Published in the Leg Iron Books story collection “Christmas lights and Darks” Now available via Amazon paperback and eBook. Currently only available in the UK.
Copyright Martyn K Jones 6th November 2018
Tonight the moon is almost daylight bright and the world around the derelict old house is a vivid monochrome. Inside a room with two broken old chairs and a stinking mattress on the floor the stillness paints itself around graffiti-scarred broken plaster and lathing. The ceiling partially collapsed with gaping holes leading up to a space so frozen that even the pigeons have left. A deep frost makes flaking brick and peeling wood glitter. Winter is here in all its crystal majesty.
Across the fields comes the sharp acid scream of a fox calling for its mate. Nocturnal rustlings from foraging badgers and rabbits in stark hedgerows. The spectre of a rare barn owl gliding across an eerie moonscape. All else is silent but for the night breeze gently rattling dried leaves in stark branches.
A heavy truck taking a shortcut down the secondary road outside rumbles its laden way to an all night destination. The forty tonne trailers grumbling setting up sympathetic vibrations in dessicated timber, fine dust drifting into still December night air, curling, shifting, following invisible lines around a shape, silent as smoke, less visible than whispers. Tenuous. Unformed.
Ah. Comes the word of consciousness. Softer than a sigh on the wind, colder than the night between worlds. Airborne dust follows lines in the air, highlighting the shape like stars around a nebula, a gravitational lens bending light so even the untrained eye can detect the hidden, the lost, the infinitesimal. The shape in the air appears to move through the dust like a living shadow, a bulky, hooded figure shrouded in brilliant motes.
The breath of awareness flickers into words at the very cusp of hearing. I see. Must I? There is consciousness here. Volition. The bitterness of self knowledge and reluctant acceptance, even a deep, long suffered anguish.
The figure raises barely visible mittened hands in front of a deeply hooded face, examining them as if for the first time, turning them back and around. Yes. The duty. That which must be done tonight and at no other time. The obligation. The necessity. This spectral whisper carries centuries of pain but asks the question of the moonlit air. For how much longer? The hooded head bows forward, hands dropping to the sides of a primitive belted tunic worn over old fashioned baggy breeches tucked into heavy night-black boots.
Was my sin so great? My insult to God so grievous that I must suffer forever? I was an Angel once, beloved of our creator. I brought light to his lesser cosmos so the humans he created could love him more completely. The figure gradually coalesces in the moonlight, fading into view oh so slowly, taking on form and solidity. Humans called me the bringer of light. Why Lord, why must I still suffer for the love you withhold from me? As if in answer, a breath of midnight wind blows through a glassless window. The shape shakes rhythmically as though sobbing. Please. Begs the shape as it coalesces into a shadow-form. No. the tone pain-wracked and plaintive.
From outside comes the vague rustle of ghostly bells. A tinny rustling like millions of empty cans rolling downhill. The shadow groans softly. Eight distinct non-human voices, a chorus of soft grunts, urgently basso-profundo calling to the reluctant figure. Come. We are here. It is time. They do not question their eternal fate, but then they were never angelic, never aware. All these shadow-beasts know is the thrill of side-slipping across time and space, revelling in their headlong gallop through glittering starlit portals. The rollercoaster joy of tendon, sinew, bone and muscle singing together through their high speed Moebius trans-dimensional journey.
This is their life, but also his fate. Here is where his shame and agony lies.
An eternity ago he was not this lumbering human caricature but a vibrant harmonic figure, a messenger of God, joyous and exuberant, a dazzling light streaking across the firmament. Now he is confined, demoted to the mundane task of keeping a simple foolish belief alive in this backwater of creation. A figure of pity, not even scorn.
Then he breathes in the chill of the night, tasting the frigid air and a distinctly un-angelic cough breaks the silence as the chill snatches the back of his throat. At first it is the cough of an old man. A retching, tinny sound punctuating the shadow taking on a lighter shade of grey in the brilliant moonlight. The shadow form flickers as he coughs again, each hacking catch a new step towards reality. Now he gains substance and weight, the floorboards flexing slightly under heavy soled riding boots, their leather black as the darkest cellar with sinuous stamped patterns that shift and writhe as though mere footwear were living beings.
Now he sniffs deeply at the air again and his snort is of something deeper, more animal, like the cough of a hunting Grizzly. This is life. The figure remembers this song and feels it like an ache in his bones, an opening of eyes.
Then, as if absent mindedly recalling a half forgotten task, still only semi visible, the figure turns to the scabrous mattress lying on the floor. A small token is necessary. A promise must be kept. He bends over and reaches down into a hummock of mixed blankets and fleeces in the shadows, mitten passing through as if there was nothing there. There is a faint sound half way between a sigh and a cough from underneath the heavy layers of fabric. Thank you. The figure twists something around a mittened hand that for a moment gleams like a fish, then is gone. I will keep it safe. Whatever is under the blankets sags slightly and there is a sense of deeper stillness in the freezing room.
A year. That was the promise. Then eternal peace. The moonlit shadow-figure straightens up listening to the tinny rustling and grunting urgency only he can hear. A few moments, please. The unheard request seems to calm whatever is outside and the noises grow quiet. There is a little time for reflection before the duty begins. A respite.
Three hundred and forty three days ago the figure had sat with the old man whose soul will fuel him for the next few hours between dimensions. An old man who was so used to his pain he rarely remembered it. An old man who knew he was dying. Clawed from within by his ‘old enemy’ as he had called it. Before the mask dropped and his agony leaked out.
That pain had reached out to the figure as he passed down a midnight street where Tommy Cawley, or ‘old Tom’ had been lying slumped against a urine stinking wall, empty bottle in hand, semi conscious and wishing for the night to claim him. Whether that was his real name or not no-one else cared. Tommy’s old name was back in his past, in the wreckage of a former life. Before his fall from society, before the cancer had come to eat him alive. Until a tall, stout figure in a belted tunic stands over him and says gently. “Hello Christopher.”
“That’s not my name.” ‘Old Tom’ slurrs defiantly.
“Would you die with a lie in your mouth?”
“Get los’ you fat bassar!” The old man drunkenly snarls from the gutter.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Don’ fuggin care. Lemme be.” The recumbent figure tries to turn away, broken down trainers scrabbling pathetically at unforgiving concrete.
“You should care, because I have something very valuable to offer you.” In the rain slick midnight street the hood slides back. All the old man can do is stare.
“You’re…” The old man seems transfixed. Eyes wide and horrified.
“Yes.” Says the figure. “We should talk. Let me buy you some tea.”
Later, in the corner of a late night cafe the two sit like old friends. Voices low and conspiratorial. “I can’t go back.” Christopher says.
“But I just want to see her again. Just one more time. Before I die. Am I dying?” Christopher Thomas Cawleyson is lucid for the first time in many years.
“Yes.” There is no point dodging the issue.
“Are you here for me?”
“When? Am I…”
“Enough.” The stout figure stops him with an upright hand. “Not yet. I can give you a year. No more.”
“What if I say no?”
The figure takes a thoughtful sip of tea. “Then you die tonight. Back in the street where I found you.”
“Is that a threat?”
“No.” The figure seems amused. “This is an offer of life, not death. You can do a lot in a year.” He purses his lips thoughtfully. “Lay ghosts. Mend fences. Turn corners. Or at least help those in trouble turn the right ones.”
Christopher Thomas Cawleyson, Veteran of Iraq. Bankrupt, alcoholic, bad father, worse grandfather, stares at the chipped laminate tabletop. “I’m not a good man.” He says eventually.
“I don’t know if I deserve this chance.”
“You do. She does.”
“Thank you.” The old man leans forward a little. “Okay. What do I have to do?”
“Only what I ask you. Nothing much. Nothing you can’t do.”
“For a year? For redemption?”
“Not for me. For her.” Christopher says, eyes fierce.
“Agreed.” And they, very gravely, shake hands.
That was twelve days short of a year ago. Satan, fallen angel, now fully in mortal form, opened his glove to examine the spinning crystal that had once been the life force of an old man in pain. When he had first seen this soul it had been damaged, cracked and filthy. Not even worthy of discard in some forgotten corner of Hell. Now it gleams, truly worthy of cherishing. “Thank you.” Satan pushes back his deep red fur lined hood to reveal an old man’s face, smiling and white bearded. In the moonlit shadows the soul sparkles and shines. “Now you and I have a job to do.” Satan says. He looks out of the abandoned room to the top of the stairwell. The grunts and tinny noises grow louder, more restive. “Patience. I’m coming.” He smiles at the soul and tucks the glittering thing in a leather purse at his waist. Pausing only to pull up his hood against the night he walks down the creaking stairs and examines the scene before him, reaching out to stroke a muzzle, pat a neck affectionately. “Hello. Have you missed me?” The eight voices grunt with joy at their masters arrival. Satan takes his place and removes the soul from his purse, plugging it into a socket on the sleighs dashboard. “Are we ready?” He checks the massive bags behind him and notes their bulk with satisfaction. The eight voices grunt, heavy leather traces decked with fine gold and silver ornaments, straining and jingling.
“Very well.” Satan picks up a small whip and cracks it with a satisfying snap! “Up Dasher! Up Prancer! Up Dancer and Vixen! Up Comet and Cupid! Up Donner and Blitzen!” With this command, powered by a single glittering redeemed soul, Satan’s sleigh rose into the brilliant midnight of Christmas Eve.