How the Year goes
Into its darker half,
as borne on silken stars
Feel the Cold airs rising
ere the last leaves fall
Here I stand
Abridging the gap – Hark! – Hark!
The Spirits duly rise
to usher in the dark
Bones unearth / The stem
Is lined in salt – tasting metal.
I dip my fingers into soil until I
Wet my mouth with it.
The body sinks
Above earth/5,000 years
Of comatose. Smothered in
Then opens, lifting
Stretch in violet,
burning flowers / I have
An itch to peel off the skin graze.
(Translating the exit wounds.
the way you left the door open,
Christ leaving his tomb,
Our spines meet,
We pray for mouthfuls of honey.
5,000 years / searching for God
In the body. Waxing outward
To eat new skin.
Bruised purple pages and narrow, red words.
Stories untold by the voices unheard.
Once shameless fraud with his nature laid bare,
Sentences stitched make the readers beware.
The whispers of violence and screams from below,
carved into his flesh from the head to the toe.
The words are of monsters and murdered alike,
united in vengeance, their moment to strike.
The highways they’ve wandered, the lives that they’ve lost,
the tragedies told through the boundaries crossed.
They speak out their truths to punish the liar,
they paint with his body, a picture of fire.
They make him a monster, for what else is he?
His nature they pull to the surface to see.
A canvas to convey their long-suffered sins.
A mouth to speak out what too long was held in.
The translator reads them, she conveys them well,
reads the living the stories the dead cannot tell.
Bruised purple pages and narrow, red words.
Stories untold by the voices unheard.
Once shameless fraud with his nature laid bare,
Sentences stitched make the readers beware.
The whispers of violence and screams from below,
carved into his flesh from the head to the toe.
The words are of monsters and murdered alike,
united in vengeance, their moment to strike.
The highways they’ve wandered, the lives that they’ve lost,
the tragedies told through the boundaries crossed.
They speak out their truths to punish the liar,
they paint with his body, a picture of fire.
They make him a monster, for what else is he?
His nature they pull to the surface to see.
A canvas to convey their long-suffered sins.
A mouth to speak out what too long was held in.
The translator reads them, she conveys them well,
reads the living the stories the dead cannot tell.
Even ruined waas still hae lugs
An’ wid tell you stories if dey could spik,
Aa’ da horrible deeds dat happened athin
An’ da stories o’ hair and bluid
Athin’ da brick wark. Da brutal earl
At treated his subjects lik’ dirt
An’ squeezed ivry last farthin’
Oot o’ dir pockets. His foul naetir
An’ tirn wye bein’ da scourge
O’ his tenants’ existences. Dir screams
As dey were tortured as witches
Or branded fir theft,
An’ da rivers o’ bluid at ran
At da command o’ da guillotine’s blade.
Dey could tell you as weel o’ da Roondheads
An’ da names an’ initials
At dey carved intae da stonewark
While dey were stationed yundir, an’ da ruin
At dey wid lapse intae
Come da end o’ da Stuart days.
Noo dey stand tall but cowld,
Nae röf or timbers or fine furnishins left,
Juist da legacy o’ brutality
At Earl Patrick built up
Afore he eventually made his ain contribution
Tae da river o’ bluid spilt be da guillotine.
The corridor stretches out before me. Five doors and no voices. Four bedrooms and a kitchen. I’m the last to leave. I should think about them, about the ones who shared this space. I don’t. For reasons that I can’t explain, I think of you.
I look at the front door, and I can see you behind it. I look to the kitchen, and you’re at the table.
I look to my room.
I feel your absence more than theirs. I shouldn’t.
You were never even here.
Seven cardboard boxes are stacked by the kitchen table. It’s more than I arrived with. I scour the flat for my last meal in its walls. The fridge? Empty. The freezer? Empty. The cupboard? Six packets of instant noodles.
“Jesus Christ.” I smile. You would be disappointed in me.
I set to work and realise that the pans are packed away. Plates too. And all the cutlery. I move to a box and fish out whatever I can without having to unpack fully. A mug. It’s too big to drink from. It has a logo on its side. A last-minute birthday present.
You were never here.
I put on the kettle and get to work. I use the base of the mug to smash the blocks of noodles beneath. Once they’ve been sufficiently powdered, I pour them into the mug. By the time I’m finished the kettle is ready. I only manage to fit two and a half packets. Not a bad effort.
I head back to my room with my Maguyver’d meal. Served in an oversized pencil holder and eaten with a plastic fork from yesterday’s takeout. It is a sincerely depressing experience. Cooking has never been my strong suit. I’ve always been too clumsy for it.
I used to love cooking with you. ‘Cooking’ was probably a generous term for what we did. Still, it was edible. Unlike this damp noodle dust.
I eat by the glow of my laptop screen. Light smiles shine down on me, and I think of the nights we used to spend not unlike this. While I’m not looking, the mug is knocked from my desk by a hand that isn’t there. I move to catch it, just a fraction of a second too late. My lap is spared a scalding. My hand is not.
I rush to the bathroom and run it under the cold water with the continuous chanting of quiet obscenities.
In the mirror, I see your reflection. For a moment, I’m not in my bathroom anymore, but yours. Two years without you have yet to pass. I cut myself shaving. You laugh and call me clumsy as the blood runs down my cheek.
The vision is a welcome relief. It doesn’t last long.
The blood trickles down to my chin and begins to drip. I watch in the mirror as it falls from my face to my shaking hand. Your reflection changes. The laughter is gone. Your hands border your face as tears break free. You won’t look at me. I turn to you.
I’m back in my own bathroom. In a day’s time it won’t be. Back to the mirror, and your reflection is gone. Light red swirls in the running water are all that remain.
I hear your voice in every room. I feel you in the frame of every door. I can still smell you on my clothes. I can’t ignore it. It doesn’t wash out.
Your ghost haunts these halls. A pale reflection in a mirror you never used. Footsteps on a floor you never walked. A voice calling from a room you never entered.
I love you.
People don’t understand ghosts. They think that they haunt a place. They don’t. When I leave this flat, it’ll return to silence. The next occupants won’t see what I see. To them a mirror will just be a mirror, but I’ll still see you in the next.
Whatever I do. Wherever I go. Your spectre is sure to follow.
The path curved like an old woman’s
stick, she treads on with soft feet,
tracing with sure hands:
Lavender, sage, rosemary.
She knows the curl of each leaf.
of each flower and each herb
in her carefully cultivated garden,
and she knows how to use them,
For good or for ill.
By thin candlelight she sits now at
dusk, drops wax, warm, into the water
Sees the shapes appear
In the scrying bowl.
Her future murky and formless.
does not wait for an invitation;
he moves forward,
the edges of his hawklike
shadow, sharp and harsh.
The candle wax hardens
in the scrying bowl.
And he sees her huddled
over the scrying bowl,
a sparrow over her nest.
Lavender, sage, rosemary:
She clutches these to her chest,
for she has her herbs.
a slight of hand,
hemlock in mead.
She has her herbs
And she knows how to use them,
For good or for ill.
There are children in the churchyard
dressed all in their Sunday best.
A small girl looking mournful
stands apart from all the rest
and while they say their prayers
and light candles for their dead
she slips away behind the graves
to commune with hers instead.
The girl has never really felt
at home among the living
and wonders in her innocence
if the dead are more forgiving.
Morbid fascination draws her
toward the dark of the crypt
and toward unearthly horrors
for which a child is ill equipped.
It is late by the time they find her
shivering in the November night.
Cold to the bone, speaking in tongues
and left half dead by the fright.
It is decided the child has known
evil. Hail Marys are said in her name.
Holy mother, pray for this sinner.
Let her wayward soul be saved.
In time the girl recovers
enough to keep living, at least
and grows into a woman
unafraid of man or beast.
Once you are touched by darkness
you will be forever changed,
Even when the mind survives
the heart won’t leave unscathed.
That’s why you’ll still find her
on cold nights not in her bed
lighting candles in the churchyard
and communing with her dead.
The tapping is there again, faint but insistent, as though it comes from a long way off. I lie on my back, eyes wide and pulse throbbing. A streetlamp outside casts a pale orange arc across the ceiling. I know if I look at the window there will be nothing there, so I try to relax, to melt back into the pillows.
Andrew huffs in his sleep and makes me jump. I keep my body very still and turn my head to glance at him. He lets out a small moan and rolls away from me. The bed springs creak beneath him as he settles back to gentle snoring.
The tapping comes again. I chew my lip. It is like the old urban legend. You see a face at your window. You are horrified. Not because of the face but because you are four stories up.
That is where we are. Four flights, sheer walls. No ledges, no fire escape. I couldn’t look over at the glass even if I wanted to. My body is locked rigid. I can feel the tension start in my jaw and spread down my neck. The fiery ball of pain in my right shoulder lets loose a coil of flame that travels the length of my arm.
I wince and roll over, bury myself against Andrew’s body. His mouth is slack with sleep, his jaw grizzled with stubble. I nudge my nose against the smooth, warm skin of his back. He squirms a little but doesn’t wake up. Eyes shut I begin to count his heartbeats. I float on the verge of sleep and listen for the tapping. Just as my eyelids droop, as the world tips and becomes more dream than reality, it comes again and jolts me awake.
‘I’ve asked her three times to do something about the blinds.’
I am scooping pasta salad into a plastic tub. Andrew is leaning against the sink in the narrow kitchen, watching me. It is early and his eyes are puffy from sleep.
‘She knows then,’ he yawns. ‘She’s on it.’
‘She is not on it!’ I slam the bowl down on the worktop so that the fork I have been using falls in and rattles. ‘If she was on it, it would be done by now. She’s useless.’
Andrew frowns, a little line driven into the skin between his eyebrows.
‘She’s your friend. You’re the one who was desperate to rent off her.’
‘Well, that was before I knew she’d be such a shitty landlord.’
I pop the plastic box closed, pasta curls and sweetcorn squeezing up against the lid, and cross the kitchen with the salad bowl held against my chest. Andrew is still glaring at me as I open the fridge. I swing the door closed and turn to face him.
‘What?’ I snap.
He rolls his shoulders, glances away. ‘I just don’t see what the big deal is.’
I stare at him, furious. I didn’t sleep until the early hours, when a fraction of daylight was already inching into the sky, then woke up late, leaving no time to shower. My clothes feel clammy and tight and my skin itches. I have raked my hair back off my forehead, but it feels damp at the roots. I open my mouth to speak but suddenly I feel like I am falling. The kitchen and its objects float around me.
Andrew’s form is silhouetted against the uncovered square of the window. Broad chest, strong arms. Over his shoulder it is a clear day, the sky is wintry blue. I hear, very softly, the strange triple tap from the night before, as though a hand has reached up and rapped on the window behind him.
My mouth is dry and the pulse in my neck races. I reach out and lightly touch the counter, steadying myself.
‘I just don’t see why you’re always defending her.’
The words sound small but Andrew fires up. I see the spark catch in his eyes. ‘I like her, alright? I like the way she does things.’
‘Does things?’ I scoff, a little of the heat returning to my voice. ‘What things does she do? We’ve got no curtains, no decent chairs, the fridge light doesn’t work, and the bathroom lock is still broken. But I suppose you’d admire me more if I lounged about all day on other people’s money?’
Andrew looks away again. When he speaks his voice is bitter.
‘I don’t know why I’m arguing with you about this. Like I say, she’s your friend.’
I take Andrew a coffee at his desk before I leave. He is playing a PC game, gunfire rattling onscreen. My lips scuff against his stubble. He turns his head but doesn’t look away from the screen. ‘What are you going to do today?’ I ask.
‘Play games,’ he replies, not looking up.
‘Send out any job applications?’
His tone tells me that he will not do any today simply because I have asked.
I leave Raquel another message as I’m walking to the office, gritting my teeth and trying to make my tone sincere.
‘Hi, just calling to see how you are? How’s things at the new house? Oh, by the way, any chance of getting the blinds put in this week. Andrew and I are being dazzled every morning. Aberdeen’s tropical climate! Call me when you get a chance.’
The air outside is crisp and the sun is blinding. It catches on the slick pools of ice that line the road. I pass the Humanities building and descend by a series of cobbled alleys into the long square office block next to the playing field.
My office is on the ground floor. I approach it down a brightly lit, windowless corridor that puts me in mind of a hospital. Stuffing a hand into my pocket, I rifle through a wad of receipts and old tissues, searching for my key. It turns in the lock with a soft clunk and a cool breeze wafts out as I open the door.
Someone has left the window open. I complain about them under my breath as I set my bags down on the swivel chair beside my desk. The window pane is rocking in the wind and I have to stretch up on tiptoes and make a few grabs at the handle before I can catch it and yank it shut. I stand for a moment gazing blankly out through the glass and let how tired I feel sink in. The events of the morning run together in my mind like objects seen through a fog. When my eyes come back into focus, I realise that I am staring across the small courtyard and in through the latticed window of the building opposite. A familiar figure is framed there.
Embarrassed, I almost step back but for once he is not gazing at my window but off to his left with a scowl on his face. His hands are in his pockets and over his shoulder I can see the bright square of a PC screen with a block of text typed on the page. We share the view of the courtyard. His name is Evans. It’s printed on the sign outside his office, and I make a point of reading it every day at lunchtime.
I used to walk outside and cross the courtyard to reach the bakery, but recently I’ve been taking a detour through the maze of corridors, up and along and then down several flights of stairs, the tapping of my shoes echoing in the cold, windowless space.
I always slow my steps when I reach his door. It is the last door before the exit. There is a water cooler, a notice board, and a pot plant separating it from the other offices in the block. It is a game I play with myself. Sometimes I speed up, rushing past, as though I am afraid of getting caught. Other times, I creep up to his door and freeze, listening to him move about, wondering if he is still at the window watching me, wondering where I have gone. Occasionally I hear footsteps creaking on the boards behind the door and then I race towards the exit and plunge out into the street.
I met Evans at a faculty conference on First World War poets. That was the day I became cursed and the day Andrew lost his job. One week before we moved into Raquel’s place. I was new to the campus and didn’t know anyone except my supervisor, who gave me a hasty nod when he saw me at the conference but steered himself hastily in the other direction. I was orbiting the buffet, a plastic cup of warm white wine in my hand, when Evans shuffled over holding a paper plate. He glared down at the spread of sandwiches cut into dry triangles and crackers spread with meagre amounts of cheese. His mouth turned down into a near perfect semi-circle.
‘Always the same,’ he muttered half to himself and half to me.
He dropped the paper plate back onto the pile and stuffed his hands into his pockets, lingering beside me, and scowling down the length of his nose. He had a broad, heavy brow beneath a mop of reddish hair, and below that an unkempt beard. His features were handsome in a way, crude yet striking.
‘You haven’t eaten any of this have you?’ he asked gruffly, peering at me sideways.
‘No,’ I smiled.
‘Good, the last thing we need is a lawsuit for poisoning new students.’
He took me in then, looking me up and down without turning his head. ‘You are a student?’
‘Research,’ I said.
I could feel my face flushing from the wine I’d already drunk and hoped that I had not turned an absurd shade of red.
‘What are you researching?’
‘The devil,’ I replied, then, noticing his eyebrows lift, I quickly added, ‘History of Art. I’m looking at medieval images of demons. Thinking about the way people personified temptation or guilt as something physical, like a demon; something that could have a tangible proximity to them in the world.’
The man jerked his head in one decisive nod and exhaled thoughtfully. ‘I have a colleague in the Divinity department who is an intimate friend of the devil. If you need any books that aren’t in the library, knock on his door. No doubt they’ll be buried in there somewhere.’
‘That would be really helpful,’ I said, sliding my bag off my shoulder and beginning to rifle through it looking for my notepad, clutching it precariously in the same hand that held my wine. ‘If you’d give me his name…’
‘Carmichael,’ the man said. ‘But I wouldn’t bother going to him now that I think of it. He’s always off on leave. The devil makes work for idle hands. Come by my office if you need anything from him. I have dinner with him every few weeks. He can drop it off with me.’
I let my bag hang loose on my elbow and studied him more carefully. He still had not turned to face me directly. His eyes were scanning the crowd in the stuffy little room. His mouth was turned down still and he seemed to thrust himself forwards where he stood, his bearded chin sticking out, as though already primed for his next move. He had an air of extreme vigour and I felt this across the narrow space between us, almost making me want to pull away. At the same time, I felt drawn to him, and a bright, electric shiver ran down my back.
I lifted the plastic cup to my mouth and touched its rim between my teeth. The man glanced at me again, his chin tipped up, and his sharp, dark eyes wandered over me, surmising, appraising.
I felt seen. I felt – as though it had already happened and was a burst of memory – this man’s lean arms around me. I saw myself, as if in a vision, pressed down onto the floor and his weight bearing down on me; a furious bolt of energy passing between us.
‘Why don’t you come by now, in fact?’ he asked casually, still staring out across the gathering. ‘I’ve probably got a few things lying around which would help you.’
‘Oh no,’ I said, feeling the heat from the wine spread across my face. ‘I should get back to my office.’
‘Where have they put you?’
‘Matheson,’ I said. ‘D Block.’
‘Ah, the science wing,’ he smiled wryly. ‘I know it. They always stick Humanities strays in there.’
He took in a great breath and without another word moved off abruptly in the direction of the drinks table. I watched him greet another professor with the same gruff expression. The pair stood there talking and the man kept his hands in his pockets and glared at the ground, nodding at what the other had to say.
I didn’t stay to finish my wine. I set the plastic beaker down and hurried from the room, smiling politely at the professors who nodded at me or moved out of my way. I half ran back to my office, almost taking a wrong turn at the bottom of a harshly lit stairwell and narrowly avoiding entering the maze of labs which spread out bewilderingly on the basement level.
I found my office empty and let the door slam shut behind me. Leaning against it, I felt the cool wood of the door between my shoulder blades through the thin fabric of my blouse. I staggered over to my chair and collapsed into it, letting my legs stretch out beneath the desk.
I should work, I thought, that’s what I was here to do. I shoogled my mouse, waiting for the computer to whir into life, and set my hands on the keyboard. Still with my hands in place, I glanced up towards the window and saw Evans. He was across the courtyard, in the window opposite mine.
I couldn’t see him well because of the light on the glass but I recognised his shape. I held my breath and waited, saw him move away from the pane. I closed my eyes, taking a few deep breaths, and waited. I knew that he was coming, making his way down the corridors, taking the stairs with his steady, casual gait, the way that people see visions and know that fate is coming their way.
I felt him pulled towards me as though I was at the centre of a labyrinth and he the destined hero. My breath shook between my lips and my fingers trembled over the keys. I heard three soft taps on the door and pushed my chair out from under the desk.
I wonder what he is thinking about this morning. His posture is slumped, the suit jacket he always wears is ill-fitting and shabby. I hold my breath, wondering if he will see me.
He moves all of a sudden and pulls down the blinds. They drop smoothly, concertina fashion, and bounce a little as they settle in place. I remain by the window for a moment and look at the tree branches framing the glass. They shake in the wind, rattling together with a skeletal sound. A dull feeling of horror seems to press down on me from the colourless sky.
I take a few steps back, then turn and hurry to my desk. There is a highlighter pen lying in the binding of an open book, showing where I last left off. I pick it up and try to read, but the words blur together. I blow out my cheeks and lean back, decide to go for a coffee. Before I leave, I duck into the toilet, fix my hair in the mirror and dab on some make-up. I head for the outside door but, at the last minute, turn and make for the stairs and take the long way around, indoors.
I try to work into the afternoon, but my concentration wavers and I keep thinking about Andrew and the flat and the blinds. I check my phone every few minutes, leaning down and rooting for it in my bag. I am waiting for a response from Raquel. Every half hour or so I glance at the window. The blinds in the pane opposite are still closed. I lean my head back against the padded headrest and try to picture what Andrew might be doing.
I imagine him at his PC, face still unshaved, fingers clicking furiously on the mouse as monsters or aliens evaporate onscreen. I imagine the smell of weed that hangs around the desk. I picture the open tab with unanswered emails and half complete job applications flashing at the bottom of the screen. I close my eyes, feeling sleepy.
It is warm in the office. The central heating murmurs in the wall. I am falling asleep, dreaming of myself on a hot day under a web of sunlight that falls through a canopy of trees; short dry sprigs of grass crackle underneath me and a warm breeze is sliding over my skin. There is a man’s voice; deep, soothing as the sunlight itself. The sound of liquid splashing into a glass, a taste of wine on my lips. When I look up a pair of flint dark eyes stare into mine.
I sit bolt upright in my chair, gasping for breath. My hands begin to shake as I realise what has woken me. A triple knock, faint yet insistent, somewhere on the edge of my mind. I sit very still, lips trembling, sweat prickling on my brow. The knocking comes again.
There is the sound of muffled voices outside, the clink of a door handle turning and footsteps entering the office across the hall. My body sags. I lean my forehead in my hand and squeeze the bridge of my nose. I check my phone for messages. It is only four pm but already growing dark. Rising to stretch my legs, I walk the length of my office and stand looking out of the window, arms folded. Evans has opened his blinds again. The courtyard is now in shadow, and the Professor’s window glows, a bright rectangle of yellow light.
I duck across my own office and switch off the light before creeping back to my spying place. Evans sits with his back to his PC screen, hands folded in his lap, head bowed, glaring at the floor. He stands abruptly, turns, and lifts his eyes. I am rooted to the spot. He seems to be staring straight at me.
I see myself tearing up the spiral staircase and through the empty passageways. I see him throw open the door. I am in his arms, my body winds about his, our mouths push together. We are vanishing onto the floor. My hand reaches up and tugs at a corner of fabric, the edge of a tablecloth covering a desk. It upsets a pile of books, and they tumble down onto us, in a never-ending cascade, like the earth closing over our heads.
As the afternoon dies, I have the feeling, creeping at first, then almost overwhelming, that something awful is going to happen. I leave the office early and walk quickly along the corridors, flicking the light switches as I pass so that the long tunnels fall dark behind me.
It is dark outside too and a cold wind is whipping round the corners of the building. A handful of dead leaves clatter across my path as I stand in the doorway, winding my scarf about my throat. I bundle myself up. That is the phrase Andrew always uses. ‘Bundle up,’ he says when I am about to leave the house.
The way I walk is lit with single streetlamps, spaced far apart. When I reach the wider, freer expanse of the High Street the wind engulfs me like one giant scream, deafens me so that I walk with my bag hugged to my side, head bowed.
The nearer I get to the flat the faster I walk. My palms are clammy, and my legs feel as though they could shake out from under me. The sick sense of foreboding increases as I climb the stairs to my apartment. I want to see Andrew in front of me. I want desperately to hear his voice, see him smile and look up from the computer as I enter. I want, for the first time in weeks, to fold myself around him and breathe in his scent.
I lean on the banisters for a moment halfway up, and when I reach my door sag heavily against it, catching my breath. It is then, with my cheek pressed against the varnished wood, my bag hanging loosely to the floor from the ends of my fingers, that I hear voices inside.
A man’s gruff patter followed by a woman’s sing-song lilt. I jump back from the door as if it were burning, my heart beating fast. The woman’s voice sounds brash. It is Raquel.
I can hear Andrew laughing. Is she there to fix the blinds? Surely, she wouldn’t be doing it herself? My head swims. I see the door as if it is far away at the end of some long corridor. Andrew laughs again and this time Raquel joins in. The two sounds wind around each other.
I can hear my pulse pounding in my head like somebody knocking to get in. Slowly, I clench my hand into a fist and lift it towards the door. Three taps.
The voices stop. There is a shuffling inside, the sound of footsteps growing faint, moving towards the back of the flat. Andrew’s voice calls, ‘Coming!’ and I hear his steps, slow and steady in the hall.
I hold my breath, afraid that he will recognize the sound, afraid that it will give me away. I feel my jaw set, teeth clamped together. The key turns in the lock. I’m sure I am going to fall. My nails dig into the skin of my palms. Andrew opens the door. His hair is ruffled, and his shirt is open to the waist. His jeans have been pulled on in a hurry and the fly is undone. His feet are bare.
At first, he looks surprised but, a second later, he sags against the doorframe and stares resignedly at me. His expression is washed out, as though he is looking at a stranger. There is pity in his look but no guilt. I take a step back, tears wetting my cheeks, and peer over his shoulder into the flat. I can see down the corridor into the bedroom. I can see the naked rectangles of glass, filled up by the night, black and crowded with reflections, gaping in on the scene.
Part One: The Beach
Under normal circumstances, I would rather take this story with me into death than share it with the world, but a strange, somewhat alien sector of my conscience demands that I write it down. Thus, I leave this manuscript in the dark and forgotten corners of the library where the cursed Necronomicon lies; in the hopes that it defers others from reading it and ending up like me, with indescribable memories of horror that temporarily shattered my sanity. Even more, I wish to prevent anyone from ending up like that man: the unidentified corpse found on the beaches of Cruden Bay.
Firstly, I am, or was, in no way versed in investigations of a police nature. I am a Celticist, Professor Alasdair Anderson of the University of Aberdeen. Secondly, I was not the first to find the body. It was December 1st, 1948. A local of Cruden Bay, an elderly gentleman, was out walking his dog along the shore when it was possessed by a barking frenzy directed at what, at the time, was thought to be one of the seals that populate the beach to bask in the minimal autumnal sun. It was only after the actual seals fled that the man approached the body and promptly notified police. They arrived a few hours later, and, by midday, I was summoned for reasons initially withheld. I arrived in Peterhead by train and from there was escorted by car to Cruden Bay, arriving in the early afternoon. The sun was already setting, and so the policemen wasted no time in taking me to examine the body.
He was a middle-aged Caucasian man, of average build. Clean-shaven, with dark receding hair that would have looked sharp had it not in its present disarray. He wore a blue and white striped tie and a wrinkled white shirt. His trousers and blazer were an earthy tweed that helped camouflage the body until its discovery. His shoes were a matching brown and lay on his back, with his head facing the town. In his pockets were a pack of Kensitas cigarettes, with one half-smoked near the corpse; a box of matches; a packet of chewing gum; a bus ticket from London to Aberdeen, dated a fortnight ago; and a singular, heavy iron key. He had no wallet or identification on him, and his clothes were all void of labels, and the police were at a loss as to who this man was, or why he was dead on the beach.
On the shore of the beach, where the tide was low, there was a small wooden boat with a single oar, and footprints in the sand that led to where the man lay. In addition, and more sinisterly, about twenty metres from the corpse there were three sets of footprints that all seemed, as if in unison, to walk together and stop, then turn around and disappeared behind the dunes. Who these belonged to we had no idea, although I felt a sneaking suspicion that they were in some way related to the man’s death, even though he had no visible wounds on his body.
I asked the officers why I was brought here and told them that I would be unable to assist them in this matter, and they immediately disagreed. One of them, a young man who I vaguely remembered teaching years ago, took out two items from an evidence bag and handed them to me. One of them was a small, rolled up piece of paper that was found in the man’s fob pocket. On it were what looked like mismatched tally marks that I recognised immediately as the ogham scripted used by the ancient Celts and Picts. Doing a quick translation, I translated it as the following, cryptic message: ‘It is ended.’ The other item I recognised immediately as a page from the dreaded Necronomicon, and it was full of ogham and drawings of symbols normally found only on Pictish stones. On the reverse side of this page, was a single line: a phone number and an address, written in red ink with apparent haste. I knew now why I was brought here, and told the officers what I knew, and that I would need time to properly translate these texts. They gave them to me, along with the iron key, and told me to notify them of any progress that I made. I turned to leave, and looked up as the sun set beyond the new ruin of Slains Castle. Looking back at the man, I noticed his strange ears, and something deep inside me told me that this man, whoever he was, was not entirely of human decent.
Part Two: The Library
I left Cruden Bay and managed to return to Aberdeen in the late evening. In my study, I pondered three questions with no clear answer. Who was the man? Who killed him and how? And why did he have the page of the Necronomicon on him? I decided that the best course of action would be for me to find the person whose phone number and address was on that page. The address was for a home in Torry, and I resolved to head there in the morning. As I readied myself for bed in my small home on Don Street, the rains began, and I drifted off to sleep with the sinister tapping of rain playing a dissonant tune.
The morning broke and the weather had not improved. Bundling up with the papers encased in my heavy coat, I travelled to Torry, opting to drive than walk through the unforgiving weather. I reached the address, part of a tenement house overlooking the harbour. The wind and rain, unceasing in their brutality, forced waves to smash against the moored ships and winds to howl through the granite wynds that made up the area. Drying myself in the landing, I crept up the two flights of stairs. The lights flickered in the storm, and I had to steady myself many times for fear of losing my step in the flashing darkness of mid-day. I ascended the stairs and stood for a moment outside the door. For some reason that I could not place, I felt a peculiar fear envelope me as I knocked. There was silence, and then light footsteps, and the door slowly opened.
I was greeted by the pale, petit figure of a woman, evidently in her late twenties. She looked at me with swarthy eyes that pierced deep like the biting wind outside. She was wearing drab clothing, and a tartan shawl that covered her blonde hair. Before she pulled it tighter around her head, I noticed her ears, and something unsettling filled my stomach, but in an instant, they were gone from my vision, and I saw them no more.
She greeted me with courtesy but seemed guarded. I apologised for my unannounced visit but said that I needed to speak with her about an urgent matter. I laid out the facts of the case to her and showed her the sketch I took of the corpse. Glancing at it with her dark eyes, a flicker of recognition illuminated them, but almost instantaneously after she looked away, and made no further eye contact with me or the evidence. I implored her, and showed her the back of the page of the Necronomicon, wishing to spare the poor woman from its cursed contents. Though she did not look at the leaf, I got the feeling she knew exactly what that page contained, although she again said that she knew nothing and did not wish to speak to me. I told her I would take my leave, but asked her at least if I could have her name. She paused, and then, almost muttering, told me her name was Joanna MacPherson. I thanked her for the time and left her, and the door slammed shut upon my departure.
As I descended the stairs and re-entered the gale outside, I was left with more questions than answers. I was, however, sure of one thing: that woman’s name was not Joanna MacPherson.
As I strategized in my car, I realised that my next step would be, unfortunately, to find the book that the page in my possession came from. I knew of only one place that held a copy of the Necronomicon, for I had leafed through it myself while studying my Doctorate. With rising nerves, I set off.
I arrived at King’s College in the early afternoon, thankful that I had no classes to teach today. Hoping to avoid confrontation with any of my students, I slipped my way through the unrelenting rains and entered the Divinity Library, that strange and ancient room where a select few have access. I entered the room, with its two floors of musty books and ancient tomes, and approached the desk. Behind it sat a slight man with a balding head and thin glasses, he looked up at me with recognition and bade me to sign the check in register. I told him I needed to see a certain restricted grimoire, and I was given another sheet to sign. Preceeding me were several names, one of whom, a Steven Duff, I knew to be a Ph.D. student of mine who had a keen interest in the occult and witchcraft of the Celts. Besides his, there were four names on the present sheet, all checked in within the past two months. I recognised none of the names, but they were George Mackenzie, Mhairi Donaldson, James Buchan, and Bruide mac Fergusa. I signed mine under it, the second time doing so, and I was led into a corner of the library where the clerk used a key to open a passage that led me to a ladder behind the bookshelf. Taking me down the medieval structure, I found myself again alone in that dim, candlelit room. Completely alone apart from that thick, ancient, black copy of the Necronomicon.
In the solitary void of the cellar’s darkness, I hesitantly opened up that malicious text, and flipped through its contents, looking for the place where the page in my pocket had been torn from the manuscript. After several slow, agonising minutes, I found it, towards the end. The section of the text dealt with the dark arts attributed to the ancient Picts of Cé that inhabited the region a millennium and more ago.
The magic was written in ogham, and I set to work translating it, first into Latin letters, and then, with the aid of Old Gaelic, I attempted to translate it into a workable translation in Modern English. The curses themselves, sinister as they were, meant little to me as someone who did not recite them, but what did interest me was a chant that was repeated multiple times in this section in ogham, and I, to this day, am unsure exactly of its meaning:
Iä! Iä! Irataddoarens gthaft seancyn ttythnfglas! Irataddoarens iä! Iä!
I noted this down and, despite my ignorance to its meaning, felt that the repetition of the phrase would somehow be important in my current investigations. Behind where the torn out page was there was a fresh page that I must have missed in my first reading years ago, and on it was an elaborate and dated map of the area, with markers dotting spots that I took to be Aberdeenshire. Two of them stood out to me: one was in the middle of the town Inverurie, and the other at a remote and uninhabited area of the Mar highlands, in the vicinity of Braemar. Both of these locations had been highlighted in a viscous red ink that still looked wet despite its apparent age. As I noted down the locations, I saw a small, folded piece of paper fall from the following page. Picking it up, I saw that it was drawn in a modern and familiar hand. It took little time to realise that this was a cipher for the coded page found on the corpse yesterday morning.
I resolved to decrypt his message tonight, in the privacy of my study, and with relief, closed the Necronomicon and returned it to its black podium. Armed with new knowledge but no satisfactory answers, I climbed the ladder and returned to the main floor of the library and was greeted with the dark grey light dripping in from the windows. As I passed the desk and prepared to sign out, I noticed that the clerk was gone. Taking a pen from my coat, I gazed down at the page and was met with a fresh horror. Checked in after me and checked out before, written in a simple, careful hand, was the signature of Joanne MacPherson.
Part Three: The Stone
That night, locked in my study, the rain refused to let up. I sat at my desk overlooking Don Street and tried to make sense of all that I learned in the past two days. Bruide mac Fergusa was obviously a fake name, since I recognised it as one of the ancient Pictish kings, and whoever used it must have had a knowledge of those kings, but also must have been the man who stole the page and was murdered on the beach at Cruden Bay. I still did not know who he was or why he was killed as I sat down to work on the cypher that I hoped would reveal that information.
As the hours and rains dragged on, slowly and cryptically the man’s cypher came together. He spoke of a cult, made up of people from all around the area, who meet in a hidden away bothy deep within the Cairngorms. He had been working against this cult and infiltrated it, observing and taking part in their demonic rituals. Once he had learned all he did, he went to pass the information on to another informant, and they were to meet at Cruden Bay. Even more disturbing than the details of the rituals, which I dare not describe, was his lurking fear that he was found out, and that if the cult killed him, it would be through some black magic curse. In a later entry, the last thing he wrote was the simple and foreboding line: ‘It is ended.’
By the time I finished the cypher I was filled with a deep sense of dread. What were the purpose of these rituals? What was the curse that killed the man, and would it be used on me if I were to be found out by the cult? I had a hunch that Joanne MacPherson was a member and was perhaps one of the curse’s casters. In my further investigations, I would need to be careful.
I glanced out the window and saw that the harr had moved in completely and blanketed the entire street. I could not even see the buildings on the other side, and yet my eyes were drawn to a movement below. In the dark of night, rain, and harr, there was a figure standing under my window that was shaded the colour of a void so deep it stood out from the surrounding darkness. A robed, humanoid being looked up at me and pointed. It said nothing, and I could decern no features in the face that looked up at me, except the eyes. The eyes were blazing ochre and looked like the embers from a fire in the deepest infernos. They pierced my soul and I recoiled away from the window in shock. A few seconds later I composed myself and went to look out the window again, but all that was there was an empty street, trafficked only with the heavy, unrelenting rain.
It took hours to fall asleep but when I did, I fell into a slumber that only released me in the afternoon. As soon as I awoke, I was tempted to go to my office and put this whole affair behind me, but there was something pulling me towards the hills and the bothy, though I knew not where it was. I then drove to Inverurie, to find the first stone.
The stone was located not too far from the centre of town, and I had no trouble finding it. It was marked with several symbols characteristic of the Picts, including a snake and several lines and curves that anyone who has seen their like will be able to recognise. Next to these forms, however, was something far more unsettling. Running the length of the stone was an ogham inscription of only one word: Irataddoarens. Seeing that name come up again left no doubt in my mind that it had a strong connection to the cult and was perhaps the subject of these rituals.
Below the stone, etched in the earth by someone who had the same destination as me, was a set of coordinates that told me exactly where the second stone was. It was a short distance from the village of Braemar. So, as the sun began to set behind those formidable hills to the west, I got back in my car and drove deep into the highlands and the heart of this cursed mystery.
Part Four: The Bothy
I arrived in Braemar well after dark and checked into the hotel, fearful to wander the area at night. As I stared out into the darkness of the Cairngorms’ heather-clad hills, I saw the rain had finally stopped, almost as if on cue. Throughout the hills, the lights of bothies and homesteads flickered throughout the landscape and gave an eerie impression of scattered fire and a foreboding of what I would find in the hills tomorrow.
The night passed without incident, and I slept late, recovering after my harrowing previous few days. In the light of day, I purchased some walking equipment, food, water, boots, a torch, and a windproof coat better suited to my current environment than my tweed overcoat. I returned to the hotel and, with the aid of my maps, plotted an easily traversable but less travelled route to the stone. Despite my worry of going at night, my afternoon nap lasted longer than expected. Not wanting to stay out here for more than one night, I set off into the hills, alone, as the sun went down.
As I crested a small hill in pitch darkness, I saw not a stone, but a bothy where the stone should be. The structure was small, with an open door and a singular window that leaked a fiery glow. It took me not a moment to realise that this was the same colour I saw in the eyes of my shadowy visitor, and dread rushed into me like the winds on this lonely plateau.
With a careful and slow approach, I crept up to the window of the bothy. I scanned the horizon for fear that I should be spotted by a traveller, but I saw no movements or torches. With trepidation, I looked into the window, and what I saw, dear reader, was scene I wish I did not have to describe. However, I feel it needs to be recorded in the event of my unfortunate demise.
The room was illuminated by the orange light, and in the centre of the floor, almost up to the ceiling was a Pictish stone that looked to be made of a material that does not exist on earth. It was full of ogham and images of monstrous deities, far more frightening than the images that usually mark similar stones. They were highlighted by the orange glow that seeped from the carvings. In front of the stone was an altar, with several people crowded around whatever was placed upon it. Among the cultists I recognised the receptionist of the Divinity Library, and the small, slight figure of Joanna MacPherson. In a dissonant harmony, the voices spoke the words I dreaded to hear:
‘Iä! Iä! Irataddoarens gthaft seancyn ttythnfglas! Irataddoarens iä! Iä!’
One of the cultists unknown to me raised above his head a long, serrated knife with an ornate, detailed blade. With a swift motion he brought it down twice onto the object on the altar, and immediately after, Joanna brought something forward and added it to the mass.
‘Iä! Iä! Irataddoarens gthaft seancyn ttythnfglas! Irataddoarens iä! Iä!’
The flaming colour turned a deeper hue, and from the table, the mass arose. To my immediate horror, it turned out to be Steven Duff, my Ph.D. student. He was dressed in black robes bathed in the glow, and on him, recently attached and still dripping blood, were ears that matched Joanna’s and the corpse of Cruden Bay. His old ears were cast at the base of the stone.
Iä! Iä! Irataddoarens gthaft seancyn ttythnfglas! Irataddoarens iä! Iä!
From the stone, a mirage arose, and, as the cultists and their newest member all bowed, I saw, with certainty, the black form of the being that I saw before, and his eyes now glowed red. As I turned to flee into the night, with blind fear replacing any reason, I heard the words, again that repeat in my mind every day:
‘Iä! Iä! Irataddoarens gthaft seancyn ttythnfglas! Irataddoarens iä! Iä! It is ended.’
To this day, I know nothing more about the man on Cruden Bay, or the demonic cult that he died trying to expose. All I know is that I am afraid for my life with the knowledge I uncovered: the cult must know, and they must be watching me, waiting for the right moment to silence me. Hence why I am setting this down in writing. If it is found, please do what is right and fight to bring them to light. I must leave now. Steven Duff has arranged a meeting.
It is ended.
here I am again heavy
breathing sweating spinning
crippled at the bottom of
another wretched downswing
paranoid and scowling at
all the world outside my head
and there you are reminding me
I’d be far more miserable dead
that sounded far more morbid
than I intended. what I meant was
I have a tendency
to isolate. feel safer when
I self imprison. everything looks
very far away and distorted
by my tunnel vision. some weeks
I would sleep my life away
and you’ll find me on these days
when the sun does not rise
fearful foetal under duvet
less afraid of the dark than
of opening my eyes
paralysed I’ll pass out for
far longer than is healthy
still exhausted after
eight hours or ten
or twelve or twenty
but these days
you sleep beside me
and when you wake
to find me comatose
you don’t join me moping
in the dark nor leave me
to the shadows
throw open the windows
and you peel back clammy sheets
and you bring me back to daylight
when you kiss me on the cheek
but of course there are still
weary weeks when inertia
strikes me listless
but with you the
less often knocks me senseless
still some days I wake up breathless
weary after restless slumbers
find myself in bed transformed
some vile verminous monster
I have seen the veil
of fear descend over
friends and lovers eyes
as bones bend and break
and I become a beast
they do not recognise
hackles raised salivating
bared in warning
bite most often
softly softly you
approach with caution
on my savage days
make no sudden
has got you either
stupid or brave
there is no flint or fear
only care in your eyes
as you see I am hurting
and search for a cause
quiet words calm and
quell my cruel cries
as with gentle hands
you pull the thorn
from my paw
and when I ask
how you can still want me
on these days I am more
beast than girl
you remind me
you love me
for you it’s the
easiest thing in the world
Morning folds its rotting petals
around the city, its long icy index
tugs on my curtain, a damp tongue licking
the window: rise and shine…
Cold drops cleave my skin. I wince
as the water whips my bare spine into shape,
my body twitches all remaining shackles of night
into exorcism. Begone. Begone!
Steam of the boiling black sludge wisps its way in
through pores. Only dirt left at the bottom;
diluted with cloudy milk, still tastes like Styx. A smoker’s lung
caves in as I cough, cough, swirling black spit in my cup.
The door is slammed behind me by the house clicking its tongue,
the razorblade wind cuts the tendons at my ankles, hissing a laugh.
Decayed leaves hurry ahead of me, chipping their bodies on the pavement
as they flee. Behind you. Behind you! BEHIND YOU!
Samhain moon is a hexameter,
racking up screams buried
under night’s disguise.
faceless defilers squirm
beneath the liminal veil
disclosing the lives of their prey.
Beasts cry for their mothers,
beg derelict stars
the Wounded whisper no mercy –
keep them aware, powerless,
as we once were.
She reaches for the kettle with shaking hands. The water is poured into a white china cup, over oolong leaves. She thinks of her question. As she lifts the elegant cup to swirl the leaves she sees how worn and old her hands look in comparison to its bright white. She places her hands on the cup, again thinks of her question. She notices how thin the cup’s edges are, how fragile an object it is but how much faith she has put in it. She looks down. A mountain, at the bottom of the cup. She feels the air push its way out of her lungs, feels her chest deflating. She relaxes and listens to the wind outside, as it moves the shutters on her window with a gentle tap, tap.
When she was young, her grandmother taught her to read the leaves. How a mountain symbolises an obstacle, lines: journeys and a spade: failure. How the placement of the object changes its meaning. She thinks of her grandmother now. Thinks of how strong she was; still and wise. She feels old, and wonders if this is how her grandmother felt then. The contours in her face erode with every passing winter. She thinks of her daughter, grown up and living far away. She still phones her, but her voice is changed. It crackles down the line in a distant echo. Her daughter has a little girl. She hopes her granddaughter will think of her when she reads the leaves.
It is dark now in the kitchen. A draft sneaks its way into the house. The leaves start to drift. She rises from the chair, and pulls the tapping shutters closed.
Between these decorated walls
Swoons silent another ghoul.
Hushes along tapestried halls;
Permanence by some accursed rule.
Long syne the days of his Laird;
His colleagues long since flew.
A loneliness so un-compared;
His tragic one-man revue.
But one day the doors opened wide;
A tearoom now in the scullery.
Now he was compelled to hide
From Bill and Sue from Surrey.
Through the summer seasons
He found himself cool in the shadows,
And at times he knew not the reasons,
His presence he dare not expose.
For he overheard such proclamations of unease.
They huddled close when they felt a chill.
And though it were some August breeze
They scream for all his goodwill.
So when the buses came, he stole away
And ducked out of camera’s clicks.
Kept scarce through the working day
To win his freedom by a quarter to six
When they locked up for the night,
And out he finally came;
Drifted about so delicate and slight,
A ghost by any other name.
The man on the moon pretended to sleep
as the boy made his way through the forest so deep.
In one hand the basket, the other the blade
as he hunted the rumoured enchanted glade.
Nettles nibbled his legs as he scurried along,
prodding branches interlocked like fingers so strong.
Mother Nature had tried such a forceful blockade
to stop him from reaching that sweet, secret glade.
It was after an hour that he first stepped foot there.
What he sought was nearby, but he knew not quite where.
He knew this wood well so he was not afraid
to tackle whatever ghouls haunted the glade.
Each footfall he made gave a snap or a crack
as he broke bony sticks which all littered the track.
As he walked onwards, he was not dismayed:
this was the right place, which he would now invade.
The stalks were all knotted and twisted like hair;
the scavenger, silently, stepped by with care.
Through the slithering roots and the grass he did wade.
The pumpkins were there. He was ready to raid.
The amber treasures lay scattered all over the ground,
some in strange shapes and some perfectly round.
There was one on a mound which had such perfect form
that he would soon take it (and kick up a storm).
Stars slowly winked and the moon was a hammock
but our thief walked forward and up to the hillock.
The trees’ arms all swayed in the autumn night’s breeze
and the grass, by Jack Frost’s touch, all started to freeze.
He hacked at the serpentine, rope-like stalk.
As he lifted the gourd, the ground started to talk.
He gave out a shriek when he saw what had spoken:
a bare human skull with its jaw hanging open.
The skeleton lifted himself out from the cool earth,
called to his friends and, thus, started the mirth.
From the preserving soil many skeletons rose,
each removing blank pumpkin headwear. The boy, right then, froze.
The skeletons moved with a skip and a prance.
Altogether, all at once, they started to dance.
They all moved in time and would turn on their heels
with spare pumpkins for drums and ribcage glockenspiels.
‘Say,’ said the skeleton, ‘will you give me that back?
It gave me a shock, your sudden attack.
The pumpkin you see, it covers my head.
It’s terribly hard being cold and undead.
You snuggle in your house in your cosy bed;
We had no homes once to the grave we were led!
I’m not a ghost, so I cannot live by the haunt.
To take my cover from me was quite a harsh taunt.
Uncarved pumpkins, you see, of such varying sizes,
have pulp to hide us from daylight (and they act as disguises).
Sir, my reasoning can you not see?
My shelter for daytime slumber, please return it to me.’
Well, for these nocturnal skeletons, the boy did feel bad.
To return it, no problem, he would have been glad
but it had not been much of a whole hat for a while
since, during the dancing, he hollowed it out with a smile.
The skull lowered his sockets and saw what was done;
the seeds and rind on the earth swiftly ended all fun.
The skeleton stared at him, then — right in his eyes —
as the others all cackled towards ominous skies.
‘Well, you really did it,’ the skeleton sighed,
‘you owe me a debt now; I hope you’re satisfied.’
‘Revenge is as sweet as rind,’ the skeleton grinned,
‘a pumpkin’s no match for a body of skin!’
The boy dashed at once, stumbling over the roots —
the skeletons cast spells so they grabbed at his boots.
The branches all lashed at him, the ground became boggy,
and, all of a sudden, the woods turned really foggy.
He ran in a panic with pumpkin and basket —
he feared that his capture would lead to a casket.
Behind him they cried, the bony brigade
as they pursued him outwards from the accursed glade.
His head seemed to spin as he fell in a stream.
His heart leapt to his throat but he stifled the scream.
He scraped his way out, clawing dirt from the bank.
His hands were moist, clammy, and the air had turned dank.
As he sprinted, he gasped as though he were choking —
his trousers and boots from the water were soaking.
The sight over his shoulder spurred him on even more:
a horde of skeletons running, armed and all in uproar.
At long last, he reached the edge of the dense trees
but he stumbled and slid on some damp fallen leaves.
He hopped on his bike and he pedalled with fear
as menacing voices approached very near.
The boy with the pumpkin, he fled far away
as up came the sun with the break of the day.
The skeletons immediately began to combust:
the light of the day had reduced them to dust.
The boy, when at home, sighed a sigh of relief,
though his conscience branded him a pumpkin thief.
He doubted the events but, when by the sink,
his blood ran cold to see his new pumpkin wink.
So, let it be known that if you, by some chance,
have the misfortune to see risen skeletons dance:
to prevent their wrath, give them respect and some aid,
for they need some sun cream in the enchanted glade.
Dig. Scrape. Dig. Dig. Dig. Scrape.
Listen to the earth; my father said. Listen. To the earth. Closely. Listen to the sounds. Each sound has a meaning. Dig, dig, dig, scrape. Screech. Barn owl on the tree. Bats? Too early. Too light. Dig. Dig. Faster. Slower. Change of pace.
Dig. Scrape. Dig. Dig. Scrape. Scrape.
Pitch black – I stare into the earth. The dirt. The moss. The fleshy mounds rolling backwards and forwards and left and right. Grey stones. Hidden granite potential. Below the surface. Insecure and unprepared. White light. Pink light. Orange. Lilac sky. When the sun goes to sleep in Aberdeen, it’s a feast for the living. And the dead.
Dig. Scrape. Dig. Dig. Dig. Scrape.
The shovel knows where to go. After fast strokes, hard plunges into the naked mother earth, it stops. Scrapes soft. Soft. Soft. I found it – what I came for. I wipe my brow, full of dirt and sweat and grime. When I seek comfort from my rough hands, they give me pain. Dig, dig. Scrape, scrape.
I bend and I look right into the open wound. Brown bits of agnostic ancestors looking right back at me. When I first met the land, I knew it would give me a living. I was just a lad, with torn socks and a principle of pneumonia, with no one left to give a damn about me. No one left on earth. Earth. You gave me your bairns, and I became yours. Brown potatoes, orange carrots, golden wheat. When you and I met, mother earth, I pledged to dig life out of you.
I squat, down on my weak knees, and my hands reach to find an answer that I already know. When I met you, mother earth, I pledged to dig life out of you. These days, with not a fruit in sight and mouths to feed, I dig death.
My hands dig the hands of a man like me, alive maybe hundreds or thousands of years ago. My tired bones dig, and dig, and dig. My shovel tooth gnaws into the earth, until I see the bones of men before me. In a neat brown sack, at the end of the working day, I carry the bones of my ancestors on my back. I cross the fields in the darkness, look above for the moon and stars to guide me to the silver bones of the city. Marischal College. They give me pennies, copper coins and a few silvers for that brown sack. Full of people. The students love people. They love their bones, study them close. Mr Auldric says. Dig, dig, dig. Scrape. Come tomorrow. He says. Come tomorrow. With new bones for us.
I think when I met you, mother earth, I dug life out of you. These fruitless days, I dig death. For a few copper coins. For the students that will learn. I carry the bones of my ancestors on my back. I carefully bear many mothers’ children. With their passing, I feed my own.
Dig. Scrape. Dig. Dig. Dig. Scrape.
Da fokk in Papa Stour wid laeve me be, but dat doesna mean dey were blyde o me.
I juist ay tried tae keep mesel tae mesel, but dey aa kent aboot me an whit I did. Whan da bairns saa me oot an aboot dey wid run awa in terror, an whan da adults saa me dey wid gie me a coorse sidey-wyes glower, lik I wis nae mair tae dem as sheep’s pirls. Tae dem, I wis juist a witch, a heathen, someen at dey pat up wi but didna care fir – a bit lik da poor waddir at we haed a lok o da time. But da main thing wis dey gae me nae buddir, an I gae dem nane back, an life guid on fir wis aa.
Hit wis da uncan ship at cheenged aa yun.
Da day hit appeared apö da horizon wis a fine sunny een, an da sky wis dat blue at hit wisna juist dat aesy tae tell whar hit ended an da sea startit. Da ship appeared fae somewye atween da twa, an as it cam closser tae da shore we realised at dey wir an ill-intentioned lot. Fae me hoose I could see fokk staandin apö da cliffs, lookin oot an watchin as dey cam nearer, frettin an panickin an spaekkin among demsels.
Weel, I thocht tae mesel, we canna be haein yun. So back intae me hoose I guid, mutterin a curse as I did. Whit wis da curse? Weel, hit’s lik dis – idda back o me hoose, I hae a sky light idda röf. Hit’s ower high up fir me tae reach, so I haed a set o steps biggit at lat me win up tae it and open it.
I could feel da first o da wind as I pushed da door up. Da curse wis wirkin aaready. I flung up da door fully an guid farder up da steps, an as I did da wind picked up. I peered oot o da ruif an could see da ship tossin apö da spindrift at wis formin ower da waves. Hit wis in deengir, an hit wid only get waar.
Finally, I got tae da last step, an stood apo da röf. Da wind wis screamin noo, an a right storm wis blown up, an da sky an waves were turned a dark an angry shade o grey. Finally, een o da big waves struck da ship an sent it under da watter at lang last. Wi yun, I made me wye back inside, an as I did, da wind startit tae dee doon. Be da time at I shut da sky light door da day wis as sunny as it wis ivver been afore.
I didna tinkit ony een wis realised whit I wis don, but eftir dat, dey wir nae mair glowers an gluffed bairns, only smiles an respect, an hit wis a fine feelin.
To sleep, to dream,
To toss and turn
And wake in dread
Dread going to bed.
Every night the same
Having the same dream
Awful dream of horses
A herd of wild horses
Running wild. Running.
Wildly in my direction
So real, I swear I feel the movement
So real I hear the thunder of their hooves.
So real I breath in the dust
Every night getting closer
Getting nearer making me fearful
Fearful of the herd
The noise, in my head
Terrifying in my bed
Closer and closer to my bed
Awake each time each time
I fear some more
Each morning waking in a sweat
Then one morning I didn’t wake
The horror left they found me dead
Blood everywhere, mud and dirt
And hoof prints all over the place
I am Apollo, bringer of death.
Fear me, December,
I’ll strike your hearth,
To manifest in a new room.
There I’ll alight at some novel membrane,
To esconce and proliferate;
Spread my wrath throughout.
Wrestling with the innate to overcome
And shroud the unfortunate in a scourge
Which will dim the light over the Seat;
To ferry to a frostbitten, forgotten kirkyard.
The fates have determined
And now a great fall awaits.
I began the morning wrestling my duvet
for control, the sleekit bastard has been stifling me of late, kissing me with gloved hands and stealing my breath.
Gently masked by Febreeze and
Lenor, the fabric faced fuck has been
taunting me, trying to catch me off
guard – to what end I’ve no idea.
Satisfied I had managed to subdue
and settled it down, the slithering blankets
came to rest up at my neck,
nestling pine and oak notes just short
of my nose. The sky, in what felt
a nod of approval, began to whisper
and proffer a loving shower ambience.
I drifted gently from consciousness
to pitter patter on porthole secured
bay windows, oozing currents cascaded
earthbound but snagged on buoyant roof gutters.
It felt serene, all churning into
a harmony of discoloured
sock arrangements being sewn
onto tenderloin steaks till I
scarcely had grasp of the world.
Dreams took me, swept into the halls
of my rusted caverns screaming like
children ‘roided up on cake icing
ready to bite, bite, bite, rip
and tear. In desperately fleeting
visions it felt like I was in love
and the softest peach hairs of my
lovers face were scented like
maraschino cherries, each kiss was
a cocktail and before long I was drunk.
In no time; plastered and gouging chips of disapproval from my shoulder, I’d gathered the apple blossom detritus of the mess and was snorting lines of pollen
like some diseased elf masquerading as a bee. The platitude monotonies of excess had dulled my teeth down
from hacksaw fangs to sandpaper, however.
So, it came to be with little tarry I was
after the next state of affairs, still legless
on the chariots of sweetened plum winks
and seal club glances. Partially quenched by the frivolity, I fostered tamer lives ordered into flashcards, used periscopes of shiny, shiny brass to pour my gaze over the rising deluge. I’d been so heavily seduced by rattles of the arachnid raindrops skittering down, as condensation does in cramped nightclubs to embrace the back of a neck.
In aesthetic truancy I felt my mind delegating nonsense to stage left, sobering from ravenous berry chomping I was coaxed back to the vessels of reality. Back to prying breaths from the duvet who pounces when I rest.
Fantasies retreated like crying children fearful of their parents chewing them out. Far from the rapture of an existence complacently comparable to a dog running with eyes closed.
It took no more than a day and certainly less than that too, till I’d crawled back – a tryst with time and permanence acquainted in the myriad visions of a fevered sedation. The surface tension of reality rose and burst with my eyelids, frisking back the darkness of designs from the depths of sleep.
I awoke with no urgent plans but
to correct the malpractice of
unrestrained whimsy, acting as it was
to enforce illusions upon me
like television, a veiled inoculation to the fear of the present.
The rain batters against the windscreen of the car. The wipers attack it frantically but can’t keep up. It’s almost as if it’s trying to convince me to turn back, but I don’t intend to. I have to go home tonight, have to face her. I haven’t a choice.
I park outside the house and run to the door. The distance between the pavement and the house is nothing, but I still get drenched through even with a waterproof jacket on. Did she change the locks? No? Good. I stumble in through the front door and hang up my jacket.
My wife comes out of the kitchen and stands in the hallway. She’s glowing. She looks a lot happier than she did this time last week. She comes over to me. I turn to face her. She puts her arms around my neck and nuzzles up to my chest. I’d forgotten how tender she is. I hug her back and kiss her forehead. At least she’s not throwing crockery at me now.
She leads me through to the kitchen. There’s a glazed roast on the table, it smells absolutely amazing. She sits me down and begins carving the roast, then she lays a couple of slices on my plate and douses them in gravy, following them up with potatoes and vegetables. I take a bite. The meat is tender and rich, and the veg and potatoes cooked to perfection also. I end up devouring the contents of my plate hungrily, and before I realise it we’ve eaten the whole thing between us. She looks at me and smiles a satisfied smile, showing her pearly white teeth.
“Did you enjoy that, dear?” she asks me in a dulcet, soothing voice.
“That was lovely,” I tell her as I wipe my mouth. “What was it exactly?”
She stands up and goes to the freezer. I can’t help but smile – pudding too? Clearly she’s gone all out tonight. She really has forgiven me, hasn’t she? I feel a bit guilty, but then better about…
Hang on – she’s just taken a bag of ice out of the freezer. She opens it up. She’s starting to lift something out of it. I suddenly start to panic. She holds it up and throws it on the floor at my feet. It’s a head. Not just any head – the head of the reason we’re here. The eyes are partly rolled back into the sockets, the mouth twisted permanently into a fatal shriek of terror. I stare down at it, rooted to the spot with horror, realising what I’ve just eaten. I finally look up. I see the manic, triumphant way my wife is grinning at me. Her eyes have gone dark.
I bolt out of the room, but it’s too late – I end up throwing up in the hallway. She follows me out and stands over me.
“Whatever’s the matter, dear?” she purrs. “You used to enjoy her flesh…”
Finding a dark brown pellet, still fresh, in the safety of your own home, is like coming across a shotgun cartridge. Where’s the bullet…? I stoop, picking up the poop gingerly, to weigh up the possibility that it could have come from a mouse? I hadn’t heard the pitter patter of the tiny claws for some time. This in itself, was an ominous sign.
‘Where there’s mice, there’s nae rats; where there’s chickens, there’s aye rats’, said Liz the Postie, nodding in the direction of next door where the chooks, the wee dinosaurs, reside. Later, Liz texted the details for pest control; a firm called Aberkil, spelt euphemistically with only one ‘L’. I wonder if there’s only one ‘L’ in Hell?
I heard scrabbling in the cavities as I climbed the stairs to bed. The time to put the clocks back was nigh. I was glad as I just wanted to put my head down and sleep. Was that squeaking, surely not, surely not?
‘I sleep like the dead’ I bragged to anyone who asked. ‘Sign of a good conscience’.
The fitbit regularly reports 8 hours of uninterrupted big Z’zds, and that had to be good. Or so I thought. Only now I know better. During my slumber, the rats had the run of the place from top to bottom. In drawers and out. Above the bed and under the bath.
The exterminator arrived and confided that not only does he like rats but that he keeps them as pets. It was him who opened the hatch and found the paper tube, designed as an air vent, in shreds. Seemingly, the rats used it as a chute. Pretty cute, rats just wanna have fun!
The man from Aberkil laid down large pink lozenges that looked more party tidbit than poison. The idea is that rats ingest the bait, feel droothy and leave in search of water. They are supposed to die off-stage so that your pet doesn’t get poisoned by proxy. They are supposed to perish in the wings and certainly not centre stage which is where I found my first body. A furry brown female body which had to be double bagged, in rubble strength liners.
I detested my part in their killing. Once, a wee moose caught its snout in the trap. The will to survive so strong that it pulled out its nosie only to drown face down in its own blood. City dwelling friends suggested using humane traps aka long coffin shaped boxes or cages. But rats are smart navigators, fit enough to track back for another ride on the chute. Apparently, you have to decant them at least 30 miles away.
Nonetheless, I purchase an ethical trap from Big Cheese and placed it in the utility room with little expectation. Next morning, even before I’d put on my glasses, I could see that the box was brimful, head to tail. A magnificent creature lounged on his back displaying a beautiful napkin white neck and belly. Far from frumpy, like his harem. He’d taken the bait after a night on the tiles, and languished, never a frown with golden brown.
Not daring to touch the box, never mind anything else, I got the tongs from the fireplace and placed the cargo into a tartan holdall which I loaded into the boot of my car. I headed off down the A90 towards Dundee. The plan was to stop half-way and drop off the hitch hiker at the roadside. It started to rain and the windscreen wipers beat steadily above the sound of Radio 4. My usual news programme ended and was to be followed by a short story. I’ve never liked short stories so I was about to switch to another station. The announcer said that it was to be a classic tale from Bram Stoker. I thought about Cruden Bay and was distracted by clinking from the back. Presumably, bottles for recycling couping over. I hadn’t heard the story, before, The Judge’s House. A young mathematician takes a lease of a remote country house. He was wanted peace to study ahead of major exams. I work with students for a living and I chuckled, thinking how unlikely it was now that students would go to such lengths as part of their revision. The voice narrating the tale drew me in. A couthy housekeeper made up the fire and his room. Locals at the Inn express concern and entreat the student to beware. Glancing down at the speedometer, I note 66mph aligned to the boxed numeral of my 6th gear. Yes, the Judge’s house had rats. But ‘rats are just bogles’ said the housekeeper. The student studied hard, so hard that he fell asleep one night over his books. He wakes to see King Rat watching him. The young man hurls one of his mathematical tomes at the creature. I like this metaphor and am sure that Reason will triumph over superstition.
I move to overtake a lorry and glance in my rear-view mirror. My weak eyes are met by the strong penetrating gaze of King Rat. He is sitting upright, stock still, on the armrest in the back seat. I blink. I turn round and there’s nothing there. My breath is shallow, palms clammy as I clutch the wheel. The rubber wipers scrape across the windshield. The voice on the radio carries on narrating. King Rat’s eyes blink out from the holes in the Judge’s portrait. The student throws his Bible across the room in a last-ditch attempt to crush the rat. Mercy in heaven, this must be the answer. Faith will drive out the satanic apparition. I opened the windows for air. Taking deep breaths, the rain streaked in merging with my salty cheeks.
Thump! Thump again up on the roof. Are these sound effects, part of the story? I lean down to switch off the radio but a long grey stick appears on the windscreen. Oh, god what next? I switch on the wipers to swipe it away. But the stick lifts, curls and beats down on the glass. Again and again. I look to pull over but Smack, King Rat appears in full frontal gory glory. I shriek as I’ve never shrieked before. Our eyes double-locked, mine pleading; his blazing fury. Teeth bared, he bites the glass, inches from my stricken face. I swerve to try and spin him off. I am sandwiched between a lorry and a concrete barrier. The car glances off the barrier as I wrestle the wheel. It’s as if the rat is overriding the steering. I see a gap and push down the accelerator, veering off the road, bumping through the gorse and plunging down into a fence. The car tumbles and tumbles. The windscreen shatters and barbed wire wraps round my neck, slicing my pale throat. I lie upside down bleeding, the rat hops off the wreckage, smirking into the mirk to return home.
The radio intones on. I listen to the end of the story in my last conscious moments. The rats gather to pull the emergency bell to summon the townspeople to come to the young student’s rescue. The good folk come quickly to find a locked door. Breaking it down, they arrive too late; the student is found hanging from the Judge’s rope.
Truckers arrive at my side, followed by the emergency services. I hover above and I see them recoil. My flopped head in the footwell, a dark red necklace of my own blood. Respectfully, they switch off the radio.
There’s little to explain why I lost control. Just my regular commute now in the autumn sunshine, with only recycling in the boot. I thought about Bram Stoker’s villain. It was the sadistic old Judge all along. Nae the boggles or the boogies. Always cruel us. It turns out ghosts also have a homing instinct. Which is where you’ll find me now. Watching the baby rats squealing down the chute in glee.
As usual Lindsay had arrived early to prepare the stall she reserved in the prime corner of the market near the food trucks, arranging her jagged metal jewelry on a gunmetal gray swatch of fabric. She listened to the other vendors setting up shop; the moms and their vanity projects for sale, handmade soaps and homemade cakes, the bickering older couple who came and left every week with a trunk full of unsold kites, the lemon lady who surprisingly turned a steady profit by selling welcome mats and door signs decorated with her signature citrus theme. Lindsay busied herself with her work with the same feeling she had every Sunday, a combination of hopefulness that she might make a buck and the resentment that she had to hustle so much to do so- humping her bins of merch across town, the entire day eaten by the event, the faint humiliation that she had to do this on top of her other full-time work even now, in her late 30s- all for maybe 40 or 50 bucks. It was a shit day for an outdoor market- too cold, and the gray skies threatened rain. Ah well, she thought, borrowing advice from a yoga friends instagram feed, happiness is a choice, not a result- just get on with it.
She was aware of movement in the stall next to her, another vendor preparing and arranging what sounded like heavy, solid items. Finished with her table, she unfolded her camping chair and took a seat, widening her focus to the scene around her and saw her neighbor for the day. He was tall, slim-hipped in Carhartt work pants, broad-chested in a navy fleece. She caught his eye as he paused to drink from his stainless-steel thermos, steam rising into his smile as he tipped his head in greeting. He was just what she liked, not exactly handsome but he had a bunch of little details that she wanted to examine up close – his crooked lower teeth, the bump on the bridge of his nose, his salt-and-pepper stubble. An oversized beige beanie perched on top of his head, and she silently made a wish that it was not covering a man bun, but of course it was.
“I’m Caleb.” He stuck out a work-worn hand, which was warm against hers. “Lindsay,” she responded, taking note of the physical evidence of abandoned affections, the stretched ear lobes from gauging, a faded star tattooed on the web of his hand. She considered these details with a spirit of forgiveness she hoped he might have for the weird scar on her nipple from a piercing that never healed right.
He worked with wood, a kind of recreational carpenter and he was selling knife blocks, spice racks, and toy chests that he had made himself. They surveyed each other’s wares, making vague and polite compliments about how lovely everything was. They settled into their side-by-side booths as the market opened, chatting throughout the morning between customers. Whether it was her sparked-up energy due to her proximity to a man she found attractive, or just plain good luck, she had a solid flow of sales. She saw that he seemed to be doing well too, which surprised her as she didn’t really see the appeal of a one-hundred-dollar pine planter box, but apparently there was a demand, and to be fair he probably didn’t see the point of edgy chrome statement pieces. The success of the morning made her giddy, flirtatious even, and she bantered gleefully with him and shoppers alike. For the first time in a long time she felt proud, successful – the knot she carried between her shoulder blades loosening, and her laugh easy.
Midday came with a crack of thunder and the skies fulfilled their gray promise of rain. The tarp above the vendors’ tables was no match for the elements, and the handmade and homemade goods were in jeopardy. The old couple bickered as they tossed their kites back in the trunk, the moms went into a frenzy to salvage the soaps and cakes, and the lemon lady made lemonade of the situation by selling lemonbrellas.
Lindsay made quick work of clearing her table and returning her stock to her bin, but she lingered a bit with half an eye on him as he crouched, loading spice racks and butcher blocks into his remaining wooden toy box. “You packing it in, too?” he called out to her, rising to his feet, “What do you say we have a drink?”
At Tip Top Tavern, an old dive bar on the main street, the wine list consisted of a box of rose above the nacho cheese dispenser. Being the Northwest, they did have a healthy selection of beer, though, and she debated between the craft selection on tap that would bloat and the ironic tall boys that would result in a night of fart suppression. She was already cautiously optimistic about where the night might lead, and opted for the local IPA, with a plan of making a switch later if needed. Her brain had already gone into strategic mode, running game plans and checking off lists in her head as she half listened to him talk about his recent move to this town from Denver; clean underwear, check, apartment presentable, check, condoms…check if she counted the novelty whisky-flavored one she got from a friend who had recently gone to Scotland. She turned her concentration back to him, noting his hard little agate eyes, his only minus in a face full of pluses- they looked like they would scratch like glass. He was ticking through the boxes, never been married, no kids, mom died in a car accident, he had an ok relationship with his dad and stepmother, older sister was a married personal trainer in Boulder. She shared the broad strokes details of her small life , no kids no spouse no pets, parents retired in Arizona, only child and not even a cousin to speak of. They had another drink, and she stroked her chunky necklace as they chatted, a micro sign of attraction she had read about online. Steady, she thought to herself, don’t drink too much and fall into the gaping darkness, not tonight.
He was a couple shots of Patron in when he upped the ante and invited her back to his place, a house recently inherited from his grandparents on a plot of land on the Lewis River. It had a workshop, his grandfather had been an electrician, and he now had refitted it to be a workspace suited for a master carpenter. Yes, she said with practiced nonchalance, I’d love to check it out.
He assured her he was good to drive, and she uncharacteristically left her natural caution behind, already thinking about how thrilling it would be to recount this story to her friends later. As in most events in her life, she knew that the remembering and retelling would be more delicious than the doing. “Then I just jumped in this random guy’s truck after drinking with him all afternoon! I just said yessss to life!”
The house looked deceptively small from the outside, but once inside she saw that it was cleverly built into the hillside, and actually consisted of three levels that overlooked the river. He apologized for the mishmash of furniture, the house had been picked over by relatives so he was in the process of figuring which way to go, design-wise. Should he work with the remaining antiques or ditch it all and go modern? He offered her a glass of wine, and she wandered through the living space which was sparsely decorated with items that would barely qualify as antiques, 70’s church rec room naugahyde sofas and a cheap plastic end table. Lindsay assumed the good stuff had already been taken, and she imagined what she would change if it were hers. Go modern, she thought, minimalist. She admired the view as the pink sun started to set, nothing but nature as far as the eye could see. Who needs stuff on the walls when you can look at that?
He led her to the workshop, a small white building on the other side of the garden. He had to pause, giving her his wine glass as he fiddled with the keys to a number of padlocks on the door. “We actually get some bears up here,” he explained, “Gramps was an insurance salesman and never met a precaution he didn’t like.” She laughed, his hand had touched hers when he handed her the wine, and she had felt the zing of physical touch run through her.
She stood in the center of the workshop and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dark. He was behind her and fussing with the fuse box, flashlight in hand, muttering to himself. She was growing a bit impatient, she desperately wanted get on with this ruse of looking at the workshop already and get back to that cozy house and some decent sex. In his fumbles he shone the light directly in her eyes. “Whoa, that’s a bright flashlight,” she said inanely. He chuckled, “The better to see you with, my dear.” The overhead lights flickered and turned on.
The workshop was not what she had expected — she had envisioned him building a cedar chest in a wood paneled, rustic space with natural light, even a mountain view through the window. What she saw was more like a bunker, with concrete covering the walls, floor and ceiling, with the exception of the wall opposite the entrance, which had a worktop and mounted tool rack. She was familiar with some of these tools as she had a passing interest in working with wood before she landed on metal as a medium — saws and planes, electric drills, wooden handled chisels and rasps with their hundreds of small teeth The light was industrial and harsh, and the temperature of the room was a good 15 degrees colder than outside. She shivered, and sipped her wine, and geared up to feign interest in this pastime of his for just a few moments more then return to the house and all the warm delights of the night ahead.
She heard his steps behind her and turned to see him, small brown vial in hand. Kinky, she thought, how 90’s gay bar. His hard little eyes had gotten harder and he unsteadily walked towards her, “You want a hit?” She wasn’t a prude, but this proposition had limited appeal. Amyl nitrate in a shed with a hipster creative just the wrong side of 40? It crossed the line from adventurous to grim. “No thanks, I don’t like head rushy drugs.” He shook the vial in his hand, “That’s not what this does, it’s something different, more like E but you can still focus. I work on it all the time, it’s great.” That did have some appeal, and she did some quick personal safety calculations in her booze-buzzed mind. How far was she from the nearest public place, a shop she made a mental note of on the way in? Probably half a mile. How wasted was she already? She wasn’t that drunk, and to be honest she probably outweighed him a little, and she had taken all those self defense courses after that happened in Guatemala. She knew about the eye gauge and the ball pull, and wasn’t squeamish in the least. She was still riding the high of the success of the day and a feeling of fuck-it freedom prevailed. She’d just do a little. She nodded her head in agreement and held out her hand. “Ladies first,” Caleb said, and uncapped the vial and held it under her nose.
One sharp inhalation and she was back in the gaping darkness, repressed images of Guatemala, Denver, Prague rising up to greet her like hungry ghosts.
A dizzying hunger ripped through her, a beastly desire to devour him, to physically tear him apart. She headbutted him with a force that cracked his skull and knocked him out cold, then she threw him on top of the work bench,
She made a night of it. The cramps and vices held him in place, and she took delight in the efficient little table saw and the ease of slicing through bone. She groaned in excitement when power sander met skin. Carried away on a wave of creative inspiration, she carved up his chest with the sharp edges of her necklace and then embedded it into his flesh. She found another vial in his pocket, reinvigorated her bloodthirst and then tore off his face with her teeth She popped his eyeballs into her mouth and worked them with her tongue until she got to the crunchy bits inside. She did the same with his testicles. Lindsay used all the tools at her disposal, while he was still alive and then when he was dead and that long sweet time when he was somewhere in between. She howled and came as she binged on his blood, skin and bones for hours. Finally, the craving started to ebb, revealing a raw and familiar version of herself that was not wholly human. She wandered back to the house in a daze, naked and almost purple with entrails.
Lindsay crouched on the deck and rolled a cigarette from the pouch she found in the house, humming and taking pleasure in the ritual. She was always a little contemplative in the sweet afterglow of a feed before she got down to the business of cleaning up and moving on. Canada or Asia, she considered as she absentmindedly removed a bit of tobacco from her tongue, hot or cold hipsters next time? She reached up to straighten the scalped man bun sitting atop her head, and laughed.
The airport was drenched in red – and it was the most beautiful thing Jonathan had ever seen.
The marble tiles were rose. The velvet ropes linking stanchions were scarlet. And atop those tiles and between those ropes, a great red carpet guided the line of boarders past conveyor belts and metal detectors. The carpet looked like a tongue: slick and bright, dyed by a cranberry gumball sucked into oblivion. Jonathan had always loved the colour red, and as a child had listed all his favourite red things in his little red head like rubies to be treasured. The airport’s vast checkpoint terminal brought them all to mind.
Tangles of sleazy fairy lights hung from wherever they could, a grand web festooned with bulbs like a million tiny twinkling replicas of Mars (his favourite planet). Swaths of carmine cloth spanned the ceilings, perched like northern cardinals (his favourite bird). They seemed to ruffle and preen and were parted only by a forest of looming pillars – pillars that were flushed like strawberry and raspberry muesli in a bowl of cherry juice (his favourite breakfast). The walls were awash in crimson, recalling lobster thermidor doused in cataracts of ketchup (his favourite lunch). And the metal detectors parted seductively, as if slathered in créme de tomates (his favourite shade of lipstick). Jonathan himself looked the part: on his legs were russet trousers, over his shoulders was a burgundy turtleneck, and in his hand was his favourite thesaurus with its amaranth cover and coquelicot lettering.
And then there were Jonathan’s fellow boarders, trudging along the line. The other foreigners were dressed predictably, in khakis and sunhats of every colour except the one that mattered, without even a stain of spilled wine to ease the eyesore. But the locals… they were fashionable, and fit in like octopuses among the hues of the room. They sported flowing cloaks, crisp blazers, gowns, corsets, capes, cravats, and the occasional gimp suit, all pigmented in motley cinnamons and cinnabars. Most of them looked pale and tired, like they had skipped their morning muesli.
What caught Jonathan’s eye most, however, were the windows: vast, vaulting things, stained and solemn. He hadn’t been to church since he was four, but if he had ever seen anything as majestic as these, he would surely have remembered them. After all, they too were red. The rays of morning light that filtered through them were thick and sluggish, as if they had struggled through one of his grandmother’s quivering cochineal gelatine deserts (his favourite brunch). They bathed the room in the warm glow of a flashlight held against one’s fingertips (his favourite pastime). They depicted flames, stippled with incarnadine embers, and among the fires danced little naked men who seemed to be blushing all over. Towering above them all, taking the biggest window all to himself, was a gigantic, equally roseate man with a trident, like some sort of colossal, sunburned Poseidon. Slipped among his luscious auburn locks was what seemed to be one of those cheap headbands with sequin horns that little children pranced about in on Halloween (headbands which, incidentally, were Jonathan’s favourite item to fidget with). The effect of the windows was remarkably cosy: like a warm hearth, or a snug Santa costume, or a telephone booth with a big red duvet in it, or –
Jonathan was wrenched from his gratuitous internal descriptions. ‘I– sorry, what?’
‘You’re holding up the line!’
‘Oh!’ he yelped, quickly lurching forward, dragging his (maroon) overnight bag with him. ‘Terribly sorry.’
‘Just… pay attention, yeah?’
He turned to look at the woman who had spoken. ‘Sorry,’ he said again.
She wasn’t dressed like anyone else at the airport. He assumed she was a foreigner, as she looked just about as out of place as the rest of them in her brown knee-high riding boots, brown trench coat, and brown… pilgrim’s hat? She had a small (brown) crucifix dangling around her neck and emblazoned upon her (brown) hole-pocked shirt were the words ‘JESUS FREAK’. In her hand was a small jar, open, with a little plastic spoon embedded into the pearly sludge within.
‘Hey asshole. I meant pay attention to the line.’
Jonathan blinked, and blushed so brightly that his head just about disappeared in the redness of the room. ‘Sorry,’ he said yet again, and continued to stare.
She sighed. ‘Want some aioli?’ she asked, holding out the jar.
‘Just… plain aioli?’
He shuddered. ‘No thanks.’
She shrugged. ‘Your funeral.’
A sudden, violent beeping drew his attention away from the woman. The metal detector was wailing, and a security guard prowled over to a woman in a vivid yellow sundress. She backtracked, patted her pockets, remembered that her dress didn’t have any fucking pockets goddamnit, and gave the guard a shrug. He gestured to a curtained booth and unlatched a manual metal detector from his hip.
‘HEY! LADY IN THE YELLOW DRESS!’ The Jesus Freak shrieked. ‘WANT SOME AIOLI?’
All the foreigners in the line stared at her. The locals stood, unmoving, bristling. The security guard grimaced.
‘No thanks,’ the woman said politely, and her chaperone relaxed and guided her behind the curtains. The next person – one of the locals this time, wearing a cerise chemise – stepped through the scanner without incident, and others steadily began to trickle through behind them.
‘Idiot,’ muttered the Jesus Freak. She regarded Jonathan once again. ‘So. What are you doing here?’
‘Oh. Well. Ah. My plane took off from Heathrow and was due for Istanbul, but there was a storm and the pilot was forced to transit here. I don’t know where ‘here’ is, though. The pilot said it was Cluj International Airport, but I’ve been there before and it wasn’t this bloody incredible.’
The Freak scooped up a spoonful of aioli and licked it up while maintaining steady eye-contact.
‘What, uh, what are you doing here?’ Jonathan asked back in a strained voice.
‘I’m a hunter.’
Jonathan winced, his pescatarian inclinations rising up in his throat. ‘A hunter? Isn’t that… isn’t that a bit cruel?’
She smiled. ‘Eh, it’s my week off. Honestly, if you want the truth, most of my co-workers could consider taking a break from the job to be even crueller.’
Before he could respond, a voice that he couldn’t help but think of as burgundy said, ‘All hand-luggage in the baggage trays, please. Remove any electronics from their bags and place them into a separate tray. Do the same for shoes, jackets, cloaks, capes, and hats. No liquids allowed on the flight.’
Jonathan couldn’t tell if the woman at the checkpoint had dark circles or if her eyes were lined by four-inch blurs of kohl. The conveyor belt stretched between the two of them, steadily feeding platters of extra-rare mink, fox, and sable into the scanner’s gaping maw. Her attire marked her out as one of the natives: she was wrapped in an intense, salmon kimono with long sleeves that trailed on the continuously moving belt, occasionally getting snagged on a tray that happened to roll over them.
‘Yes ma’am!’ Jonathan did as he was told, struggling to pull off his tight brogues. He then shuffled back into the line and gave the attendant a smile. She smiled back at him. Her lipstick seemed dry and cracked and almost rusty in colour. There was no elegance to its application: it was smeared erratically all over the lower half of her face, some of it reaching the bottom of her nose or running all the way down her chin and neck. Her teeth shone brightly, but they too were peppered by the occasional ruddy splodge. But good God, the shade! So much more fabulous than créme de tomates. He just had to ask her what it was called. He opened his mouth, but –
‘No liquids allowed on the flight…’ she said again, and her smile moved on to the next passenger.
Suddenly, the metal detector began to screech again. This time, it was set off by a man in a green Hawaiian shirt.
‘Whoops!’ he brayed, ‘I forgot about the bomb in my pants!’
His wife, a woman in a blue-and-orange tie-dye vest who was standing in line behind him, smacked him upside the head. ‘You can’t say that in an airport!’
‘It was just a joooke,’ he grumbled stupidly, giving the security guard a wink and a grin.
‘You have your watch on,’ she whispered pointedly.
‘Crap, right.’ He unlatched it and tossed it into the nearest baggage tray before stepping through a second time.
Once again, the detector began to wail.
‘Sir, if you please,’ the guard said, indicating the curtained area. He gave the man a grin and a wink. Jonathan was surprised to notice that he was also wearing ridiculously sloppy lipstick. His must have been a different make, though: it was a vivid, glistening cherry. Not nearly as subtle at créme de tomates.
‘Right-o,’ said the man in the Hawaiian shirt nervously. ‘I don’t have a bomb, I promise. It was a joke. Seriously.’
His wife stepped through next, and she too was followed by an angry beep-beeping.
‘Jesus,’ Jonathan swore, ‘What the Hell is up with these people?’
‘Don’t say the Lord’s name in vain,’ growled the Jesus Freak, ‘And please substitute the Aitch Word for something a little more heckish.’ She dropped a messenger bag filled with what looked like jumbo tent poles into a tray of her own. The woman behind the conveyor belt let loose a pained whine. The Freak blew her a sardonic kiss in response, and then turned to the disgruntled foreigners and cried, ‘HEY! YOU TWO! YOU WANT SOME AIOLI?’
The man in the Hawaiian shirt and the woman in the tie-dyed vest looked back in confusion, but the security guard forcibly shoved them behind the curtains before they could respond. Jonathan suddenly realised that he hadn’t seen the woman in the yellow sundress leave after her close inspection. But he immediately dispelled the thought: he had been talking and loading his baggage – she had obviously walked off to her gate while he wasn’t looking.
The security worker by the conveyor belt coughed, and then continued her mantra: ‘All hand-luggage in the baggage trays, please…’
‘So, uh,’ Jonathan said to the Jesus Freak, ‘Do you… like flying?’ A man in a poppy-coloured overcoat and a fez like a squat tomato (Jonathan’s favourite fruit) stalked through the full-body scanner without a sound. There were only two people in front of Jonathan now.
‘Oh, I adore it,’ said the Freak, ‘I love the looks on everyone’s faces when they see me. You’d think they’d seen a ghost.’ She blew a raspberry at the security worker.
‘Hm,’ Jonathan hmed. A woman in a huge, crinoline-stiffened ballgown that cascaded from her waist like an upside-down rhododendron (his favourite flower) scraped through the scanner next. The security guard stepped out from behind the curtains. He had applied more lipstick to his face. Tie-dye and Hawaiian were nowhere to be seen.
‘Please remove any jackets, cloaks, capes, and hats. No liquids allowed on the flight.’
There was only one person in front of Jonathan. He was starting to get nervous. He continued to think about the lovely red things that the room reminded him of. He thought of that time he dumped paprika into his father’s sangria. He thought about the brightly dyed pigeons that had been let loose into the city by guerrilla artists on Karl Marx’s birthday. He thought about the landlines with rotary dials that everyone seemed to have in old cartoons.
The final bulwark, an androgynous mass enveloped in a red Teletubby onesie, passed through the arch.
‘You sure you don’t want some aioli?’
Jonathan stepped through.
‘Sir, could you please step behind the curtain for a close inspection?’ said the guard. A loose tie hung around his throat like a tongue. Slick and bright, dyed by a cranberry gumball sucked into oblivion.
‘I… I don’t have anything on me.’ Jonathan turned out his pockets, and opened his palms for him to see. ‘There’s nothing here.’
‘Just standard procedure, sir, nothing to worry about.’ The guard gave him a wink. The guard gave him a grin.
‘Okay,’ Jonathan said. His heart beat red in his chest.
He pushed aside a curtain, and walked in. The guard followed, and snapped the fabric shut behind them.
The colour of the small space was one that was familiar to Jonathan. It was the colour of the contents of the toilet bowl in his childhood home after he had chugged an entire bottle of food dye. It was the colour of his mother’s face when she rushed into the bathroom after hearing him scream, ‘I’m dying! I’m dying!’, only to look at the lavatory and realize the childish charade.
Stacked in front of him were bags on top of bags, all black and zipped shut, each about the size of a mannequin in a store window. The floor was sticky with something like raspberry syrup. The colossal, horned, sunburned Poseidon, flaming trident in hand, peered down upon Jonathan from the great window above in hungry judgement.
He felt the sensor pat his thighs, his bum, his back. It beeped each time.
‘What’s it finding?’ he asked faintly.
‘Oh, the usual,’ said the security guard. ‘Iron, zinc, copper, manganese. That kind of thing. This is your fault, you know. You were told several times.’
He stepped in front of Jonathan and smiled. His eyes were red; his pupils were feline slits. He opened his mouth wide, and fangs pushed themselves out, long and sharp as knives.
‘No liquids allowed on the flight.’
XIX. The Sun
The iron box is waiting, open in the cellar. It’s important that it stays open, he could have it destroyed but it wouldn’t be an honest death if it was. Of course he could find some willing individual, some brave soul, to help him do the deed. There are ways and means, too many to count. For all the power and glamour of his kind, they are made of their weaknesses. For all their professed immortalities, everyone knows how to kill them.
So he sits cross legged in the garden, waiting for the dawn to pierce the horizon. He knows a sunrise: of all the memories of the people he drunk, he savoured the sunrises the most. So he’s ready for it when it comes. And before the face of the sun cracks the earth and its gleam obliterate thirty centuries of pain, he sees a flash of lilac on the skyline and almost thinks about living again.
VII. The Chariot
Between Aberdeen and Portlethen, the 9:00 Glasgow express train crashes forever. The site is cordoned off, no-one knows when the event will end. All that is known is that it is still ongoing. The train careens off the tracks. Its wheels spin in mid-air. In the carriages, young men in suits are thrown from their seats; convivial types, cans in hand, slam into each other in the walkway; a woman screams unceasingly as she tumbles into a luggage rack.
They are building a new line, they say, perhaps one that will bypass the site via Peterculter. When something horrible happens, you have to work around it. That’s what you tell the families who beg you to tell them if their loved ones are still alive. God forbid if, even for a moment, the intricate rented world stops ticking.
XII. The Hanged Man
Even after the crows ate his eyes, he wouldn’t stop laughing. He even goaded them to do it, peeling back his eyelids and offering them as they perched on the bars of the gibbet cage. Their beaks pulled out the stringy, wet mess in his sockets while he laughed and laughed and laughed.
No-one knew the secret joke that set him in fits, left him doubled over even as the maggots chewed away his lips and the mess of his pulpy, rotting guts hung exposed from his juddering body. Even the laird he stole from claimed ignorance, though the criminal had hissed something to him when he was condemned in the dock.
The dead can see the future, they say, though they cannot often share their wisdom. The laird marched with the pretender in ’45. His sons were slaughtered in the highland charge. The tenantry, who gawked, were evicted in the 50’s. Now the only landmark on that road is a rotted gallows, a rusted gibbet cage, and a skeleton whose yawning jaws chatter in the lonely wind.
IX. The Hermit
The man in the house can still hear the cries of his children from the street, even after they were eaten. He hasn’t left in weeks, hasn’t cracked a window. He’s running out of dry food. The shapes moving outside do not touch the ground. They float and dance with twisting limbs and fat, bulbous bodies. And they sing, sing like people screaming. When they eat, it’s almost graceful. The mouth, at the join of their limbs, presses against your neck. While you shiver and shrink as your organs are pulped and sucked from your body, they grow beautiful; grand; glowing red.
At night they light up, their bodies bursting in bioluminescence or magic or something else unspeakable. Sometimes one of them bumps against the window of his youngest’s room, where he spends the night crying. The light saturates the pony calendar and the Disney princess bedsheets. Sometimes he almost hears a muffled ‘daddy?’ behind the glass. Sometimes he almost reaches for the latch.
With every bite you do irreparable damage. This is important to remember. Every cut of the knife makes unwhole something that was complete, even as it completes you. Every gourmand must understand the necessity of holistic thinking.
“How is it?” The woman on the other side of the table is bone-pale, even as a smile cracks her shivering lips.
“Perfect,” you answer without lying. You pan fried the kidney with garlic, butter-basted it with rosemary. Kidney has such a unique flavour if you savour it, give it time, allow it to speak for itself.
“Afterwards, you can have my lung.” You put down your knife and fork to gently admonish them.
“You should rest, I can wait.” You can. After all, a sharp appetite is the best flavourant.
I. The Magician
Every time he changes, he loses something of himself. Last week a flash of plumes remained stuck to his skin. Just yesterday, when he bundled up his coils into his shape again; flexing and shifting from snake to man, a scrap of skin between his ankle and upper calf stayed hard and smooth as glass. When he could bear to check he saw that the scales there were iridescent, catching light that he couldn’t see at all.
And you might ask him if he regrets it, regrets playing games with magic and his skin, but he doesn’t. The unchanged parts are part of the bargain. When people look into his eyes, see that one retina is a cat’s and the other belongs to a fox, they will know. They will know that he has the secret of change, that he knows that everything crouches in wait to be something else, and that it is from this universal tension that he draws his power.
Once decomposition takes hold, my body will burst with life. Centipedes and grubs will worry away at my skin, hewing my imperfections away until they’re nothing. Beetles will roam my digestive tract, feeding themselves where I used to sate my appetites. Maggots will fill my brain case, the seat of my soul will become a nursery and new life will burst from my eyes. Spiders, who I so hated when I was alive, will play and hunt over my supine form; at rest I will care for and nurture them as I should have in life. My microbiome will continue uninterrupted, the microscopic tenants that teem in my inside will sustain until there is nothing left and then they will move on.
Even then, I won’t be dead. My bones will sparkle in the earth, glowing even as they dry and grow brittle and cracked. Even when I’m a hole under the earth that a corpse once sat in, my remains charnel-ash in the wet earth I will endure. Even when I am dust, I will be beautiful.
We write in hearts not heads
There are no typos in hearts.
In parts, in words
We understand what we mean to say
Even though we can’t say them all in just one day
The heart won’t release the words
The way it releases our feelings.
And my feelings, I think are also in my mind
Helpless and unkind.
Since that day I found you dead.
The blood still dripping from your part severed head
Splayed across the bloody sheets.
And although the killer has been found,
Jailed for life.
I still envision the murderous knife.
Steel and scarlet: it took your life.
Leaving me alone and lost
Scarred, and scared
For everywhere I turn
The image burned into my brain
From which I fear shall ever remain,
Is your ashen face,
Your grace emptied as your eyes of life.
I open the curtains and you are there
Your partial, headless corpse
Causing me remorse that I should have been there.
Behind every door, in every room,
Where even sunshine doesn’t cover the gloom,
Your life taken away too soon.
You haunt me
Inter my very soul
As if by doing this, I could ever make you whole.
On the tv,
On my phone
On my iPad.
Every time I try to watch the news, a film, a show,
I see your lifeless body
All red, and white and paloured grey.
Even on Bake Off ,
You appear within the cakes
LEAVE ME ALONE, for my sanity’s sake.
Most people when they lose their loved ones
They recall memories of love and fun.
Sad, but loving, once they are gone.
But me, oh me.
What have I done?
What have I done to deserve this fate?
Your sudden demise was not my doing
Still, you make me feel as if it was.
As if it was.
In sleep you appear
Restless sleep in the very bed
On which you bled
On which you lost your head
The nerves and tendons hanging out
A grisly end, without a doubt.
I found you there, when I came home.
Your body from whence all life had gone,
Too much I suffer.
To much I grieve.
I need this apparition to leave.
Making my life a living Hell.
When all I did was love you well.
I was there when you needed me.
Always there when you needed me.
Now I need you to leave me be.
Now I need to sleep.
Forever to sleep.
Never more to dream.
Never more to hear your beckoning, silent scream.
Wherever I turn.
This night I will make my last,
I need peace.
So I now go to sleep, hopefully never to waken.
An eerie silence.
I sit up and see a bright , bright light.
It’s not day.
It’s not night.
I peer and in the distance you,
All clean as one, whole and calm
Still beckoning me with outstretched arm.
Saying words I cannot hear.
Closer yet, not quite clear.
At last you reach me.
Whispering. Words cold and chilling.
“ I always said I couldn’t live without you ,
Now I cannot die without you
Samhain, All Saints Day or All Souls Day
All Hallow’s Eve or plain old Halloween?
It’s for you to decide, trick or treat?
Trick or treat?
It’s a bit of a laugh, a harmless treat
when costumed kiddies line the street
looking cute and super sweet,
it’s a happy, fun event
why even ask, no need to be wary
the total opposite of scary.
Trick or Treat?
It’s a dirty trick,
cunningly disguised as a treat.
Old tradition with meaning,
turned commercial venture,
designed and developed
to relieve you of your hard-earned cash
don’t keep it in your pocket
don’t save it in the bank
spend spend spend, come on down the price is right
go on, treat yourself –
it’s the designated calendar event for October!
It’s a marketing con, a shopping dance,
stuffing our planet with useless tat
dead trees and plastic trinkets
our grandkids kids will
it makes my heart sink
when I think about the shop bought mothers
feeling less than not good enough when
they compare themselves to
Pinterest perfect spooky themed bunting
made by mothers whose children are nothing
than a fashion accessory
dressed in seasonal on trend style.
Real families and the image of family
are mirror opposites,
this is definitely a trick –
Whatever you are doing/not doing is okay
Wisnae lik at in my day Granda says,
he who thinks this pumpkin lark is a total farce
Halloween’s nae Halloween until you’ve near hacked yer fingers aff
howking oot a neep as tough as a brick
an aa yon sweeties’ll mak the bairns sick
an they dinnae work for it like we did,
jist chap an bawl Treat or Trick
demanding sugary payment for nowt
surely that’s a trick? point and click
marshmallow, fun size, swizzlestick
instant gratification in exchange for a mild threat.
When they get older the boys grow bolder
draping bog roll everywhere, egging houses and cars
whilst girls are meant to look pretty and smoulder
bare skin as a sexy – *insert pornstar outfit here*
zombies and witches are all sexy bitches
swipe left if you don’t conform.
I’m somewhere in the middle of nostalgia and avoidance –
encroaching on Granda’s territory
Trick or Treat seems dull and tragic
like the whole shebang has lost its magick
The future is a garish orange genetically modified ready carved pumpkin
available from the first of June
pay people to bob for your apples have them delivered to your door
send robot surrogates to guise your street and pick up gluten free raw vegan unrefined sweets
is that really a treat?
I look back at my 1979 first prize win
for my neep lit up with a glowstick
when they were just lights for deep-sea divers
My Daddy got me it from offshore, I beam at the admirers
gap-toothed grin lit up luminous green
crepe paper stapled to my red tights and a cheesecloth shirt
somehow made me an elf
the costume looked shit but I was happy
so how can that be a trick?
We trailed around doors with neeps on strings-
telling terrible jokes and singing for our sweet things
bin bag tied around your waist with old curtain rope
on that first doorstep with a heart full of hope
as you chapped in anticipation
badly painted Frankenstein faces poised to sing:
Halloween’s coming, Halloween’s coming
Skeletons will be after you
Witches cats and big, black bats,
ghosts and goblins too!
Miaow, miaow, miaow go the witches cats,
Oo, oo, oo, oo,oo, ooo oo, ooo!
Flap, flap, flap, go the big, black bats,
Oo, oo, oo, oo, oo!
That delight, the joy of seeing the adult jump
at a simple word,
was the real treat
even, when I was old enough to know
they weren’t really scared and it
was just a trick.
I get particularly passionate
about striking matches.
Its flick and switch,
the way it could wither wicker.
Listen to the sound of it, the simple sound of it,
it’s gritty, gratifying, tickling
the tiny hairs in my neck.
O, the fucking sound of it.
I like watching the wooden sticks
turn black as they burn,
as the flame creeps closer,
closer, closer to my fingertips.
Don’t you just like the sound
of the word blister?