A Dark Short

I wrote this piece in honour of Angela Carter, something of a literary heroin of mine. Turning the fairy tale genre on its head, I ask the question: what defines good and evil? Nobody writes themselves as a villain in their own story, however tragic these stories are and however twisted their views are. In times like this, it’s important to look at the villain and ask what allows them to justify the wrong they do, and whether they’ll truly be happy when they finally get what they want. Grim imagery and metaphor were my friends in this dark, dark tale, I hope you enjoy.

Please leave a comment at the bottom with your thoughts. I’m always looking for feedback, and would love to share thoughts on the subject with you!

 

O, Mirror

 

Who says a Queen can’t rule an empty city? Why, she is the fairest of them all, for she suffers no comparison.

 

            A pearl-white castle rests atop a hill. The drawbridge lies open. A low wolf-like wind howls through the courtyards and fills the inner halls with a drone, a hum of isolation, an ambient, solitary soundscape for this glorious, solitary space.

 

            Winged gargoyles admire their stone garden from atop the tower roofs. They have grown ugly and sardonic with age; their open-mouthed grins laugh at the gnaw of time as it corrupts these cupids into demons of malice.

 

The great halls and smaller rooms swell with the living breath of abandonment, and that breath is cold, frost-bitten, harsh to the stone floors, plush armchairs, and ornate hand-woven tapestries. The cloths tell stories of lavish parties, princesses in voluminous pink ballgowns, and dark-red battles with gouged-out eyes and gashed necks. What lies they tell! crow the bitter hearths. When has a party graced these halls? When have we entertained the brass-buckled shoe, the gold-hemmed skirt, the cocktails or the canapes? These are the fantasies of some dreaming weaver. What good those dreams did him, mortal unlike his cloth, buried six feet under without a single spectator to share his name.

 

            Small shacks and shanties surround the castle like a dried-up moat. Pots of rice and beans are half-full (or half-empty, depending on your disposition), and pans of dried chicken undulate under a fiesta of maggots squirming and writhing for a nibble. Straw dolls lie buried beneath tattered sheets on the raked earthen carpet; their funerals unattended, their graves flowerless. Cups of nettle tea lie cold. Soups are sealed beneath a thin film of mould. An oil painting of a riverbank remains half-drawn, the paints dry, the brush dropped. A talent unfulfilled.

 

            The markets sell rotten fruit to the ghosts of abandoned promises. The baker’s once-famed fresh bread has dried into dust. The silk weaver’s cloths are picked apart by ravens. The rain beats a funereal march on the drummer’s abandoned drum as the sky weeps for this lost civilisation, the town that had enough, the people who decided no more, the hopes left to die a slow, unyielding death.

 

            Hungry luminescent eyes reflect the moonlight: the silver leash to the lycanthropic. They would climb the hill to search the castle – the Queen would prove a hearty meal – but animals have heightened senses compared to you and I and know to steer clear of fouler things. No creature but the snake and spider tolerate such unnatural wrongdoings. The black cat is curious, but arches its back on discovery. The raven bluffs, then cowers. The newt hides and covers its eye in fear of cliché.

 

            Cirrocumuli swirl about the highest tower and encircle the balcony. There, the lady of the land admires her kingdom and reminisces. Once upon a time, she could execute with a dismissive wave of her finger, and chop: Blood-jam tarts for supper. The lowly peasant could not do such a thing, but she, she was chosen by god, she was born into this world with an evil-smiting axe. The world commanded it so. She cannot be evil. She could feast on a thousand babies and still the crown atop her head would govern her choice as divine. The highest towers govern what is good and what is not, but who can question her when all the other rooms are dark? The lords, ladies, maids and footmen left long ago when the city was deemed nonsensical to inhabit. Pfft, she grunts as she turns from her view, who needs them?

 

            The shrill tune of a songbird, the friend of mankind, titters up the brickwork and coos in her ear. She peers over the balcony again, scours the desolation. There, on another balcony, high above the wolves’ domain yet low below the Queen’s: The source of the song. She knows its verse better than any. She taught its melody; its queer inflections and celebrated rhythms are a reflection of her own, back when she cared for such melodies, when she combed her long black hair and sang such songs. Now the tune rings sharp and makes her blood run cold. She listens with distaste. She sees much of herself in that little bird. Its white frills, cream beak and raven-black crown were hand-me-downs from herself and her dear departed king.

 

            Thank you, husband dearest, for gifting me your lands. A pity you had to leave so soon. Whatever was in that drink?

 

            Roaming hands slide over her shoulders; she swoons. My, huntsman, what big hands you have.

 

            All the better to feel you with.

 

            She turns to see her lover: The third inhabitant of this lonely land. He stands tall, muscular, bare-chested, his great endowment covered only by a loincloth; nobody nears to warrant decency. Indeed, she only wears her long black cloak to maintain her own illusion of importance and to shroud her fragile frame from the cold. Beneath, she is naked.

 

            He fetches her food; he fends off the hounds; he brings home the bacon; he is under no enchantment but the captivating twinkle in her eye. He thinks so, anyway. He knows nothing of the powers in her basement.

 

            ‘Your brow furrows, my Queen. What troubles you so?’

 

            ‘The bird, my love, the bird. She fills our desolation with disillusion. She is my mirror, and it ages slower than I.’

 

            ‘What would you have me do?’

 

            She considers his request, the reason for her fleeted flock. Before plastic cleansed rich skin, the dark arts kept us young. Neither show lasting effects, but tell that to the spellweaver.

 

            ‘My little bird fetches flowers before supper. Go to the field and fetch me her heart. I will eat well tonight, and bathe in youthful oils.’

 

            ‘But, my lady, would you not miss her songs?’

 

            She would, of course, and the fantasy of the empty cage weighs heavily on her heart. But she cannot bear to watch her reflection outlive her. Not when the powers at her disposal promise otherwise. O, Mirror, I will be the fairest. Just you wait. You will see.

 

            ‘Needs must. I cannot be the fairest in the kingdom while my mirror image wears black better than I.’

 

            Hours later, the sun lowered to slumber behind the distant mountains and the huntsman set out with spear in hand. He draped his vascular shoulders in cloth – the cold bites at dusk – and ventured forth. His queen awaited supper.

 

            He hid in a shrub of rhododendron, the pink bush of caution, and spied his prey. But wait! here she comes. The bird fluttered near, flowers in her delicate grip. She jumped excitedly from sprig to bush, smelling the sweet fresh scents of possibility, dropping one as she picked another.

 

            What a sweet bird, mourned the huntsman, it breaks my heart to ready my spear. He observed her fawn over nature: What could be purer than this? She fluttered unfettered, singing her winsome song. The spear loosened in his hand. Her gentle titter made him smile. It had been long since he’d felt such happiness; the queen does not inspire gentility, rather primitive passion followed by hours of silence. She fights her reflection much of the day, his cock by night. He had never minded before, but he had not felt such soft affection since his mother passed washing linen.

 

            ‘Enough!’ he cried. The weapon fell into the grass with a muffled thud. He straightened his back, his spine popped and cracked, and he stepped amidst the clearing. I will make amends with the kind bird. I will tell her to flee into the woods. There she may make a new life, she may find friends. My lover will not harm her this night.

 

            But the bird saw a great monster, of frightening stature and mammoth breadth, rise from the shrubbery and screamed.

 

            ‘No, little bird, be not afraid!’

 

            It flew backward, running from harm, and turned beak-first into a tree. A great oak held out its root and sneered. Trip. Fall. Snap went her avian neck. Nine months to start a life, half a second to end it.

 

            The huntsman wept. He fell on his knees and wailed for the dainty, affectionate thing, the little one he’d melted for. Salty tears rolled down his cheek. His strong hands held the pure vessel gently, and he showed his love in the only way he knew: with primitive passion.

 

            Good conquers evil. Now the queen wore the girl on her arm as a trophy. The moral of her story is sometimes dreams do come true.

 

            Now the bird aged faster than she, for it dried and fell under the ravenous nibble of blowflies. The queen of the empty lands lived happily ever after, forever laughing triumphantly at her magic mirror, the rotting corpse, the reflection she’d conquered, as the huntsman stood aside and watched the regression of her disposition. My, is that a grey hair I see?

 

Everything Starts with a Beginning

The Next Stop

Well, here it is: My blog.

From here, I post my thoughts on books I have come across in my travels – first a few recent, then the ones at present – and, occasionally, I will publish a short story or two that I have written down the line. I have quite a few, so watch this space!

For now, check out a short story I wrote last year, for which I was awarded Highly Commended in the Writers Forum Magazine, February 2016.

I tailored it towards a young audience, to gently educate the importance of coming to terms with death.

The Next Stop

From where Ruben was standing, the sea of people stretched in every direction forever. He squeezed through the gaps in the crowd, reaching for the hips that met his eye level. ‘Jess!’ he called, ‘Jess!’ He looked down, staring at the white floor rushing beneath and up at the foggy white sky refusing to move. Fearing he’d been running in the wrong direction all this time, he doubled back. ‘Jess!’ he shouted, ‘where are you?’ It didn’t matter how much his little voice called: everyone above him was doing the same. A multitude of names cluttered the air and battled, smacking each other down and falling short of reaching anyone. All but Ruben remained still. ‘Help!’ he cried, ‘somebody!’ He stopped, panting, and leaned his hands on his thighs, his forehead creased and glistening with sweat. He was lost. No way forward, no way back. He looked up and tugged on someone’s pastel pink blouse. The lady stopped shouting and looked down. He stared at her through tearful eyes. Don’t be a baby, the red devil growled from his shoulder. Crying’s for kids. ‘Please, miss?’ he said, ‘d’you know where my sister is?’

Ruben thought she hadn’t heard him for she stared at him silently, her massive magnified eyes blinking blankly behind thick round spectacles, but eventually she replied. ‘No,’ she said, ‘sorry.’

‘Could you help find her?’

She smiled. Her pale lips gained colour. ‘Of course,’ she nodded, ‘as soon as I’ve found my daughter.’

‘No! Wait!’ Ruben tugged on her blouse but she was shouting again. He tried again with a young suited man, then a woman looking for the Chihuahua that’d jumped from her bag, but everyone gave the same response: I’ll help you, but not right now. Tears pushed from his eyes and salty snot trickled into his mouth. He could feel his cheeks warming, his sweaty palms scrunched in fists. ‘Jess…’

Ahead, between hundreds of legs, Ruben spotted movement. ‘Hello?’ A spark of relief ignited in his chest. He pushed fervently past person after person and tripped over someone’s foot, landing on his hands and knees with a smack! The floor was cold, hard, like porcelain. I always help Jess brush her teeth. She stands on a step ’cause she’s too little to reach the sink, but I can do it on my own. She sang Frere Jacques and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star difficultly through her toothpaste and he laughed when it dribbled down her face and pyjama top.

Ruben found a chip in the porcelain. Beneath, it was crumbly like the tiles in his bathroom: daddy always said they’d re-do the bathroom. What a state... But where was dad? Where was Mum? Ruben looked up and saw movement again. He clambered to his feet. His light footsteps echoed and squeaked on the porcelain. He was catching up. He gathered pace but so did the other. ‘Wait!’

The figure stopped, but when he finally reached it, no-one was there.

Ruben tugged on someone’s clothes. ‘Mister?’ A man looked down: He reminded Ruben of his granddad. He wore a cap over a balding head with round specs and a pipe in his mouth. A tweed waistcoat hung over a dark green shirt and the sleeves were rolled up like he’d just been gardening. He took the pipe from his mouth and raised one eyebrow to show he was listening. ‘Have you seen my sister?’

The man frowned and shook his head. ‘I don’t know that I ‘ave.’ His accent was familiar. To Ruben, who lived in the countryside, he sounded like a farmer.

‘Could you help me look?’

The old man nodded. ‘Just as soon as I’ve found my Mary. She’s out there, too.’ He turned away.

The horrid feeling of worry in Ruben’s stomach and hot flush in his face became too much and, in desperation, he burst into tears. He fell to the floor, crying loudly and openly, tears streaming down his face. ‘Please!’ he cried, ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do…’

Ohhh…’ The man crouched and hushed him. ‘Don’t cry, son. Everythin’s gonna be alright.’ He wrapped his arms round him. Ruben hugged back tightly. They stayed there for a while: he was warm and kind and made Ruben feel better, but when they released, the horrid unsettled feeling returned to his stomach. ‘What’s ‘er name?’

‘J-Jess,’ Ruben sniffed, wiping his nose with his wrist. ‘Her name’s Jess.’

‘Ok, and what’s your name, son?’

‘Ruben.’

‘Ruben, eh? Well, isn’t that a nice name?’ the old man chuckled, ‘I’m Alfie.’ Ruben nodded and tried to smile. ‘What does Jess look like?’

Ruben spoke between sobs: ‘She has long hair, brown eyes, and wears a pink ribbon in her hair. Or blue. She likes both.’

‘Both?’ Alfie frowned. ‘Which was she wearin’ when you saw ‘er last?’

Ruben’s sniffles stopped. ‘I… I can’t remember…’ A wall of smoke stood between him and his memories. He didn’t even know why he was in this endless white-walled foggy-skied landscape to begin with. The rusty cogs in Ruben’s brain clanged and scraped for information.

Alfie ruffled Ruben’s hair. ‘Let’s look together, then, shall we?’

Alfie’s optimism gave Ruben hope. He picked him up so he was sitting on his shoulders, making Ruben laugh as he was lifted so high. In every direction, people stood still beyond his field of vision. The floors and beyond were porcelain-white, making this endless void feel like an incredibly large hall. Alfie turned around so Ruben could see the other side. ‘Oh…’

‘What is it, son? What d’you see?’

‘A… a train! I see a train! It’s a train station!’ It was quite a distance, but definitely reachable now one of them could see where to go. It was white, like the space around them, and only discernable from the backdrop by its black outlines like it’d been drawn onto the space with a thick marker pen. Ruben saw ten carriages behind it and as Alfie turned again, he saw a corridor of space made by the crowd where the tracks had been lain, extending into a blinding white spot far off in the distance.

‘If there’s a train, why isn’t anyone movin’? People should be pilin’ on.’

Even those closest to the train stood still, calling for their loved ones. They don’t even know the train is there, Ruben shuddered. He pointed and Alfie walked forward.

‘Maybe your sister’s on there,’ Alfie hoped. ‘And my Mary.’

‘Is Mary your daughter?’

‘My wife,’ said Alfie.

‘Are you the same? Can you not remember where you last saw her?’

Ruben saw the top of Alfie’s cap bob as he nodded his head. ‘The last thing I remember is lyin’ down. I was starin’ at a white ceilin’.’

Ruben looked up at the sky. ‘Smoke,’ he said. ‘The last thing I remember is smoke.’ The clouds grew darker: a storm was brewing within.

‘Wha’ about your family, lad? Where d’you live? D’you enjoy school?’

The fog slowly withdrew from the centre of Ruben’s memory, revealing one small figment at a time. ‘I remember my bedroom,’ he said. As they drew closer to the station, the floor changed. It was no longer porcelain but carpeted grey and covered in dirt. Alfie hesitated before stepping onto the carpet, but Ruben egged him on: it helped remind him of his story. ‘My bedtime’s eight, but I don’t want to sleep then ‘cause I’m eleven!’

‘You’re quite small for your age,’ Alfie said, his eyes fixed on the carpet.

Ruben continued on his own thought track. ‘I share with Jess so we have to go to bed at the same time.’

‘Why don’t you have your own room?’

The fog retreated. ‘We have a small house. No,’ he remembered, ‘a flat.’

Alfie’s pace slowed as the amount of people increased, the space between them getting smaller. Ahead, Ruben spotted a small clearing. He led his friend in that direction and, when they reached it, was lowered to the ground. A clear open corridor of space stretched acres beyond to the train ahead. The train was massive, far greater than any he remembered, but it stood silent and calm. As they drew closer, the crowd’s shouts dimmed to a chatter, so Ruben and Alfie could chat a little more calmly.

‘My Mary’s a charming lady,’ Alfie beamed. ‘We own a little tea shop on the Dorset coast. Well,’ he laughed, ‘she owns it. I just do the gard’nin’ and make it look nice.’

‘Where’s Dorset?’ said Ruben.

‘South, boy! Don’t you do Geography at school?’ he coughed a little, then a lot into his hand. His throat rattled loudly and Ruben winced.

My granddad smokes… the fog retreated again… smoked a lot. He died when I was nine.

‘Damn,’ Alfie huffed, ‘where’re my cigars? Maybe there’s a shop somewhere…’

Somehow, Ruben didn’t think so. ‘Where’s the train going?’

Alfie didn’t answer. ‘Tell me more about your sister.’

‘Uhhh…’ There was a flash of something, then it was gone. Come meet your new sister, Rube! Then another. Look at that! Jessica’s riding her bike all by herself! But then he saw the floor again: the dust and dirt covering the carpet. ‘We didn’t go to bed yet,’ he said. ‘I threw a pillow at her and she threw it back.’

Pillow fight! Her giggle flew through the air and out to the grey clouds above. They both heard it and looked up, though to Alfie it didn’t sound like Jess. ‘Mary?’ he whispered.

Ow! Ruben hit Jess over the head with his pillow and she fell over. He bent over to see if she was alright, but she swung back and sent him flying. They laughed hysterically and jumped about until someone banged the wall. “Go to sleep, kids! I don’t want to tell you again!” They jumped back into bed, giggling under the covers restlessly, but within minutes, they were back out and playing again, dancing under the flickering light of ‘…fire.’

‘Hmm?’

‘Jess threw her pillow and it hit the gas lamp.’

Alfie halted. ‘Gas lamp?’

‘Mmhmm.’ Ruben nodded and bit his top lip. ‘The pillow fell and hit the curtains. The fire spread fast.

‘Who has a gas lamp?’ Alfie shook his head and continued walking.

Suddenly, Ruben gasped as something lurched into his back and threw him to the floor. His body screamed in agony. It felt as if someone had stabbed him with a hot iron poker, like the ones on his granddad’s farm. He wailed and tensed, hunching over and grinding his teeth together with a deafening scream.

‘What?’ Alfie panicked, ‘what’s wrong?’

But Ruben couldn’t speak. He tried to stand, but the pain kept attacking him, bite after vicious bite. His screams echoed above all the chatter and distant rumble of thunder beyond the clouds, filling this endless space with Ruben’s burning, searing pain.

Alfie gasped. ‘Blood!’ he said, and pulled Ruben’s top off as he saw it darken and stick to his back. What he saw could never be unseen. It wasn’t just a burn that had left Ruben in such agony: The skin on Ruben’s back had completely burned away, leaving sticky steamy red and white flesh peeling from his clothes. ‘But that wasn’t there before!’ Alfie insisted, his grip involuntarily tightening over the blood-stained shirt.

Ruben sobbed and wailed, but now his back was burning in the open – breathing deeply through gritted teeth – he was thankful that the pain was beginning to subside. The torturous burns on his back were from the fire. ‘We screamed and screamed,’ he cried, ‘“Help! Help!” but no-one came. We couldn’t get out.’

‘And?’

Ruben paused and his face creased. ‘I… can’t remember. Just smoke.’

They walked in silence for a while. Ruben whimpered quietly to himself as the pain simmered, though one thing still troubled Alfie. ‘You said you knocked a gas lamp.’

‘Jess knocked it.’

‘Sure, but I don’t know anyone who uses gas lamps anymore.’

‘What do you use, then?’

‘Electric ones.’ Alfie shrugged.

‘Woah!’ Ruben gasped up at the old man. ‘You must be really rich!’

Alfie shook his head. ‘Not really. When you went to school last,’ he said, ‘what date did you write on your school books?’

That memory came easily. ‘1923.’

Alfie began to sweat. ‘1923?’ He scrunched his eyes shut and shook his head frantically as if to rid himself of moths and spiders. ‘I remember when Mary and I got married. We ‘ave a cushion on our bed that marks the occasion. I can see it now,’ he said, looking up at the sky that didn’t look like a sky to him, ‘sewn into a silver silk cushion with violet thread. Wednesday 16th May 1962.’ Ruben didn’t understand the connection. He remained silent, wanting to know more about this grandfatherly figure holding his blood-stained shirt, but he didn’t get the chance, for as Alfie opened his mouth to speak, he stopped, pointing out to both of them that the white marker-drawn train was now towering over their heads. ‘This is it,’ he said. ‘The station.’

‘Where d’you think it goes?’ asked Ruben.

‘Only one way to find out.’

‘D’you have a ticket?’

‘I don’t think we need one, son.’ Alfie ruffled Ruben’s hair again and walked to the closest carriage. The door was open. The people surrounding the train looked straight through it and spoke quietly, almost to themselves, and didn’t seem to notice the train was there. They walked past them wearily, afraid they might all suddenly spring into action, but they didn’t, and when Ruben and Alfie reached the carriage door, they were met by a tall man in a white suit and cap.

All aboooaaard!’ The man looked around, calling through cupped hands, though Alfie and Ruben were the only ones there. ‘Leaving in five!’

The young man turned to climb back on the train when he spotted Ruben. ‘Hey, kid,’ he winked. ‘You getting on?’ Ruben nodded. ‘This train’s one way so make sure you’re ready.’ He disappeared, leaving Ruben and Alfie alone again. Smoke began to rise from the funnels of the train and Ruben heard a low rrummmm as the engine sprung into life far to his left at the front of the train.

Looking into the dark beyond of the carriage, Ruben’s hands began to tremble. ‘Alfie,’ he said, looking up, ‘I’m scared.’

Alfie stared ahead. ‘Don’t be.’ A tear rolled down his cheek.

‘She was wearing a pink ribbon.’

‘Really?’ Alfie looked away and sniffed.

‘I picked her up and jumped through the fire.’ Ruben stared into the carriage and saw his bedroom door. ‘I didn’t make the jump. I slipped and hit my head on something.’ He looked up at Alfie. ‘D’you think she’s alright?’

‘Kids are made of strong stuff,’ Alfie smiled. ‘My Mary is, too.’ He took Ruben’s hand. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Your mummy and daddy, Jess, my Mary, they’ll find us at the next stop.’

‘They will?’

‘Sure!’ He lifted Ruben onto the train and got on too. When Ruben turned around, Alfie pointed out that Ruben’s burns had vanished. ‘Oh yeah!’ Ruben smiled, not really pondering over it, ‘you’re right!’

A thought lingered through the air and they both looked up. The clouds whispered solemnly. Everyone comes by this train eventually.

‘We’ll wait for them there.’

‘Okay!’ Ruben disappeared into the darkness of the carriage.

‘Who knows?’ Alfie chuckled. ‘Maybe they’ll have a store where I can buy cigars.’