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.

Advertisements

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.

From a dream

and the first thing I thought when I came to was that my head didn’t hurt and that this was peculiar as I was sure it had been a terrible fall and I was certain that I briefly felt the base of my cranium crash hard against something (the bathtub?) and it was also strange, I thought, that I was standing but the sense of urgency and need for haste was overwhelming so I left the bathroom quickly and moved downstairs quickly and before I knew it I was in the foyer and the Famous Woman was waiting for me already

and I turned about me and saw that Belle was looking around impatiently and I called out to her and told her I wouldn’t be long and the Famous Woman smiled kindly at me and she said we needed to hurry and I called out to Belle and she looked beautiful and I remembered us as two young people and I realised, again, that I loved her

and the Famous Woman took my hand and we walked out of the foyer and up a long, old staircase and the dust smelled like cinnamon and we arrived on a corridor and the Famous Woman told me Belle would follow us and we walked past several blue doors and behind them I thought I could hear music and laughing and we passed some black doors and I was sure I could hear screaming and tearing and agony and pain and I did not dare to look down because I knew I would see the thick, tarry pool of old blood which seeped from under it

and the Famous Woman told me we needed to hurry but I had to move closer to the black doors and I thought I heard names I knew, shouted loudly over the din of pain and suffering, and it made me miss Belle and I had to move closer still

and I heard scratching and ripping and I could smell something sour which filled my nostrils and made me think of kitchens and of a decision to be a better person in the future and of a terrible New Year’s Eve and of arguments with my parents and of regrets and of Sunday evenings before school as a boy and I moved away from the door and realised I was weeping and the Famous Woman put her arm around me and led me away from the black doors

and we arrived upstairs; a huge courtyard-shaped room with seating along the edge and nothing in the centre and a few people looking in my direction and I was still weeping and the feeling of the Famous Woman’s arm around my shoulder made me feel better but I longed, now, to see Belle and I turned and saw a window at the back of the room and I could see Belle and there were others there and I loved each of them and they loved me

and I moved towards the window and shouted out and I saw Belle was sad and shaking and I wanted to go to her

and I turned towards where the Famous Woman was now sitting and she smiled kindly to me and she beckoned me to sit down and I moved and I sat and she said “There: isn’t that better?” and she reached out her hand and I realised

and I didn’t want to but I realised

and I looked into the Famous Woman’s eyes and she was sad and welcoming and I asked her and she said it didn’t matter and I asked again and I said “Am I dead?” and she said “It doesn’t matter” and I looked at the window and I wanted to go to it and I asked if the people there, the people I loved, come come into the courtyard-shaped room and she said they could not

and I looked at the Famous Woman again and I was weeping and she smiled kindly and she understood and I asked her what had happened because I could not remember and she told me and I understood and I wept again

and she said “You had a terrible fall. In the bathroom. You hit your head, hard.” and she stopped smiling and she said “They didn’t get to you in time.”

and I understood

and I remembered Belle and I remembered us as two young people

and the Famous Woman put her arms around me again and everything started to drift away and I forgot what I’d asked and I felt calm and nothing hurt

and the Famous Woman said “There: isn’t that better?”

The arrangements

“It was not like that at all, sir. Dr Hopkins was nice to us all. Good. A good man. And the arrangements, sir, were optional. Not one of us was forced into anything. Not one.”
“Can you explain a few details for me, Bobby.”
“I can certainly try, sir.”
“We found things in that basement.”
“Things, sir?”
“Things, Bobby. Experiments. Test tubes. Chemicals. Equipment. And other things.”
“Part of [inaudible on tape]”
“Could you speak up, Bobby?”
“Sir – it was part of the arrangements, sir.”
“Can you explain any of his…any of Dr Hopkins’ experiments to us, Bobby? There was an awful lot of … waste in the basement [inaudible on tape] incinerator. What exactly was happening down there?”
“That was his business, sir. His affairs. I only ever found my way down there by mistake. We have the run of the place. The run of the whole house, sir. Absolute freedom. Apart from his workshop, sir. Before he found me, sir, I had nothing. No prospects. No money. No clothes, even.”
“And this was part of your arrangement? He gave you material possessions?”
“Yes. Not just bits of fabric or scraps of food, sir…”
“And how many others were there in the house?”
“Sir?”
“How many other people lived in the mansion with you and Hopkins?”
“It altered. Sometimes there were ten, other times, thirty. Sometimes just two or three.”
“And how long did people stay?”
“It depended. Depended on their [inaudible on tape].”
“Sometimes they left?”
“Yes. They left and [inaudible on tape].”
“Where did they go?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes they were there and the next minute they weren’t. The Doctor – he was a good man sir – said he’d set something up for them outside.”
“Were you ever offered…”
“No, sir. The Doctor said I was too old to fend for myself. Besides [inaudible on tape] too long. Too dark. Too cold.”
“Bobby, I have more people to speak to. I need you to remain here. You’re not in any trouble, at the moment, but the Doctor is in plenty. What you think about him, what he offered you, was wrong, Bobby. I need just a few pieces of information…”
“Sir, he’s a good man. He fixed me. Fixed me and cared for me and I’m alive now ‘cause of him. Due to his kindness.”
“But that came at a price, Bobby?”
“An arrangement, sir. Half me. Half him. We met in the middle. I got my clothes, [inaudible on tape] my room, my food, my friends, my time.”
“And he took something from you? Took something from each of you.”
“As part of the arrangement, sir, yes, sir.”
[Disturbance on tape]
“For the benefit of the tape, Bobby, could explain what you gave in return? What your side of the arrangement involved? [Pause on tape] What did he take, Bobby? What did the Doctor take from you?”
“Well, sir … ”
[Disturbance on tape].
“We didn’t get that Bobby, once more could you speak up?”
“My eyes, sir. He took my eyes.”

The Devil’s Door

When we were small, my brother weaned me on lies and false tales.

He told me, aged six, that my parents were wicked wolves dressed as people; that they were waiting for the perfect moment to gobble us down. I tried for weeks to peel the mask off my mother’s face whenever she bent to kiss me. Once, I caught her with a sharp fingernail and opened a wound on her neck. It scarred her for months and she never bent to kiss me again.

He told me, aged eight, that each time an impure soul sneezes a fallen angel comes to them in their sleep to stuff the noxious air back into their lungs. I paced the floor, sleepless, for a whole month, holding back my coughs and splutters, waking the whole family night after night. From that day onwards, my room was locked from the outside.

But the worse tale was that of the Devil’s Door. I was eleven.

When I was hiding in the cellar one particular day when my brother’s taunts had driven me near mad I noticed a small dark patch on the wall, deep in a damp corner. It was tacky to the touch and smelled like rusted bicycle spokes. I stared at it. It seemed to transfix me. As the weeks went on, I returned to the cellar and the patch grew into an expansive black slick of stuff which rode up the cold wall. I sat, cross-legged, in front of it and lost myself in its strange, ghoulish pattern.

Over my should, on one occasion, I heard my brother’s arrival but did not turn. I hoped – however futile the hope – he would leave me in the gloom.

“Oh. You’ve found it,” he said.
Found?” I replied, not taking my eyes off the wall.
“Yes. The Devil’s Door.” He approached me; whispered deep into my ear. “And you are now his keeper.”

He explained to me that this was the very Devil’s entrance to the world, his doorway for stealing souls and trapping them in Hell; that I had found it and that I was now bound to stop him; that I’d found it just in time for he had already begun stalking out bedrooms as we slept, sizing us up.

My blood froze – I could not catch my breath: “In our bedrooms?” I cried.

“Yes! But you are his keeper! You have to keep us all safe. Hold out your hands.” My brother pushed my palms onto the wall. I felt the black ooze squelch under them. I closed my eyes. There seemed to be a physical shift, too, in the matter itself.  I heard voices cry out and the heat of a hundred eyeballs on my face.

“You have to stay here! Or we’re all damned to Hell where we’ll burn forever. Never ending pain, never ending torment.” He crept away and left me there.

And there I stayed. If anyone came near, I would screech and cry and lash out. I would bite and kick and pierce their eardrums with my din.They sent doctors. They gave up. They sent priests. They could do nothing. I never explained lest the secret roused the Devil’s temper.

My mother brought all my meals; small parcels of food which she would place in my mouth and then leave me where I was to chew them down.  The stain grew and grew. My hands were overcome by it and my eyes dared not leave its surface. I saw faces. The souls I’d failed. Those who the infernal beast had trapped before I noticed the doorway. They spoke to me. They thanked me for sealing up the Devil’s Door and hailed me as his keeper; that I was preventing the terrible fate befalling any others.

I tell you this as a preamble. I do not know – in truth – what happened to my brother. I only heard the screams of the following day. I awoke in the cellar. My arms had slipped from their vital position and I replaced them immediately. Again I heard the sound of crying, broken souls. And something spoken upstairs, through tears, about my brother’s absence; something further about a black stain in the bed where he was last seen.

Something tugged at the torn edges of my soul when I had the news confirmed. Something not entirely unwelcome, I am ashamed to say.

He never returned to us.

It’s been ten years. I am now a man. The lies of my brother ring around my head but I have forgotten his face. I sit here, still, withered but triumphant as the Devil’s keeper. My mother feeds me, as she has for so long, and my father has long since abandoned us. The palms of my hands creak and crack from the adhesive I have used to seal them to the wall. I could not risk another breach. My arms have stiffened and the blackness of the doorway has crept up them, saturating the skin there, coating and embalming the flesh. It’s vileness bulges is my veins and I feel its veil dropping over my weary eyes.

But I can never move.

Edward

Edward has talked his mouth inside out and now he has no mouth at all!

Here is a man who had mastered the pernicious art of conversation-murder, using his knowledge (and not his wisdom, for he has none) to garrote the innocent and the intrigued; to pounce upon idle chatter and suffocate the life out of it; to drain a topic of its curiousness (for that is a subject’s lifeblood!) and leave only a dried and dusty husk-like corpse with not even enough flesh for pedants to pick at.

Ignore the tears collecting in his eyes. He was warned this may happen. Serves him right.

Agape

Ambrose asked the Abbot: “Will God tempt me with lurid visions of my own desires?”
He received his answer: “No, child. Only the Devil.”
Ambrose muttered: “Then what good is He?” and his head soared heavenward with the insolence.

Ambrose asked the Abbot: “Does the Devil know my thoughts? Can he see inside my mind?”
He received his answer: “No, child. Only God.”
Ambrose muttered: “Then what danger is he?” and his flattened heart fluttered to the earth.

Just then, God sent down his most beauteous angel, dressed only in Argon; revealing His benevolence to Ambrose. And the Devil, jolted from his abeyance, stopped his thumbs and hot-footed it from Hell; desperate to catch a peek inside the monk’s tumescent eyes.

The other option

They were three.

The heavy door groaned, announcing their unwelcome entrance; as abrasive and bothersome as cloud of cleg flies to the few sorry topers who still occupied the quiet tavern. They approached the bar and each sat, one after another, with portentous choreography. The First, the spokesman apparent, demanded an audience with the proprietor, not caring a moment for the encumbered man’s well-earned slumber.

“Fetch him,” said The First, grinning at the old steward who was tending the bar.

After a time the barkeep arrived from his quarters, squinting through his weariness and wearing sullen protest about his greasy brow. The Third of them produced a skinning knife and began picking and cleaning his rotting teeth with its barbs. The First spoke again.

“Here’s our man! Take a seat, why don’t you?”

“There’s not a man in this village who can tell me my own business in my own tavern,” retorted the barkeep, pulling a bottle and three tumblers from the shelves. “Now, here are three measures of my cheapest liquor. Drink up and get out.”

Again, The First spoke: “We thank you for the liquor, boss. But we have more business here. This inn, here, is now our property. You can either hand over the keys to us or you can take what we’ll call … the other option.”

The Second then man lifted a heavy, oaken box from his lap and rested it on the bar. The Third scraped and tugged at his teeth with his blade.

“I’ve always thought of myself as a betting man,” The barkeep was not for budging and stood comfortable within his own bulk, staring at the three strangers with hot eyes.

The First let out a sharp belt of laughter. He nodded at The Second to open the box. The lid clunked up and backwards, resting against The Second’s chest.

“This some kind of sideshow act?” The barkeep asked with a derisory snicker as he peered over the bar and inside.

“Naw”. The Second spoke this time, staring down into the open, empty box. “This here,” he paused and sniffed.  “This is the head of the last man who told us ‘No'”

The Third stopped picking his teeth.

Mine

The man awoke to sublime darkness and felt the wetness of the rock beneath his body. Some foul miasma filled his nostrils and the only sound was the wheezing chaos of his own breathing; like a dull blade upon grindstone. Something was clamouring in his lungs, something dustlike and unwelcome, protesting against the oxygen that he struggled to inhale. After a few moment he began to calm, though the close, damp air was suffocating and he had not the least idea where he was. Suddenly there came a sound from the blackness. It sounded to him like a muffled laugh. An eerie, mirthless giggle through, perhaps, some thick rag. There was a deafening pause. Again the sound came. Another pause followed by a blinding light as a match, somewhere close by, blinked into being.

He remembered a walk in the countryside with her. A detour. An adventure. Where was she now? Was she safe?

When the matchlight faded some he saw the figure in front of him and could not cry out. He struggled to get up, to move away, to roll to one side, but every ounce of energy left his body in that vital instant. The mask, the tattered garments, the glint of the pickaxe in the muted glow of the flame. The figure knelt and at its feet lay several dusty sticks of dynamite. Its left hand was littered with potholes and scabs. Its right hand was an image of perfection, as if preserved for some saintly or diabolical purpose. He closed his eyes to shut out the image and heard the laugh again. And he heard stifled words spoken inside the mask. “Dnff hmmfff fffsst wmmff”.

He remembered champagne, a cave, the ring. He remembered a figure lurking in the darkness. An explosion.

He asked, calmly, where he was. How he came to be here. If he could leave.

Darkness. Another match. The figure knelt motionless and its breathing could be heard, rising deeply and falling fast; rasping in its chest.

It stood up straight and rested on its pickaxe, looking almost respectable, gentlemanly. And then came that terrible chuckle from within, demolishing hope. It moved its scarred hand up to its mask and pulled it away. The man saw its face and found his voice but did not recognise the strange, animal sounds he produced. The tiny flame faltered but he could still see the wretched visage in noxious, neon tones inside his eyelids. As the light dissolved he saw, some distance into the cave, what resembled a large heap of human clothing. He begged it to put the mask on again. It laughed. Heartily and with feeling. He could hear the shuffled and dull clunk of fabric and rubber: it was obliging his request.

And, as it did so, the man thought he heard it speak; a strange, serene whisper.

And he thought it said: “You’ll stay here now.”

Uncle Harry – A Christmas Tale

I never posted that Christmas card.

He would arrive at our home every Christmas eve, push his vacant face up against the back window and stand in the same spot until somebody noticed him. On a few occasions he had remained there for hours; waiting to be let inside. One of my earliest memories (it sticks to the inside of my head like fly paper) is returning home after a carol service and being the first to enter our cosy little living room.  I remember, clear as a snow-kissed morning, glancing and the silhouette of our Christmas tree with gentle awe. Then, something caught my eye outside. I turned my head toward the window. What I saw chilled my young bones. There, pressed against the glass, was his face.

I hated it. And I hated him. My father explained to me, as well as one can to a child, that Uncle Harry was a very sad and tired man. “Remember!” he exclaimed. “Aunt Matilda left him on Christmas eve. He needs to be around his family at this time of year.” I retorted that, had I been Aunt Matilda, I wouldn’t have left it until Christmas to leave him. I was sent to bed without supper that night.

I felt that he soured Christmas, not least by his horrid, leering arrivals but by his very presence. He seemed to absorb all of the love from our bellies and refuse to let it even flicker across his wide, cruel face. He barely spoke, just lingered. He drank too much and, when he did open his mouth, it was only to spout nasty family secrets or stuff his vile face with festive food.

When I was ten years old, Father decided that he would take my mother and me (for we were only a small family) to a beautiful log cabin in a wooded area of rural Germany for Christmas. Uncle Harry, of course, would be invited. At this second nugget of news, my soul fell to my feet. Father wrote Uncle Harry a note, for he did not own a telephone, and stuffed it inside his Christmas card. The letter explained where we would be going and that, if Harry should like to join us, he would be most welcome but that he would have to arrive the day before Christmas eve. The responsibility to post our family cards fell to me that year.

But Uncle Harry’s card, I’m somewhat ashamed to tell, found its home at the bottom of the river which ran through our little village.

Father remarked that he was rather disappointed that Harry did not peer through the back window on 23rd December. Nevertheless, I read something of relief on his face that Christmas. I felt I had done a good turn. Uncle Harry would arrive, realise we were absent, and leave for his own, miserable home. He might even catch a chill standing in the snow!

When we returned home on the second of January, full of the joys of the season, I felt that we were a family refreshed. It was truly the brightest and most enjoyable Christmas I had ever had. I was the first to run into the living room, eager to assemble my brand new train set on our carpet. I scampered into the room and was about to skid to the floor when something caught my eye at the window. Uncle Harry. There he stood, leering in, as was his way. I covered my mouth the prevent a shriek from escaping. The same cruel eyes, the same lifeless, flat features pressed against the glass.

He had frozen to death and stood propped against the window, rigid from the cold.

*

I mention this now with a chill in my very fibre; I write it down with a trembling hand. It has plagued my thoughts for many years – such insurmountable guilt! Now, a married man of thirty-seven and with two children of my own, something terrible has cemented my childhood deed. I found myself, this Christmas, away from my darlings on business. I had, of course, been provided with accommodation. My professional dealings involve sales to Europe and I was required to attend a black tie celebration on Christmas eve, with a number of German clients, in a retreat near Baden-Württemberg. I promised to stay in touch with my beloved family throughout my stay, heartbroken as I was to be away from them over the festive period.

My eldest child, Jonathan, had specifically taught me how to take, process and send photographs on my laptop computer – hopeless as I am with such things. I thought, before I left for the dinner, I would take a photo of myself in all of my finery and send it across to my family. I stood next to the fire place, making sure that the gorgeous winter scene outside, illuminated with Christmas lights in the darkness, would be visible through the window above my shoulder. I set up the camera on the tripod, selected the timer function and posed. I could not, of course, get the damn thing to show me the image itself afterwards. Nevertheless, I endeavoured to extract the file and send it home, praying that confounded thing had worked.

The morning of Christmas arrived and the phone roused me from my deep sleep (a brandy too many at the dinner). It was my darling wife, Carla. I asked after the children who, too engrossed with what Santa had brought them, felt no need to come to the phone. I then wished my wife a Merry Christmas and told her I would be home soon. She told me, in return, that she loved me and that I looked very handsome in the photograph I’d sent. I was very pleased – even slightly smug – at my technological triumph.  There was then a slight commotion in the background and I struggled to hear what Millie, my eight-year old daughter, was saying:

“Just a moment darling…I’m talking to Daddy…No…Ok, Charles? Millie says…that you look very nice in your suit and tie…yes…and the view outside looks incredibly Christmassy…but she wonders…darling? Millie? Speak up!…Oh, yes, Charles, we all wondered actually: who is that cruel looking man at the window?”