Take A Newspaper. The Shape Of The Future

Finished a new drawing yesterday! I use chance operations to create all of my drawings, paintings and collages 🙂 This piece is available to buy on eBay, along with many others. I also have a little book of my recent Organ poetry art series coming soon!

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Short Story Saturday – The Damned Thing

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THE DAMNED THING

By Ambrose Bierce

 

I

By THE light of a tallow candle, which had been placed on one end of a rough table, a man was reading something written in a book. It was an old account book, greatly worn; and the writing was not, apparently, very legible, for the man sometimes held the page close to the flame of the candle to get a stronger light upon it. The shadow of the book would then throw into obscurity a half of the room, darkening a number of faces and figures; for besides the reader, eight other men were present. Seven of them sat against the rough log walls, silent and motionless, and, the room being small, not very far from the table. By extending an arm any one of them could have touched the eighth man, who lay on the table, face upward, partly covered by a sheet, his arms at his sides. He was dead.

The man with the book was not reading aloud, and no one spoke; all seemed to be waiting for something to occur; the dead man only was without expectation. From the blank darkness outside came in, through the aperture that served for a window, all the ever unfamiliar noises of night in the wilderness—the long, nameless note of a distant coyote; the stilly pulsing thrill of tireless insects in trees; strange cries of night birds, so different from those of the birds of day; the drone of great blundering beetles, and all that mysterious chorus of small sounds that seem always to have been but half heard when they have suddenly ceased, as if conscious of an indiscretion. But nothing of all this was noted in that company; its members were not overmuch addicted to idle interest in matters of no practical importance; that was obvious in every line of their rugged faces—obvious even in the dim light of the single candle. They were evidently men of the vicinity—farmers and woodmen.

The person reading was a trifle different; one would have said of him that he was of the world, worldly, albeit there was that in his attire which attested a certain fellowship with the organisms of his environment. His coat would hardly have passed muster in San Francisco: his footgear was not of urban origin, and the hat that lay by him on the floor (he was the only one uncovered) was such that if one had considered it as an article of mere personal adornment he would have missed its meaning. In countenance the man was rather prepossessing, with just a hint of sternness; though that he may have assumed or cultivated, as appropriate to one in authority. For he was a coroner. It was by virtue of his office that he had possession of the book in which he was reading; it had been found among the dead man’s effects—in his cabin, where the inquest was now taking place.

When the coroner had finished reading he put the book into his breast pocket. At that moment the door was pushed open and a young man entered. He, clearly, was not of mountain birth and breeding: he was clad as those who dwell in cities. His clothing was dusty, however, as from travel. He had, in fact, been riding hard to attend the inquest.

The coroner nodded; no one else greeted him.

“We have waited for you,” said the coroner. “It is necessary to have done with this business to-night.”

The young man smiled. “I am sorry to have kept you,” he said. “I went away, not to evade your summons, but to post to my newspaper an account of what I suppose I am called back to relate.”

The coroner smiled.

“The account that you posted to your newspaper,” he said, “differs probably from that which you will give here under oath.”

“That,” replied the other, rather hotly and with a visible flush, “is as you choose. I used manifold paper and have a copy of what I sent. It was not written as news, for it is incredible, but as fiction. It may go as a part of my testimony under oath.”

“But you say it is incredible.”

“That is nothing to you, sir, if I also swear that it is true.”

The coroner was apparently not greatly affected by the young man’s manifest resentment. He was silent for some moments, his eyes upon the floor. The men about the sides of the cabin talked in whispers, but seldom withdrew their gaze from the face of the corpse. Presently the coroner lifted his eyes and said: “We will resume the inquest.”

The men removed their hats. The witness was sworn.

“What is your name?” the coroner asked.

“William Harker.”

“Age?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“You knew the deceased, Hugh Morgan?”

“Yes.”

“You were with him when he died?”

“Near him.”

“How did that happen—your presence, I mean?”

“I was visiting him at this place to shoot and fish. A part of my purpose, however, was to study him, and his odd, solitary way of life. He seemed a good model for a character in fiction. I sometimes write stories.”

“I sometimes read them.”

“Thank you.”

“Stories in general—not yours.”

Some of the jurors laughed. Against a sombre background humor shows high lights. Soldiers in the intervals of battle laugh easily, and a jest in the death chamber conquers by surprise.

“Relate the circumstances of this man’s death,” said the coroner. “You may use any notes or memoranda that you please.”

The witness understood. Pulling a manuscript from his breast pocket he held it near the candle, and turning the leaves until he found the passage that he wanted, began to read.

II

“…The sun had hardly risen when we left the house. We were looking for quail, each with a shotgun, but we had only one dog. Morgan said that our best ground was beyond a certain ridge that he pointed out, and we crossed it by a trail through the chaparral. On the other side was comparatively level ground, thickly covered with wild oats. As we emerged from the chaparral, Morgan was but a few yards in advance. Suddenly, we heard, at a little distance to our right, and partly in front, a noise as of some animal thrashing about in the bushes, which we could see were violently agitated.

“‘We’ve started a deer,’ said. ‘I wish we had brought a rifle.’

“Morgan, who had stopped and was intently watching the agitated chaparral, said nothing, but had cocked both barrels of his gun, and was holding it in readiness to aim. I thought him a trifle excited, which surprised me, for he had a reputation for exceptional coolness, even in moments of sudden and imminent peril.

“‘O, come!’ I said. ‘You are not going to fill up a deer with quail-shot, are you?’

“Still he did not reply; but, catching a sight of his face as he turned it slightly toward me, I was struck by the pallor of it. Then I understood that we had serious business on hand, and my first conjecture was that we had ‘jumped’ a grizzly. I advanced to Morgan’s side, cocking my piece as I moved.

“The bushes were now quiet, and the sounds had ceased, but Morgan was as attentive to the place as before.

“‘What is it? What the devil is it?’ I asked.

“‘That Damned Thing!’ he replied, without turning his head. His voice was husky and unnatural. He trembled visibly.

“I was about to speak further, when I observed the wild oats near the place of the disturbance moving in the most inexplicable way. I can hardly describe it. It seemed as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only bent it, but pressed it down—crushed it so that it did not rise, and this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly toward us.

“Nothing that I had ever seen had affected me so strangely as this unfamiliar and unaccountable phenomenon, yet I am unable to recall any sense of fear. I remember—and tell it here because, singularly enough, I recollected it then—that once, in looking carelessly out of an open window, I momentarily mistook a small tree close at hand for one of a group of larger trees at a little distance away. It looked the same size as the others, but, being more distinctly and sharply defined in mass and detail, seemed out of harmony with them. It was a mere falsification of the law of aerial perspective, but it startled, almost terrified me. We so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our safety, a warning of unthinkable calamity. So now the apparently causeless movement of the herbage, and the slow, undeviating approach of the line of disturbance were distinctly disquieting. My companion appeared actually frightened, and I could hardly credit my senses when I saw him suddenly throw his gun to his shoulders and fire both barrels at the agitated grass! Before the smoke of the discharge had cleared away I heard a loud savage cry—a scream like that of a wild animal—and, flinging his gun upon the ground, Morgan sprang away and ran swiftly from the spot. At the same instant I was thrown violently to the ground by the impact of something unseen in the smoke—some soft, heavy substance that seemed thrown against me with great force.

“Before I could get upon my feet and recover my gun, which seemed to have been struck from my hands, I heard Morgan crying out as if in mortal agony, and mingling with his cries were such hoarse savage sounds as one hears from fighting dogs. Inexpressibly terrified, I struggled to my feet and looked in the direction of Morgan’s retreat; and may heaven in mercy spare me from another sight like that! At a distance of less than thirty yards was my friend, down upon one knee, his head thrown back at a frightful angle, hatless, his long hair in disorder and his whole body in violent movement from side to side, backward and forward. His right arm was lifted and seemed to lack the hand—at least, I could see none. The other arm was invisible. At times, as my memory now reports this extraordinary scene, I could discern but a part of his body; it was as if he had been partly blotted out—I can not otherwise express it—then a shifting of his position would bring it all into view again.

“All this must have occurred within a few seconds, yet in that time Morgan assumed all the postures of a determined wrestler vanquished by superior weight and strength. I saw nothing but him, and him not always distinctly. During the entire incident his shouts and curses were heard, as if through an enveloping uproar of such sounds of rage and fury as I had never heard from the throat of man or brute!

“For a moment only I stood irresolute, then, throwing down my gun, I ran forward to my friend’s assistance. I had a vague belief that he was suffering from a fit or some form of convulsion. Before I could reach his side he was down and quiet. All sounds had ceased, but, with a feeling of such terror as even these awful events had not inspired, I now saw the same mysterious movement of the wild oats prolonging itself from the trampled area about the prostrate man toward the edge of a wood. It was only when it had reached the wood that I was able to withdraw my eyes and look at my companion. He was dead.”

III

The coroner rose from his seat and stood beside the dead man. Lifting an edge of the sheet he pulled it away, exposing the entire body, altogether naked and showing in the candle light a clay-like yellow. It had, however, broad maculations of bluish-black, obviously caused by extravasated blood from contusions. The chest and sides looked as if they had been beaten with a bludgeon. There were dreadful lacerations; the skin was torn in strips and shreds.

The coroner moved round to the end of the table and undid a silk handkerchief, which had been passed under the chin and knotted on the top of the head. When the handkerchief was drawn away it exposed what had been the throat. Some of the jurors who had risen to get a better view repented their curiosity, and turned away their faces. Witness Harker went to the open window and leaned out across the sill, faint and sick. Dropping the handkerchief upon the dead man’s neck, the coroner stepped to an angle of the room, and from a pile of clothing produced one garment after another, each of which he held up a moment for inspection. All were torn, and stiff with blood. The jurors did not make a closer inspection. They seemed rather uninterested. They had, in truth, seen all this before; the only thing that was new to them being Harker’s testimony.

“Gentlemen,” the coroner said, “we have no more evidence, I think. Your duty has been already explained to you; if there is nothing you wish to ask you may go outside and consider your verdict.”

The foreman rose—a tall, bearded man of sixty, coarsely clad.

“I should like to ask one question, Mr. Coroner,” he said. “What asylum did this yer last witness escape from?”

“Mr. Harker,” said the coroner, gravely and tranquilly, “from what asylum did you last escape?”

Harker flushed crimson again, but said nothing, and the seven jurors rose and solemnly filed out of the cabin.

“If you have done insulting me, sir,” said Harker, as soon as he and the officer were left alone with the dead man, “I suppose I am at liberty to go?”

“Yes.”

Harker started to leave, but paused, with his hand on the door latch. The habit of his profession was strong in him—stronger than his sense of personal dignity. He turned about and said:

“The book that you have there—I recognize it as Morgan’s diary. You seemed greatly interested in it; you read in it while I was testifying. May I see it? The public would like—”

“The book will cut no figure in this matter,” replied the official, slipping it into his coat pocket; “all the entries in it were made before the writer’s death.”

As Harker passed out of the house the jury reentered and stood about the table on which the now covered corpse showed under the sheet with sharp definition. The foreman seated himself near the candle, produced from his breast pocket a pencil and scrap of paper, and wrote rather laboriously the following verdict, which with various degrees of effort all signed:

“We, the jury, do find that the remains come to their death at the hands of a mountain lion, but some of us thinks, all the same, they had fits.”

IV

In the diary of the late Hugh Morgan are certain interesting entries having, possibly, a scientific value as suggestions. At the inquest upon his body the book was not put in evidence; possibly the coroner thought it not worth while to confuse the jury. The date of the first of the entries mentioned can not be ascertained; the upper part of the leaf is torn away; the part of the entry remaining is as follows:

“… would run in a half circle, keeping his head turned always toward the centre and again he would stand still, barking furiously. At last he ran away into the brush as fast as he could go. I thought at first that he had gone mad, but on returning to the house found no other alteration in his manner than what was obviously due to fear of punishment.

“Can a dog see with his nose? Do odors impress some olfactory centre with images of the thing emitting them? . . .

“Sept 2.—Looking at the stars last night as they rose above the crest of the ridge east of the house, I observed them successively disappear—from left to right. Each was eclipsed but an instant, and only a few at the same time, but along the entire length of the ridge all that were within a degree or two of the crest were blotted out. It was as if something had passed along between me and them; but I could not see it, and the stars were not thick enough to define its outline. Ugh! I don’t like this. . . .”

Several weeks’ entries are missing, three leaves being torn from the book.

“Sept. 27.—It has been about here again—I find evidences of its presence every day. I watched again all of last night in the same cover, gun in hand, double-charged with buckshot. In the morning the fresh footprints were there, as before. Yet I would have sworn that I did not sleep—indeed, I hardly sleep at all. It is terrible, insupportable! If these amazing experiences are real I shall go mad; if they are fanciful I am mad already.

“Oct. 3.—I shall not go—it shall not drive me away. No, this is my house, my land. God hates a coward….

“Oct. 5.—I can stand it no longer; I have invited Harker to pass a few weeks with me—he has a level head. I can judge from his manner if he thinks me mad.

“Oct. 7.—I have the solution of the problem; it came to me last night—suddenly, as by revelation. How simple—how terribly simple!

“There are sounds that we can not hear. At either end of the scale are notes that stir no chord of that imperfect instrument, the human ear. They are too high or too grave. I have observed a flock of blackbirds occupying an entire treetop—the tops of several trees—and all in full song. Suddenly—in a moment—at absolutely the same instant—all spring into the air and fly away. How? They could not all see one another—whole treetops intervened. At no point could a leader have been visible to all. There must have been a signal of warning or command, high and shrill above the din, but by me unheard. I have observed, too, the same simultaneous flight when all were silent, among not only blackbirds, but other birds—quail, for example, widely separated by bushes—even on opposite sides of a hill.

“It is known to seamen that a school of whales basking or sporting on the surface of the ocean, miles apart, with the convexity of the earth between them, will sometimes dive at the same instant—all gone out of sight in a moment. The signal has been sounded—too grave for the ear of the sailor at the masthead and his comrades on the deck—who nevertheless feel its vibrations in the ship as the stones of a cathedral are stirred by the bass of the organ.

“As with sounds, so with colors. At each end of the solar spectrum the chemist can detect the presence of what are known as ‘actinic’ rays. They represent colors—integral colors in the composition of light—which we are unable to discern. The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its range is but a few octaves of the real ‘chromatic scale’ I am not mad; there are colors that we can not see.

“And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a color!”

 

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842 – circa 1914) was an American short story writer, journalist, poet, and Civil War veteran. – Wikipedia

Short Story Saturday – Dunce by Mike Russell

Dunce

 

Mike Russell

 

Everyone calls Dunce ‘Dunce’. Everyone thinks that Dunce is an idiot. I used to think so too but not any more.

 

Dunce is completely bald and has a really pointed head so the temptation to get him paralytic on his thirtieth birthday, carry him to the tattooist’s and get a nice big ‘D’ smack bang in the middle of his forehead was too much for me. Trouble is he can’t afford to have it removed so he wears a big plaster over it. Gangs of children tease him.

‘What’s underneath the plaster, mister? Show us!’

They swear he has a third eye under there.

 

My name is Bill but Dunce calls me ‘Fez’ on account of my hat. I’ve known Dunce for over sixteen years. I don’t have to use my memory to work that out; I just count the number of boxes of Turkish Delight I’ve got stashed in my cupboard. Dunce buys me a box every birthday. Dunce thinks that because I wear a fez I must be Turkish (I’m not) and that being Turkish I must like that powder-covered gunk (I don’t, I hate the stuff).

 

On my last birthday, after saying:

‘No, Dunce, I’ll eat it later,’ and stashing box number sixteen in the cupboard, I decided to take Dunce to the theatre. He’d never been before.

The play was called ‘Death in the Dark’. We had front row seats. Dunce was captivated. He stared at the actors with a gaping mouth.

The lights dimmed to darkness. Kitty Malone, the beautiful star of the show, was stood centre stage. A shot was heard. Dunce jumped right out of his seat.

‘What was that?’ he said.

The lights came back on and Kitty was lying in a pool of blood. Dunce let out a scream then shouted:

‘Someone call for an ambulance! And the police!’

The audience thought that Dunce was an actor, that the play was being cleverly extended beyond the stage, questioning the boundaries of theatre.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ Dunce shouted at the audience. ‘How can you carry on as if nothing has happened?’

‘This is wonderful, just wonderful,’ I heard someone say behind me.

Kitty was stoically sticking to her role, thinking that the show must go on, but Dunce was clambering up onto the stage, crying, stroking Kitty’s hair and checking her pulse.

‘She’s alive!’ he shouted with relief.

‘No I’m not!’ Kitty hissed at him through clenched teeth.

That was it; I was in hysterics. What a birthday treat this was turning out to be.

‘I’m acting. It’s part of the play. No one really shot me,’ Kitty hissed at Dunce.

The realisation was excruciatingly slow. I watched Dunce’s face change from shock to confusion to understanding to embarrassment. He made his way back to his seat. He didn’t speak or look at me until the play was over. The play got a standing ovation and we headed for the bar.

 

Kitty was in the bar too. She smiled at Dunce who blushed. She seemed to be fascinated by the top of his head. She walked over and invited him to her dressing room.

 

Twelve hours later and Dunce was in love! How about that? And what’s more, Kitty was in love too! And not only that but they were in love with each other! Kitty fell for Dunce. Not ‘fell for’ as in ‘was deceived by’ because there’s no deception where Dunce is concerned, he can’t do it, but she fell from her deceptions towards him. I couldn’t believe it.

‘It won’t last,’ I said to Dunce. ‘Enjoy it while you can but face facts: you are Dunce and she is Kitty Malone. Think about it.’

 

Dunce told me that Kitty had a thing about ice cream cones, a fetish you could say. She ate six a day. She liked to bite off the tip of the cone and suck out all the ice cream. She had a recording of ice cream van music that she played whilst they were having sex. She was forever stroking the top of Dunce’s head.

 

Then came the day. Dunce came round looking really worried.

‘Fez, have you seen Kitty? Do you know where she is?’

‘No, I haven’t seen her. Why? What’s the problem?’

‘I had a dream last night,’ Dunce said. ‘I dreamt that I was in bed and I looked at the calendar by the side of my bed and it was tonight. I put out my hand to touch Kitty but she wasn’t there. There was just this cold sludge covering her side of the bed and this smell: vanilla. It was melted ice cream.’

‘So what’s the problem?’

‘I think that something is going to happen to Kitty. I have to find her before tonight. I don’t want to wake up tomorrow morning alone in a bed full of melted ice cream.’

‘Dunce, dreams don’t mean anything and prophecies are impossible. Sit yourself down. Let’s have a couple of beers.’

I opened a cupboard, reached in to get the beers and a pile of boxes of Turkish Delight toppled over and fell out, breaking open and spilling their contents all over the floor. Dunce looked at the boxes then looked at me. I watched his face go through the same slow transformation from shock to confusion to understanding to embarrassment that I had witnessed so many times before.

‘You don’t like Turkish Delight?’ he said.

I said nothing and guiltily handed him a beer.

Dunce sighed then said:

‘So why did I have that dream?’

‘No reason at all,’ I said.

We sat in silence for a while then Dunce suddenly stood up.

‘It’s no good, Fez, I have to find her.’

 

Dunce found Kitty in the centre of town, lying on the pavement in a pool of blood. An ambulance and the police were on their way. An ice cream vendor was crying and yelling:

‘I don’t understand! I don’t understand!’

A huge, plastic ice cream cone was protruding from Kitty’s chest. It had fallen from on top of the ice cream shop for no apparent reason, smashed through her rib cage and crushed her heart.

Dunce cried. Then he cried some more. The next day, he cried and the day after that he cried. Three weeks later, he awoke, dressed, ate some breakfast, then cried. The next day, he came round to see me. He was crying.

‘Hello Dunce,’ I said. ‘Do you want a beer?’

‘What’s wrong with you?’ he said. ‘How can you carry on as if nothing has happened?’

‘It was an accident, Dunce,’ I said angrily, ‘a random occurrence. These things happen. You just have to get on with life. Why are you so stupid?’

I regretted saying it as soon as I heard it come out of my mouth. Dunce stared at me with tears in his eyes.

‘A fez is only a severed cone,’ Dunce said. ‘At least I have a point.’

I took off my hat and looked at it sullenly. Dunce had a point that he had a point. If he’d found Kitty a moment earlier… if I hadn’t delayed him with my arrogance, my cynicism…

‘Fez,’ Dunce said, ‘you remember the tears that I cried in the theatre when I thought that Kitty was dead but she wasn’t? I think that the tears I am crying now are the same as those. I didn’t understand what was going on in the theatre and I didn’t understand what was going on when the cone fell on her. I think that maybe we only cry because we don’t understand what is going on. Maybe if we understood what is really going on we wouldn’t cry at all, ever.’

Dunce smiled through his tears and beneath the plaster on his forehead I swear I saw something move.

 

Copyright © 2014 Mike Russell.

Read more of Mike’s work here!

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Short Story Saturday – 2 B R 0 2 B by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

This week’s short story is Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s 2 B R 0 2 B.

Got a problem? Just pick up the phone. It solved them all—and all the same way!

2
B
R
0
2
B

by KURT VONNEGUT, JR.


Everything was perfectly swell.

There were no prisons, no slums, no insane asylums, no cripples, no poverty, no wars.

All diseases were conquered. So was old age.

Death, barring accidents, was an adventure for volunteers.

The population of the United States was stabilized at forty-million souls.

One bright morning in the Chicago Lying-in Hospital, a man named Edward K. Wehling, Jr., waited for his wife to give birth. He was the only man waiting. Not many people were born a day any more.

Wehling was fifty-six, a mere stripling in a population whose average age was one hundred and twenty-nine.

X-rays had revealed that his wife was going to have triplets. The children would be his first.

Young Wehling was hunched in his chair, his head in his hand. He was so rumpled, so still and colorless as to be virtually invisible. His camouflage was perfect, since the waiting room had a disorderly and demoralized air, too. Chairs and ashtrays had been moved away from the walls. The floor was paved with spattered dropcloths.

The room was being redecorated. It was being redecorated as a memorial to a man who had volunteered to die.

A sardonic old man, about two hundred years old, sat on a stepladder, painting a mural he did not like. Back in the days when people aged visibly, his age would have been guessed at thirty-five or so. Aging had touched him that much before the cure for aging was found.

The mural he was working on depicted a very neat garden. Men and women in white, doctors and nurses, turned the soil, planted seedlings, sprayed bugs, spread fertilizer.

Men and women in purple uniforms pulled up weeds, cut down plants that were old and sickly, raked leaves, carried refuse to trash-burners.

Never, never, never—not even in medieval Holland nor old Japan—had a garden been more formal, been better tended. Every plant had all the loam, light, water, air and nourishment it could use.

A hospital orderly came down the corridor, singing under his breath a popular song:

If you don’t like my kisses, honey,
Here’s what I will do:
I’ll go see a girl in purple,
Kiss this sad world toodle-oo.
If you don’t want my lovin’,
Why should I take up all this space?
I’ll get off this old planet,
Let some sweet baby have my place.

The orderly looked in at the mural and the muralist. “Looks so real,” he said, “I can practically imagine I’m standing in the middle of it.”

“What makes you think you’re not in it?” said the painter. He gave a satiric smile. “It’s called ‘The Happy Garden of Life,’ you know.”

“That’s good of Dr. Hitz,” said the orderly.


He was referring to one of the male figures in white, whose head was a portrait of Dr. Benjamin Hitz, the hospital’s Chief Obstetrician. Hitz was a blindingly handsome man.

“Lot of faces still to fill in,” said the orderly. He meant that the faces of many of the figures in the mural were still blank. All blanks were to be filled with portraits of important people on either the hospital staff or from the Chicago Office of the Federal Bureau of Termination.

“Must be nice to be able to make pictures that look like something,” said the orderly.

The painter’s face curdled with scorn. “You think I’m proud of this daub?” he said. “You think this is my idea of what life really looks like?”

“What’s your idea of what life looks like?” said the orderly.

The painter gestured at a foul dropcloth. “There’s a good picture of it,” he said. “Frame that, and you’ll have a picture a damn sight more honest than this one.”

“You’re a gloomy old duck, aren’t you?” said the orderly.

“Is that a crime?” said the painter.

The orderly shrugged. “If you don’t like it here, Grandpa—” he said, and he finished the thought with the trick telephone number that people who didn’t want to live any more were supposed to call. The zero in the telephone number he pronounced “naught.”

The number was: “2 B R 0 2 B.”

It was the telephone number of an institution whose fanciful sobriquets included: “Automat,” “Birdland,” “Cannery,” “Catbox,” “De-louser,” “Easy-go,” “Good-by, Mother,” “Happy Hooligan,” “Kiss-me-quick,” “Lucky Pierre,” “Sheepdip,” “Waring Blendor,” “Weep-no-more” and “Why Worry?”

“To be or not to be” was the telephone number of the municipal gas chambers of the Federal Bureau of Termination.


The painter thumbed his nose at the orderly. “When I decide it’s time to go,” he said, “it won’t be at the Sheepdip.”

“A do-it-yourselfer, eh?” said the orderly. “Messy business, Grandpa. Why don’t you have a little consideration for the people who have to clean up after you?”

The painter expressed with an obscenity his lack of concern for the tribulations of his survivors. “The world could do with a good deal more mess, if you ask me,” he said.

The orderly laughed and moved on.

Wehling, the waiting father, mumbled something without raising his head. And then he fell silent again.

A coarse, formidable woman strode into the waiting room on spike heels. Her shoes, stockings, trench coat, bag and overseas cap were all purple, the purple the painter called “the color of grapes on Judgment Day.”

The medallion on her purple musette bag was the seal of the Service Division of the Federal Bureau of Termination, an eagle perched on a turnstile.

The woman had a lot of facial hair—an unmistakable mustache, in fact. A curious thing about gas-chamber hostesses was that, no matter how lovely and feminine they were when recruited, they all sprouted mustaches within five years or so.

“Is this where I’m supposed to come?” she said to the painter.

“A lot would depend on what your business was,” he said. “You aren’t about to have a baby, are you?”

“They told me I was supposed to pose for some picture,” she said. “My name’s Leora Duncan.” She waited.

“And you dunk people,” he said.

“What?” she said.

“Skip it,” he said.

“That sure is a beautiful picture,” she said. “Looks just like heaven or something.”

“Or something,” said the painter. He took a list of names from his smock pocket. “Duncan, Duncan, Duncan,” he said, scanning the list. “Yes—here you are. You’re entitled to be immortalized. See any faceless body here you’d like me to stick your head on? We’ve got a few choice ones left.”

She studied the mural bleakly. “Gee,” she said, “they’re all the same to me. I don’t know anything about art.”

“A body’s a body, eh?” he said. “All righty. As a master of fine art, I recommend this body here.” He indicated a faceless figure of a woman who was carrying dried stalks to a trash-burner.

“Well,” said Leora Duncan, “that’s more the disposal people, isn’t it? I mean, I’m in service. I don’t do any disposing.”

The painter clapped his hands in mock delight. “You say you don’t know anything about art, and then you prove in the next breath that you know more about it than I do! Of course the sheave-carrier is wrong for a hostess! A snipper, a pruner—that’s more your line.” He pointed to a figure in purple who was sawing a dead branch from an apple tree. “How about her?” he said. “You like her at all?”

“Gosh—” she said, and she blushed and became humble—”that—that puts me right next to Dr. Hitz.”

“That upsets you?” he said.

“Good gravy, no!” she said. “It’s—it’s just such an honor.”

“Ah, You… you admire him, eh?” he said.

“Who doesn’t admire him?” she said, worshiping the portrait of Hitz. It was the portrait of a tanned, white-haired, omnipotent Zeus, two hundred and forty years old. “Who doesn’t admire him?” she said again. “He was responsible for setting up the very first gas chamber in Chicago.”

“Nothing would please me more,” said the painter, “than to put you next to him for all time. Sawing off a limb—that strikes you as appropriate?”

“That is kind of like what I do,” she said. She was demure about what she did. What she did was make people comfortable while she killed them.


And, while Leora Duncan was posing for her portrait, into the waitingroom bounded Dr. Hitz himself. He was seven feet tall, and he boomed with importance, accomplishments, and the joy of living.

“Well, Miss Duncan! Miss Duncan!” he said, and he made a joke. “What are you doing here?” he said. “This isn’t where the people leave. This is where they come in!”

“We’re going to be in the same picture together,” she said shyly.

“Good!” said Dr. Hitz heartily. “And, say, isn’t that some picture?”

“I sure am honored to be in it with you,” she said.

“Let me tell you,” he said, “I’m honored to be in it with you. Without women like you, this wonderful world we’ve got wouldn’t be possible.”

He saluted her and moved toward the door that led to the delivery rooms. “Guess what was just born,” he said.

“I can’t,” she said.

“Triplets!” he said.

“Triplets!” she said. She was exclaiming over the legal implications of triplets.

The law said that no newborn child could survive unless the parents of the child could find someone who would volunteer to die. Triplets, if they were all to live, called for three volunteers.

“Do the parents have three volunteers?” said Leora Duncan.

“Last I heard,” said Dr. Hitz, “they had one, and were trying to scrape another two up.”

“I don’t think they made it,” she said. “Nobody made three appointments with us. Nothing but singles going through today, unless somebody called in after I left. What’s the name?”

“Wehling,” said the waiting father, sitting up, red-eyed and frowzy. “Edward K. Wehling, Jr., is the name of the happy father-to-be.”

He raised his right hand, looked at a spot on the wall, gave a hoarsely wretched chuckle. “Present,” he said.

“Oh, Mr. Wehling,” said Dr. Hitz, “I didn’t see you.”

“The invisible man,” said Wehling.

“They just phoned me that your triplets have been born,” said Dr. Hitz. “They’re all fine, and so is the mother. I’m on my way in to see them now.”

“Hooray,” said Wehling emptily.

“You don’t sound very happy,” said Dr. Hitz.

“What man in my shoes wouldn’t be happy?” said Wehling. He gestured with his hands to symbolize care-free simplicity. “All I have to do is pick out which one of the triplets is going to live, then deliver my maternal grandfather to the Happy Hooligan, and come back here with a receipt.”


Dr. Hitz became rather severe with Wehling, towered over him. “You don’t believe in population control, Mr. Wehling?” he said.

“I think it’s perfectly keen,” said Wehling tautly.

“Would you like to go back to the good old days, when the population of the Earth was twenty billion—about to become forty billion, then eighty billion, then one hundred and sixty billion? Do you know what a drupelet is, Mr. Wehling?” said Hitz.

“Nope,” said Wehling sulkily.

“A drupelet, Mr. Wehling, is one of the little knobs, one of the little pulpy grains of a blackberry,” said Dr. Hitz. “Without population control, human beings would now be packed on this surface of this old planet like drupelets on a blackberry! Think of it!”

Wehling continued to stare at the same spot on the wall.

“In the year 2000,” said Dr. Hitz, “before scientists stepped in and laid down the law, there wasn’t even enough drinking water to go around, and nothing to eat but sea-weed—and still people insisted on their right to reproduce like jackrabbits. And their right, if possible, to live forever.”

“I want those kids,” said Wehling quietly. “I want all three of them.”

“Of course you do,” said Dr. Hitz. “That’s only human.”

“I don’t want my grandfather to die, either,” said Wehling.

“Nobody’s really happy about taking a close relative to the Catbox,” said Dr. Hitz gently, sympathetically.

“I wish people wouldn’t call it that,” said Leora Duncan.

“What?” said Dr. Hitz.

“I wish people wouldn’t call it ‘the Catbox,’ and things like that,” she said. “It gives people the wrong impression.”

“You’re absolutely right,” said Dr. Hitz. “Forgive me.” He corrected himself, gave the municipal gas chambers their official title, a title no one ever used in conversation. “I should have said, ‘Ethical Suicide Studios,'” he said.

“That sounds so much better,” said Leora Duncan.

“This child of yours—whichever one you decide to keep, Mr. Wehling,” said Dr. Hitz. “He or she is going to live on a happy, roomy, clean, rich planet, thanks to population control. In a garden like that mural there.” He shook his head. “Two centuries ago, when I was a young man, it was a hell that nobody thought could last another twenty years. Now centuries of peace and plenty stretch before us as far as the imagination cares to travel.”

He smiled luminously.

The smile faded as he saw that Wehling had just drawn a revolver.

Wehling shot Dr. Hitz dead. “There’s room for one—a great big one,” he said.

And then he shot Leora Duncan. “It’s only death,” he said to her as she fell. “There! Room for two.”

And then he shot himself, making room for all three of his children.

Nobody came running. Nobody, seemingly, heard the shots.

The painter sat on the top of his stepladder, looking down reflectively on the sorry scene.


The painter pondered the mournful puzzle of life demanding to be born and, once born, demanding to be fruitful … to multiply and to live as long as possible—to do all that on a very small planet that would have to last forever.

All the answers that the painter could think of were grim. Even grimmer, surely, than a Catbox, a Happy Hooligan, an Easy Go. He thought of war. He thought of plague. He thought of starvation.

He knew that he would never paint again. He let his paintbrush fall to the drop-cloths below. And then he decided he had had about enough of life in the Happy Garden of Life, too, and he came slowly down from the ladder.

He took Wehling’s pistol, really intending to shoot himself.

But he didn’t have the nerve.

And then he saw the telephone booth in the corner of the room. He went to it, dialed the well-remembered number: “2 B R 0 2 B.”

“Federal Bureau of Termination,” said the very warm voice of a hostess.

“How soon could I get an appointment?” he asked, speaking very carefully.

“We could probably fit you in late this afternoon, sir,” she said. “It might even be earlier, if we get a cancellation.”

“All right,” said the painter, “fit me in, if you please.” And he gave her his name, spelling it out.

“Thank you, sir,” said the hostess. “Your city thanks you; your country thanks you; your planet thanks you. But the deepest thanks of all is from future generations.”


THE END

Short Story Saturday: The Book by H. P. Lovecraft

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This week’s story is Lovecraft’s The Book. I hope you enjoy it!

The Book
By H. P. Lovecraft

My memories are very confused. There is even much doubt as to where they begin; for at times I feel appalling vistas of years stretching behind me, while at other times it seems as if the present moment were an isolated point in a grey, formless infinity. I am not even certain how I am communicating this message. While I know I am speaking, I have a vague impression that some strange and perhaps terrible mediation will be needed to bear what I say to the points where I wish to be heard. My identity, too, is bewilderingly cloudy. I seem to have suffered a great shock—perhaps from some utterly monstrous outgrowth of my cycles of unique, incredible experience.
     These cycles of experience, of course, all stem from that worm-riddled book. I remember when I found it—in a dimly lighted place near the black, oily river where the mists always swirl. That place was very old, and the ceiling-high shelves full of rotting volumes reached back endlessly through windowless inner rooms and alcoves. There were, besides, great formless heaps of books on the floor and in crude bins; and it was in one of these heaps that I found the thing. I never learned its title, for the early pages were missing; but it fell open toward the end and gave me a glimpse of something which sent my senses reeling.
     There was a formula—a sort of list of things to say and do—which I recognised as something black and forbidden; something which I had read of before in furtive paragraphs of mixed abhorrence and fascination penned by those strange ancient delvers into the universe’s guarded secrets whose decaying texts I loved to absorb. It was a key—a guide—to certain gateways and transitions of which mystics have dreamed and whispered since the race was young, and which lead to freedoms and discoveries beyond the three dimensions and realms of life and matter that we know. Not for centuries had any man recalled its vital substance or known where to find it, but this book was very old indeed. No printing-press, but the hand of some half-crazed monk, had traced these ominous Latin phrases in uncials of awesome antiquity.
     I remember how the old man leered and tittered, and made a curious sign with his hand when I bore it away. He had refused to take pay for it, and only long afterward did I guess why. As I hurried home through those narrow, winding, mist-choked waterfront streets I had a frightful impression of being stealthily followed by softly padding feet. The centuried, tottering houses on both sides seemed alive with a fresh and morbid malignity—as if some hitherto closed channel of evil understanding had abruptly been opened. I felt that those walls and overhanging gables of mildewed brick and fungous plaster and timber—with fishy, eye-like, diamond-paned windows that leered—could hardly desist from advancing and crushing me . . . yet I had read only the least fragment of that blasphemous rune before closing the book and bringing it away.
     I remember how I read the book at last—white-faced, and locked in the attic room that I had long devoted to strange searchings. The great house was very still, for I had not gone up till after midnight. I think I had a family then—though the details are very uncertain—and I know there were many servants. Just what the year was, I cannot say; for since then I have known many ages and dimensions, and have had all my notions of time dissolved and refashioned. It was by the light of candles that I read—I recall the relentless dripping of the wax—and there were chimes that came every now and then from distant belfries. I seemed to keep track of those chimes with a peculiar intentness, as if I feared to hear some very remote, intruding note among them.
     Then came the first scratching and fumbling at the dormer window that looked out high above the other roofs of the city. It came as I droned aloud the ninth verse of that primal lay, and I knew amidst my shudders what it meant. For he who passes the gateways always wins a shadow, and never again can he be alone. I had evoked—and the book was indeed all I had suspected. That night I passed the gateway to a vortex of twisted time and vision, and when morning found me in the attic room I saw in the walls and shelves and fittings that which I had never seen before.
     Nor could I ever after see the world as I had known it. Mixed with the present scene was always a little of the past and a little of the future, and every once-familiar object loomed alien in the new perspective brought by my widened sight. From then on I walked in a fantastic dream of unknown and half-known shapes; and with each new gateway crossed, the less plainly could I recognise the things of the narrow sphere to which I had so long been bound. What I saw about me none else saw; and I grew doubly silent and aloof lest I be thought mad. Dogs had a fear of me, for they felt the outside shadow which never left my side. But still I read more—in hidden, forgotten books and scrolls to which my new vision led me—and pushed through fresh gateways of space and being and life-patterns toward the core of the unknown cosmos.
     I remember the night I made the five concentric circles of fire on the floor, and stood in the innermost one chanting that monstrous litany the messenger from Tartary had brought. The walls melted away, and I was swept by a black wind through gulfs of fathomless grey with the needle-like pinnacles of unknown mountains miles below me. After a while there was utter blackness, and then the light of myriad stars forming strange, alien constellations. Finally I saw a green-litten plain far below me, and discerned on it the twisted towers of a city built in no fashion I had ever known or read of or dreamed of. As I floated closer to that city I saw a great square building of stone in an open space, and felt a hideous fear clutching at me. I screamed and struggled, and after a blankness was again in my attic room, sprawled flat over the five phosphorescent circles on the floor. In that night’s wandering there was no more of strangeness than in many a former night’s wandering; but there was more of terror because I knew I was closer to those outside gulfs and worlds than I had ever been before. Thereafter I was more cautious with my incantations, for I had no wish to be cut off from my body and from the earth in unknown abysses whence I could never return.

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Short Story Saturday – Flock by Mike Russell

This week’s short story is Mike Russell‘s Flock.

Flock

  

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw sits, as usual, on the 7:00 a.m. train, on his way to work. Dressed in his black raincoat, pin-striped suit, white shirt, black tie and black shoes, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw reads the morning newspaper, either nodding or shaking his head in agreement or disagreement with the various articles. Each movement of his head, be it a nod or a shake, maintains and strengthens who it is that Anthony Tobias Bradshaw believes himself to be.

‘Why does he continue to go to work?’ is a question that many people have whispered behind the back of Anthony Tobias Bradshaw; not because Anthony Tobias Bradshaw is past retirement age and in receipt of a pension (though he is) but because the business for which Anthony Tobias Bradshaw continues to work closed down twelve years ago.

If anyone were to ask Anthony Tobias Bradshaw why he continues to diligently repeat the same administrative tasks, Monday to Friday, nine to five, in an abandoned office building, for a business that no longer exists, he would undoubtedly reply:

‘Because I am Anthony Tobias Bradshaw. That is what I do.’

The train slows to a halt. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw lays his newspaper on his lap and peers out of the window. The station that Anthony Tobias Bradshaw sees is not his destination. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw looks at his watch; his destination is not due for another twenty-seven minutes. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head.

‘Guard!’

‘Yes, sir?’ the young guard replies, rushing through the carriage towards Anthony Tobias Bradshaw, eager to be of service.

‘This is the 7:00 a.m. non-stop train, is it not?’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw asks.

‘Yes, sir,’ the guard answers. ‘This is the 7:00 a.m. train and it is non-stop.’

The guard smiles, happy that he has been able to help. Before Anthony Tobias Bradshaw can ask the guard why then, if the train is non-stop, has it just stopped, the guard walks on through the carriage with the satisfied feeling of a job well done.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head then picks up his newspaper and resumes reading. Whilst Anthony Tobias Bradshaw reads, the carriage doors open and an elderly woman in a multi-coloured shawl steps onto the train. She walks towards Anthony Tobias Bradshaw and sits in the seat opposite him.

The carriage doors shut and the train continues on its way.

The elderly woman stares at Anthony Tobias Bradshaw.

‘In the future,’ the woman says, ‘I remember a man like you.’

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw slowly lowers his newspaper.

‘I am sorry, madam, are you talking to me?’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw enquires, knowing perfectly well that she is but wanting the woman to understand just how impertinent it is of her to be doing so.

The woman ignores Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s question and says:

‘One day, the man realised that he wasn’t a man at all but that he was, in fact, sixteen birds. At the moment of realisation, the birds all suddenly took flight, each one flying off in a completely different direction.’

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw slowly shakes his head.

‘Is that so?’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw says. ‘And what exactly is it that you are attempting to communicate to me by sharing this little work of fiction, this little fairy story, hmm? I presume that you intend it to have some sort of symbolic function, though I really cannot see what on Earth that might be.’

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw waits for an answer but the woman simply stares at him with an expression that clearly shows her disdain for everything he has just said. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head then returns to his newspaper.

The 7:00 a.m. non-stop train eventually reaches its destination, the extra stop somehow not having added any time to the journey, and Anthony Tobias Bradshaw packs his newspaper away in his briefcase, shakes his head one last time at the elderly woman in the multi-coloured shawl who is still staring at him with the same expression, then Anthony Tobias Bradshaw stands up, steps off the train and walks towards the derelict building in which he works.

 

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw enters a large room filled with rows of empty, dust-covered desks and empty, dust-covered chairs. Though all of the desks and chairs are identical, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw always works at the same desk, his desk, and sits on the same chair, his chair, both of which are significantly less dust-covered and are situated at the far end of the room. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks to his desk, removes his coat and hangs it on the back of his chair, sits down and opens his briefcase.

‘I should not have even entered into conversation with her,’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw says aloud to himself. ‘I should have just shaken my head then ignored her. That is what I should have done. To even entertain the possibility that such nonsense has meaning is a weakness that leaves oneself open to attack.’

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw feels a breeze, looks around him and sees an open window. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head, reprimanding himself for not having closed the window the previous day. He hears a rustling sound coming from the waste-paper bin beneath his desk, looks inside the bin and sees a pigeon flapping about amongst the screwed up newspapers. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head.

‘This is what happens,’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw says aloud, ‘when one leaves just the tiniest opening.’

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw opens his desk drawer and removes a pair of scissors, a ball of string and a bulldog-clip. Using the scissors, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw cuts a one metre length of string from the ball. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw then ties one end of the length of string to the bulldog-clip. The other end of the string, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw ties to the paperweight that is sitting on his desk. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw then reaches into the waste-paper bin, takes hold of the pigeon, attaches the bulldog-clip to one of its legs, carries it to the centre of the room, sets the paperweight down on the floor, then lets go of the pigeon. The tethered bird flies about frantically, pulling on the weighted string, unable to escape. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks back to his desk, sits down, watches the bird for a while, nodding in satisfaction, then begins his usual daily tasks.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw works through the day, pausing only at midday to eat a cheese and tomato sandwich that he bought, as usual, from the newsagents in the station that morning, then at 5:00 p.m. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw closes his briefcase, puts on his coat and leaves the office, ensuring before he does so that all of the windows are firmly shut.

 

At the station, as usual, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw buys the evening newspaper, then catches the 6:00 p.m. train. On the train, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw sits reading the evening newspaper, nodding or shaking his head at the various articles. The 6:00 p.m. train travels to its destination on time without incident.

‘Hello, Celia,’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw calls as he enters his house.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw closes the door behind him, sets down his briefcase, hangs up his coat and removes his shoes.

‘Hello, Celia,’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw calls again.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s wife always has a hot meal waiting for him when he arrives home. The meal always consists of meat, potatoes and three vegetables on a large, white, china plate with cutlery and condiments, positioned at the far end of the dining table. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s wife always eats before Anthony Tobias Bradshaw gets home because Anthony Tobias Bradshaw prefers to eat alone.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw enters the dining room.

Instead of the usual one large, white, china plate at the end of the table, there are sixteen small, white, china plates covering the whole of the table. There is no cutlery, no condiments and each plate, instead of containing a hot meal, has in its centre a small pile of seeds.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head.

‘Celia!’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shouts. ‘What’s going on? Is this a joke?’

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks into the kitchen. His wife is not there. In the middle of the kitchen table is a large packet of birdseed.

‘Celia!’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shouts.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks upstairs. His wife is nowhere to be seen. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks back downstairs, enters the living room and sits in his armchair, shaking his head again and again whilst waiting for his wife to appear. When the clock strikes midnight and his wife is still nowhere to be seen, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks back into the dining room, picks up the sixteen small plates, takes them into the kitchen, pours the birdseed into the bin and puts the plates away in the cupboard. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw then walks upstairs and goes to bed.

 

The next day, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw sits again on the 7:00 a.m. train and reads the morning newspaper, nodding or shaking his head at the various articles, then nodding his head with particular vigour when the train arrives at its destination without having made any erroneous stops.

Inside his office, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw nods in satisfaction at the tethered pigeon, then walks to his desk, removes his coat and hangs it on the back of his chair, sits down, opens his briefcase and begins the day’s tasks. As usual, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw works through the day, pausing only at midday to eat a cheese and tomato sandwich, then at 5:00 p.m. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw closes his briefcase, puts on his coat, leaves the office and walks to the station. There, he buys the evening newspaper, then catches the 6:00 p.m. train home.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw closes the door to his house behind him, sets down his briefcase, hangs up his coat, removes his shoes, then calls:

‘Celia!’

There is no answer. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw enters the dining room. Sixteen small plates cover the dining table as before, each with a small pile of birdseed in its centre. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head then picks up his briefcase and stomps upstairs.

In the bedroom, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw undresses in front of a full-length mirror. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head at his naked reflection, then opens his briefcase and removes a bulldog-clip. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw attaches the clip to the end of his tongue. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw produces another clip from his briefcase and attaches it to the end of his nose. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw produces two more clips and attaches one to each of his ears. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw produces more clips, attaching one to each of his eyebrows, one to each of his nipples, one to the back of each of his hands, one to each of his thighs, one to each of his knees and one to the top of each of his feet.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw then produces from his briefcase a pair of scissors and a ball of string from which he cuts sixteen lengths. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw attaches a length of string to each of the bulldog-clips that now adorn his body.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw looks at his reflection and nods.

‘But how to harness them?’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw says aloud.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw searches his reflection, then finds the perfect solution. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw ties each of the loose ends of string to his penis. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw nods in satisfaction, then puts on his pyjamas and goes to bed.

 

In the morning, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw wakes at the usual time, washes, dresses, walks downstairs and puts on his shoes and coat, picks up his briefcase, then leaves his house and walks to the station. The bulldog-clips and strings mean that Anthony Tobias Bradshaw has to walk rather carefully but, other than slowing him down a little, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw does not find them too troublesome.

‘The usual, sir?’ asks the newsagent, deciding not to mention the entirely obvious pieces of stationery attached to Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s face and the connected strings that disappear down into Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s collar.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw nods, then hands over the exact money for his copy of the morning newspaper and his cheese and tomato sandwich.

On the 7:00 a.m. train, only the young guard shows any sign of noticing Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s peculiar adornments, and even then his only reaction is a brief expression of concerned shock, which is quickly and professionally replaced by a congenial and un-judgemental smile.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw arrives at his office, nods at the tethered pigeon, walks to his desk, removes his coat and hangs it on the back of his chair, sits down, opens his briefcase and begins the day’s tasks. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw works until 5:00 p.m., pausing only at midday to eat (with some difficulty) his cheese and tomato sandwich, then Anthony Tobias Bradshaw leaves the office, walks to the station, buys the evening newspaper and catches the 6:00 p.m. train home.

 

In his house, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw enters the dining room, clears away the sixteen new plates of birdseed, sits in his armchair in the living room until midnight, then walks upstairs to bed.

In the bedroom, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw stands in front of the full-length mirror and undresses. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw nods in satisfaction at the fact that all of the clips and strings are still in place. Then Anthony Tobias Bradshaw turns around and gasps.

‘Celia!’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw says.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s wife is lying in the bed. She is wearing her multi-coloured shawl.

‘Turn the light out, dear,’ she says as if she has not been absent for the past two days and nothing is amiss.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw stands and looks at his wife. He feels as if he has not seen her for longer than two days; he feels as if he has not really seen her for years. He is overwhelmed by her beauty, by the beauty of who she is, of who she really is, and Anthony Tobias Bradshaw experiences his first erection in twenty-five years accompanied by the noise of sixteen bulldog-clips snapping shut as they are all pulled at once from their various locations. The bedroom is filled with the sound of fluttering wings and that which used to call itself Anthony Tobias Bradshaw feels utterly fantastic.

5 Days of Lovecraft – 1: The Beast in the Cave

Let’s have five days of Lovecraft! Starting now, Examining the Odd will feature a Lovecraft story each day for five days.

The Beast in the Cave
By H. P. Lovecraft
The horrible conclusion which had been gradually obtruding itself upon my confused and reluctant mind was now an awful certainty. I was lost, completely, hopelessly lost in the vast and labyrinthine recesses of the Mammoth Cave. Turn as I might, in no direction could my straining vision seize on any object capable of serving as a guidepost to set me on the outward path. That nevermore should I behold the blessed light of day, or scan the pleasant hills and dales of the beautiful world outside, my reason could no longer entertain the slightest unbelief. Hope had departed. Yet, indoctrinated as I was by a life of philosophical study, I derived no small measure of satisfaction from my unimpassioned demeanour; for although I had frequently read of the wild frenzies into which were thrown the victims of similar situations, I experienced none of these, but stood quiet as soon as I clearly realised the loss of my bearings.
     Nor did the thought that I had probably wandered beyond the utmost limits of an ordinary search cause me to abandon my composure even for a moment. If I must die, I reflected, then was this terrible yet majestic cavern as welcome a sepulchre as that which any churchyard might afford; a conception which carried with it more of tranquility than of despair.
     Starving would prove my ultimate fate; of this I was certain. Some, I knew, had gone mad under circumstances such as these, but I felt that this end would not be mine. My disaster was the result of no fault save my own, since unbeknown to the guide I had separated myself from the regular party of sightseers; and, wandering for over an hour in forbidden avenues of the cave, had found myself unable to retrace the devious windings which I had pursued since forsaking my companions.
     Already my torch had begun to expire; soon I would be enveloped by the total and almost palpable blackness of the bowels of the earth. As I stood in the waning, unsteady light, I idly wondered over the exact circumstances of my coming end. I remembered the accounts which I had heard of the colony of consumptives, who, taking their residence in this gigantic grotto to find health from the apparently salubrious air of the underground world, with its steady, uniform temperature, pure air, and peaceful quiet, had found, instead, death in strange and ghastly form. I had seen the sad remains of their ill-made cottages as I passed them by with the party, and had wondered what unnatural influence a long sojourn in this immense and silent cavern would exert upon one as healthy and as vigorous as I. Now, I grimly told myself, my opportunity for settling this point had arrived, provided that want of food should not bring me too speedy a departure from this life.
     As the last fitful rays of my torch faded into obscurity, I resolved to leave no stone unturned, no possible means of escape neglected; so summoning all the powers possessed by my lungs, I set up a series of loud shoutings, in the vain hope of attracting the attention of the guide by my clamour. Yet, as I called, I believed in my heart that my cries were to no purpose, and that my voice, magnified and reflected by the numberless ramparts of the black maze about me, fell upon no ears save my own. All at once, however, my attention was fixed with a start as I fancied that I heard the sound of soft approaching steps on the rocky floor of the cavern. Was my deliverance about to be accomplished so soon? Had, then, all my horrible apprehensions been for naught, and was the guide, having marked my unwarranted absence from the party, following my course and seeking me out in this limestone labyrinth? Whilst these joyful queries arose in my brain, I was on the point of renewing my cries, in order that my discovery might come the sooner, when in an instant my delight was turned to horror as I listened; for my ever acute ear, now sharpened in even greater degree by the complete silence of the cave, bore to my benumbed understanding the unexpected and dreadful knowledge that these footfalls were not like those of any mortal man. In the unearthly stillness of this subterranean region, the tread of the booted guide would have sounded like a series of sharp and incisive blows. These impacts were soft, and stealthy, as of the padded paws of some feline. Besides, at times, when I listened carefully, I seemed to trace the falls of four instead of two feet.
     I was now convinced that I had by my cries aroused and attracted some wild beast, perhaps a mountain lion which had accidentally strayed within the cave. Perhaps, I considered, the Almighty had chosen for me a swifter and more merciful death than that of hunger. Yet the instinct of self-preservation, never wholly dormant, was stirred in my breast, and though escape from the oncoming peril might but spare me for a sterner and more lingering end, I determined nevertheless to part with my life at as high a price as I could command. Strange as it may seem, my mind conceived of no intent on the part of the visitor save that of hostility. Accordingly, I became very quiet, in the hope that the unknown beast would, in the absence of a guiding sound, lose its direction as had I, and thus pass me by. But this hope was not destined for realisation, for the strange footfalls steadily advanced, the animal evidently having obtained my scent, which in an atmosphere so absolutely free from all distracting influences as is that of the cave, could doubtless be followed at great distance.
     Seeing therefore that I must be armed for defence against an uncanny and unseen attack in the dark, I grouped about me the largest of the fragments of rock which were strown upon all parts of the floor of the cavern in the vicinity, and, grasping one in each hand for immediate use, awaited with resignation the inevitable result. Meanwhile the hideous pattering of the paws drew near. Certainly, the conduct of the creature was exceedingly strange. Most of the time, the tread seemed to be that of a quadruped, walking with a singular lack of unison betwixt hind and fore feet, yet at brief and infrequent intervals I fancied that but two feet were engaged in the process of locomotion. I wondered what species of animal was to confront me; it must, I thought, be some unfortunate beast who had paid for its curiosity to investigate one of the entrances of the fearful grotto with a lifelong confinement in its interminable recesses. It doubtless obtained as food the eyeless fish, bats, and rats of the cave, as well as some of the ordinary fish that are wafted in at every freshet of Green River, which communicates in some occult manner with the waters of the cave. I occupied my terrible vigil with grotesque conjectures of what alterations cave life might have wrought in the physical structure of the beast, remembering the awful appearances ascribed by local tradition to the consumptives who had died after long residence in the cavern. Then I remembered with a start that, even should I succeed in killing my antagonist, I should never behold its form, as my torch had long since been extinct, and I was entirely unprovided with matches. The tension on my brain now became frightful. My disordered fancy conjured up hideous and fearsome shapes from the sinister darkness that surrounded me, and that actually seemed to press upon my body. Nearer, nearer, the dreadful footfalls approached. It seemed that I must give vent to a piercing scream, yet had I been sufficiently irresolute to attempt such a thing, my voice could scarce have responded. I was petrified, rooted to the spot. I doubted if my right arm would allow me to hurl its missile at the oncoming thing when the crucial moment should arrive. Now the steady pat, pat, of the steps was close at hand; now, very close. I could hear the laboured breathing of the animal, and terror-struck as I was, I realised that it must have come from a considerable distance, and was correspondingly fatigued. Suddenly the spell broke. My right hand, guided by my ever trustworthy sense of hearing, threw with full force the sharp-angled bit of limestone which it contained, toward that point in the darkness from which emanated the breathing and pattering, and, wonderful to relate, it nearly reached its goal, for I heard the thing jump, landing at a distance away, where it seemed to pause.
     Having readjusted my aim, I discharged my second missile, this time most effectively, for with a flood of joy I listened as the creature fell in what sounded like a complete collapse, and evidently remained prone and unmoving. Almost overpowered by the great relief which rushed over me, I reeled back against the wall. The breathing continued, in heavy, gasping inhalations and expirations, whence I realised that I had no more than wounded the creature. And now all desire to examine thething ceased. At last something allied to groundless, superstitious, fear had entered my brain, and I did not approach the body, nor did I continue to cast stones at it in order to complete the extinction of its life. Instead, I ran at full speed in what was, as nearly as I could estimate in my frenzied condition, the direction from which I had come. Suddenly I heard a sound, or rather, a regular succession of sounds. In another instant they had resolved themselves into a series of sharp, metallic clicks. This time there was no doubt. It was the guide. And then I shouted, yelled, screamed, even shrieked with joy as I beheld in the vaulted arches above the faint and glimmering effulgence which I knew to be the reflected light of an approaching torch. I ran to meet the flare, and before I could completely understand what had occurred, was lying upon the ground at the feet of the guide, embracing his boots, and gibbering, despite my boasted reserve, in a most meaningless and idiotic manner, pouring out my terrible story, and at the same time overwhelming my auditor with protestations of gratitude. At length I awoke to something like my normal consciousness. The guide had noted my absence upon the arrival of the party at the entrance of the cave, and had, from his own intuitive sense of direction, proceeded to make a thorough canvass of the by-passages just ahead of where he had last spoken to me, locating my whereabouts after a quest of about four hours.
     By the time he had related this to me, I, emboldened by his torch and his company, began to reflect upon the strange beast which I had wounded but a short distance back in the darkness, and suggested that we ascertain, by the rushlight’s aid, what manner of creature was my victim. Accordingly I retraced my steps, this time with a courage born of companionship, to the scene of my terrible experience. Soon we descried a white object upon the floor, an object whiter even than the gleaming limestone itself. Cautiously advancing, we gave vent to a simultaneous ejaculation of wonderment, for of all the unnatural monsters either of us had in our lifetimes beheld, this was in surpassing degree the strangest. It appeared to be an anthropoid ape of large proportions, escaped, perhaps, from some itinerant menagerie. Its hair was snow-white, a thing due no doubt to the bleaching action of a long existence within the inky confines of the cave, but it was also surprisingly thin, being indeed largely absent save on the head, where it was of such length and abundance that it fell over the shoulders in considerable profusion. The face was turned away from us, as the creature lay almost directly upon it. The inclination of the limbs was very singular, explaining, however, the alternation in their use which I had before noted, whereby the beast used sometimes all four, and on other occasions but two for its progress. From the tips of the fingers or toes long nail-like claws extended. The hands or feet were not prehensile, a fact that I ascribed to that long residence in the cave which, as I before mentioned, seemed evident from the all-pervading and almost unearthlywhiteness so characteristic of the whole anatomy. No tail seemed to be present.
     The respiration had now grown very feeble, and the guide had drawn his pistol with the evident intent of despatching the creature, when a sudden sound emitted by the latter caused the weapon to fall unused. The sound was of a nature difficult to describe. It was not like the normal note of any known species of simian, and I wondered if this unnatural quality were not the result of a long-continued and complete silence, broken by the sensations produced by the advent of the light, a thing which the beast could not have seen since its first entrance into the cave. The sound, which I might feebly attempt to classify as a kind of deep-toned chattering, was faintly continued. All at once a fleeting spasm of energy seemed to pass through the frame of the beast. The paws went through a convulsive motion, and the limbs contracted. With a jerk, the white body rolled over so that its face was turned in our direction. For a moment I was so struck with horror at the eyes thus revealed that I noted nothing else. They were black, those eyes, deep, jetty black, in hideous contrast to the snow-white hair and flesh. Like those of other cave denizens, they were deeply sunken in their orbits, and were entirely destitute of iris. As I looked more closely, I saw that they were set in a face less prognathous than that of the average ape, and infinitely more hairy. The nose was quite distinct.
     As we gazed upon the uncanny sight presented to our vision, the thick lips opened, and severalsounds issued from them, after which the thing relaxed in death.
     The guide clutched my coat-sleeve and trembled so violently that the light shook fitfully, casting weird, moving shadows on the walls about us.
     I made no motion, but stood rigidly still, my horrified eyes fixed upon the floor ahead.
     Then fear left, and wonder, awe, compassion, and reverence succeeded in its place, for thesounds uttered by the stricken figure that lay stretched out on the limestone had told us the awesome truth. The creature I had killed, the strange beast of the unfathomed cave was, or had at one time been, a MAN!!!

The Yellow Wallpaper & Other Stories (1892-1914)

In this feminist classic, Jane’s doctor husband locks her in an upstairs room so she can tackle her tendency towards depression and hysteria. Because that sounds like a really good idea.Bustle

A story about something far scarier than monsters, nightmares and stalkers: being labelled “hysterical” and shut in a room to get over it. Then the monsters come. I absolutely love the title story of this collection but, although very different, I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the tales too.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman succeeded in writing feminist stories that liberated both men and women. This is particularly the case in the last story Mr. Peebles’ Heart, where a successful female doctor manages to persuade her sister’s husband to follow his dreams, not to save their marriage, but to save each of their lives, their sanity and wellbeing. I also really enjoyed Making A Change, where a man must come to terms with the fact that his mother and his wife have colluded to create his comfortable life.

Short Story Saturday – Flock

This week’s short story comes from Mike Russell’s book Strange Medicine.

 

Flock

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw sits, as usual, on the 7:00 a.m. train, on his way to work. Dressed in his black raincoat, pin-striped suit, white shirt, black tie and black shoes, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw reads the morning newspaper, either nodding or shaking his head in agreement or disagreement with the various articles. Each movement of his head, be it a nod or a shake, maintains and strengthens who it is that Anthony Tobias Bradshaw believes himself to be.

‘Why does he continue to go to work?’ is a question that many people have whispered behind the back of Anthony Tobias Bradshaw; not because Anthony Tobias Bradshaw is past retirement age and in receipt of a pension (though he is) but because the business for which Anthony Tobias Bradshaw continues to work closed down twelve years ago.

If anyone were to ask Anthony Tobias Bradshaw why he continues to diligently repeat the same administrative tasks, Monday to Friday, nine to five, in an abandoned office building, for a business that no longer exists, he would undoubtedly reply:

‘Because I am Anthony Tobias Bradshaw. That is what I do.’

The train slows to a halt. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw lays his newspaper on his lap and peers out of the window. The station that Anthony Tobias Bradshaw sees is not his destination. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw looks at his watch; his destination is not due for another twenty-seven minutes. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head.

‘Guard!’

‘Yes, sir?’ the young guard replies, rushing through the carriage towards Anthony Tobias Bradshaw, eager to be of service.

‘This is the 7:00 a.m. non-stop train, is it not?’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw asks.

‘Yes, sir,’ the guard answers. ‘This is the 7:00 a.m. train and it is non-stop.’

The guard smiles, happy that he has been able to help. Before Anthony Tobias Bradshaw can ask the guard why then, if the train is non-stop, has it just stopped, the guard walks on through the carriage with the satisfied feeling of a job well done.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head then picks up his newspaper and resumes reading. Whilst Anthony Tobias Bradshaw reads, the carriage doors open and an elderly woman in a multi-coloured shawl steps onto the train. She walks towards Anthony Tobias Bradshaw and sits in the seat opposite him.

The carriage doors shut and the train continues on its way.

The elderly woman stares at Anthony Tobias Bradshaw.

‘In the future,’ the woman says, ‘I remember a man like you.’

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw slowly lowers his newspaper.

‘I am sorry, madam, are you talking to me?’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw enquires, knowing perfectly well that she is but wanting the woman to understand just how impertinent it is of her to be doing so.

The woman ignores Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s question and says:

‘One day, the man realised that he wasn’t a man at all but that he was, in fact, sixteen birds. At the moment of realisation, the birds all suddenly took flight, each one flying off in a completely different direction.’

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw slowly shakes his head.

‘Is that so?’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw says. ‘And what exactly is it that you are attempting to communicate to me by sharing this little work of fiction, this little fairy story, hmm? I presume that you intend it to have some sort of symbolic function, though I really cannot see what on Earth that might be.’

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw waits for an answer but the woman simply stares at him with an expression that clearly shows her disdain for everything he has just said. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head then returns to his newspaper.

The 7:00 a.m. non-stop train eventually reaches its destination, the extra stop somehow not having added any time to the journey, and Anthony Tobias Bradshaw packs his newspaper away in his briefcase, shakes his head one last time at the elderly woman in the multi-coloured shawl who is still staring at him with the same expression, then Anthony Tobias Bradshaw stands up, steps off the train and walks towards the derelict building in which he works.

 

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw enters a large room filled with rows of empty, dust-covered desks and empty, dust-covered chairs. Though all of the desks and chairs are identical, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw always works at the same desk, his desk, and sits on the same chair, his chair, both of which are significantly less dust-covered and are situated at the far end of the room. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks to his desk, removes his coat and hangs it on the back of his chair, sits down and opens his briefcase.

‘I should not have even entered into conversation with her,’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw says aloud to himself. ‘I should have just shaken my head then ignored her. That is what I should have done. To even entertain the possibility that such nonsense has meaning is a weakness that leaves oneself open to attack.’

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw feels a breeze, looks around him and sees an open window. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head, reprimanding himself for not having closed the window the previous day. He hears a rustling sound coming from the waste-paper bin beneath his desk, looks inside the bin and sees a pigeon flapping about amongst the screwed up newspapers. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head.

‘This is what happens,’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw says aloud, ‘when one leaves just the tiniest opening.’

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw opens his desk drawer and removes a pair of scissors, a ball of string and a bulldog-clip. Using the scissors, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw cuts a one metre length of string from the ball. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw then ties one end of the length of string to the bulldog-clip. The other end of the string, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw ties to the paperweight that is sitting on his desk. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw then reaches into the waste-paper bin, takes hold of the pigeon, attaches the bulldog-clip to one of its legs, carries it to the centre of the room, sets the paperweight down on the floor, then lets go of the pigeon. The tethered bird flies about frantically, pulling on the weighted string, unable to escape. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks back to his desk, sits down, watches the bird for a while, nodding in satisfaction, then begins his usual daily tasks.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw works through the day, pausing only at midday to eat a cheese and tomato sandwich that he bought, as usual, from the newsagents in the station that morning, then at 5:00 p.m. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw closes his briefcase, puts on his coat and leaves the office, ensuring before he does so that all of the windows are firmly shut.

 

At the station, as usual, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw buys the evening newspaper, then catches the 6:00 p.m. train. On the train, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw sits reading the evening newspaper, nodding or shaking his head at the various articles. The 6:00 p.m. train travels to its destination on time without incident.

‘Hello, Celia,’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw calls as he enters his house.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw closes the door behind him, sets down his briefcase, hangs up his coat and removes his shoes.

‘Hello, Celia,’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw calls again.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s wife always has a hot meal waiting for him when he arrives home. The meal always consists of meat, potatoes and three vegetables on a large, white, china plate with cutlery and condiments, positioned at the far end of the dining table. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s wife always eats before Anthony Tobias Bradshaw gets home because Anthony Tobias Bradshaw prefers to eat alone.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw enters the dining room.

Instead of the usual one large, white, china plate at the end of the table, there are sixteen small, white, china plates covering the whole of the table. There is no cutlery, no condiments and each plate, instead of containing a hot meal, has in its centre a small pile of seeds.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head.

‘Celia!’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shouts. ‘What’s going on? Is this a joke?’

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks into the kitchen. His wife is not there. In the middle of the kitchen table is a large packet of birdseed.

‘Celia!’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shouts.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks upstairs. His wife is nowhere to be seen. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks back downstairs, enters the living room and sits in his armchair, shaking his head again and again whilst waiting for his wife to appear. When the clock strikes midnight and his wife is still nowhere to be seen, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks back into the dining room, picks up the sixteen small plates, takes them into the kitchen, pours the birdseed into the bin and puts the plates away in the cupboard. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw then walks upstairs and goes to bed.

 

The next day, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw sits again on the 7:00 a.m. train and reads the morning newspaper, nodding or shaking his head at the various articles, then nodding his head with particular vigour when the train arrives at its destination without having made any erroneous stops.

Inside his office, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw nods in satisfaction at the tethered pigeon, then walks to his desk, removes his coat and hangs it on the back of his chair, sits down, opens his briefcase and begins the day’s tasks. As usual, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw works through the day, pausing only at midday to eat a cheese and tomato sandwich, then at 5:00 p.m. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw closes his briefcase, puts on his coat, leaves the office and walks to the station. There, he buys the evening newspaper, then catches the 6:00 p.m. train home.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw closes the door to his house behind him, sets down his briefcase, hangs up his coat, removes his shoes, then calls:

‘Celia!’

There is no answer. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw enters the dining room. Sixteen small plates cover the dining table as before, each with a small pile of birdseed in its centre. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head then picks up his briefcase and stomps upstairs.

In the bedroom, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw undresses in front of a full-length mirror. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head at his naked reflection, then opens his briefcase and removes a bulldog-clip. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw attaches the clip to the end of his tongue. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw produces another clip from his briefcase and attaches it to the end of his nose. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw produces two more clips and attaches one to each of his ears. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw produces more clips, attaching one to each of his eyebrows, one to each of his nipples, one to the back of each of his hands, one to each of his thighs, one to each of his knees and one to the top of each of his feet.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw then produces from his briefcase a pair of scissors and a ball of string from which he cuts sixteen lengths. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw attaches a length of string to each of the bulldog-clips that now adorn his body.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw looks at his reflection and nods.

‘But how to harness them?’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw says aloud.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw searches his reflection, then finds the perfect solution. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw ties each of the loose ends of string to his penis. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw nods in satisfaction, then puts on his pyjamas and goes to bed.

 

In the morning, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw wakes at the usual time, washes, dresses, walks downstairs and puts on his shoes and coat, picks up his briefcase, then leaves his house and walks to the station. The bulldog-clips and strings mean that Anthony Tobias Bradshaw has to walk rather carefully but, other than slowing him down a little, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw does not find them too troublesome.

‘The usual, sir?’ asks the newsagent, deciding not to mention the entirely obvious pieces of stationery attached to Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s face and the connected strings that disappear down into Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s collar.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw nods, then hands over the exact money for his copy of the morning newspaper and his cheese and tomato sandwich.

On the 7:00 a.m. train, only the young guard shows any sign of noticing Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s peculiar adornments, and even then his only reaction is a brief expression of concerned shock, which is quickly and professionally replaced by a congenial and un-judgemental smile.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw arrives at his office, nods at the tethered pigeon, walks to his desk, removes his coat and hangs it on the back of his chair, sits down, opens his briefcase and begins the day’s tasks. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw works until 5:00 p.m., pausing only at midday to eat (with some difficulty) his cheese and tomato sandwich, then Anthony Tobias Bradshaw leaves the office, walks to the station, buys the evening newspaper and catches the 6:00 p.m. train home.

 

In his house, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw enters the dining room, clears away the sixteen new plates of birdseed, sits in his armchair in the living room until midnight, then walks upstairs to bed.

In the bedroom, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw stands in front of the full-length mirror and undresses. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw nods in satisfaction at the fact that all of the clips and strings are still in place. Then Anthony Tobias Bradshaw turns around and gasps.

‘Celia!’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw says.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s wife is lying in the bed. She is wearing her multi-coloured shawl.

‘Turn the light out, dear,’ she says as if she has not been absent for the past two days and nothing is amiss.

Anthony Tobias Bradshaw stands and looks at his wife. He feels as if he has not seen her for longer than two days; he feels as if he has not really seen her for years. He is overwhelmed by her beauty, by the beauty of who she is, of who she really is, and Anthony Tobias Bradshaw experiences his first erection in twenty-five years accompanied by the noise of sixteen bulldog-clips snapping shut as they are all pulled at once from their various locations. The bedroom is filled with the sound of fluttering wings and that which used to call itself Anthony Tobias Bradshaw feels utterly fantastic.

 

© 2016 Mike Russell. All Rights Reserved.

StrangeBooks.com

Short Story Saturday – The Idiots

It’s Short Story Saturday…

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This week it’s Joseph Conrad’s The Idiots.

We were driving along the road from Treguier to Kervanda. We passed at a smart trot between the hedges topping an earth wall on each side of the road; then at the foot of the steep ascent before Ploumar the horse dropped into a walk, and the driver jumped down heavily from the box. He flicked his whip and climbed the incline, stepping clumsily uphill by the side of the carriage, one hand on the footboard, his eyes on the ground. After a while he lifted his head, pointed up the road with the end of the whip, and said–

“The idiot!”

The sun was shining violently upon the undulating surface of the land. The rises were topped by clumps of meagre trees, with their branches showing high on the sky as if they had been perched upon stilts. The small fields, cut up by hedges and stone walls that zig-zagged over the slopes, lay in rectangular patches of vivid greens and yellows, resembling the unskilful daubs of a naive picture. And the landscape was divided in two by the white streak of a road stretching in long loops far away, like a river of dust crawling out of the hills on its way to the sea.

“Here he is,” said the driver, again.

In the long grass bordering the road a face glided past the carriage at the level of the wheels as we drove slowly by. The imbecile face was red, and the bullet head with close-cropped hair seemed to lie alone, its chin in the dust. The body was lost in the bushes growing thick along the bottom of the deep ditch.

It was a boy’s face. He might have been sixteen, judging from the size–perhaps less, perhaps more. Such creatures are forgotten by time, and live untouched by years till death gathers them up into its compassionate bosom; the faithful death that never forgets in the press of work the most insignificant of its children.

“Ah! there’s another,” said the man, with a certain satisfaction in his tone, as if he had caught sight of something expected.

There was another. That one stood nearly in the middle of the road in the blaze of sunshine at the end of his own short shadow. And he stood with hands pushed into the opposite sleeves of his long coat, his head sunk between the shoulders, all hunched up in the flood of heat. From a distance he had the aspect of one suffering from intense cold.

“Those are twins,” explained the driver.

The idiot shuffled two paces out of the way and looked at us over his shoulder when we brushed past him. The glance was unseeing and staring, a fascinated glance; but he did not turn to look after us. Probably the image passed before the eyes without leaving any trace on the misshapen brain of the creature. When we had topped the ascent I looked over the hood. He stood in the road just where we had left him.

The driver clambered into his seat, clicked his tongue, and we went downhill. The brake squeaked horribly from time to time. At the foot he eased off the noisy mechanism and said, turning half round on his box–

“We shall see some more of them by-and-by.”

“More idiots? How many of them are there, then?” I asked.

“There’s four of them–children of a farmer near Ploumar here. . . . The parents are dead now,” he added, after a while. “The grandmother lives on the farm. In the daytime they knock about on this road, and they come home at dusk along with the cattle. . . . It’s a good farm.”

We saw the other two: a boy and a girl, as the driver said. They were dressed exactly alike, in shapeless garments with petticoat-like skirts. The imperfect thing that lived within them moved those beings to howl at us from the top of the bank, where they sprawled amongst the tough stalks of furze. Their cropped black heads stuck out from the bright yellow wall of countless small blossoms. The faces were purple with the strain of yelling; the voices sounded blank and cracked like a mechanical imitation of old people’s voices; and suddenly ceased when we turned into a lane.

I saw them many times in my wandering about the country. They lived on that road, drifting along its length here and there, according to the inexplicable impulses of their monstrous darkness. They were an offence to the sunshine, a reproach to empty heaven, a blight on the concentrated and purposeful vigour of the wild landscape. In time the story of their parents shaped itself before me out of the listless answers to my questions, out of the indifferent words heard in wayside inns or on the very road those idiots haunted. Some of it was told by an emaciated and sceptical old fellow with a tremendous whip, while we trudged together over the sands by the side of a two-wheeled cart loaded with dripping seaweed. Then at other times other people confirmed and completed the story: till it stood at last before me, a tale formidable and simple, as they always are, those disclosures of obscure trials endured by ignorant hearts.

When he returned from his military service Jean-Pierre Bacadou found the old people very much aged. He remarked with pain that the work of the farm was not satisfactorily done. The father had not the energy of old days. The hands did not feel over them the eye of the master. Jean-Pierre noted with sorrow that the heap of manure in the courtyard before the only entrance to the house was not so large as it should have been. The fences were out of repair, and the cattle suffered from neglect. At home the mother was practically bedridden, and the girls chattered loudly in the big kitchen, unrebuked, from morning to night. He said to himself: “We must change all this.” He talked the matter over with his father one evening when the rays of the setting sun entering the yard between the outhouses ruled the heavy shadows with luminous streaks. Over the manure heap floated a mist, opal-tinted and odorous, and the marauding hens would stop in their scratching to examine with a sudden glance of their round eye the two men, both lean and tall, talking in hoarse tones. The old man, all twisted with rheumatism and bowed with years of work, the younger bony and straight, spoke without gestures in the indifferent manner of peasants, grave and slow. But before the sun had set the father had submitted to the sensible arguments of the son. “It is not for me that I am speaking,” insisted Jean-Pierre. “It is for the land. It’s a pity to see it badly used. I am not impatient for myself.” The old fellow nodded over his stick. “I dare say; I dare say,” he muttered. “You may be right. Do what you like. It’s the mother that will be pleased.”

The mother was pleased with her daughter-in-law. Jean-Pierre brought the two-wheeled spring-cart with a rush into the yard. The gray horse galloped clumsily, and the bride and bridegroom, sitting side by side, were jerked backwards and forwards by the up and down motion of the shafts, in a manner regular and brusque. On the road the distanced wedding guests straggled in pairs and groups. The men advanced with heavy steps, swinging their idle arms. They were clad in town clothes; jackets cut with clumsy smartness, hard black hats, immense boots, polished highly. Their women all in simple black, with white caps and shawls of faded tints folded triangularly on the back, strolled lightly by their side. In front the violin sang a strident tune, and the biniou snored and hummed, while the player capered solemnly, lifting high his heavy clogs. The sombre procession drifted in and out of the narrow lanes, through sunshine and through shade, between fields and hedgerows, scaring the little birds that darted away in troops right and left. In the yard of Bacadou’s farm the dark ribbon wound itself up into a mass of men and women pushing at the door with cries and greetings. The wedding dinner was remembered for months. It was a splendid feast in the orchard. Farmers of considerable means and excellent repute were to be found sleeping in ditches, all along the road to Treguier, even as late as the afternoon of the next day. All the countryside participated in the happiness of Jean-Pierre. He remained sober, and, together with his quiet wife, kept out of the way, letting father and mother reap their due of honour and thanks. But the next day he took hold strongly, and the old folks felt a shadow–precursor of the grave–fall upon them finally. The world is to the young.

When the twins were born there was plenty of room in the house, for the mother of Jean-Pierre had gone away to dwell under a heavy stone in the cemetery of Ploumar. On that day, for the first time since his son’s marriage, the elder Bacadou, neglected by the cackling lot of strange women who thronged the kitchen, left in the morning his seat under the mantel of the fireplace, and went into the empty cow-house, shaking his white locks dismally. Grandsons were all very well, but he wanted his soup at midday. When shown the babies, he stared at them with a fixed gaze, and muttered something like: “It’s too much.” Whether he meant too much happiness, or simply commented upon the number of his descendants, it is impossible to say. He looked offended –as far as his old wooden face could express anything; and for days afterwards could be seen, almost any time of the day, sitting at the gate, with his nose over his knees, a pipe between his gums, and gathered up into a kind of raging concentrated sulkiness. Once he spoke to his son, alluding to the newcomers with a groan: “They will quarrel over the land.” “Don’t bother about that, father,” answered Jean-Pierre, stolidly, and passed, bent double, towing a recalcitrant cow over his shoulder.

He was happy, and so was Susan, his wife. It was not an ethereal joy welcoming new souls to struggle, perchance to victory. In fourteen years both boys would be a help; and, later on, Jean-Pierre pictured two big sons striding over the land from patch to patch, wringing tribute from the earth beloved and fruitful. Susan was happy too, for she did not want to be spoken of as the unfortunate woman, and now she had children no one could call her that. Both herself and her husband had seen something of the larger world–he during the time of his service; while she had spent a year or so in Paris with a Breton family; but had been too home-sick to remain longer away from the hilly and green country, set in a barren circle of rocks and sands, where she had been born. She thought that one of the boys ought perhaps to be a priest, but said nothing to her husband, who was a republican, and hated the “crows,” as he called the ministers of religion. The christening was a splendid affair. All the commune came to it, for the Bacadous were rich and influential, and, now and then, did not mind the expense. The grandfather had a new coat.

Some months afterwards, one evening when the kitchen had been swept, and the door locked, Jean-Pierre, looking at the cot, asked his wife: “What’s the matter with those children?” And, as if these words, spoken calmly, had been the portent of misfortune, she answered with a loud wail that must have been heard across the yard in the pig-sty; for the pigs (the Bacadous had the finest pigs in the country) stirred and grunted complainingly in the night. The husband went on grinding his bread and butter slowly, gazing at the wall, the soup-plate smoking under his chin. He had returned late from the market, where he had overheard (not for the first time) whispers behind his back. He revolved the words in his mind as he drove back. “Simple! Both of them. . . . Never any use! . . . Well! May be, may be. One must see. Would ask his wife.” This was her answer. He felt like a blow on his chest, but said only: “Go, draw me some cider. I am thirsty!”

She went out moaning, an empty jug in her hand. Then he arose, took up the light, and moved slowly towards the cradle. They slept. He looked at them sideways, finished his mouthful there, went back heavily, and sat down before his plate. When his wife returned he never looked up, but swallowed a couple of spoonfuls noisily, and remarked, in a dull manner–

“When they sleep they are like other people’s children.”

She sat down suddenly on a stool near by, and shook with a silent tempest of sobs, unable to speak. He finished his meal, and remained idly thrown back in his chair, his eyes lost amongst the black rafters of the ceiling. Before him the tallow candle flared red and straight, sending up a slender thread of smoke. The light lay on the rough, sunburnt skin of his throat; the sunk cheeks were like patches of darkness, and his aspect was mournfully stolid, as if he had ruminated with difficulty endless ideas. Then he said, deliberately–

“We must see . . . consult people. Don’t cry. . . . They won’t all be like that . . . surely! We must sleep now.”

After the third child, also a boy, was born, Jean-Pierre went about his work with tense hopefulness. His lips seemed more narrow, more tightly compressed than before; as if for fear of letting the earth he tilled hear the voice of hope that murmured within his breast. He watched the child, stepping up to the cot with a heavy clang of sabots on the stone floor, and glanced in, along his shoulder, with that indifference which is like a deformity of peasant humanity. Like the earth they master and serve, those men, slow of eye and speech, do not show the inner fire; so that, at last, it becomes a question with them as with the earth, what there is in the core: heat, violence, a force mysterious and terrible–or nothing but a clod, a mass fertile and inert, cold and unfeeling, ready to bear a crop of plants that sustain life or give death.

The mother watched with other eyes; listened with otherwise expectant ears. Under the high hanging shelves supporting great sides of bacon overhead, her body was busy by the great fireplace, attentive to the pot swinging on iron gallows, scrubbing the long table where the field hands would sit down directly to their evening meal. Her mind remained by the cradle, night and day on the watch, to hope and suffer. That child, like the other two, never smiled, never stretched its hands to her, never spoke; never had a glance of recognition for her in its big black eyes, which could only stare fixedly at any glitter, but failed hopelessly to follow the brilliance of a sun-ray slipping slowly along the floor. When the men were at work she spent long days between her three idiot children and the childish grandfather, who sat grim, angular, and immovable, with his feet near the warm ashes of the fire. The feeble old fellow seemed to suspect that there was something wrong with his grandsons. Only once, moved either by affection or by the sense of proprieties, he attempted to nurse the youngest. He took the boy up from the floor, clicked his tongue at him, and essayed a shaky gallop of his bony knees. Then he looked closely with his misty eyes at the child’s face and deposited him down gently on the floor again. And he sat, his lean shanks crossed, nodding at the steam escaping from the cooking-pot with a gaze senile and worried.

Then mute affliction dwelt in Bacadou’s farmhouse, sharing the breath and the bread of its inhabitants; and the priest of the Ploumar parish had great cause for congratulation. He called upon the rich landowner, the Marquis de Chavanes, on purpose to deliver himself with joyful unction of solemn platitudes about the inscrutable ways of Providence. In the vast dimness of the curtained drawing-room, the little man, resembling a black bolster, leaned towards a couch, his hat on his knees, and gesticulated with a fat hand at the elongated, gracefully-flowing lines of the clear Parisian toilette from which the half-amused, half-bored marquise listened with gracious languor. He was exulting and humble, proud and awed. The impossible had come to pass. Jean-Pierre Bacadou, the enraged republican farmer, had been to mass last Sunday–had proposed to entertain the visiting priests at the next festival of Ploumar! It was a triumph for the Church and for the good cause. “I thought I would come at once to tell Monsieur le Marquis. I know how anxious he is for the welfare of our country,” declared the priest, wiping his face. He was asked to stay to dinner.

The Chavanes returning that evening, after seeing their guest to the main gate of the park, discussed the matter while they strolled in the moonlight, trailing their long shadows up the straight avenue of chestnuts. The marquise, a royalist of course, had been mayor of the commune which includes Ploumar, the scattered hamlets of the coast, and the stony islands that fringe the yellow flatness of the sands. He had felt his position insecure, for there was a strong republican element in that part of the country; but now the conversion of Jean-Pierre made him safe. He was very pleased. “You have no idea how influential those people are,” he explained to his wife. “Now, I am sure, the next communal election will go all right. I shall be re- elected.” “Your ambition is perfectly insatiable, Charles,” exclaimed the marquise, gaily. “But, ma chere amie,” argued the husband, seriously, “it’s most important that the right man should be mayor this year, because of the elections to the Chamber. If you think it amuses me . . .”

Jean-Pierre had surrendered to his wife’s mother. Madame Levaille was a woman of business, known and respected within a radius of at least fifteen miles. Thick-set and stout, she was seen about the country, on foot or in an acquaintance’s cart, perpetually moving, in spite of her fifty-eight years, in steady pursuit of business. She had houses in all the hamlets, she worked quarries of granite, she freighted coasters with stone–even traded with the Channel Islands. She was broad-cheeked, wide-eyed, persuasive in speech: carrying her point with the placid and invincible obstinacy of an old woman who knows her own mind. She very seldom slept for two nights together in the same house; and the wayside inns were the best places to inquire in as to her whereabouts. She had either passed, or was expected to pass there at six; or somebody, coming in, had seen her in the morning, or expected to meet her that evening. After the inns that command the roads, the churches were the buildings she frequented most. Men of liberal opinions would induce small children to run into sacred edifices to see whether Madame Levaille was there, and to tell her that so-and-so was in the road waiting to speak to her about potatoes, or flour, or stones, or houses; and she would curtail her devotions, come out blinking and crossing herself into the sunshine; ready to discuss business matters in a calm, sensible way across a table in the kitchen of the inn opposite. Latterly she had stayed for a few days several times with her son-in-law, arguing against sorrow and misfortune with composed face and gentle tones. Jean-Pierre felt the convictions imbibed in the regiment torn out of his breast–not by arguments but by facts. Striding over his fields he thought it over. There were three of them. Three! All alike! Why? Such things did not happen to everybody–to nobody he ever heard of. One–might pass. But three! All three. Forever useless, to be fed while he lived and . . . What would become of the land when he died? This must be seen to. He would sacrifice his convictions. One day he told his wife–

“See what your God will do for us. Pay for some masses.”

Susan embraced her man. He stood unbending, then turned on his heels and went out. But afterwards, when a black soutane darkened his doorway, he did not object; even offered some cider himself to the priest. He listened to the talk meekly; went to mass between the two women; accomplished what the priest called “his religious duties” at Easter. That morning he felt like a man who had sold his soul. In the afternoon he fought ferociously with an old friend and neighbour who had remarked that the priests had the best of it and were now going to eat the priest-eater. He came home dishevelled and bleeding, and happening to catch sight of his children (they were kept generally out of the way), cursed and swore incoherently, banging the table. Susan wept. Madame Levaille sat serenely unmoved. She assured her daughter that “It will pass;” and taking up her thick umbrella, departed in haste to see after a schooner she was going to load with granite from her quarry.

A year or so afterwards the girl was born. A girl. Jean-Pierre heard of it in the fields, and was so upset by the news that he sat down on the boundary wall and remained there till the evening, instead of going home as he was urged to do. A girl! He felt half cheated. However, when he got home he was partly reconciled to his fate. One could marry her to a good fellow–not to a good for nothing, but to a fellow with some understanding and a good pair of arms. Besides, the next may be a boy, he thought. Of course they would be all right. His new credulity knew of no doubt. The ill luck was broken. He spoke cheerily to his wife. She was also hopeful. Three priests came to that christening, and Madame Levaille was godmother. The child turned out an idiot too.

Then on market days Jean-Pierre was seen bargaining bitterly, quarrelsome and greedy; then getting drunk with taciturn earnestness; then driving home in the dusk at a rate fit for a wedding, but with a face gloomy enough for a funeral. Sometimes he would insist on his wife coming with him; and they would drive in the early morning, shaking side by side on the narrow seat above the helpless pig, that, with tied legs, grunted a melancholy sigh at every rut. The morning drives were silent; but in the evening, coming home, Jean-Pierre, tipsy, was viciously muttering, and growled at the confounded woman who could not rear children that were like anybody else’s. Susan, holding on against the erratic swayings of the cart, pretended not to hear. Once, as they were driving through Ploumar, some obscure and drunken impulse caused him to pull up sharply opposite the church. The moon swam amongst light white clouds. The tombstones gleamed pale under the fretted shadows of the trees in the churchyard. Even the village dogs slept. Only the nightingales, awake, spun out the thrill of their song above the silence of graves. Jean-Pierre said thickly to his wife–

“What do you think is there?”

He pointed his whip at the tower–in which the big dial of the clock appeared high in the moonlight like a pallid face without eyes–and getting out carefully, fell down at once by the wheel. He picked himself up and climbed one by one the few steps to the iron gate of the churchyard. He put his face to the bars and called out indistinctly–

“Hey there! Come out!”

“Jean! Return! Return!” entreated his wife in low tones.

He took no notice, and seemed to wait there. The song of nightingales beat on all sides against the high walls of the church, and flowed back between stone crosses and flat gray slabs, engraved with words of hope and sorrow.

“Hey! Come out!” shouted Jean-Pierre, loudly.

The nightingales ceased to sing.

“Nobody?” went on Jean-Pierre. “Nobody there. A swindle of the crows. That’s what this is. Nobody anywhere. I despise it. Allez! Houp!”

He shook the gate with all his strength, and the iron bars rattled with a frightful clanging, like a chain dragged over stone steps. A dog near by barked hurriedly. Jean-Pierre staggered back, and after three successive dashes got into his cart. Susan sat very quiet and still. He said to her with drunken severity–

“See? Nobody. I’ve been made a fool! Malheur! Somebody will pay for it. The next one I see near the house I will lay my whip on . . . on the black spine . . . I will. I don’t want him in there . . . he only helps the carrion crows to rob poor folk. I am a man. . . . We will see if I can’t have children like anybody else . . . now you mind. . . . They won’t be all . . . all . . . we see. . . .”

She burst out through the fingers that hid her face–

“Don’t say that, Jean; don’t say that, my man!”

He struck her a swinging blow on the head with the back of his hand and knocked her into the bottom of the cart, where she crouched, thrown about lamentably by every jolt. He drove furiously, standing up, brandishing his whip, shaking the reins over the gray horse that galloped ponderously, making the heavy harness leap upon his broad quarters. The country rang clamorous in the night with the irritated barking of farm dogs, that followed the rattle of wheels all along the road. A couple of belated wayfarers had only just time to step into the ditch. At his own gate he caught the post and was shot out of the cart head first. The horse went on slowly to the door. At Susan’s piercing cries the farm hands rushed out. She thought him dead, but he was only sleeping where he fell, and cursed his men, who hastened to him, for disturbing his slumbers.

Autumn came. The clouded sky descended low upon the black contours of the hills; and the dead leaves danced in spiral whirls under naked trees, till the wind, sighing profoundly, laid them to rest in the hollows of bare valleys. And from morning till night one could see all over the land black denuded boughs, the boughs gnarled and twisted, as if contorted with pain, swaying sadly between the wet clouds and the soaked earth. The clear and gentle streams of summer days rushed discoloured and raging at the stones that barred the way to the sea, with the fury of madness bent upon suicide. From horizon to horizon the great road to the sands lay between the hills in a dull glitter of empty curves, resembling an unnavigable river of mud.

Jean-Pierre went from field to field, moving blurred and tall in the drizzle, or striding on the crests of rises, lonely and high upon the gray curtain of drifting clouds, as if he had been pacing along the very edge of the universe. He looked at the black earth, at the earth mute and promising, at the mysterious earth doing its work of life in death-like stillness under the veiled sorrow of the sky. And it seemed to him that to a man worse than childless there was no promise in the fertility of fields, that from him the earth escaped, defied him, frowned at him like the clouds, sombre and hurried above his head. Having to face alone his own fields, he felt the inferiority of man who passes away before the clod that remains. Must he give up the hope of having by his side a son who would look at the turned-up sods with a master’s eye? A man that would think as he thought, that would feel as he felt; a man who would be part of himself, and yet remain to trample masterfully on that earth when he was gone? He thought of some distant relations, and felt savage enough to curse them aloud. They! Never! He turned homewards, going straight at the roof of his dwelling, visible between the enlaced skeletons of trees. As he swung his legs over the stile a cawing flock of birds settled slowly on the field; dropped down behind his back, noiseless and fluttering, like flakes of soot.

That day Madame Levaille had gone early in the afternoon to the house she had near Kervanion. She had to pay some of the men who worked in her granite quarry there, and she went in good time because her little house contained a shop where the workmen could spend their wages without the trouble of going to town. The house stood alone amongst rocks. A lane of mud and stones ended at the door. The sea-winds coming ashore on Stonecutter’s point, fresh from the fierce turmoil of the waves, howled violently at the unmoved heaps of black boulders holding up steadily short-armed, high crosses against the tremendous rush of the invisible. In the sweep of gales the sheltered dwelling stood in a calm resonant and disquieting, like the calm in the centre of a hurricane. On stormy nights, when the tide was out, the bay of Fougere, fifty feet below the house, resembled an immense black pit, from which ascended mutterings and sighs as if the sands down there had been alive and complaining. At high tide the returning water assaulted the ledges of rock in short rushes, ending in bursts of livid light and columns of spray, that flew inland, stinging to death the grass of pastures.

The darkness came from the hills, flowed over the coast, put out the red fires of sunset, and went on to seaward pursuing the retiring tide. The wind dropped with the sun, leaving a maddened sea and a devastated sky. The heavens above the house seemed to be draped in black rags, held up here and there by pins of fire. Madame Levaille, for this evening the servant of her own workmen, tried to induce them to depart. “An old woman like me ought to be in bed at this late hour,” she good-humouredly repeated. The quarrymen drank, asked for more. They shouted over the table as if they had been talking across a field. At one end four of them played cards, banging the wood with their hard knuckles, and swearing at every lead. One sat with a lost gaze, humming a bar of some song, which he repeated endlessly. Two others, in a corner, were quarrelling confidentially and fiercely over some woman, looking close into one another’s eyes as if they had wanted to tear them out, but speaking in whispers that promised violence and murder discreetly, in a venomous sibillation of subdued words. The atmosphere in there was thick enough to slice with a knife. Three candles burning about the long room glowed red and dull like sparks expiring in ashes.

The slight click of the iron latch was at that late hour as unexpected and startling as a thunder-clap. Madame Levaille put down a bottle she held above a liqueur glass; the players turned their heads; the whispered quarrel ceased; only the singer, after darting a glance at the door, went on humming with a stolid face. Susan appeared in the doorway, stepped in, flung the door to, and put her back against it, saying, half aloud–

“Mother!”

Madame Levaille, taking up the bottle again, said calmly: “Here you are, my girl. What a state you are in!” The neck of the bottle rang on the rim of the glass, for the old woman was startled, and the idea that the farm had caught fire had entered her head. She could think of no other cause for her daughter’s appearance.

Susan, soaked and muddy, stared the whole length of the room towards the men at the far end. Her mother asked–

“What has happened? God guard us from misfortune!”

Susan moved her lips. No sound came. Madame Levaille stepped up to her daughter, took her by the arm, looked into her face.

“In God’s name,” she said, shakily, “what’s the matter? You have been rolling in mud. . . . Why did you come? . . . Where’s Jean?”

The men had all got up and approached slowly, staring with dull surprise. Madame Levaille jerked her daughter away from the door, swung her round upon a seat close to the wall. Then she turned fiercely to the men–

“Enough of this! Out you go–you others! I close.”

One of them observed, looking down at Susan collapsed on the seat: “She is–one may say–half dead.”

Madame Levaille flung the door open.

“Get out! March!” she cried, shaking nervously.

They dropped out into the night, laughing stupidly. Outside, the two Lotharios broke out into loud shouts. The others tried to soothe them, all talking at once. The noise went away up the lane with the men, who staggered together in a tight knot, remonstrating with one another foolishly.

“Speak, Susan. What is it? Speak!” entreated Madame Levaille, as soon as the door was shut.

Susan pronounced some incomprehensible words, glaring at the table. The old woman clapped her hands above her head, let them drop, and stood looking at her daughter with disconsolate eyes. Her husband had been “deranged in his head” for a few years before he died, and now she began to suspect her daughter was going mad. She asked, pressingly–

“Does Jean know where you are? Where is Jean?”

“He knows . . . he is dead.”

“What!” cried the old woman. She came up near, and peering at her daughter, repeated three times: “What do you say? What do you say? What do you say?”

Susan sat dry-eyed and stony before Madame Levaille, who contemplated her, feeling a strange sense of inexplicable horror creep into the silence of the house. She had hardly realised the news, further than to understand that she had been brought in one short moment face to face with something unexpected and final. It did not even occur to her to ask for any explanation. She thought: accident–terrible accident–blood to the head–fell down a trap door in the loft. . . . She remained there, distracted and mute, blinking her old eyes.

Suddenly, Susan said–

“I have killed him.”

For a moment the mother stood still, almost unbreathing, but with composed face. The next second she burst out into a shout–

“You miserable madwoman . . . they will cut your neck. . . .”

She fancied the gendarmes entering the house, saying to her: “We want your daughter; give her up:” the gendarmes with the severe, hard faces of men on duty. She knew the brigadier well–an old friend, familiar and respectful, saying heartily, “To your good health, Madame!” before lifting to his lips the small glass of cognac–out of the special bottle she kept for friends. And now! . . . She was losing her head. She rushed here and there, as if looking for something urgently needed–gave that up, stood stock still in the middle of the room, and screamed at her daughter–

“Why? Say! Say! Why?”

The other seemed to leap out of her strange apathy.

“Do you think I am made of stone?” she shouted back, striding towards her mother.

“No! It’s impossible. . . .” said Madame Levaille, in a convinced tone.

“You go and see, mother,” retorted Susan, looking at her with blazing eyes. “There’s no money in heaven–no justice. No! . . . I did not know. . . . Do you think I have no heart? Do you think I have never heard people jeering at me, pitying me, wondering at me? Do you know how some of them were calling me? The mother of idiots–that was my nickname! And my children never would know me, never speak to me. They would know nothing; neither men–nor God. Haven’t I prayed! But the Mother of God herself would not hear me. A mother! . . . Who is accursed–I, or the man who is dead? Eh? Tell me. I took care of myself. Do you think I would defy the anger of God and have my house full of those things–that are worse than animals who know the hand that feeds them? Who blasphemed in the night at the very church door? Was it I? . . . I only wept and prayed for mercy . . . and I feel the curse at every moment of the day–I see it round me from morning to night . . . I’ve got to keep them alive–to take care of my misfortune and shame. And he would come. I begged him and Heaven for mercy. . . . No! . . . Then we shall see. . . . He came this evening. I thought to myself: ‘Ah! again!’ . . . I had my long scissors. I heard him shouting . . . I saw him near. . . . I must–must I? . . . Then take! . . . And I struck him in the throat above the breastbone. . . . I never heard him even sigh. . . . I left him standing. . . . It was a minute ago. How did I come here?”

Madame Levaille shivered. A wave of cold ran down her back, down her fat arms under her tight sleeves, made her stamp gently where she stood. Quivers ran over the broad cheeks, across the thin lips, ran amongst the wrinkles at the corners of her steady old eyes. She stammered–

“You wicked woman–you disgrace me. But there! You always resembled your father. What do you think will become of you . . . in the other world? In this . . . Oh misery!”

She was very hot now. She felt burning inside. She wrung her perspiring hands–and suddenly, starting in great haste, began to look for her big shawl and umbrella, feverishly, never once glancing at her daughter, who stood in the middle of the room following her with a gaze distracted and cold.

“Nothing worse than in this,” said Susan.

Her mother, umbrella in hand and trailing the shawl over the floor, groaned profoundly.

“I must go to the priest,” she burst out passionately. “I do not know whether you even speak the truth! You are a horrible woman. They will find you anywhere. You may stay here–or go. There is no room for you in this world.”

Ready now to depart, she yet wandered aimlessly about the room, putting the bottles on the shelf, trying to fit with trembling hands the covers on cardboard boxes. Whenever the real sense of what she had heard emerged for a second from the haze of her thoughts she would fancy that something had exploded in her brain without, unfortunately, bursting her head to pieces–which would have been a relief. She blew the candles out one by one without knowing it, and was horribly startled by the darkness. She fell on a bench and began to whimper. After a while she ceased, and sat listening to the breathing of her daughter, whom she could hardly see, still and upright, giving no other sign of life. She was becoming old rapidly at last, during those minutes. She spoke in tones unsteady, cut about by the rattle of teeth, like one shaken by a deadly cold fit of ague.

“I wish you had died little. I will never dare to show my old head in the sunshine again. There are worse misfortunes than idiot children. I wish you had been born to me simple–like your own. . . .”

She saw the figure of her daughter pass before the faint and livid clearness of a window. Then it appeared in the doorway for a second, and the door swung to with a clang. Madame Levaille, as if awakened by the noise from a long nightmare, rushed out.

“Susan!” she shouted from the doorstep.

She heard a stone roll a long time down the declivity of the rocky beach above the sands. She stepped forward cautiously, one hand on the wall of the house, and peered down into the smooth darkness of the empty bay. Once again she cried–

“Susan! You will kill yourself there.”

The stone had taken its last leap in the dark, and she heard nothing now. A sudden thought seemed to strangle her, and she called no more. She turned her back upon the black silence of the pit and went up the lane towards Ploumar, stumbling along with sombre determination, as if she had started on a desperate journey that would last, perhaps, to the end of her life. A sullen and periodic clamour of waves rolling over reefs followed her far inland between the high hedges sheltering the gloomy solitude of the fields.

Susan had run out, swerving sharp to the left at the door, and on the edge of the slope crouched down behind a boulder. A dislodged stone went on downwards, rattling as it leaped. When Madame Levaille called out, Susan could have, by stretching her hand, touched her mother’s skirt, had she had the courage to move a limb. She saw the old woman go away, and she remained still, closing her eyes and pressing her side to the hard and rugged surface of the rock. After a while a familiar face with fixed eyes and an open mouth became visible in the intense obscurity amongst the boulders. She uttered a low cry and stood up. The face vanished, leaving her to gasp and shiver alone in the wilderness of stone heaps. But as soon as she had crouched down again to rest, with her head against the rock, the face returned, came very near, appeared eager to finish the speech that had been cut short by death, only a moment ago. She scrambled quickly to her feet and said: “Go away, or I will do it again.” The thing wavered, swung to the right, to the left. She moved this way and that, stepped back, fancied herself screaming at it, and was appalled by the unbroken stillness of the night. She tottered on the brink, felt the steep declivity under her feet, and rushed down blindly to save herself from a headlong fall. The shingle seemed to wake up; the pebbles began to roll before her, pursued her from above, raced down with her on both sides, rolling past with an increasing clatter. In the peace of the night the noise grew, deepening to a rumour, continuous and violent, as if the whole semicircle of the stony beach had started to tumble down into the bay. Susan’s feet hardly touched the slope that seemed to run down with her. At the bottom she stumbled, shot forward, throwing her arms out, and fell heavily. She jumped up at once and turned swiftly to look back, her clenched hands full of sand she had clutched in her fall. The face was there, keeping its distance, visible in its own sheen that made a pale stain in the night. She shouted, “Go away!”–she shouted at it with pain, with fear, with all the rage of that useless stab that could not keep him quiet, keep him out of her sight. What did he want now? He was dead. Dead men have no children. Would he never leave her alone? She shrieked at it–waved her outstretched hands. She seemed to feel the breath of parted lips, and, with a long cry of discouragement, fled across the level bottom of the bay.

She ran lightly, unaware of any effort of her body. High sharp rocks that, when the bay is full, show above the glittering plain of blue water like pointed towers of submerged churches, glided past her, rushing to the land at a tremendous pace. To the left, in the distance, she could see something shining: a broad disc of light in which narrow shadows pivoted round the centre like the spokes of a wheel. She heard a voice calling, “Hey! There!” and answered with a wild scream. So, he could call yet! He was calling after her to stop. Never! . . . She tore through the night, past the startled group of seaweed-gatherers who stood round their lantern paralysed with fear at the unearthly screech coming from that fleeing shadow. The men leaned on their pitchforks staring fearfully. A woman fell on her knees, and, crossing herself, began to pray aloud. A little girl with her ragged skirt full of slimy seaweed began to sob despairingly, lugging her soaked burden close to the man who carried the light. Somebody said: “The thing ran out towards the sea.” Another voice exclaimed: “And the sea is coming back! Look at the spreading puddles. Do you hear–you woman–there! Get up!” Several voices cried together. “Yes, let us be off! Let the accursed thing go to the sea!” They moved on, keeping close round the light. Suddenly a man swore loudly. He would go and see what was the matter. It had been a woman’s voice. He would go. There were shrill protests from women–but his high form detached itself from the group and went off running. They sent an unanimous call of scared voices after him. A word, insulting and mocking, came back, thrown at them through the darkness. A woman moaned. An old man said gravely: “Such things ought to be left alone.” They went on slower, shuffling in the yielding sand and whispering to one another that Millot feared nothing, having no religion, but that it would end badly some day.

Susan met the incoming tide by the Raven islet and stopped, panting, with her feet in the water. She heard the murmur and felt the cold caress of the sea, and, calmer now, could see the sombre and confused mass of the Raven on one side and on the other the long white streak of Molene sands that are left high above the dry bottom of Fougere Bay at every ebb. She turned round and saw far away, along the starred background of the sky, the ragged outline of the coast. Above it, nearly facing her, appeared the tower of Ploumar Church; a slender and tall pyramid shooting up dark and pointed into the clustered glitter of the stars. She felt strangely calm. She knew where she was, and began to remember how she came there–and why. She peered into the smooth obscurity near her. She was alone. There was nothing there; nothing near her, either living or dead.

The tide was creeping in quietly, putting out long impatient arms of strange rivulets that ran towards the land between ridges of sand. Under the night the pools grew bigger with mysterious rapidity, while the great sea, yet far off, thundered in a regular rhythm along the indistinct line of the horizon. Susan splashed her way back for a few yards without being able to get clear of the water that murmured tenderly all around and, suddenly, with a spiteful gurgle, nearly took her off her feet. Her heart thumped with fear. This place was too big and too empty to die in. To-morrow they would do with her what they liked. But before she died she must tell them–tell the gentlemen in black clothes that there are things no woman can bear. She must explain how it happened. . . . She splashed through a pool, getting wet to the waist, too preoccupied to care. . . . She must explain. “He came in the same way as ever and said, just so: ‘Do you think I am going to leave the land to those people from Morbihan that I do not know? Do you? We shall see! Come along, you creature of mischance!’ And he put his arms out. Then, Messieurs, I said: ‘Before God–never!’ And he said, striding at me with open palms: ‘There is no God to hold me! Do you understand, you useless carcase. I will do what I like.’ And he took me by the shoulders. Then I, Messieurs, called to God for help, and next minute, while he was shaking me, I felt my long scissors in my hand. His shirt was unbuttoned, and, by the candle- light, I saw the hollow of his throat. I cried: ‘Let go!’ He was crushing my shoulders. He was strong, my man was! Then I thought: No! . . . Must I? . . . Then take!–and I struck in the hollow place. I never saw him fall. . . . The old father never turned his head. He is deaf and childish, gentlemen. . . . Nobody saw him fall. I ran out . . . Nobody saw. . . .”

She had been scrambling amongst the boulders of the Raven and now found herself, all out of breath, standing amongst the heavy shadows of the rocky islet. The Raven is connected with the main land by a natural pier of immense and slippery stones. She intended to return home that way. Was he still standing there? At home. Home! Four idiots and a corpse. She must go back and explain. Anybody would understand. . . .

Below her the night or the sea seemed to pronounce distinctly–

“Aha! I see you at last!”

She started, slipped, fell; and without attempting to rise, listened, terrified. She heard heavy breathing, a clatter of wooden clogs. It stopped.

“Where the devil did you pass?” said an invisible man, hoarsely.

She held her breath. She recognized the voice. She had not seen him fall. Was he pursuing her there dead, or perhaps . . . alive?

She lost her head. She cried from the crevice where she lay huddled, “Never, never!”

“Ah! You are still there. You led me a fine dance. Wait, my beauty, I must see how you look after all this. You wait. . . .”

Millot was stumbling, laughing, swearing meaninglessly out of pure satisfaction, pleased with himself for having run down that fly-by-night. “As if there were such things as ghosts! Bah! It took an old African soldier to show those clodhoppers. . . . But it was curious. Who the devil was she?”

Susan listened, crouching. He was coming for her, this dead man. There was no escape. What a noise he made amongst the stones. . . . She saw his head rise up, then the shoulders. He was tall–her own man! His long arms waved about, and it was his own voice sounding a little strange . . . because of the scissors. She scrambled out quickly, rushed to the edge of the causeway, and turned round. The man stood still on a high stone, detaching himself in dead black on the glitter of the sky.

“Where are you going to?” he called, roughly.

She answered, “Home!” and watched him intensely. He made a striding, clumsy leap on to another boulder, and stopped again, balancing himself, then said–

“Ha! ha! Well, I am going with you. It’s the least I can do. Ha! ha! ha!”

She stared at him till her eyes seemed to become glowing coals that burned deep into her brain, and yet she was in mortal fear of making out the well-known features. Below her the sea lapped softly against the rock with a splash continuous and gentle.

The man said, advancing another step–

“I am coming for you. What do you think?”

She trembled. Coming for her! There was no escape, no peace, no hope. She looked round despairingly. Suddenly the whole shadowy coast, the blurred islets, the heaven itself, swayed about twice, then came to a rest. She closed her eyes and shouted–

“Can’t you wait till I am dead!”

She was shaken by a furious hate for that shade that pursued her in this world, unappeased even by death in its longing for an heir that would be like other people’s children.

“Hey! What?” said Millot, keeping his distance prudently. He was saying to himself: “Look out! Some lunatic. An accident happens soon.”

She went on, wildly–

“I want to live. To live alone–for a week–for a day. I must explain to them. . . . I would tear you to pieces, I would kill you twenty times over rather than let you touch me while I live. How many times must I kill you–you blasphemer! Satan sends you here. I am damned too!”

“Come,” said Millot, alarmed and conciliating. “I am perfectly alive! . . . Oh, my God!”

She had screamed, “Alive!” and at once vanished before his eyes, as if the islet itself had swerved aside from under her feet. Millot rushed forward, and fell flat with his chin over the edge. Far below he saw the water whitened by her struggles, and heard one shrill cry for help that seemed to dart upwards along the perpendicular face of the rock, and soar past, straight into the high and impassive heaven.

Madame Levaille sat, dry-eyed, on the short grass of the hill side, with her thick legs stretched out, and her old feet turned up in their black cloth shoes. Her clogs stood near by, and further off the umbrella lay on the withered sward like a weapon dropped from the grasp of a vanquished warrior. The Marquis of Chavanes, on horseback, one gloved hand on thigh, looked down at her as she got up laboriously, with groans. On the narrow track of the seaweed-carts four men were carrying inland Susan’s body on a hand-barrow, while several others straggled listlessly behind. Madame Levaille looked after the procession. “Yes, Monsieur le Marquis,” she said dispassionately, in her usual calm tone of a reasonable old woman. “There are unfortunate people on this earth. I had only one child. Only one! And they won’t bury her in consecrated ground!”

Her eyes filled suddenly, and a short shower of tears rolled down the broad cheeks. She pulled the shawl close about her. The Marquis leaned slightly over in his saddle, and said–

“It is very sad. You have all my sympathy. I shall speak to the Cure. She was unquestionably insane, and the fall was accidental. Millot says so distinctly. Good-day, Madame.”

And he trotted off, thinking to himself: “I must get this old woman appointed guardian of those idiots, and administrator of the farm. It would be much better than having here one of those other Bacadous, probably a red republican, corrupting my commune.”