No Surface All Feeling

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For so long he has stared into mirrors. The passing, fleeting kind: shop windows, car windows, the sunglassed eyes of strangers. What he sees will always follow and taunt him.

It is better when the rain falls and all is blurred and distorted.

“You need to get out your own head for awhile,” is what his flatmate said. It reminds him of his mother, all those years ago, scolding him for the time he spent alone in his room.

“There’s nothing attractive about a narcissist,” she’d chide, poking her head round his door, “you’ll never make friends if you stay like this.”

“I’m sorry,” he’d reply, staring at the floor, “I’ll try harder”. The trouble was, it wasn’t narcissism that kept him trapped inside himself – it was fear.

Always he was fighting the mirrors. What was it about their silvery, slippery surface that so taunted him? He hated to see himself, hated the way his cheeks bulged and his stomach poked out like a bag full of water. In the world outside, there was no way of avoiding his reflection. Just being around people was enough: their curious stares provided the chasm of mirrors into which he lost himself. Once, in a supermarket, a young woman pointed at his legs and whispered, loudly, to her mother:

“Gosh, look how skinny he is!”

But she knew nothing. How could she know how wrong she was?

He was only ever happy in the afterglow, the slump against the bathroom wall after puking in the toilet bowl. In the mirror his pallor was otherworldly, and for a moment he felt invincible, having cheated the weakness of his own body.

He drinks in the afternoon with or without his flatmate, watching the sun melt like a flaming ice cube, dripping down the cold blue back of a twilight sky. The alcohol is a solvent, in which sorrow and fear dissolve together. He could do anything when drunk: go dancing, write a song, kiss a girl, stay out all night long, running through the city streets. Instead, he doesn’t. He lies there, supine and unreal in his bladdered paralysis.

In the morning he wakes with a headful of nasty memories. He has to fish them out, one by one, like a child picking unwanted peas from their plate of dinner. He feels purer when he stands at the window. It is raining and the rain covers the streets with sheets of lucent alabaster; almost snowlike, the way it glows in lamplit puddles. The sky, these days, is far too white. He likes to stare into its abyss; seeing not himself cast back in the glass reflection, but a hundred other monsters, blinking their hungry eyes back at him. Feeling, feeling. He knows this is the life he must seek, the life so far that he has missed.

–Maria Sledmere

(Flash Fiction February prompts: rain, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”–Friedrich Nietzsche)

 

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Charlotte’s Letter

The vague, half-real shapes came down the mountainside, silhouetted against the dull shine of distant moonlight. Charlotte perceived their shadows with the awe she felt owed to her by the mysteries of this silent scene. ‘Twas just like the landscapes she had read about in novels. Looking up to the moon, she jutted her neck out to make her hair billow just so, in the imitation of the sirens whose images she had seen in picture book illustrations. Harry was always taking her to those peculiar bookshops which stocked all sorts of strange hardbacks, often with beautiful velvet covers and stories about dragons and wicked landlords and heroines who swooned under the glaring monstrosity of their captors.

The wind began to shriek as the night wore on, and Charlotte was beginning to lose all sensation in her toes.

“How long must I stand here?” she muttered in complaint. However, there was a way of taking the sting out of her waiting. Charlotte imagined what she would write about all this in a letter. It was important to render exactly the interplay between darkness and light; between the gleam of the snow-capped mountains and the dark spectres of endless cliff-faces, the leafless trees and husks of rock. The way her mind shifted in the expanse of darkness to the shimmering abyss offered by the white horizon, where clouds had settled under the spell of moonlit silver. The dim violet of the sky and its jewellery case of stars. The luxurious feel of the grass beneath her feet, the scent of heather and fresh flush of the cold on her face.

Still, the cold was really getting too much for her and so she decided to move on. She took dainty paces up the mountainside, where she had spotted signs of a little cavern. It would be perfectly fine to rest a night there; Harry was sure to come and pick her up in the morning. In fact, she even spotted a trace of amber light coming from a nook in the rocky ridge; and light bore the promise of hospitality.

All she was really supposed to do was wait, of course. She had trekked all the way through fields of ice and mist and snow and now her task was simply to wait. The love of her saviour would be strong and pure, and so forever in his arms she would be secure.

It wasn’t Harry that found her in the end, but a wandering poet who was savouring the glow of vertigo as he traipsed along the cliff edge, dangling in one hand a pen and the other his paper. Occasionally he burst into spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling, bearing his voice to the singing wind:

O martyr of mist and myriad spirit
how music mingles with the passion in it!
A chance encounter with these holy hills,
enough to ease the mind from all its ills!

He continued the verse with the surge of impassioned timbre, until suddenly he came upon a glint of light in the mountainside. Curious, he pocketed his pen and paper and scrambled up the rocky ledge to see better. He began to hear the hum of sweet sweet music; the hum that filled the thin air as if it were the ambient sounds of the mountains themselves. The poet could not help but fall into song:

Perhaps a maiden fair and bright
might come from dark and dreamy heights;
dressed in her gown of fairest white
will she succeed in fighting night?

He paused at the entrance to the cave to look back at the portion of mountainside that he had just climbed. All dropped wide and deep below him into a chasm of snowy fog and sinuous cloud. He felt a great gape in his stomach and struggled not to curse aloud.

But the horror of this sensation paled in comparison to the horror that faced him over the ledge. The poet clambered to his feet and what he saw poured poison through his delicate veins. A maiden she was, yet dressed in navy, her once-coiled hair now loose and undone. And yet he could barely see what beauty she bore for the calamity around her: great pools of blood and blackened flesh that seeped and festered beneath her dress. Her golden hair was leeched with bloodied spots, and her limbs were twisted in curious knots. Most disturbing were the things that ate her: great hoards of fireflies, descending from the back of the cave with their thunderous buzz.  Their very wings were aflame with wicked glare. Through the blur of the poet’s tears, the whole swarm seemed an inferno sent from hell. The poet blinked and blinked and staggered back, so disturbed he was at this most vivid ravishing of beauty.

But he stumbled too far, and so toppled down the mountain, his final word a distorted roar.

T’was but a year or so later that poor Harry was hiking through the mountains, when he came across this enchanted cavern and found dear Charlotte’s letter. And what a marvel and masterpiece it would have been – the prize of every museum! – if Harry too had not succumbed to those ravenous fireflies. Yet still the letter sits inside this cave, the jewel kept safe by those sacred, flaming insects. Maybe some other Romantic one day will come to take it; or maybe nature will slowly reclaim its place and consume it.

Prompts: chiaroscuro, fireflies, vertigo

by Maria Rose Sledmere

The Deserters

They found themselves lying on baked ground that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be grit and sand. Their bodies throbbed with thirst and only a rasping sound escaped their throats. They were like lost children, stumbling in the light of a new horizon. Sam and Tina had no idea how they had got here. They had just…woken up.

Only a moment ago, they were asleep in their bed with the chilly wind rattling the walls. Messages flashing on their phone, gloriously ignored. Now they were here in this unimaginable space, the feverish heat clawing at their bodies. There was nothing here; only endless, yellow desert and a sky so pale it seemed to become the ground they stood on.

What’s more, Sam and Tina were naked, utterly naked, and already their skin was starting to peel from the sun’s glare.

“How the hell-?” Sam croaked, shielding his eyes.

“This is hell.” Tina kicked a stone and looked up to the sun. She was angry, that was all. She didn’t think this would happen.

They began to exist in this torrid landscape, their bodies slowly crisping, shedding flakes of skin like snakes, living off the charred bodies of lizards who had dried up in the random desert fires which occasionally flared up in the afternoon sun. They ate the lizards’ eggs too, cracking the shells with their scaly knuckles and trying not to gag as they swallowed the runny contents. They got used to it, though they could never feel at home. Everything they did felt like an intrusion, like they were stomping over holy ground. This was a place stripped pure of everything, and only the lizards and snakes and scorpions remained; the hard, scabrous creatures left upon a parched planet.

Their bodies shrank and withered and so did their brains. Soon they had no memory of who they were or what their lives had been like before this dream. All thoughts were of survival. Sometimes, Tina wondered what she had done, but the thought soon slipped away. The bare heat cleansed them of their confusion.

They walked along endless dunes under the relentless sun; they walked until they knew death would be there at last, clutching at them. For they were hungry for an ending; to death they would be hospitable.

And yet every time they thought it would happen some miracle saved them. One day they stumbled upon a clump of strange roses with spiked, shrub-like clusters underneath them. The pinkness of these flowers was almost too much for Sam and Tina: how luxurious it seemed against the acrid sand and sky that seemed to blend together. They scrabbled at the ground and soon they found a pool of water from which they could drink. It tasted of memory.

Sated, they lay back to wait for the cool relief of evening.

You might think Sam and Tina were dreaming they were Adam and Eve, atoning for some worry or other in their dreams. You might think somebody was writing about them, forcing them into a repenting situation, painting the scene of their fate. You might think this desert some symbolic landscape, a projection of psychological space. Probably, you would be wrong.

They are destined to wander forever. For they are not some relic of original Man. They were the people who stole all they could from each other, who burned and burned in their brutal desires until they were both starved, any trace of sentiment stripped from their skeletons. It is a harsh thing to wake up beside the same person every day and wish you were dying. But it is a harsher thing to wander forever with this person, to feed off what bare necessities the world will leave when your mind is gone and there is nothing but your mortal body to fill the time. To fill the final space, to spread out your life among the sweepings and leavings of the blind and forsaken. To be the selfish ones, the deserting.

Prompts: space, lizard

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Golder’s Green

Home to the ashes of Enid Blyton, Doris Lessing and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. A shabby grandeur adorns the forest canopy, the winding trails of graves, the cuts of light casting gold on the ground. There’s a peculiar magic to the lush peridot leaves that flourish with life amidst so much death. You suppose that here perhaps death has its own tangibility. How easy to disappear, to sink into the soil and join the rest of them. The trees speak to you with their distinct whisper that only you can hear; they have heard centuries of voices speak to them, hushed and yearning, from beyond the grave.  You feel now all those voices echo hollow, rising up through the sweet earth beneath your feet.

“James!” she screamed, her voice a shrill cry through the dappled light. Startled birds scattered from the clearing that she stood in. She clung to the key hung around her neck and tried to stay calm. All that returned to her was the echo of her own shout, her own shout that you can still hear, even now.

She tried to look, tried to look for hours. She wandered down many a forgotten path, overgrown with nettles that gnarled at her bare legs with vicious rashes. She kept calling, calling your name. She lifted up bramble branches and stumbled over headstones, great slabs of granite and crumbling rocks from long ago. Gothic designs and Celtic knots, chunks of greenish mould eating into what was once precious stone. The falls were painful more from shame than anything else. She found herself lying behind some humble tomb, the thorns of rotting roses piercing her thighs as she kept trying to call out your name, her voice growing hoarser and hoarser until it was hardly a whisper. If only she were less solid, then you could have watched her.

You know that this place holds the remains of Sigmund Freud?

You know that there is a certain grave which, when lifted, holds only a void?

You know that this is sacred soil; that serene strains of magic seep through the top moss and the undergrowth? You might walk through it now and you will notice the fungus thriving in the damp tree bark, the robins twittering cheerily from the tallest memorial, unaware that their song is lost in the deep presence of death. Nature here is a darkness that you cannot touch.

But it touches her, it touches her harshly. She feels it in the lashes and rashes and purple bruises that mark her legs, in the rain that now pours from the sky and coldly scolds her flushed cheeks. The place where now the woodlice and squirrels will eat her key, until the winter takes it with layers of frost. She feels the dead mocking her; for if they are one thing it is not lost.

She is wrong of course. For you will never be settled as they are; you will never return home as you forever wander the forest. And she will call for you, but still you will not hear her cry.

Prompts: graveyard photo, lost, key

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Yesterday

Sirens fall all around us. This is the place we were when it happened, when it began to happen. Where the roses bloom full under the unnatural moon, and stray dogs sniff about in the shattered concrete. The place where all was once safe and calm. I walk with you, not because you are a stranger but because you are the one that knows me better than I know myself.

As I write this there is a place in the solar system where a planet bursts like sunlight on the old town green, scattering fire and debris for millions and millions of miles; each tiny star of matter expanding outwards, growing huge with weight and heat, its surface coruscating with the white flicker of its infinity. I remember a time when the world was small, and it was an age to walk to the garden wall, where ecosystems flourished under my child’s paws. Snails with shells cracked by the boots of adults, woodlice hiding under bark, worms squirming after the rain. I think this must be the most beautiful world, almost as beautiful as the world of microbes, with their bubbles and tiny fibres swaying as if to some cosmic beat, inaudible to human ears; but pulsing, pulsing beneath the surface. Every particle surrounds me now, leaves me to my own unravelled being, my own devices. There is a story to what has happened. I wish in your pride you might tell me, O Stranger who has come here. What has happened? Why have I happened? The wailing remains in the cries of the night and I am frightened to admit that I am frightened.

I pass the school and then the fire station, where black chars cover the signs of what once might have been called architecture. Or maybe not architecture; maybe just a building with a roof and walls, a place to sleep. I find nourishment nowhere. Every step that I walk wastes my body away; I feel the flesh melt as a person feels their room melt when they fall into sleep. I have forgotten what sleep might be. There is just this darkness, this ever-enduring reality.

You hold me in the dark and for the first time I look to the sky. I am a child again and the vast depths of velvet smother me; I want to touch every diamond that offers me its sparkle; its sparkle growing closer and bigger, but I can’t, I can’t.  The sky holds its sway over me, just as I feel you fall away and crumple like the dust from whence you came. I look to the sky that is not my mother, nor my father; nor the brush of a whisper – these words that I pray. The roar of thunder comes and I know that it is happening; happening with the sad hour that hangs as a snowflake clinging to some precious tree branch that overlooks the edge of the universe… a final crystal cold, a final light with which to play. I close my eyes, I am awake. And this is yesterday.

Prompt: *choose a music lyric*

And I stare at the sky / And it leaves me blind / I close my eyes / And this is yesterday

(Manic Street Preachers, ‘This is Yesterday’)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Depth

The twisted ribs of a cruise liner, clouding over with life. Creeping things with claws and tendrils jut from cracks in the hull, and the deep bears down on bodies, long lost to sun and breeze and laughter. Day and night are foreign whimpers.

The rumble of ancient depths- The loud void unfolds in every direction, hiding buried terrors and towering phantoms. A wail, a magnificent, droning wail, drifts through vast shadows, telling of a titan unseen. The abyss shakes as another howl sounds out over the metal corpse- Perhaps some private elegy for bones that sleep in sand and rust.

What were your prompts?: Recordings of whale-song

by Paul Inglis

Make a Sound

t was the third day (well as many sunsets that he’d counted) that Greg had spent drifting, a small orange blip in this endless black-glass expanse. He sat on the periphery of the other occupants of the rubber vessel; in the center huddled together sat a young expectant mother, two teenage boys and the elderly woman Greg had helped in to the life raft when the boat went down. From what Greg could discern the two boys (when not bickering) were friends, the rest were strangers to each other but had now developed the tempered affinity of a family- the only outsiders were Greg and ‘her’. Greg glared directly across at the other side of the boat where ‘she’ sat, removed from each other by the familial island in the center. Her nails were dug firm in to her knees and her wide eyes revolved in her skull. Once the initial wave of terror had washed over them the community of four (or five) had settled in to a sense of collective comfort and whilst Greg had resigned himself to quiet solidarity ‘that woman’ had done nothing but whimper and wail in despair- her tears were only interrupted by her maniac outbursts about their impending doom.

Thirst scorched Greg’s throat even more than the sun which beat down on his bare arms- his jacket having become a makeshift blanket for the mother. The boat began to rock methodically, as it had done twice each day- Greg assumed with the changing tides. The gentle rocking reminded Greg of playing on the swings when he was a child and he folded his arms across his chest as his eyes became heavy. However Greg’s optimism at the chance of a nap was soon clawed away, just like the changing of the tides that woman begun another hysterical fit like clockwork. Greg’s eyes flickered open to see that she was upon her knees with her hands clasped towards the sky.
“Oh god. Oh god! Can’t you feel that!” she screeched. “Oh! We’ll capsize! We’re all going to drown!”
“No we are not.”  snapped the elderly woman suddenly. Greg noticed that she’d wrapped her arms round the young mother who in turn had her arms wrapped around her own stomach. “Now stop this nonsense. You are frightening the young ones.”
Two boys had shrunk down, one had pulled his hood over his head as far as it would go.
“I don’t want to die!” she wailed as a slightly larger wave spattered the occupants with a small spray. “The waves will pluck us from this boat one by one and the sea will hold us down by our throats so far beneath this shadowy mirror no one will ever find us!”
“Hush!” the elderly woman retorted. “Whatever your feelings may be just keep them to yourself. We’re all sick of your moans.”
“You think you deserve to live don’t you.” the woman hissed, coiling her body like a viper ready to strike. “Deserve to more than me. Why? Do you think you’re more deserving?!” She extended a bony finger at the huddled mass, trailing it past them til it reached Greg. “You shouldn’t even be here. Man” she glowered at him accusingly, “And you kids, you ‘re nothing but a menace to society, you’re probably just gonna croak soon anyway and, you; well that little imp is probably dead already! ”
Without warning Greg had broken through the barrier of bodies and launched himself to the other side of the boat. The woman probably would have screamed at the minimal amount of water this movement had let in had Greg not dragged her to her feet causing her mouth to hinge closed in sheer terror. Greg wound her hair in one long strand and dragged her to the side of the dingy and shoving her forward held her face down over the water by her hair.
“See that?” he shouted.
He heard the boys behind him murmur that it was the first time they’d heard him speak.
“See that abyss below you? That endless chasm of watery darkness? That will envelope you. It’ll consume those words faster than you can spout them. The salt will purge those letters from your lips.” The woman stared in terror at her own reflection in the now ominously calm sea. Greg loosened his grip slightly, tipping her further forward. “If I let go you will fall but never land. Your lungs will blister and burst. You will cry out but never be heard. If you drown you won’t make a sound, you’ll just swallow water down. ”

The woman gasped painfully but did not answer. With that, Greg lifted her back and placed her gently back in her place, and without another word he joined the survivors in the center of the drifting little life raft.

by Hayley Rutherford 
What were your prompts?: Autopilot off- Make a sound (song)