|Mari on the Mountain |Snippet |Shouting at Stars
Hywel Bugail shivered in spite of his thick woollen cloak and the small fire he had lit. The night was chill and damp; a rising mist saturating his woollen stockings, making his skin clammy and uncomfortable. He shifted position, rising from his hard seat atop the low dry-stone wall. As he stood, he swapped his crook into his left hand, tentatively bending and flexing the fingers of his right. They had become so stiff and numb with cold and inaction that movement now was almost painful. Gingerly, he held his aching digits above the fire, frowning as the small heat did what it could to thaw them. The patch of ground where the circle of fire sat was mist free, the air around it clear; a beacon in the gloom. Well used to the dark and the sounds it held, Hywel felt an unusual foreboding this night. The fire offered some reassurance: after all, if the mist itself could not breach the space around it, nothing else could, either.
A loud yet dismal bleat reached his ears, telling him that the small flock of sheep he was guarding were still close by. Hard though it was to see them in the poor light, now and then one or two of them would pass by like shabby ghosts, looming in and out of his vision unexpectedly. They would not come too close to the fire, but appeared just at the edge of the light’s outer reaches. If he did not know better, he would suspect that the sheep were keeping an eye on him rather than the other way around.
The thought made him smile. That would be something to tell Branwen in the morning; the night he spent on the Garth Mountain when the sheep guarded the shepherd. He pictured how she would call him twp and daft, a foolish fellow. Yet she would laugh, and he loved nothing more than making Branwen laugh. Those deep brown eyes would sparkle, her cheeks would blush prettily, she would dip her gaze coyly and look away, making him want to reach and tilt her face back to him, so that he could look into those laughing brown eyes a while longer.
The fire sank suddenly low, its flames crouched and blue, their previous golden tones gone. All thoughts of Branwen’s smile vanished as Hywel instinctively crouched with them. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise, his skin prickling. With his free hand, he reached behind him to grab the torch he had left leaning against the wall. It was well made, with a long, sturdy wooden handle like that of a club, its head wrapped in layer upon layer of cloth soaked in lamb’s fat. All he needed to do was hold it in the flames and it would ignite. Fire was enough to frighten off most beasts, he had found, especially when waved around vigorously on the end of a blunt instrument.
Except such a thing was impossible now. The fire had sunk so low that if he held the torch over it, it would likely extinguish it altogether.
He gripped the cold torch anyway, its solid weight comforting. His crook was a handy weapon too, and he knew how to put it to good use. Heart pounding, his eyes widened as he stared out into the blackness, the sense of impending attack growing ever stronger.
The mist had begun to encroach, gaining courage at the loss of the flames. It swirled and eddied, daring now to draw near. To Hywel’s dismay, the flames dimmed still further as the mist began to thicken and settle, like cloud. Then all at once it fell away and the flames were back, taller and stronger than before, leaping and licking at the skies above.
Hywel shuddered, still crouched and tense, skin raised like gooseflesh. His brow creased in puzzlement; no earthly creature could have dulled the fire so. No wolf, bear or wild cat could have done such a thing, nor any foraging thief from a rival village.
For the first time, it crossed Hywel’s mind that the cause of the recent attacks upon the flock might be something other than animal. The thought filled him with dread. He lifted the rabbit’s foot that hung around his neck, pulling it free from his clothing and holding it to his lips to press a small, fervent kiss against the soft fur.
A noise came from somewhere to his left. A harsh, grating sound unlike any a sheep might make. Standing up abruptly, he dropped the rabbit’s foot, letting it bump against his chest as it dangled from the cord around his neck. He turned to face the sound, brandishing his tools like weapons.
It came again; a dry rasp, a sharply caught breath at its end, like someone was struggling to take a full breath. Hywel began to sweat, his hands growing slick, loosening his grip on the weapons. He could hear his own breathing, heavy and ragged.
He almost dropped his crook in fright when three sheep emerged from the darkness, running wild-eyed, silent and frantic. Hywel cried out loud; half-laugh, half-sob. Damned sheep! He cursed inwardly, gazing after them as they fled, to be once again swallowed by darkness.
Something about the way they ran disturbed him. Their utter silence, the look of panic in their eyes. Remembering the torch in his hand, Hywel dipped it into the newly risen fire. The flames lapped at it greedily. Soon he held a brightly burning torch, hissing and spitting as the fat was consumed and the strips of cloth set alight.
Behind him, a twig snapped. Not so strange a sound, except that the tread that broke it was deliberate and steady, not the random placement of a cloven foot. A sound like a sigh feathered the night, so low Hywel felt more than heard it, setting his nerves thrumming. He was overcome with a sudden and all-encompassing dread. It took all his will power not to drop his tools and run, as mindless and heedless as the sheep.
Limbs heavy with dread, Hywel slowly turned, hellish images flitting through his mind. Pictures of monsters from stories he had heard since he was a small child crept into his head; the ancient, elemental beast of Devil’s Drop, the long-horned figure of Nightshade Jack, the slack-jawed spectre of a crossroads hanging, condemned never to escape its earthly bonds even in the face of death…
He let out a stuttered breath at the sight waiting for him, becoming weak at the knees with relief. A girl of around fifteen years, barefoot and shabbily dressed, stood before him. He almost laughed again, calling himself a fool for being so terrified of a mere girl.
Then he looked at her more closely, and his dread began to build again.
The girl’s straw-coloured hair was long, wild and matted, knotted with leaves and twigs. Her face, possibly once pretty, was hidden beneath a mass of scratches, scars and bruises, caked dirt and greying smudges. Her black eyes were intent upon him, yet showed no flicker of awareness or of life. Dark circles ringed beneath them, adding to her deathly pallor. Involuntarily, Hywel shivered.
She was small; shorter than him by a good way and petite with it, her frame thin and bony. A long smock hung from her angular shoulders in a dirty shade of grey. Small, rust-coloured stains speckled its front. It was torn, worn so bare in places that it had holed, showing pale skin beneath. Its hem, ragged and soiled, brushed the top of her equally filthy feet.
Just a girl, yet there was something in her demeanour that unnerved him. She stood there, still and silent, simply staring at him. Her arms hung limp at her sides, pale hands protruding from the long sleeves of the smock to show long, bony fingers extending into jagged, uncut nails. He had a feeling those hands were not as helpless as they appeared.
He cleared his throat, trying to find the courage to speak. He knew it should be ridiculous, a well-armed, muscular young man such as himself afraid of this scrap. Except in his heart he knew that it wasn’t ridiculous at all.
His first attempt at speech failed, his voice barely a whisper that sunk into the night without trace. He tried again, watching her for any reaction.
“It’s not safe to be out alone, wandering so late at night,”
He had a feeling that she was not the one in danger of harm, but it was all he could think of to say. She did not respond in the slightest. Hywel, unsure of his ground, spoke again,
“You look like you might be a long way from home,” he ventured, once more taking in her neglected appearance.
“Home,” the girl echoed, her words sending small clouds of breath to join the swirling mists around them. At the sound of her voice his heart sank, his stomach turned somersaults.
“Home,” she said again. This time, he thought he saw something more in her gaze; something pitiful and beseeching. Her expression never changed though, and it was gone in an instant, leaving him wondering if he had imagined it.
He wanted the encounter to end, the strange girl to go away and leave him to his sheep. He had no idea how to be rid of her and she showed no sign of leaving. Choosing his words carefully, unwilling to anger or antagonise her, Hywel said,
“Well, I’ll be getting back to the flock.”
Even to his own ears his words sounded feeble and unconvincing, but now that he had said them, he had to act upon them. He did not dare to turn his back upon the girl. Not taking his eyes from her, he took a backward step, as if to make good upon his words.
The world plunged into darkness, the fire and the flaming torch extinguishing as one. Hywel’s heart near stopped with fright. It was the girl’s doing, he knew.
Still stupidly holding the smouldering torch aloft, Hywel fought to control a rising panic. He floundered, uncertain of his next move, when the girl spoke again. In the murky light, he could make out her shabby form. He watched as she raised a hand and pointed, her head never turning, her gaze never shifting from him:
Despite himself, Hywel turned to see where she pointed. Along the ridge of the mountain top a fire blossomed into life. It made no sense; there was no fire there to burn and no one to light it.
He turned to face the girl again, and jumped with fright when she was not there. She had been so close it was not possible she could have moved without him knowing.
Something pale flickered upon the ridge, drawing his eye. He squinted, once more making out the form of the girl mid-way between himself and the new fire. She was beckoning to him, those wicked fingernails curving inwards, calling him on. His legs leaden, his heart heavy, Hywel set out to follow her like a man wading through a mire.
The girl moved on ahead of him, not once looking back to see if he had obeyed her summons. She waited at the fire until he drew level. They were plunged into darkness as this fire too, went out. A third fire burned bright only a moment later, this time at the foot of the rounded outcrop upon which they stood; a grassy slope, slippery enough by day, treacherous by night with an insistent fog adding moisture to the already wet grass.
“I can’t follow…” Hywel began to protest, but knew it was useless. The girl had already moved on, effortlessly rounding the slope and disappearing below it. Hywel sighed, using his staff to steady himself as he cautiously descended the slope.
Once again, no sooner did he reach the girl and the fire than it went out, its flames dousing as quickly and completely as if water had been thrown upon it. This time though, the torch he was still gripping burst into life, burning brighter and more intently than it had before.
Hywel once more held the torch aloft. He was mightily glad he had broached the slope successfully. At its base sat a large rock, which would easily have cracked his skull open had he lost his footing and fallen. The girl was pointing at it now, her gaze at last removed from Hywel to focus intently upon the rock.
Hywel dared to take a step closer. She didn’t flinch as he held the torch over it, to better make out what looked like an inscription in its side.
Indeed, wording had been roughly hewn into the rock. There was a date, and what of it was readable appeared to be recent. Below it there appeared to be a name. Hywel ran his hands over the carving, spelling out the words as his fingers felt them.
“Mari Ann Cabbage?” he read aloud, his voice quizzical.
There came a sudden movement behind him. He turned, spinning around to face the girl. She was doubled over, clutching her hands to her breast as if in anguish. Her dark eyes spilled with tears, her passionless face at last wracked with signs of feeling; that of despair. Hywel felt an unexpected surge of pity for her.
Her voice was a painful screech. A hiss of malevolence, ire and agony all in one. Hywel dropped both the torch and the crook as he sought to defend his ears against the sound. All trace of sympathy left him as he watched her features change from that of yearning to a face full of vengeance and spite.
“Home!” She shrieked again, spittle flying from her mouth as she spoke. It was picked up on the wind that had come from nowhere and had begun to blow hard and cold across the mountain top, to spin away madly across the open blackness. Once more, Hywel found himself crouching, this time against the elements as well as the shrill, deafening voice of what he now knew to be Mari Ann Cabbage.
He wished he knew how to help her get home, or even where her home had been. He wished she would stop her dreadful wailing long enough for him to tell her so. Yet the noise was endless and unbearable. The wind itself took up the cry as it screamed and shrieked its way across the mountain in mimicry of Mari Ann’s harsh and grating tones.
Looking down, Hywel was amazed to find his torch still burning, despite the raging wind and the blanket of damp moss upon which it had fallen. He lifted it gingerly, dreading it blowing out and leaving him alone in the dark once more with this entity. For he believed in his heart that was what he was faced with; the spirit of a young girl somehow wronged and buried here upon the mountain, alone with no one to mourn her nor tend to her grave. If only she would quieten for a moment, perhaps he could find a way to help lay her tormented soul to rest; a way to keep his precious sheep safe from harm for ever more. For he was also certain now that it was she who had been ravaging the flock.
He kneeled, bracing himself with one hand upon the stone. The flames flickered wildly, but they burned bright enough for him to catch sight of a word that had escaped him before. A word that turned his blood cold and filled his mind with terror.
Beneath the inscription that bore the date and the girl’s name was another word: ‘wrach.’
Hywel froze in fear, too terrified to make even the slightest movement. She would know now, that he understood the truth of her. He knew beyond all doubt that she would never allow him to leave, now that he knew.
She was not buried and contained beneath that stone, as she ought to be. She was loose; wild and unfettered upon the mountain top.
He needed to get back to the village, to tell them what he knew. He needed, ironically, to go home.
He dared to risk a glance over his shoulder. The wind still raged; moans and shrieks still sallied back and forth across the mountain, but Mari Ann was once again unmoving in the centre of it all; not a fold in her dress riffling in the wind, not a strand of hair blown across her once more lifeless features. She was placid, peaceful even. A mere girl, lost and alone on the harsh mountain top.
Her cruel black eyes looked down upon Hywel. He thought sadly of Branwen’s sparkling brown eyes; of her gentle, stirring smile.
The torch blew out.
All was darkness.
S P Oldham.
There was a dead fly in the crease of the book; at least the delicate, desiccated remains of one.
It was tiny. Perfect against the white backdrop, it was still possible to trace the fine veins lining its wings. Slender antennae formed a V-shape on the page, like two fingers stuck up in a final message of disdain to whoever had killed it. The insect corpse even held the faintest trace of light brown, the colour it must have been in life. Unless that was the colour its’ blood had stained the page when the book had been slammed shut. It was long dead, that was obvious. He could have blown it off the page to disintegrate into dust had he wanted to. He didn’t
Masson turned the book over, still open, and carefully laid it face down noticing that its shape now was not too dissimilar to the small corpse tucked inside it. The title stared up at him; “Garden Pests and How to Prevent Them.” Innocuous enough, Masson couldn’t shake off the feeling that the words were somehow faintly mocking.
There were other books ranged along the shelves that lined the garage wall. Most of them shared a theme; gardening.
Losing interest, Masson turned back to the job in hand. To the right of the bookshelves was a shadow-board, a range of quality tools in place upon it with one notable exception. The unmistakable shape of secateurs was painted in white against the black board, the tool itself missing. Masson shrugged. It would have been nice to have the whole set, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
He glanced longingly at the shredder that stood alone against the far wall. It would have brought him a decent price when he sold it on, but there was no way he could carry that out of here unnoticed.
Regretfully he bent to unzip the holdall he had brought with him and began lifting the tools down, placing them as considerately as he could into the bag. He had brought old towels along to layer between the tools and minimise damage as much as possible. They were near pristine; it would be a shame to scratch them.
He stood tall, hoisting the wide strap of the now heavily laden bag onto his broad shoulders, the job complete. A movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention, like that of a small bird flying low to land upon a branch. He looked up to see the shiny new secateurs hanging in their rightful place on the shadow board, rocking back and forth gently under the weight of their own momentum.
Masson felt his flesh turn to goose-bumps. How could that be possible? The board was right above him; if anyone was going to hang anything on it, they would have had to lean over him to do so. He would have seen them, he would have heard them; hell, he would have heard their breathing and smelled their body odour, they would have needed to get so close. There was no one else in here with him.
There was no way they had been thrown. They had landed so precisely and so silently in their proper place, the idea that someone had launched them from behind was ridiculous.
So how had they got there?
Masson lowered the bag carefully to the ground and ran a trembling hand over his greying beard. He risked a look behind, reluctant now to turn his back on the shadow board. Unsurprisingly, there was no one there. He turned back; the secateurs hung innocently in front of him, the swinging had ceased and they were in perfect place against their painted silhouette.
There had to be an explanation for this, Masson reasoned. He had somehow overlooked them, perhaps when he had allowed himself to be distracted by the books. His mind’s eye had told them there were no secateurs when in fact, there were. It was an oversight that’s all; nothing to get spooked out about. Maybe he was getting too old for this line of work.
Shrugging defiantly as if to demonstrate that it was no big deal, he bent to unzip the bag and make room for the secateurs. He reached up to them, only to find their space on the board once more empty, no sign of the tool anywhere.
A thrill of fear raced the length of his spine. There would be no rationalising this time; this was just plain weird.
“Screw this,” Masson said, once more hefting the bag and turning on his heel in a hurry to get out of there.
A brass screw, about an inch or so long, dropped in a vertical line right in front of his eyes to fall with a clatter on the concrete floor. It spun noisily at his feet, coming to a stop with the pointed tip facing him. Had he been a single step quicker it might easily have drilled into the top of his skull.
“What the..?” Masson could hear the fear in his own voice. Whatever was going on here, it was freaking him out. He looked up, shielding his eyes with his free hand in case there were any more sharp pointed objects about to drop from the ceiling, “Bloody kids!” he grumbled half-heartedly, knowing there were no kids within spitting distance of this place.
He hesitated, no longer sure of himself. Should he go out the way he had come in, through the overgrown back yard and over the ramshackle fence that he had not been convinced would take his weight as he climbed over it? Or should he take the big risk of being caught and open the garage doors that led straight out onto the street?
The mere fact that he was even considering the second option gave the lie to just how scared he really was. It was not a sensation he was used to. Ordinarily he had nerves of steel. Now that he thought about it, there had been something odd about this job from the off. Why would someone who owned a range of immaculate, expensive tools such as these allow their garden to become so wildly overgrown? Who would let their fence fall into such disrepair, while these items hung unused yet well cared for in their garage?
He peered out of the grime streaked windows. It must have been his imagination, because it looked like the greenery outside had become denser since he had crept through it a bare fifteen minutes ago. Like the garden had somehow moved closer.
He considered his options. The reassurance of an ordinary, mundane street lay just beyond the old-fashioned corrugated steel garage door that had to be heaved open with a chain and pulley system. That was odd too, come to think of it. A garage as well equipped as this should have a more modern entry system, surely.
On the other hand, Masson reflected, although the garden to the rear meant a slower escape, it also offered the comfort of camouflage.
The whiskery, spiked head of some nameless weed raked across the filthy window, leaving a trail of viscous fluid in passing. Masson shuddered: he was sure those weeds had not been so tall or so close before.
It helped make up his mind to go for the quickest way out; the garage door. It took an effort of will to turn his back on the windows and move towards his chosen exit. It left him feeling exposed to some nameless danger. The bare skin on the back of his neck prickled unpleasantly, as if someone was behind him.
He shrugged again, feeling foolish for allowing himself to be rattled. It was just a garage in an ordinary street; that was all. If he was jittery it was because he was afraid of being caught. He was too old and too tired to face another prison sentence. Being sent down again would finish things between him and Jen for sure. It had been a mistake to come here; this would be his last job. He’d go straight from here on in if it killed him.
He set the bag down heavily at his feet, the tools inside clanking together awkwardly. He winced, hoping he hadn’t scratched them. The chain mechanism for the door hung immediately in front of him. It was only now he was close up that Masson saw how out of keeping it was with the perfect condition of the tools.
The chain was caked in grease and dust. In parts it had rusted, tiny flakes of red-brown spiralling to the floor like dead skin when he reached out to touch it. He felt a tiny flicker of panic at the thought that the door might not open at all as he expected it to.
It suddenly dawned on him that of course the garage door would open. It was precisely because it had been left wide open and carelessly unattended a mere few days ago, allowing him to look in and see the wall of tools just begging to be stolen, that he had come here in the first place.
With renewed optimism, Masson spat onto the palm of his hands, rubbed them together, then took a firm, two-handed hold of the chain and heaved.
He heaved again, altering his grip and stance to give maximum leverage. The chain remained stubbornly unmoving, the door not giving an inch. Puzzled, Masson ran the back of his gloved hand across his brow, conscious that the sweat gathering there was not entirely due to physical effort.
There was a skittering, clattering noise across the floor behind him. Masson froze, finally allowing himself to acknowledge that there really was something strange going on here. He gripped the chain as if it was a lifeline, dreading what he might see should he turn around.
All at once aware how vulnerable his back was, exposed to the wide, empty garage, he whirled around, trying to shake off the image of those secateurs buried deep between his shoulder blades.
There they were; sitting innocently on the floor just a few feet away; the blades open wide like a sharply smiling mouth.
Masson looked on disbelieving as the screw began to move, rolling first its flat head, then its spiteful little point, creating a metallic scratching sound as it jerked across the floor. It positioned itself alongside the gawping secateurs, where it came to a sudden and absolute stop.
Masson whimpered, his hands slick and sweating inside the gloves where they gripped the now forgotten chain. He was afraid to take his eyes off the strange pair; uncertain of what they might do next.
He felt movement beneath his fingers. It was not accompanied by the straining rattle of long unused machinery, as it should have been. Rather it made a soft, whispery sound, underscored by the slightest suggestion of wetness.
He snatched his hands away, repulsed, staring in shocked horror. The chain had taken on a greenish tinge, its multi-linked back covered in minute white hairs that bristled obscenely as it moved. Myriad legs trampled over one another as what could only be described as some kind of hellish millipede toiled in an endless loop; over and over and over, squeezing itself through the cogs of the pulley repeatedly, having no effect whatsoever in raising the garage door.
Masson staggered backward, sickened. He wondered if he had inadvertently inhaled something when he broke in here. Perhaps he had released some long-contained hallucinogenic gas, or accidentally swallowed some sort of mind altering substance. He recalled the strange weeds growing in the garden; he could have brushed them aside and then absent-mindedly raised his hands to his mouth, somehow ingesting their toxicity. Perhaps the top of the ramshackle fence he had clambered over had been laced with some kind of drug.
He looked on, his limbs paralysed, his mind racing. The impossible millipede slowed, stopping at the height of the chain’s turn. A small, misshapen head turned to look straight at him, bright yellow eyes glaring, antennae pointing accusingly. Ice cold fear griped Masson. This was no hallucination: this was real.
He forced his frozen limbs to back up until he had all three of his odd oppressors in view. He wished he had thought to drag the bag with him; the tools it held could prove useful now, and to hell with keeping them near perfect.
The bag jumped once, visibly rising an inch or two clear of the floor. Masson jumped too, startled. It jumped again, this time moving closer to him. Masson retreated until his back was to the wall, cold and unforgiving behind him.
He watched fearfully, aware that he had run out of room to back away should the bag advance towards him anymore. He held his breath, his mouth dry with fear.
Something bulged inside the bag; a fast, violent movement as if a boxer was trapped in there and was trying to punch his way out. It came again, from the other side this time. Then again, and again until the bag was a frenzy of internal strikes that were all thwarted by the strong canvas constraint.
Masson dared to look away long enough to check the distance to the window. Suddenly the prospect of facing the fast-growing garden weeds was not so daunting. He looked back to find that the bag was slowly unzipping itself.
A wave of nausea washed over him. He knew the variety of tools stashed away inside that bag. Most of them were bladed; all of them were made to carry out specific jobs. Amongst the other things he had lifted from the shadow board there had been a particularly mean little pruning knife, a pick mattock, uncomfortably similar to an axe, and a pruning saw. He did not allow himself to dwell on the power tools. He knew it would be deeply unwise to wait around to see what might happen should those supernaturally animated objects find themselves free.
He ran for it, his heart pounding so fast his chest ached. He kept his focus on the window; that grimy rectangle of light that was now his only hope. He was in fingertip reach of it when he stepped hard down on something solid, sharp and awkward, causing him to cry out as he crashed to the ground in pain, his sprained ankle already swelling and horribly tender.
The sharp little screw rolled away from him, not stopping until it reached the wall at the other end of the garage, as if it was content that it had done its part and could stand aside now.
Even in his pain and fear Masson knew how absurd the thought was. That an item such as a screw could be capable of conscious thought, much less smugness, was ridiculous; yet he just knew that was what it was thinking.
He pulled off the gloves, now wet with sweat, to hold his ankle gingerly aloft, scared that if he had to lie it flat the pain would be unbearable. The gloves had barely hit the ground before they lifted off again, flying across the room like a pair of deformed crows. The shredder whirred into life, engulfing the gloves and grinding them to nothing.
There was a heavy dragging sound as the bag slid a fraction closer, its zip apparently snagged. Panic gave Masson a surge of adrenalin. Shoving aside the pain in his ankle he heaved himself upright, using all of his strength to reach that window, his leg trailing uselessly behind him.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, Masson reached up to the narrow window and lifted the bar that would free it. To his relief it came up easily, a draught of cool and very welcome air rushing in to soothe his flushed face. He had reached both hands up to the sill and was preparing to haul himself upwards when the zip finally gave on the bag, the unmistakable sound of it opening slicing through the heavy atmosphere.
Masson whimpered, his strength leaving him. He did not want to turn and face whatever horrors now lurked behind him, but he had to. Unwilling to give up on the possibility of freedom just yet, he left his slick hands resting on the sill and turned his head to see.
It was not possible. Even though he was looking at the evidence of it at this very moment, it was simply not possible.
The tools had somehow escaped the bag and were arranged in a row before him, the secateurs dead centre. The bag, its job done too now, hung a little further back; its open zipper like a wide, jagged grin, laughing at him.
He was going to die. The certain knowledge of it assailed him. He did not waste time or energy wondering which of the tools would do it; they all would. They were assembled before him like a sharp army, the secateurs its’ general. He had no doubt that each and every one of those tools would do its designated job; on him.
A small, smart little budding knife, its glossy handle glinting like marble, fell out of ranks. It spun a whole circle, skittering to a neat stop about a foot away from Masson’s damaged leg where it lingered menacingly. Masson held his breath, waiting for the rest to follow; they remained still.
He didn’t dare move. Even if the throbbing pain in his ankle allowed him to run, he knew instinctively that he would not get far before he was pinned down. Where anyway would he run to? The weird head of the millipede chain was still watching him, the garage door remaining stubbornly closed. There was nowhere else to go.
A rush of gentle air rippled over his hands, reminding him that the window was still open. There was little chance he could haul himself up and out of it without injury at the very least – those tools would fly at him the moment they understood his intention – but he had to try. He wiped his forehead on the sleeve of his upper arm. Then he took a shallow, wavering breath, and pushed upwards.
For the merest of moments he thought he might succeed. A fleeting euphoria rippled through him as the cold air embraced his head and shoulders; then his world became one of heat and agony.
The budding knife did the first of the work; slicing through the leather of his soft shoes as easily as skin, to begin removing his toes as if it were dead-heading roses. Masson screamed and kicked ineffectually, the knife clinging to him obstinately. There was the rattle of metal across the floor behind him as the other tools closed in.
A double-headed hand hoe took up the cause, flicking between its solid, flat hoe head to its triple-pronged fork head as it worked its way up the back of his legs, hacking into the back of his knees, hopping from the left to the right like some indecisive insect, leaving his flesh hanging raw, exposing the bone beneath. Masson thought he was probably screaming but he couldn’t hear it anymore.
His hands flailed uselessly as his grip on the sill weakened and he fell to the ground, landing face first, the smell of dust and concrete hard in his nostrils. He felt the cartilage in his nose give and the warm trickle of blood as his nose snapped. The taste of salt filled his mouth, gore and mucus twisting its slow way down his chin, through the stiff bristles of his beard.
Masson tried to push himself up, only to find his hands clamped to the ground as two u-pins circled his wrists and drove easily into the hard surface. He was trapped.
Part of him was thankful that he couldn’t see what was coming next, like the flat head of the shovel as it came for him, smashing into his skull and driving all thought and feeling out once and for all.
As the room darkened and his body became numb, from far, far away he thought he heard the whining, electric thrum of a power tool coming to life…
To any outside observer the garage would no doubt appear normal; excessively clean and tidy perhaps, but normal. The floor had recently been washed clean, a pressure-washer standing neatly to one side, all its tools properly stored. Only a very observant looker-on would have detected a trace of self-satisfaction about the machine, and even then would likely dismiss that as imagination. That same curious individual might also wonder why the door was left wide-open with no one in attendance, its old and slightly rusty chain hanging to one side as if waiting for someone to put it to use. A large shadow board full of immaculate tools hung on one wall, every tool pristine and in its rightful place; a veritable treasure trove to any opportunist thief.
The bookshelves would probably be of less interest to a burglar. The books for the most part shared a theme; gardening. There was one volume however that seemed to catch the eye more than the others, though why would be impossible to explain.
Had anyone unwary enough to wander in picked up the book entitled “Garden Pests and How to Prevent Them,” they would find nothing more amiss than the dried, desiccated corpses of two dead flies in the crease of the book…
S P Oldham.
Shouting At Stars.
In sobriety he is a quiet man. Not a great thinker, nor yet a fool, he keeps his own counsel. Always scrubbed clean, crisply ironed shirt-sleeves rolled up like tourniquets around still hard biceps, black hairs standing like a proud army on permanently tanned, tattooed arms; there is more than a vestige of the young man remaining. If you ignore the rasping, rattling breath, the rheumy, red-yellow eyes and the stay-pressed nylon trousers. The constant channel-hopping, endlessly burning cigarette ends and demands for strong, sweet tea the only indications that he is still functioning independently, he sits on his tattered, foam-backed throne beside the fire, spending his day watching life pass him by.
Occasionally, when he has grown tired of his own thoughts, of listening to long-departed voices in his head, he offers gruff, rigid opinions, or takes up on some unfinished scenario from the screen-play of his life. Something like, ‘I told him it would never work like that, see. Then he sits, waiting for one of us to ask for more, to prompt the story he is longing anyway to tell. And he is always the hero. Or the villain. Never anything in-between – no indifference.
We sit and nod or ‘Hmm,’ and ‘Aah,’ like we’ve never heard it before, too lethargic or understanding to challenge him, and he orates, center-stage, grateful for his audience and making us feel privileged indeed, until his voice runs out, his inspiration flags and he sits in silent soliloquy again.
We all know what’s next, but we have no way to stop it. Would we, even if we could? I have wondered.
A day. Putting the kettle on. Nipping to the shops. Egg on toast for tea. Us, of course, not him. He sits in supervisory observance of us and is waited upon grudgingly by those who love him.
And then night falls.
A night that holds escape for some, with the promise of cheery company, a different set of four walls to hold them in, or the sweet escape that is sleep. If you are lucky, you might not even dream.
He sits there, while the shadows lengthen and the flames shorten; while the house grows quieter and colder. He grows ever more silent and is noticed more for it. The requests for tea stop, and a bottle of something unfound appears at his table.
I seek out the only retreat available to me. My bed is old and too soft and more embracing for it. I let it engulf me, let my eyes grow heavy and close, allowing the worries of the day not to slip away, but to wander some way from me, my sleeping sub-conscious keeping a firm hold on their leash, lest they stray too far. It doesn’t do to escape fully. Not yet.
When I awake, it is dark but for a thin line that underscores my bedroom door, which is shaking gently, impatiently, against its catch, caught in fitful gusts of wind that should not be exploring our home so voraciously, uninvited.
It is happening again.
‘I wish he’d shut up,’ I think, as I strain to understand what he is saying. I don’t need to go downstairs to see him standing, like a skyscraper in an earthquake, in our front doorway. I can hear the wide-open door banging against the mirror in our hallway and I wonder again how it remains on the wall.
‘I can’t hear him.’ I tell myself as I listen to him shouting at the stars, berating the night, carrying out some spirit conversation that would give any half-decent philosopher pause for thought.
It is late. And he is loud and obstreperous. Yet the neighbour’s front doors remain adamantly closed, their curtains stubbornly drawn. Their thoughts kept firmly to themselves. Amongst themselves.
I feel the pressure on my bladder grow more insistent, but I am loathe to leave my bed. It is not the chill night or the late hour that impedes me; no, I just do not wish to be seen. To become the object, or subject, of my father’s drunken monotone. He knows this house so well, that any tell-tale groan from floorboards would give me away. If I turn the landing light out, even from his dark perspective, he can tell.
He pauses for breath and clears his throat and I can smell the cigarettes and beer from here.
Still in my bed, I can see him leaning on the lintel. His slippered feet – always so correct – are on the cheap square doormat. He has lost his thread and is trying to recall what prompted such an impassioned speech from him. What offended his high moral standards so, that he felt forced to deliver such an argument in defence that would have made any politician proud? His speech far from conservative, his breathing laboured, his confusion liberal, he governs me, dictates even, from his doormat podium. My need is growing and with it, my anxiety. He must relent soon and be content ruling from his armchair throne, mustn’t he?
And then, at last, I hear him take leave of his glittering audience. Ungraciously, the door slams, and mumbling, shuffling (embarrassed now?) he seeks the sanctuary of the living-room.
I am still straining to hear him. The knowledge that my torture is almost at an end is almost unbearable. I am afraid to sneeze, afraid to think beyond translating the sounds that reach me from downstairs. Familiar sounds. His armchair creaking in protest as he settles into it, his slippered feet knocking over the silver-plated hearth brush, to send it clattering noisily over the tiled hearth, his loud ‘Sssh!’ as if someone else were responsible.
And now I must move. I tiptoe to the bathroom unobserved, my cheap, synthetic, snagged blue nightdress crackles electrically with each static step.
I am still listening, but at last all I hear is his loud, repetitive snoring; the illiterate, voiceless shadows of his earlier ranting.
Sleep has taken him.
I have made it.
Sweet relief for us both.
Copyright © S P Oldham 2003