A plague on both your houses (3/3)

Having grown up with 12 sisters, Spontaneous Bucket was no stranger to unexpected phenomena. Still, the sheer magnitude of the beast took even him by surprise, ‘Wow. I mean. Wow.’

The dragon sighed, ‘I see that human is still synonymous with dung beetle.’

It was always difficult to seem sensible once someone had established that you were an idiot. Spontaneous gathered up all the pieces of his face into something that resembled an apology, ‘Forgive me, oh glorious one, I was just a little surprised, given the size of the mound and the size of… Surprised. Yep.’

The dragon rolled its eyes and burped out a flame, ‘Let’s just get it over with shall we? Fortune, women, turnips.’

‘I beg your pardon, oh mighty lord of confusables?’

‘It’s always the same. Fortune, women, turnips.’

Now you didn’t have to be a knight on a quest to get that it didn’t pay to be sarcastic with giant, mythical beasts, ‘I am but a stupid human, I beg your indulgence.’

‘Three wishes.’

‘What?’

‘Would you like me to stamp out how many is three on your fetid companion?’

‘Three? Wishes?’

‘Look,’ the dragon sat back and picked at a nostril roughly the size and texture of the bonfire they had built the last time a Witch Finder had come to town, ‘This whole process is about natural selection. Whoever cuts open a dragon egg and releases a dragon before the expulsion, also releases three wishes as a reward. Is that clear enough for you?’

‘A reward?’

A rumbling, furnacy sort of noise emendated from the creature’s throat suggesting a whole different kind of expulsion wasn’t off the cards, ‘If you ask me one more stupid question I shall have no choice but to raise this whole continent to the ground.’

Spontaneous Bucket may have been a medieval man, but it paid to know about continents. Soup was a pretty bland thing when cabbage was the main ingredient, ‘And if we don’t take these three wishes?’

‘WHAT!?’ Lucian scrabbled from behind the tree.

Spontaneous smiled apologetically at the dragon and backed away, dragging a drooling Lucian with him, ‘I know it sounds great, but you can’t trust dragons, even the village idiot of Nosoothsayershere town knows that and he’s only had half a head since the great, balance a scythe on any body part, fayre.’

‘But three wishes!’ Lucian’s eyes glittered, ‘Fortune, women AND turnips!’

‘So it is agreed?’ The dragon wound itself around the tree and obliterated the sun.

‘Wait!’ Spontaneous grabbed at his friend’s arm, ‘We want to hear all the details first.’

‘The details are, that you say Yes or you say No.’

‘Then I say n…’

‘Hey nonny nonny!’ Lucian squealed, pushing Spontaneous aside, ‘Yes. He says yes. Yes. Absolutely, yes. Not a No to be seen. Just yesses. We all love yesses here.’

‘Good choice pungent human.’

‘Right, okay then, well probably best to start with the fortune,’ he nudged Spontaneous chummily, ‘because those turnips ain’t gonna care for themselves, eh?’ Then he laughed nervously because the dragon was grinning at him like he’d just ticked the terms and conditions of a cess pit cleaners contract without reading them first.

‘Just one small question,’ the dragon tapped out a thoughtful tune, ‘Did I at any point stipulate exactly who was getting the wishes?’

‘Um….’

The might beast scrolled open its wings and yawned, ‘I shall take my fortune in gold if you please, the turnips, feel free use your imagination, for I and not a monster.’ It grinned again because it actually was, ‘Oh, and you have until nightfall to bring me my first woman.’

Lucian was breathing through the top of his head, he bowed and scraped and curtseyed his way back around the other side of his companion, ‘By all that’s holy, we’ve been tricked by a dragon, what are we going to do?’

Spontaneous was deep in thought, ‘Does that sun look purple to you?’

‘What?’

‘And it is a Sunday.’

Lucian was horrified, ‘You can’t seriously be thinking about deploying Collateral Colin? He’s only had the witch part of his training. He’s not learning how to be a virgin until next year.’

‘I think being a virgin is pretty straightforward, he can wing it.’

‘You’re crazy.’

‘Me crazy? No,’ Spontaneous looked over at the row of pus mound, he was already calculating their number and dividing by the amount of nearby villages, ‘but mad has a nice ring to it.’

‘No, no, no, no, not again,’ Lucian backed away from his companion, ‘not after last time, you promised.’

‘Come on, promises aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.’ Spontaneous Bucket reached down for the knife stick, ‘Besides, we’re talking about mutual assured destruction here, those ground to air marrows we sold to everyone are gonna be so last century.’

 

THE END

Should you have inexplicably missed them, you can read parts one and two here.

©2017 Jac Forsyth

 

Advertisements

A plague on both your houses (2/3)

In times of plague it was always best to err on the side of caution where pustules were concerned. Even without the secret soothsayer’s custard based predictions, cutting one of the strange mounds open suggested an up close, all round, surround sound, pus experience. Spontaneous Bucket took a deep breath, whatever happened this would be a shot to remember. He glanced over at Lucian, ‘Here goes nothing.’

Which actually was what happened. Nothing.

Sure there was a small amount of seepage and what might be described as a modest, brimstony kind of smoke. But that was it. There were certainly no pitchforks, frogs or indeed custard skins to be seen.

‘Pass me the stick with a spoon on it,’ Spontaneous whispered.

Lucian groaned, experience had taught him that it was unwise to poke your spoon stick into anything that smelled worse than you did.

‘Hurry up, I think I can see something.’

‘Fine,’ Lucian threw the implement at his companion, ‘but don’t blame me when your pottage tastes of rhubarb.’

Spontaneous lay down on his side and gently slipped the edge of the spoon into the cut, the flesh wobbled threateningly, but so far so good. ‘There IS something in here,’ he called over to Lucian, ‘I can almost touch it.’

‘Poke it with a stick.’

More than anything Spontaneous wanted to poke it with a stick. But he was shrewder than his name suggested and instead he twisted the spoon inside the gap and opened up a small, gore dripping oval which looked alarmingly like the empty eye socket his uncle had once showed him for a laugh.

‘Is it a frog?’

‘No!’ Spontaneous sounded more confident than he was. Truth be told frogs came in many shapes and sizes and this could quite possibly be the hopping vanguard of a large I-told-you-so army. He swallowed back a mouthful of bile and hooked his finger into the hole. The pus mound squealed.

Spontaneous had never moved so fast in all his life. His heart was still somewhere in the clearing and both of his legs thought they were arms, but at least his mouth was still working, ‘What’s it doing now?’

‘Why do I have to look?’

‘Because It think my eyes have looked at more than enough already.’

Lucian wriggled and squirmed his way around the countless answers he could have given, ‘Fine, but you owe me two free goes on the ducking stool.’ He peered around the sturdy trunk like he was trying to sneak a look at the exam answers over the headteacher’s shoulder. After a while he pulled back, chewing at his lip, ‘Do you remember that summer when Toothless Fortitude baked a communal casserole?’

Spontaneous shuddered, ‘I still can’t look at a pair of shoes without crying.’

‘Bear that in mind.’

‘Damn, is it that bad?’

‘No,’ Lucian inhaled from his feet up, ‘I just wanted to give you a base for comparison.’

There is a silence that is more terrifying than any amount of noise can ever be. Spontaneous gathered up a small bundle of sticks and crept forward. The clearing was more or less how he’d left it.

Except for the dragon.

 

to be concluded tomorrow….

Should you have inexplicably missed it, you can read part 1 here

©2017 Jac Forsyth

 

The Third Wish

A neat little row of leaves had gathered at the top of the cathedral steps like a crispy looking jury. Megan raked the lamp through them, ‘I bet the other genies are more flexible around the use of language.’

Now brace yourself, for her summoned companion was no exotically beautiful and scantily scarfed maiden. Indeed this genie favored the gnarly, whittled appearance of someone who boils up scantily scarfed maidens for breakfast, makes a onesie out of their skin and joins an on-line dating site under the name of Babs McFun. The genie just shrugged and carried on negotiating the release of a complicated bogie with the tip of her nail.

Overhead, the cathedral bell screeched out a dozen speckled gulls from its austere tower. Megan tried again, ‘I only said the word by mistake, and then I had to use the second one to undo all that stuff with my boyfriend and the elephant trunk… I mean that’s not really fair is it?’ but the reassurances were weak and shaped themselves around her words a fraction of a second too late.

The old woman was rubbing the bogie into the chicken flesh of her upper arm like it was a delicious body butter, ‘Is that a wish?’

‘No.’

‘Just checking.’

Megan looked out over the crowd of people milling around the square below, ‘I bet if you offered any one of them three wishes they’d jump at the chance,’ she shook her head, ‘But two wishes later and you end up right back where you started, I wouldn’t wish finding a magic lamp on my worst enemy.’

‘Is that a wish?’ the old woman sucked at her teeth. Needless to say they were yellow and had a part-time job coning off the road works on the nearby motorway.

‘No it’s not a fucking wish,’ Megan glared at her.

‘Only you said the W word.’

‘It was not a wish.’

‘As you wish, Deerie,’ she added the deerie because she looked like a hag and it was expected.

‘Gaaaaaaagh!’ Megan raked her hands through her hair. The damn genie kept saying wish, it was so easy to get confused. Luckily everything still seemed okay.

But as the final noon bell died away, and for those who could read the signs, it was enough that the gulls chose only the newly cleaned cars to spell out their ticker-tape warning.

‘I’m not one for nit picking,’ the genie said, picking a nit out of her ear, ‘but you rubbed the lamp see, and that means you want a wish.’

‘I don’t want a wish.’

‘Do you wish to wish for something else then…Deerie?’

‘Stop saying wish.’

‘Is that a wish?’

Megan puffed out an exasperated sigh as the city tram clattered across the square, ‘If it’s a wish then I have to say the words I WISH, in front of it.’

The ghastly woman bowed, ‘Your wish is my command.’

‘Wait. What?’

‘Your wish is my command.’

‘No, no, I didn’t make a wish,’ Megan raked back over the conversation, ‘I just said…’ she clamped her hand over her mouth, but it was too late and the familiar black light was already coiling from her mouth like an unkempt bikini line.

As the last gull fled to the growing silence of the tower, the air around Megan thickened, picking up the dust and spinning it into tiny ringlets. She caught at her throat, as the first of the words inked itself into her flesh, ‘No, please, that wasn’t a wish, I was just explaining the context…’ she looked around frantically, her boyfriend had warned her over and over that it was the third wish you really had to watch out for, the one you couldn’t undo.

And in the time it took for her to gather a scream, all the garish colours that had decorated the day cancelled each other out. Except for red, obviously.

At the hearing, all the witnesses swore that they hadn’t seen the girl run in front of the tram. Things like that just happened sometimes, poor girl was probably too busy texting to pay attention. The driver didn’t mention the strange looking lamp that had mysteriously appeared in his locker later that day. Why should he? A good clean up and it could be worth a bit of money. Funny how he’d just been wishing that his luck would change.

 

 

Kites

15.

He hadn’t expected there to be so many kites.

They filled the sky in every direction, snapping and twisting the air into something far too simple to fathom.  And his heart ran ragged in his chest now, like it had on that day.

 14.

The day his father had shown him how to run.  ‘Never look back,’ he had said, cradling the boy’s face in his hands, ‘the kite already knows what to do.’

 13.

But he had looked back.  And he had seen with his own eyes how the grotesque worm had trailed behind him on the orphaned earth, catching on every rough stone and bitter blade of grass when all it desired was the sky.  And it wasn’t what he wanted.

 12.

The day his father had shown him how to run.  The kite broke from his hands like a bird, soaring into the air as if it couldn’t do anything else, ‘Never look back,’ his father said, the wind snatching at his words, ‘the kite already knows what to do.’

 11.

But he had looked back.  And he had seen with his own eyes how the fragile frame of wood and cloth bumped and battered its way over the uneven ground.  As much like a bird as he was.  And it wasn’t what he wanted.

The day his father had shown him how to run.  His coat billowing between them like a grey fog, ‘Never look back,’ he said, breathing heavily, ‘the kite already knows what to do.’

 10 seconds left to live.

But he had looked back.  And he had seen how the insipid worm had jumped for the fallen branch, catching and knotting itself around the strength of the wood when it had none of its own.  And it wasn’t what he wanted.

 The day his father had shown him how to run.  Slower this time, the kite more reluctant to dance for them, ‘Never look back,’ he said, struggling to find the words, ‘the kite already knows what to do.’


8.

But he had looked back.  And he had seen with his own eyes how his father bent double with the effort of running to keep up with him, grunting as he assembled a strength that was harder to find with each breath.

The day his father had shown him how to run.  The kite hit twice, hammering into the ground before it finally took flight, ‘Never look back,’ he said, looking deep into the boy’s eyes as if it would make a difference, ‘the kite already knows what to do.’

7.

That first flight, after so many falls and so many failures, made so much sweeter because of them.  His smile had been brighter than the sun.  That day.

6.

‘You see now,’ his father had said, slipping down onto the earth, his chest rising and falling with the kite, ‘you see now what it is to be the kite.’

And he saw.  He saw the rage, he saw the torment and he saw the fury of the kite.  And he saw the dragon as it crouched low on the horizon, its lips drawn with the blood fire of the western sun.

5.

The storm had come so suddenly, and the kite had trembled with the air as thunder sounded out the shape of its ruin.

His father had called for him to pull the kite home, and the fear that shaped his words had echoed with the gathering darkness.  But the boy hadn’t pulled the kite home. He had taken the small, red handled scissors from his pocket and cut the string, watching as the kite folded itself into the air and became the air.

And he had smiled as the storm came and took the kite.

 4.

And the storm drew fury like a sword, splintering the day into shards of sour light that cast the fires of hell across the same heavens that had roared out its coming.  And it sliced, again and again at the dragon, driven by a wrath that knew nothing of what had been or what was to come.  Again and again, until blood ran slick over the acrid skies like oil on glass.  But even as the air cleared and the clouds settled, the beast rose up again, bloated with the same destruction that should have been its ending.

 3.

The day his father had shown him how to run.  ‘You see what it is to be the kite,’ he had whispered, ‘but still you do not understand.’

And the kite had roared out its freedom cry then, louder even than the storm, clawing for the same absent sun that had once blinded it.  But the climb was too harsh and as the kite broke that one last time on the air, the fall came.  And with it came the price.  Twisting and distorting all the pieces that had made it a kite into something that wasn’t a kite anymore.

The kite they had built together.  The kite he had kept safe underneath his bedroom window, propped up so it would be the first thing he saw and the last thing he saw.  The kite that had tugged at him like a puppy every day.  The kite he had held across his lap as they drove to the top of the hill that looked out over the cement factory.

The kite that had been lost that day in the eclipse of dark fury that had turned all the colours of his mother’s dress into black hate.

2.

Delicate spindles of pale wood, bought from the market on a Saturday afternoon while the football was on.  Measured lines, drawn with a wooden ruler and the plastic protractor from his pencil case.  A thousand forgotten summer days, reconstructed in geometric shapes that spread out over the table in wings of bright fabric.  Little bits of pale string cut from a neatly spiralled ball into perfect lengths and tied up in knots with nautical names.  The orange handle that looked like it didn’t belong, wound around and around the neck in neat circles.  Glue in a bottle with a plastic stick.  Bows of yellow ribbon tied into the tail.

And that one last bow.  Made out of the scraps.  Made to look more beautiful than all of the others because it was made for his mother… and she still wore in… her hair… every Saturday.

The memory that lay so soft in his mind turned in his gut like someone was wringing him out.

Today was Saturday.

They say that once milk has turned to yoghurt, nothing on this earth can turn it back.

 1 second left to live.

He hadn’t expected there to be so many kites.

They filled the sky in every direction, snapping and twisting the air into something far too simple to fathom.  And his heart ran ragged in his chest now, like it had on that day.

The End.

There was no sound as the death that he had carried with him broke free.

His father held his face like he was a child again, catching tears with fingers that were always his own, ‘Don’t look back,’ he said softly, tilting his head with the words, ‘when you look back you see only the struggle, and when you look back you forget that the kite is not the sky.’

Sleepwalking

Even the air felt unsettled.  A cold, autumn wind had driven the first shower of leaves into a wild fury and they seethed like angry bees around the half open window. Jake tried to reason with his friend again, ‘Matt, come on you need to sleep.’

‘No.’

‘Please buddy,’ he caught a desperate sigh before it could escape, ‘it’s been 3 days, you’re gonna start to get sick.’

One of frantic leaves had settled on Matt’s leg. He picked it up, turning it over and over between his fingers, ‘Just go away.’

‘I get it, you’re scared that if you sleep you’ll dream about her,’ Jake tilted his head softly, trying to catch sight of their friendship, ‘and then you have to wake up and lose her all over again.’

‘Not even close.’

‘Well then tell me, Matt. Because we’re both gonna go crazy otherwise.’

‘I saw her, when she left to…’ he spoke so softly that it seemed like some of the words were lost even before they were spoken, ‘…when she got into the car.’

‘I know.’

The dark shadows of loss had torn far deeper into the young man’s face than a lack of sleep ever could, ‘I saw her today.’

‘We need to sleep to function, if we don’t get enough it messes with our minds, makes us see things that aren’t there.

He carried on like Jake hadn’t spoken, ‘I saw her before she drove away, I saw her before my phone rang.’

‘Matt, don’t go there.’

‘I saw her before they told me that she was dead.’

‘You can’t keep on torturing yourself like this, Sylvie would hate it.’

‘I saw her today.’

‘Matt…’

‘And it’s still today, Jake. As long as I stay awake, it’s still today.’ A tear had gathered at the corner of his eye, but it didn’t fall. It felt like his grief was lost too, ‘But if I go to sleep, when I wake up it will be tomorrow. And that means I will have said goodbye to her yesterday.’

‘You can’t keep hold of her,’ Jake searched for something to say that would fix the unfixable, ‘not even by staying awake for the rest of your life.’

Matt sat up suddenly, ‘I’m not having a day between us,’ he said, ‘and if that means staying awake forever, then that’s what I’ll do.’

‘So you want to die too, is that what this is about?’

‘You can’t die from lack of sleep.’

Jake took hold of his friend, ‘Fine, but you want to know what will happen if you keep on with this? Your brain will begin to compensate, your thoughts will become jumbled and you will lose the ability to control your life, Matt. You’ll live in a world where you no longer know what’s real and what’s imagined. And in that world every single day of your life will be lost. You won’t be dead, but you won’t be living either.  You’ll be sleepwalking your way through waking nightmares.  You can feel this starting already, I know you can.’

The tear fell then, slipping silently and deprived of context onto the leaf he still held in his hand, ‘How do I do this, Jake? How do I live a lifetime of tomorrows?’

Jake pulled his friend close, ‘Tomorrow is just yesterday with a hopeful grin and a fresh set of clothes on buddy. Both of them are about fear. This here, this,’ he patted his arms around Matt’s back, ‘this one moment is ours. And I know it feels raw and brutally painful right now, but it’s also real.’

‘You been reading The power of Now again?’ Matt said, leaning into his shoulder.

The wind that had driven that first shower of leaves into a fury, sighed and fluttered around the half open window, drawing the leaf from his soft fingers and dropping it gently to the floor.

‘Now is all we have,’ Jake whispered as his friend closed his eyes for the first time in three days, ‘and there’s not a damn thing on this earth that can take it away from us.’

The invisible man

Some of them had fallen into the radioactive vats, some had been pushed and some, like Finn, had been born into them.

No one had ever really counted how many there were.  By their nature it was hard to tell them apart, and one became another all too easily.  But everyone knew that they were there, and everyone knew what they were.

And it wasn’t like they could turn transparent or anything.  They just had this knack of becoming part of the backdrop.  Finn once said it was more like natural camouflage than anything else.  Sure, they bore the toxic aftermath on their flesh, but it was in the minds of the Noticeable People that the real magic happened.  A dark enchantment seemed to possess them, and it erased the Invisible from the picture book of their thoughts quicker than changing channels on a TV.

His hair was dark, like anyone’s son.

It wasn’t really the vat or even the radioactivity that was the problem, it was what happened next.  And that just happened bit by bit, until being visible was harder than disappearing.

His skin was still soft with youth, and he hid it away like the sun would kill him.

The strangest thing about the Invisible was that they didn’t seem to need things.  Not like the Noticeable People did.  They had a way of living in the world with nothing.  Not even a home.  Finn said that all the things he had believed about being a Human had been taken away a chunk at a time, like he was being eaten alive. And when he spoke those words, he held his hand close to his mouth, like someone would find out.

There were charities of course, ways to help them.  And the Noticeable People could choose how their donations were spent, because if you were a Noticeable Person, your money still belonged to you, even after you’d given it away.

The charities had been enough for a long time, when the Invisible had been called something else, when there had only been a few of them to worry about.  But now it seemed like the toxic vats were everywhere, and each day the desperate marches and overcrowded boats brought more of the Invisible to the shore of the Noticeable People.  And with the numbers came an unsettling fear:  The contamination of their misfortune was too threatening to be allowed to spread in a compassionate and civilised society.

Which was why the Plague Ships were built.  Vast holding pens for the pestilence of walking corpses, the broken and the damned, corralled and marooned in a dry sea, confined to the places where death and despair were not afraid to do the work of good and honest men.

Finn had dragon-green eyes.  Years before someone had told him that it was his eyes that had started it all, that coded in his genetic configuration had been his own radioactive vat.  When he told me, I could see that they had said it like it was his fault.  He slept behind the portable gas station with his arms bound around his head.  You couldn’t wake him, likely he would punch you if you did.  But the ones who walked with him respected that.  They knew that the fading always came at a cost.

He wore a pair of grey headphones with nothing on the end of them.   And it was okay because he was different.  They were all different.  Too damn different.  Too strange, too hurt, too unwanted, too angry.

Too many.

And anyway, they looked out for each other.  And being raped or robbed was just part of being Invisible.  And the children all played together and didn’t mind not having parents.  And it wasn’t that cold at night.  And a boat was always a choice.  They just wanted an excuse to move here.

Sometimes Finn flinched when we were laughing and I went to touch his arm.

He always drew his cigarettes down to filter, hidden away inside his hand, like the burning didn’t matter as much as the smoke.  And each time I sat with him in the alcove of his leprosy, he would look at me through his sweet spider lashes as if he was trying to figure out what I wanted from him.

Finn was 16.  There was no one left alive to love him.  And going home was worse than staying lost among the Invisible.

‘Being here is like coming back from somewhere else now,’ he said the last time we met.  And I could see in his eyes that disappearing wasn’t just about the outside of him.

Midas

Desire was so damn easy. And honestly it had a way of prostituting sensibility so that even something as distasteful as greed arrived at the ball in a guided coach. Anna flicked back through the contents of her shopping cart and sighed. The fact was that avarice had always been drawn by the horses of social normality. It was probably something to do with the promise of happiness that did it.

Her latest binge had dropped out at the bottom of the first page, but there wasn’t one item in her virtual basket that she didn’t need, that she didn’t deserve. So why did pressing the confirm button just fill her with that same old hollow feeling, the one that seemed to be hanging around a lot more lately?

A few years ago she’d have been dreaming of all this. When she was struggling to survive in a crummy flat with only a pay as you go electric meter and a dodgy microwave to get by on. Every night that other Anna had written in her wish journal and renewed her vow that one day she’d be rich enough to never have to worry about choosing between food and heat again.

And now here she was, successful, admired and yes, absolutely she was rich. Money that had once been so hard to come by, seemed drawn to her. Everything she touched, blossomed and bore fruit… and she had to admit lately there had been a growing thought in her mind that she could poop in a bag, review it as a refreshing face mask and then watch it sell faster than she could produce it. Basically, life had thumbed through her wish journal and granted every single one of them a chunk at a time.

Why was she still so fucking unhappy?

She looked out over the London skyline and took another drink. Maybe it was about relationships? They hadn’t featured too heavily in her dreams back then, and there had always been Luke. She smiled and curled her fingers around the stem of the glass. God, she hadn’t thought about him in years. Luke, the ragged pizza delivery boy she’d met while she was working at the local supermarket. He had looked at her like he’d never seen anyone so beautiful in his life and then he’d blushed. Luke. So sweet, so genuine. So dead end that she hadn’t given him the time of day other than to tell him of her plans to get out of that ghastly hell hole and make something of her life. He had hung around her for a bit, but as her life picked up, she’d pulled the plug on whatever their relationship had been. He hadn’t even asked why, he just said that some people never tipped, no matter how hard it had been to find them.

Hey, it wasn’t like the men in her life now weren’t attractive. They all looked like they belonged in a film, everyone did… here. Of course, they weren’t the sort of men you had ‘Relationships’ with. You had sex, sure. But anything more than that was way too 20th century to paddle in.

But.

But, maybe it was time to do something different to the rest of the glittering pack? After all, wasn’t that what she was all about? And the brand could carry a couple easy enough, if she sold it.

She poured another drink. Funny how Luke had popped into her head like that. That sad, social reject was probably slobbing out on his grubby little sofa right now, playing computer games and drinking his life away. Missing her.

Missing her.

Maybe she would call him up? The thought jumped in her chest. Maybe they could meet up somewhere, out of the spotlight, just to talk over old times? See what he was up to, see if he still had that stupid way of looking at her. See if there was anything still there… between them? And actually, now she came to think about it, he had been really sweet in his own way. Sweet enough so she could take that ragged kid and make him into something. After all, turning lead into gold was what she did best.

She grinned then, tucking her legs up underneath her. She would call him tomorrow and get the ball rolling. It was definitely a relationship she needed.

And that was the other bastard thing about desire, it pretended that it was about getting stuff. But it wasn’t. And the most addictive part of it always went under the radar.

 

Medicine Man

As the last remnants of a colourless sunrise faded from the horizon they saw him, the man from the desert who had come in search of ghosts.

They rose up then, and before his shadow had even wrapped itself around the first of the granite stones, they were upon him.  Holding out jars sealed with wax and bound with ribbons and brightly coloured braids.  And he lifted each of the glass cages in turn, pressing it against the hollow leather of his skin until his body shook and beads of copper sweat dropped from the point of his chin.  Under his hand the jars jumped and fractured in spider silk patterns, calling out a silence so loud that the people crouched low and wrapped their arms around their heads to be free of it.

When he finally spoke, his voice was as dark and deep as the myriad of caves that coiled beneath the small village, ‘You are bound to me,’ he said, ‘you creatures of fear and torment.’

And with his words came a great roar of fire, which snatched each tortured jar from his hands, flinging it across the earth in a primordial arc that boiled and scoured the crude glass back into the same pale sand that had delivered the ghost hunter.

When all the jars were returned to the earth, the man walked in the places they had been, and stooping low he collected up the braids and ribbons, tying them like trophies to the spaces of his dark coat with fingers that had once again blistered into pus.

And when he was done he raised his arms wide so that the people there could see the journey he had taken spelled out in ticker tape warnings.

‘It is late,’ the people cried, ‘do not walk out into the desert tonight.’  Because it was part of the agreement that they should ask him to stay with them.

The man tilted his head in appreciation, ‘I thank you,’ he said, ‘but still I must go.’  Because it was part of the agreement that he always declined.

‘No,’ they sang, ‘for the night is cold and cruel.’

‘This is no place for the likes of me,’ he said.  Because it was part of the agreement that he would go back into the desert and nothing more would be heard of him until the year had turned full circle and the ghosts called him back to them.

‘Please stay,’ they cried, happy in the knowing that he would not, ‘please stay and take supper with us.’

The man narrowed his eyes, ‘I have told you that I cannot stay,’ he said, ‘and yet you persist in your asking, why is this?’

The people hesitated, glancing at each other for the unscripted answer, ‘Because it has always been this way,’ the eldest of them said.

‘And why is it that you dress your ghosts in such sweet colours?’ the man said, flicking his blistered fingers through the bright ribbons and braids.

‘Because it has always been this way,’ the eldest replied.

‘So it is that you speak the truth,’ he twisted his mouth into a smile, ‘and who would choose another path when the one you follow is lined with such sweet scented herbs?’

The villagers looked for a question in his words, but there was none to be found.

‘I will stay with you,’ he said then, ‘and each day I will take off 100 ribbons and return them to you until all are set free from me.’

‘No,’ the villagers cried out in horror, ‘please, there are too many, we would surely die.’

‘Then perhaps I will make it 200 each day,’ he smiled again, ‘for I would not wish you to die before all that you have given is returned.’

They knelt then, begging him for mercy, ‘Please do not condemn us to this fate, please, there must be another way.’

He took a long, deep breath, ‘We exist in terms of opposites,’ he said, as the evening mist curled around his feet, ‘rise up and think on this.’

But the people bowed lower, wringing their hands, ‘Tell us what to do,’ they wailed, ‘tell us how to appease you?’

‘Fill your fire pits with flowers,’ he said, ‘braid your houses and tie bright ribbons in the hair of your children.’

‘Yes!’ they cried, ‘This we will gladly do for you.’

‘Very well,’ he said, and with his words, the first howl sounded out across the desert, ‘but be warned that all things long to return to their home, and the ghosts of your lives grow restless for their hearth.’  He turned then and walked back the way he had come, and all the colours of his coat were stolen into grey by the night.

The morning sun came gently as the year began again.  The villagers rose early and returned again to the great vats of dye and the mighty fires that seared the white sand back into glass.  And they didn’t give another thought to the man who held all of their monsters inside his sliding flesh.

And on the wind, came a whisper of ice, ‘You are bound to me,’ it sighed, ‘you creatures of fear and torment.

Ghosts are made of nothing but past imaginings.  But bindings, bindings are formed of spoons and needles and of silk ribbons and braids… and who among us would choose to turn away the Medicine Man?