Gifted

He stared down the barrel of the camera and confessed it all. He apologised, deeply, through muted sobs, for misleading us. For deceiving every one of us so cruelly. For making a mockery of his mystic art. All lies.

And she stared on from the wings. A scorching stare; a poisonous, enthralling smile.

He shook; whether with guilt or with shame or with fear, none could tell. The paper in his hand, from which he read, rustled noisily. His eyes told of the threat of vacillation, but he stayed the course of curious repentance.  And every now and then she exhaled steadily from her position, just over his right shoulder.

“I have caused the deaths of one-thousand, two-hundred and six animals; large and small. Many perished in unimaginable agony.” His lip quivered but he muddled on “A total of seventeen human minds and souls have been lost to my art … my act. These wretches are now with the devil. I am a liar. I am a charlatan. I have masqueraded as a masterful peddler of the wonderful. But I am a vile deceiver. My magic is all illusion. My feats of the impossible, mere theatre.”

The nation drew breath together. Betrayal. The wonder trickled away like so much spilt milk. All fabrication and deception and puffs of smoke, now roiling away. And people were angry.

“There is a basement…” His words caught in his throat. He stopped, broke and recomposed himself. “And that’s where the children are. All of them. You see, it was not enchantment but a sham. A show. And they are there. They are all there.”

As the camera panned closer to his face – a mechanical gesture of incredulity –  the noise of disruption from without the bolted studio doors began and rose rapidly. A rumble of disquiet, becoming, steadily, a chaos of voices; demanding the return of their trust and the salvation of their now-lacerated experience. And they were sharpening their knives.

And in the wings, her smile shrank and a final sigh signified her satisfaction. With him since her youth. Daughter of the first innocent woman who went mad by his trusted hand. This young woman held his secrets like a bouquet and watched them wither with time. And as the doors began to buckle; and just before the anger of the deceived was realised upon the man’s feeble, old body; this deathly posy of secrets was handed back to the world. By her.

Wearing the clothes in which he’d dressed and kept her. Revealing, at last, her lucidity. The magician’s assistant.

The Meagre Clog


Many said that he was begot by the devil himself. Others muttered about a lupine litter of half-human cubs. All knew that he was cast out of the village years ago; that he raised himself from infancy to maturity in isolated, wretched gloom within the depths of a cave on the fringes of Kane Rock. Great Peter was how they christened him.

Few had seen him and fewer still in daylight hours. But all swore that his size would dwarf any man. That his ugliness could curdle blood. Some took pity on him over the years, stitching giant garments, visiting his cave in secret and leaving them at the entrance; cobbling shoes and tossing them into his bleak habitat.

Though his cave was littered with many hundreds of animal bones; though its entrance was dogged by the stench of putrefaction; though many were plagued by the thought of him in their nightmares, Great Peter never once harmed a human soul. Until.

The incident hinged upon a single shoe. A tiny wooden clog that a young man named Seamus Bragg claimed to have stolen from Great Peter’s cave whilst the miscreation was abroad; innocently hunting, obeying his gut. A rough thing it was, that clog. Not more than six inches long – a hollowed out hunk of Yew bark. Though, clearly, a tiny shoe.

“What a meagre thing he must be, to own such a feeble shoe! Great Peter? He’s had us duped all the while!” said the cocksure Seamus, poisoned with liquor and shrieking through a haze of miasma in the damp Inn.

“We should strike him out of our lands for good, that rotted demi-man.” And some of the men, in their drunken arrogance, joined with Seamus and his sentiment. They set out on the road, to the outer rim of the village, beyond the bent oaks, along the plains and the winter-bruised grasslands and up to Kane Rock to take Great Peter by force.

I know this because I was one of those men.

I can still feel the heat of my torch as I held it above me. I hear, still, the taunts we vomited; I feel them on my own now-leaden tongue. I can see, still, Seamus in my mind’s eye. Stepping forward with his own torch, brandishing it near the entrance of the cave and shouting profane threats; holding the tiny shoe aloft and calling:

“Come out, pathetic wretch, for we mean to show you for the grubby little worm that you are!” As he said this, Seamus began lighting chunks of wood that lay about him. He threw them into the cave. And we all followed suit – casting rocks, sticks, bones, into the darkness. All the while, Seamus advanced a little further towards the cave’s opening.

A muffled, rumbling cry came. A shocking shriek of pain. A groan of woeful despondency from within.

What happened next was so quick and brutal that I have to slow down time in my mind to recall it. But I see it with such horrid clarity and I cannot help but sob whenever the memory is formed. I see it. And I see him clearly.

How he emerged from the filth he lived in; rattled by contact of stones and sticks and blazing wood, crying in a dull, low moan, for peace. He stood, silhouetted, in the makeshift doorway. A few panic-fuelled stones made contact with his gargantuan body. He dragged himself forward, into the torchlight.

A great behemoth of a man. A walking, land-living leviathan. His skin, a dusty grey, revealing the pulsing, blue veins beneath. And his face! Oh, that piteous, enormous face.

Using his singular, trunk-like arms to drag himself, he lunged forward with an awful, bone-shattering cry and took Seamus up in his great hand.

With a single gesture, he smashed Seamus’s body onto the rocky ground below. The rest of us, stunned into silence, but unable to move, simply stared as Peter calmed himself, looked at what he had done and gave a single, heart-wrenching sob. He tore the garment, made by some caring hand of the townsfolk, from his bulge of body and threw it over the corpse.

And then Great Peter retreated back into his cave, never to be seen nor heard of again. Dragging one tiny, withered leg behind him.

At the waterside

I fire another stone. It pelts her on the forehead where the skin now wears thin. She bobs in the water, is submerged for a second or two and resurfaces, wildly. And my heart plummets back into the depths of me.

“EVIL!”

I hear screams and claims for the souls of children from the waterside. A hunk of timber is launched by someone I recognise but cannot name. It misses her by only a few inches. The culprit is restrained.

She is floundering in the water but death is yet far away. I pick up my sling shot. I load in a stone. I fire. The shot connects and appalling damage is done. My heart flutters a little but there’s more work to do. She is alive still.

Another wave of cries. Another wind of confidence. These asses of men, braying for their cruel justice. They won’t be satisfied until she is nothing but cooling cinders.

“You see?” shouts one man (in fact, her accuser). “A witch! She does not sink! Her soul belongs to Satan himself! WITCH!”

I wipe my face on my dress. The mud and tears have mingled but I care not a mite for the preservation of the fabrics. My position is hidden, up here on the hillock, surrounded by thick heather. But my slingshot has a broad range. I begin to load the largest, sharpest piece of shot I have.

I raise the contraption and take careful aim; her sorry face in my sights.  This will be the final stroke. This time I cannot fail.

For she is my sister and I am only trying to help her.

The Rug in the Smaller Drawing Room

(a Christmas Tale)


Here it is: our first ever audio tale.

We would like to thank B.J. Harrison of The Classic Tales Podcast for recording the tale for us. If you are unfamiliar with The Classic Tales Podcast you can find it on iTunes or on the official website. There are some wonderful, macabre (free) stories in his collection. And you’ll also find some fantastic novels and stories for purchase, too.

And now, our Christmas Tale

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Welcome, dear readers.

For a few weeks we have been cruelly teasing you with talk of a ‘Christmas surprise’. We are thrilled to announce that next Wednesday 21st December at 12noon our first ever audio tale will be released here on Tales from the Red Barn.

The Tale has been recorded by the magnificent B.J Harrison of The Classic Tales Podcast. We are delighted and honoured to have B.J read one of the Tales from the Red Barn. His gift for storytelling is sublime.

As always, the Tale will be accompanied by an original Max Dorey illustration and you’ll be able to sit back, perhaps take a seat by the fire, and enjoy having our chilling Christmas Tale read to you.

Keep your eyes on the Barn next Wednesday. In the meantime, search on Google or iTunes for The Classic Tales Podcast or visit http://www.thebestaudiobooks.com/ to experience some of B.J’s work.

We’ll see you again on Wednesday …

Connivance

It is a sacred bond, marriage. A union which tangles the souls and bodies of those in wedlock. We are the keepers of each other. It is something I know. Something I have grown to know.

It is true that I have spent so many anxious evenings, after sun down, considering fleeing; leaving the struggle behind. But as soon as the thought is processed, the wardrobe opened, the carry case half-stuffed with garments, he’s home. Freshly-energised and hot with the new night’s potential.

We have lived this way for three years; I made my choice. To say there is nothing of regret in my decision would be to lie to myself entirely. I used to think our nocturnal rendezvous romantic. Passionate and deliberately different. This otherness, this separation from all I’d know before him, sealed the deal. But these have long-since burned out. And he now seeks the company of others in those black hours.

Even our wedding took place under the stars, with only a few insignificant and anonymous witnesses. He is the only man I’ve ever truly loved. And when I revisit these thoughts, I’m called down from the ledge. I know that I’m mad to want to leave. I start to see the rationality in his explanations; his early confessions; his claims of necessity and survival and of an unslakable hunger. And I begin to accept him all over again. Love conquers.

But then the morning news comes and another animal’s throat has been torn out. Some stray or other has been evicerated and left on waste land.

And things far, far worse. Things I cannot bring myself to think of. There are so many homeless wretches in this city and I thank Holy God, knowing what I now know, that we have a roof over our heads. Though it seems that he’s rarely under it.

I’ll keep turning the other way. Both my eyes are blind.

He sleeps through the day.

The things in the tree

You hear them. Mainly on clear evenings when their sounds can carry through the night, unimpeded by thick fog or the savage noise of whipping winds. Screeching. Creaking. Cracking. Clawing. Ready to devour. Ready to feed. The things in the tree.

Every month, on the twenty-eighth day, another is brought before them. These poor, chosen wretches are left at the foot of the great, twisted oak; blackened with their filth and stripped of God-given colour by their caustic presence.

Orphans. The abandoned. The homeless. The loveless. All forgotten and disqualified pockets of the township eventually become their prey. It is what we do. It is the path we have chosen to follow. And it keeps them – those gruesome, snarling, flapping things – at relative peace.

For we know that if they are not appeased with a sacrifice they scatter and spread into the night. To take, kill, eat. It’s as if their burned-out hearts are set upon misery; they always know who among us are the most cherished, the most loved. Long ago it was decided that it should never be their decision; who goes and who stays among us.

And so a gift, brought every month on the twenty-eight day, is a necessity of our collective survival. The greater good.

I once overheard an old man, when I went obediently to fetch my foster brother a bag of chestnuts from Mrs Atkinson, giving an account of the things:

“Such is their frenzied, bloody hunger, grown men are grabbed, dragged and then flung, as if weightless, up into the darkness of the jagged branches of their black habitat. A whole body, torn to ribbons, emerging at speed atop the uppermost twig of the oak as scraps of flesh and splinters of bloodied bone!”

I recoiled at the thought. Whole human bodies! Unpicked by the winged monsters that roost there; that have always roosted there; at the very darkest edge of Hope Wood.

Today, November 28th, is my twelfth birthday and a surprise is looming for me. A promise I’ve been given. Something wonderful awaits me today! And even as I have let these thoughts swill around in my mind, a creeping, cold realisation has started to take hold of me. Even as I stand here, waiting, my eyes covered with a blindfold, I know.

I think of my foster parents. Of their stilted kindness and chilly distance. Their strained, unexplained tears yesterday eve. And I know where I am; where I have been led and left. And I know, now, why I am here.

I reach up and loosen my blindfold but I cannot – I dare not – open my eyes. They remain squeezed together, those cursed lids. I take a step forward as the blindfold drops to the ground.

And all hell deafens me.

There is a little girl dancing on the stairs

“There is a little girl dancing on the stairs,” Benton says. Something is hiding in his voice. Something undulates behind the words.

Photographers of the derelict, our work takes us to the underbelly of this city. Trapped under decades of dust and fallen columns and cracked floors and broken skylights waits a crumbled history. Like beacons, the histories of the places call out. And we come.

A story drew us here. To this theatre. A tale of a mother and her daughter. Who danced together on the stage. Who belonged to the theatre itself. To the audience. The mother, a sensation from childhood. Her daughter, reared in a world where each other star orbited both her and her mother. And they, both, were blazing suns. A partnership. No sooner could the child walk, she was taught to dance. Before her first words were sculpted, she had mastered ten melodies.

And she grew into a starlet, just like her dear mother. All glitz and celluloid-grace. The young girl’s light grew and her energy sizzled and fizzed. And her mother watched on and danced on. And aged on. Until, soon enough, her own light faded. And she became yet another star, orbiting her own child. And pride gave way to disdain and love parted for envy. Her own stage time began to vanish and her role was now that of a coach and onlooker to that which she had created. And she wept. And cursed in secret. And her daughter’s stardom grew more still.

And there was a fire. A great fire in the great building.

And the child, sent to the stairwell by her mother to rehearse her art, was trapped between two locked doors. Two doors that were never locked. And the smoke began to fill the space. It crept through the cracks and gaps in each frame. And the child did not stop her practice. Even when the thick smog began to pour into her small lungs, she persevered. Coughing but not faltering; a beautiful, tragic death dance. The little dancing girl, ignorant of the chaotic evacuation on the other side of the doors.

Only minutes later, she could dance no more. Nor move. Nor breathe. Nor live.

And on the street stood the company and the audience. Safe and startled. And her mother’s cheek, stained with strange tears, asking each person “Have you seen her? Have you seen her?”. And deep inside her pocket, a key, a box of matches.

And the flames and the heat and the smoke swelled on.

This story drew us here, to this theatre. And here we stand, my partner and I, ready to begin work. Lenses cleaned and cameras poised.

“There is a little girl dancing on the stairs,” Benton says as he re-enters the charred auditorium. There’s something hiding in his voice. Something undulates behind the words.

“She says she died here.”

Plagued

As Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the current spat of cuts and economic butchery have put Sedgwick very much in the firing line. Some of the baser tabloids, I have noticed, have even given his recent legislation the sickly moniker ‘the Pensioner Plagues’. Although his politics lean to the right (even stumble dangerously in that direction), I have always found him an agreeable, level-headed chap whenever we engaged, albeit always briefly, in conversation.

Sedgwick has been my neighbour for three years now (this property being his home away from home, of course) and I have only seen him to speak to when either he (or I) was leaving or entering his (or my) house. We have stopped to pass the time and chew the fat once or twice but one of us has invariably been dashing somewhere on each fleeting occasion. So, conversations between us have been brief, cheerful and, it has to be said, rather insipid.

However, this very night (at approximately twenty-past eleven) there came a knocking at my door. I answered it to find Sedgwick standing in a state of great distress. His skin was a sickening, greenish colour and his pupils were so dilated that I thought him certainly under the influence of some narcotic or other. His clothes were damp with what I took to be rain (for it was pouring outside) but, from the smell of the man, I realised soon enough was that it something altogether more sinister. There was a black, tarry sheen to the liquid and I could not place it; nor the spoiled odour it gave off.

I ushered him into my recently redecorated study and poured a brandy or two down him. When he came to and his shivering had abated, he began to speak. His usual mannered rhetoric – a habit he couldn’t shake after years in parliament even when passing the time on his front path – was gone. His voice wavered and broke as he recounted his uncanny account.

“He w-was on the bed,” he sputtered. “On my b-bed. My o-o-own bed”. He began to jabber some more and nothing of sense was coming forth so I advised him to begin from the point when he entered his house this evening. Which he did, after several stammering false starts.

According to Sedgwick, he returned home at approximately 10.15pm after being lambasted at a televised press conference. His office had sent him for a few hours rest before an early start the next morning. Reluctantly, the politician had obeyed.

As he entered his house, so the now-broken man recounted, there was a dampness to the air. A cold, withering sensation overtook him. He assumed the onset of a small cold or fever and, after fixing himself a hot linctus spiked with scotch, retired immediately to bed.

But as he ascended the stairs a queer feeling seemed to penetrate to the core of him. It was a sensation he could not shake and, from nowhere at all, came a desperate, terrible fear of entering his own bedroom. He tried fervently to shake off the silly emotion and, on reaching the door, told himself, aloud, not to be a fool. But the tenseness lingered and, as he stared at the bedroom door, he knew, somehow, that something untold and odious awaited him on the other side. Still, a man of extreme reason, he pushed through the panic and edged his way, tentatively into the room.

The moonlight, breaking through the old oak outside, lit the space dimly. He felt for the light switch but found it to be of no use. A duff bulb, he told himself (and who wouldn’t?). There was a heavy, musty smell which got on the man’s chest and seemed to creep about his airways. Another symptom of his new fever, he surmised.

He took a step towards the bed and allowed his pupils to soak up the darkness, letting them swell and adjust to the dull light. And then he saw what he had dreaded he might, even as he ascended the stairs moments before.

There, in the centre of his bed, sat a man.

An old man. A wizened and gnarled man who was slumped forward, wearing the remains of a tattered, antique suit. His neck was craned and his back hunched at a horrible, violent angle. Yet his eyes, his terrible, wrinkled eyes, looked upwards from under his ancient brow accusingly at Sedgwick. He wheezed into the darkness. The politician knew not who the man was.

Suddenly, from the back of the old man’s throat came a groan. This transformed, steadily, into a loud and fearful rattle and it grew evermore in volume. It rose and rose. It trembled with depth and then, without warning, became a throttled scream that forced a gruesome shudder in the politician as he stood at the foot of his usurped bed.

Sedgwick was frozen in horror. The old man stopped screaming, lifted his head and groaned again, tightly. As he did so, his jaw loosened and dropped to his chest with a nauseating, gristly crack. His mouth, now wider than any human mouth could conceivably stretch to, revealing horrid, yellowed teeth, then emitted the terrible screaming noise once more.

The old man’s eyes bulged and throbbed and his skin began to flex and contract. A dark water came to the surface of the his taut skin and dripped from his pores. He began to crawl forward on the bed. A jerky, jagged movement; his joints popping and creaking as he edged closer, closer, towards Sedgwick …

As Sedgwick recounted this to me he yelped and twitched at the memory. I did my best to soothe his temper.

“My name!'” Sedgwick said. “It was s-saying my name. ‘SEDGWICK!’ I ran. I escaped its clutches and I ran from the room. ‘SEDGWICK!’ He’s still in there! ‘YOU! YOU DID THIS!’ He’s still there! Still in my home!”

At this, the politician fell from his seat. His brandy glass shattered under him and I rushed over to assist the poor, frightened man. I found him to be stone still and, when I checked for a pulse, I found none.

And that, I swear to each of you, before almighty God himself, is how Sedgwick’s corpse came to be on my study floor.