day lounging round the house in her pyjamas. 

There goes Lottie, the young woman in the power suit who, after a hectic day in the office, races home to her empty, litter-strewn flat to feed the mice she keeps as pets. She gives them names, talks to them, confides all her secrets to them. She used to share all this with Mark, her fiancé, until he left her for a younger model.

It’s strange, the things we do when we’re… 

There goes Harry of the stern face and clipped moustache, all muscle and rage, dragging three bichon frise down the street. They pause so one can leave a deposit at the foot of the old oak tree. Harry swoops down with bag in hand and scoops it up, drops it in the nearest bin. The dogs were his wife’s. Now she is tired of them, so he takes full responsibility for their care. It was the same with their kids and yet, when they visit, it is their mother they wish to see. 

There goes Viv waddling down Flint Mount Drive. Her youthful beauty brought her nothing but pain; they assumed she was stupid, assumed she was facile and aloof. Her brilliant mind sparkling with ideas and with wit went overlooked on account of her face. So she ate and she ate, labouring under the misapprehension that she would be taken seriously if she did not look the way she did. Her plan failed. Her friends were fickle and abandoned her, and still nobody takes her seriously, her singular wit as wasted now as it was before. 

There goes Samantha taking the kids home from school. Her short, tousled hair this week is aquamarine. She changes it often. The colour she chooses is a signifier, the only way she can show the world how she feels inside. Years of keeping secrets have destroyed her ability to open up, even to those she loves. She dyes her hair to show her anger, her suspicion or her sorrow. None of the other mums and dads on the school run ever picks up on these cues. 

It’s odd, the things we do when we’re lonely. 

Never Really Sleep

Mephis rolls over, but he cannot get comfortable at all. Each time his eyelids grow heavy and he begins the descent into slumber, he is back out there. He is back with them.

With a sigh, Mephis slowly clambers out of the bed and scans the room. In the far corner is an old chair intricately carved of pine, with beautiful red velvet upholstering. He sits in the chair and closes his eyes once more.

This is his first night in the house. It will naturally take him a while to grow accustomed to a life of shelter; he wonders if he ever will.

Perhaps he was out there too long. 

As his lids droop, he becomes aware of the Fear. It has lived within him for years, so long it has become mere background noise. A survival mechanism that has outlived its purpose. 

Have you ever spent a night on the streets? Even when you sleep you never really sleep. Some part of your brain refuses to allow it, constantly listening out for the scuffed footsteps of danger shuffling in your direction, constantly poised to flee or to fight. 

You never really sleep.

Even if you get lucky and scrape enough money together to get into a hostel for the night, the Fear never relinquishes its grip on you. Long rooms. Ten flimsy bunks: twenty snoring, farting men per room. No locks on the doors. Always a queue for the shitter. Always the danger that someone will cut your throat in the night. 

You can never really sleep. You stay vigilant. Danger is always close when you sleep rough. 

Mephis gets up from the uncomfortable chair and returns to the bed. It is so soft, so deep, it embraces him like a mother as he lies back and sinks into it. 

Then, for the first time in years, he sees her in his mind.

Mephis slowly raises an aching arm and rubs the calloused, crinkled old skin of his face, clean shaven for once. He stopped shaving when he lost her. Stopped washing, stopped caring; and now, as he tries to settle into this new way of life, here she is once more. 

She was always unnaturally beautiful. It seemed to radiate from within her, this unspoken majesty, this wonder. He never understood, even when she was alive, why she had chosen him. A woman like her should not have wasted her time on such a selfish, conceited little man- the man he used to be. 

Emma was his wife, back then in his previous life. Sleep had come easy to him then. 

He tries to shake the vision away, but it sinks its claws deep into his mind. Emma, his raison d’etre. Emma, his muse and motor. Emma, the wife he had never mourned. 

Mephis was a different man then. He was driven, motivated, kind. He loved. He did not fear. 

But then she died, and he fell apart. 

The bed is no good. Too comfortable. Mephis deserves discomfort, deserves the Fear. He rises and shuffles painfully out into the long hallway, with its marble statues of gods and goddesses and men, its woven tapestries of battles physical and ambrosial. 

None can match up to the beauty of  Emma. None can relinquish the Fear. 

Before he was evicted from their marital home, Mephis had never touched drugs. He only drank on special occasions or when his wife was sad and needed relief. 

Out there, he soon discovered that liquor and spice were the only effective methods of removing the Fear, even for a moment. It was the closest he ever got to sleep, dosed up on strong cider or cheap whisky, loaded up with tablets or ash. 

There is no spice here, no crack, no chance of relief. He aching plods to the kitchen to try to source a drink. Nothing. Instead he prepares a sandwich. In it he puts a bit of everything- yogurt, ham, cottage cheese, cucumber, pesto. It has been so long since he made a sandwich he has forgotten what goes in one.