elbib

 

The following is short free verse – or indeed, a short story – written when I was a violently atheistical teenager. It’s curious, reading it back now at a time when, strangely, I have more faith but less certainty. 

 

 

In the end there was light, and so many words in so many languages, cultures, a universe of understanding on one planet. And God said “I no longer exist, for I no longer must exist;” and then the people said it: first in their billions, then millions. Following this were centuries of commerce and industry, of pleasure and work, the worship of humanity the brightest light.

But then there came a congregation, a filling of churches, and millions did go there and praised the dead God, the only God they had known: thereupon there came Belief, and they said, “Who art in Heaven,” with their hearts in their savouring mouths, and love on their tongues.

The population became less numerous. They attended their churches and factories: they no longer danced, they exchanged bright robes for rags. Their Kings were in the thrones of the God, yet those Kings were ungodly and wicked. The men were weak, and in that weakness made women and children weaker. They began to obey the echoes in those marble palaces, in reverence of a Son who would save them, a Son beyond doubt. And the schools were demolished, and the poor worked and toiled and died in the fields, and grew fewer. There came wars, many wars, symptoms of the disease, the angry faith. The books were hidden, torn into pulp and buried in trees: there became but one book, Elbib, and it was the name of the book.

Then there was a time of great uncertainty, as the Son became folklore, a dancing myth of the mad and the imprisoned: and then the Son lived. There was no Trinity. And he buried himself in the earth for three days, emerged to be raised on a cross, and given life.

For thousands of years there had been devotion and disease, and the death of words: then the people left, with their scriptures; hoping for a Son, yet in the thrall of the Father. Their faith grew vague and forgotten, different, myths from Babylon and Sumer: the language lost its letters, its shape and its dance.

Life scrabbled after life. The moon rose and descended. The people were sickly, and savage, no longer people; no longer beasts of warm, red blood; no longer breathed the air.

Untold time elapsed. Darkness was brought into the world, for the purpose of creation. And the God said, “I exist, for now I must.”

 

 

Extract: All the Philosophers in Hell

 

 

What follows is an extract from a novel I have been drafting, editing, sharing and forgetting for a couple of years now. 

 

 

Futility strangled her wrists: the ropes clung tight, the chair resisted every movement. Sarah did not mean it to end this way.

She had only wanted to ask, what the Professor had meant the other day: a brief, inconsequential comment as the class spilt out of the lecture hall, something barely meant to be heard at all. As he tidied his papers and closed his briefcase, Lucas had said something about angels falling.

She’d thought it strange. She had picked up her bag, considered following Jake and Erin out of the tort lecture; but she had brushed her hair to one side, gathered her courage and her curiosity, and had walked down to the lectern to ask him. Maybe he’d appreciate her inquisitiveness, she wondered: maybe he’d mark her out above the rest.

It was dark, now. Her memory was dark, this chamber was sullen: the amber light only highlighted the shadows which drenched her. And darkest of all, sat opposite her with one leg crossed neatly over the other as a gentleman would, was the Professor.

“Originally, the adversary was precisely that,” he now said, turning some metal instrument between his hands. “The counsel at Judgment who recited the counts against man. He might persuade mankind during life, true, but he couldn’t tamper with evidence, or cause guilt by duress. He was a lawyer, after all. And his major role was as counsel for the prosecution.”

Sarah could just glimpse him through her fringe, but her eyes were barely adjusting to the penumbra. She could nevertheless – which choked her breath, and brought clamminess to her skin – see the Professor lean in with excitement.

“People want to be saved. They do. Even atheists deeply, deeply crave salvation. But do you think angels will save you? Do you know just how few souls have been spared, through angelic grace? Virtually none. Only people can save themselves, from damnation. It is their task to make themselves worthy of His mercy. If you can’t deny yourself sin, if you cannot at first be tempted, what hope is there for you?

“Now,” he continued, breathing quickly (turning the silver instrument obsessively in his hands): “do you know what helps to save people? Hell. Hell was the single most versatile means of securing salvation. Something to rage against, a place to put the unrepentant, and a worst case scenario for everyone else – all the good girls, who put up their hands and want to stand out in class – people like you, Sarah, to avoid. The stick, as opposed to the carrot of paradise.

“Demons are what will save you, Sarah. We will teach you wisdom you could never seek in scripture,” he said, drawing the blade in circles before her unblinking eyes: “and lead you to wonders you could never discover inside yourself, alone. More than His absent love, more than his errant Son, and more than all the prayers those lips could whisper: I will save you, Sarah, from yourself.”

Recipe for Success!

 

We’ve all been there: you’ve invited some colleagues over for dinner. How are you going to make sure the evening goes smoothly? Well, here’s a handy guide to being a gracious host and a recipe for a memorable and intriguing dish. Key notes highlighted and underlined for ease of reference.

 

Right, so you’ve invited your friends over for a dinner party. Great. You won’t regret that later or for months or for the rest of your life. It’s going to be fine so shut up. You need to prepare. This comes in two stages.

First prepare food-wise. Buy in some chicken breast, onions, garlic, a tin of beans (you will need this, in fact get two) and make sure you have your phone handy.

Secondly, prepare psychologically. Gary’s going to be there and you secretly like him but he must never know. So everything hinges on tonight. Tracey is also coming. You think she might be a better chef than you. She has nicer hair and you actually hate her. So you need wine. Maybe one bottle, for every two hours you intend to be in her company. Make that six bottles.

Now, let the cooking commence.

First step: open the first wine bottle. Every cook needs a little steadying. You will cook badly if you don’t start with the correct preparation.

Secondly, oh god yeah, you forgot, tidy the house a bit. You live on your own don’t you, so it’s obviously an atrocity in there. I mean, don’t vacuum or anything mad like that, just move stuff to the sides of the rooms so there’s floor space and wipe a cloth around the obvious surfaces. Handy tip: point your furniture away from the television so it doesn’t look like your home life is centred around Netflix. You’re not futile and pathetic! Also flush the loo. Put out the fancy soaps. Pretend that you’re not living like a student anymore.

Thirdly, back to that kitchen. Peel, half and then dice your onion. Fry in a little sunflower oil until translucent. Stir it with one hand and apply wine with the other into your mouth. Ambidextrous cooking is a skill that makes you look like you cook. You’re probably crying, that’s possibly just the onion (you should tell everyone this for the rest of the night or you’ll spoil the dinner party).

Thirdly, another glass. Cook heavily and intensely. Intensity of cooking brings intensity of dinner party. Throw herbs into it, there’s probably some in the cupboard.

Then put the chicken on a plate to, defrost or, whatever. Does it need to stand? Is that a thing? Soon your first guest will arrive because it’s like half seven now – SHIT it’s already quarter past eight, quick get the chicken in the pan quick

Sixly – Sixthly? – open the second bottle, it adds flavour to, the evening

Fuck fuck fuck one of them’s outside. Peer through the curtains. It’s Gary. Ergh. You’re not ready yet but let him in, tell him to wipe his feet (men like being told what to do and this domestic touch will probably, something). And don’t let him see the empty bottles you were going to take out earlier, you should have put candles in them to make tasteful table top decorations (did I not mention that) then sit him down, give him a glass of wine, tell him to calm the fuck down sit down Gary for Christ’s sake

Tenfold, put the water on the pasta and let it, you know. It’ll do it.

Stir things, seventhly, in the order specified above. Everything’s in hand. Have another drink.

Tell Gary to shut up it’s a party. He should be enjoying himself, what’s even wrong with him

Have another glass, steady yourself. Gary won’t like the party if the cooking hasn’t happened properly.

Tracey is better at this than you.

Tracey’s outside. Speak of the fucking she-devil bitch. Lean out the window and tell her to wait outside. Say there’s no room and you’re not ready yet so she can just wait outside can’t she.

Tell Gary not to let her in, she’s a skank.

Apply wine.

Tenth, if Tracey gets up herself (she’s such a bitch) throw one of the tins of beans out of the window, near her or at her car windscreen.

Sit on the stairs for a bit.

Ask Gary to take the stuff off the thing before it sets the fire alarm off again.

Sing Gary your favourite song, you know, the one that goes “I really really like the, morning light, baby hold me close until the morning light, it will be alright” and wave your arms a bit

Ask Gary to mop up the wine you just spilt dancing on the stairs

Fifthly try to stop Gary leaving by telling him you’ll be sick in your sleep and DIE if he goes back with that bitch and tell him that anyway the rice will be done soon

Sit on the stairs for a bit in your empty house

Open the remaining beans and, apply. Alternatively use that phone to order something in, maybe a food. Cook again from the glass.

(Oh, for all of the above replace “cook” with “drink,” that is probably better semantically)

Well done, you hosted your tenthly dinner party. Post some pictures on Instagram of the – what did you cook again – yeah, and tell everyone how amazing your night was without certain people who will go without mentioning Tracey.

Bon appetite. Please share with friends and everyone except Tracey. Now treat yourself to a good, long sit on the stairs until Saturday morning.

“Plot” – on the theme, ‘Holes’

 

My partner and I suffer and relish, each month, in creating a piece based on a new theme. June’s theme, chosen by our wonderful friend Laura Mahoney (acclaimed ‘G Â S T’ artist), was ‘Holes.’ I shall leave you to enjoy the following short story.
 

Plot

 

I awoke with his lips on mine, soft breath: “Sorry Josh, got to go. Last night was fine, really boring: sorry babe, got to go.” Only on opening my eyes, Tony already out of the bedroom door, did I remember that he hadn’t come back last night.

 

He’d left an empty room: the same wardrobe, the same mirror; curtains trailing in early daylight. The same space next to me, cold and bare. I had spent all night wishing he were there. I heard noises downstairs; I almost got up from bed up to check, but I daren’t leave the frail safety of the sheets, their clammy embrace. I’d shivered, ceiling-facing, squinting for signs of movement from our bed.

 

I then heard the front door shut to, and the lock grate. I looked about the room again, the chill morning light casting the vacancy of our home into relief. No ghosts: it was day.

 

I draped a robe about myself and descended the stair. I could see the garden – the lawn which rose uphill away from the house, little beds of foxgloves and chrysanthemums, mounds of earth from the work. He’d be around in an hour to carry on, arms bared, toiling under the sun.

 

Orange juice, two slices of toast. Square white plates. The househusband, I began my day in my own time, gathering myself together just as I had gathered the robe about me. I could still feel sweat clinging to my back and legs on the fabric, light drifts of air licking my ankles.

 

He’d be here, soon: Georgio the gardener. He’ll smile, a perfect, feline smile; verse through his fractured English, lifting his tools – arms tense – he’d wipe his fringe from his gleaming forehead under the sun, pounding at the earth with the shovel, unsettling what lies under there.

 

A water feature. Tony thought it would brighten the garden up, give it some life. Pour life back into our home, a babbling, quiet sound to distract us from the underlying silences.

 

Hot white foam over the plate, draining board, clink of china against china. Now to shower.

 

He’d met Georgio, somewhere – work, bar, through friends – cheap labour, probably not even legal, and willing. Could do the groundwork, strong, young, fast. Making a playground of our garden. Playing around.

 

I was the househusband. Tony was at work. All day in the hot, thirsty kiss of the sun, dust in the air, Georgio worked the land; I remained indoors, unwilling to fight for the ground. I drank cold water and read. We kept our distinct sides, of everything.

 

The fountain had been left near to the pit, ready to be erected – any day, now – piping ready to go. A little gravel around the rim of the pit, once fully dug, and it would be done.

 

I might step out, take in the air and inspect the unleveled ground; and Georgio would not notice me at first, so I could see his back, his arching form, hear the grunts and thrusts of the shovel. I could imagine them together. And then he would turn, half-gesture a greeting, and smile a cat-like grin, aching with effort.

 

Tony had not come back last night.

 

Georgio did not ring, today: he was already at the back by the time I had dried myself, digging. Spades of dry, dense earth were flung from the pit. I saw his shoulders, globes of honey-coloured flesh, straining.

 

A few days ago he had found something: a pendant in the pit, once silver, since aged and preserved by dirt. Discoloured and forgotten. Other things, as well: a doll, a gold ring.

 

Last night I barely slept for fear of what else lived in that house.

 

Now dry from the shower, I stepped out, and I watched Georgio then, unsettling more and more earth. I heard his dry, panting breaths: I could almost feel the tension in his body, the thighs taut with lifting, vascular strain in his upper arms.

 

I could only think that this house was not mine, and mine alone, anymore.

 

The subject had never been broached between us, seriously: Tony might over a meal (which I had cooked) call me the Desperate Housewife, having it off with the gardener. I would laugh and say, I should be so lucky, what with him playing the field on his work trips. The macho one. Playing the field. We joked about it.

 

I should be so lucky: the irony of it, when they were together; and I was alone, or almost alone, in that house.

 

A fairly old house, with original garden: a tree, further back, which partially obscured the light but left dappled shade dancing across the lawn. That tree had been here for centuries. It had lived through countless families, who had dwelt here. Births, marriages and deaths.

 

Doll, gold rings, pendants. The tree had seen it. I had heard it, too. And those precious relics of life, together, had been left here one day, to be forgotten. To be buried.

 

Tony and I had been happy here. The silences of the house, after years of struggling – finally, having the time to stay at home and write – finally, the silence of a place we could call our own. We welcomed the peace of it.

 

Shunk, shunk, shunk: the dry ground carved from the earth, thrown aside.

Georgio did not notice my watching him, at first. I could not help but admire his sweet, sun-kissed skin, his powerful domination of the soil, shovel by shovel. As I drew closer I could hear his breath, brought in through his fine, thin nose; and hear him grunt out that breath with each motion. I could smell the clean sweat of him now – sweat, warm, healthy, aglow. It stirred me; he smelt of sex. Raw, muscular.

 

Cold, empty bed beside me. Sheets clinging to me in fear. Nightmares, waking nightmares. Sounds on the stair; further still, the sound of glass, or tinkling metal from another room. The house knew. The house, centuries-old: the house was as disturbed, as I.

 

Warm, urgent. As he stood up to stretch, his back muscles shifted as a lion’s, his shoulders fearsomely raised, rippled flesh. Tony had seen and felt and tasted the salt on that back.

 

Something silver, almost-glistening, lay at his feet: in the belly of the plot, a necklace uncovered, perhaps; its chain was broken.

 

It had belonged to the residents; untold years before, a family who had moved, or died; left for some reason, abandoned silver; buried there.

 

I felt the cool weight of the piping in my hand. With a pleasure like broken plates, smashed glasses, the frivolity of utter and joyful destruction my arms relished the action, his head caved in like eggshell, crumpled on the hard earth of the pit. The beauty was there, in his skin, and in the pool of blood which babbled quietly in the garden. Dappled sunlight danced over us, in a breathless, silent wind.

 

Holes which should not be – which should not be carved, placed in the materials of life, in a home – they must be filled. To bring it together, to make it whole again, it must be filled. It cannot be the same, it may never be right: but it can be whole, again.

 

The fountain had been left near to the pit, ready to be erected – any day, now – piping ready to go. A little gravel around the rim of the pit, once fully dug, and it would be done. Dug deep enough, gravel scattered about the site. Everything was around me, as if the house wished for me to make perfect this imperfection, to bring together the fountain and the earth, the necklace, the hole in my heart. The piping was ready.

 

The silences in the house were welcoming. No shunk, shunk, shunk; no creeping on the stairs; no chink of silver in a far room, which once had slept soundly. A square plate with two slices of toast, one mug of tea.

 

Tony arrived – on time – today. His appointment for the evening had fallen through: he almost sounded forlorn. We sat and talked, breathed in the quiet air. He admired the finished fountain, though. The garden looked quite splendid now the hole had been filled.

 

 

Don’t worry, Blair. Neither of us are the househusband. 

Chapter One: Prelude

 

The following is an extract from the first chapter of a novel I am currently drafting. The general theme, one which runs through a fair bit of the poetry on this blog, is Heaven and Hell. Order and chaos. Also, the idea that Hell itself may be terribly orderly: “In Hell, there will be nothing but law, and due process will be meticulously observed.” Feel free to comment, make suggestions, and let me know your thoughts. 

 

The crazed heat of the fire threw itself above him. An insane roar of flame erupted as the fireball cascaded against the brick wall behind, scorching the clay of the abandoned warehouse: it sounded otherworldly, deafening; and the powerful heat and sound nearly bowled Raziel over.

He’d ducked into a forward roll, and the movement made the black sky, the stars and the fiery remains of the blast a mystical dizziness of light and dark in motion.

Raziel recovered to a standing stance: the figure responsible for the fireball had moved, he could sense it behind the faded-yellow forklift ahead of him. He had seconds before it would make a second strike.

And already a dark limb extended from behind the vehicle, its palm drawing in particles of fire from the atmosphere: it drew in the embers, ready for the next attack.

Chest palpitating, Raziel made his move. He gathered Consideration from the Contract into his cupped hands and, focusing its intention into a single manoeuvre, he launched an arc of violet light at the forklift truck.

It tore through the night like a whiplash, causing the forklift to shatter and splinter in fragments of violet devastation. Mechanical parts scattered like shrapnel, cast out of the impact zone by a ferocious and beautiful supernova of that strange light. The figure had gone: it had clearly made an escape from the impact.

Raziel cursed himself. For as long as the figure was hiding behind the forklift, he’d have known where it was. Now it might materialise anywhere, almost silently.

Over the sound of falling metal clanging upon concrete, Raziel strained to hear for the sound. It would be like a gust of wind through trees, ominous and unsettling. He would recognise it at once, if he could only hear it.

There, behind him: that rattling, rustling breath. It was emerging.

He turned in time to see the swirling darkness eddy and coalesce as the figure emerged, right by the burning residue of the fireball, before the distraught warehouse exterior. It was a silhouette in front of the bright, burning lights; it was so similar to the raging smoke, and yet eerily distinct; it was still and yet in constant, gaseous motion.

Even now Raziel could see it extending a shadowy, angular limb. Already, with its death-rattle voice, it was drawing in embers.

Raziel instantly drew Consideration into his right hand, as entitled by the Contract; its violet energy enfolded itself around his arm, growing over itself in ever-increasing spirals; he could feel its intangible warmth against his skin; in one swift motion Raziel launched his arm forward, and the spiralling colour of helices beamed at the figure.

Shattered brickwork and unimaginable sound: the warehouse wall was torn asunder by the attack, casting debris outward in the explosion.

But it was a hopeless gesture: the figure was nowhere to be seen in the wreckage, for it had entirely disappeared, right out of the deserted car park and into the ether.

“Bugger,” he said to himself.

Drawing breath for what seemed like the first time in centuries, Raziel hesitated to consider his options. It wouldn’t be coming back, not now. Running after it was hopeless. It would have travelled an incalculable distance already, and Raziel had neither the skill nor the time to trace its path across the zones. It had been trained, he thought: it materialised far too skilfully for an ordinary demon of its rank.

It was another lead that had gotten away. He couldn’t Cross-Examine it now. He at least knew now that he was dealing with a more cunning opponent than he had at first guessed: someone with contacts, someone with influence. The Fire Creature was a mere pawn.

He glanced around at the destruction they had wrought. The warehouse had been gutted out by his final attack; the entire car park was a wasteland. They’d have to put it down to a gas leak, or some such credible story. Ordinarily Raziel would have preferred a more nuanced approach, but the figure had left him little room for negotiation. His usual conversational practices would hardly have been of use against the Fire Creature.

Needless to say his suit was ruined. Brick dust and scorch-marks pocketed the fabric and made a pauper out of him. For that alone he would have been devastated. Oh well, he thought to himself: he had more than enough replacements at his disposal back at Chambers.

Ah yes, Chambers: he needed to return to the other zone quickly, for he had already strayed too long on the Surface. His human Client would not appreciate the extra overtime.

Raziel tried to clear his mind: soon his focus had returned, and the very thought of Chambers drew him irresistibly, psychically back through the veils of gentle darkness.

The lights cleared in his vision. His oak desk lay before him as though he had fallen asleep in his office chair, books and notes spread out in organised disarray, all part of the prep for his latest jaunt to the Surface. Already he felt more at peace surrounded by his shelves and shelves of handsome, arcane books. The background aroma of oak and candlewax was a pleasant and nourishing welcoming back to the lower zone, and to his own office. It was certainly one of the nicer offices of the infernal Department of Order and Justice. He took a couple of seconds just to breathe in the calm and academic aura of the place.

This pause could not last long, though: he had plenty of notes to write and much research to undertake. His observations that evening had to be recorded for future reference and collated with the rest of his Brief.

Occasionally his job at the DOJ involved fighting those forces which oppose the natural order: but he was, for all intents and purposes, a legal functionary above all else. What’s more, he bloody loved keeping the paperwork in order. He was both lauded and derided for it at the Department. And so, he began to update his records. He drew his quill from the air in front of him and began to write in gall ink:

 

The Fire Creature was significantly powerful in several respects: its conjuring abilities were considerable; its ability to travel through zones was abnormal for a demon of its relatively low rank; its willingness to leave, rather than to fight to the death, suggests that against its belligerent nature the Creature had be instructed to avoid capture and so to avoid Cross-Examination.

We might deduce that it has been empowered above its station. We could then deduce that some individual, or individuals, had strong motives for sacrificing time and power towards such a project. An agent was presented rather than the principal: this indicates an unwillingness to be identified.

We can deduce that the principal, or principals, had planned this to some considerable extent: not only empowering the Creature, but providing it with the skill and instruction to travel zones so as to avoid capture. If so, then we might say that such a plan, and the sacrifices necessary for its preparation, would be inconsistent with a motive as unimportant as causing minor havoc in an unpopulated part of one European city.

Therefore, it is not unreasonable to deduce that some greater…

 

Knocking at the door interrupted this stream of thought mid-flow, and caused a pointed frustration in Raziel. He frowned.

‘Who is it?’ he asked. His voice, though drenched in resentment, still held that quality of clarity and elegance which Raziel personified.

The intruder opened the door: it was Zophiel, a slightly older, greyer Contractor of the Department. His salt-and-pepper hair was nonetheless trim and sleek, and he was wearing a suit to match, graceful pinstripes only just betraying the first signs of ageing. Compared to Raziel’s once-pristine, burn-pocked jacket Zophiel seemed the pinnacle of sartorial splendour.

He immediately picked up on the disparity.

‘Did you fall asleep in the Pit again, Raz?’

Raziel glared at his colleague. ‘It was the Surface. Bloody hate the Surface.’

Zophiel raised an eyebrow.

‘What on earth could have happened on the Surface to make you so…?’

Quickly, Raziel remembered that the Brief was at this moment entirely confidential. Not wishing to draw Zophiel’s attention any closer, he backtracked swiftly:

‘I tried to shift zones mid-spell,’ he lied. ‘Consider me a cautionary tale against… youthful folly.’

Smiling good-naturedly, with the forgiving aspect of an older soul, Zophiel stepped further into the room. He’d brought with him a small bundle of papers which he absent-mindedly shuffled in his hands. With his kindly, bespectacled face and black-and-white hair he seemed avuncular, bordering on the paternal. This was all very nice and everything, but it did give Raz the feeling that Zophiel rather enjoyed being the older, wiser colleague.

‘I thought you’d enjoy this brief,’ he said, placing the bundle onto the desk. ‘It’s a fairly ordinary Contract in a way, but it’s got intrigue. Family matters, that sort of thing.’

‘Love?’

‘Well yes, and no. Usual husband-and-wife scenario. Can’t conceive, the wife has suffered miscarriages before, the husband wants to… raise the odds a bit.’

‘Guarantee a conception?’

‘Exactly.’

‘Cool. A very un-immaculate conception, then.’

‘A maculate one, I would imagine.’

‘What sort of Consideration would that need?’

‘Well, ordinarily this sort of Contract needs suitably ironic Consideration,’ said Zophiel, pursing a smile on his thin lips: ‘potentially causing a death? Think something up, you’ll figure it out as you go along.’

‘And if the price is too low, then…’

‘Then the Contract just doesn’t happen, so there’s nothing to worry about there. Just make it apt, elegant. A good price for this one.’

Raziel was certainly intrigued. So far he’d done a good number of Pecuniary Bequests, the Consideration for which was almost invariably a part of the Soul or a few hours of Worship. He’d never bargained a human into committing murder before. This could be fun.

‘I’ll take it,’ he said. He summoned the ribbon-bound file across the table over to himself and began to untie the bundle.

‘There’s a conference at second midnight if you’re interested,’ said Zophiel as he slowly paced back towards the door. ‘It’s about Plea Bargaining. Might come in handy once your order-keeping duties start to pile up, I imagine?’

Raz saw in Zophiel’s face a sort of fatherly encouragement. Zophiel seemed rather keen on his younger partner taking on Departmental responsibilities: there was a fair amount of prestige to keeping infernal order, and the notion of that reflected glory was evident on Zophiel’s kindly and enthusiastic appearance. HE wanted the Rookie to do good. Raziel smiled back in reciprocation.

‘I’ll give it a look’ he said, evasively.

Satisfied by this, Zophiel’s face brightened. He left the office with a decided spring in his immortal step.

Well, Raz thought to himself: it’s just as well you’re proud of my orderly achievements, Zophiel. Because I’m going to be focusing on a rather large amount of disorder in the next few moons. Whoever had empowered the Fire Creature clearly had an agenda he didn’t want the Department of Order and Justice to know about.

And there had been a fair amount of hearsay about infernal disorder in the DOJ in recent moons. There had been dinnertime anecdotes of overly-versed humans who could cite the Rules right back at the Contractors. This was unheard of: usually the demonic lawyer would know the Rules, and the human would fall victim to them in due course. What’s more, there was clear evidence of misuse of Contract. Some magic had clearly been placed in human hands recently without thought for consequence: strange rumours had emerged of victims suffering acute psychological damage as a result…

 

Your Design

Sometime between my very last cigarette, and my very last cigarette, I placed the crux of it between my thumb and forefinger: I held the idea, drew circles in the air with it. I held you in mid-air, controlled like a fine blade: like a finely-balanced, exquisite tool, a scalpel. Drawing it across its own arc of motion to form an anatomy. Imagine the curvature of a straightened arm, and the context of an affectation is pose. Brought to relief, by transposition.

This design kept you for a while – kept you in diagrammatic exactness between breaths, between inhalations, between the smoke rising and then becoming a clear sky all above me. I drew you, and it pleased me. The very form of it was purposive, delineated and precise.

Even after I stubbed you out I would remember the vertices and surfaces. They came from the mind, and the mind kept them: I had traced you before I had even discovered the real presence of it. I traced your curves with my finger across the lip of a coffee cup. I weighed the fullness of it, in each gesture of my hand. So it was that I maintained you. Though you – whatever you are – could hardly know it, I had sublimated the very flesh, the bones, the heart of you. It was true representation.

In this way, I perfected you. The idealized is significant. The thought-of form need not exist, and I dwelt upon it.

So that, even after I had stubbed this out, trails of you outlined the insubstantial air about me.

Darksides

 

gary's picture challenge 1

 

1

 

An explosion of flame erupted from the man’s mouth: the audience gasped, greedy with fascination for more of this vivid and intoxicating delight.  Attuned to their appetites the magician twirled his fiery baton into the air, pirouetting two – no, four – even seven flaming batons, conjured seemingly out of nowhere at the finale of his act.

Such was the largesse of the heady celebrations, the eve the royal wedding, that every citizen of the Miracle Kingdom had wandered from their homes and into the welcoming night in search of amusement and enchantment: to see the dancers and the acrobats, the fire-breathers and the magicians, even to see the spirit-folk who threw spectacles of colour and light high into the night’s sky.  There was even talk that the Princess herself would be performing in the Festival Pageant.

This rumour drifted among the crowds throughout that sprawling, stone-clad city: akin to the recent talk of union between mankind and the spiritual races, the thought of the fairy-born Princess Ferona participating in this secular festival caused much debate and intrigue; but none of this had quite the reality to it, nor the visceral interest, of the veritable fact that the bridegroom himself would be jousting at midnight.  It had been declared by the Court’s own heralds that Lasius would take sport that night, and display his honour and his strength before the masses on the eve of his wedding through a battle orchestrated – as tradition dictated – to represent the struggle mankind had suffered at the hands of the Half-Fay.  Drawn by intrigue, bloodlust and a deep sense of pride for their Prince and their history, the mortal populace jostled closer and closer to the arena as it grew thicker and thicker with human presence. Even at the eleventh hour the throngs of spectators awaited the display.

These were exciting times, before the marriage, the coronation; before the union between fairy and man, between the many Kingdoms; and the promise of such a rare spectacle was almost too much to bear.

And they were not to be disappointed.  Upon the call of midnight a great fanfare, a dazzling array of lights, beckoned the young man into the arena.  The mob roared with joy as the Prince Lasius emerged: radiant with health and beauty, his fine armour scintillating over the form of his chest and upper arms, he was the very manifestation of honourable manhood.  At first his fine head bowed in modesty at their uproar – though high-born, he was but human, no great sorcerer or elven lord – but soon, like the rising sun, he raised himself high and bathed the auditorium in his splendorous light.

He drew his sword Catharick, so named for its cold, brilliant light – Catharick is the Ancient Miracular goddess of the sickle moon – and upon sight of this silvery blade the masses grew riotous with excitement, eager to see that fine, clean blade gloried with blood.

And so soon after, the opponent paced his way onto the stage.  Clad in dark-metal, Oderin – or the swordsman portraying him, traditionally a prisoner granted a chance of freedom if they could fight and win in this display – drew his own foul blade and bellowed defiantly at the jeering crowd.  Oderin was the Lord of the Half-Fay whose reign over the Miracle Kingdom had left humanity enslaved and in ruins.  The spectators were mostly human, in number and in blood: and the bogeyman Oderin had in so many festival jousts been defeated to their unending pleasure.  A criminal was executed, the effigy of Oderin was slain, and the spectacle of bloodshed appeased the masses.  Even in these modern times, some grudges were too heavily-felt not to indulge with sport and play: the dichotomy of a land in transition.

So it was that, at the bugle’s call, they cheered with righteous passion as Lasius clashed swords with the mighty Oderin.

Swifter than a hawk he sidestepped his dark-clad foe; as if blessed by the Gods he evaded each deathly blow, and in a few dazzling manoeuvres had the foul Oderin on his knees.  Lasius pulled at the tyrant’s long, lank hair, holding Catharick to the swordsman’s neck.  At the promise of fatal blood, so soon in the battle, the crowd bayed for death and cried out for the murder of Oderin.

The young Prince Lasius held his vanquished foe for a second longer: and then cast him to the ground.  The audience quietened, with an unsettled murmur.

“The image of Oderin is defeated,” exclaimed the Prince.  “I shall not spill blood for his memory’s sake this night.”

A hissing dispersed through the audience – heads turned, questions were whispered, derisive laughs were exchanged – and yet the Prince continued:

“The fair Princess Ferona was herself a Half-Fay, before the purging.  Born to their blood she elected, upon womanhood, to have that darker half expunged from her by The Rite.  Though her race remains within her, her soul is pure of the Darkside.  I would not stand before you, whole-human, and shed blood for amusement whilst claiming my soul too was pure.”

At this, Catharick was returned to her scabbard-home.  The Prince, in defiance of both ritual and the bloodlust of the crowd, stepped into the shadows behind the stage.

Chatter and outcry broke out like a sudden shower amongst the spectators.  Two such attendees, Poult the Fisherman and Fenerat the Carpenter, close friends since childhood days, turned to each other:

“It has been said the Prince has grown dark, and less pleasure-loving, late,” said Poult, scratching his beard distractedly.

“So it has,” replied old Fenerat: “some have it that the Princess has changed him, some way. Some moods he is fine, and free as the eagle; at other times he is a man bewitched.  I for one could not think the fair Ferona would have so harmful an effect on a man of his temperament.  Methinks the Prince has in his mind, to reunite the Kingdoms through diplomacy – that crooked art! – and not through the games of war.”

“The other Kingdoms desire no such union, though often it is spoken of,” said Poult.  “And no, Ferona is no malice-maker.  I would stake my house on it: the Darkside was cast out of her, though some say that Fairy-side is not so much dark as it is powerful.  Yet I say that there is in her some curious quality.  Her beauty is not questioned, neither, but that she can bewitch a man to see her…”

And such was the truth.  Indeed, not one hour later, the pageant was to commence: and lascivious man and envious woman alike remained in their seats to witness the performance.  The play in question, The Sister of Aronte, was well known to the people of the Miracle City as a classical piece performed at regal festivities.  Every man of them knew that it would climax with the two sisters, one unclothed, the other prone in bed upon the attempt at her sleeping murder.  Those women in the stalls who had not come for the art had certainly come to keep eye on their husbands.

The drapes had been drawn, and a curious, alluring light dimmed the arena to a persuasive and suggestive colour.  Anticipation was heightened not only by the mise-en-scène, but also by the knowledge that the two sisters would wrestle for their queendom; that the victorious Affa would slay the treacherous Yuri even when caught unawares in her sleep; that Ferona, as Affa, would symbolise a modern shift in the politics of the Miracle City, in tolerance of pious Half-Fay.  The conservatives turned up to ridicule this display of reckless lenience to that race; the liberals, to witness this demonstration – the second of the night, and indeed the second with a royal actor – of a new era of acceptance to the Half-Fay.

At long and lingering last the veils were drawn.  Not one of the men or women present could have anticipated the beauty of Ferona and her character, Affa: overflowing with light and glory, her entire body pale and graceful as a vase of spring water, the Princess astonished them all with her poise and elegance.  She recited the ancient poem of The Sisters, as Affa made to retire for the night: she curled cat-like onto the splendour of her queenly bed, and the phosphors were dimmed as the scene descended into a sweet yet perilous sleep.

The creeping Yuri – swift and deathly, balletic yet arachnid, a menace near-identical to her sleeping sister – danced onstage with a swirl of crimson smoke.  Bare but for the thick, long trails of her obsidian hair which descended to caress her arms and breasts, her movements were rich with meaning.  She embodied lusts and desires, delicate movements of cunning design, as she approached the regal bed.  She sang her piece with the stage-whisper of a demon, clean and threatening as a naked blade.

Closer and closer to the Princess she crept.  In near-silence she drew the steel blade and posed it evilly above her sleeping sister….

 

2

 

“You were a vision, my sweet,” whispered Lasius.  His hand traced the delicate form of her milk-white shoulders, drifted through the wonders of her hair.  “The people love you, almost as much as I.”

“I have always been a passable actress,” she replied with a girlish smile.  It set his heart aglow to see her smile. The features of Ferona’s face, though elfin, were more radiant than any woman’s: it was said that as the Darkside had been banished from her, her own light and purity shone through the stronger for it.  Such was the belief of the common people.  Lasius cared not for the cause of it.  He simply longed to bathe in its warmth and summer’s light.

It was not always so.  Some days she had seemed curious with him: though distracted, different, unpredictable, he had placed these moods of hers along with the peculiarities of all females, regardless race.  Under these clouds she would see him only in half-light, insisting upon the curtains being drawn – out of vanity, he thought – yet though for one minute she would be withdrawn and difficult, with a sudden change she would become incorrigibly intimate with him, pressing to him in the darkness of her chambers, feeling for him.  She would tease him, entice him so.  More than once he had tempted him from the celibacy expected of them both.  Yet they were young, and their love was beyond their entire command.

Before him now, as he bade her the last good-night of her unmarried life, he saw in her the full qualities of her wonder.  Loth to leave her so, he nonetheless reminded himself of the poor luck of coupling on the eve of marriage: he glanced back at her once more from the doorway, as she retired to her late, late night of rest.

Alone at last Ferona felt the peaceful, heavy lull of fatigue descend upon her.  Her heart fought to keep her awake, and her mind at times quite raced from thought to thought: of how she had finally found happiness, of how frightened she was that the citizens would eschew her for her caste, of how far she had come from an abjured Princess of the Half-Fay since she had been purged of her Darkside.

Irresistibly, though, the enchantments of sleep enveloped her, and unawares she drifted into a sweet and pleasant slumber.

… The creeping Fairy – swift and deathly, balletic yet arachnid, a menace near-identical to her sleeping sister – emerged from the darkness with terrible intent.  Bare but for the thick, long trails of her obsidian hair which descended to caress her arms and breasts, her movements were rich with meaning.  She embodied lusts and desires, delicate movements of cunning design, as she approached the regal bed.

As if weightless she padded her bare feet upon those luxurious covers, unnoticed.  As if a figment of a dream, she silently drew the long, steel blade, and poised herself lethally above the sleeping Ferona.

A gasping breath awoke the Princess: her eyes opened to the sight, the nightmare, of her very self knelt above her, naked and motionless, dagger drawn…

Ferona seized and cowered at the vision, as if to wake: and still, horrendously, the vision bore above her with inchoate malice.  Her mirror image, her very self, an assassin!

Before she could cry, scream or move, the vision quietly laughed to her in a so-familiar voice:

“You know, Ferona, I think I could pass for you.  We are so alike, in appearance.  Even in flesh and form.  My nights of passion with Lasius prove to me that even he knows not the difference!”

Her mind racing, her blood coursing with fear and revulsion, Ferona tried to speak: to curse this traitor, this fiend, this vile creature who accused Lasius of such terrible things… and yet…

“You purged me from your body, Ferona: to further your chances in this human city, and in pursuit of your blind ambitions, you cast me out.  You cast yourself out. My spirit, exiled from you, sought refuge elsewhere.  And carelessly, you expected me to die…”

Ferona froze at the understanding: the purging and the pageant, reality and fantasy, bled into one another before her waking eyes.  Her past was braced for murder before her, had found bodily form, had through wicked designs and blackest arts conspired to this end.  Her heart near burst in her heaving chest as she realised who knelt above her, ready to murder her…

“But Darksides do not pass into the other realm so easily.”

 

 

This was written as a response to my good friend and fellow writer, Gary Holdaway’s recent post, which you can (and really must) see here: https://garyholdaway.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/the-call-out/ This is a thrilling and chilling piece of short fiction in response to a picture I sent to him: as part of our ongoing challenge, he had to write a small piece which was either based on this picture, or which had as its “plot twist” that image as a central motif. Well worth a look: it’s thoroughly creepy and some damn fine readin’. 

His own picture challenge can be seen at the top of this post, and rather threw me. I’m not really one to write fantasy, but there I had before me two females in a rather awkward position, one of whom definitely has pointy ears. Pointy ears means fantasy. It just does. So what was I to do? In true Palimpsest style I adopted a lot of themes from the canon: spiritual creatures as races, weapons with names, spiritual powers, kingdoms, the works. I gave it all a little twist, inspired by the picture, and typed like a man possessed. That is, I fear, how literature is written. 

Now it’s my turn. Very soon you should all expect to see on Mr Holdaway’s blog – which you can find here: https://garyholdaway.wordpress.com/ – a response to the following stimulus. I have no idea what he’s going to write, which genre, how it will resolve itself: I am just as much in the dark as you, reader. So let’s see what he makes of it, shall we?

Mount Vesuvius in Eruption Jacob More

Best of luck, Gary.