Sleepless Knights

A fly settles on the word ‘scar’. I cup my hand. Can’t squash the damn thing. It’s sitting on a book! Look at it! Twitching  its feelers in defiance. I brace myself for action. My lightening scooping movement sends the fly buzzing away and leaves me empty handed. Scar? The jagged mark on Harry’s forehead is a flag the author waves to make us sit up and pay attention, but like Potter, it’s getting a bit weary. The fly buzzes on a victory lap around my head. I wave it away but it lands on the word ‘Polyjuice’, a potion to make you what you are not, then sidles sideways and settles on ‘Scorpius’. Now there’s a name with a bite. Should never have eaten that black treacle chutney with the ham. My liver is complaining noisily. Why do we persist in doing what we know is bad for us?

Knock. Knock. “Come in.” My son stands by his bed enveloped in a cloud of ether. “What’s that smell?” I ask. He points to a small, portable computer on the bed and mimes pouring liquid onto a cloth. “I’m cleaning the jam from the keys.” Why do I have a feeling of deja vu? I look at my inexistent watch. Twelve-fifteen. “Shouldn’t you be getting some shut-eye?” He smiles. Guilty or guileless? Who knows? Who cares? “Try winding down,” I say. “I’m not a watch,” he retorts. “Breathe deeply then,” I reply, “and switch off your brain.” He laughs and picks up the cloth and a tiny bottle, holding them at arm’s length. “No smoking,” I say and smile as I close the door.

I’m sitting on the edge of the bed in my office reading the eighth tome of Harry Potter, the one that takes place nineteen years later. The former heroes have become  long in the teeth. Why do I imagine their children being played by a doddering cast of pensioners? Hope the Beastie film is better. It’s half past midnight. The door opens. My wife enters. “Can anyone explain why no one is asleep in this house?” “The phase of the moon, maybe,” I reply, wondering what phase it is, not having been out for weeks, and continue reading. She’s still staring at me, hand on the door handle, her head cocked to one side, so I add, “I’m keeping this fly company as it buzzes around my room. I’ll go to sleep in a few minutes. If it will.” She shuts the door and I hear her skipping her way across the living room, humming a song.

I lie in bed, mentally massaging my liver, soothing the pain. It’s a play. Plays are riddled with holes compared to novels, especially when there are so many characters. This one reads more like a film script. It’s the extravagant stage directions. A leftover from the novel. Makes you wonder what they’ll do on stage without the special effects. Anyway, the pain has gone. Should have made a career of it. Maybe not. Outcomes are always uncertain with magic. Better to stick to what you understand.

The Empty Box

Empty Box

This story is dedicated to my dentist who unwittingly gave me an almost empty box. Note that any resemblance between him and Hans is a mere coincidence.

“Do you know the one about the man who was balding?” George asked, setting his empty beer glass down on the table. It was early and the pub was still quiet. Apart from the bartender checking racing results in the evening paper, they were the only people there.

Hans shook his head. He certainly had no problem with hair loss. His curly locks hung down to his shoulders. Blond, like many people from his country.

“There was an ad in the newspaper,” George continued, “offering a solution for balding people to keep their hair in.” He couldn’t help grinning as he anticipated the punch line. “Well he sent off a cheque and was delighted when the postman delivered a parcel. But opening the small packet, he found only an empty box.” George burst out laughing. Hans looked at him perplexed.

“An empty box to keep his hair in,” George repeated.

Hans looked at him blankly.

“It’s ambiguous,” George began but immediately gave up. Jokes were never funny when explained.

“An empty box,” Hans said, pronouncing each word as if it were a rare wine to be swilled around his mouth but not swallowed. “It sounds like a koan,” he mused.

“A what?” George asked, waving his glass at the man behind the bar. When he caught the man’s attention he raised two fingers. The bartender shook his head but George motioned to the plaster on his leg. The man nodded.

“It’s Japanese. A pithy saying which doesn’t seem to make any sense. Yet on reflection it’s meaning is profound. That understanding changes you.”

It was George’s turn to look perplexed. How did Hans manage to jump from a joke to philosophy or was it religion when he had hardly finished his first beer? “Give us an example,” he said. “Something I can grasp. Not your airy fairy words.”

The bartender set out two new mats, removed their empty glasses and replaced them with full ones. George pulled out several notes and handed them to the man, saying “Keep the change.”

Hans clapped his hands together startling George who was about to savour his second beer. He hastily wiped the froth from around his mouth and said, “Why d’you do that?”

“You know the sound of two hands clapping?” Hans asked.

“Of course.” Why such an obvious question? Was the man trying to make a fool of him? Sometimes Hans was very strange. Maybe it was all that peering into people’s mouths that warped him. George was glad he was not a dentist.

“Well,” and here Hans waved one hand back and forth in front of him. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

George burst out laughing. “You Germans have such a funny sense of humour.”

Hans was not laughing. He wasn’t even smiling. Instead, his face was aglow. “The sound of one hand clapping reaches the highest heavens above.” He proclaimed the words with such fervour he could have been the vicar culminating one of his most inspired sermons, but unlike the vicar, Hans had no excuse for his madness.

“What’s all this got to do with an empty box?” George asked.

“Everything!” Hans exclaimed, a triumphant grin on his face. “Just like the apparent silence of one hand clapping is full of sound and meaning, so the empty box is brimming over with content.”

George made a mental note to change his dentist. The man was raving mad.

“Have you been sniffing ether again?” he asked.

Hans ignored the jibe and continued. “Silence and emptiness are akin. They are not an absence but a tangible source of richness.”

“I wish I could make money from emptiness,” George quipped, trying not to grin in case Hans thought he was poking fun. His friend could be touchy.

Hans shook his head, a look of determination on his face. “Bartender!” he called out. When the man came, a dish cloth in his hands, Hans asked, “Have you got an empty box?”

When the bartender raised his eyebrows, Hans said, “I’m trying to demonstrate something to my friend here.

“How big?” the man asked. Hans replied by placing his hands about a foot apart.

The bartender shared a knowing glance with George that said something like you have to humour madmen then disappeared behind his bar. They could hear him rummaging about for several minutes before he returned carrying a  plain brown cardboard box that smelt of crisps

“Great,” Hans said and thanked the man. He took the box, peered inside, upended it as if emptying out its non existent contents, then set it upright on the low table between them. “I’m going to show you that emptiness has a feel to it.” He moved George’s now empty beer glass to one side and placed the box in front of him. “To do this you need to close your eyes.”

George glanced around the pub to make sure no one was watching. The bartender had returned to his newspaper. George closed his eyes, all of a sudden feeling vulnerable. He steeled himself against a possible practical joke. None came. Instead Hans said, “Hold your hands out in front of you.”

George did as he was told, wishing he’d never mentioned the empty box.

“Without moving, feel the air around your fingers.”

George could feel nothing. Air was air. And unless it was moving or you were, it didn’t feel of anything.

“Take your time,” Hans said softly.

George’s thoughts wandered and he had to force his attention back to the air. He wasn’t sure if it was his imagination but he had the impression the air was thick and a little oily. If he moved his fingers they might produce ripples.

“Now I will put the box round your hands,” Hans explained. “Without touching them.”

George’s was surprised at the difference. He chuckled but kept his eyes closed. There was a tang about the air in the box. Salt, he told himself, and grinned. No. That was probably just the faint smell of crisps. So he searched further, peering behind the smell and beyond the image of the box he had in his head.

A thrill fluttered in his stomach as he realised there was something there, just outside his reach. Each time he stretched for it, the illusive presence slipped away. Frustrated, he gave up and just let himself sense the ungraspable. He was startled to discover his senses spreading out in every direction till he felt he could embrace the whole universe. No. He was the whole universe. He was connected to everything and everyone. He hung there not wanting the feeling to end, but his arms began to tremble and his eyes fluttered open.

With a jolt he saw that he was seated on a bench in a pub with his hands thrust inside an empty crisp box. How disappointing. He reached out for the feeling he’d just had but it was receding like a dream leaving only regret and nostalgia.

Hans put down the empty box and raised his glass, saying, “Prost.”

Mr. Hammer’s spell

Mr. Hammer

Mr. Hammer thumped his fist on the local newspaper sprawled across the kitchen table. The blow made a satisfying thud. If there was one thing he couldn’t stomach it was bad spelling. Like an insidious illness, it undermined the very foundations of his world. Every time the slightest mistake crossed his path he pounced on it. Naming and shaming was an art with him. He had a knack for ferreting out the most public forum in which to point a bony finger at each mistake, calling all to witness. Not that spotting spelling mistakes gave him any pleasure, but it did procure a sense of purpose and a deep feeling of satisfaction.

He uncorked a bottle of red wine from a neighbour’s vineyard, poured himself a glass and swigged a generous mouthful. Wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, he re-read the headlines in the paper. More refugees on the way. Flipping open a sharp knife, he sawed off several slices of a dried garlic sausage and slipped one into his mouth. Only one other cause moved him more than bad spelling: the battle against those who invaded his village. The thought of it sickened him. All the people of colour, all those who spoke other languages, who had been brought up with their barbaric traditions and their filthy habits. And they kept coming, an unending torrent, soiling everything he held dear.

A sharp rap had him grasping his knobbly walking stick and hastening to the front door. He’d beat the living day lights out of those brats from two doors down.  Ringing his door bell. Banging the shutters. Having their dog use his doormat as a latrine.

He swung the door open with all his force, hoping to catch one of the blighters as he did. But no one was there. He looked left. He looked right. No one. Just an alley of trees, a dribbling fountain and a mournful statue peering at him. Then he looked down and spotted the bag at his feet, like the ones doctors used, red and worn, with a single handle on the top, and it stank. He wanted nothing to do with it. It might be a bomb. He’d call the police. He’d call the fire brigade. He’d call the army.

Then he saw the envelope propped against the bag, his name scrawled on it. Only one ‘m’. Typical. What rubbish had they written? Taunts? Threats? He didn’t want to read it, but before he could stop himself the envelope was in his hand and he was forcing it open. A single sheet folded in four. Flattening out the page he was surprised to find a printed message. One paragraph. Neatly presented. In large script, as if for the old and infirm. He read.

Deer me ha mer. I Sanz You to no than se r vers up sett …

How exasperating. He shook his head and tried again. It made no more sense. As he read the line a third time a dreadful queasiness rolled over him. His stomach churned and blood pounded in his ears. Clutching the message in his hand, he staggered along the corridor to the kitchen, not bothering to close the front door behind him. Grasping the table, he lowered himself onto a chair and rested his head in his hands, staring down at the message on the table.

His eyes shifted to the newspaper, where he read:

Way World Antoine tory to fixe the votons …

He sprang to his feet alarmed and almost fell over when dark spots surged before his eyes and a roaring sound rushed through his head. He clung to the table with both hands, his eyes roving the kitchen in search of something, anything, to reassure him. Everything seemed normal. Then he saw the poster his ex wife had gifted him.

Notting IS betterave than home groin flouera …

He screamed and screamed. Lurching down the corridor, he staggered out onto the street, where he halted a moment on the door mat thrusting a fist into his mouth to stem the scream. To no avail. Windows were flung open, alarmed heads peered out, passers by turned to look askance. The shame of it. Nothing he did would stop the scream. Terror seized him. Glancing up at the statue, he willed his eyes to yell, “I’m bewitched.” The statue made no comment. Tossing off his slippers, he careened across the street, wove an unsteady path between the trees and flung himself headlong into the fountain where he tried to fill his nose and mouth with water. Anything to rid his head of the madness.

He choked and spluttered as a stranger fished him from the icy liquid and wiped his face dry with a dirty handkerchief. Mr. Hammer shoved him away and stood there dripping, his body wracked with shudders. He stared uncomprehending at the man, his bulbous nose, his fleshy lips, his shining teeth. The man was speaking.

Presse dont be sacré dit Will be ok …

Mr. Hammer sank to his knees, his hands clasped together in prayer. “Please,” he said. “Make it stop.” But the man just looked at him perplexed as if he didn’t understand.

Loooser

The jagged edges of the corrugated roof snagged a plastic bag that had blown against the bus shelter. It flapped like an enraged bird. George knew what it meant to be enraged. He gripped the tiny box in his pocket with clenched fingers.

The pane that backed the shelter had shattered, scattering shards that scrunched underfoot as he paced. The local Council had wedged a plastered panel where the glass had once been and someone had sprayed Loooser in blurred letters across it. They didn’t even know how to spell. The dustbin lay on the ground, half crushed, its contents splayed across the pavement. He pushed a syringe out of sight with the toe of his boot, twisting the needle as he did.

He wiped bird muck from the bench with a handkerchief then tossed the filthy tissue on the bin. Spreading a discarded copy of the Guardian over the mess, he sat down and rested his head in his hands. “Don’t,” he imagined his wife saying. “You’ll regret it.”

He drew the small box from his pocket, his fingers trembling as the clasp resisted his efforts to open it. The pill was bright red and so tiny for a substance that people made so much fuss about. “Please,” she whispered, a sob in her voice. “Think of the children.”

“Whenever did they think of me?” The wind blustered by way of reply. Enough. He grasped the pill between shaky fingers and brought it to his lips only to have it slip from his grip and roll under the waste bin. Down on hands and knees, he shoved the bin aside, but the pill was nowhere to be seen. Then he spotted it, a glint of red caught in a crack in the pavement close to a dark brown muck.

His hand flew to his nose to ward off the stench and he shuffled away crab-like, sinking to the ground with his back pressed against the bench. Splinters of glass dug into his backside, but he paid them no heed. She would be smiling, he was sure, but not out of malice, more from satisfaction. Why did she always get her way? Even now she was dead.

A dog nosing his trouser leg had him look up. It sniffed the brown pile, then its tongue quested in the crack between the paving stones. The man launched forward, pushing the animal out of the way and cutting his hands and knees as he did. It was then he caught sight of the red dot on the tip of its tongue before it disappeared into its mouth.

“No!” he shouted, shaking the dog’s shoulders as if that would make it understand. The cocker sank to the ground and keeled over on its side, it’s swollen tongue flopping out of its mouth.

George knelt by the dog, head bowed, eyes closed, one hand on its flank, sensing each convulsion as if it was a stab in his own flesh. He shuddered. Blasted chemist. “Quick and painless,” he’d said. What pathetic rubbish.

“Hey! You! What are you doing to my dog?”

George turned to see a stocky man dressed in charity-shop clothes looming over him. There was no way he could explain. Forgotten for a moment, the dog let out a grunt and its back arched up one last time before it sank in a heap to the ground.

“You bastard,” the man shouted, raining blows on George’s head and shoulders as he spat out insult after insult. George slumped over the dog’s rigid body, sheltering his head from the man’s fists. The man switched to booted feet, kicking ribs and back and legs like an unswerving madman bent on bruising every inch of George’s body.

“Whatever are you going?” George heard a trembling female voice call out. “Stop that immediately.”

“Bloody – nosey – woman,” the man retorted, punctuating each word with a kick. “Piss off or I’ll kick you too.” George cracked open one eye to see the man bearing down on an old woman, hunched in her black lace, a handbag looped over her arm, a silver object clutched in her hand.

“Stop or I’ll shoot,” the woman warned, her voice shrill. Another crackpot George thought, till a sharp detonation had the charity-shop man lurch sideways and topple on George. Squashed between man and dog, George struggled to breathe, his lungs choking on the smell of mothballs and beer. Surely the old woman would go for help. But why did she not enquire after him? Had she fled thinking he was dead?

“Be grateful she saved your life,” his wife would have said.

A cold wetness stole over George as the man’s blood pooled on his back. The wind was biting. He could do nothing to stave it off as it plucked at his clothes.

“But at least you’re alive,” he imagined his wife saying. For once her being positive didn’t annoy him. “I’m glad of that,” she said. Her reading his thoughts was another of her irritating traits.

“Fat lot of good it does me. I’m like a bruised chunk of meat sandwiched between two dead bodies.”

“You have such a weird sense off humour. I can’t say I like it.”

As blunt as ever. “Wasn’t that why you …?” He still couldn’t bring himself to say the words.

Night was falling and no one had come. Not even an empty bus or a stray dog. Feeling had long since deserted his fingers and toes. He tried to move them, but a numb absence was all that remained at the far reaches of his aching limbs.

“…of course you can,” she was saying as he drifted out of sleep. “Just hold on.” The world was as dark and as still as death. For all his bumbling, maybe he’d succeeded. But no. A distant throbbing grew till it filled the air with a wreak of oil and fumes and a bright light blinded him.

“You two havin’ fun? Or just lyin’ there passin’ the time o’ day?” a man called out over the pounding of the engine. “If it’s a bus yer wantin’, now’s the time.”

“I can’t move,” he wanted to say, but his mouth and throat were as dry as a bone abandoned in the desert. Not even a squeak could squeeze its way out.

“Right yer are then,” the man shouted. “I’ll be gettin’ along.” There was a creak as the brakes were released, then the engine roared and the bus pulled away, its headlights roaming the wasteland before returning to the road. And darkness and silence came rushing back.

“No! You are not giving up,” she said as he drifted towards oblivion.

“Wasn’t that what you did?”

“I was wrong. I’m not letting you make the same mistake.”

“What’s the point?”

He craved but one thing, release. Release from the pain. Release from the loss of his wife. Release from the unending drudge. Release from the struggle.  Release from life. And release came, all of a sudden, panting its way up to him, saying “I knew somethin’ was amiss”, buoying him up, casting off the weight of the dead man, freeing his lungs to breathe again, offering him a hand up and a shoulder to lean on.

“Are you all right mate? Sorry I took so long. Had to park me bus.”

Umbrella people

Umbrellas

Rain patters on the flagstones that pave the square. Rivulets of water converge forming ever growing puddles, till the place resembles an immense lagoon bordered by a forest of pillars curving upwards, arching protective over tables huddled like bedraggled lambs.

A poster clings to a pillar flapping like a trapped bird in the wind. In a moment’s respite, a sketch of an umbrella unfurls, beneath which is scrawled in childish script: Derided by our fellows, cast out by our parents, hounded by the police, we protest by exhibiting our beautiful bodies, so abhorred by those who fear that which is not like them.

Under the arcades, in the warmth of fizzling gas fires, faded enchantresses sip tea and nibble cakes, their fur stoles wound tight round wrinkled necks. With bright red lips, they murmur powdered cheek to powdered cheek. “No! Really?” Waiters stand stiffly in the shadows, trays at hand, while beyond, within, enthroned at her cash register, Madame sees all.

Not to be out done, San Marco surges upwards, arch upon arch harbouring sacred scenes, topped by spires and saints that stand stolid against the storm. From within, trebles soar above tenors and basses amid a haze of incense and candle smoke. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem. Response and counter response in an ordered procession, a celestial counterpoint composed centuries before.

Outside, like an archipelago of tiny, colourful islands in the rain-spattered square, we children crouch, each concealed beneath a rainbow umbrella, naked and shivering. Droplets rebound from puddles and splash our tiny feet, our ankles, our calves, our private parts. Icy rain-water drips from goose flesh and our young teeth chatter. Will people ever accept us as we are?

Amid the faded onlookers, a woman gets to her feet, abandoning her tea and cake, and with her left hand cupped over her mouth, her eyes wide in horror and distaste, she points a trembling finger in our direction. A flock of words rises squawking beneath the arcades. “Shocking!” “Disgusting!” One after another the women rise, their dresses fluttering in the wind, one hand outstretched, till an armoury of accusing fingers aims in our direction.

A whistle slices through the clamours of indignation and a body of Carabinieri trot into the square, their boots squelching in step, their truncheons dancing at their hips. Fanning out, they rain blows on our umbrellas sparking screams and cries for mercy. In a flurry of dark blue and silver braid, they bludgeon the difference out of us and with it our lives. Order restored, they regroup and trot away. The echoes of our pleas die down and quiet returns, even the lamb of god is silenced. Dazed, the women sit and stare, betwixt fear and fascination, unable to resume their whispered commerce.

In the square, rain continues to fall on the rods and riders of umbrellas twisted almost beyond recognition and the tatters of colourful canopies float on a growing sea stained red.

(Many thanks to the members of the Geneva Writers Group, whose critiquing of this story helped me see what was creating difficulties in an earlier version.)

Her

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Time to crack open my eyes, to yawn and yawn again, to stretch, to scratch, then pounce on the ball of wool sending it shooting under the bed. And I’m off, skidding on the carpet, slithering past the ball, almost colliding with the wall. Arching my back, I spring again, digging my claws into the woolly prey. It clings to me and we struggle. I roll on my back, splaying my legs, and wool tumbles over my belly.

A shape looms at one end of the bed, it’s tiny, round eyes struggling to pierce the dark, its breath hot and unsavoury, calling the name it gives me. I move to slink away, but it corners me, its hand grabbing me by the scruff of my neck, and drags me through a flock of dust bunnies into the light.

I am whisked into its arms, the breath knocked from me. “Lie still,” it says. As if I could do otherwise in its vice-like grip. Its fingers dig into the crevice behind my ears till I am forced to purr and nuzzle against it. So much for self-respect. “It was only a dream,” it says, dumping me back on the floor.

What nonsense. As if we could dream. It was nothing but a ball of fluff I saw, or a mouse scuttling away, caught inches from its hideaway, or a bird, its wings fluttering, feathers flying free or maybe a rabbit, terrified, trying to stare me down with big round eyes. All are gone now, and it with them, leaving me alone with a bowl of pellets tumbling to the floor. I turn a disdainful back.

Ooh! An open window. I  jump up and sit on the sill, sniffing the air. Hmm. Others. Across the road. Down the alley with all those smelly dustbins. Through the scented black currant bushes. And there, amid it all, the hint of a treasure, a she-cat of the most exquisite sort. I lift my nose and incline my head, straining forward. Yes. The scent has my whole body quivering. But the wind swings to the north and the delicious smell is borne away.

I spring to the ground and race to the gate. Ducking down, I peer out under the metal bars. Nothing. Not a hair, nor a whisker of her. So I sit back on my haunches and wait, my head held high. No sign of her. Better clean my paws while I wait.

What’s this coloured thread caught between my claws? It flows beneath the gate, weaves amongst the leaves along the stone path, jumps up onto the window sill, only to plunge to my bowl below from where it hurries across the kitchen, down the corridor and through the bedroom door till it disappears beneath the bed.

Seized by a wild desire to run, I grasp the wool between my teeth and tear off down the lane, past the ruins of a tractor, round a toppled sign post and away into the orchard, trailing a coloured tail wherever I go.

Reaching the middle of the orchard, the thread goes taut and I tumble forward, head over heels, a bundle of fur, over and over, in a shower of leaves till I come to a halt. When I look up, a pair of eyes stares down, and whiskers that twitch, and a paw that gives me a playful tap. It’s her.

The Light Knows No Secrets

Light-2

“What did you say, Sandy?”

“I didn’t speak, my love.”

“Then who said that about the light?”

“What light?”

Please don’t tell me I’m hearing voices. That’s what happened to mum. Although she was much younger than I am now. She claimed a soldier came to her every night, it was a secret she said, he talked to her about the great war, how they got buried in the trenches, stumbling in the dark amid the stink and smoke, and them clawing at the mud trying to free the wounded, moaning and praying to God, without the least medical help and all the while shells showering them in sods of earth and broken bones, threatening to bury them amongst the dead…

“You look deathly pale, dear.”

Why do people go pale when they are afraid? Blood drains from their faces. Where does it go? Bet I went pale at the mention of her ghost soldier. Not her. She was scared of the hospital though, with its smell of disinfectant, a bit like here, and the white coated men and nurses in blue and all those wires snaking from the machines, wires they hooked up to her moistened temples, and the whirring that announced the impending shock… I saw it once. Peeked round the screens. Fool that I was. Can’t forget her scream or the gruesome grimace on her face. Never.

“Should I call the nurse?” she asks.

“No. Tea and biscuits will do the trick, my love.”

How long have the two of us been in this home, pottering old codgers finishing off our life together? There was a time when a whole house was ours with rooms to spare, a car of our own and a well-tended garden to roam in. Now all we’ve got is a single room, chocker with washed out memories, a load of useless trinkets, and us surrounded by other shrivelled folk biding their time, breakfast, diner and tea with a stroll in between, for those who still can.

“I put two sugars.”

She knows what I like. Haven’t got many secrets left from her. Nor she from me.

What did that voice say? It’s fading fast. Something about the light. Light of my life. Pretty idea. But it wasn’t that. The knowing light. Not quite. Something to do with secrets.

Sandy sits next to me on the sofa and lays a wrinkled hand on mine. I sip my tea now it has cooled.

“Better?”

I nod.

A knock sounds at the door.

“Come in,” we say in unison.

The door opens and a nurse strides in pushing a trolley. “So how are you two ladies today?”

This flash fiction was first published in Off Shoots 13.

The Chapel

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The latch clicks shut as I pull the porch door closed and feel my way in the dark. A faint hint of incense hangs in the air, vying with distant memories of flowers. I catch sight of the stone font in the gloom and run my hand round its worn rim then, tracing the curve down and across its depths, I encounter water. Drawing back, I glance around, but no one is there to see. I pull a handkerchief from my pocket and hurriedly wipe my fingers then hold it to my nose. Despite the time, her scent lingers on.

She stood alone on the hillside, her hands outstretched, her head upturned. Above, uncountable stars blinked down, setting off bitter sparks of joy in her chest. The full moon crested the horizon and arced upwards taking leave of the earth. “Mother,” she called out, her voice quivering as she stamped her feet to stave off the cold. A wind murmured in the distant trees, swirled across the exposed hilltop and ruffled the skirts about her ankles. It had been so long. Tears welled up in her eyes.

Venturing into the tiny nave, my footsteps echo hesitant off the walls. A shaft of light from a solitary window high above the altar pierces the gloom, casting a host of dancing colours across the floor. Laying a hand on the green cloth that runs the length of the wooden slab, I kneel where so many have knelt before. I am about to close my eyes when a faint rustling has me on my feet. It comes from behind the altar. A mouse surely. I skirt the table with cautious steps, one hand raised to strike, only to discover a cowering girl.

An owl swept low overhead and with a flurry settled on the young woman’s shoulder, letting out a mournful cry. Not content, it turned its head and butted her ear with its beak. She raised a hand to stroke its back when a sharp twang in a nearby bush had her flinging herself to the ground. An arrow whizzed over her head, skimming the screeching bird. A second arrow dug into the ground inches from her knee. She rolled over, sprang to her feet and darted this way and that before she dived for shelter amid the leaves.

In rags, the wretched girl stares at me with haunted eyes. One step is enough to have her skittering away on all fours, halted only by the chapel wall. “I won’t harm you,” I whisper. A moan bursts from her lips as I stretch forth a helping hand. Hammering at the door has us both jump. She scampers beneath the altar cloth and I hurry back to my prayers. With a crunch of hobnailed boots, a wave of sweat and laboured breathing bursts into the chapel. The soldiers fan out, thrusting with musket butts behind curtains and beneath pews.

The owl screeched a warning overhead. Too late. A rough hand gripped her shoulder and, despite her struggles, forced her to the ground. The wind rushed from her lungs as a boot kicked her once, twice, three times in the stomach. When she came to, her wrists were bound behind her back and two hooded figures were heaving her up. “Try calling your mother now,” a third man taunted. The two others laughed. Mother, she called out silently. Now is the time.

Eyes closed, I brace myself. A heavy hand seizes my shoulder making me start. My eyes fly open and I peer up at twisted features and a cruel mouth. “Where’s the brat?” I shrug. I’ve been through this before. Better not to speak. I am hauled to my feet and dragged behind the altar. The men scour every recess, but come away empty handed. Dumping me on the floor, they curse their way to the door and slam it shut.

“My eyes,” a man screamed, falling to the ground, his bloody hands clasped to his face. The man closest to her whipped out a knife and pressed it to her throat. “Stop that!” A second man collapsed with a piecing scream. “Call off your bird or I’ll kill you,” he said, as cold metal dug into her flesh. Then he gasped and his hand relaxed, letting the knife fall to the ground as he sank in a heap. The owl landed on his back, its claws and beak red with blood. Recovering the man’s knife, she cut herself free and, fingering her neck, sighed with relief. “Thank you, Mother.”

I take a deep breath and hasten in search of the girl. But all I find are cobwebs and dust. Could my longings have conjured such a waif from the shadows of hope? I sigh. The sun must have broken free of a cloud, because light bursts through the window, spotlighting the lectern with its rays. I draw closer, feeling a fluttering presence stir within my chest and my heart unfurls, a part of me surging upwards to join the light. On the lectern a volume lies open, it’s illuminated letters colourful in that shaft of warmth. Three sentences stand highlighted in a dainty script, singled out by a sole affirmation: Yes. I read aloud: There is nothing richer than silence. Nothing more moving than being still. Nothing more all encompassing than being alone.

A Voice in the Storm

Storm

The sun’s rays burst through the clouds and skim the ruffled waters of the lake. At the sight of a large villa, they prize their way between the half drawn curtains and splash light across a table set for two.

Eyes downcast, an old man ruminates, his boney fingers smoothing creases from the cloth. The roast lamb and potato gratin have hardly been touched. He picks up his glass, swills the red wine, sniffs it, then replaces it with a sigh. In the distance, a clap of thunder rolls off the hills.

“That Mrs. Adams has been at it again.”

He looks up startled. Not that he has any reason to be, she accompanies him wherever he goes. His eyes return to the food. He pushes a morsel of lamb with his fork leaving a streak of blood across the plate.

“Her husband found her sprawled in the arms of that bartender. The one down by the lake. The brawny one. Bob the fireman had to hold Mr. Adams back…”

He stares at the clouds pitching across the sky in tune with the staccato of her voice. She may be well preserved and still takes care of how she looks, but maybe he should have divorced her back then, like his colleagues said.

“It makes no sense. What with her late and him not hearing a word. A typical man. Couldn’t face the pain, his reputation was all he cared for.”

He grits his teeth and tries to remember if there has ever been a time when he is not flooded by her mindless words. His thoughts go blank.

“I told her so. But she wouldn’t go. Too ashamed. Her niece works there once a week. Afraid the chit would spill the beans.”

He grips the edge of the table, bunching the cloth between his fingers. He has a wild impulse to wrench the linen from under the plates. A resounding crash shakes the house as  lightening strikes nearby.

“That’s when she went all pale, her eyes rolled up and she sank to the floor in a heap, trembling like a new born lamb. Moaning she was and me unsure what to do, what with the little one not yet come and her husband shouting for help and the maid running round like a headless chicken…”

“Enough!” The shock of his fist on the table has his fork scudding from the plate and the wine glass topples, casting a slur across the virgin cloth. He shoves back his chair and struggles to his feet. Raking his fingers through the remains of his hair, he glances about perplexed. How come he is all alone?

Outside, beyond the hills, away over the lake, atop the peaks, a rent in the clouds rolls shut and the rays of sun are snuffed out shrouding the world in listless grey.

Encountered

Encountered

The whir of colour wheels settled and a familiar sinking announced the return to gravity. Ahead the docking station took shape. AT381. Home. He let out a deep shuddery breath. He was almost there. Out of habit, he glanced at the screens. No one was following.

Docked, he was about to undo the airlock when a second craft drifted into the next bay. His hands froze on the crossbar. Cast off you fool, get out of there. But he was so close. Through the port he caught a glimpse of the aeronaut, a young woman, stern and beautiful, her angular face looking vaguely familiar. Could she be one of those life suckers? They could so easily shift shape. But no. The memory of her was older. Flight school maybe. Intrigued, he opted to risk it.

She had her back turned when he reached the platform, her silver suit helmet wedged under her arm. She was typing in her credentials and taking her time about it. Fear spiked again. Could she be ratting on him? But when she turned, the sight of those black eyes and her pointed ears, had it all come flooding back. Brooke. His first lover. Their little adventure had almost cost him his place at school.

He glanced at his reflection in a porthole. Surely she wouldn’t know him after all he’d been through. She nodded blankly and squeezed past, heading for the space station. How strange to be so close. Sliding his ID into the console, a message flashed up. Who could possibly know he was there? He glanced around, but he was alone. Pulling up the message he read: 381 taken over. Get out while you can. Brooke.

He wrenched his card from the panel and tore down the tunnel after her, but she was nowhere to be seen. He halted short of the reception desk, spotting several guards sporting the latest sigma laser nonsense. Drawing back, he swore under his breath. Blast the woman. How did she know? Could he trust her?

He ran back to the airlock, unlocked the door and climbed inside his craft. He sniffed the air as he glanced around, wary that someone might have entered while he was away. He sensed nothing. Screwing the airlock into place, he hurried to the main console. A hammering came from the safety hatch. Checking the screens, he saw two guards setting about the door with the butts of their guns. The idiots were going to depressurise the whole station.

Releasing the craft’s hold on the dock, he sped her away, rapidly computing hyperspace coordinates as he did. He was about to order the shift when he felt fingers brush his neck. His hand flew to the knife at his belt. Turning his head, he caught sight of Brooke grinning down at him. He relaxed and sheathed the knife. Leaning forward to give her a kiss, he felt her grip his collar and then her teeth sank into his neck.