Flash fiction, short stories, poetry …
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Posts from — March 2011

The Old Jensen Place

T

he Old Jensen’s Place is the most reliable haunting in the Southern Central United States. It gets over fifty thousand visitors a year and this is how your tour is likely to go, if you’re lucky enough – and brave enough – to go get that ticket.

3:00am, and they come collect you in the tour bus. Kids will be climbing on everyone, and a bunch of folks will be complaining there’s nowhere open to get a stiff drink. Not to worry, they’ve got a visitor’s centre right out front.

Inside, there’s a café-bar and restaurant; soft play for the kids; while next door, a state-of-the art audio-visual tour takes you through the history of the Jensen’s – the petty rivalries, the affairs, the cyclical nature of the farming business – until one day, Ned Jensen, father of three, went berserk and burned the whole god-damn farm to the ground; the wife, kids and animals all packed inside. He may have shot a couple of them with an old bird gun – to get things warmed up – but that’s pure speculation on behalf of the on-site para-archaeologists.

Video displays run off some pop-psychology and the scientifically accepted explanation for ghosts, while big round boards show pictures of all the Jensen family, the sprawling family tree, and the probable line of psychosis (Great Uncle Albert Jensen was in the Bixby Asylum for the Criminally Maladjusted).

Torch in hand, a suitably downbeat tour guide for the ‘Jensen Experience’ will turn up and rip the stub off your ticket. “Welcome to the farm. If your group would like to follow me, I’ll give you the safety announcement.”

You stop in a large ante-room, where up ahead, an old farm door draws nervous looks. It’s set a foot and a half up in the yellow concrete wall, though there’s wheelchair access to the side. Black and yellow hazard stripes act as a door surround.

The spiel goes like this: “No touching the exhibit – this house has been left exactly the way it was when Ned Jensen did the deed. We get thousands of visitors every year, so if everybody touched the gore in there, that old blood would just give up the ghost. Literally.

“No photography. You want a picture, it’s in the gift shop next to the Café on the way out.

“No ghosting. That’s when you put your hand – or any other part of your anatomy – through an apparition. You may experience sudden drops in temperature, thrown objects, physical manifestations that some of you may find disturbing, but you aren’t allowed to touch or otherwise contact the undead exhibits here.

“You want to go pee, or a real fire breaks out, you can use a fire exit. In the event of fire, look out for a green sign like that one up there and we’ll all line up in the coach-park at the fire point marked ‘A’ for Albert. In the event of needing to go pee, there’s no need for us all to come line up with you.”

There’s a faint chuckle. Same joke, every hour.

“Finally, stick to the roped off areas and listen to what your tour guide has to say – that’d be me, Jilly. Any questions?”

That’s your cue to look at everyone else with a nervous grimace and a look of ‘What the hell am I in for?’ and ‘Why did I sign that release?’

But there’s no backing out now.

“No questions? No? Great. Okay, everybody synchronise watches to the digital clock on the wall. We hit 4:15 and things get real spooky round here. Not got a watch? I got packs on me. Jensen themed, just nine dollars ninety-five.

“Set? Great.

“Then follow me – if you will – into that terrible night that Ned Nathaniel Jensen killed his entire family in cold blood and burned his own farm to the ground.”

In the ante-room they switch out the lights on you. It’s a cheap trick, but it usually results in at least one scream. From then on, the tour guide uses his or her torch to point out the interesting stuff.

In through the front door. This is a bust-up old place – webs hanging on everything; dust is ingrained into every surface, so it all looks grey. On the floor a modern metal walkway, one inch off the ground, takes you through the hall, into the parlour. The guide lets you know about some of the events leading up to ‘that night': the rows, the accusations; shines a torch on the stack of unpaid invoices on the old-country writing desk.

“Yes folks, Ned Nathaniel had debts. Farming back then wasn’t doing so well, when all those Okie farms turned to dust –”

“What time is it?” Someone will whisper.

“Five minutes to go.”

Of course, what they don’t tell you is that they lie about the time. That synchronisation clock is three minutes slow. The guide is telling you about farming practices at the turn of the century, and suddenly this lanky old Oakie pops into existence, shouting, ‘You whore of Babylon!’ Just like that, trailing blue fire that dribbles off him like smoke. If the guide has set it up right, the ghost’s facing the entire group, less than a foot away, and everybody screams right back at him.

“That’s right everybody, Jensen’s here. If you look behind you, there’s his wife…”

His wife’s on the other side of the walkway. “What do you want, Ned? Why are you doing this? Why?”

“You bitch,” he shouts.

“Sorry about the swearing folks.”

“We ain’t ever getting’ outta this. We ain’t ever.” And then he kicks over something. Buckets, barrels. Opalescent fluid floods under the walkway and then he flicks open a lighter. His face picks up a back-light of illumination and he says, real quiet, “Let’s take us to hell.” And whoomf! He throws in the lighter.

More screams. Spectral fire, cold as ice. “Keep steady folks,” says the guide. And it all burns out. Whoom! The room’s dark again. “That’s it folks. That’s it. Follow me. Hey kid, that bit’s out of bounds. Pick up that litter!”

They say it’s enough to put you off smoking for life.

Out through the back way they got another café, a small shopping arcade, and plenty of hokey gifts to buy: a Nasty Ned doll that shouts ‘Whore of Babylon!’ at a pull of a string, sponge-dart firing shotguns for the kids, holographic cards where if you waggle them back and forwards you can see Ned or his wife manifest and then whoosh up in flames. And how about some Silly Putty ectoplasm?

‘Course, kids always got questions; smart, too, some of them.

“But, Pops, I thought the farm musta burned down, already.”

“It’s recreated all historic, of course. Them ghosts used to float right out in a field. They built a new place for ‘em. Says so in the guide. Ten bucks, worth every penny.”

“Why they go at it every hour like that?”

“Jeffrey, read the book, son. Says, they have no idea, but it’s the best god-damn thing to happen to paranormal tourism in fifty years.”

 

March 23, 2011   9 Comments

My Mother Believes in Giants

J

ust after dawn, on the first day of March, Gerry brings us a stone on the back of his tractor. It’s been scored white in three parallel scrapes by steel prongs – where his spring ploughing struck it and dragged it from the awakening earth – but otherwise it’s a huge lump of blood-red sandstone that my mother greatly favours.

It’s the stuff of giants, she says.

Mother hurries to throw open the great doors on our converted coaching house, white and empty for tourists, so that Gerry can get the tractor and cargo into her workshop. She tells him to mind her ‘exhibits': the row upon row of sword hilts, helms, cups and flails, in the same red stone. They are huge in scale, lined up on the slate floor, each as tall as a man or even larger; each chiselled new and red into similarly massive fragments, though carved to be curiously aged or broken as my mother’s whimsy overtook her.

There is the beeping of the tractor reversing, and the hollow bang and scrape of the hydraulic bucket dropping its load. My mother is ecstatic, still in her dressing gown, running and hopping around this new stone, from corner to corner, brushing, tapping, a hand resting here or there, sighting along her thin fingers, as if already cutting to the heart of it.

When Gerry steps down from the plate, engine idling, my mother flings her arms around his neck and kisses him soundly and wetly on the cheek.

“Oh, Gerry, it’s wonderful. Wonderful!”

He stares at her bare feet, taps his cap, and says “Well then, Mrs… good luck.” Then to me a nod of good day, and “Alios.” There is a burst of diesel smoke and the tractor lurches its way back down the track, retreating politely but swiftly, rattling chains and kicking up mud as it goes.

“I can see it,” she says. “The crown. It’s here, Alios, it’s finally here,” and my mother dances around and around with both my hand in hers, smiling widely, feet scuffing across the slate, while I clump round in my wellies, revolving, somewhat miserably, on the spot.

The legends of the crown – of crowns – is as old as the hills around here, and it’s not something to be found in a boulder. Arthur’s Crown, or the Crown of Alba, or even the Crown of Thorns, they say, lost in a mound, in a pool, in a tree. Somewhere out on the landscape.

Older, still, my mother says – they remember something far older – to the shifting ice across the continents, the one continent, and the giants roaming tall as houses, waging war from their glaciers, irrevocably changing the landscape; great in their capacity to carve and erode the stone. As hard and uncaring, as they were industrious and magnificent.

But no one believes in giants now.

“Can’t you see, Alios? The circle on Blaeberry Hill is theirs.”

(I have seen only a rude stone circle encroached on by brambles, though the stones are vast.)

“The scarp is covered in their creations: their tables, and chairs, and tools and larger things – temples, or living quarters; perhaps other things locked in the landscape, yet to be freed.”

(And while the hill behind her workshop is amazing, covered with the fantastical works of hard and soft stone, carved by the slow drip of nature, it’s still something for the tourists, who come to photograph the unlikely stacks of boulder-upon-boulder, or undulating nodules of sandstone hanging out over the tall cliffs; or leave their children to clamber through the eroded crawls. Eroded by wind and rain, not giants, Mother!)

Sweating, we have winched the stone into place upon a stout wooden table, spinning an endless loop of chain in low gear. My mother already holds a mason’s mallet, and a long spike of tungsten-carbide-tipped steel. I am here, but not really here, because she’s already addressing the stone; Pre-Raphaelite hands bringing forth tools in benediction.

“You have never understood what sculpture can be, Alios. I so wish you could. Is there only imagination, like you think? Or is there something already there? Waiting to be released; pared away from fragments?” And then whispered, lips brushing the stone, eyes staring into a sandy glass box, “I see you. I see you, and you are magnificent.”

I see, as I’ve always seen, a boulder, and a week or two of mania and microwave meals, along with bad hair, body odour and tantrums. If you knew my mother, you’d know she often talks this way, in her artistic moods, and so I leave her to the workshop.

In the days that follow, I have myself some peaceful walks amongst the trees and stones; wander the brook and its muddy mat of winter-rotted leaves, and take a camera and photograph the stones, while the weather is chilled, the sky is crushingly blue, and the tourists have yet to appear by the bus-load. A man is walking his dog one day; I see a field mouse in the snarly grass, another, but that is it.

When the crown is done, it is the size of a cartwheel and weighs around one and a half tonnes. Unusually for my mother, it is whole and perfect, and even I am impressed by the luck she has had with the stones that seem to adorn it as jewels – dull, brown pebbles in some old ocean sediment, now exposed as riches on the circlet. It is a simple gathering of spires and angled tines, carved to a meaty red, while blocks of chisel marks, first one way and then the next, have pared it back, to where it sits on a presentational plinth of the original stone. She holds out her hands in a sort of ‘Ta-da, what do you think?’ grinning at her creation, and then at me, shaking with exhaustion.

I mumble through some congratulations.

Secretly I think she could have decorated it more, added more detail – it seems plain as an act of sculpture – but my mother says that’s ‘just the way she found it’.

Thank God it’s all over.

With one last lingering look, my mother snaps off the lights, before bolting the door and we go back to the house for the first decent meal in weeks. She asks me what I’ve been doing. I don’t show her photos of the stones, of course, because then the lectures begin, but I do tell her loosely about some of my wanderings. Then wine to follow, dark chocolate, cards, a warm hug, and bed.

But my mother lies; she does not go to sleep. Instead, she marches up the hill in bare feet and dressing gown, carrying her steel carton of dynamite.

I smooth the shutter closed and throw myself onto the bed, teary-eyed.

I will not sleep.

“Get up Ailios. Get up. We have to go.”

White light so bright, my eyelids buckle. My shoulder shaken roughly.

“Mum?”

“Throw on anything you’ve got. Quickly. Old jeans will do. That top.”

“What…? What is it?”

“You have to see this.” Her eyes glitter with excitement.

And in the distance I can hear what sounds like ice cracking mixed with sound of earth and scree avalanching from the Craich. Then dull booms, that make the bedsprings vibrate, and the glass of water on my bedside cabinet huzz and buzz along.

“What’s that? You’re scaring me.”

“The builders are down from the mountain. The Table has fallen into the Craich. They’ll be coming to mend it. I… I blew it up. But they’ll be here first. For the crown. Do you understand?”

I do, of course. My mother has gone mental.

I huff and tut and pull my pyjamas to myself and look for my rabbit slippers. I wave away the top she’s trying to throw over me like a sack.

“Forget those stupid rabbits, Alios, it’s boots you need. And trousers. Honestly, get your head together.”

There is a crash of trees, closer.

“Get dressed,” my mother hisses. “There is no time.”

It’s three am and snow is falling in a ghostly curtain. Snow has no business in spring – it’s as if we’ve gone back in time; winding back the winter clock. Up on the cliff, I can hear the soft breath of it on our umbrella.

Entirely at my mother’s doing, the Giant’s Table has fallen – slipped right into the gorge; the red stone staining the snow and river below, ivy clinging to it like claws. Black water boils up through the rubble in foamy sprays. I stare at the wanton vandalism.

Behind us there is crash of glass, wood and stone, as if a mountain is smashing its way through our home. The twinkling lights, just visible through the woods, go out.

Darkness.

As I watch, a massive shadow detaches itself from the hillside, swaying branches; spilling trees. There is the explosive sound of rock popping and the crackle of dry bramble stems. Then a grinding, clattering, rumble, inter-spaced with the squeals of stone rubbing together. A massive foot falls into the landscape, spreading into the grass and gullies. Rocks and pebbles clatter and bounce, rustling through the undergrowth like meteors, as a whole heap of moss-covered stone lurches forwards; a gigantic body at the end of that gigantic stride. The huge misshapen mass towers up over the landscape, fifty, sixty, a hundred feet high, now clearing the shadow of the hill.

It – for it is an ‘it’ – is wearing my mother’s crown. Its head is overgrown with a long beard and hair of bracken and bramble sprays, forced through by gnarled horns of oak branches, deeply rooted in the sentient cliff. Moss and lichen grows like skin, and the massive face is built in the image of mountains: rugged, vast, uncaring; its eyes stony crevices in the sedimentary rock.

What are those channels and grooves? Almost weathered to nothing.

And then… and then I realise, of course, that this is a thing that has slept through history itself. It bears the soft erosion of cultures long dead: its arms, legs, head are carved in the looping whorls of bison and ibex, struck through to angled strokes of cuneiform, to regimented lines of ogham with their branching cuts, then circle diagrams, that show, perhaps, the track of the stars in the heavens, or the endless passing of sun across stone, to Roman capitals incised with imperialistic serifs, to a garish daub or two of the present day: neon spray-paint, pink and poisonous.

Earth rattles down.

The giant groans with every movement of an arm, every look, every slow step that booms down onto the landscape, shaking the air as much as the ground. Then hauling itself below, exploding the river water, bending to the remnants of the Table with a moan.

“The king has returned,” my mother says, clapping her flat palms together, fingers spread like arrows pointing to possibilities.

I can only stare at what the world has become.

 

March 12, 2011   14 Comments

The International Circuit

Warning2 The International Circuit

E

achann fought the circuits; a huge man, whom they said had the strength of five, but was wiry and fast, and carried his knuckles wrapped in bloodied cords of bed linen, torn from his own mattress. He could kill a pretender with one punch, could blind another, or hemorrhage a third, as well as look at any of them. He was odds-on-favorite and wherever he fought, in the car-parks, abettors, or garages, he made the touts a lot of money, and they said there was no fighter alive who could beat him in a straight fight. And Eachann was proud of that reputation of his, and said, let any rival challenge him and he’s send him back in pieces.

Then there was the bout at the bus depot on Edinburgh’s Fanmuir Street, surrounded by dead buses, looming like maroon dinosaurs, and the smell of antifreeze and scorched asbestos hanging in the air. There were thirty punters, slips in hand, screaming and shouting. And when the job was done – a grotesque Russian by the name of Viktor Gorovich, who worked as a deck hand on the Moskaw, was lying pooled-out on the floor – Eachann’s arm was held aloft and great handfuls of notes passed hands, tied with chains of elastic bands, and the touts were licking fingers to count, and Eachann’s man, Haden, was gathering up their cut: a huge stack of child’s play-blocks with Lord Islay on the front and Inverness Castle on the back.

“Ach, it is terrible shame,” said the last to come forwards, shaking his head in theatrical disgust. He was dark and swarthy, but smart in that suit of his. “These Russian’s are not what they were, after the collapse, hey? Your rabble-rouser, Eachann, he’s all right for a farm boy. But how would he do against the Greek? Hey?”

“He’d dae  just as well” said Haden. “Now gie us what you owe.”

“Kolotripa, pfft.” But he handed over his block of money. “I tell you this, I have a one who could beat your man.”

“Aye, is that right?”

“Ha. I heard his challenge. Smart mouth, always talking. Back in Greece we really know our fighting; have seen off many provincial fighters. There’s not so many ready for what the international circuit has to offer. Your Scotch man, he is not so much.”

And Haiden took a good look at this foreigner, who in truth was a nasty piece of work – dark eyes, long fingernails, but immaculately dressed, hair hanging in oily curls – but was undoubtedly Greek, and said, “The challenge stands. You think your Greek can beat The Big Man? Bring him on.” and they shook on it, with Kostas Malandris staring him in the eye, with a calculating look, while his mouth wore a faint sneer of contempt.

“One month,” he said, “and we do it at abettor near stadium.”

“Sure, aye, it’s our best venue; with a gid hame crowd.”

And the Greek snorted, and held out his fist as if to give him a coin, and said, “Your man will be needing these, hey” and dropped three teeth knocked from the Russian’s head into Haden’s palm, who dropped them like a hot cinder, and wiped his bloodied hand on his jeans, cursing. Kostas walked away laughing.

A month later, the bout was ready to go. But the Greek had added two stipulations which Haden didn’t like; didn’t like one bit.

“He wants the round ahind closed doors; just you, and his man. So we all stan’ ootside hudin’ our baws, while you two beat the shite out of each other. An’ he wants yis to fight ’til dawn – last man standin’. It’s nae gonna happen. He can get tae fuck. We’ll hand back the money.”

“The hell it isna,” said Eachann. “That Greek daesna scare me.”

“But his fella cud pull a pipe, a shiv, or a gun; wrap lead in his bindings; hell, even pish in your whiskey. We don’t even know who it is. Maybe they’re just efter gettin’ you oot the way.”

“There’s nae body goin’ I cannie beat, fair or foul. Bring him on. I’ll fight him alane if I haf tae.”

And Haden said a lot more, thinking of everything he could to dissuade the bout, but Eachann was full to thinking he was unstoppable, at the top of his game, and was already to binding his hands, when Haden bent to help him.

At midnight, the Greek was there, as contemptuous as ever. “He’ll need more than just those bandages on his hands, hey – our man is a monster.”

“Away an’ shite,” said Haden, and Eachann had pushed aside the hefty door like it was only paper and tape and had gone inside to wait.

Twenty minutes there was nothing, then the sound of a truck pulling up. Chains rattled. There was the whine of a hydraulic winch; the creak of a metal door; the sound of low Greek voices; the clatter and bang of metal being kicked, shouts of alarm; a dull thump, thump, thump, and then plaster dragged off the wall, scattering like gravel on the floor.

In the shadows something huge and heavy moved, breathing like a steamer in hot coffee; each breath a long, drawn-out thing. Then the clopped footsteps, dropped like bricks on stone, grinding the rippled concrete, and into the arena of light – from one dirty bulb, hanging on a chain – horns straight and tall, as long as a man’s arm, cream turning to black at the tips, and the steam that rolled from its huge body, and then dog’s teeth bared beneath a bull’s curled lip, black beard, wet with slather, dank beneath its chin, nostrils snorting, wet and wide, eyes black, ears notched and long, fuzzed with coarse black hair, twitching as Eachann circled on the sawdust – appraising it; still convicted of fighting this thing, spitting on his hands. Body of a man, head and legs of a bull, seven foot tall, neck corded like bridging cable, chest as wide as a truck, forearms like girders. It stank of blood and silage. It was something out of fuckin’ legend. It had the look of a killer.

Eachann raised his fists and beckoned it on. “You dinnie scare me, ya big beastie.”

At six am, the agreed end of the fight, the punters went back to see what-was-what, slips in hand. When they opened the door, they found blood up the walls and hoof prints everywhere, and matted chunks of black hair. Eachann was beaten so badly he was more a pile of purple and blue meat, than he was a man, and he’d been gored in three places – chest, thigh, and hand – wounds that pooled with dark blood on waxy flesh. He looked like he’d been trampled by a herd of cattle, and given the venue, inquiries were made, but there was no cattle in the place.

Of the Greeks – Kostas Malandris and his unknown fighter – there was no sign, and they never came to collect their money.

March 6, 2011   4 Comments