Love In The Mire

I can still see her face in my mind. 

Not the face she gave to the world, with a painted-on smile, matte smooth and confident; her real face, her secret face – the one she kept hidden away just for me. 

I can see every pore in her skin, tiny hollows that seemed to radiate with concealed beauty. Her blue eyes, pupils blown large like black moons. The timidity and love in her fragile smile. 

That was the night my heart broke, for I knew soon hers would. 

That face haunts me. I see it loom from the mind’s shadows, brushing the surface of some gloomy sea to remind me that, just once, everything was alright. Reminding me that I mattered. 

Reminding me that I martyred myself on love’s pyre to save her soul. 

It was an ungodly love, born of the fires of hell; and yet it felt sacred, those storm-tossed nights we spent in each other’s arms. 

It felt holy.

When I remember the void of emotion that opened up beneath me when we parted, I see her face glowing radiant from a break in the clouds above as some deity reaching down to offer me salvation. I know I reached up to her, hoping to be saved. 

Instead of letting her save me, I only dragged her down into that same pit, that mire. I belonged there, filthy and tainted as I am. She did not. She was pure, magical, special. 

That is why I had to kill her. I made it quick, painless for her. I will bare the burden of that pain for the two of us.

Her eyes fixed on me helpless as I pulled the cord tight. I saw a glint somewhere in there as she struggled. It was as if she were willing me to pull tighter, to squeeze the glorious life from her, to set her free. The claws she dug into my face urged me on, on, on to oblivion.

Now she is gone and all the lustre has faded from the world. Magic is dead. Happiness, joy, everything good is gone. All is gloom.

Now I join her. 

So Long Suzanne

Barney Dillon was lifted from his shallow slumber by a strange, moist tickling on his cheek. He awoke all at once, as he always did, to find a little grey rabbit snuffling at his face. The rabbit pulled away quickly, and darted out of the cave. Barney considered giving chase, but by the time he had pulled himself up onto his feet the rabbit was gone.

Barney stretched his long limbs and felt the sinews crackle as sleep deserted his body. There was an autumnal chill in the damp air. It had been raining in the night. Barney knew this because the patter had permeated his dreams.

Those same dreams came to him every night. A dinner party in a penthouse apartment. Glancing out of the window, he took in the sights, the grand old buildings of Mexborough Street. This had been his home once, a lifetime ago. He and Suzanne had been very happy here. Around him were faces he had not seen in years, decades even. He saw his sister Karen and her new husband Gareth, the surly young banker; he saw stocky Tommy Rollins, the kind-hearted gangster; he saw old David Feltcher, the lunatic scientist, always working on some wild scheme or other.

In these dreams of nights long forgotten, Barney was clad in tailored suits, designer shirts, freshly polished shoes. He awoke in tattered rags, barefoot and alone. Always alone.

It was better that way.

Barney emerged slowly, timidly, from his cave. He looked around, at the rolling hills and eternal plains that stretched out to the horizon, severed only by the distant motorway and the railway tracks. The grass at the cave mouth was damp with rain and dew. Today would be a good day to go fishing, he thought; but he had other plans.

Every fourth week, when the moon was dark, Barney would make the long trek to the city he once called home. It had been a place of familiarity then, of comfort and confidence. He had felt that he owned those streets, belonged with those people. Now, after years in the wild, the city was utterly alien to him. The streets were strange; wide plateaus of danger and chaos, full of roaring motor vehicles that would carry him away in their sharp teeth if he did not watch himself. The people were rabid dogs who would tear him apart for sport, laughing all the while.

Barney began the slow, painful walk south. He went to the railway line and, maintaining a safe distance, hidden behind tall grasses and beech trees, followed the tracks towards Linfield.

By the time the sun set, he had nearly reached his destination. The very perimeter of the city felt particularly dangerous to Barney, but he had found various small, sheltered backroads that allowed him a safer access, beyond the prying eyes of strangers. He left the train line and ducked around the Garfield stables, careful to stay downwind of the whinnying horses. Then, he snuck down Ashford Lane- more a dirt track, in truth, framed by fir trees on either side. Beyond those fir trees lined up neatly, he knew, were homes. People lounging around in their warm sitting rooms, gawping at the television, oblivious to the reprehensible hermit that was stealing into their city.

Ashford Lane led onto the busy dual carriageway of Duskfield Road. This was the hardest part of the journey for Barney. As a child, he had often traversed this road with his sister and their father, en route to pick up their mother from work. For Barney, memories of the past were just as perilous as threats of future violence, so he had to bite down hard as he dashed across the road and down an alleyway on the other side.

Whilst Duskfield Road held many hard memories of the past, it also hosted a number of small supermarkets, bakeries, even a butchers. These shops boasted the prize for Barney’s courage in entering the city of his past. He waited.

Hours passed as Barney squatted in the gloomy alleyway. The sky grew as dark as the streetlights would allow, and the traffic on Duskfield Road quietened as the city fell into slumber. Finally, somewhere around four o’clock, he rose from his haunches and stole silently down the alleyway that hemmed in the shops and supermarkets. Back here, he knew, were bins replete with stale bread and biscuits, spoiled pork and beef, tins that had outlived their use by dates and their usefulness. Barney pulled a large holdall, neatly folded, from the inner pocket of his tent-like coat, and filled it as best he could with the goodies that would keep him fed for another moon’s turn. He took dried up cakes and loaves lightly flecked with blue mould. He took packets of old sausages, of greened steaks and whole chickens. He took dented tins of baked beans, of vegetables in brine, of soup and chopped tomatoes and rice pudding. He took bag after bag of dried pasta, of rice, of fractured noodles.

Once his holdall was bulging with food, Barney sneaked back down the alleyway. He cautiously crossed Duskfield Road, traipsed up Ashford Lane, around Garfield stables, and home to his cave, laden with his month’s shopping.

For much of the next four weeks, Barney knew, he would be reliant on his traps to keep him fed, as well as the haul he had liberated from the shops on Duskfield Road. He was adept at snaring rabbits and pheasants, and so seldom truly went hungry. He drank from streams, and had even dug a reservoir of sorts- more a puddle, really, lined with a tarpaulin he had found by the train tracks some years before. His life was almost bucolic in this sense; however, he could never fully escape from the memories, the life which had led him here, into the wilderness beyond Linfield.

Suzanne’s withered hand reaching out for his, and his horrified reaction. He had pulled away from her. He could never forgive himself for that instinctive response. He had known she was ill, known she was wasting away as the cancer devoured her body; so why had he pulled away? Just when his wife, his beloved, his moon and stars and soul- just when she had needed his love and support, he had run. He had pulled his hand away, turned, and fled the hospital, fled the city. She was dead now, he knew- Barney had returned to the hospital the next night, ready to plead with his dying wife to forgive him, but she had already gone. Her final moments had been made even more pitiable by her husband’s pathetic reaction. So, once more, he had run. He had found the cave some miles to the south-west of the city, and had secluded himself.

She did not deserve her lonely death, and so he did deserve a lonely life; a life of complete isolation, on the cusp of death at all times. One bad winter, one heavy storm, and Barney would be free to join her. Until then, however, his entire existence will be a penance for his wife, for his betrayal of her.

The sun was beginning its inexorable rise through the skies as Barney returned home. He tossed the holdall to the back of the cave, lay down on the jagged rocks he called his bed, and fell into a shallow, restless slumber.

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. 

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.