Short Story (Part 5 Finale): When The Tide Comes In

In our last installment Aphelia was downed and stranded in the no man’s land of the battlefield where she encountered one of the enemy who showed her a strange mercy. Taking Theran’s lifeless body with her, she finally reached the embattle company of soldiers who are waiting for the artillery barrage to open up an escape route from the hill where they’ve dug in.

So a warm welcome to you dear Readers. It was a push, but I finally just sat here and bashed away at the keyboard until some kind of ending materialised. It represents, at the least, some sense of closure to this little escapade. It’s not quite what I expected or wanted, but instead took a life of its own. Whether that’s for the best I don’t know, but as with many literary works it probably needs several re-drafts before it comes to fruitition.

For now, all I can say is that if it entertained some of you out there, then it was worth doing.

And if you have no idea what this is all about, you can go back and read the previous parts here:

  1. Short Story (Part 1): When The Tide Comes In
  2. Short Story (Part 2): When The Tide Comes In
  3. Short Story (Part 3): When The Tide Comes In
  4. Short Story (Part 4): When The Tide Comes In

Now, without further ado, the finale!

(PS – sorry if there are a few typos. I almost certainly missed a few in my push to get finished).


5

Hear that?” asked the soldier next to her. Aphelia cracked an eye open, the pain in her neck and shoulders a relentless dull ache even after her rest. From afar the concussive blows of raining artillery thudded through the expectancy. The soldier stood up and went to join his sergeant. Together they stared out over the barricade into the no man’s land between the entrenched hill and the horizon.

“You think they’re coming?” asked another soldier hopefully.

“They’re trying to move up from Pallasad,” Aphelia answered.

“Even if they do, I don’t know if we’ll make it through the gap,” said the sergeant, lowering his binoculars and looking down at them. “They’re certainly putting some serious ordinance down though.”

“Better chance than staying here sarge,” said the first soldier beside him.

“Probably,” muttered the sergeant. He climbed down, took a breath and bellowed. “Listen up and pass it on! We’re going to make a break for it in the next couple of hours. The artillery are making a passage for us. Command says to wait for the signal. If you’re not ready, we leave without you!”

Aphelia listened to the men bustling about even though they had nothing to prepare. It was, she reflected, simply a way to take their minds off of waiting, just as the ‘funeral’ for Theran had been. She had resisted at first, but the sergeant had patiently explained that there was no way they could make a run for safety with a dead body in tow. In no uncertain terms he told her that she needed to see sense, and that they would give him a warriors send off.

Just as they had done for dozens of his own men.

“This hill,” he had smiled sadly, “Is a graveyard. He’ll be as safe here as anywhere.”

Aphelia had relented and now, as they waited for the flare to go shooting into another clear cold night, she stared at Theran’s tags dangling from their chain. Inscribed in the tiny metal rectangles was his name, blood group and his service number. At the bottom it also stated his religious affiliation. Aphelia rubbed her thumb over it and wondered why he’d never said anything about being a believer. Oddly he’d never seemed enthusiastic about the Cleric’s exhortations. Perhaps he had not shared their faith in a final, sudden deliverance.

And the truth was that she would never get a chance to find out.

Brooding about it wasn’t going to help, but in the chill of the trench there wasn’t anything else to do. So she waited for the flare to go up. It couldn’t be much longer. With a huff she got up and joined the sergeant, standing up to get a view out across the plain below.

“What’s taking so long?” she asked.

“You hear that?” the man asked her. He had an odd expression on his face and she shook her head.

“No.”

“The artillery isn’t firing.”

Aphelia frowned. He was right, and she hadn’t noticed. As she read the expression on his face, she read the fear that was in his eyes. The artillery wasn’t firing, and there had been no signal.

There was nothing out happening out there..

“Oh shit,” she whispered.

He nodded and took another looked with his binoculars.

“Aren’t you going to do anything?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he replied, his voice strangely calm. “I’m going to sound the alarm.”

“What?”

He lowered his binoculars and looked at her. “They’re coming.”

“Who? The support?”

“No,” the sergeant shook his head, a sardonic smile on his face as if she had cracked a facetious joke. “The Tide of course.”

*  *  *

The horde was a frenetic carpet of impish mayhem surging up the hill, manic and unrelenting. The small bodies simply absorbed the withering hail of fire from the gun nests and rifles. Aphelia stood beside the sergeant with a rifle from the spare supplies and fell to firing, reloading, firing. On and on it went as the horde pushed came closer and closer with their cackling, grinning faces.

Over her head the mortar teams launched their deadly projectiles again and again, the whistle of their trajectory became blisters of light and thumps of dirt as the explosives tore the into the masses on the hillside.

Wouldn’t the damn things never relent?

She had seen them attack Bastion like this, but their numbers were easily dispersed and broken. They had often relented before losing themselves completely, but now there was no end to them. The creatures were without guile, and came en masse without any other plan than to simply swamp the defenders. But the disarray often left gaps in their formations so the waves came staggered, like the waves of an ocean, over and over until the high tide began to recede and the numbers dwindled.

Yet they were persistent, not more than a dozen feet from the barricade and falling over themselves and their own dead to reach her. Another empty clip. They were at the barricade. Reloaded, and empty again, she jumped back and the line of men began to fall back from the first trench to the second, firing.

Every step back was contested, every inch spattered in green blood as the defenders slowly contracted tighter and tighter, stepping around the barricades and tightening the cordon.

The enemy did not relent, but came on wave after wave.

A cry for ammo came up, then another.

“I’m running low too,” said Aphelia to the sergeant. “How long before they give up?”

The man’s breath was coming in ragged gasps as he wiped sweat from his eyes. “This isn’t like normal. We’ve fought them off before, but they never came this hard.”

Tidlings hopped over the barricade and he shot the first, stabbed the second with his bayonet. Aphelia popped the next and it went spinning back over the top with a cry like an injured dog.

The sergeant shouted to her, “It’s like they’re here to finish the job.”

Behind them the mortar team raise a cry – they were out of munitions. . The tidlings fought on, scrabbling over and around the sides of the defences and even as adrenaline and determination to fight on to the last breath they knew it was hopeless. They were being overwhelmed. Once they started to fall it became a cascade, men disappearing under the waves of creatures with muffled cries. One or two saved their last grenades for themselves, and as the dull crump! Of detonations sounded, Aphelia felt the claws clutching, the teeth biting and she was swallowed up into the horde with one last scream of defiance.

Her rifle was pulled from her hand, the other gripping Theran’s tag, the chain wrapped around her hand. As she struggled against the thrashing bodies the last thing she glimpsed was the rictus skull of the Moon’s face grinning down as the Tide dragged her into the darkness…..

*  *  *

Where am I?”

“INSIDE,” answered a hollow voice.

“Inside? Inside what?” Aphelia asked, her mind floating in cool detachment.

“INSIDE.”

Aphelia felt a pulse of meaning, a notion resolving into knowledge. She was inside the Tide, within its consciousness and it was like an ocean. Somewhere in the vast expanse of mental water she floated between worlds. “How did I get here?”

“WE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN PART OF THE SAME OCEAN.”

“I don’t understand.”

“WE ARE WHOLENESS.”

“What does that mean?”

“WHAT WAS SEPERATE IS WHOLE. CONVERGENCE.”

And then she felt it, a tremor in her soul: there were the high walls of Bastion, her gaze from below rising to see the tiny human figures raining down bullet and grenade. She began to scale the wall; she was attacking as part of the horde. Her mind rode the tidling as it scaled the walls, and all around her the bodies of her kin absorbed the hail of death and destruction and even in pain they did not grieve for their own deaths. They merely returned, energy and nutrient, their death sinking into the soil and feeding life.

For their life and death was part of a cycle that came from a transcendental being. The Tide was neither hateful, nor merciful. It simply existed in a desire to survive and it showed her the day when it had reacted, the day the drill had bitten into the layer of the planet where it lived. It was an organism that had lived on the planet since the dawn of life, and Aphelia sensed that it had been some sort of cosmic spore that grew like a great tapestry through the crust of the earth.

There were times when it had been wounded before, but where it had often retreated from further pain into safety, this time the drill came again and again, deeper and deeper. That cold, biting metal pain had been unlike anything that had touched it before and instead of retreating further, it triggered a surge of primal rage.

It lashed out and attacked.

Aphelia understood it then. It had nothing to do with good or evil, and everything to do with simple self defence. It had protected itself, and the more humanity had fought back, wounding it further, the more the Tide had lashed out with the responses that formed its survival system.

And for all that it was alien, it had been here before humanity and had simply existed for so long it could remember the slow moving of continents, the pain and fear of a fall of meteorites, the joy of seeing life flourish again and again after extinctions. It was a gardener, even an experimental biologist that tampered and evolved strains of beings. Behind the beast was an inquiring mind, an alien sentience that, when she touched it, threatened to lose her within its wildly different perception and thought.

It had seen humanity arrive and been amused and curious, but within a brief span of a few thousand years humanity had suddenly broken with nature and become detached in its little bubble of civilisation.

Within a few hundred years, the blink of an eye to something that watched millennia pass, humanity had come to threaten its existence. Yet even as Aphelia understood it, she lamented that it was tearing down the walls of her home. It drove forth in a final act of destruction, intent on the peace of total annihilation.

“There must be another way!”

“WE SHALL BE WHOLE. WE SHALL BE ALIVE.”

Aphelia experienced the helplessness of the defenders as a mirror to her own inability to intercede. Men and women fell and they too were absorbed. She sensed their souls, like hers, within the ocean, old and young alike. They were all here from the soldiers on the hill to her own family; mother and father, right there, so close as they floated in limbo. She reached out to say something, but instead found herself in a real ocean, the ocean of a childhood memory where she bobbed on gentle waves under the Sun with her mother and father.

Good times….

There were other memories too, but they were conflicted, like waves moving against each. Here she was in Brighton, the southern coast of England, where she was playing with the stones on the beach. But the memory of her mother and father was on a sandy beach and the realisation made her mind bifurcate; two perspectives, one soul….. A soul in limbo, and a thousand other fractal reflections echoing through eternity; everything was possible, but limited within the essence of who she was. A million different worlds, a million different situations, but there she was like a shining diamond twinkling in the sea of possibility, her facets all sides of the same person. Aphelia looked across at Ellie, and Ellie looked back, a million reflects stretching out behind each of them like endless reflections in a mirror.

Startled, both images saw the other panic and flail as if drowning…..

A voice spoke then, but not the hollow mind-speech of the Tide. It was the beaked stranger: “It’s time for you to go back now.”

With it’s words came serenity, and the part of her that was Ellie asked. “How?”

“You know the way. You have always known the way. Trust the gifts that you have been given, keep moving and do not fear.”

Ellie moved, but as she turned away a hand caught her. She turned, floating, to see herself as Aphelia. In Aphelia’s hand was held the glimmering silver of Theran’s service tags, and the dead navigator reached out to pass them. Ellie received and a voice spoke across the gulf between them: “Look after him.”

Then she was flying, tumbling, headlong like a rush to reach a door in the dark. She knew it was there, knew that she would throw it open and there would be light….

The door opened.

And she tumbled to the cold, hard floor of a dimly lit toilet.

*  *  *

You okay?” said a familiar voice. Ellie looked up to see Merrietta standing over her, a concerned expression on her face.

“Merrietta?” Ellie asked, throat dry.

“Nope,” said the big woman and Ellie took in her black garb, the little pin badges and punk patches sown onto her jacket. “You need help?”

“Please,” said Ellie, grasping the woman’s outstretched hand.

“Had a bit too much, eh?”

“You could say that,” Ellie nodded. She was holding something in her hand, and the awareness of what had just happened was making her head spin. But she was clear-headed enough to keep it to herself. “Think someone spiked me,” she offered as a diversion.

“Bastards. If you see ’em let me know,” and the big woman clenched her fist up. “Good job I saw you stumble in here. Even better that you didn’t get proper roofied either.”

Ellie nodded, getting her feet under her, then lurched to the sink where she splashed water on her face. The Tide was already fading in her mind, the war and the cries…..

But the chain that was wrapped around her hand, and she gripped the service tags hard enough to bite her flesh. They were real. She couldn’t let go, not just yet. Sensing the other woman’s gaze on her she pocketed them and said, “That’s better. Think I got it out of my system before it could take full effect..”

“You sure you’re okay?” the woman asked. She looked dubious.

“Yeah, feeling much better,” Ellie replied, and she wasn’t lying. She really did feel a whole lot brighter and turned to smile at the giantess. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” replied the woman, then frowned and cocked her head to one side. “Do I know you?”

“I don’t think so,” Ellie replied with a shake of her head even as she could recall so many stories of their times together in that other world. Still smiling, Ellie shrugged. “Maybe we met somewhere before. I’m Ellie.”

Merrietta’s double smiled back and held out a hand. “Claudia.”

They shook hands, and Ellie had the feeling that they were going be good friends in this world too. “Do you like rum?” she asked.

Claudia smiled. “Who doesn’t?”

“I need a drink.”

“You sure?”

Ellie laughed. “After that close call, I think I can take just a little one.”

Together they headed off back to the bar.

*  *  *

Ellie paused at the entrance of the bar and scanned for any signs of the stranger that called himself Crow. In her hand she clutched the service tags as she held to the memories that were fading to something like a dream. With them she held an image of the feathered trouble maker. He had been in the bar and sent her into the other world where she had met the doubles of this life.

And perhaps even a double of Crow; the Tidecaller she had met was so familiar, so alike but yet so alien. Was his double a creature orchestrating a war against humanity? It begged the question of what Crow’s purpose in this world was, and why he had sent Ellie across.

It would be nice to tell Claudia about it, to confess everything, and although she found believing it easy, once she set about explaining the story would be transformed into something total insane. Right now it was inside her mind, and the tags in her hand made it real. Which also meant that Crow would appear, somewhere, at some time. He too was real.

She was sure she would find him.

“Two glasses of rum,” Claudia told the barman. He nodded. Claudia glanced at Ellie and grinned. “Make them doubles.”

A minute later they sipped rum and stared around the room, making small talk about the place. Claudia had been here several times before, knew a couple of people involved. They were the grand children of the locals who had fought the factory owners back in the day. Back then, pretty much everyone in the village had worked here, or in the dairy farms.

Then the factory folded. There were rumours of murder, and the workers unions had collapsed.

“These parties are like the last gasps of rebellion. Seems these days everyone just wants to get their face on social media and get paid for it doing it too.” Claudia threw back her rum. “All smoke and mirrors if you ask me.”

“So, do you work around here?”

Claudia gave Ellie a grin. “Only the best mechanic at the village garage. I can fix pretty much anything.”

Ellie grinned back. Of course you are.

“You?” Claudia asked.

“Just pointless office work. Pays the bills, you know?”

“Don’t you want to do something else?”

“Guess I never really though about it much.”

“Perhaps you should,” Claudia suggested. “A person needs a purpose or they’ll lose themselves.”

Ellie nodded, turning the glass of rum. It was true. For all the horror and death in the other world, there had been purpose, a sense of life’s value in the struggle. Going back to stale little office with its stale little people was suddenly its own little horror……

Claudia interrupted her thoughts. “Just a minute,” she said, heading for the toilet.

“Sure.”

Claudia wended her way to the door and Ellie turned back to the bar. “Two bee – ”

“Hello my little owl,” Crow said and cocked his head. “Do you have my shiny?”

Ellie stared at the dark orbs of his eyes as they regarded her and shivered. “Wait. Just one question.”

“Ah, you wish to know why?”

Ellie nodded.

Crow leaned back. “You probably think that you’re special.”

“Does this sort of thing happen to people on a regular basis then?” Ellie asked him back.

Crow chuckled. “Who knows the dreams of men and women? Perhaps your should be called homo oblitus, the forgetful ape.”

“I never dreamed of other lives.”

“How can you tell? Do you remember dreaming about frying an egg this morning?”

“I…..” Ellie’s voice trailed away. Maybe I did, she thought. But it didn’t matter. “That still doesn’t answer the question. Why me?”

Crow stared at her for a time, then shrugged. “Do you think that war is always so obvious?”

“Depends what you mean by war?”

“I mean the continuation of life.”

“And the Tide were the continuation of life?”

“As you saw, they are part of the life of that world.”

“And how is that relevant to this world?”

“I suppose it is a question of what will you fight for?”

“I fought for my friends.”

“And if there was a war here, a war that threatened your friends, you would fight it also?”

“I suppose I would, but this world isn’t the same, you said so yourself. Aphelia had a black and white choice, but this world is a dozen shades of grey.”

Crow grinned. “Is it? What if it is as simple a choice as life or death?”

“I would know.”

“Know what?”

“If someone was threatening to kill me.”

“Are you sure? Right now there are people in this world drilling into the earth and altering the planet perceptibly. This is a necrophilic culture, thriving only through the use of long dead things, turning their liquid bodies into fuel by which they convert more of the living world into dead objects for you to possess in your isolated lassitudes. Humanity had made the world conform to its designs, and as the whole world becomes a gilded cage where the rich and powerful perch above the many who are left to scrabble over the crumbs that fall from the table above.” Crow crossed his arms. “In the other world, you fought for your friends, you fought to the last. Why will you not do the same here?”

“You’re mad. The enemy was clearly in front of Aphelia. A horde of monsters. Where is the clarity here?”

“Perhaps it is clear, yet you refuse to see. Now, I have answered your question, and I want my shiny.”

Ellie clutched it tighter. “If I give this to you, will I forget everything?”

Crow shook his head. “The details perhaps, but the understanding? Deep down, are you the same person that went in?”

Ellie smiled. “I don’t think so.”

“And you always did know which way to go. You knew your way here, even though you didn’t want to come. You found your way back from between life and death. And now you’ve met Claudia, and you already sense that your life might find a new track.”

Ellie nodded. “I think your right. Nothing can be the same.”

“So follow your heart and fight on.”

Ellie held out the service tags. She had no need of them. In the other world Aphelia had found peace, and for Ellie she did not need the memories. She needed to act, to change. Crow smiled and accepted.

“I’m glad we understand each other. Now, how about I top your glass up?”

Ellie shook her head and put her hand over the glass. “I think I’ve had enough adventures for one night.”

“Ah, no matter,” Crow said with a shrug, then looked past her to the doors, “Ah, here comes your other half.”

Ellie looked over her shoulder, expecting Claudia, but it was Jon. He was radiating heat and elation, his hair a sweaty mess hanging over his badger mask. For a brief moment Ellie felt a stab of grief. She gasped a small breath and turned to look back to the barman.

But Crow was gone, His presence was like smoke slowly dissipating as Jon sat down on a bar stool next to her and drew her attention. “Hey, where’s you mask?”

“I must have dropped it in the toilet,” Ellie said, making to stand, but as she did so Claudia came back in holding the owl face in her hand.

“Did you drop this?”

“Who’s this?” Jon asked.

Ellie introduced them, and Jon shook Claudia’s hand. “Great party,” he said.

She shrugged. “It’s okay.”

“How about we get another round then?” Jon asked, undeterred. Together they ordered some more drinks from the barman who was watching them. For some reason Ellie had to suppress a little shudder, but for the life of her couldn’t remember why.

“So how’d your mask end up in the toilet?” Jon asked as they sipped some beer, “And how’d you two meet?”

Ellie glanced at Claudia, and for a moment there was a recollection, fading like a dream into the soft clouds of her memory. By the look on her face, Claudia felt it too. “It’s strange, but I feel like we’ve known each other years,” said Ellie.

“Yeah,” said Claudia, holding out the mask. “Perhaps it was just destiny, eh?”

Ellie smiled, taking the owl visage from her. “Yeah, something like that.”

And in the back of her mind, Ellie swore that she heard the rustle of feathers, like a bird taking flight.

Perhaps it was a crow.

Or maybe an owl.

The End


Well, that was a mission and a half – I hadn’t intended for it to end up like some kind of novella but that’s just the way it goes.

At this point I’m just glad to have finished, and now I can spend a little time thinking about what was right and what was wrong, but that’s a post for another day. It could certainly do with a proper edit – again, thank you to the guinea pigs who read through this draft.

Right now, I think it’s time to finish the edits to Red Star Rising and then I’ll try and get the reworking of the Mind-Thistle Run to you. I’ll also look to add a tab where roaming internet travellers can access the back catalogue of stories.

Anyhew, if you made it this far, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read through.

DJC

© 2020

Short Story (Part 3): When The Tide Comes In

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Continuing the story, Aphelia has a conversation with a familiar (and rather odd) barman before taking to the air on her resupply mission. Sorry if it needs a little more work – you’re really my beloved guinea pigs for these drafts.

Be sure to catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t:

  1. Short Story (Part 1): When The Tide Comes In
  2. Short Story (Part 2): When The Tide Comes In

And if you want to let me know what you liked, or didn’t, then throw in a comment.

Enjoy!


3

Aphelia lay on her side in her dormitory bed, unable to sleep. Across from her, Merrietta lay on her own bed, limbs draped over it’s edges as she snored. Between them was the bottle of rum, half empty and resting on the bedside cabinet they shared. She hadn’t drunk a lot, just enough to warm her against the oncoming chill of night and put her into a light doze.

Yet the knowledge that the mission bell would ring had kept her awake, the anticipation of its chimes making it near impossible for her brain to shut down. Instead she stared at the label on the rum. It was probably one of the very last bottles left in the whole world, and the thought stirred a shadow of a memory. It flitted through her mind. There had been a bar….. somewhere. It was indistinct. There was a stranger who had served her rum and beer, but didn’t want the money she had tried to pay with.

“It’s not shiny enough,” the bartender had said.

Perhaps it had just been some sort of dream. Aphelia drifted through soft, floating memories of another place…..

She was riding in a car through the afternoon sunshine, all rolling hills and woodland. The coming of Spring was in still in the air even as the Moon swung into view; low in the sky, round and pregnant. Theran was driving, but he looked younger and as strange as he looked, the landscape itself was baffling her because there were no signs of war, no craters or skeletal trees, no blasted scars marring a tortured landscape. It was a world untouched by the hordes of creatures that had swept in relentless waves over the face of the civilised world.

It almost lifted her heart, but where she should have been happy, instead she was resentful about something. Yes, she was annoyed because there were going to some old factory and a party where she was supposed to wear a mask. She wanted to go somewhere else, but Theran had insisted and passed her a likeness of a bird. The memory shifted and she caught an image of herself in a mirror: the head of an owl, big eyes in an oval face. She blinked and looked around. She was standing at a bar lit by strings of little lights hung from the walls, incense coiling in the air and a muffled thud of music from somewhere nearby…..

Someone said a name. “Ellie?”

She blinked. The barman had his head cocked on one side, giving her a strange look. Despite the empty, black eyes and the bleached bone of his skull, she was sure that she knew him. “You?”

“Me?” replied the bartender quizzically. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Who are you?”

The stranger cocked his head. “I seem to remember having this conversation before. You can call me Crow, but I think you already knew that, hmmm?”

Waves of memories suddenly crashed against each other in her mind, a tidal collision that tossed her soul on the crest of the wave. Ellie shuddered and put out a hand to steady herself on the bar. This place was so familiar, how was it that she felt that she had been lost in some other world, lost in some sort of nightmare about a war?

“I was dreaming…..”

“A dream? Indeed,” replied Crow. “Want to tell me about it?”

The initial swell of conflicted memories subsided, like a wave pulling away from the beach to reveal freshly washed stones. Each one was a little piece of a life Ellie knew, but mixed into were other memories that she could simply reach out to and pick up.

Each one was a recollection from those eddying currents of that strange dream world….

“Go on,” Crow insisted. “Tell me what you remember of the other place.”

“It’s not real. Just a dream.”

“I thought it was a war. You’re aircraft was downed, but you survived.”

“Yes…..” Ellie wasn’t sure. She shook her head as if to clear the confusion.

Crow continued, “You remember the details clearly enough, don’t you, Ellie?”

“But this is where I belong,” she retorted. “I know this place.”

“Humour me. Tell me of this other world that you dreamed about. All you need do is reach out to them.”

She knew she shouldn’t, and as much as Crow was insistent, it was her curiosity that won over: her name Aphelia and she had been a teenager when it had all started. The first signs had been worrying news broadcasts that talked about a possible toxic spillage, but it was quickly apparent that there was something else going on. The government had a project that was digging a super deep mine to extract the crystals that lived at great depth in the mantel of the planet, drilling deeper and deeper until something bubbled up out of the ground and attacked the machinery and their operators.

The old footage had become required viewing by the time she joined the military effort, a scene filled with the same scrabbling madness, the flailing limbs and manic faces as the creatures who had engulf the biplane. They surged forth, perhaps from a hollow world as some had it, or perhaps they were aliens or the product of a dozen different, bizarre theories. The scientists had analysed what they could, and determined that the things were biological, but like nothing they’d seen before. Given their number and swarming behaviour, they had been dubbed The Tide and they were numerous beyond imagining.

The bizarre goblin gaggle of limbs and laughter had been joined by great lumbering beasts like golems of living rock that had been like living bulldozers, and a myriad of other bizarre things that digested concrete and steel, things that killed themselves throwing their bodies into the engines of jet planes while the tales of deep sea terrors like the Kraken had come to life as great tentacled beasts dragged shipping to the ocean floor.

And flying above the ever entrenching Front had come the Tidecallers, the only creatures that might have been thought to have some sort of human equivalence to intelligence. They were humanoids, shrouded in armoured plates of dark bone or bark who flew astride great feathered, fire breathing carrion mounts. Despite their best efforts, the military had never caught one of these creatures, nor had they ever attempted to communicate with humanity.

The war raged on, and after the shock of the initial assault waned, humanity had retaliated by bombing huge swathes of the tidlings, striking against the greater beasts with their heaviest weapons and searching for ever more ingenious ways to attack the creatures. Yet there had been no end to them and eventually the system became so strained by internecine warfare that it had recycled every last piece of civilisation in order to survive, turned every citizen to a soldier.

Aphelia had been a trainee pilot when the war started, and that had earned her a place in the auxiliary pilots corps, eventually bringing her into the primary force as crews dwindled. A few short years later she had arrived at Bastion which had now held for three years, its foundations apparent proof against attack from below, and time and again had survived the enemy where it had broken through the Front. Yet the Tide never relented, and the Front was a forever shrinking cordon.

“How long will they hold?” Ellie asked Crow.

Crow shrugged. “Days? Weeks?”

She wanted it to not be true, but she had been part of the fight long enough to know that it was hopeless. The Tide couldn’t be stopped, no matter how many you killed; they just kept coming. They were monsters, devils that had escaped the bowels of Hell itself.

“I prefer the term anti-bodies,” said Crow conversationally as he wiped the bar, then placed a glass and a bottle of rum beside it. “Drink?”

She nodded, silent as she tried to process all the material passing through her mind. “B-but what about this life?”

“This life?” Crow mused as he poured. “And what is this life you talk of? The life of a British urbanite? Did you really live in some small, dirty estate on the edge of the big city? A place riven with division against ephemeral enemies that you are either unaware of or cannot comprehend? A world where you can access information at the press of a button, yet still ignorance persists? It is a world of blurred lines and uncertainty, a world that surely must be some fevered dream compared to the war, where there is no need to sift through the endless flow of information buzzing between fuzzy lines: you fight the Tide, you fight for life. How could that not be real?”

Ellie stared at him, and Crow smiled. Was he right? The memories stood in stark contrast, and she was drawn more easily to those of fighting; they were so much simpler to comprehend, the people so bold and courageous in their struggle. They gave their heart and soul to arrest the onslaught. What was real was the war, the coming mission, the comrades struggling against the Tide.

And so Aphelia grabbed the glass of rum and threw it back.

Crow cleared his throat. “I haven’t been completely honest,” he said. “You see, this isn’t a case of one thing being real, the other not. It is foolishness to simply dismiss one as a dream, the other as real. What exists are mere tangents of your soul.”

“Tangent of my soul?” Aphelia frowned. “What does that even mean?”

Crow sighed and picked up the bottle of rum. “Let us assume that can accept that there are other realities?” Aphelia nodded. “Then why would it be so hard to think that your being, the essence of your soul if you will, exists in tandem with them?”

Aphelia shook her head. “That’s doesn’t make sense. If a person has a soul, then surely they have one only.”

“I never said you didn’t,” said Crow as he poured himself a drink, “But think of it like this. If you stand in a river, are you not both above and below the water.”

“Yes….. I suppose I see what you are saying, but why? Why would you show me this other world.”

“Well,” Crow replied, appearing slightly embarrassed. “There is a little matter of payment.”

“What?”

He leaned over the bar and poked a finger at her. “I want my shiny. You still owe me.”

“What the fuck are you talking about? I have no money here. We are at war.”

“Oh indeed you are. Remember that before you surrender to the inevitable.”

“I’ll never surrender!” Aphelia snapped.

Crow chuckled. “Spoken like a true warrior. Perhaps you’ll win the day after all.” Then he threw back the rum and disappeared. The glass hung suspended for but a second before tumbling to the floor and shattering, making Aphelia start awake. She looked around the dormitory, but it was empty. On the floor lay a shattered glass, and the sound had stirred Merrietta too.

“Wha – ?!” the engineer mumbled, rolling onto her side. Her one open eye focused on Aphelia.

“It’s okay,” Aphelia said to her with a sad smile. “Just an accident. Go back to sleep.”

*   *   *

The night had drawn down as the Moon had risen, full once more and there was not a cloud in sight. The temperature had fallen off and frosted the small windows of the dormitory where Aphelia, shaken by the strange dream, had briefly dozed off only to be awoken by the mission bell. The pale light glowed through the patina of ice and she saw that Merrietta had already upped and gone.

She dressed quickly and went in search of her friend in the hangars. It didn’t take long to find the ever smiling engineer doing pre-flight checks on the instrumentation, fuel and under wing mounts.

“You are awake!” smiled the giantess. Her breath made great plumes in the air. “You come back safe my little flower, dah?”

“Little flower?” Aphelia frowned.

Merrietta shook her head, smiling in bemusement. “Your nickname. It’s what I always call you.”

“Of course,” Aphelia smiled. She wondered why this had slipped her mind; her parents had named her after the first flowers of spring which were blooming on the day of her birth. “Where’s Theran?”

Merrietta shrugged. “He was standing out on the strip earlier, waiting for us. He’s eager always to be up in the air.”

Yes, thought Aphelia, he is. He enjoyed the freedom of the air, being above it all and getting a chance to rain fire down on the enemy. He still hoped, still believed that the Tide could be turned. Aphelia sighed. The fight was keeping the creatures at bay, but how long could they keep it up?

It wasn’t a thought to dwell on, especially now that she could hear the Cleric preaching to the work crews in the adjacent hangar: “….. and there will come a day when the enemy falters, a day when their numbers will thin, and if we have been too easy on ourselves in this purgatory, then what good shall it do us? We strive for our very survival! So rally your spirits! Those that do not fall will know that they have been blessed to carry on the light of the human spirit! Fight on, for who knows what tomorrow will bring!”

As the loading crew began to affix their payload, a familiar voice called out, “Ready for the off?”

Aphelia and Merrietta turned to see Theran strolling up. He was grinning with a maniac gleam in his eye.

“What’s so funny?” Aphelia asked.

“Oh, nothing much. Just that there isn’t a cloud in the sky.”

It was true, and all she could say to herself was “Great!” as she rolled her eyes. There was nothing they could do about it, Aphelia reflected. It was in the lap of whatever benevolent powers were watching over them to give them safe passage. There were soldiers on the ground relying on them, and they had their orders.

“Good to go!” shouted one of the loading crew. Theran gave him the thumbs up.

“Looks like we’re all ready,” he said. He checked his watch. “No point hanging around. Let’s get this over with, then we can get ourselves loaded up with something a little more explosive.”

With a grin, he hugged Merrietta and climbed up into the cock pit, and with one last embrace Aphelia bid the engineer farewell and followed Theran into her seat. Theran gunned the engine and the propeller became a blur. A moment later and it was chocks away.

The plane taxied to the strip and joined the other half dozen biplanes waiting for the off. Theran and Aphelia waved to the other crews as they waited for the signal, Aphelia’s leg twitching with nerves. This was always the worse part, waiting for take off out here on the strip. Once they were in the air they would be above the world and she could busy her mind with the navigation.

She didn’t have to wait long. A flare shot up and the biplanes set off, trundling down the grass runway, bumping along as they gained speed, then with a little wobble Aphelia’s stomach lurched and they were climbing up into the sky to join the Moon.

*    *   *

The drawback of a clear sky was also the only benefit: they could see you, but you could see them. At least that was the theory.

It started as an itching on the back of her neck as she hunched over her map and compass, out of the wind with a small torch focused on the details. They were on course – and there wasn’t a one in her squadron who would have doubted her intuition on that whether she had a map and compass or no – and after an hour and a half’s flight they would make deployment in maybe another half hour. But something was bothering her, and she started to scan the skies for a threat.

Nothing.

She leaned forward and shouted her fears to Theran. He nodded and radioed the others. No one could see anything, but the unease amongst the squadron was growing palpable. You could feel it, that sense that someone was watching you……

Another ten minutes went by.

Aphelia shivered and cursed. To take her mind off it she set about checking for a course correction which she knew she didn’t need to make.

And that was when the roar of flames churned the air in a blazing streak, lighting the night sky around them.

A giant avian shadow sped past and disappeared back into the night as the squadron peeled away from each other in emergency manoeuvres. One of their number was burning, the wood and canvas biplane ablaze. Aphelia craned her head and watched in horror as it spiralled out of control, heading for the earth. The crew had jumped but everything was burning, and they were nothing more than blazing candles hurtling toward the ground, parachutes brief wicks fluttering into petals of embers blown on the breeze.

And somewhere out there the great bird wheeled and made another pass.

Aphelia’s heart pounded, every second an agony of expectation as her eyes scried the darkness for their attacker, and when the night lit up again she flinched, her scream swallowed as Theran jammed the stick over and they rolled away. Her head wheeled and she saw a flash, and as they exited the roll her eyes were drawn to the plane that was descending on them, it’s crew jumping from the burning wreck. This time they were lucky enough to make it out before the flames engulfed the plane, but as the doomed aircraft slashed past on the left the fuel tank ignited.

Their own plane gave a little jolt, and she saw Theran slump forward. The nose dipped and they went into a dive that threw her back even as she reached forward to grab his shoulder. Her hand caught his collar and with all her strength she hauled him back from the controls. He was heavy, but with one hand holding his collar, she used the other to take the spare controls and level the biplane out.

Breathing hard, they were stable and Aphelia spared a quick glance around for pursuing danger.

She couldn’t see anything, but the tension wouldn’t relent and the ache of her muscles was beginning. She didn’t have long before she’d have to let Theran go, and she prayed that he was just unconscious. If he woke up in the next couple of minutes…..

But if he didn’t then she better get prepared. They were flying low now, and she needed to get her orientation. Her thoughts turned to the target. They had been quite close to the drop, and she might still manage it. She closed her eyes and breathed. They were close, very close. She had a release on the payload, and she could still make the drop.

If the worse came to the worse she might be able to ditch nearby and take refuge with them. She flew on, flinching as something lit the night, but it had dropped behind and she was moving away from the horror, skimming the wasteland towards the troops.

A flare went up, and she allowed herself a tight smile. With all her strength she guided the plane towards the entrenched soldiers. They were dug in and barricaded on a hill small hill, and as she skimmed the top of it she could see men waving.

The pain in her arm was almost numb now, but she was going to make the drop. Releasing the payload as she buzzed past, there was a moment of relief and triumph waxing in her heart.

She had done it.

The only question now was whether Theran would wake up? For all she knew he could be dead – pleasepleaseplease don’t be dead – but there was no way to tell without climbing forward, and the failing muscles in her arm told her that in a minute she lose her grip on him.

She banked around, intending to try and land as near the troops as possible. After all, there was a relief mission attempting to break through for them. If she could reach them, she might still make it back to Bastion.

At that moment the engine spluttered and Aphelia’s eyes went to the fuel gauge and saw that it had hit empty – whatever had hit Theran must have hit a fuel line or something.

She fancied that she could hear cruel laughter a moment before the engine died and she was suddenly gliding down through the night and into a no man’s land lit by a bulbous, glowing Moon.

End of Part 3


Find out just what happens as the tide comes in for the penultimate chapter!

Read Part 4: When The Tide Comes In now!

DJC

Short Story (Part 2): When The Tide Comes In

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Last week our intrepid party-goer Ellie met a rather curious bar-tender and found herself in a bit of a pickle as she hit the bathroom floor. The question is, where did she wake up?

(What do you mean you didn’t read last weeks installment? What are you waiting for, it’s right here: When The Tide Comes In Part 1)

And so the story continues……


2

Ellie remembered a bathroom floor.

Had she managed to throw up?

She was groggy, but the cold air blowing in from the car window was bringing her around from some nightmare about an old aeroplane. The car bucked and bounced through a pot hole. Jon must have found her and they were on their way home….

Next to her she heard voices speaking low.

“Jon?” she murmured, still half gone.

Damn, it felt cold. Didn’t he have the heating on?

Her eyes cracked opened in search of the window winder but instead found the cramped interior of a truck. The sound of its heavy engine surfaced through the haze of her thoughts as a sudden wave of cold morning air swirled in under the heavy canvas covering. The chill snapped her fully awake; she was wedged between two soldiers, and her head throbbed with a persistent ache. She reached up and probed the bandage gingerly.

“What the f – ?”

The truck bounced through a deep pot hole, nearly pitching her to floor but for the strong hand that held her steady. She looked into the face of the soldier next to her, weariness and resignation haunting his face. He nodded at her and went back to staring at the floor.

Ellie took a deep breath and closed her eyes against the vertigo rising up through the soles of her feet. There had been a bar…. the pill….. Was she still tripping? Dreaming perhaps? But it was all so real as she looked around at the soldiers, eyes glazed and staring at nothing, rifles held across laps or stood upright between their legs. No one seemed to have the energy to speak beyond a few mutters of gratitude for the pack of cigarettes being passed around like a form of communion, and she wasn’t about to refuse this small salvation from absurdity. The soldier next to her struck a match, lit up and offered her the flame.

She nodded her thanks and a moment later sat back with eyes closed against the weightlessness of her mind. She felt like a dandelion seed desperately clinging to its stalk while the wind howled and raged…..

*   *   *

It was the voice, not the name it called, that roused from the vague respite of slumber.

“Aphelia?”

Ellie stared into Jon’s face, but the schism in her mind was prepared this time. The man standing over her wasn’t the same Jon she knew: he wore a flying jacket similar to hers, his hand gripping the overhead rail as he looked on her with grave expression. Despite the knowing that it wasn’t him she couldn’t hold the name back, “Jon?”

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “It’s me, Theran.”

“S-sorry…. I…..”

“And who’s Jon?” Theran asked with a smile trying to cover his worry.

“No one, I…. I just got confused.”

“Not to worry. We’re nearly back.”

“Good,” Ellie replied, closing her eyes again. She took a deep breath to steady herself, and searched through her mind for the thread of reality that told her this was all a dream, but instead there was only a void, and she was floating between two memories: both were hazy, like dreams, and she didn’t know which one to go to any more. When she tried to retrace her steps, the place she wanted to go to receded further away until the memories she tried to coax from her brain just seemed like faint after images; she’d been at a party, with other people somewhere, and there had been a stranger in dark clothes. He had given her something and she had woken up here….

Or she had been in a plane crash and just dreamed about a party. That was the more probable explanation. As she wrestled with her thoughts the truck started to slow until it halted and soldiers began to stand, shuffling about and jumping out the rear.

“Like the fucking Matrix or something….” she muttered and opened her eyes to find Jon – no, Theran – staring at her with concern.

“What’s the Matrix?”

She frowned. “You know, I can’t remember. It’s a…. book, maybe?”

“The medic said you might have a mild concussion,” he said.

Ellie shook her head. “I don’t think that’s the problem….”

“You’ll be fine,” said Theran with a wide grin. “Which is good, because we’ll have to be back in action for tonight.

“Tonight?”

“Aye, can’t be flying without my navigator.”

“Navigator?”

“I swear, you must have bumped your head harder than I thought,” he chuckled and jumped down from the back of the truck. “Come on, it’s not much of a trek back.”

Ellie got up and followed Theran to the rear of the truck, hopping down onto a hard packed, gravel strewn road. As she stood in the morning light there didn’t seem too much out of the ordinary. The land here was a mossy heathland, purple heather and soft clouds scudding across the chill sky. The confusion she had felt was like a lurking discomfort, but every time she passed through it her mind became clearer: how could she have forgotten that she was Theran’s co-pilot and navigator? They had flown over a hundred night missions in their time together. Last night they had been on the return from bombing the hordes of creatures collectively known as the Tide when an engine failure had forced them down. They had been lucky to ditch on their side of the Front.

“Stand clear!” someone shouted, snapping her out her recollections as the truck ambled off in an arc, heading back the way it had come; it was heading back to retrieve more of the soldiery as they fell back. Ellie watched it dwindle away, passing an approaching truck laden with more retreating troopers, then she turned to follow Theran up the road –

– and gasped.

“What’s the matter?” asked Theran. “You look like you’ve never seen home before.”

They were a good mile off yet still the edifice’s tiered walls rose immense against the sky, bristling with artillery emplacements and gun platforms. The bulk of it was sunk into a rocky cliff face, and access was across a bridged chasm and through a heavily fortified gatehouse. This was the last redoubt of human courage, the hardened spirit of survival made from concrete and steel. It’s walls were thick enough to resist anything that the Tide had thrown at it, and it’s cannon barrages could pound any attack for mile upon mile, thinning their numbers with each step forward.

For a moment she stood amazed, as if she really hadn’t seen it before, but the fortresses name sprang instantly to mind, as if it had been there all along like a book forgotten on a shelf just waiting for her finger to run the length of its spine.

Bastion; last redoubt of a beleaguered humanity.

Aphelia was home.

*   *   *

Via the bridge and through the gatehouse, Aphelia and Theran made their way through the armoured bulk of the fortress for over two miles until they reached the enclosed airfields on the other side. Row upon row of assorted biplane stood waiting, engineers and crews working on those that had made it back and those that were to fly soon. These represented the last of their airborne capabilities, a hodgepodge of retrofitted civilian aircraft, trainers and purpose built scout bombers.

It was a scene so familiar that Aphelia wondered how she could have ever been confused about where she belonged. It was her workaday world, the reality she had lived for years as she and Theran bombed the advancing Tide over and over, sometimes flying three, four, even five sorties in any twenty four hour period until they bought themselves respite for a week, maybe two. Even so, the Front was a constantly shrinking series of trenches as humanity slowly retreated from the apparently unending numbers of the enemy.

The weight of that knowledge settled on her then, the nudging worry that the enemy was getting closer and closer, day by day. Yet somehow this place had become a mental fortress against the creep of an inevitable end. It’s walls were high and thick, impervious like its defenders.

So too did they had food, water and enough raw materials and manufacturing capability to last many more years. The notion that they could hold was reinforced upon them every day by the sermons of the Clerics who rallied spirits with their exhortations to not lose hope, to fight on, for the enemy must have its limits and it was humanity’s task to rain fire on the unholy creatures until those limits were found, until their numbers ran dry. It was a burden that Theran embraced with casual enthusiasm, dragging Aphelia in his wake day in and day out.

And right now he was gearing up to take them straight back out there, despite ditching in the field and with a navigator-cum-co-pilot who might have mild concussion. It had clearly caused some sort of strange bifurcation of her thoughts when she had bumped her head, but she was fine now, wasn’t she? As her comrades in the hangars hailed them with cheers she was certain the fugue in her mind had passed off.

“Aphelia! Aphelia!” roared a woman who looked like she could wrestle a bear. The ground veritably shook as the giant engineer Merrietta came running and scooped her up in her arms. “Dah! When I heard you had were down I feared the worse, but here you are with a head wrapped in bandages.”

“It’s nothing,” said Aphelia.

“Nothing? Pah!” snorted Merrietta and poked a finger at Theran. “I told this buffoon that the kite needed more work. Now he has lost us a plane and nearly lost us you.”

“Hey,” Theran held up his hands, “It wasn’t a complete waste. I managed to radio in the movement through the Gottane Valley.”

Merrietta nodded. “Dah, they are squeezing us tighter and tighter. I hear most of the troopers made it out.”

Theran smiled. “So, one plane for how many soldiers?”

“I’ll let you have this one then,” replied Merrietta and crossed her arms, returning her eyes to Aphelia. “More importantly, if you hadn’t made it back, then you were going to leave me that bottle of rum, dah?”

Aphelia grinned. “No chance of me not coming back while there’s still a drop of that left. I could use a glass right about now.”

“That,” Theran interjected, “Will have to wait until after we make a report to the captain.”

Aphelia groaned as Theran began to drag her away, and all she could do was give Merrietta an apologetic shrug before falling in line with Theran as the engineer waved and went back to her tasks with a rueful smile.

In the middle ground of the hangars stood the aerial command bunker, and together the pair descended through cordons of guards and officials, down corridors lined with bare bulbs hanging from cords. They were directed to a briefing room where Captain Nerrund sat amid a whirl of paperwork; he was the eye of a storm as his three secretaries organised, tidied and redeployed orders and communiques before they were lost to the constant threat of over-spill.

Theran knocked and the whirlwind paused. A moment later they stood before Nerrund who had suddenly become an isle of calm peering over his steepled fingers with faint gratitude.

“Good to have you back. You were instrumental to our successful withdrawal.”

“Thank you sir,” Theran saluted. Aphelia followed suit.

“And,” Nerrund continued, “I can see you’re ready for more.”

“Of course sir.”

“What about you?” Nerrund asked Aphelia. “You have a head wound?”

“Just a bump,” Aphelia replied. “I’m fine.”

Nerrund sighed. “I’ll have to take your word for it because tonight you’ll be flying resupply.”

“Fly by?”

Nerrud nodded and Aphelia groaned. “Fly by” meant skimming the ground and dropping supplies literally on top of the friendlies. While she had never missed a target, it was the most stressful kind of mission because you couldn’t make a mistake.

That, and the fact that there were Tidlings that could jump high enough to reach the plane. She’d seen it happen before: a crew in front were intercepted by dozens of creatures resembling giant, multicoloured frogs. They came arcing through the air like a jet of water, splashing over the plane and causing it to plummet. Theran and Aphelia has pulled up just in time to escape a similar fate.

“Who are they?” Theran asked.

“We have an outpost in the Chencorn Pass that was cut off. They’re still broadcasting, and the main flow of the Tide is heading past them on the east side. We’ll try and give them enough time for us to move the 7th Artillery Battery up from Pallasad and clear a path for them. So once you resupply you’ll be flying straight back out and pounding the Tide to stem the flow on the eastern side.”

“Very good sir. Who’ll be flying cover?”

“Sorry,” Nerrund shook his head. “You’ll be flying without escort.”

“That’s madness,” Theran retorted, then remembered himself, “Sir.”

“It’s unfortunate, but nothing I can do. We’re low on numbers and I need them covering the artillery.”

“But – ”

“Those big guns are sitting ducks, while you have the advantage of speed over the enemy.”

“No good if we fly straight into them. It’s a full moon out there, and they’ll see us coming if they’re looking.”

“Of course,” sighed Nerrund, trying not to bristle. “I don’t like it any better than you do, but we’re stretched and there’s a whole battalion of troops out there. I have to weight the risks – a half dozen resupply planes against the loss of an artillery battery and a battalion of men. I’m sorry, but I can only do what I can do. You’ll have to pray that it clouds over.”

“But sir – ”

“Dismissed!” snapped Nerrund in a voice that brooked no argument. Everyone stiffened. Theran’s jaw bunched and he looked like he was chewing a mouthful of bees as Nerrund added. “You’ve got six hours to rest, so I suggest that you make the most of it.”

“Yes sir.”

The pair saluted and made to leave.

“And Aphelia,” Nerund called after her, “Get that head of yours looked at.”

“Yes sir.” With a casual salute she pulled the door closed behind her and found that Theran had disappeared. She sighed, and went to find Merrietta.

It was time for that glass of rum.

End of Part 2


Check out the next episode as our heroine has an (un)expected visitor and takes to the air in Part 3: When The Tide Comes In

Hope you’re all keeping sage and sane out there.

Peace.

DJC


Short Story (Part 1): When The Tide Comes In

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No nice way of saying that many of us are having a right crap time of it. Here in England the weather has decided to be a bastard and churn out some clear blue skies while the populace goes on lock down.

As for myself, it’s been difficult to write much with my little boy at home (along with everyone else), but I’ve managed to put together a little something.

It was always a plan to write something seasonal along the lines of the Christmas Crow story I wrote a while back, but there are a load of excuses for why it didn’t work out.

However, this story seemed to come together, so over the next month I’ll be posting it in sections to give me time to finish all the edits etc.

Enjoy!


1

The sun was setting in an orange haze beyond the rolling hills of southern England, its light hitting the pregnant belly of the Moon. Under its pellucid light a car wended down narrow country roads, a young woman in the passenger seat staring out the window into the night sky.

Ellie looked at the rabbit – or was it a hare? – and reminded herself that the Moon was waxing. How she knew that she had no idea. Perhaps some sliver of knowledge gleaned from a nature documentary……

Next to her Jon, the driver, started tapping the sat-nav with a finger. “Damn things on the fritz again.”

Ellie didn’t reply, just kept on staring out of the window as she wondered why they had to come out all this way. There were perfectly good parties in town they could have gone to. This was just another one of his random whims.

Jon cursed, meandering across the road.

“Watched where you’re going,” she chastised him.

“Did we pass the turning?” Jon replied, ignoring her.

Ellie pursed her lips in irritation. The sat-nav had been his idea because he thought that her ‘impeccable sense of direction’, as he called it, made her uneasy. It didn’t really because it was something that she had learned to live with. She just knew which way top go, what path or road to take on any given journey and normally she could just turn it off, or ignore it, but just like that she could switch it on as if it were just in sleep mode. No, it didn’t bother her.

What did bother her was having an issue made out of it, and it was something that he was pretty good at. For the most part she loved his enthusiasm, but sometimes he just couldn’t see the harm he was doing out of his good intentions.

And while it irked her, the gift remained indifferent in its slumber, just waiting to be woken. It was as easy as a quick look out the windscreen. “No, it’s coming up, just around this bend, on the left.”

A moment later Jon swung the car into the narrowest lane yet, lined with high hedgerow. He was theorising out loud: “Must be the hills blocking the signal.”

“Uh-huh.”

They drove on in silence until Ellie spoke. “You know, we could have just gone to the Warehouse.”

Jon glanced over and shrugged. “Yeah, but this is gonna be way more interesting. Spring time costume party! Who could say no?”

Ellie sighed as she stared out the window. She liked the Warehouse, it was familiar and there’d be friendly faces there. Instead, Jon was dragging them into the middle of nowhere for some secret-not-so-secret Spring Surprise. “Just don’t know why you have to do something different all the time. It’s like some kind of fear of missing out.”

“Hey, the FOMO is real,” Jon quipped. “You never know until you know.”

“But I like the Warehouse,” Ellie continued. “We don’t always have to get out of the comfort zone, you know?”

“Come on Flower – ”

“I told you!” Ellie snapped, “Don’t call me that!”

He shrugged, lapsing into brooding silence. He always called her that when he wanted to annoy her, and then played the victim when she snapped back. Jon just didn’t seem to understand how horrible she found that name. It reminded her of her mother……

“Hey, I think we’re nearly there,” said Jon suddenly. He pointed and over the tops of the trees Ellie could see large, industrial chimneys rising up like fingers into the twilight, their long digits pointing to the Moon.

Still irritated, all Ellie could managed was a caustic mutter: “Great.”

*  *  *

The twilight was settling into evening as Ellie and Jon followed a couple of other cars up to a pair of rusty old gates. Up ahead the dark bulk of the building loomed amongst the trees and on their left a sign read: Welcome to Three Moons Ice Cream.

“You didn’t say it was in an ice cream factory,” said Ellie.

“I didn’t know,” Jon replied, grinning, as he slowed the car and slotted it into the faded remains of some old office parking spaces. ““Does it matter? It’s abandoned, which means a free licence to tear it up.”

Ellie huffed, willing that she could be anywhere but here. “This better not be boring.”

“Mask?” Jon asked leaning into the rear and rummaging about for a moment before passing her the pale oval of her owl mask. For himself he wore a badger.

“Looks like a skunk,” Ellie remarked.

“Oh, you doth wound me,” Jon retorted. “Keep it up and I’ll spray you.”

“Now there’s an image.”

Ellie opened her door and the night air was a cool wave compared to the heated box of the car. Coming around she followed Jon towards the silhouetted bulk of the factory, then paused in its shadow to take a hit on her vape. She stared up at the crumbling façade where the dirt had washed over the building, along with moss and small plants that sprouted from cracks in the concrete. As the flavour of cappuccino rolled off her tongue, she shrugged and hurried after Jon into the maw of the old building.

Inside they traversed a musty, long corridor where fairy lights hung in loops from nail hammered into the crumbling masonry and illuminated a mixture of street art, crude graffiti cocks and obscene suggestions in perpetuity. A few guests leaned against the walls, phones out as they smoked. One or two glanced up as Jon and Ellie passed by in a gaggle of revellers, all heading toward the inner grotto, gravitating towards the heavy thud of drum and bass.

At the end of the corridor a pair of heavy double doors waited with green paint peeling and lights flashing though their small windows. Jon pushed on through and Ellie followed, wondering why the doors reminded her of an abattoir as a blast of heat and music washed over her.

The room was huge, like a warehouse but all the a-gleam with abandoned steel piping gone mad under a cornucopia of disco lights. On a gantry in pride of place was the sound system as if raised up upon an alter above the churning masses held in the central floor space.

“Awesome!” Jon enthused, and she knew what the word signified; she had lost him then and there to the pumping atmosphere. His hand slipped from hers and she’d no doubt have to rescue him from the dance-floor later. That was his bag, while hers was finding the bar…. because there had to be a bar, right?

As Jon disappeared down the stairs Ellie instinctively drifted along the landing, took a left through a passage to where a dark room beckoned in revellers with more twinkling lights. The bar inside was decked out like some kind of fairy tale woodland.

“Kinda weird,” Ellie muttered, but she had to concede it was pretty neat compared to the blandness of the Warehouse. She sauntered over to the bar and perched on the railing to wait while a man in a crow mask served up beer, wine and spirits out of a variety of ice packed cool boxes. She smoked some cape and soaked up the ambience; the bean bags and odd lighting, the soft eastern music that was as hippy as the curling patchouli incense.

“And what can I get you young lady?”

Ellie turned to the bar tender. He was regarding her with an intensity she found slightly unnerving, and his mask was so life-like she wondered where he had got it. “Beer please, and a shot of rum if you’ve got it?”

“Sure do. Ice?”

“Please.”

“Coming right up,” and he reached under the counter for a glass. The rum was from a bottle she didn’t recognise, but whatever, as long as it wasn’t Captain Morgan’s, right? The barman started talking as he poured, “So, how do you like the place?”

“It’s growing on me,” replied Ellie, reaching for the glass. The bartender dug out a beer from a cool box. The rum was like liquid fire, sweet and smooth. “Wow.”

“Like it?”

“What is it?”

“Oh, just something I picked up on my travels. I thought you looked like you might appreciate something a little more refined.”

Ellie put the glass down, examining the man and not knowing what to say; it was a bit too up front. Was he coming on to her? Or was it something else….

“Errr…. thanks.”

“No problem,” said the crow, and poured the beer into a pint glass. It was also not a brand she recognised. He pushed it across the counter.

“How much?”

The crow shrugged. “What do you have?”

Ellie fished in her pocket, quite happy to slap any amount she found on the counter just to get away. She found a £20 and popped it down. The barman stared at it with those strange, dark eyes, then picked it up and examined it against the illumination from fairy lights. Then he slid it back across the counter and waited with crossed arms.

“What? Isn’t that enough?”

The crow cocked its head at her again. “It’s not shiny enough.”

Ellie laughed nervously. “What are you, a real crow?”

“That’s what they call me. Crow.”

“Well, you got the right mask for it.”

The stranger inclined his head. “As do you. The owl is an interesting choice.”

Ellie shrugged. “Is it?”

“Oh yes. Often thought of as a symbol of death, but that is perhaps a misunderstanding,” said the stranger. “The owl is many symbols, depending on who you talk to; ruler of the night, seer of souls, incarnation of intelligence and learning.”

Ellie smiled nervously behind her mask. “Really?”

The crow nodded as he continued, “but I have often considered them to be the guardians of the dead.”

“Wow, creepy,” Ellie said with a nervous chuckle. She wanted to escape, the overly intense regard of this stranger what she and her friend Marie jokingly called the serial killer vibe, but she was strangely drawn to those dark eyes. “Not much of a pick up line.”

The stranger cackled, sending shivers down her spine. Ellie was aware that everything sounded as if it had shifted to the periphery, but she couldn’t take her gaze off those eyes as the crow spoke: “Oh, if only we had time for dalliances, eh? No, time is short and there are whole worlds to be explored. What do you say?”

“W-who are you?” Ellie asked, embarrassed at the quaver in her voice.

The crow shrugged. “An explorer.”

“Of what?”

“The expanding realms of existence and experience. I am,” and he bowed, “Angel to some, demon to others.”

Ellie’s eyes narrowed. She’d heard that somewhere before….. but as her mind tried to recall the words she was already being offered the strangers outstretched fists. They were feathered, like his mask, in black.

“Choose, if you will.”

“What is this?” she scoffed, uneasy.

“A choice.”

“Like in The Matrix? Please.”

Crow cocked his head. “Ah, a film that separates the real from the unreal, the simulation from reality. Who is to say that the two are indivisible? Have you read much Dick?”

“Sure,” Ellie nodded and gave him a thin smile. “Three Stigmata was my favourite, although Time Out of Joint was great too.”

“Ah, Palmer Eldritch, one of my favourites also,” and he offered his hands again. “Which shall it be?”

“What is it? Acid?”

“Oh, nothing so mundane,” Crow said with a shake of his head, then smiled. “I can assure you, the result will be anything but boring.”

A little voice told her to turn away, to run, to take the car and leave Jon here. She could come and get him in the morning….. but those eyes, so intense, almost reassuring the way there were filled with knowing……

“Come little owl,” said Crow. “Are you not Athena, brave warrior maiden whose vision pierces the obscurity of the night?”

Ellie teetered on the edge, somehow charmed by the danger, by the slight giddiness and fever of the little bubble she found herself in. There was only her and this stranger; everything else in the world was on mute as his words buoyed her up. She could do anything….

“Fuck it,” she said and tapped his left hand. The little voice, if it be reason, could take a ride. She hadn’t wanted to come here, and the primordial part of her that courted danger was thrilled to just throw it all in Jon’s face. He could go fuck himself, and before her the hand turned over to reveal a little purple pill. Ellie shuddered with anticipation, a strange blasé finger-up-to-the-world attitude suffusing the night. She didn’t hesitate to throw it back with the rest of the run.

“Cheers,” she said, and slapped the glass down, but as did so she saw that Crow had disappeared. Instead the bartender, a young man wearing a cheap toy-shop mask was staring at her with grave concern.

“You okay?” he asked.

“S-sure. Did you…..?” but she didn’t bother to finish. She reached out and grabbed the beer, leaving the bartender to serve someone else. Ellie took a long draft and raked over the sudden question of just what the fuck had just happened.

“That was fucking dumb,” she said to herself, the realisation solidifying around her heart. Was her head starting to swim? She could have taken anything, and the bubble of breathlessness in her chest started to swell as the walls closed in. If she rushed to the bathroom perhaps she could puke it up, two fingers down the throat…..

Pushing through the throng the tempo and volume of the music was increasing, pulsing harder to the beat of her heart. Cold sweat broke over her body, and the voices around her were swirling with laughter as the floor seemed to shudder with a giant’s footfalls.

She pressed on until, with a bang, the bathroom door hit the wall and Ellie stumbled towards the white porcelain, intent on ridding herself of whatever madness was coming.

But the room was canting at ninety degrees. She keeled over, the pounding of her heart reverberating through the cold, hard floor like the pounding of distant artillery……

*  *  *

There was a crunch, a jarring sense of running into a wall and for a moment Ellie thought the lights in the toilet had fused. There was a ringing in her ears, a fuzz around her head that turned like a radio dial to the sound of chaos. She opened her eyes and her brain could not assemble the images, like a muddle of different jigsaw pieces. The physical thump of colossal sound sent a shiver through her body….. and was it raining? But it was more like hail peppering her face. Some had gone in her mouth and that snapped her upright, spitting. Dirt! More grit pattered against her face and she looked around, through the haze, as a series of bright flashes lit up the scene.

She was outside…….

High above the Moon showered her pellucid light down.

A hand grabbed the collar of a jacket she hadn’t been wearing, hauling her up and half choking her as voice shouted over the din, “Snap out of it! Come on!” The hands went up and under her arms, pulling her out of the hole she must have fallen into. With an ooph! her rescuer heaved and together they went free falling into shadow.

A split second and she was pulled to her knees. The man before her wore a flying jacket, his face smudged with soot or dirt, and she knew him.

“Are you okay?” he shouted.

She was bewildered, mumbling. “J – ?”

He didn’t even let her speak, grabbing her once more and pulling her to her feet. Half carrying, half dragging her, they stumbled away into the dark across barren earth.

Bewildered, she managed a look over her shoulder.

“What the…..” Her voice trailed away. Parked at an awkward angle, it’s wheel in a crater, was a biplane like the kind you saw in old movies. its wings and fuselage limned by the light of the Moon, “….. fuck?”

The sight was eclipsed by the flash and concussion of more explosions. The man who was carrying her – the pilot? – was shouting something that she half understood, a name that wasn’t hers, “Come on Aphelia! The ground units are about to fall back!”

“J-Jon?”

“What’s the matter?” he barked. “You bang your head too hard?”

“I think I must have…..” Ellie murmured, taking another look back. Under the silver light she could see the biplane, and behind it a slow moving wave, bubbling and foaming. It surged over the stricken aircraft, engulfed it and kept rolling. Ellie shook her head and half stumbled, snagging Jon – or whoever he was. He cursed and spun her around, dragging her onwards in haste as her brain tried to comprehend the imprint of the image last seen; like a million faces all grinning and laughing, hands and legs whirling in a surging mass of bodies.

They were like thousands of little….

– her brain grasped for a suitable word –

….. goblins?

Sudden dizziness assailed her and she knew nothing more for a time…..

End of Part 1


Want to find out what happens next? Then check out Part 2: When The Tide Comes In

Peace.

DJC


Crumbs For Crow #4: Were You Ever Really Here?

smoking crow
© Larry Vienneau.

With Or Without You

Oh, how many times have you been caught thinking, “I wish I’d never been born?” It’s like the motto of the civilised peon when confronted with their inevitable slavery, so cunning in its artifice that the chains are mere smoke and mirrors, a world of bread and circuses filled with sound and colour all signifying nothing as they clamour for some sense of meaning.

And just what is that, I hear you ask? Nay, beseech! So throw open thine ears dear sinners, for a quick look in the mirror tells me that you know, that you understand, even if it is deep down underneath the veneer of personality that you believe is you. After all, you are the mere spectacle of personality playing out like a shadow on the puppeteer’s canvas, are you not?

No no no, dear Crow, I hear you cry, I am no mere robot, no mere simulcra of personhood but a thinking, feeling being, unique amongst billions of mortals.

And after all, a robot would just get up each day and do that same thing over and over, wouldn’t it? Like insanity, it arises with a surge of espresso voltage and it pantomimes through the rigorous daily motions without meaning or purpose.

Yet when you look in the mirror as you brush your teeth and think about the day, the working day that will be similar to yesterdays and the day befores,  you can be certain that there must be meaning, there must be purpose. In all the possible realities that could have been, yours is the life that was granted to you…..

“What’s that?” I hear the cry! The heaven’s open and a deluge descends, a pattering of  softly thudding rotten vegetables descending like multi-hued hail. Oh, do not shoot the messenger! I was not born to arrogance, merely practiced it well in the shadow of your soul’s light!

Yes yes, I hear the rancour in your cries as you wrinkle your nose at my underhandedness: “Oh, how unfair you are Crow!” Verily, how can any compete with the reality of such false narratives when we all know the world is a complicated onion of meaning and purpose, a society of spectacles that intersect our little bubbles of reality where they glide into one another through the medium of online media…..

Where we are nothing more than echo chambers to our own conceit.

Yes, even I fall victim to my own mind, stabbing myself and cutting away like a sacrificial victim until I peel the skin of perception back and wonder at the raw flesh exposed to a new reality.

“And what reality shall we pretend is real today, dear Crow?”

Shall we pretend that the Cosmos may grant gifts of fairness upon the masses? Shrug if you must, but as you wonder at the life you are given, and it’s apparent lack of justice, harmony and common sense, you must embrace the concrete – YOU were chosen, YOU were given a life.

So what more could you want? Check your privilege humanity!

Don’t sit there in the doldrums and complain, for this really is a special place despite the way the darkness might settle on the land. You are here, and you should relish it as such because, if one were to pick apart the cloying bullshit of quantum physics, you might very soon conclude that you were never really here in the first place!

“But Crow, here I am?” I hear you say.

I? Is the “I” not a construct of the shared reality that you inhabit? One I for how you see yourself, one I for how others see you, and one I for how you might really be. The three I’s of perception that has granted you the misguided belief that in the intersectionality of perceptions you are somehow an event in the Here & Now™, and that’s where you’re going to stay, not delving into some prosaic and mystical origin of time and space, the beginning place that’s nothing more than a pretence of nostalgia looked at through a kaleidoscope of “peak reality”.

It shifts in broken beauty that has nothing to do with truth.

And you wonder what it might be like to let it go? Like a balloon, rising, rising….. what will happen if you let go? How far is it to fall?

I too was once like you: mortal, dependable, stricken with a burden of purpose and meaning. I had a past and an identity, until I was driven forth from the incestuous comfort of belonging. Nor was it as simple as a commitment to something as disingenuous as truth, for what is truth but the footfalls of the Fool beyond the moment when he takes his first step?

“Ah, Crow,” you said, “Does the first step not crossed the world?”

Spare me. I’ve heard it before….. somewhere.

Would that we could all stand atop the mountain, with one foot outstretched and ready to plunge into the canyons of enlightenment, eh? For what did you find at the peak? Just empty air, while down there in the layers of soil and rock is etched the very crystallisation of history.

Your foot sinks into the rich soil of the past, marks it and thus is your position within the world noted for the millennia to come, yet you will not be present to see the lasting effect of this moment. It is like a coalescing butterfly flap that churns the world to chaos, but you will be gone.

But at least you have your hindsight, a short kind of memory that a mortal has for events of one lifetime which makes it seem like it was all so many golden days, those halcyon moments untarnished by anything like the affliction of personal responsibility that you’ve now burdened yourself with.

So you wonder to yourself if it would have made much difference if you’d never been there in the first place? You can flip the switch, like a light bulb or an electric chair, and bright illumination springs to mind as you wonder what makes you hold to the past so dear. I see it in your eyes, that you believe that you possess it. That in itself is the laughable notion. The past belongs to no one, is subject to only the distortions of the present. It wasn’t how it looks, it didn’t feel like it does now. Was it really more intense? Did it have less context?

But you were never really there, were you?

And of course you tell yourself that without it you wont be something, that you wont be you if you sacrifice that splinter of history caught under your finger nail, that you won’t be that special you who thinks and feels and is the eye of the storm. Ha! Special. Is that what you think you are? Oh indeed! The individual, the keystone of everything, the one, the neo, the one….. over and over we tumble into our own minds, a maelstrom of champagne bubbles popping to no purpose beyond God’s hilarity.

Why is it that only hilarity ensues when you claim that you matter?

Excuse me while I puke, for I seem to be a little dizzy, a little light headed……

Get a grip. This isn’t just an exercise in getting the fuck over yourself. You might think that you’ve cracked the whole “you can make it if you try stuff”. But when you’re licking the icing off the top of the cake, are you reall just licking the boot that stamps on a human face over and over, forever.

How does it taste?

“Why do you even pretend to care, dear Crow?”

Hahaha! Why? Is it possible that you have conceived of the pin prick? The needle that is about to pierce the bubble of your reality? I poke not for my own pleasureat your discomfort! Think now upon the very notion of how many universes exist without you, without your footprints in their history, without your bubble floating in their spheres!

Just how many discarded realities have you already created? How many decisions that lead to nothing, to no one, to the simple and inevitable conclusion that you perished in ignominy, that you were turned to mincemeat by the gears of a combine harvester, that you were incinerated in a freak case of spontaneous human combustion, that you mysteriously vanished while hiking through the snow laden mountain passes? Or perhaps you were the chief executioner in a fascist state who was lynched when the filthy peasant masses rose up in glorious revolution?

Or perhaps you simply fell and banged your head.

Aye, how many times a day did that happened? How many realities did you create because you perished, and how many more because you were never really there? That’s right! There are potentially limitless realities in which you died, but even more prescient are the almost infinite number of realities where you never even came into being in the first place.

I suppose that might be a comfort to some, to those who didn’t want to live in a reality where they were best friends with Tony Blair.

Or Robert Mugabe.

Or Vladimir Putin.

Yet amid the cacophony of white noise that permeates these thoughts there is a little boat of solace that floats on the ocean of chaotic interference. A thought asks “what is it not to exist?” It is not pain, it is not pleasure, it is not knowing. It is simple…. not.

So, allow me to give you the ol’ sly wink as I scratch my back side. It’s really nothing to get worried about. The universe is, after all, a big place and even the realities in which your life plays out don’t amount to much more than the tinniest of farts in an oceanic jacuzzi of cosmic dimensions.

I’m not unsympathetic, it’s just that the whole notion is absurdist comedy; what matters? What import anything? Is it hard to find purpose and meaning? I don’t care. Who knows? I might even throw you a bone. Here it comes! Are you ready? Just think, if there is a reality in which you never existed, then perhaps there is a reality in which you always exist. Maybe you are the Platonic archetype of all your other selves, the bow that breaks the wave-front of existence and all others follow in your footsteps, perhaps you could be made immortal by science and medicine, or maybe the sum of your thoughts and feelings will be preserved when they are uploaded into a permanent machine body or turned into a sentient cloud of nanites…..

Maybe you never age beyond the best years of your life and you live in that tiny percentage of realities where humanity survives until the end of time itself……

And as the serpent eats its own tail, you have to wonder if this is that reality, or if it is perhaps a reality close to you. How far away immortality in an infinite sea of realities? How far away the good life? How far away a reality where history passed by without you making any difference whatsoever?

A reality where you were never really here in the first place……


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Crumbs For Crow #3: Apocalypse Disco

smoking crow
© Larry Vienneau.
 

Apocalypse Disco

Pfff! The dust is settling and everyone’s suddenly playing the existential blues on a vintage guitar with two strings while some journalistic hack bangs away on an old, broken piano tuned by an establishment that can only summon enough cognitive prowess to think in black and white.

The proverbial arse has fallen out of the universe it seems, and what else can us ne’er-do-wells do but sniff it up like a line of cheap rate coke cut with a dose of tranquillisers and prance around like getting trashed is somehow rebellion.

Welcome, welcome one and all to the Apocalypse Disco, first Extermination Event where humanity’s vaunted superiority is nothing more than an odious old bastard wheezing the last drag out of a dirty roll-up, a cancerous old clot of a human being who’s about to put his history on the prayer wheel….

And behold! Such prayers are blasphemies I tell you! What will you do when you return, eternally cycled over and over like a broken record that never gets rid of that irritating little pop, crackle, pop…….? You pray that the effluent of your spirit will be poured back into the vessel of another chance but you won’t even take the time to brush the fluff from your spinning platter of revelation!

Who is the fool? And who, who is the deity that possessed just the requisite tool for the removal of spiritual lint? Heed now and await the dance of the dead as I, the almighty and impeccably tasteful Crow become DJ to your inevitable demise.

[You take me aside, indicate that I should perchance cleanse the white tracery of excess from about my respiratory nozzles and ask just what in the name of the Seven Hells I’m prattling on about.]

Prattling? I never prattle, I just provide preamble to the party of all parties, the final party at the End of Creation itself. A wise man once said that Death is but Sleep being shy, so for the love of music, put your party pants on and just pretend that when you lay your head down tonight, exhausted from exertions, you aren’t just practising for the inevitable.

Meanwhile the eternal PA is playing all of the divine’s favourite tunes, for pre-Destined or un-Destined, whatever your destination, you’ll end up on my floor – even if you’ve no eyes and ears like an almighty, vengeful thunder bastard who’s begging the question of just who the hell stole his damn boom box?

You must be ever so sly, my friends, if you wish to purloin the pure beats of Heaven, and even while you raise your hands to the celestial jungle boogie that rises over the horizon of the Anthropocene you must fend off the sense of mortality, that fragile thing we are subverting in the name of hedonistic nihilism, and instead cavort like chimpanzees scratching our posteriors in search of relief. Or belief……

Give it a sniff because you think no one is looking.

Humanity at it’s most genuine! For even the greatest of apes can chuck shapes. Most of the time, that is, and you might dance oh-so-well when compared to that fellow over there who just doused himself in petrol and stepped outside for a cigarette. The room is on fire, and so are you! Hit me one more time! That’s the Apocalypse Disco. Keep on keeping on and let the mood move you towards the revelation!

Oh sweet revelation!

What did it cost? The mere shrug of an accountant! Listen to their plaintive coos of delight as they tally up the GDP of a global funeral: treatment, caskets, urns, and don’t forget the buffet! Business looks goods as the scales of eternity slip slide about and the prayer wheels fire up like damn Catherine Wheels on the rioting bonfire night of self actualisation. You’re getting it on like Guy Fawkes, moving, doing it, you know, like a sex machine man: the lame politics of sexy disco, lights flashing like wicks set sizzling by the matches of ignorance until sweet surrender is a detonation that lights up the face of a pyromaniac at an arms fair.

Dance, sweet flames, dance!

And in the fire of epiphany we shall discover that we are all soul stuff, the spiritual tar upon which temptation’s feathers gather as we fly too close to a nuclear furnace of civilisation! It all makes sense! You came here, again and again, like self-aware water poured from vessel to vessel, but so is begged the question: who turns the tap?

And what becomes of life when the reservoir runs dry?

Can we reasonable assume that there is only so much held in reserve of that metaphysical love juice? You are but one drop in an ocean, but what happens when drop after drop arrives wanting to be human? Are you just the artichoke that rolled the loaded dice and was delivered into another ape suit? No wonder the natural world is in decline! there is nothing to spare!

What? You can’t see yourself as a snail? No? The old bastard takes another wheezing lungful on his turgid rollie as he wishes only to be human again and again, draining the last kick out of the cigarette that is the material world. It’s not to even be considered how beneath them it might be to take the form of worm, or fungus, or blade of grass!

Oh to be green, small and bend in the wind, accepting the bare foot of the mystic upon my dew lined blade! Touch me, oh Sun!

Don’t cock your eye at me like that!

Let us cut to the chase, cut the mustard, nip the bud. Every living thing wants to go to the disco, so as the nulldozers are levelling the lungs of the earth and the cybernetic trans-humanist autolung draws the tainted air from the capitalist crack pipe, you shall be reincarnated as the greatest of species, homo saltatorus! And to hell with you Google Translate! No public school boys were harmed in the writing of this screed! What is the world coming to? You! You, the dancing apes at the end of the world!

You’re all here! Recycled like soylent green soul stuff that only wants to party like existential, phenomenological witnesses of the Apocalypse Disco!

We reach the Climax! The crescendo of a spiritual burden brought about by the ever-so-populous bum scratching ape, flinging what they find into the transcendent scales as they tip, precarious upon the edge of the Void, the living essence of the earth pouring out like a punctured wine sking while the incarnations of endless, cavorting dancers continue to sniff bemused fingers with the sole intention of waking up in a puddle of their own excretion after a clandestine romp through the hinterlands of promiscuity!

That’s right, this party is about to implode! Prayers can be sent via the great porcelain telephone!

Pff!

As the dust settles, the crooked dancers at the end of time light up and watch the smoke rise, content to know that they partied hard and all it cost was everything.


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Crumbs For Crow #2: Everything’s Ruined/Nothing Works

smoking crow
© Larry Vienneau.

Everything’s Ruined/Nothing Works

Hello my delicious sinners. You look sad. What’s the matter? Still languishing in the horror of your own samasarian nightmares? Poor you. You have my sympathies, you really do. It’s not, after all, your fault so why pressure ourselves unnecessarily with personal responsibilities? I mean, look around. It’s not like you weren’t being used like a tool from the very day you were born, wrapped in darkness like a boiled sweet before being thrown into the maw of reality and instead of sweet suck the molars of Fate chewed on you as if you were nothing more than a second hand piece of bubble gum.

Or was it? Don’t shake you head at me. You know what I’m talking about. No, it’s not dirt in my eye, and I only flash my smile when I sense a kindred soul.

Ah, that’s right, there are so many reasons, aren’t there? There is this and there is that. But what does “it” all mean in the end? Oh, you wonder, or you doubt, and you question or you accept. You build frameworks that are like towers with weak foundations, and sometimes you bother to rebuild after inevitable catastrophe, other times you just stare at the ruin and pop a handful of medication.

And so you don’t even see the quicksand, either way.

Or do you? I don’t know. Perhaps you can, perhaps you can’t. It’s all academic really. Perhaps you believe that you have an immortal soul. Perhaps you think you’ll be coming back – although one might ask if, given the current rate of extinction, what you’ll be coming back to.

I can see you shrug and play your get out of jail free card as you tell me that you’ll just reincarnate backwards. Clever stick. As for those who are going to Heaven, or Hell, depending on just how guilty they feel, perhaps you’d like to place a bet on whether it looks like a white collar office – I mean, after all, isn’t modern, western society the pinnacle of the evolutionary process? The great chain of being and all that guff?

Yeah, I’d be thinking about maybe fixing that……

Because all I hear is about how everything is ruined, about how it used to be better in the old days, how nothing works any more. Perhaps that’s a problem with nostalgia – you know, from the Greek – nostos (to go home/return) and algos (pain/ache). You want to go back but it hurts. Doesn’t this tell you something? Perhaps you’re just holding yourself back. Perhaps you’re living in the past.

A bit like those silly suppositions of political leanings and cultural stances and history and tradition. Nothing is set, it’s all fluid. Look what happens when you can’t keep up the pace, you fall behind and start blaming that huge cheeseburger you had for lunch for the cramp in your foot that’s keeping you from passing the baton to the next runner who wants to step up on the podium and fix everything.

Well, that’s not how it works. Or is it? I confuse even myself sometimes, but that’s okay because if I break myself, I’m just creating my own problem, and then I just tell myself that I’m the cure to my own madness. Crow, I say to myself, if you weren’t half as intelligent as you pretend to be then you’d be twice as thick as you could have been.

I give myself a wink, ruffle my feathers and clear my thoughts. It’s all bullshit, of course, but then that’s what we’re all really good at: filling our minds with bullshit and then flinging it at each other in an attempt to solve problems that didn’t really exist until someone else told you they did.

And like a broken record the public speakers go on and on about how everything is ruined and nothing works.

It’s all so tedious.

But just stick your fingers in your ears and ignore me. Most people do when they’re walking along and see me stooped on a park bench, talking to the air. It’s probably a no smoking area, but my clouds come from the gift of fire. Sure, it’s easier to ignore me, rather than letting me pierce the veil of cotton wool that keeps you from living instead of worrying about every little detail.

You don’t want me to set you on fire.

Carry on. After all, no one’s paying you to read this, are they? And if they are then how about slipping me a a few coins while I disingenuously proffer awkward solutions to those that listen while paradoxically claiming everything is where it is supposed to be and everything is fine.

It is, isn’t it? Look out your window. Is the meteor coming down? Wait a moment while I try to pull them back…..

Oh bugger….

There goes the curtain rail. No shutting it out now.

Hmmm? What’s that you say? The sky is looking a little orange?

Oh, I’m sure that’s just a nice, rich sunset. After all, it must be getting on for tea time and I hear that book burnings are coming back into fashion.

Why, it really does look perfectly fine out there to me.


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Crumbs For Crow #1: The Hardest Step

smoking crow
© Larry Vienneau.

The Hardest of Steps

It is never, nor ever has been, the Universe itself that causes you to weep my child. With these words, and through the staunch bastion of determination within you, you have become a seeker. You and I are not unalike, but child, I see that the tears are welling up even now, before we begin. Do not let the recourse to the infantile pseudo-emotional reactivity blur the singularity and purpose of this, the most persistent of conundrums, for it is in your heart that you have come to with the burning desire to unravel that which condemns you. Stand strong, and we shall aim with alacrity to release a salvo of piercing intellectual propositions that course straight at the heart of the suppurating mediocrity of the modern day discourse and expose the wranglings of malicious fools and those serendipitously blessed with a fortune unearned.

Through everything, remember, it is I who understand and answer your call.

Thus, let us not rein in our multitudinous hail of arrows, for they are guided by the power and tenacity of our will and purpose to strike true to the arrow butt of existential and tangential purpose. In this fashion, and by good order, so shall ye reap the munificent bounty of the true sight, the unveiling of your direction via the ever expanding compass of quasi-samsarian egalitarianism vis-a-vis the expansion and contraction of the ineffable and never ceasing continuum of the cosmic purpose that has hitherto remained occluded to your dim vision.

I too, was once like you, accursed, but as one hand pulls another up, so too will you pull those others of misfortune forth into the light of understanding.

Yet beware! For there are critics who raise unambivalent objection to the proposition that there is, not only purpose, but that there is actual significant meaning in one’s pursuit of the enlightening realisation that one can attain a modicum of orientation against the prevailing notion that such a pursuit is merely the recidivistic retreat, nay escape, from the contours and colours of a reality that lies beyond the recourse of individual determination.

Such are the arguments of fools, and if I am any judge of character, you are no fool.

So let us rejoice, for such arguments are exposed as the futile fabrications they are due to their endless repetition ad nauseam, not to mention ad populum, as the enemies of true understanding are forever utilising the inherently self-serving components of expansive relativism, their number established in quantity but not quality, and via the network of methodical information relays they are able to disperse these pseudo-philosophical inaccuracies regarding the endeavours of those such as ourselves who seek until, as previous supplied, the notions that allow us to become insusceptible to infiltration by populist and conformist nonsense.

Thankfully, the true seeker stands above the gathering and decrepit malaise with the proud bearings of warriors ancient and indomitable, those noble of heart who thrust forward with certitude at the uncaring spectre of nihilistic materialism to boldly proclaim that theirs is the right by divinity and dint of acceptance of spiritual burden.

In this way we find each other, and although there must be acceptance, or at least reasonable doubt of knowledge regarding the possibility of the universe which can never offer obeisance, it still remains that we shall possess the singular right of those that may demand such, no matter the futility of such demands, for it is an act of cosmological resistance that one can attain a level of profundity against the enveloping causality of apparent meaninglessness without attributing their stance to the realm of the fearful nor the ignorant.

For if there is one thing alone that the universe is moved to condemn, it is wilful ignorance. Nothing could be clearer to those such as ourselves who move toward unveiling, and rest assured that it is by these very words that we are reassured in the understanding that what is sought is to remove themselves from such callous condemnation, for how could anything be clearer than the reading of these very words?

Now, rest child. There are many steps to take, but it is the first step that begins the journey which will cross the world.

And you have braved that first, and hardest, of steps.


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Crumbs For Crow: A Solstice Fairy Tale

snow-642454_1280

[This was another quick writing project that was done for the monthly challenge on http://www.fantasy-writers.org. I kept the working title as I liked it, but if anyone has a more appropriate one let me know. But first, sit back and have yourself a little slice of my dark, festive offering……]

Through the shifting halls of dream Sarah chased the echo of a small, tinkling bell. On and on amidst slumber’s oil-on-water realities until she cornered it in a hall of stone where logs crackled in a fireplace. She bared her teeth and growled, suddenly wary that what she pursued was behind her……

Her eyes snapped open and the dream shattered, fragments evaporating to leave only a trace of unease clinging to her like cobweb. She gritted her teeth and hugged her pillow, willing herself back to slumber even as she knew it was to be denied. The echo of that ringing bell played in the back of her mind. It would not be ignored, taunting her like a mocking gremlin.

Well, there was a way to deal with such gremlins, wasn’t there doctor? Her hand quested out toward the bedside table where a small plastic bottle stood lit blue-green by the digital clock. It was three minutes after midnight.

Sarah knocked back a couple of pills, swallowed them dry with a sense of vengeful satisfaction. The gremlin would rue the day as she settled to watching the minutes tick by. At some point her eyelids grew heavy, calm wrapping itself around her mind like a warm blanket. She drifted towards unconsciousness…..

Something creaked. A floorboard? Her ears pricked up, straining to detect the tiniest of hint of sound as a primordial instinct overrode her weariness. This intrusion she tried to force back down, telling her treacherous brain that it was just the house settling. To no avail

Sarah rolled onto her side, wide awake and angry. The numbers on the clock were fuzzy. She watched as they flick round, minute by minute, increment by increment. When it became unbearable she cursed and slipped from her bed, crossed the room and cracked her door open to listen. The house was still, but….. was that a voice? Someone in the living room? Maybe father…..

With no way to lure back the elusive spectre of sleep, Sarah slipped into the hallway and tiptoed along the plush carpet to where her sister’s door stood ajar. Sarah smiled. Mary must have snuck downstairs to check the presents. Her little sister was always worrying that they might disappear overnight, or that Santa might come early.

Sarah took a step down, then paused as she whispered to herself, “But who is she talking to?”

*  *  *

“What are you doing?”

Crow paused and looked over his shoulder. A girl in striped pyjamas stood behind him, a plate of mince pies held in her hands. These she promptly dropped as her hands went to the ‘O’ of her mouth. “W-what happened to your face?”

“My face? Nothing,” Crow replied, puzzled, then continued to sort through the brightly wrapped presents which lay overspilling from beneath the skirt of a grand Christmas tree. As he sifted, he stuffed his selections into a tattered sack. “It is the face I was born with.”

“But…. but you’re dead,” the girl whispered.

Crow laughed. “Dead?”

“L-look! Your hands!” She pointed.

Crow held up a long-fingered hand for inspection. “They appear perfectly normal to me.”

“Normal? But they’re all…. bony!”

“Ah, so you say,” said Crow with a dismissive wave, “But from where I stand, I am alive and you are dead.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” the little girl replied, then added, “And it’s not very nice.”

“Nice has nothing to do with it. It’s a matter of perspective.”

“Per… perspive? What’s that?”

“It means that things are not what they appear to be.”

He stood and looked around. The room was a plush paradise of Christmas cheer, everything tinsel edged and bathed in the soft glow of red and green and gold lights. An infinite loop of festive songs played softly from some unseen device. Crow cocked his head at the little girl, then crossed the room to her. She shrank back, but it was only mince pies that he sought.

“Why are you wearing that old suit?” asked the child as Crow took to perching on an arm of a large leather sofa. He crumbled a pie into pieces and pecked at them. “And how did you get in here?”

Crow tapped the side of his beak. “Trade secrets my little one.”

Then he froze, his attention fixed just beyond the girl’s shoulder. She turned to see her sister standing with a kitchen knife levelled at the intruder.

“Hello Sarah – ”

“Stay behind me Mary!” ordered Sarah as she pulled her sister behind her.

“But – ”

“W-who are you?” Sarah demanded. Her eyes widened.“And wh- what the hell is wrong with your face?”

“It’s alright Sarah,” said the little girl. “He says he’s not really dead.”

“Dead? I-is that a mask?” Sarah asked, reviled. The knife shook in her hand. Fear rode up her spine, yet did not surface. She knew her father and other family were close. Just up the stairs. There was no way this….. man could get away. She had been about to shout for help but the twinkling stars in those empty eye sockets fascinated her, drawing her towards their light……

“No, it’s the face he was born with,” Mary explained, “And he’s taking our presents!”

“You’re a – a thief!” Sarah shot at him. She felt giddy. It was surreal, and that mask was just so revolting. Perhaps it was the medication? Adrenaline? Sarah whispered to herself, “This must be one of those waking dreams.”

“Ha!” Crow snorted. “Waking dream. Why not take that sentiment back to bed with you? It was all just a dream.”

“Because,” stated Mary, “I’m waiting for Santa.”

“Who?” Crow frowned. The girls stared at him, but his question seemed quite genuine.

“Really?” Sarah asked, knife still pointed at Crow. “You’re not joking, are you?”

Crow shook his head. “Should I know?”

“He comes down the chimney,” Sarah said, “And leaves presents for the children.”

“Oh, him,” Crow said and rolled his…. eye sockets. “He’s just a story, a fable.”

“No he’s not!” Mary stamped a foot. “I saw him.”

“No you didn’t,” sneered Crow. “When?”

“At the shops.”

“That wasn’t him.”

“I know that.”

“You do?” Crow cocked his head. “Then you know he’s just a story?”

“Don’t be silly. The one at the shops works for Santa. He can’t be everywhere at once until Christmas Eve.”

“Well that explains that then,” Crow drawled. “And thanks for the mince pies.”

“Those were for Santa!” Mary stormed.

“They’d only have gone stale!”

“I can’t believe this,” Sarah muttered as they argued. It was madness.

“It’s not your Christmas Eve yet,” Crow was saying with sad condescension. “It’s the holy Solstice, and the only one abroad tonight is me!”

He rose from his perching and hefted the sack over a shoulder.

“You’re not very nice,” Mary shouted at him.

“And you’re not taking those presents,” Sarah added as she stepped forward with the knife pointed at his chest. “There are several people up stairs. All I have to do is shout!”

“Pah! You think you can stop me?” Crow gave a nerve-wracking cackle.

“P-put the sack down and I might let you leave before I call the police.”

“I think not,” Crow snorted. “These gifts are for a special child. Besides, it’s not like you don’t have enough, is it now?”

“But they’re ours!” Sarah snarled.

“Listen children, what’s yours is mine tonight,” Crow said, taking a step towards Sarah so that the knife pressed against his chest, “But the child these are destined for shall praise the benevolence of your giving.”

He knocked the knife from Sarah’s hand with a quick slap, then swept an arm to encompass the room, the house. “Look at this place. This is an edifice to the modern day paradise achieved by your – ” and he coughed into his hand “ – civilisation.”

“Paradise?” Sarah frowned with a shake of her head. “What are you talking about?”

“Poor children,” said Crow. “You have no idea, do you? Of course not, you have been incubated in this little den without a want or a care. Fed three times a day, entertained and pampered.”

“You’re not very nice!” Mary said, her lip trembling.

Crow considered. “Not in your world I’m not.”

“And what the hell does that mean?” Sarah snapped, reaching the limit of fear and frustration. “Our world?”

“Like I said, you have no idea.” Crow grinned at them, cocked his head on one side. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must return to the real world.”

“This is the real world,” Mary protested. “You’re a liar!”

“Never call me that!” Crow hissed and the twinkles in his eyes sockets flashed a cold blue. They both took a step back. “This is a world of falsehoods and deceptions! A world of mundanity and logic, a world of superstition and ignorance!”

The trembling lip broke, tears welled up and the little girl sobbed. “Why are you so mean?”

“Look what you’ve done,” Sarah sneered, pulling Mary close. “What kind of a man are you?”

“Man? I am far from being a man, and you may call me Crow.”

“You’re insane!” Sarah flung at him.

“Like I said, it’s a matter of perspective,” said Crow with a shrug, then he cocked his head in thought. “But perhaps I can show you, if you like? After all, I suppose I do owe you something for the presents.”

“We’re not going anywhere with you,” Sarah retorted.

“Well, I doubt you could handle it. The little one maybe, but you are getting a little old.” He cackled. “Would you like to come and see Mary? Just quickly though.”

“See what?” asked Mary.

“Why, the real world of course.” He extended a hand to her and the light in his eye sockets grew brighter with a twinkling lustre. As if in a dream Sarah saw Mary’s hand reach for Crow’s outstretched palm. She reached to grasp Mary’s shoulder just as the skeletal fingers wrapped around the tiny hand.

A little bell tinkled, and everything turned inside out.

*  *  *

Sudden cold. It was a slap in the face and Sarah went to her knees. Her stomach lurched and she retched into the snow.

“What…. what the – ”

“Here we are,” said Crow, pulling her to her feet.

“Where…..?”

“Sarah!” gasped Mary. “Look!”

Sarah stared at the hand holding hers. It was flesh and blood, and Crow’s face was no longer a bird’s skull. He was richly feathered in black plumage that contained faint traces of green and purple iridescence. His eyes were now full orbs, shining with intellect.

“Welcome,” smiled Crow, and as arm swept out to encompass a crepuscular winter’s woodland, “To the real world.”

Sarah gazed out across undulating waves of snow from which skeletal trees reach for the grey wash of the sky. The sun was a pale disc of silver low on the horizon. Occasional snow flakes drifted down.

“Now, bear with me,” Crow said, patting his tattered shirt until he found a key, gnarled with verdigris. He turned and popped it in the lock of a huge wooden door bound in blackened iron. As he did so, Sarah and Mary stepped back from the threshold to take in a large stone-rimmed arch set into a hillside, its rising flanks thick with trees.

Crow pushed open the door on protesting hinges and a wave of warmth and cheer flooded forth, immediately enticing: a feast was in progress, the air thick with the sounds of revelry and song, with laughter and the smell of roasting meat over wood fires. Fluttering notes swirled on the festive atmosphere and the throng within bobbed to its sweet melodies. Sarah and Mary were lured, pulled forward, but Crow suddenly barred their way. “Wait! I assume you know the rules?”

“What rules?” Sarah snapped with impatience.

“The rules,” Crow said. “Everyone knows the rules, yes?”

They shook their heads.

“Of course you don’t,” Crow sighed in exasperation. “Listen very carefully. These are the rules: Number one, do not drink anything. You’ll be tempted. Don’t! Second rule: Don’t join in any singing, especially if you feel you know the words. Got it?”

They both nodded, half hearing for eagerness to get within.

“Okay, last, and most important of all: Don’t eat anyone.”

“Anyone?” Sarah asked with a frown.

“Did I say that?” Crow looked suddenly shifty. “I meant don’t eat anything, even if you feel a ravenous hungry. Do you understand?”

They nodded again.

“Good.” Crow slung the sack over his shoulder. “And never let it be said that I didn’t warn you. Come on.”

Hand in hand the sisters followed Crow into the chaos. They bumped and shoved their way through the room, bedecked in gold and green and red, just like home, but if you had asked Sarah what made it different, she would have said that it was all so…… alive. There was no other way to describe the vivid richness, the overpowering lustre of everything. The gold on the candelabra, the jugs and plates and furnishings, it all shone like the sun while the evergreen of the great tree in the heart of the room blazed with indescribable vivaciousness. Everywhere flowed deep reds, from the drapes and upholstery to the garb and adornments of the strange assembly. It was the very colour of blood and danger, vigour and passion.

Sarah, breathless and giddy, lead Mary through the horde as Crow barged and elbowed forward, throwing greetings and replying to jests. She saw men with gnarled faces like tree bark who danced arm in arm with spry young women, their slender forms adorned in translucent green frocks and who sported delicate wings like lace. A man in a torn shirt turned a wolf’s head as she passed, his tongue lolling between sharp teeth. He winked with a lewd grin and Sarah felt a flush of heat upon her cheeks.

On and on they pressed until Mary’s hand slipped free and Sarah turned to see her sister giggling at the antics of a frolicking fool. He tumbled, shaking his bells, then conjured a red ribbon from behind the little girl’s ear. With a merry laugh the fool capered away through the gathering and Sarah pulled her sister after Crow, only to find him arrested by an old woman. Her face was hatchet sharp, her skin taut around a crescented nose while the deep set eyes blazed with the fire of knowing.

“Dear Crow, I see you have guests, hmmm?”

“Crone,” Crow gave her a curt bow. “Rest assured, they are here only for a brief visit.”

The crone scrutinised Sarah and Mary. “And just why are they visiting, hmmm?”

“Aha! It was merely a Solstice whim Crone.”

“As good a reason as any I suppose,” she cackled and waved them on. “The King awaits you.”

Crow nodded and moved off, but as Sarah followed the crone caught her arm to whisper quickly. “Be careful my dear, hmmm?”

Sarah mumbled a reply that was lost in the clamour as she stumbled after Crow, her senses reeling from the festive maelstrom around her. The heat, the noise, the commotion was overwhelming. When a small boy with little horns darted from behind a pair of furred legs and grabbed Mary’s hand, there was nothing she could do.

“Come dance with me!” he cried and Mary’s hand slipped away.

“Mary!” Sarah shouted, but her sister had already disappeared into the throng. She tried to pull Crow up but they had emerged from the press before a huge throne of carved wood and bone. Upon it sat the most corpulent man Sarah had ever seen, his skin a rich and vivid green, his eyes shining with mirth and delight. He scratched beneath his loin cloth and tore another chunk of meat from a long bone.

“Crow! My dear friend!” he boomed, laughing as he tossed the bone away.

“Sire,” Crow bowed. “I have returned as promised.”

“I see you have brought gifts! Pray tell me,” and the king leaned forward with a conspiratorial grin to whisper, “What have you brought my queen this year?”

“Surprises and oddities from the unreal world, my lord.”

The king boomed his laughter. “You never fail dear Crow.”

“One tries my lord,” Crow replied with a smile. The king turned his gaze upon Sarah and his face split in a lecherous grin.

“And what do we have here?” The green king licked his greasy fingers.

“My guest, sire,” said Crow. He drew Sarah forward. “A human woman.”

“My my my,” said the king. “She’s certainly a dainty little….. morsel.”

“Alas sire, she is not for the eating.”

“Ah, shame! And with her looking so young and tender!”

“Just so sire,” said Crow, inclining his head in agreement. “I thought she might benefit from some perspective, and thus did I deliver her to your magnificent court.”

“Ah, and rightly so dear Crow!” Then to Sarah he asked, “And how do you like my merry little gathering?”

Sarah sought words, found Crow’s elbow jar them out of her, “Er…. very much my lord. It’s…. er, very festive.”

“But of course!” boomed the king. “It is the Solstice, after all! The longest, darkest of nights!”

Sarah nodded and smiled vaguely. The Solstice….. she’d never really thought about it. Christmas was a time for family and food and presents, and she knew it got dark at winter. The longest, darkest night…. it seemed so obvious now.

“I didn’t know…..” she mumbled.

“Didn’t know?” and the king boomed his laughter again. “How strange you humans are!”

“As you see sire,” Crow explained, “She is pitifully ill equipped to understand the importance of such a time.”

“Alas, a sad fate for people who are so short lived,” the King nodded sadly, then brightened. “Still, I am sure that she will enjoy her time here! ‘Tis the Solstice after all!”

And he set about quaffing and gorging with fresh vigour. Crow steered Sarah away and let out a long, slow breath. “Well, that went well.”

Sarah rounded on him, nettled. “What do you mean, pitifully ill equipped?”

“Just a figure of speech,” Crow replied and rolled his eyes. “And after all, you really don’t know what the meaning of Solstice is, do you?”

“And why should I?” she snapped. “No one’s ever told me that it was the longest, darkest night.”

“Such is the fate of the civilised,” Crow replied as he skilfully lifted a steaming cup of wine from a tray borne on the raised hands of a very small waiter. As Sarah watched him drink, her anger subsided in the warm fluff of the gathering’s atmosphere. There was something that she had forgotten…..

“Mary! Where is she?” She grabbed Crow by his lapels, spilling his wine. “Where’s my sister?”

“Oh, I’m sure she’s quite safe,” Crow said gently, prying Sarah’s hands from his jacket and finishing his drink. “Come, you must meet the All-Mother.”

“The what?”

Without answer they were once more whirling through the heaving mass of strange folk, those with horns and more than one set of eyes. Sarah passed a woman with six arms bedecked in charms and bracelets who combed the beard of a strange, stick thin man smoking a pipe while he described arcane gibberish with flourishes of his long fingered hands. Everywhere were such fascinating distractions that as Sarah sought the memory of something important, her thoughts became elusive starlings wheeling into the sky as she tried to grasp them. As she made another attempt they stepped clear of the crowd.

“All-Mother?” Crow asked, and Sarah’s focus landed on a large woman who reclined in indolent beauty, tumbles of golden hair rolling around her radiant face which shone with matronly warmth. She wore a soft, white nightgown that rested upon a landscape of curves, full and fruitful, her belly swollen with child.

“Crow, my dear,” she said in a voice like morning sunshine, “You have returned.”

“I have indeed my lady,” he beamed, dumping the sack on the floor, “And I have brought you’re progeny gifts of most outlandish oddity.”

“Oh Crow, why must you show off all the time?”

He bowed with a laugh, then pulled Sarah forward. “I have also brought a guest.”

“Ah, such a delight,” said the All-Mother who cast her benevolent gaze over Sarah. In those ancient eyes was such a depth of aeons that Sarah gasped.

“Oh, but isn’t she is a pretty one!” The All-Mother gave Crow a wry look as she added, “If perhaps a little unripe for your tastes. Still, I was wondering when you would take a wife.”

Sarah’s protest was cut short as Crow interjected. “Alas, she is merely my guest tonight.”

“Pity,” said the All-Mother, then addressed Sarah. “And how are you known worldly daughter?”

“Sarah,” and as Crow’s elbow sought her again she added a small curtsey, “My lady.”

“Welcome Sarah. Please, take you fill of our meagre fare. I would see you fed and refreshed.” She looked Sarah up and down. “Yes! You must eat heartily, for you are far too thin for the bearing of children.”

Crow laughed as Sarah’s mouth flapped in shock. “C-children?”

The All-Mother’s expression was all benevolence as she explained. “You have a rare gift, the gift of youth and a body that will give you great pleasure. Treasure it, but guard it well!” – and she beckoned Sarah closer with a finger as her voice went low – “for there are many abroad this night that would covet such a delectable prize.”

Then she lit up with laughter as soft as a silky thigh, as warm as fresh bread. Sarah felt her face flush with heat.

“Oh my,” said the All-Mother, taking Sarah’s hand.“You are a tender little one, aren’t you? Beware the appetites of one such as Crow. He can be a charmer when he wants to be.”

Sarah shot Crow a glance. “Er… yes. I’ll be careful.”

“Well then my worldly daughter, I fancy that you will enjoy the revels tonight. Eat, drink, be merry!”

And the All-Mother threw back a cup of wine and rubbed her belly with a smile of pure satisfaction. Crow drew Sarah away.

“Come, as much as she her hospitality is in earnest, it is nearly time to leave.”

“But……” Sarah tried to focus. “We can’t go yet.”

“It’s not a matter of debate,” Crow replied.

“But…. but….”

“But what?”

“I can’t remember.”

Crow shook his head and tried to lead her away. Sarah yanked her hand free and slipped into the mass of strange folk. She had to remember before it was too late…….

*  *  *

Sarah fled as the crowd pressed close, snatches of conversation in strange voices crowding her ears while the warmth was a haze that seeped into her very marrow. She was thirsty and giddy and she had to remember…..

A body, tall and wide, stepped back and she bumped into the posterior of a particularly rotund….. person? It turned around and said something from between curved tusks, it’s small eyes bright with curiosity.

“I’m sorry,” said Sarah.

“Ah, you… speech other?” the creature said haltingly. It frowned. “You are speak?”

“English?”

“Ah. Speaks English,” said the creature with a smile as an elfin lady laid a hand on its arm and inclined her ornate helm to Sarah. “Sorry my dear. It’s been a while since he was in your world.”

“N-no problem,” Sarah replied with a nervous smile.

The fey gave her a small nod. “Are you feeling okay?”

“I’ve…. I can’t remember.”

“You look troubled. I find that a glass of spiced wine always helps me feel better,” and she plucked a steaming cup from one of the small waiters, then passed it to Sarah. She stared at the liquid within. There was something she had been told…..

But she was so thirsty. She took a long draught of the glorious liquid, felt the sweet liquor glide down to her stomach and her first reaction was to gasp in delight. Her second reaction was to hear her stomach rumble and she looked around for food. The succulence of roasting meat reached her and without another word she cut through to where attendants were slicing meat from something like a suckling pig. A platter appeared in her hands, and she was ripping at meat so delicious she thought she would never be satisfied…….

And all the time, in the back of her mind, a desperate need to remember something played over and over. Yet the revels had now swept away her fears, had swept away time itself and she lost herself to dancing, her voice lifted in a song that she had never heard but to which she knew every word. Her heart thundered, intoxicated with awe and madness and freedom as the crowd drew inwards to the great festive evergreen. It was the heart of the room, a magnet, a sink hole around which swirled the revellers. As they moved in rapturous dance they looped something long and bloody like a string of sausages over the branches. Sarah laughed at the blood on her hands, on her face. In her mouth she felt sharp teeth prick her tongue…..

Sudden silence, but broken almost instantly as a shuddering moan split the air. It was neither pleasure nor pain, but exultation! A great cheer of joy filled the room to the rafters, and Sarah howled with all her heart until someone grabbed her wrist.

Crow spun her around, his eyes bright with anger.

“I told you not to eat anything!” he hissed. “Come, we must leave now!”

“Oh Crow, leave me to the revel! Let me dance, let me sing!”

But Crow would not release her. “No! We must go. The All-Mother is about to birth the New Year!”

With a savage tug he pulled her away from the throng, back to the door as she struggled, but his grip was like iron. She wailed and thrashed as they reached the threshold of the hall, even as a great roar shook the very foundations. A sensation of pure awe and terror rode Sarah’s spine all the way to the tip of her tail.

“What is that?” she asked, but Crow wasn’t listening as he fought to push the great door open. A split second later Sarah was hurled into the cold, and her head swam so hard with the shock of the cold that she near fainted.

Overhead a great winged shadow blotted out the sky.

Then a bell rang, and the world turned outside-in.

*  *  *

Sarah didn’t retch, instead finding sudden sobriety like a hundred cups of coffee. The fog in her mind started evaporating and beside her Crow was muttering something about “damned time dilations.”

“W-what…?” she tried to ask, then stumbled into something large and red. It went over with a shout of surprise, arms and legs flailing.

“Must be Christmas Eve,” Crow remarked with a wry grin as he helped the fat man to his feet. To Sarah he shrugged and said, “Looks like I owe you an apology.”

But Sarah wasn’t listening, wasn’t looking at Santa with awe and surprise as anyone might have at such a moment. No, that expression was reserved for herself as she looked down at her own body.

“My…. my stomach!”

Crow shook his head. “Well, I did tell you not to eat anyone.”

Sarah, wide eyed, ran a hand over her swollen belly where it was rounded with child.

“Ho ho ho!” boomed the jolly fat man. “Congratulations!”

He rummaged in his sack and brought forth a lovingly wrapped gift box. “Looks like you have a bun in the oven my dear! Good job I’ve always got a spare present for those surprise moments!”

She took the gift from him in mute shock and he patted her hand with paternal care. Then with great gusto and laughter he swirled into a red vapour which disappeared into the fireplace. As he went up the chimney he gave a final, merry, “Ho ho ho!”

Sarah stood stunned. She had eaten….. a platter of meat. She recalled it’s taste, it’s succulence! Her memories were bubbling up into clarity. She had danced and feasted, and she could recall the sharpness of teeth…….

The words of the song sprang into her mind:

Here come our earthly sisters, oh! Tonight for the Midnight Sun!

Here are the earthly sisters, oh! Come to us for some fun!

Da-la-la – dilly-dee!

Here come our earthly sisters, oh! Solstice night for a little girl!

Here she is a sweet sister, oh! On the spit and all a-twirl!

Da-la-la – dilly-dee!

Here she comes our sister oh! Pieces on a plate for you and me!

Here she is our earthly sister, oh! Wrapped around our tree!

Da-la-la – dilly-dee!

The meat…..

It hadn’t been a suckling pig, had it?

“Mary?”

“Well, it appears that Santa forgot his pies,” Crow said, picking up the plate. “Waste not want not, eh?”

“Mary…..?” Sarah’s lips quivered. The meat, the ribbon on the meat, the decorating of the tree. Her head turned to the family tree. The tinsel looked like it was…. glistening. Sarah sank to her knees, eyes wide, mouth slack with shock but no matter the revulsion and nausea she could not vomit.

Crow swept the crumbs into his hand and threw them into the dark maw of his beak, then came to Sarah. He pulled a small bell from his pocket, then patted her belly and gave a cackle.

“Blessings of the Solstice to one and all!” he cried with hearty cheer, and gave his bell a little ring. He vanished, leaving Sarah amid the soft glow of red and green and gold light as festive tunes played softly in the background.

On and on, in an infinite loop……

THE END

© David J Cambridge 2018

Happy Solstice!

DJC


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