by Lisa MoonCat Stormler
Thunder Rolls and shakes the roof.
I cried out to the Goddess,
Trust Is So Hard!
I'll carry you anyway.
I saw her silhouette.
Giant Spider crouching over my house.
Your tears are my worship.
Your body has been my temple.
You are me as much as I am You.
by daishin stephenson
i sipped coffee and looked out a window. a crow lay in the yard under the white oak.
hours passed, the crow had not moved.
i approached the bird. blood oozed from its nostril, its leg bent at the knee in a direction it should not. i picked it up, carried it inside.
i placed the bird on a floor pillow. beside the pillow, a bowl of water.
we spent the afternoon there on the floor.
the crow died on the pillow. i felt loss, sadness. death is commonplace, part of the cycle. i sometimes forget that and it is good to be reminded.
this is what happens when you invite something wild into your home.
by Bart Lessard
Stood up at the brink, mid-piddle, Jean fils first heard the voice. The pit at his feet was long disused and seldom for a privy-hole—older than the gaol tower, older even than the stronghold the tower once had been, a keep looming five hundred years on Le Marais. Jean fils kept a shorter count, of fifteen, second son, new apprentice. Not yet noontime, so he was in his cups but no peril of a slip. Bottomless, he thought, not to report a splash. Words rang up instead, a whisper made loud in the dungeon throat.
“Keep your gifts.”
A clench cut the stream. No depth showed past a yard or two. For all the fright he doubted his ears. There was enough light from the brackets atop the stair, just, to see the rim where he stood, the curve opposite. Bars had rusted back to rock. A dry bleed hung from the nubs, stains of red iron shown inside the well as a deeper thread of black. Air sank with no more pull than a sleeper’s breath. Jean fils chose to leave the trick unheard. But the thought brought him back, sober as Robespierre, early the next day.
“Is someone there?”
“So it seems.” Below, from a void. Much was lost in the echo—gender, age, register.
“Did you fall? Who are you?”
“Bring the torch for a look.” No torches were hung, only lamps, and had not been for an age. But torch or none Jean fils knew better. He came back two days after, in a thorough souse and underslept. “Find a corner,” said the voice, “when you must.”
“Who are you?”
“What could I say? I’m a prisoner.”
“No one is put to the oubliette, not anymore.”
“Pretty word. But it wants for rhyme. Hole, now that’s easy.”
“You’re trifling with me.” Jean fils sat. “Might I bring you anything?”
“A rope?” Jean fils sought a polite refusal, at least until he could work out the prank, but the voice went on. “Never worry, lad. I don’t have a climb in me, nor the arm or leg to set to work. Hunger, thirst, wanton care, it’s all far behind.”
Jean fils found the mind to break away, rush up the stair. In turn the sun found him, and he let the cold thaw from his face.
* * *
Jean pere, bourreau, had a talk as well, in a warm and cosy cell above. This with his upcoming task, Mme. Orlande. She felt only sympathy—the off-cock of his wig, the ache of his gout, his use of late. Tremors left it difficult for him to pour. A tress of white in black hair was her only take from those same times, that murderous sweep, her dears among them. Her face wore not one fraught line and gave no hint of trouble. “Coffee?” she asked. The gaoler had brought this with viands paid from her allowance.
“By custom I do not visit,” Delongval said. “But most prisoners are men, and men have a need to outshine the circumstance.”
That was tact, Manon knew, though tact at what only a man could say. “There’s another here, is there not? Another woman in the tower?”
“Ah. The Capet widow. Or you might say the enemy.”
“Widow shall do. My husband was the republican, not I.” In public that was—Manon had been no less a schemer, in truth far more. That she now faced a turn under a trumped-up charge, committee housekeeping, was only funny. The message in gaoling her among the Bourbons could be no less clear. “Is she comfortable?”
“No less so than you. Though nobody could take me for a royalist. You should see what their dynasty used to make us wear.” She conceded it: stepping up to lop a head he had played buffoon. “I must say,” he said, “it gladdens me to see you so composed.”
“Shouldn’t I be?”
“Brave is the better word.”
Funnier yet. No change to a pleasant face, tone, bearing: “I demand the sword.”
The stare of an old man held no judgment. He only doubted his understanding, she saw. “Sword, Madame?” She met the eye, waited. “Are you suggesting,” to a lapse. He tried a smile. “I think you must be,” to another. No cue came, no reassurances. “Making jest?” A last pause, and she said it to him again in just the same way. “You want me to execute the warrant with—and not the, the device.” She took a sip. “Why would you ask it, in God’s name? It’s mercy. The device is a mercy.”
“Oh yes,” she said. “I’ve seen it up close, the whole affair. The drum, the cheer. The claim shown up from the basket. Little more than a gush of color at the fall of the blade. No fusses at all, save the crowd. As methods go,” another sip, “it primps up a slaughter.”
He thought on it—an easy read—on why she would make it hard for him. “There are no choices,” he said. “For you, me. You hold a title, or did. The privilege to demand, when other means were worse, much worse—that was history. And that has changed.”
“Of course. Did you know they mean to swap out the calendar as well? This will no longer be a Thursday. Nor September, a year of the Lord. Next it will be for weights and measures. Tens in tens in tens, very neat, and that’s likely for the best. But days? It’s not yet ratified. I don’t know what the terms shall be. Thursday will carry us for now.”
“Today is a Wednesday.”
“Time moves so differently in here.”
The frown gave to a shrug. “It shouldn’t surprise me so. The very church is set aside, for—what do they call it—a cult of reason. I know what the committee will allow. I bear no ill wish for you, nor for anyone in my charge. And I’m sorry to frustrate your aims, but not to thwart my own. These,” hands rising up to sway, the tremor plain, “are not so handsome anymore.” The smile was no less faltering than the pun—again, simple tact.
Manon said, “We shall see. Sugar?”
* * *
“Have you come to damn me?”
There was a scrape below the well—a short laugh. “You’ve been telling tales, lad, and to yourself. ‘Come, damn.’ You came. I never asked you here. And I have no reach at all.”
Jean fils had brought a bottle from his father’s store, strong brandy meant for guests. Visits to the Delongval home had fallen off of late. The pilferage would go unnoticed. “How better to explain a voice in the dark?”
“Voice, dark. Done.”
“I can’t say whether you’re man or woman.”
“Nor I. How unnatural. Bring a priest if you please. Too late for the rites, though.”
“You admit to being a ghost.”
“A ghost could never say. But that’s good explanation. Of how it never ends.”
“Do you remember anything?”
“Voice. Dark. Done.” Again the scrape.
“Anything of a life before.”
“I must have learned to speak, for I speak; and I know the outside world or do from other times. No doubt the skin on things has changed. But no—or rather nothing that follows, nothing that tells, if you take my meaning. I do have one picture, and vivid but of what, I don’t know. There was a gibbet, not far off from here, I think—a brickwork, and big, some twenty-four feet high in a square twice as broad. Each side had three rows of five arches, better than a fathom tall to display the hanged. At all times there were bodies in it ripening—ever a full house—and black birds came in a gyre, heckling at each other, and at those who had come to see.” Jean fils knew at once what this meant, and the thought was curdling. Razed half a century before, after it stood for five—the same frame of time as the gaol tower. His father had told him of the demolition, and of how it marked progress for their lot. Jean fils dared not confirm the reality, nor speak at first. But the voice said, “Why have you come to such a place? Bowls on the grass, chasing petticoats—those are a young man’s fare.”
Jean fils drained the bottle. “It’s only right I should be at the Temple. I’m apprenticed to the family trade. An apprentice headsman.”
“Oh—family. And headsman. Do tell. Perhaps I’ve met your father.”
“I share his name.”
“First born then?”
“No. But seven generations of Delongvals have served for bourreau.”
“Shouldn’t you be out in the yard, practicing a swing?”
“Thank Heavens no. There’s little more to it now than the pull of a lever. I mean the, the act. The role itself, that has more variety. We’re responsible for the welfare of the convicts and to keep the grounds and staff. We give out unclaimed bodies to hospitals. There is paperwork,” he said wistfully. “The trade is not like it used to be.”
“And how was it?”
“Oh—one hardly wants—it was all so grisly.”
“There’s no offending here. Would I felt a horror—live gooseflesh, up in a prickle.”
Jean fils did. “Courts order punishments besides death. And in days past these were severe. The basest of tortures.” He crossed himself. “Even killings came with extras—few but nobles could go gently. It was not so long ago that the wheel was hoisted up with a victim in the spokes. Breaking and braiding—it outstrips the suffering of Christ. The first Delongval in the role, two hundred years ago, he did that. Even the last king, dullard that he was, had the sense and decency to ban it. The past is all brutality. Men had their hands cut off right before the noose, against all reason. Drawing, quartering. Women burnt alive. The garrote, the saw, God save us.”
“But now it is easier. Not so brutal. For the headsman.”
“Much so, yes—for all involved. Torture is abolished. Almost.”
“Yet I hear reluctance, lad. You don’t much like it—this novelty, the lever pull.”
A silence. “It’s a strange breed of devil,” said the voice, “who damns without the heart.”
Now Jean fils lent the pause. “I’m no such thing. Nor my father. Nor his.”
“Just so,” said the voice. “The job took a hire, and hell a mason’s trowel. But make no mistake. Some of you do love the part. Maybe your ancestor, with that wheel of his.”
“I couldn’t deny it. In its service we stand outside the law. Such disrepute—it’s only fit. The Delongvals were knacker men, and still were until but recently, when the pay got better. Headsmen wore a mask. My father never did, or any other Delongval. He took care to raise his place in public. They call him the gentleman of the city, and some day they might me. Under the regime he kept a library, a grand botanical collection, curiosities. He was known for a command of history, and he looked to science. There were dinners for luminaries. He knew Voltaire, Rousseau ... not at the same time.”
“I do not. Who?”
“Two heroes of the Enlightenment. Though not the best of friends.”
“Luminary, enlighten—that’s little help. What light could help but light? Cunning men, I take it. Like a priesthood. Some read the planets where others try the gospels. And some can dole out futures from a length of gut. What sort of science is his?”
“My father? Medicine. Anatomy.”
“What is anatomy?”
Jean fils thought, shrugged. “A length of gut.”
“How did your older brother die?”
This was startling. “I never—you—you can see—?”
“Simple heed is no art, dark or otherwise. You’re apprenticed only of late, and before that you were a scribe. The work is detestable to you. Wine helps you flee it, and whatever places wine might be kept. You came down for a sour cask. It’s no great leap.”
The repulsion had never let up, speak as the voice might, and at truth. Jean fils stood. “You deceive me.”
“I have no wish to fool you, lad. Nor the need.”
“Your stories, that, that you looked upon the Gibbet of Montfaucon, it’s all—”
“Upon? I never said upon.”
“Only a moment ago—”
“I looked from it.”
Jean fils was stopped cold. “You were hanged?”
“Many times. Many times.”
Stammer held in check, nonsense was put aside to address nonsense. “How could you have been hanged, if put, put to here?”
“Put. Dear lad—the words you choose. Oubliette, you said before. To forget and be forgotten. No. This outlook—this line on you from below—it is but one more.”
“Stop!” Jean fils kept watch on the dark. A long moment passed. His breath came back. “Whatever it is you want, whatever you would have of me,” leaving off.
To no answer.
“You deceive,” Jean fils said again, and again leaving off.
Again, to none.
Jean fils stared into the oubliette, or its shallows. A dread overcame him, at what he could not say. But he went to the top of the stair to snatch up an oil lamp. Trembling, he brought the glow back down and to the edge. Held out at arm’s length, the light gave the drop another two fathoms, a worn and leaching brick much like the first. Darkness sank the air, a weakest pull, but never with a stop. Within its cage the wick did not gutter. The grip came open, and Jean fils let the flame drop.
Gone deep, a band of light sped along the stones. His breath ran ahead of it. But the shaft broke away—a rough lip of block—and the light found the void underneath. Nothing—no gleam or outline in a black surround. Mantle flame became a star, white and faint, and with no sound of any kind, save his fearful gasp, the star winked out.
* * *
Jean pere came back to Manon’s cell one day early, and in a state. He had said he would not, shown out with apology for the next circumstance. But she had strongly suspected he would return. The gaoler left them again, the oaken door pulled to. In his right hand Jean pere worried at a leaf of parchment. She knew just how it read beneath the seal.
“How can this be?”
“Would you like a chair, Citizen Delongval?”
“Please. Do sit. The Montagnards suspected I was a danger to them. And they were right, though not for the right reason, and not by half.” She told the rest.
“You?” Jean pere was not well versed in the machineries of change, but he knew this well enough. “All those tracts were written by a, a housewife?”
“Better said a writer kept house.” Her smile was only genuine. She did not savor revenge. “My husband, it was his idea—not to keep his lady-wife safe, but because even now prejudice abounds. The poor man—an economist, fond of maths. The prosecution never thought it strange, argument coming from so mild a person, so bookish. But then I never took the interest either. Until the need arose politics were a dullard’s stuff.”
“Monsieur Orlande—he was innocent? And you never came forward?”
“As agreed. Much was at stake. Even Maxim would see it. And Maxim is a foe.”
“I put an innocent to—your husband—a capital charge. Blood is on your hands.” She laughed, and he stared on, thoroughly appalled. “My husband, sir, he was far from your first part at injustice. But never mind that. It’s a year since the massacres—a busy year, and worse to come. The times are awash. On my hands? It’s in my teeth, and yours. We swallow it down, breathe it in, a fog of blood.”
He took a moment. “The Gironde were against those killings—your pamphlets.”
“Not enough. Thieves, rogues, banknote forgers—none could defend them wholeheartedly. Yet they were no threat to the new body. Political prisoners did stand among them, yes, but in the minority. All were caught up, reckless killing, a heap for an altar. In moderation we looked the other way. Moderation,” she said again after a pause, as if alone. “My husband had esteem of Newton. What moves moves more than itself, and unmet a motion never stops. But there’s more here than simple nature. A crowd is a natural force, true, but a force with a thirst, an appetite.”
He regarded her. “You astonish me. A gentlewoman. Tracts, and so bilious.”
“You prove our point, Citizen.”
“But what has this to do with—how could you make the committee—”
“Through blackmail of course. They never knew whom they had in custody. The charge made against me is only false.”
“And given what you saw fit to publish they’d only be glad to learn—”
“Think more on what I have yet to.”
“I was a society woman before I became an enemy of the state. And so I have friends. What motivates them is not political—far from it. The National Convention read the terms in a letter, terms that await the outcome in the square. The papers I left in safekeeping shall go to the press or to blazes.”
“Sedition,” Jean pere said.
“The fucking Montagnards can drum me out.”
Shocked at her oath, he flinched away, took a moment. “But you might call off the sentence.” He looked back, the hopes plain—hopes that he might yet be spared a hands- on chore. “You hold advantage. Ransom to be paid—bargains to be struck.”
Manon let her smile fall away, not for disgust, only weariness that he could not be made to see. She could have told him the full truth—that it was a ploy. No last tract, only a friend, a piteous request. Delongval’s report would have made no difference, not in the times. Semblance of threat was threat enough. But unlike the men of the committee, Manon had no bottom left. False hopes—what taunt, what insult, could be more cruel.
“I demand the sword.”
* * *
Evening drink was morning venom, and two days’ bender a damnation upon the third. Father’s valet had come to rouse Jean fils from his bedchambers, skies yet dark. Without success, whiffs of puke caught up in his velvet clothes, he brought back regrets. Jean pere went down in person with a stick. “Up, wastrel,” he shouted at the pile, with a thwack. “Up, I say, up. You disgrace your name!”
Weak beneath the blankets, the laugh was a surprise.
“Damn you, there’s business this morning.” Jean fils heard the name of a widow— harmless, bereaved—frightfully spoken. “All the city shall be in the square, boy. She’s the last Gironde. Take a draught of your dog’s hair, wash your face, and off we go.”
“It’s something the English say. Shut up. To work.”
Morning carriage rides to the square often ran tense. This was worse. Jean pere studied the Rue de Bretagne, the open market, factors setting up in first light. The headsman’s coach and four took uneasy glances, happy as the rabble were for the spectacle to come. Superstition—thumbs to be bitten, hails and paternosters to be said.
Jean fils read the distraction as he often did. But that morning his father’s disappointment was no matter. He swallowed back the acid in his mouth. “The Temple will collapse,” he said. “And soon.”
“The Temple, father. The gaol has been undermined—a hollow space. The weight will cave the floors, bring the tower down.”
“What is this prattle? Hollow space?”
“Lives are at stake—the gaoler, those on staff, those confined above. Even the innocent. Stones falling on a busy street.”
In no rush Jean pere turned to face his only son. The voice was almost gentle. “And how came this,” pause, “news? Some taproom dream?”
Reluctant as the mention was, the very thought: “I looked into the oubliette.”
Hint of more played upon the face, but what Jean pere said was, “There is no oubliette at the Temple.”
“‘Nor anywhere. Little oblivion—it’s a wives’ tale. The pit you mean, I know it—a cistern, from long ago, for storing winter ice. People make too much of these holes, all for where they’re found—low quarters in the worst places, and the very oldest. Ice houses, empty caches, one and all. The reality is simple, dull. ‘Worst’—that’s the Temple nowadays. When the pit was dug the fort was different. The knights kept no prison. They were bankers, in truth—tedious, ledger-scratching issuers of credit. And usury aside no banker ever took up the iron or the rack. Gaol is an ugly business, set apart, hid into a moldy pile. Nobody was ever thrown into the oubliette, as you call it. Nobody is there.”
The last struck an off note. The father had looked away.
“Name it as you like,” said Jean fils. “The bottom has fallen out.”
Neither had another thing to say—not before the scaffold.
* * *
Manon Orlande, so fearless with a quill, rode the tumbrel petrified. She did so alone—no other prisoners had been brought out, and two gendarmes kept apace on horseback. She clung to the fore rail as if swept up and borne downstream. But as the gates swung wide her stance was yet upright, her eye unwavering for those who turned to look. Just outside the tower walls the crowd was sparse—bystanders, mostly, and dispassionate— and among them she saw her friend from the salon. Tears on a chin held high, hat to breast, all the dignity he could muster up. Heartened at that farewell, thought of the committee came too late. Her attention had led two plain coats and they closed to seize him. She cried out, said his name—too late, again, seeing that this would be read out in testimony. A knee gave, strength gone, but a desperate stare back through the passersby showed that he had broken free. Running quick, faster than the spies, whose hue and cry went ignored. The sans-culottes and Cordeliers would be at the killing ground—no enthusiasts to lend the state a hand. That was her friend’s reprieve. He vanished well ahead, and they held up his hat and coat where he had shed them, let fall. The outcome let her stand up tall again, though little color returned to her face.
* * *
“Why is the device under wraps?”
So Jean fils had asked on arrival. The crowds, too, were only bemused to see the shroud. Changes to the docket, all names struck off but one, had thwarted those selling programs, and their discontent had spread. In the mutter, attention fell to what had been set up to one side of the scaffold. And so did Jean fils’ eye.
“What is this?”
Where the block had been kept the past year was unknown, but all the years before were scored into the groove atop. To say that each notch was a death would be too sure of mortal aim, and the notches were many. Oak had long gone tarry, the stain soaked in deep. Charles, the older brother, so dextrous with a stroke, had been the last to use it, but only twice. An axe had been more commonplace, more so yet the rope. Charles’ mark in the hash stood out clearest.
There were cheers for the Delongvals on stepping from the coach, better said for the show, but not so robust as usual. Since the history lesson Jean pere had not looked to his son, nor had another word to say. The assistants were in place, and two tables, one for the executioners, one for the agent of the court. An assistant held Charles’ sword in an oilcloth—his, for he had been the last to swing it true.
Jean pere had not held the sword for many years. Only after Charles’ death had the old man had come back into practice, from a role of oversight. By then what crowds had named the louisette, and more lately the guillotine, had become the standard use. The blade came out from the bag for inspection. A headsman’s sword was a heavy tool, but not so long as a weapon of war—the span and haft together were a yard and three, and the haft was built long for a double-hand grip. No tip, only a rounded end, and no crosspiece save a square bar. To secure a hold the pommel was as fat as a pear-fruit.
The crowd was displeased to see the sword come out—this museum piece, legacy of backward times—and those in front began to shout. Jean fils had no ear for what they said, straightforward though it was. He had seen his father’s arm shake at the weight.
Jean pere looked to him. “Wipe off the fat,” he said, “and sharpen it.”
* * *
Toppled Throne, they called the square now. Manon had been there in another world, walking along toll wall gardens on her husband’s arm. Say what you might about the revolution, she said to herself—the last joke she would tell—it did hew to a theme.
Until that approach the way had been uneventful. For a slow half hour the city made a lane. But as the tumbrel came into sight in the square a roar went up among the crowd, angrier than the usual. Part of the public theater was the show of outrage. Breaking through the cordons, sans-culottes rushed the cart. Sabers high, the escort plowed them down with horse. Comrades helped the wounded back into the masses. The volume was piercing, and Manon looked ahead as the refuse began to land. Wadded programs, glancing off the gendarmes more than the victim. Ahead she saw the device wrapped up. Had her friend been caught someone would come out to shuck off the tarpaulin. Reassuring thought, but then she saw the team up on the scaffold, and the block, the basket. Courage was her intent—this grisly means of protest aside—but her body gave and piss spread beneath the execution frock. May they not see, she prayed.
Delongval kept his eye from hers, but he glanced her way and saw her state. His son stood aside him, a gracile boy in black coat with eyes like a forest doe. She could not hear what Delongval said to the assistants, but his mouth spelled it out to her—nobody cut her hair? The upbraiding showed her this was a grievous oversight. Two gendarmes were leading her up the last stair, a hand firm at each arm, and then she was on the stage. She looked to the crowd. To the device. The cloth stayed up. Block, basket. Rage had fallen to a grumbling, now and then punctuated with a shout.
Delongval was directing his son. With reluctance the boy took up a knife from the tools arrayed on the executioner’s table. Laid among them, Manon saw, something was covered up with a velvet cloth, and she knew this would be the sword. The boy looked to her as he approached, shy apology. But he was at her back, and she felt her hair taken up, pulled into a sheaf. The weight fell away. Cold air worried at her nape. In a last clear voice, Manon told herself the resolve all along: let murder resemble murder. But the time come due and the thought were not the same.
* * *
“What are you doing?” The voice was close in the crowd. “Put her in the razor!” Others took up the chant, and soon the square spoke with a vehemence. Razor, razor, razor—one of the many pet names for the device.
Jean fils looked to the reap in his hand. Hair black, clean, brushed, and long, with a single white tress wound through. No thought came of where to set it down, save where not. A hand had gone up among the catcalls, another, to claim the relic. He stared down the offenders, no check on his disgust—his sole brave act. So distracted he did not see Mme. Orlande led up to the table of the court, to hear charges read out, and the sentence. The writ was shown up with signature and seal. A plume wagged to parchment as the secretary jotted down all that was told. Absently he put the knife into his coat.
Mme. Orlande was asked if she had a thing to say. That was unusual. Proceedings were usually quick—no oratories, no chances at martyrdom, only the crisp function of the state. Jean fils looked back to see the last of the exchange. The officer was glancing to the device to lead her eye. An invitation—a plea.
Mme. Orlande looked away, to her feet. At his own, Jean fils saw that he had let the hair fall away. The lock had scatted between his boots, disintergrating in a breeze. She was led to the block with a shuffling foot. Manacles were put to her wrists, cord of hemp fed through an eyelet bolted into the scaffold on either side. His father had stepped close to her, and he spoke into her ear. She gave a curt nod, and he set a hand to her breast, the other to her waist. The assistants took up the slack. Mme. Orlande knelt, gasping for a breath with outstretched arms, eyes wide, and Jean pere gently led her head down to the saddle on the block. His hand went to her shoulder for reassurance. Her breath heaved, and she fought tears.
A commotion—three sans-culottes had broken through. Mounting the scaffold, they were at the device, pulling at the shroud. The chant strengthened. Razor, razor. Gendarmes stormed the platform and the trespassers leapt from the bayonets, reassumed into the crowd. The officer had stood up, hands high. None paid heed.
“Disgrace,” Jean fils heard somebody say. His father looked to him, cue enough, and Jean fils went to take up the sword from the array of tools.
* * *
Manon could not see past the basket, the boards underneath, right before her eyes. She had not seen a drummer on coming up, who would roll before the order. There would be no signal. A saner mind would have reflected on the chant. It was not for mercy. The sans-culottes were furious at her special treatment. It was they who had insisted on the persecution of the Gironde, they who had ensured her death. But no thought led her anywhere past the basket and the bare neck.
* * *
Jean pere took a stance—one not taken for fifteen years. He hefted the sword, and once again Jean fils saw how unsteady it was in the grip. An October day, cool but sweltering. He watched his father’s face, the grimace. But as the blade went up, to a waver, the resolve died, and the face went ashen. He looked to his son until his son stepped close.
Beneath jeers, unrest, Jean fils heard what he had feared he might.
“Son, you must.”
Known or not, the horror was no less. “I’ve never even held a weapon.”
“You must,” and again. “Swing true. Never—.” No more.
Jean fils took the hilt into his hands.
His father stepped back. He managed to say, “Swift, true. Never let her—.”
* * *
Manon knew when the crowd fell quiet, drawing one breath. She shut her eyes. But at a great clap the world broke to agony, and she did not die. Blind, half deaf, lit up like a pyre, she began
* * *
to shriek, the stroke yet rung into his hands. Her skull was broken, the scalp laid open to bone, and blood welled up full compass and ran down the block. Her arms hauled against the rope. Her legs writhed and kicked the scaffold. The slippers came free, and her bare feet scrabbled for a hold. She screamed a breath dry to a croak, screamed on the draw of air, screamed with a moaning retching anguish.
Dead silence in the crowd, all eyes clear. And the public shout changed.
Tears were blinding Jean fils. He looked to his father, who had turned away. The assistants, the gendarmes, representatives of the court—none could bear to watch. He looked back to what he had done. Raising up the sword again, it clattered from his grip. His father started at the sound, hands in fists, bowing his head in a cringe.
No, said the crowd. Stop.
Jean fils took up the blade again. The hilt was slick. Her blood had misted his face and clothes. He swung again, desperately, and the hold slipped. A glancing strike, another cut through living bone. The screaming stopped on a choke, then went on.
No more. No.
The sword had bounced off the block and come down near the platform edge. Jean fils went after it and glanced to the crowd. They, too, wept, even those who had reached for the trophy, but something built underneath, Jean fils in its sights.
“Son,” his father was saying. “Son, quickly now, for the love of God.”
Jean fils took the hewing stance again. This time he got the blade through the bones of her spine and most of her pale neck. The scream quit, but a horrendous spitting gargle took its place. The blade was wedged in the oak and had bent. Arteries beat a twin arc, and a froth churned up in the wound. Jean fils planted a boot sole to the block. He yanked the sword free, almost fell, took the stance once more, and at last he had claimed the head. It fell into the basket, the blood-sodden lining, without a thump.
What came next was seen from a remove. The crowd surged up, consumed the line of gendarmes, and washed onto the scaffold. The rage was elemental, confined to no one man or woman or child. Jean fils saw the device tilt, fall, hundreds clambering up, and the gendarmes on the scaffold opened fire. The officer of the court and the secretary huddled behind them, white with terror, and Jean fils felt a hard shove. Stumbling to the one defended position, he heard his father’s shout—not my boy, the fault is mine—and he turned to a last glimpse, his father seized up from all directions, head and limbs cruelly pulled, clothes torn away, taken into the teeming body.
* * *
How he got back to the gaol tower was uncertain. Once Jean fils, now only Jean, and not even truly that, his coat and breeches were torn, a stink of gunpowder in his hair, face, throat, and hands freckled in blood. The red stain was on the collar of his shirt, and the whites of his eyes were no less shot. The gates opened for him, and the escort of three gendarmes broke off once he was safe. Smoke was rising to the southeast, a crackle of musket fire. Near streets had emptied out, the marketplace strangely empty, all goods heaped up on the countertops, undefended from a riot on the crawl.
The gate closed behind Jean. For all the quiet in the neighborhood guards were watchful on the rampart. Straight into the dark, no hesitation—Jean knew his task.
“Your doing,” he said into the pit.
No reply, no sound at all save the return of his own voice. But the other had no means not to hear him, no hand to stop an ear.
Jean reached into his coat, for the knife that cut the hair.
“Your doing,” he said again. “Your blame.”
No reply. But neither fear. Jean leapt.
The cellars flew away, and pale lamplight, to whatever lay beneath. Stonework shot past, seen, unseen, his breath echoing on damp brick, and the plummet batted at his hair. Then there was the dark—true dark, fluid and unseeable. No echo, no sound of any kind. Jean could not hear his breath, his heartbeat, the pulse in his ear. He felt his hair settle down and spread afloat, and he was buoyant. There was neither warmth nor a chill. But the knife was ready for whatever came forth, and he felt nothing but the hold.
Nothing did come, could come—nowhere to go, no up, down, inside, out. The voice spoke, and it was the voice of the dark itself, undirected, primal, rising like a thought.
“Poor lad,” it said—a woman’s voice, and kind. “Never cast your lot in here.”
Thrown, spun, like a chain shot. Jean cried out for the speed, the reel, clenching shut his eyes. He felt a mild rap along his back, and on looking where he lay saw the cellar floors, the selfsame spot where he had stood for the leap. At one outstretched hand was the rim of the pit. The other was empty—the knife had been taken away. In years ahead the gaol tower was demolished, each stone chiseled from the next. Whether hell or keepsake in man’s design, the oubliette was choked off with rubble, overlaid with garden dirt. Grasses were sown, and flowers kept in bloom for those out on a walk.
LOVE AND COLONISATION: How the UK Government Abused My Wife, My Friend and Me — and We’re the Lucky Ones
by Greum Stevenson
I’m writing this in the dark, early in the morning, in my flat in Maryhill, Glasgow. It’ll still be dark at 7 a.m., when the polling station opens, and I’ll go there to vote in the general election. I could go later, but I don’t want to wait, because, for me, this election is as personal as it is political.
I’m going to vote SNP, and I’ll probably be in the majority of Scottish people. But, whatever way we vote, it’ll make little difference, because we are a colonised country.
This is something I’ve long known, but I’ve only felt the effects of it in the last couple years.
Tomorrow, my closest friend will have to leave Scotland, where he owns two homes, for six months. Technically, he can return for six months after that, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be allowed to.
Michael Batty is American, and is financially independent. He was living in Portland, Oregon, when Donald Trump was elected President. Feeling that he couldn’t justify living in, and financially contributing to, a country that would elect Trump, he immediately sold his house and left. He decided to move to Scotland, as he has friends here. He loved it here, and bought a flat in Glasgow and a house in the countryside. I had decided to start a publishing company, Dockyard Press, and Michael offered to invest in it. He applied to the Home Office for a residency visa.
He wasn’t asking for a work permit; he doesn’t need a job. Instead, by investing in Dockyard Press, he was creating Scottish jobs, as well as publication opportunities for Scottish authors. All he was asking was to be allowed to occupy physical space and contribute to the economy.
But there was no visa category he fit into. He’s a novelist, under the pen name Bart Lessard, so he considered applying for a visa that would let him live here as an artist, not doing any work that a British citizen could do… but such visas are issued sparingly, and the recipients are required to have won major mainstream awards (such as a National Book Award if you’re an author, or a Grammy if you’re a musician), and — because Scotland is a colonised country — the decision is made by the English Arts Council, not Creative Scotland.
Michael decided to apply for an entrepreneur’s visa, based on his investment in Dockyard Press. But, to qualify for that, you have to apply for British loans, which he didn’t need or want. He wanted to contribute money, not borrow it.
The MP I’m about to vote for is Patrick Grady, the SNP’s whip in Westminster. When Michael went to his surgery in Glasgow to ask for his help, Mr. Grady began by saying, “First of all, you’re welcome here. Scotland needs immigrants. The trouble you’re having isn’t Scotland’s doing. It’s England’s.” Mr. Grady wrote letters of support, and raised Michael’s case in Westminster.
The Home Office kept Michael’s passport for a year and a half, then denied him a visa. They told him he had to leave for at least six months, and they didn’t give him back his passport until he was at the airport. Once he had his passport, two Border Force agents escorted him to the gate.
He went to the Republic of Ireland, intending to stay a couple months, but when he landed he was told that the British Home Office had flagged him, and so they couldn’t let him stay that long, because there was a treaty between the UK and Ireland.
He asked if he could stay for two weeks. The official asked him how much money he had immediate access to.
“About two million dollars,” he said.
The official seemed to decide that would be enough for him to support himself for two weeks in Dublin.
When that time was up, Michael wandered Europe for six months, then returned to Scotland. Border Force was reluctant to let him in, because it was noted that he had overstayed previously. When he explained that he had overstayed because the Home Office had his passport, they relented and stamped his passport for six months, which are about to end.
I was surprised they let him in. Even though a US citizen is allowed to visit the UK for six months of the year, Border Force can allow or reject them at a whim. I should know. When they let Michael back into the country last June, it had been more than a year since I had seen the American woman who is now my wife.
I am a British citizen. I was born and grew up in Glasgow, travelled widely, and once again live in Glasgow. But the government of the country that colonises Scotland refused to allow me to marry in my own country.
Bree and I have been a committed couple for 10 years, living together in America for most of that time. In 2017, she visited me in Glasgow three times, a few weeks at a time, amounting to slightly less than six months of that year. In March 2018, she came for her first visit of the year. Border Force detained her at Glasgow airport, searched her luggage, read her journal, looked at her phone, kept her in a room all day, and accused her of living here part-time. When they called me (the person refused to tell me his name) and I confirmed she was my partner, they told me they considered the frequency of her visits to be an “abuse” of the regulations, but didn’t explain how. That was a Wednesday; late in the afternoon, they told her she would have to leave on Saturday, and they kept her passport. We had two days and one evening together before she had to leave.
In the next few months, we talked by video or text every day, and considered moving to another country to be together, as I was unwilling to live in the US, and Bree said she considered home to be wherever I was. The harshness of our separation was made worse when I experienced a serious illness that required hospitalisation. When I recovered, we decided she would apply for a visa to be allowed to come to Glasgow and marry me.
I went to the Glasgow registry office to book the wedding for August 22, 2019. No problem.
Bree applied for a fiancee visa, and showed copies of the wedding paperwork. On June 23, her visa application was denied on the grounds that she had not shown proof that she intended to leave, or that I could financially support her during the time she would be here — even though there was no request for my financial details on the application form, and they did not contact me at all, and Bree had shown that she had £29,000 in savings. Her savings alone, or my salary alone (£24,000 a year) would have been more than enough for us to live on for the six months the fiancee visa would cover.
They further stated that they were suspicious because she had previously listed her occupation as “photographer” and was now listing it as “clergy.” The reason for the change is simple: Bree, like me, is a Zen Buddhist monk, and for more than a year had been ministering to homeless people in Seattle full-time, so had not been working as a photographer.
The government of my country let me arrange my wedding, and the government of another country forced me to call it off.
Bree and I emailed a registry office in Reykjavik, Iceland, and were told we were welcome to get married there. When we met up there, it had been a year and five months, a cruel separation that now made us determined not to be separated again. After ten blissful days in Iceland, as we prepared to fly to Glasgow together, we decided that if Border Force didn’t let her in, we’d go back to Iceland together.
Lying awake on our last night in Reykjavik, it struck me that we were among the most fortunate of those abused by the Home Office; we own devices that let us stay in contact every day, we both speak English as a first language, neither of us has a boss, and the work we do can be done from anywhere that has an Internet connection. Even though it would be tough financially, we could probably survive in a country even as expensive as Iceland. But if a couple as privileged as us could be denied a life in my country, how much worse it must be for those with fewer resources.
You can imagine how apprehensive we were as the plane landed at Glasgow airport. At customs, when I showed my passport to the machine, the barrier opened. When Bree showed it her passport, a message appeared on the screen telling her to seek assistance.
I stood waiting on the other side for perhaps a half-hour, until a man in a uniform approached, asked me if I was me, and asked to see our marriage certificate. I was relieved that he was as friendly as the one we’d dealt with in 2018 had been belligerent, but it was an interrogation nonetheless. He kept repeating that Bree couldn’t legally live with me in Scotland, and asking what our plans were — and I told him, truthfully, that we didn’t yet know where we were going to live. I suspect it helped that, to be on the safe side, Bree had booked only a short visit to Scotland, and was able to show a return ticket to America for three weeks hence. The guy let her in.
She’s been here longer than three weeks, because we quickly hired an immigration lawyer, and the preparation for her application for a visa that will let her stay here with me involves in-person meetings. She’s here legally — the allowed six months runs out in March. But, when she applies for her visa, she’ll have to go back to America. She’s not allowed to be in the UK when she applies. Why? Because. And this is the most reprehensible thing about the Home Office’s policies: they’re not just ruthless, they’re cruel. Ruthlessness is at least rational, as it involves hurting people in order to gain something. But the Home Office is causing harm with nothing to gain. How does it benefit from forcing Bree to go back to America for the eight weeks her visa application will take? What damage did they think she had done in 2017 by coming here, breathing air, occupying physical space and spending money? What benefit is there in making Michael physically leave for another six months? What good does it do to deny him the visa that would let him open a UK bank account, so he could move his money here, making it even easier to contribute to the Scottish economy?
And note that I say “they,” not “we.” Because, as Patrick Grady said, it’s England, not Scotland.
“Scotland needs an immigration policy suited to our specific circumstances and needs,” Mr. Grady told me. “We need people to want to come to work, live and study here and to contribute to our society.
“Time and time again we are seeing people being denied entry or leave to remain in the UK because of the Home Office’s strict and arbitrary immigration rules.
“It’s clear the UK Government’s hostile environment approach is failing Scotland, which is why the SNP continues to call for the devolution of immigration powers so that we can create an immigration policy that benefits our economy and society, and one that treats people with dignity and respect.”
That’s why I’m about to go and vote for him this cold dark morning.
by Barry Graham
The email was from Carnacki, and was sent to me and the three others normally invited to his gatherings. It was an invitation to a Halloween party, but, Carnacki emphasised, it would not be the usual sort of Halloween party – no dressing up, no party games. Instead, Carnacki would cook dinner for us, and then he would tell us a story.
I wrote back and said I would be there.
When I arrived at Carnacki’s flat at 184 Woodlands Road in Glasgow’s West End, Hodgson, Reekie and Welsh were already there. They sat around the dining table in Carnacki’s kitchen, while that gentleman himself stood at the stove-top, stirring a wonderful-smelling pot of soup. In one hand he held the wooden spoon, and in the other a large glass of Laphroaig, of which our friends at the table also had glasses.
“Good to see you, Graham,” he said as I entered and took my place at the table. “Help yourself to a snort of Laphroaig. Dinner will be ready in just a few minutes.”
Indeed it was, and, as always, it was delicious. It was not a complicated dish; the soup was of fresh seasonal vegetables and a few herbs, and the bread was fresh from the oven. The simple flavours were so pleasant, however, that I temporarily forgot Carnacki’s dislike of talking about his sojourns before it was time to tell his story, and I remarked, “You haven’t had a gathering like this in a while.”
“No,” was all he said, and he turned his attention to the bread he was breaking into pieces and adding to his bowl of soup. Quickly changing the subject, I remarked that I had been reading an article in The Economist about how people in Glasgow had a shorter lifespan than elsewhere, which the journalist was unable to explain other than by saying that “It is as if a malign vapour rises from the Clyde at night and settles in the lungs of sleeping Glaswegians.”
“I’d say that’s about right,” said Carnacki, with a smile of appreciation for my implied apology for my faux pas. “But, as you shall hear shortly, such malign vapours are by no means confined to Glasgow.” We all knew better than to ask him to say more at that time, but I think our friends were all as intrigued as I.
When our repast had been taken, we took our glasses in hand and retired to the living room, where a couch and comfortable chairs surrounded a table that served as a throne for two additional bottles of our friend’s favourite libation. He poured everyone a generous measure, not excluding himself, then lit candles, turned off the electric light, and settled into his favourite chair. For perhaps a minute, we sipped our drinks in convivial silence, and then Carnacki began to speak.
“As Graham correctly observed, it has been a while since I invited you fellows for dinner, though of course I’ve seen all of you individually hither and yon. Although I’ve been on a few jaunts since our last such gathering, none provided me with a story to tell you... Not, that is, until my most recent trip, which was not very far from this city.
“As you know, such excursions have been the vocation of the men in my family starting with my great-great-grandfather, whose experiences have been terrifying people for more than a hundred years now. I do not think I am being immodest in saying that a few of my own discoveries—which, like his, have been given the vulgar label ‘ghost-finding’—have been comparable in their extraordinariness. However, for some time now I have been encountering so many dull hoaxes that I was even beginning to doubt the veracity of the stories I’ve told you—stories you know to be true in every word, but that were seeming less and less believable even to me.
“I resorted, to my shame, to phoning the Scottish Tourist Board, and asking for a list of purportedly-haunted houses and castles. They sent me a brochure. I called again and explained that I wanted to know about the places that no one would in good conscience include in a brochure. They passed me around a few people, and then at last someone told me they had heard bad things about Drimdarroch Castle.
“It sounds like some desolate place in the Highlands, but when I went online and did a search, I discovered that it is, in fact, in Dumfriesshire, not a long train-ride from Glasgow Central Station. At first, I thought I had made a mistake in my search, because there was little about the castle online, and nothing about its being haunted. But, since everything in the world is supposedly online, its lack of an Internet presence piqued my interest, and I decided to find out who the present owner was.
“This turned out to be a man called Monroe, who lives in the city of Dumfries itself. When I contacted him by phone and asked him about his property, he made no bones about it. ‘I wouldn’t set foot in that place at night,’ he told me. I asked him why not, and he became wary, wanting to know the reason for my interest. I told him that I would like to spend a night there, alone. There was a long silence—I thought perhaps he had hung up the phone—and then he surprised me by flatly saying, ‘All right. It’s up to you.’
“At that moment, I somehow knew that this haunting was not just another hoax, of the kind I had exhausted myself with this past while. In those cases, the owners of the properties had done their utmost to convince me to stay there, so they could play their tricks and convince me. Monroe’s casual insistence that he would never go there after dark, and his indifference as to whether I did, made me realise that this was something different. You can understand?
“On a Saturday morning, I took a train from Glasgow to Dumfries. I was carrying a large bag that contained the electric pentacle and other essentials you know I take with me on such jaunts. Monroe met me in a pub there at lunchtime, and told me what little he knew of his property.
“The castle was mostly a ruin. The reason he bought it is that it came with a nearby mansion-house, which he’s restoring with the intention of turning it into a hotel. There are really only two sections of the castle that are completely intact: the banqueting hall, and a small chamber adjacent to the hall. There is, of course, no electric light, though Monroe plans to install it some day.
“He gave me a key to the castle, too big to fit in a pocket, and some notes he had made about the place. Of his reasons for refusing to go there after dark he would say nothing.
“I thanked him, paid for his beer, took my leave and caught a bus to the village of Drimdarroch, about half an hour from Dumfries. I asked the driver for directions to the castle, but he told me he wasn’t sure, and that I should ask people at the village pub, The Cross Keys.
“I went to the pub, and a most pleasant place it was. I was reluctant at first to ask directions to the castle, because I didn’t want to give the local lads the idea of playing a prank on me. If you knew how many yokels I’ve had show up by my bedside draped in white sheets and making howling noises, you would understand.
“The pub has wireless, and I had brought my laptop with me, so I got online and tried to find directions from the pub to the castle... but I found nothing. You can understand how intriguing this was. Intriguing, and something else, something that made my neck tingle.
“I struck up a conversation with some fellows playing pool, and asked them how to get to the castle. They knew, and they told me, and they thought it a funny thing that I wanted to go there. I had half-expected that they might react like peasants hearing the name of Castle Dracula, crossing themselves and urging me not to go there, but not a bit of it. They just gave me directions, and invited me to join them back at the pub, an invitation I gladly accepted.
“It only took about twenty minutes to walk from the pub to the castle, carrying my rather heavy bag. Just outside the village, you reach an unmarked driveway, walk up it for a while, and find the mansion house on your left and the castle on your right. The castle looks just like any one of the numberless other such ruins to be found throughout Scotland.
“I found the door, which was at the bottom of a turret, let myself in and climbed a crumbling winding staircase to the banqueting hall. There was a big fireplace, almost big enough for a man of my six feet to stand upright in, and in two glass cases there were mummified cats, which Monroe had exhumed from the walls, where they had been bricked up alive. Back when the castle was built, it was believed that if you bricked up live cats during the construction of a castle, their spirits would stay there and protect it. As you know, I’m rather fond of cats, and none of the ones I know would thank you for suffocating them to death, but no doubt these were different times.
“There was a long table and a chair, which looked as though they could have been there for centuries, but in fact had been put there by Monroe. So also had the candles in the holders that aligned all four walls, and that sat in a large candelabra on the table.
“At one end of the room was an archway, without a door, that led to the side-chamber. There was no other entry to it, so I decided that was where I would sleep. I set up my sleeping bag, flashlight, and water-bottle, and around them I constructed the electric pentacle.
“As you know, my grandfathers believed that you had to construct the pentacle around yourself for it to protect you, but I have found that they were mistaken. As long as you don’t turn on the electricity until you are within the barrier, you are safe. If I were wrong about this, I would have paid the price for my error years ago. The important thing is to have a battery that will last through the night, which is why I use a new battery every time.
“When I had finished setting up the pentacle, it was about five in the afternoon, still daylight. The side-chamber had no windows, but the banqueting hall had high, narrow, rectangular, glassless windows though which slivers of sunlight entered. It was light enough for me to sit at the table and read Monroe’s notes.
“The castle was supposedly haunted by a young woman who burned herself to death in the fireplace four hundred years ago. Less than fifty years ago, a woman from the village, exploring the castle, stayed after dark and jumped to her death from the top of a turret. This was all the information the notes contained.
“When I had finished reading, I stood up, got my camera, and took some photographs of the banqueting hall. Then I set up my camera on a tripod at the entrance to the side-chamber, facing into the hall. I adjusted its settings as I needed them—of which more later—and then I left, locked the door, and walked back to the village and the pub. It was a pleasant walk, and when I got to the pub the men I had met earlier were still there, and had been joined by quite a few more.
“I played pool with them, and then talked politics, with particular regard to Scottish independence. By early evening, some went home for dinner, and just as many did not. We ate some fine pub grub, and continued to drink and talk. I went easy on the beverages, which was just as well, as I received a few tempting invitations to abandon my silly idea of sleeping rough at the castle and instead stay the night with one of my new friends. One of them was a young lady with whom I’m still in touch, and had I had a few more pints I might have accepted her offer.
“As it was, I took my leave at about ten in the evening. Still thinking that someone might find it amusing to play a prank on me, I remarked, casually and falsely, that one reason I wasn’t afraid was that I had a gun with me, and planned to shoot anyone or anything that disturbed my sleep.
“I will make no claim to complete sobriety as i walked back to the castle, but, as Burns had it, ‘I wasnae fou, I’d just had plenty.’
“I will tell you, entering a place like Drimdarroch Castle in the dark of night is very different than doing so in the afternoon. I followed the beam of my flashlight up the driveway, which was easy enough, but when I reached the wooden door of the turret, I was missing the camaraderie of the pub—and when I entered, and made my way up the winding staircase, I was in something of a brown study. You can understand?
“It was chillier within the castle walls than outside. I went into the side-chamber, and turned on my camera, which, as I have said, stood in the doorway. It was attuned to the state of the light, or darkness, so that if there was any change in the light—such as that caused by a person entering the banqueting hall—it would automatically begin to take pictures.
“I removed my shoes, and, otherwise fully-clothed, got into my sleeping bag. I turned on the electric pentacle, and, comforted by its blue light and by the beer I had drunk throughout the evening, I soon fell asleep.
“I am not sure how long I had been asleep when I was awakened by the sound of the camera taking pictures. I sat up, and when I realised what had awakened me, I felt no fear. Knowing that the camera was activated by changes in the light, I felt sure that the cause was either a bat or a bird entering the hall through one of the windows, or perhaps the arrival of one of the villagers to have some fun with me. I even thought it might the the young lady I had met in the pub, and I did not strongly object to that idea.
“So unconcerned was I that I did not get out of my sleeping bag. When the camera went on taking pictures, and I realised I must investigate or turn it off, I stood up in my sleeping bag, holding it around me for warmth, and hopped like a kangaroo until I reached the camera. I stood behind it and peered into the darkness of the banqueting hall, but I could not for the life of me see anything that might have triggered it.
“Then the candles that aligned the walls were lit, all at once, like electric lights being turned on. So were the candles in the candelabra on the long table.
“Now, as I tell you this story, this room we are sitting in is lit only by candlelight, by which I can see you and you can see me. But the candles in that hall gave off no light. I could see the flames, but they gave off no light beyond their own shape.” Carnacki held up a finger. “Like this. You see my finger, but of course it gives off no light. The flames were like that.
“Then there was a face. Only a face, though if a man sat at the chair at the end of the table, it was where his face would have been. But it was not the face of a man, though I suppose it was closer to that of a man than of anything else I have ever seen. It was lit, like the candles, but, like the candles, its light did not shine.
“It smiled at me.
“It smiled at me, then raised a hand, a hand made of solid, unshining light, and beckoned to me in invitation.
“I closed my eyes, though tears squeezed and poured from under my eyelids, and I shook my head.
“Then the sound of the camera stopped. It was no longer taking photographs. I opened my eyes. The candles had all gone out. I realised that I had let the sleeping bag fall away from my body. I turned around to go back to the electric pentacle, and it did not even occur to me that by leaving it I had broken the protective barrier...
“Until I saw that thing, that face, inside the pentacle. It smiled, showing teeth that were not quite teeth, and again raised a beckoning hand in invitation. And when I did not move, it beckoned again, and then it came towards me, and as it crossed the barrier the pentacle went dark but its face did not.
“There is something that I have been preparing for twenty years to do, never believing that I would ever have to do it, but practising, practising saying it, though never out loud. And now I said it aloud, said the Unknown Last Line of the Saamaa Ritual, which, according to the Sigsand MS., is only to be spoken in the time of gravest peril, with no certainty that it will save your life, only your soul.
“As you know, I am not a man who is easy to frighten. But, for no reason I can tell you, I knew without a doubt that this was the time I must say these most dangerous of words, and I did, I said them, and then I started to say them again, but I do not know if I did...
“The next I knew, I was on the winding staircase, falling or flying, bouncing off the circular walls, reaching the bottom, exploding out the door, running, shoeless, running, and not stopping until I reached the village, where I walked the streets, loving every streetlight, until dawn.
“When the sun was fully risen, I walked back up that path, back to the castle, my feet like raw steaks, and I entered, and went to the banqueting hall.
“I checked every candle. They were ordinary candles, made of wax.
“I disassembled the electric pentacle, and packed it, along with my camera, and I walked back to the road, and waited for the bus, which took me to Dumfries. From there, I called Monroe, got his voice mail, and told him his key was in the door of the castle. I have not heard from him since.
“As I sat on the train back to Glasgow, full of laughing, chattering people who have never been to the worlds I have, people who did not know that my shoes were full of blood, I was tempted to look at the images on my camera, but I resisted that temptation. When I got home I went to bed and slept through the day, because I knew I would not be able to sleep that night for fear that I might wake and find that thing sitting by my bed, smiling and beckoning to me.
“I awoke in the early evening, ate dinner and partook of some Laphroaig, and then uploaded the contents of my camera to my laptop. In a good ghost story, the photographs would show nothing, but in actuality they showed exactly what I had seen. Interestingly, there are no pictures of the thing entering the hall, approaching the chair, sitting down, and then getting up and leaving, which there should be as the camera responds to changes in the light. You can understand?”
Carnacki said no more for a minutes, and neither did the rest of us. He refreshed our glasses, then said, “Would you like to see the pictures?”
No one answered. Carnacki opened his laptop, and said, “Here they are. Look if you want to. If you don’t want to, I’ll understand.”
After varying degrees of hesitation, we all got up and gathered around him and looked at the screen.
He clicked through picture after picture. It was as he had said. There was a face, hands, candle flames, but nothing else, and the flames radiated no light.
As we started back to our chairs, Carnacki said, “Wait. Do you remember I told you I took photographs of the banqueting hall in the afternoon? Well, I have those too. Look.”
The photographs showed the hall, the table, the chair, and the folder of notes Carnacki had been reading at the table. Behind the chair was the fireplace, and in the fireplace stood a woman in a gown, hands covering her face. There were no flames in the picture, but we all remembered that a young woman had burned to death in that fireplace.
“You didn’t see her at the time?” asked Welsh.
“No,” Carnacki said.
We all returned to our chairs.
“Any questions?” Carnacki asked.
No one answered.
“I think the legend of the haunting is wrong,” Carnacki said. “Monroe seemed to think it was haunted by the girl in the fireplace. I don’t think so. I think she burned herself to death under the influence of what I saw. I think the same is true of the woman who jumped to her death. And, had I not uttered the forbidden words I did, I think I would have joined them. I think whatever I saw was there before the castle was built, and will be there after the castle is gone. It is the place. It hosts everyone and everything that has the misfortune to be there. I know this with the certainty of my own death, and with as much mystery.”
None of us had anything to say. We finished our drinks, then Carnacki stood up. “Out you go!” he said, as he always did at such times, and we put on our coats and walked together down the stairs, into the icy dark, and along Woodlands Road, eventually separating and going to our homes.
by Babs Nicgriogair
Because the night belongs to us
Tha na sràidean teth timcheall
a h-uile duine a’feitheamh ’s a’feitheamh
Ri dol fodha na gréine
Amhaich thioram, mionach falamh
A’gluasad ’s a’ gearan
An-fhoiseil an -fhoiseil
Ramadan ’s an t-òg mhìos, ann an Glaschu , tha e doirbh
Tha an latha cho fada
tha m’fhoighidinn cho goirid
Tha mi feitheamh ort a ghràidh
’s an t-acras orm
Tha na mnàthan timcheall a’geurachadh an sgeinean
gearradh ’s mion-gearradh, a’feitheamh ’s a’feitheamh
Ri dol fodha na gréine
Biryiani, Aloo Gobi
Praisean a’goil ’s am baile air bhoil
Ramadan ’s an t-òg mhìos ann an Glaschu, tha e doirbh
Tha mi air leughadh ’s air leaghadh
Leantainn recipe ùr
Tha mi feitheamh ort a ghràidh
’s an t-acras orm
Taobh a-muigh tha na càraichean a’casadaich
’s na boy racers bragail a’ feitheamh ’s a’feitheamh
Ri dol fodha na gréine
Gach fear gun cead òl ach draibhigeadh mar misgear
Brands Hatch a risd
An -fhoiseil an fhoiseil
Ramadan ’s an t-òg mhìos ,ann an Glaschu, tha e doirbh
Tha am bòrd deiseil
Àite ann airson dithis
Tha mi feitheamh ort a ghràidh
’s an t-acras orm
Tha na busaichean làn , tha na solais dearg
’s tu air an 41 taobh an ear a’feitheamh ’s a’feitheamh
ri dol fodha na grèine
an rathad romhad , teanga fhada dhubh a’ rock ‘n roiligeadh
an -fhoiseil, an-fhoiseil
Ramadan ’s an t-og mhìos ann an Glaschu, tha e doirbh
Ithidh sinne le ar làmhan
Gu slaodach, gu sùghmhor
Tha mi feitheamh ort a ghràidh
’s an t-acras orm
Because the night belongs to us ( translation)
The streets are hot round here
Everybody waiting, just waiting
Dry throats, empty bellies
grumbling and groaning
restless, rest less
Ramadan in Glasgow in June is hard
The day is so long
My patience so short
I am waiting for you my love
And I am hungry
The women round here are sharpening their knives
Chopping and dicing, waiting just waiting
Biryiani, Aloo Gobi
Pots boiling, the town in a frenzy
restless, rest less
Ramadan in Glasgow in June is hard
I have been reading and melting
Following a new recipe
I am waiting for you my love
And I am hungry
Outside the cars are coughing
Cocky boy racers waiting just waiting
Each one tee-total but driving like a drunk
Brands Hatch again
restless, rest less
Ramadan in Glasgow in June is hard
The table is set
I am waiting for you my love
And I am hungry
The buses are full, the lights are red
You’re on the 41 east-side, waiting just waiting
The road before you
a long black tongue rocking and rolling
restless, rest less
Ramadan in Glasgow in June is hard
We will eat with our hands
Slowly and succulently
I am waiting for you my love
And I am hungry
by Bart Lessard
Where a football trophy might rest on the bedside shelf of another boy of nine—or a geode, or a Wookiee, or a Snaptite fighter jet—Callum now kept the clean upper of a human skull. Awe was due, gobsmack awe, and friends came in to pay. Shug was a floor up in the scheme, Davy two below, and both had sped along on receipt of a selfie, foreground leer, pride at left shoulder. Thanks to friction with the brother Rab ran late, and he hid the limp on entry.
What built in him at the sight was not sportsmanlike. Jealous to a seethe, he said at last, “It’s no real.” Not a glance his way, whether hard or mild.
“That’s Beltran,” Davy said. “Tommothy Beltran. He’s still got the two gold teeth.”
“Lots of cunts have two gold teeth,” Rab said. “Orangeman Geoff has full grills and rocks ’t spell his name besides.”
“But no this pair—fang and fang.” Davy indicated with the two up ye.
“So it’s a grass,” Callum said. Everybody knew of the vanishing act. Solemn nods all around. “He must have crept out of the canal, perished there and bleached. They sank him yet alive.” Were it truth an oversight, Rab knew. Shawpark Young Team was the local task force. Proper in removals, no more passion than for a half litre at the bin. “It was in the rushes where A found him,” Callum went on, “amongst shopping bags.”
Shug asked, “Nae bones,” to get a line.
“No that A saw. Bloody hell—knuckles would have made a good chain, aye.”
“Didnae crawl out then,” Davy said, yet the boffin. “And the water in the canal, it wullnae wash you up like a clamshell. Wave action is at a minimum and tidal forces dunnae apply. Naw, the way A see it a creepypasta was up on the bank, a bottom dweller ’t ate what was left of him, come up for a shite.”
“Creepypasta!” Rab shouted, to surprise. “Out your arse, that’s where you flap it, and up the nearest too. CSI: Wee Schemie Cunt! Encyclopaedo Brown!”
The brawl upset the shelf and in turn the trove. Callum caught long, and in a whited fury, the skull cherished close, he said, “Fuck off, you—all you schemie cunts.”
Boarding the elevator Rab tongued a raw lip. As he nursed at his spite and blood plans took shape. The car found his floor. He was smiling in a tinge when the doors made way again. Had Junkie Stewart not boarded the drop would have been straight.
“Hey big man, big man. Had a bit of barney, aye? Spare us a fiver?”
Rab knew where he could fetch a head. His would be better. His, it would have a jaw, with teeth and a bite to spare.
* * *
The brother was Team, a year out from his majority and low of rank. But Brace was in on things, if not so taut at mouth as being in should demand. Three hits of swally and he had been at arias in the maw’s kitchen with two Team prospects. They had told him to bite it off, gone loud for fear of their lives, as though powers heard through wall, floor, and tower block alike. Rab had grown crack at his ninjitsu, listening in from the other room. Soon after, an angry head had poked in to check. Earbuds were up, earbuds playing fools, and from behind a comic book Rab threw on a metronomic bob.
“Gie”—and snatch—to an open view of Brace off for the bog, Immortal Hulk in hand.
So he had the vicinity. This was not a dump. The remains were meant to be found— staged, as the shows said. The brother had been amazed that no one had yet caught scent. Skies had been blue, taps aff and aff again. Rab went armed: colours and a chef’s knife. Surely a muggy week or two was enough to reduce a cunt to bone, but there would be gristle. Domestic cutlery was no less outlaw than a chib, and less sly. Whence the scarf. It could have been anything wrapped up—a flute, a carrot—rooting for the F.C.
The trespass sign by the gap bore the Team tag: ShYT3. Second-string villainy, as Rab saw it, to leave a boast on the fence for the law. Through chainlink and rank shrub he went, shady trash underfoot, into a vault of leaves. Another rankness in mind he began to scent the air. Sight of the bothy, a green tarp on a frame of skids, brought a thrill. A hum rose, flies in the many hundred, and he breached the smell at last, like passing through a blister skin. Just beyond the vegetation lay the channel, the south side walking path. West enders would be out for a jog, and chipper junkies on chipper junkie rounds. Somehow they were unaware of the fumes. Maybe they had lost the nose. The whole bottom of that watercourse was bones, Maryhill and Possil knew, bones in a stack with mud and rubbish, but the flow kept it clean, slow yet steady, in time got out to sea. Wading into the smell—a thickening air—Rab was weighing up the swim. He came to a stop, took two back, thought it through. “Need us a skull.”
A makeshift home will paint a picture of an occupant—rough sleeper, anorak, flasks of Eldorado voided and shed. But no, this cunt had been to a tailor. Not that the cut was so bespoke now. A bloat pulled buttons tight as laces. Rats had worried at his hands, rats or creepypastas, for these had been the only naked meat, now an unfleshed pair of rakes. They lay crossed on a double breast, herringbone tweed, the body in a topcoat. No summerweight getup, no less so for the gunny sack atop the head. It had been cinched up tight—tighter even than the rayon windsor knot.
A muggy week does not reduce a cunt to bone, Rab saw. “Fuck.” Off came the scarf from the knife, to block up mouth and nose. For a better angle he pulled the tarp and let a skid fall out. In he leaned, looked away once the edge was placed, and began a dainty fiddle. The wet whisper was no less regrettable than the reek. Flies crept about his neck and sipped upon his blinking eyes.
Five minutes made for a nick and a sore wrist. Put a back into it, he told himself. On his knees, he bore down, both hands on the stroke. No looking off now, not even as the jostle gave up tenants—both sleeves, both trouser legs. Jumping back Rab gave a shriek. He had a look about to make sure none had heard the girl. Like shadows—gone with a rustle. He looked to his hands. Juices—nasty, like those that had run out from the shell of a pet turtle dead of thirst. He was an older boy now and knew how to commit.
Back to work. A cervical joint gave way easier than he might have thought, not in so many words. Perhaps the neck had been broken in the grip. The wetness was trying, so he doffed the scarf to give himself a wipe. It had not done much in blocking a stink, or so he thought until the nose was left undefended. Flies went spelunking in each nostril. The things he did for honour. Face pinching shut, he tidied up his hands, and the swaddling went on clean side out. He pulled, and a last connection gave way, to a reel of string. Worm, he thought at first as it sagged to dirt. But then he saw that it was spinal tissue. “Turtle!” he said on the revolt, more or less. A shrug and tuck of chin got the retch off.
One more pass, two more deepening heaves, these dry. Done! Neat to the crook of an arm, like a rugger ball up from the scrum. Folded plies kept off the soak. Rab looked down at what would be left. Per local rite he offered up a prayer. “Poor bastard.” One less grass, but in a state of decay all are innocent.
Pure rancid, though. Breath held, looking to his feet, he ran. He would see the deed forever, smell it, a codger in a pub of tomorrow ruing wisdom at a hologram of ale. But first he saw the lawman rear up, a yellow-vested polis of the goddam here and now.
Polis, Rab; Rab, polis. Just beyond, and radiant with open sun, was the gap in the fence. Panic—but no less plainly Rab saw the mind at work. Only a scold being formulated—polis wit, God help us—with no glance to the parcel. This was not a ghoul but a truant, to the officer’s mind, a mere naughty wean.
So Rab said, “There.”
The fright was honest, no less so than the nod back to sin. Sold. The stare broke, the polis looking past. Rab was glad to see range in those eyes: suspicion, focus, puzzlement, focus, surprise, career ambition.
“Stay there,” the polis said. Again ninjitsu came to play. Not a twig underfoot played the clype. You’ll never make DCI, Deppity Hamish, Rab thought between sun and pavement, at a dead run. Next up: find ye an anthill.
* * *
Four hours’ search down the Kelvin walk, all to see the light: the city parks were home to no such thing. Rab could visualise a hill, aye, a handsome cone littered with a scrap of ladybirds, but this must have been on the shows. Urban ants were a different sort: crack-dwellers, sugar bowl rapists. No death-mounds, no marches skeletonising a jungle road. Glasgow ants were plain shite. But worms could do the polish.
Off the walk he dug, the mill in sight from the fallen tree if he peeked up. Passersby only saw a wee man playing foxhole. Furrow made, he saw that he should take off the wraps. A head made bare would surrender more quickly. The step was clear—he had done the worse—but reluctance grew. Coming up on eight p.m., two hours to nightfall, and he was full of the smell upon him. Off came the scarf, never to be worn again save by weather. Once he laid bare the strangle cord, tight yet on gray meat, he thought back. The maw would miss the knife, as he did now; the cops at the scene, perhaps not.
Live and learn. Rab pulled in opposite directions at the top of the gunny cloth, to a rip. He caught a flash of face before the waft shut his eyes for him. “Fuckin ammonia?” he said in a choke. Biology was foul indeed. Someday we’d turn ours in for robots. No more deil realm of piss and stink. Eyes off, nose out, he picked up the bottom of the sack. A hard shake would lay it in the dirt. Not seeing the who of it, the former human being, was politeness, he told himself. But as the head slipped out it pulled against the throttle, not loose at all, and Rab felt the weight dangle. He shook and shook but let go. The tease flipped it face up. His palms were on the backfill when he glanced to what was shown. And another hour crept by in cold thought.
* * *
His face was a tattle on entry to the homestead. Brace was at the table with a vape pen, hash oil from the scent, slouched in two. Before him was a residue of Bucky in a snifter. Where he had found the snifter is lost to history, but he had poured to the rim.
“Whit’s ra mettur wi ye?”
“Get tae fuck!”
Rab did. He felt haunted to the rearmost teeth. But there were other ghosts making home, he saw. Brace’s eyes were cannabinol pink, or he had wept up a lather, or both.
Faces were much on Rab’s mind. To the bath, for soap and lathers of his own, a scrub from quiff to queef. Afterward, on a frown, he shot Glade straight onto his hands. No trace could be left, not on the surface. The smell would have to wear off from deeper.
The afterimage, that would not. Puffed out, a gray slough, but features known to any. The bastard had disappeared back in wintertime. He had been enough of a figure to cut another by his absence. No grass, this—never. In that sunset hour Rab had been forced to play boy detective. Encyclopaedo Brown, the sequel. Poetic justice. What a cunt.
This was not sanitation, but politics. Surely nothing for Shawpark Young Team, least of all for numpty Brace. Even a nine-year-old schemie cunt could see that. As rinks of diarrhoea went, this was a colder one to skate. Not least for the state of the body after six months’ absence. Rancid, but not rancid enough. The gospel of the shows taught Rab the full. To thwart work in the lab, forensic timetables, they had put him in a freezer. Once the stars were right came the thaw. The ShYT3 tag nearby, Brace playing town crier—Rab saw it all. False flag—setup—a deliberate leak. Brace was a patsy, here confirmed by anguish, Bucky, vape. Rab was about to lose the brother.
“And gain a skull!”
The clothes were fire bound, save the tee. His Suspiria shirt was not going back to Gitche Manitou. He’d just have to drop some Woolite on that cunt. He was under the sink for a shopping bag when he heard Brace sob loud and clear.
“Ooh Netty, Netty. Ooh Netty.”
Netty Maclinnick—a jilt. The slag had shown some taste. A sigh, enthroned on the bog lid to ride it out. Rab would pay in lumps if Brace saw him see. Not soon enough, the maw got home from her shift, and Brace was shooed off to the sofa bed.
* * *
Grief was in no short supply, but a day of school was the grief he knew best. Off he went at eight a.m., the psychic smell of curdled victim unrelenting. He pouted through maths, looking forward to the exam that would rid him of the farce once and forever. Until then he would have to slum it in genpop. Callum was in the class, and even in the fug and drudgery Rab could not help but notice his rival looked plenty glum.
“It’s gone,” Callum said at lunch. “Tommothy Beltran’s skull. Alas, A knew him well.” Rab made a face. “Ma parents, they found him, and they would nae hear reason. When A told how A got it, where A got it, ma maw even called the polis.”
“Aye!” Callum laid boustrophedons in neeps and tatties with a spork. Rab had no thought on his own tray and had skipped even the dry morning toast. “It’s no a grass when it’s your maw. The filth came in and grilled me for hours. They wanted to take me in like a proper villain, but da, he drew the line. They were snappin like mongrels in the living room. There were threats of calls—social workers, Legal Aid, prosecutor, queen’s counsel, Uncle Jay. What a shite show.”
‘They could take the skull without a warrant?”
“Aye—a bastard in a hazmat suit—no just gloves but a suit, head to foot, like some kind of moonbase cunt. He dropped it in an evidence bag, didnae he, Fuck Rogers.”
‘Even though you found it fair and square?”
“Even though A found it fair and square. They waved blacklights in ma room. A’m too young to skeet, the twats. They were there for hours. Impressing upon me how A should nae ‘tamper with evidence.’” His index fingers curled marks onto polis words.
“Did they aye.”
“That ‘interfering with human remains’ is a ‘matter for the courts.’”
“That ‘hiding material evidence’ made me ‘accessory to the crime.’”
“In this case a ‘likely homicide.’ Then they left off and went … but ma da, no he.”
‘Aw that’s rough, pal. A’m so sorry.” Inwardly: A’ll rush the schedule.
Recent loss, a sweet spot—sweeter than the thrill of competition. How Callum would boil. And Davy, the sucker-punch bampot, he might as well prepare himself for seppuku.
* * *
Overnight had made no dent, not a single worm a-nibble. Now that he had a better grasp on decomp Rab had not foreseen miracles. And he had come better prepared for a transfer: the maw’s dishwashing gloves; rubbish bags, a whole roll; and Brace’s never-once-used football tote. It had been a gift from the maw’s barnacle, a top chap who had hoped to temper the young through sport. Of course he might as well have brought tea to a troop of morlocks in an irradiated sewer complex but the thought had been nice. No scrape at the dirt—Rab was glad for any mask. The truffle quintuple-bagged, he went his merry way. He had also brought a jar of Tiger Balm, pinched from the Extra, to rub camphor at his nose. The shows again, peace be upon them.
There would be no stink at all, but it was best to avoid a busy route. Setting out for the block, the path near the aqueduct in mind, he saw a polis off the walk with a dog on lead—a Belgian Malinois sniffing through the underbrush.
Fifty feet off, yet it gave Rab a stern look. No need to run a fancy—polis dogs took squat time, same as any—until he saw the same again, yellow movements on the far bank. Each nearest dog turned his way, even from across the glassy slide of water. There would be more sniffing out ahead, were the fear correct—the whole Stasi kennel.
Rab doubled back toward the Extra. No more K-9s, but he saw the same picque amongst civilian dogs out for walkies. Black lab, Staffy, cockapoo, puggle, Pom—each gone grass on him. The last, come closest, drew the lead tight enough to hang wash, and it began to yap. “Jockie!” the human anchor said. “Jockie, you’ll stretch your wee neck! Sorry, son, A don’t know what’s got into him. Are you carrying a ham toastie by chance?”
More came out about ham and Pomeranian. Rab heard none of it. He ran the tenements above the Kelvin, imagining the j’accuse from any pet at a window. His nonhuman pals could scent it, but not Rab. Nor even the curse of the canal from the prior day, and that had been from within. Fright was a good reset.
Mention of a toastie even got him in a mind to eat. He had not in more than a day. To the Greggs, then. These sausage rolls will give me the quick energy A need to fetch us home, Rab thought, demolishing the pack on site. He was at a table for two, the football tote snug at his feet, and he went back up for caramel shortbread.
* * *
To task. Brace was not at home, and the maw would not be for hours yet. Into a stock pot with the trophy, features down, and water. Rab had seen a stew in his time. Given long enough a simmer would denude the skull and improve the smell along the way.
It did not. Rancid was rancid cooked or raw, he found. All windows open was no help. He thought to add dishwashing liquid, the very essence of cleanliness, and the slurry foamed over. Once that was tended to—heat low, pot sides wiped up and blotted—a residue began to burn. The atmosphere grew hazy as well as foul. Grim, but necessary: Rab bound a hoodie to his face, sleeves back. He added potpourri to the boil—mother’s stash atop the bog—marking whether it made the difference, no, and then, in turn, a cup of salt, no, a liter of bleach, worse, a half of milk, no better, glass cleaner from the unscrewed spray top, fuckin awful, and honey at a drizzle. He was about to reach for straight lye when beefs came in from the windows, neighbours above and below.
“What is that stink?”
“Paulie Boy! Is that bathtub meth again?”
“Who’s frying tripe?”
Rab’s eyes had gone a fierce red, bloodshot to the stems, and he coughed on every take of air. The windows would stay wide. But neither did he need a city council visit. Best to douse. He turned off the burner and threw a saucepan full of tap water. Steam clouds roiled up, and he waved both hands to thin the air.
This was from inside the flat. Here was Brace, uncharacteristically sober, which is to say only mostly drunk or high. Rab did not recognize the brother’s face straight off, for it did not wear its usual malevolence, only a shock.
“Whit ra fuck ur you at in here?” The diction was as usual, but not the tone. Brace had no go for a go in him. A kitchen chair received his blubbery drop.
“Science fair,” Rab said, wincing for the cuff.
None came. Neither did the stare relent. “A’ve been railroaded,” Brace said at last.
“Set up, ye fuckin muppet. A’d be in jail noo if ra haunds an heid wur still oan.”
“Haunds and heid oan whit?” Rab said, through the glare of seeing all at once.
“Ra haunds went tae ra rats, ma pals telt me, fingerprints wi them, but ra rest, ra whole fuckin heid an dental records, naebidy knows who—”
Here Rab found he had a tell.
Brace saw. He followed the glance to the pot. The suspicion deepened. “Rab?”
Up at once, the chair upset, to fetch a pair of tongs. Rab could not move, not even as Brace sounded the broth, nor on the gasp of coming face to face.
A full half minute crept by. Brace broke the freeze, made the turn. And then he was on Rab quick as shot, with a hug and a grin and eyes full of tears.
“A’m proud ay ye, wee man. Ye’ll huv me greetin.”
Rab said nothing.
“But here noo,” Brace went on. “It’s only hauf ra joab.”
Rab said nothing.
Rab said nothing but saw the joke.
“It’s awright,” Brace said. “Ye’ve been a gallus, done yer part. A’ll brek up ra jaw maself.” And soon nothing was left to be explained, except to the maw, once she came home to the newest stench, one of many made by two sons on their own.
by daishin stephenson
i cut her while she was sleeping. a gurgling-wheeze left the hole in her throat.
being in a room with her had never been so quiet. normally, she droned on about how poor my choices were.
i scratched my eyebrow with my thumb; a scratch-patterned blood smear remained.
"choices, the importance of choices," her voice in my head. i chuckled. it was a poor choice to succumb to the itch; her choice in soap was poor.
by Tony Black
“You’re not cool with this?”
“Do I look fucking cool with it?”
Don curls his lip, bites down. A pained look. “Beer?”
Frowns. “Good stuff... Stella.”
I raise myself from the cowhide chair, cross the floor.
The first thing that comes to hand is the purple lava lamp. It smashes like the One O’clock Gun as I take it over Don’s head.
“Need a truckload of Stella for me to be cool with you fucking my girlfriend.”
“London Calling” blares out the Bosch speakers. I think, “Bollocks, Jonny Ladd isn’t going to like this.”
* * *
First I see of the bloke is Don knocking seven bells out of him in Deacon Broadie’s shitter. A suit. Banker type.
I’d say ad man, but like I’d know an ad man... I sell Bob Hope for Don. Need a new line.
Don looks up, still kicking fuck out the guy, spots blood on his Kickers, removes one, slaps the fella about the head with it.
“Seen my shoes, y’prick!”
“Sorry... sorry.” He raises his hands, waves them in a girlie manner. Makes Don laugh, he slaps my shoulder; I fall into a cubicle as the main door swings open.
“Jonny!” says Don.
I ease onto the toilet seat, make myself invisible. Dealing for Don’s one thing, mixing with Jonny Ladd is another.
Jonny speaks, “This the cunt?”
“Yeah,” says Don, “clocked him with the blonde bit.” Jonny Ladd says nothing. I see him in the mirror, face crumpled. He gives banker-guy the once over, walks round, motions a thumb, “Get him the fuck out.”
“Your gaff, there’s a brasser on the way... Make sure you’ve got your fucking camera!”
* * *
“You got hold?”
Don drops his end, banker-guy slumps into the wall. Blood from a nasty nosebleed leaves a streak on the plaster.
“Fucksake, Don... I said this would happen.”
Over the banister comes a female voice, “Hello, is suck-suck, yes?” It’s the pro. Thai or something, anxious to get going.
Don shouts, “Yeah... Minute, eh.” He bends, slaps the banker. Mumbles. Don jumps the steps, turns, fishes keys from his pocket, says, “Drag him. I’ll get opened up...”
I raise the guy, balance his arm around my neck. “You have to help me...” he says.
“I know what this is about.”
“You pissed off Jonny Ladd.” No-brainer.
“No... It’s my girlfriend.”
I’m lost, feel my mouth droop, then Don opens the door, hollers, “Get a shift on down there.”
The guy passes out again. “So, he owe Jonny?”
Don eyeballs me, scrunches brows, “Fuck no... bit of fun.”
“The blonde, y’know, one with the big tits... Jonny’s got a bone for her.”
“I’m not with you.”
“Idea is, we get some photos, a pro noshing him off... blondie has a change of heart.”
For a while I’ve been thinking there’s better ways to make a living than dealing for Don. Ange said it... there’s more to life, change is good.
“What’s with the head shakes?” says Don.
“Nah, you don’t approve...”
“It’s not that.”
The brasser points to the banker who’s coming round again. She goes over to him, starts to loosen his tie.
“No, fuck no... his pants, here...” Don directs her to the belt buckle, walks back to me, starts to play with his camera-phone. He says loosen up, get over Ange leaving, and... “You cool with me putting a move on her?”
He offers a beer, Stella... Funny, Ange never liked beer, but lately she’d been big on Stella.
I feel a rush of blood to my head.
* * *
Miss suck-suck screams as the lava lamp explodes. She jumps when Don hits the floor.
I raise a hand, “It’s cool... we’re all cool.”
She goes back to work. “No,” I say, “change of plan.”
“This fella here,” I turn Don over, start to undo his belt, “get your gums round him.”
She goes down; I take Don’s camera-phone.
The banker’s coming round as I snap away, “Don’t worry mate, on our way in no time.”
He keels over again.
“Wise. Get your head down.”
“Okay-dokey,” says Miss Suck-Suck.
The Clash get me moving; “London Calling” sets the mood as I fire off the shots. I’m thinking, now here’s maybe my new job. Fuck knows I need one now. Would Ange approve? I wonder, as I locate her number on Don’s phone, and press send.
First published in Esquire.
© DOCKYARD PRESS