Category — Serial Fiction
Hello there fellow fictionauts. ‘Tis a happy old tale….
From what you might gather from the title, this episode of Black Door is pretty dark. There may be some ick and squish. Mr Softly again. As promised, this is the second half of the post from last week, and besides I couldn’t leave him (literally) hanging around.
My plan to provide some lighter diversion, via a Friday Flash, peaked a week too soon — busy old week this week, so I may fail to provide some happier musings. In the meantime, on to the Garden of Dismal Deaths…
If you dare
Meanwhile, for those who — for some reason — like to follow things in order:
V: The Garden of Dismal Deaths
ome moments can take your breath away.
Teeth are clamped on Softly’s most delicate-of-delicate bodies – a bag full of chisels, prickling.
Copped so quick, didn’t even smell it coming.
Shredded needles bouncing past.
Claws have been driven through Softly’s glassy hide and straight into the tree by what can only be a car crash. He looks down to red running the length of ridged knuckles and long, multi-jointed fingers that have swatted him into the sky. Those creeping bones seem to vanish where they enter Softly’s body, but – as Softly knows – what you can’t see can hide a multitude of sins…
Softly, six feet up, pinned to woodland, feet dangling.
Teeth slide round for a better grip, like a kitty wid a fishy.
Softly almost chokes.
“Wa, wai, wait!” He croaks; cracking to a yowl. “Wait!”
Clutcher drool slaps his flesh, swinging like a cradle…
In suddenly slick paws – a rifle?
Thrusts forward the gun.
Oh, that did it! Teeth up-and-away – the Clutcher, head down, snarling, its collection of eyes sucking back into its head like startled shellfish. Muscles cording, shoulders welling up, pistons, mountains on the move to a huge bite…
A titter squirting up from Softly’s bladder.
“Ah! Uh… No, you…” (fool is what he wanted to say) “… you, you… you lucky Clutcher. Here. Sm… smell it, smell it. Scent it! Taste it, if that’s your way. Tell me whose it is.”
Gun presented, shuddering – just ripples in the air (no time to curse the invisible).
A moment of insane pressure.
Nausea. Softly getting a teeny bit uncomfortable with those huge claws grating directly on bone – hanging like a sack-boy, body-bits weeping, red dripping from the sky.
“Tell me whose it is!”
The de-puncturing yank-yank of claws pulled free of heart wood. Bark and lichen and spiderweb is dragged off the tree – tumbling over Softly’s shoulders as a shower from nowhere – the monster’s arms folding in like a foundry press.
Softly jerked down, all strings and puppetry.
Breath blowing in his face, so fetid the sewer was drifting petals of dew-soaked roses.
Wild sounds of a mountain top.
Inches away, a multitude of eyes blink across the expansive face of nightmare, eyelids audibly clicking, nictitating membranes sliding in patterns – rank after rank of black flint eyes, some clouded, some old wounds, most glittering with a feral hatred, and yes, some with a measure of the cunning, the suspicion, of the Old Man, dead.
Folds of black flesh pucker up around nostrils, the skin disgustingly motile, quivering and crawling. Softly can only imagine a bat’s face mated with a spider’s, and he doesn’t like bats.
Spiders he eats – all flickery legs like eyelashes.
But it’s not to the gun the Clutcher turns to first…
The beast is so close, Softly can feel its body heat shimmering.
Snuffling tasty arm!
Snuff. The Clutcher shifts; a wet crack and whistle of mucus blows from its nostrils; the innards of those folded, fleshy crevices flaring and glistening darkly.
Snuuuuuff, snuuuuuff. Snuffing along the dog-bone of Softly’s arm, where a bear might – no matter how you shivered – delicately, and oh-so-slowly, take a petite and experimental bite…
And all the while, suspicion that’d be hard-pinned with a forked stick.
The Clutcher bends to thin air, to stock and burning metal.
Softly sees nothing of the gun, but feels its reactive movement: the wrapped shirt rumpled back, nostrils rooting beneath. Each scented bolt and oiled crevice examined – flesh crumpled, death moments away.
Taps with a claw.
Finally, the Clutcher straightens.
“Man. Gun. Stolen?” it enquires. The three words rumble through the trees like the aftermath of chain lightening. Their accenting is Germanic, but not German.
Suspicion boils in the bristling, pine-top canopy.
“No! Man. Gun. Dead.”
“Man. Gun. Stolen?” it repeats.
A wide-eyed wail from Softly – to die like a drag-a-bones on a washer’s line?
And then, the digit, the one and incalculably beautiful digit, held, yes, in a cheek beside Softly’s very own teeth. Sucked and nibbled, pouched aside, but not –
Bouncy, bouncy, tongue round. Hooked. Haaaaaaaa – almost swallows!
A line of spittle arcs to a feathery leaf. The Old Man’s finger – pale, blue, bouncy and lifeless – trickles along a fistful of needles till it slips to a stop, prickled here-and-there like a Scotch egg.
The Clutcher crouches low to the half-bleached thing that’s wet like a slug – snuffing it now in the bracken.
Softly still floats safely at arm’s length.
Again, back to eye level.
Silent. Acres of eyes.
“Man. Gun. Dead.” it ponderously pronounces.
Softly – now somewhat pained – simply hisses. “Yessss!”
The Clutcher swallows, muscles relax. Softly is dropped to his dangling feet, and falls like a bag-a-bones in the sweet pine needles.
The creature simply stands there in the flat sheets of mist that are circling, flexing those long multi-jointed fingers, as if crabs were eating each arm from the wrist up. The concentric rings of woad are smeared upon its body, worn and cracked. Unaccountably, it doesn’t look pleased by the Old Man’s demise (if such an emotion could ever be detected upon it) or relieved, or anything. It seems more… sad.
Who’s to caring? Monstrous! Monstrous!
Softly licks his body, slupping away in the dark – moistness gathering on his skin – neck cricking at the limits of his neck bone.
Slup, slup, slup…
Chin feels wet, rubs and wipes on the tree bark. Smeary red.
“Back. Again.” says Clutcher, finally.
“Yeth, yeth,” tongue in a wound.
But it had only said the name as a low, gravely word. Thoughtful.
There’s an insidious growl of memory. “Said kill.”
“I know, I know. But the gun? The gift? The finger flesh says your war is over.”
A long pause. Clutcher seems doubtful, but the convolutions are beyond it.
“You came… see?”
Of course yes – the ‘Garden of Dismal Deaths’ as Softly likes to think it. It probably has a proper name, but who cares about proper names? He’s not been introduced to it; he’s not going to dance with it. The Garden is a collection, a collection to which Softly is the most enthusiastic of contributors: he the consummate artist to this his… be-shirted and be-ribboned patron of horrors, if it were not naked and heaving and looked a lot like a bat.
Surely there should be more brotherly love than this? But this creature is – Softly fears – entirely twisted in its eternal battle with the Man; with the Man in all his ages. Though perhaps there is purpose: Death is divided, fractured. Not all deaths are kind and loving. Not all deaths are remembered or even found. If we all die alone, then some die much more alone than others…
Softly slips a loop of thread from his wrist. “I have a skein.”
A hand as wide as a car door accepts the loop – again, disturbingly precise when it comes to the invisible.
This thread is all about the snap. It only has one end. There is no beginning. And yet, it is frayed and disconnected…
“Not skein. Life.”
The Clutcher collapses its fist around the thread, and then nods and shambles to the side like an undertaker long ago lost to the business, yet proud to present his wares. And there is the path. This path wanders where all other paths cannot go. Or, perhaps, where those who create paths simply fear to tread…
They walk side by side; Fastness and Formlessness.
Occasionally, Softly tramples a toadstool or kicks a few leaves.
After a while, the scratch of a key – turned by the Clutcher’s tippy fingers, claws scissored – the key’s bit, a twisted maw of thorns.
They pass through and the Gate of Wild Bone dunks shut.
Softly acknowledges a sparkle of jealousy: who gave you such a fate? But that’s a question for long ages; other days. The key is dropped back on its black chain, to become, once more, withered skin.
Treading in waspish silence for a while.
Aeons of green moss and algae grow silently and secretly.
The mists are flat, blue and thin, like smoke from a frying pan.
In its centre, over there – artfully displayed – a parachutist hanging from a tree, leather harness brown and grown-through the sliding flesh, tilted skull laughing in fear; tattered silk draped over. The creak of fastenings imagined, though the air is still as pool water.
They wander on, Softly blowing some song-or-other under his breath. “If you wan’ it, yo gotta put a ring on it. Hu, hu, ho…”
Before long, a crumpled car, brown with rust, drifting with a miasma of engine oil and burned petrol. It’s crushed between huge forest boulders that remind of the bottom, bottom, bottom of a mountain crevasse; the road above a switchback switch-blade, and off into clean air…
How these sculptures are both here and not here – both displayed, and in their final positions of death – who can tell, but the forest is full of them; timeless exhibits of smell and texture, emotion and yes, even art. The deaths are spaced out through the trees, upon the soft, rolling terrain, where accident or murder can be encountered, pleasingly – to dramatic effect – just around the next corner.
Like lives of pretty prey.
Some deaths are ringed with stones or small twisted baskets of twig, or hung nearby with chimes; their shined fragments of bottle glass and long cords, dank and limp, hanging silent. Hard to imagine such fiddly things in the hand – or thought – of the Clutcher.
Sentimentals? Marking larder?
Surely eats from these provisioned platters? Tasty treats pulled soft and sticky out through a crushed, car door like a clam from a clam shell?
Softly’s guide continues on.
Next. Turned left when should have gone right. Young girl; party clothes. Black as frost.
They walk along through the garden, seeing every conceivable death of isolation: trapped, claustrophobic, crushed, pleading, dying for days, never found, never will be found.
All on display.
Why stinks of ‘remembrance’?
Limping to a halt, where the creature slows. At its muscular feet – toenails ragged – not a pine needle out of place, while Softly’s meagre trail has burned a rut of footprints.
Black violets grow here. There is not a lick of wind to cool Softly’s fevered brow, where even his long tongue couldn’t reach.
Rot. Decay. This, then, the bobbin, from which the thread has snapped.
Softly sidles up to the body, where it hangs, sickly, from its own web of bones. And notices the long wide cuts of raking claws, and the soft, sticky bites, where some thing has nipped, literally, at her heals, but has not yet taken a savoured bite.
Ants, flies, fungus, all mature the Clutcher’s collection (larder?) Fizzy and frothy. Other bodies lie in equally decorative states of decay. This one, Rowan, is staked up on fresh wooden spars.
“Nice,” says Softly.
As he reaches out to touch the caracass, there’s a growl. He swiftly withdraws the claw. The Clutcher can definitely see him…
More reasons to get that weaving.
Then gets you in your sleep.
“First,” says Softly, and there’s a rattle of damp-sounding metal, as he releases the bracelet from his wrist. He places the watch on a stump. It snaps into visibility, covered in its reams of Sellotape.
“That?” says Clutcher, looming over.
“Watch,” says Softly. “Digital watch,” he clarifies.
He can just about make out numbers, through the brown tape is now, smeary and smooth around the wrist like polished amber; his own blood like varnish.
“Time is always pressing.”
“Ah,” says Clutcher.
Already, Softly can feel his body pulling out of shape; something imponderable dragging at his movements and choices…
“As much as enjoy our little… dawdles, not be staying long this time.” Truth is, Softly had wasted almost three hours trying to find this particular time and place.
He points at the death. The eyelids of his host flicker like letters following a platform announcement.
“I need speak to it and find out how to save it… save woman… ah… save her.”
That apartment block of stares, all blinds open.
“Brought you gun. Killed Old Man. Remember?” In fact, Man here? Somewhere? Behind the next tree? Some two walls, and a few planks and on ‘em sprawled an old tangle of gristle?
But the Clutcher doesn’t respond. It still doesn’t look happy.
“Sleeps. Dreams. Ask.”
The whine of a mosquito. Softly scratches thin air, face squinted up like a crow beak.
“What saying? Dead don’t dream.”
But the creature is already shambling away, mist stroked into eddies.
“Said, dead don’t –“
What do you know? says the set of those swinging shoulders, the woad bull’s eyes of blue.
And the beast is gone.
October 3, 2011 15 Comments
Welcome to Part IV of my short serial ‘Black Door’. Previous parts of this story, are here:
IV: Softly, Bearing Gifts
r Softly splashes into a muddy plashy, and growls at himself. This is not how to sneak. Especially not up through this tall, pine hillside, that is barren and brown and smells of spicy pine oil, each twig a pistol shot.
The next hour is silence. Branches thrust up to his guts in crazy angles, but he squeezes on through the standing dead, as greased as the wind may be.
He chuckles. No clothes catch or drag, like flickering sails.
Instead, he holds the gun.
The gun is wrapped in layers of cloth – a shirt from the old man’s cabin – and the warm checks hold Softly’s delicate claws away from the blistering meteorite of cold iron.
He wonders once again, if such a gift from one of its own will turn the Clutcher to talking, or whether it’ll just eviscerate him where he stands.
Make no mistake, there’s no love lost between Softly and Clutcher, oh no, and what’s more to the bother, it seems – suspiciously – that the Clutcher can see Softly, perhaps as clear as day.
Clear as day: that most disreputable of solar events.
Softly sighs, and continues to drag that heavy old gun up the hill, arms straight, chest wheezing, as if, for all the world, he’s carrying Death itself. Which, he suspects, he may well be. Man, Softly, Clutcher, they all carry their deaths with them – death to share, death to give or take.
And he with a Clutcher to befriend, or at worst, threaten.
Who knows what might happen if this offensive weapon went off? Indeed, he may wonder for some time immemorial, for this gun is not loaded.
More’s the pity.
Still, threats and surprises. General bluffery and skulduggery, invisible claws slipping around the throats of…
A hillside, where the light has gone from the ground; these shaggy-tailed, dogs-of-pine scattering needles on his head and arms. His own, fragrant scent of musky animal, wet cat, gives way to flecks of resin and amber droplets, tacky like honey. Flies fizzing around his invisible crevices. The sun dropping like a splot of fat beyond the ridge, the moon opening up like white cartilage in the bloody sky.
‘Come, Softly,’ its says. ‘Bring your bleedin’ iron and let’s have at ya.’
“Softly, softly,” he mutters. Wouldn’t do to rush it. “Clutcher is as clutcher does.” And my, my what long, long, fingers it has, for whiskings yer eye-bobs out, and sucking a peeper like a popsy.
But softly, softly, for the man called Adam is most necessary.
“Oh, yes,” mutters Softly. Guns and graves and whispered stories needed, if a weavings to capture. A wonderful, wonderful, weavings to make more’n invisible than invisible. A shadow of horrors, without a shadow.
He slips past a branch, and more resin falls to invisible, upon the flesh he’d want as slough. But to do it, tricks and favours; eh, mah boy?And with that, finding the body; soft, and wet, hanging like a bony tent of flesh out here in the wilderness.
And guarding it?
Why, the Clutcher, like as not. Smell its spoor – like treacle, glands ripe – marked a branch right here with urine, oily as lamp oil.
A distance, yes, from cliff and the Black Door? “Complicated,” he hisses. But he wants the weavings, yes?
So does it.
But the Clutcher is unpredictable.
While Softly has lived most of his life on the outskirts of urban brick and cobbled ways – in the damp truckle of cellars and beer-swilled alleys, dragging and eating whatever limb may drop, half-cut between his jaws – not so the Clutcher. Wilderness fills it like a bag.
Ah, the limbs, Softly muses: often sweet-meat tainted by beer, wine or cider, or his favourite, Stout. People like pig? Not so that apple goes. No, Stout to a liking. That’s what’s best. But the malty, treacly treat is rarer these days.
Licks his lips.
And now, the ridge, and into the crator. Birds die. No light. No moon. A reek of death behind pine, like a sewer running foul beneath a shady, dappled street. Gun ridged up in cloth, claw to the useless trigger. Aye, the weight of it dragging on his steely soul; metal on metal.
Ask yer question, bugger off. That’s what he says to himself.
Crash of leaves!
… whisked off his feet and pinned six feet up a tree trunk, like a plank to a broadside.
September 22, 2011 15 Comments
Welcome to Part III of my short serial ‘Black Door’. If you want to read the previous parts of this story, they’re here:
f it happens, Adam knows about it. That’s just the way it is. Some people are ‘the news of the world’, but Adam’s more the ‘news of tomorrow’. And that’s not just because he runs a hostel.
You know the hostel? Down in the Grass Market? The one that used to be a refuge?
Back in the day it was the ‘West Port Night Refuge and Home for Deserving Men, Women and Children’ (or, if that’s a bit of a mouthful, it was often called ‘The Port of Providence’ to those in need). It was run by the Daughters of Charity and first opened for salvation in 1718. You can still see that date on the swan’s-wing pediment over the front door.
A lot’s happened since then.
Today, above those slightly austere, stone numbers, there’s a hand-painted sign in green whorls and brown, peeling paint. It might once have been merry, crafty and welcoming. Now it’s merely comfortable. The borders are stylised knotwork, the letters Celtic. Ten years that sign’s been there; long enough in Edinburgh’s toothy winters to see to the end of words and the beginning of illegibility. But look, that’s a ‘W’, and that’s an ‘E’, and you get the rest: World’s End Hostel.
‘World’s End’ is the name of a pub not too far away, but Adam liked the name so much, he decided to ‘adopt it’ for the hostel, turning the name, he said, into a district.
At least, that’s his justification.
In actual fact, cards on the table, that particular borrowing was Rowan. She made the sign, when Art College was a reality and travel was still for pleasure. And when you look at it, there’s an amazing elegance to the slap-dashery of it; if the whole thing wasn’t quite so distressed.
Truth is, Adam probably should’ve chucked that sign out years ago. Said he would a hundred times. Still hasn’t. And there’s still paint everywhere.
So, once the hostel was a refuge.
Kind of still is. Now the hall, leading in through the tall, Georgian façade, is covered in posters for Polish theatre, and there’s a life-size wooden monkey at the door.
Yeah, I know, most people look twice.
At first glance, it’s a grotesquery of mid-colonial, plantation art, but it’s holding a sawn-off shotgun. The paint’s peeling, but that monkey does have a certain look in its eyes. That ain’t a bird-scaring banana in its paws.
To the left of the monkey, an art space. Although it’s small – more of a shop window from outside – it does host the occasional flamboyant revival of healing art, aura photography, and automatic writing from psychic dabblers. And then there are the special exhibitions of the downright weird (if those weren’t weird enough): paintings, or photographs, from all around the world, some out of time or place. Travellers bring them. It’s easy to miss it from the street, but the hand-labelled names are kind of funky: ‘Sasquatch at Dawn’?
Except, that is a photo of some guy in a monkey-suit drinking from a Canadian lake; could almost be a dog standing upright.
I love that photo.
To the right, a café.
Well, when I say café: more somebody’s living room. It’s strewn with battered-down furniture from the eighteen hundreds, parachuted and covered in Indian throws. Sit down and they’ll swallow you whole. Put your hand down the back of the frayed leather, and you’ll find a sediment of crumbs left by Arthur Conan Doyle or Dr. Joseph Bell, and a silvery seam of a sixpence. The smell of patchouli fills the air. Then there’s the time-polished tables from a brewery, cut out of barrel-tops; cups, hand-thrown and wobbly, glossy and matte – made out of snakes; a tea urn from a car plant that closed down years ago (more reliant than Reliant); and the moistest, densest, black-hole-chocolate-walnut cake you’ve ever had. Sticks to your teeth; crumbs up the wazoo. But, hey, some folk have travelled halfway round the globe for it.
Help yourself and put the money in the tin.
The café, ‘The Smaug’ – that’s what you get when a Tolkein aficionado misreads ‘The Snug’ (I know, hostel humour) – is always busy with travelling folk, and with others who stop by whenever they’re in Edinburgh. Stand out on the West Port and you could see them in there right now, though you’d have to peer through the crawling jungle of cheese plants and yucca that are steaming up the windows, tuning the light inside to the exact, forest-green of Venezuela.
Mood lighting, the way we like it.
If you’re more of the pin-stripe-mugger variety, and like your Mocha-Latte with hand-tweaked sheep’s cream on the side, and an al-dente pinafores biscuit, then you know ‘the type’ who frequent this place: they’re ‘crusties’, hippies, ‘travelling folk’, Indies, Emos, bikers, students, and honest-to-god ‘weirdos’.
And those are just the ones you know about.
But if you’re any one of that breathy brethren, then you got here by travelling in every conceivable meaning of the word, and I love you all.
And Adam was here to great each and every one of you, because he knew you were coming.
He’s the perfect host.
We don’t even have a brass bell.
He’s standing at the door right now, shirt sleeves rolled up, watching the rain pee down. Alas, we’re well past the warm, wet smell of virgin pavement from the first few drops. In fact, this being Scotland, we cut straight to the downpour and drainage of an incontinent horse. But if you stand just to the left of the splattering water from the broken down-pipe, there’s plenty of dry space in the portico, monkey-and-gun not withstanding.
Adam’s back on the rollies.
He quit yesterday.
I guess he knew he’d re-start again today. You can smell peaches – his specialist rolling tobacco frustling as he draws in with a tight whistle and blows out, thin-lipped.
Got a black mood rolling, despite the eclectic crowd.
Humidity is five hundred percent in the Smaug – you can feel it boiling down the hall – and there’s a load of American writers, comedians and musicians in there. It’s Festival time, which transforms ‘The End’ into its own punked-out, carnival-venue of crazy. Glee, shouting, banging floors, music unplugged, folk jumping down five steps at a time. You can hardly get in over bikes and rucksacks in the hallway – downed traveller’s tools, for those with that eclectic heart-bone in their bodies. Right now, the World’s End is so rammed, you need a gorilla on a broom-handle to push ‘em back in.
Long live health and safety.
But that’s not it. Adam loves all those high spirits, even if he does sometimes wish those travelling boots were on the other foot.
And that’s the third time he’s looked at his watch in as many minutes; a watch that’s not on his wrist. He doesn’t even need a watch.
Why doubt himself now?
I guess he’s looking for a shit-kicking, punch-in-the-face argument. In other words, he’s looking out for another body through the misty downpour; a ‘certain someone’ who’s not here yet.
Man, he looks depressed. It’s hardly ten am and he’s already done one terrible thing – and one beautiful thing – today, all at the same time, and he’s made a deal with something that wasn’t there, just because he knew he did.
And he’s got a funeral to sort out.
Ever stop to wonder that foresight can kinda kick-in-the-teeth of free will?
If you know in advance?
But what do I know about it? I’m just a gun-toting monkey with walnut for brains.
September 10, 2011 15 Comments