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The Lady of the Mound

The Lady of the Mound settles like dust between certainties, holding court on the boundaries of life and death. There’s a lantern, more ancient than time; its light is brighter than a thousand suns. The lantern guides her, comforts her: ever-present, endless. She draws her wisdom from its warmth, her sense of time and space from its inexorable glow.

She squints through the light at the Dark Lord’s approach. His wings shroud all in blackness: endless dark horizons twisted by hate.

“You have become complacent,” he says, his voice echoing beyond time. “You linger in light because you are weak. Embrace me.” His voice is a command, seductive and spiteful.

The Lady of the Mound turns away from his foul breath, sulphuric and bilious, the stench of billion corpses. “Never,” she says.

“Then you leave me no choice.” The Dark Lord swallows the light of the lantern, engulfing it until it is no more than a fragile shell against the infinite. The lantern shatters like a dried petal at the beat of wings as the Dark Lord takes his leave.

The Lady of the Mound becomes a shadow, deep and smooth. She closes her eyes, creates her own darkness, mourns for the light. For millennia, she holds in the loss, shielding herself from the infinite nothing with the infinite reality of her grief.

She trembles, opens her eyes, scans the emptiness, chokes down a tear. The shadow of the Dark Lord, somehow blacker than the blackness, approaches vulture-like as its wings ripple against the heavens.

“You have opened your eyes and I am here,” the Dark Lord says. “Embrace me.”

The Lady of the Mound turns. “Never,” she whispers.

The Dark Lord growls and rises through the infinite, leaving the Lady of the Mound with only her sorrow as reality.

In the silence, she sees the faintest of dots, a tiny glow darting like a dragonfly across the emptiness. She draws hope from its flight, watches as it bobs and whirls, iridescent against the eternal. There’s joy in that light. A second orb emerges, then a third and a fourth. Before long, the void is teeming with swarms of eddying lights, burning with love and happiness.

She draws from them, feeds into them. They expand and grow with each century. The lights drift towards her, coat her in brilliance and warmth. The void floods with her tears.

Time unhinges from itself when the Dark Lord returns. His wings bristle. His voice is filled with the pain of a thousand holocausts. “You have defied me,” he screams.

The lights flicker out with fear and the Dark Lord brushes their husks aside with his wings, returning everything to darkness. He offers his embrace, but the Lady of the Mound turns. The Dark Lord sighs a storm, then leaves.

“All is lost,” the Lady of the Mound says. “All is lost.”

She holds herself and listens for the Dark Lord’s return, watches for the lights. Neither come.

“I beseech thee. Return to me. I beg you to return. I will protect you.”

Centuries pass until the first light twinkles, dim at first, then bright white as it embraces the Lady of the Mound. More lights emerge and coil around her, filling her with love and brilliance.

She shudders as the Dark Lord returns.

“You dare to embrace light? You embrace me,” he says, spreading his monstrous arms.

The Lady of the Mound faces him, breathes out her light, brilliant and white. Its beam tears through the Dark Lord’s body, ripping off his limbs, slicing through his torso, searing his flesh and wings to nothingness. He falls into the light, nothingness in nothingness in nothingness, an infinite fractal shattering beyond the dust of dreams.

The lights embrace the Lady of the Mound. They warm her, protect her, become her.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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The Speed of Boredom

I hold the yawn in my mouth, swallow the boredom. I look up at the clock while the lecturer talks and talks. How can time crawl like this? I fall into my mind, dividing time into the objective and subjective, the measurable and the personal. Time dilates at the speed of boredom. A minute seems like five, an hour an eternity.

The thought occurs to me: what if I push the edges of my own subjective time? What if I strive for boredom? They say ‘time flies when you’re having fun’. They say ‘live fast, die young’. I say slow down, make yourself a mug of warm milk. Live slow, live forever.

I walk home, take the blandest route. There’s no scenery, nothing of interest. The journey feels longer than it should. I gain several minutes.

Enthused by my revelation, I throw out all the things I love: my books (the good ones), clothes, videogames, movies, music, the wife.

I search online for videos that will extend my life; an hour-long documentary about the history of buses in Wolverhampton from 1972 to 1976 pushes me beyond the edges of boredom. I gain so much, so many hours squeezed into one.

My mum calls me. She’s telling me about her new decking. The temptation to hold my phone away from my ear is almost unbearable. But I think about all the time I’m accumulating. I ask again about Mildred’s hip replacement. So boring.

I tell her I’ve kicked out the wife. She’s not happy. She gets upset. This drama is eating into my life, accelerating my experience of time. I hang up, drop the phone in the toilet, flush.

The lights around the house cast interesting shadows on the walls. I take them out, flush them down the toilet.

There’s a knock at the door, loud and insistent. It’s the wife. She looks sad. She’s been crying. She says she’s worried about me, that I need help. I try to ignore her, turn her words into a drone. That way I’ll gain more time.

I sit in the dark for weeks, eating only crackers and custard creams. I read junk mail, copy the letters out into a notebook, catalogue their contents, make an extensive archive. I watch a video on YouTube about Belgian politics, but turn it off when it’s a bit more interesting than I’d predicted.

There’s a knock at the door. The wife’s back. She’s crying again. My mum stands next to her. She’s crying too. There’s a policewoman, a concerned-looking doctor and an ambulance outside.

I try to explain that they’re stealing my time. They don’t listen. They say it doesn’t work like that, that they can help me. I don’t need their help.

I focus on a beige patch on the wall when I’m strapped down in the back of the ambulance and smile. They can’t take away my time that easily.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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Basilisk on a Yellow Field

I wore green on the day I performed my first kill. I stood on the edge of a large stone room lit by alchemical orbs casting soft white light across the faces of two dozen children as they danced to the drummers and pipers performing a traditional Ostreich folk song.

The adults looked on in their green finery. The men wore matching coats, tailored from silk. The women wore long hooded dresses in a darker green than the men. They were cut low along the bust and pulled tight at the waist, with wide skirts extending to the floor.

My dress was in the style of the other women, though, there was a hidden slit which allowed me to reach across with my left hand and easily grasp my blade, the Feuerschwert.

A red-faced dancer stared at me as she swayed from left to right, turning and twisting her hands in time with the music. I smiled, but my smile was not returned. There was fear in those eyes.

The Feuerschwert was cold against my skin. Though secured to my waist, I feared the ravenglass might cut into my flesh, bringing out its dormant power.

The scent of roasted pork hung in the air as I examined the revellers’ faces. I took care to note the features of each person in an effort to remember. There was a woman whose face sparked a memory when I saw her from the side, but when she turned to me with an unsure smile, it was clear we shared no recognition. Just one smile, just one nod of recognition was all I craved. Someone to tell me who I am – to tell me my name.

I moved left along the wall as the beat continued. Though the festivities were held in honour of Jorg Shultz’s fiftieth year, the Viscount had retired to his chamber during the final course of the feast. I stepped around a stone bust of my target, staring expressionless from a marble plinth, and skirted past a colourful tapestry that was fifteen feet across. It showed a knight bearing the Ostreich sigil of a black basilisk on a yellow field thrusting a lance into the belly of a green-scaled wyvern.

Reaching the end of the great hall, I slipped through a half-open door. The alchemical glow faded as I made my way along a bare stone corridor illuminated by wall candles. The handle of the Feuerschwert brushed against my side as my steps grew urgent. I found my way to a spiral stairway.

I ascended the steps until I reached a thick door in varnished oak. I placed my ear against the door and listened. Hearing nothing, I turned the handle. I held my breath, pulled up the hood of my dress, removed my shoes then stepped through the door.

The corridor was dark and the floorboards cold beneath my soles. A faint glow seeped out from beneath a door at the end of the passage. I reached into my dress, removed the Feuerschwert and felt a trembling as I held it my hands. Its ravenglass blade was a deep black, a much deeper black than than darkness of the passage.

I unhooked the skirt from my dress and freed myself from the corset, dropping them in a heap next to me. I stepped towards the door and teased its handle. My heart thundered in my chest as I pushed the door open.

A fire burned in a hearth at the far right of the room. Above it, a portrait of a long-dead Viscount looked on with a dark, vacant gaze. Thick green drapes hung in front of the windows overlooking the Braun Sea. I heard a shuffle to my right – it was Jorg Shultz. Our eyes met.

“What is the meaning of this?” he asked.

I said nothing and pricked the index finger of my left hand with the Feuerschwert. The Viscount’s eyes widened at the blade turned from deep black to a glowing red as it consumed the blood.

“Ravenglass,” he whispered, his eyes bulging.

I jumped back on my toes as he tipped his chair towards me. Jorg unsheathed a blade, longer and thicker than my own. With a fluid motion he rolled up his sleeve and sliced the blade across his left forearm. His blade too glowed red.

A wolfish grin rose beneath his thick blond moustache. Nobody had warned me about this.

My hands were slick with sweat. I danced on my tiptoes, feinted left, then right, trying to draw him into dropping his guard, to making a mistake.

“Who sent you?” he growled.

I shook my head. I was not going to answer him. How could I answer him?

He swung his blade in a broad vertical arc. I hopped to the right and stabbed forward with a twist of my wrist. He jerked his shoulder to the side. We both straitened up, regaining our stance.

We circled each other, his blue eyes locked with my own. I dived forward, struck the back of his leg. He let out an agonised scream as the blade hissed, its magic tearing through his flesh, burning him from within.

He swung and I moved to parry, but instead of the expected ricochet, his blade went through my own, like two jets of water crossing each other’s paths. His blade nicked my arm and I felt its fiery heat swell inside.

Neither of us were bleeding from our wounds, but I sensed Jorg’s pain as it spread through his body. He fell backwards, looked up at me in terror. “What do you want?” he managed. His words were weak, his breath shallow.

I stood over him. His blade returned to black as it dropped from his convulsing hand. I pulled my hood down and pushed my blade into his chest.

“It’s you,” he gasped. “What–.”

I pulled the Feuerschwert from his chest. “Wait,” I said. “Who am I?” I leaned down and shook him. “Please,” I pleaded. “Tell me who I am.”

But he was already dead.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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No Rehab for Wizards

I cut off one of my eyelids today. It was definitely worth it.

“Now why on Earth would you want to do something like that?” Mum asks.

I shake my head, tut. “So I can control manatees,” I say.

“And what do you want to control manatees for?”

I shrug and turn the volume up on Match of the Day. Mum never gets me. She was banging on the other day about how I need to go into rehab. “There’s something not right about you, boy,” she said. “You’re always chopping bits off yourself. It’s not right.”

I tried to tell her there’s no rehab for wizards. Magic always has a price: a sacrifice of flesh always has to be made. A chunk of skin off your arm will give you control of a mayfly, but what’s the point in that? At least manatees have got a half-decent shelf-life.

I was telling her the other day about these wizards around Birmingham way who kill dogs and badgers for their magic. I asked if she’d rather me do that. She just cried.

The thing people don’t realise about using animals is that if you want to take control of dog, you have to kill about thirteen or fourteen of them. And even then, you only get to control one of those shitty little yappy ones. Seems pointless to me.

When Mum had a go at me for lopping off my little toe a couple of weeks back, I made a joke that I’d sacrifice her if she carried on having a go at me. She cried at that as well, and I really only meant it as a joke. Thing is, though, the more I think about it, the more it seems like a good idea.

I’d have to work out how strong the magic would be if I did it, though. I’m assuming it would be a bit like with the dogs. Kill a whole bunch of people to take control of a shitty one? I’d get in trouble for sure. But I’m thinking it’d probably count for a lot more if it’s your own mum. It must do.

I turn off Match of the Day and go upstairs.

“And where do you think you’re going?” Mum asks. “You’re not going to chop any more body parts again, I hope? What would your father say if he could see you now with all them bits hanging off?”

I turn back and smile. “I’m just going for a wee,” I say. “Stick the kettle on will you?”

When the kettle starts to boil, I reach behind the toilet and pull out my blade. I run my finger across its edge and grin as a small cut opens along my fingertip.

“Your tea’s on the hearth,” Mum says, shouting up the stairs.

“Coming.” I tuck the blade under my hoodie.

Limping back downstairs, I see Mum has put Eastenders on. “You don’t mind me watching this on catch-up do you?” she asks. “You’d turned your football off.”

“It’s fine,” I say.

I stand behind her and look down at her grey-streaked hair. I take the blade and bring it across her throat. She makes a weird gurgling noise.

I panic and run to the kitchen to grab some tea towels and kitchen roll. I try dabbing at the blood, but it makes a right mess.

Mum always said that when I started to get into one of my panics I should stop, take a deep breath, and have a nice cup of tea. So I sit down on the opposite sofa and sip my tea, my eyes half on Eastenders and half on my mum bleeding out all over her nice cream carpet.

If I let her keep bleeding, it will stop eventually. Then it will dry and be easier to mop up. I really don’t want to ruin any more tea towels, so it’s probably for the best to wait.

Then I remember: I’d forgotten to do the incantation. What a complete waste of time.

I turn Match of the Day back on. At least I still had my manatee.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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Taking on the Ray Bradbury Challenge

I’ve decided to take on the Ray Bradbury Challenge. The Challenge is designed to encourage authors to improve their reading habits and write more short fiction.

Stephen King wrote that if you do not read, you have no business writing. Nothing has taught me more about the craft of telling stories than reading the work of others. My hope is that by committing to the Challenge, I’ll be a better storyteller as a result.

The Ray Bradbury Challenge is as follows:

1) Write a short story a week for 52 weeks.
2) Read a short story, a poem and an essay every day for 1,000 days.

I’m severely visually impaired, so I do my ‘reading’ either in an audio or ebook format. I usually read one or two novels and two or three short stories each week, but seldom read poetry.

To fulfil the essay requirement, I will count listening to podcasts such as TED Talks, seminars by the Long Now Foundation, Skeptoid, BBC World Service’s Witness, BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, BBC Radio 3’s The Essay and the like.

I will document my progress on this blog and encourage you to join me in this Challenge.

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King of the Trees

Emily was King of the Trees. A little boy gave her the title – he was King of the Train.

She didn’t know the species names. She called her tree Paramine. It was the big one in the centre. She sat in its branches and surveyed her kingdom.

The other trees were short and thin. They were no more than twigs strapped to stakes with black rubber ties. She called them Paranagents. They weren’t impressive, but this was her domain. This was her realm.

Her trees bore no fruit so she ate burgers and chicken wings left as offerings by passing visitors. They respected her.

She looked for monkeys, but there were no monkeys. She told a half-remembered joke to those who passed beneath her tree. Something about a monkey being stapled to a dead monkey. Emily laughed as she told the joke, but always got lost in the words. She gave no punch-line, only a statement of fact.

She shouted at those who refused to pay tribute or pledge allegiance. A man from the council told her she was trespassing. She told him she was the King of the Trees.

She wore a dress made of leaves and fast food wrappers, and wove sticks and ladybirds through her hair. When she wasn’t performing her royal duties, she worked as a receptionist. Her boss smiled at her and her customers smiled at her. It was a tattoo shop, so people thought she was being alternative. She wasn’t being alternative – she was King of the Trees.

The day came when the man from the council returned – this time with police and a court order. They did not offer tribute or pledge fealty. They told her a complaint had been made.

She told them to bend the knee and to respect her kingdom. They did not respect her.

Emily shouted and spat as the police dragged her away by the armpits. She told them she was King of the Trees. She told them her brother was King of the Moon and her mother was King of the Bears. But they did not listen.

They told her she could never step foot in that car park again.

Emily vowed vengence. Emily declared war.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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To Grip the Bright White Chains

Staring across the ocean waves reflecting a sky the colour of hung meat, Elsie thought about all the children she could save. She coughed as a chill wind changed direction, bringing with it the smell of washed-up fish.

Elsie turned, as a boy shuffled toward her with purple-rimmed eyes. The boy looked like every other addict: dishevelled, dirty, desperate, dead. Elsie knew he was beyond saving.

The boy crouched on one knee then swung a grubby rucksack from his shoulder. “You got the prez?” he said.

Elsie nodded. “Three caps. I assume you’ve got what I asked for?”

The boy looked up at her as he unfastened the rucksack. “This stuff wasn’t easy to get hold of.”

Elsie pursed her lips and glowered at the boy. “A deal’s a deal,” she said. “If you want the caps–.”

“Fine, fine.” The boy scratched at his matted hair. He lay the items out on the mottled concrete. A smile crept over Elsie’s face.

“Real. Unopened.” Elsie knelt down on creaking knees to touch the pair of tins. “This is good work, but I asked for a brush.”

The boy frowned as he groped inside his rucksack for several seconds, then pulled out a paintbrush. “It’s not perfect,” the boy said. “It’s the best I could find.” He handed Elsie the paintbrush with trembling fingers. It was sticky to the touch and coated with long-dried drips of paint. Its bristles were uneven and some were missing.

Elsie placed the paintbrush into her shopping trolley, tucking it between a roll of plastic and a coil of blue rope.

The boy lifted the tins into the trolley and stood before Elsie. She dropped three plezerra capsules into the boy’s outstretched hand. He nodded, turned and ran. Elsie shook her head and sighed as the boy descended a ladder and over the sea wall.

Pushing her trolley, Elsie looked across the water slick with oil and algae. The trolley’s wheels squeaked and snagged on stones and discarded plastic as it clattered along the promenade. Turning left, she pushed the trolley uphill along a street lined with boarded-up and barricaded houses.

She thought about the boy, about the drugs. He would feel wonderful for a day at most, then be back on the streets, stealing and whoring; each day bringing him closer to an early death. The demand was there – the demand was always there. It was better for the drugs to come from her than from a violent street thug.

Turning right, Elsie walked down an alleyway. She shouldered her way back through a gate and closed it behind her. She gripped the trolley as she regained her breath. Feeling the twinge in her back, she lifted the tins from her trolley.

Elsie surveyed her months of work. Bees buzzed around her while she inspected her bed of chrysanthemums, the red and pink blooms swaying gently with the wind, their fragrance tickling her nose and bringing to mind memories of carefree, more playful times.

She walked over to her bench with varnished wooden slats and framing of curled wrought iron, glossy and black and detailed with images of leaves and twisting vines. The slats creaked as they took her weight, and Elsie looked over to the strawberry plants climbing the wall. The berries were weeks from ripening.

The tins were the finishing touch. Rummaging through her trolley, Elsie found a flat-head screwdriver and used it to lever-open the first lid. She lingered on the old, familiar smell, a fresh smell she had not experienced for many, many years. She wiped the brush with a cloth and dipped it into the white gloss paint, brilliant and gloopy. Satisfied, she watched the paint fall in slow, deliberate drips from the brush and back into the tin.

Moving the tin over to the first pole, Elsie set to work applying the paint, grinning as it clung skin-like to the rust. She looked up at the chains hanging from the top beam and decided she would paint them too. She worked until the sky went dark and the air dropped cold.

Elsie rushed to her garden early the next morning to see the paint had dried. She knew her work was complete. She stepped out through her gate as the sun emerged in the hung meat sky.

She approached a pair of children begging on the corner: a boy and a girl no older than six.

“I’ve got something to show you,” Elsie said.

The children stared up at her and scowled. “Piss off,” the girl said.

“You’ll like it,” Elsie said. “I promise.”

The children exchanged furtive, suspicious glances and rose to their feet. The boy regarded Elsie for a long moment before nodding to the girl.

“Okay, but if you try anything funny,” the boy said, patting a blade on his belt.

The children followed. Elsie opened her gate and welcomed the children into her garden – their garden.

“Whenever you feel sad, whenever you feel desperate, I want you to come here,” she said. “If you ever feel tempted by plezerra, come here instead. This is your sanctuary.”

“This is for us?” the boy said.

“For you, for any child who needs to feel safe.”

The children smiled. “What’s that do?” the girl said, gesturing past Elsie.

“I’ll show you. It’s perfectly safe.” She signalled for the girl to sit on the wooden seat and for her to grip the bright white chains.

“Hold on,” said Elsie as she walked behind the girl. She pushed her and the girl swung up and back, up and back. Elsie felt the girl stiffen for a moment. Then the girl laughed. Then the boy joined in.

Elsie wiped a tear. It had been a long, long time since she had heard the laughter of children.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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Eating

Grandma was delicious. It was probably the paprika that gave her that extra bite. Her funeral was boring, but once the vicar had finished telling us about a woman he’d never met, the eating was wonderful.

It’s a tradition in our family to specify a recipe as part of your will. I’ve opted for a rosemary crust and three-bean salad.

To share yourself with your neighbours and loved-ones brings everyone closer together. It’s nice.

It’s when things get impersonal that I start to feel a bit weird about it. Take today: I had a great conversation with my cousin while we were working on the marinade. The last time we’d spoken was at uncle Jeff’s eating. He went for the full-on cajun-spiced, flash-fry. He was probably terrible for you, but he was so tasty. It was a real treat.

There was a woman who lived near my mother who died. She had no children or relatives. She was isolated, very lonely. It was sad.

Once the pathologist was done bagging and tagging, and the coroner released the body, she was sent in small parcels to the food-banks around the city. I don’t have a problem with this per se, but there’s something lost. It shouldn’t just be about recycling.

It’s like when there was the fire at that nursery. You couldn’t tell one toddler from another, and no one really wants to be eating some stranger’s kid. So they were shipped off to feed prisoners. I get that this is a good thing. I’m probably just being a snob, but I just find it a bit creepy.

I found out recently that my great aunt Maude is dying, and she’s opted to be stir-fried in walnut oil with garlic, chilli and ginger. I hope she hurries up: I love Chinese food.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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Introducing the Short Science Fiction Review.

The Short Science Fiction Review is a podcast dedicated to providing short reviews of short science fiction stories.

I will review short stories and novellas by a diverse range of authors, from the earliest scientific romance tales to new voices in the genre.

The authors covered will reflect my own tastes. I enjoy science fiction works that are thought-provoking, mind-bending, political, satirical, or explore an interesting idea, concept or piece of technology.

It is highly unlikely that I will review stories about monsters, dinosaurs, or zombies; hard, technical scientific concepts; or action/adventure.

All of the works reviewed will have been published in established magazines or anthologies. My aim is to make the reviews sufficiently free of spoilers.

I’d love to hear from other short story fans for discussion and recommendations. You can follow me on Twitter @jlcronshaw, friend me on facebook.com/jlcronshaw or follow my Goodreads profile.

You can subscribe to the Short Science Fiction Review on iTunes HERE.

The Ray Bradbury Challenge: Day 036

Short story: To the Moon and Back by Etgar Keret, listened to on the New Yorker’s Author’s Voice podcast, from September 2016. Highly Recommended.

Poem: Sonnet 23 by William Shakespeare, listened to on the Intro to Poetry podcast. Recommended.

Essay: The Belgian UFO Wave, listened to on Skeptoid #538, from September 2016. Highly Recommended.

What is the Ray Bradbury Challenge?

The Ray Bradbury Challenge: Day 035

Short story: The God-Clown is Near by Jay Lake, read in Steampunk (2008), edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Recommended.

Poem: Taboo by Sara Norja, reading Strange Horizons, from September 2016. Highly Recommended.

Essay: Swimming Reindeer, listened to on the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, from January 2010. Highly Recommended.

What is the Ray Bradbury Challenge?

The Ray Bradbury Challenge: Day 034

Short story: Dead Man’s Hand by Christie Yant, read in the Dead Man’s Hand anthology (2014), edited by John Joseph Adams. Recommended.

Poem: Umpaowastewin by Margaret Noodin, listened to on the Poetry Now podcast, from September 2016. Highly Recommended.

Essay: Ideology versus Art by Howard Jacobson, listened to on the BBC’s The Essay podcast, from April 2015. Recommended.

What is the Ray Bradbury Challenge?

The Ray Bradbury Challenge: Day 033

Short story: A Bank Fraud by Rudyard Kipling, listened to on the Morning Short podcast.

Poem: Prospice by Robert Browning, listened to through Librivox. Recommended.

Essay: Control by Aleks Krotoski, listened to on the BBC’s Digital Human podcast, from May 2012. Highly Recommended.

What is the Ray Bradbury Challenge?

The Ray Bradbury Challenge: Day 032

Short Story: The Flash by Italo Calvino, read in Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories. Recommended. 


Poem: Endymion by Oscar Wilde, listened to through Librivox. Recommended.

Essay: Lawyer Harry Potter on Individual Freedom, listened to on the BBC’s A History of Ideas podcast. Highly Recommended.

What is the Ray Bradbury Challenge?

The Helmet

It has been just shy of a decade since the helmet was bequeathed to me by my late husband. The bulbous brass carbuncle was an aesthetic monstrosity that engulfed most of the wearer’s head and face, leaving only the mouth and chin visible to any onlooker. With its exposed gears, and bare copper wires that clung to its surface like ivy, I can be forgiven for my years of trepidation and hesitation in embracing the ultimately life-changing potential of this wondrous invention.

As I aged, the degeneration of my retinas resulted in near-blindness. A physician who examined my eyes fourteen years ago suggested the decline in eyesight is a mere symptom of growing years. Imagine looking through a camera obscura; you will see a limited spot of the world – colours and shapes are recognisable, but everything on the periphery is lost and shrouded in darkness. It has been necessary over the past two years to enlist the help of a guide or companion when venturing from my home.

During his final years, my husband spent much time working on the helmet, and I am ashamed to admit that I did not humour him. Although he managed to convince me its merits, I was anxious as to how I would be received by others and refused to even try it on for size.

Perhaps it is because my eyesight is now so lacking that I had my change of heart, realising there was nothing to lose and much to be gained. I wanted to paint again, to read again – all those things I loved so dearly that had become so remote and inaccessible.

My house servant helped me position the helmet over my head that first time. The smell of dust and oil combined with a sharp tug of my hair as I aligned my eyes with the lenses. I turned a small brass wheel above my left ear and the room came into focus.

I wept during those first moments as my husband’s study became revealed. The oaken bureau came into relief; books on physics, optics and philosophy piled haphazardly on shelves that were blots of opaque colour only a few moments before revealed themselves. I gasped as I saw his handwriting atop a bundle of papers – writing that snared my attention before we courted.

I removed the helmet for a moment, feeling its weight lift from my shoulders as the room clouded back into obscurity.

It was a curious and unnerving feeling. I was reminded of a tale my husband shared with me while we were honeymooning in Whitby about a group of men who only saw the shadows on the inside of a cave and presumed it to be the extent of the real world. I had lived for the past decade inside that cave, perceiving the shadow world and forgetting the brightness and vitality of everything beyond its margins.

I knew that beyond my doorstep was a living, breathing city: markets selling goods from foreign lands; the marvels of technology and engineering – the trams, trains, canals and mills; the glories of modern architecture and the infamous new statuary surrounding City Square that seemed to be the chief topic of debate at polite gatherings.

At that moment, I promised myself to venture out and explore the city and embrace the new age that was upon us. I experienced a rush of fervour that was only tempered by the knowledge that I would have to show restraint for a few days while I became accustomed to operating the helmet with fluidity, adjusting to its bulk, weight and ungainly appearance.

There had been nothing I could do to disguise the helmet’s form. I attempted to fashion a bonnet around its crown, but quickly found the gears to snag and the control levers impossible to articulate.

I did not sleep until the early hours that first night, so enthused was I by the prospects that opened themselves, my thoughts aspark with the places I could see again that had long been fading in my memory: the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey that set one in mind of ancient times, with its crumbling stones and swooping arches; the noise and clamour of the Corn Exchange and the market stalls along Briggate; the Town Hall with its impressive pillars and imposing lion statues; Hyde Park; the Aire; the Varieties; Whitelock’s; the library. They were places that had meant so much to me, but could have been at the other side of the globe, so remote were they through my impairment.

Over the next few days, I seldom removed the peculiar helmet, except to sleep and to give my shoulder and neck muscles respite, and indulged in exploring my own home once again. I kept one house servant who purchased all of my provisions, prepared my clothes and meals; kept rooms free of dust and clutter; and welcomed guests on their arrival. He was a trusted companion and confidante, and had been employed in our household for over two decades and, although we never spoke of my late husband, I always thought of him as something of a bridge between my life as a married woman and then as a near-blind widow.

I relished in the mundane day-to-day tasks I had not performed for many years. I cannot tell you my delight in choosing and laying out my own clothes or preparing my own breakfast. I was so reliant on my house servant that I had to ask the location of many things in my own kitchen. He was, of course, obliging, but his demeanour suggested otherwise.

When I finally ventured outside on the fourth day, the city assaulted my senses: horses pulled carts as their hooves clattered rhythmically along the cobbles; a tram rumbled by with a boy, no older than nine, clinging to its side to hitch a free ride; a smaller boy and an even smaller girl skipped past, pushing a metal hoop before them, laughing as they went.

I found myself smiling, basking in the cheer surrounding me, and on that summer afternoon I was truly alive for the first time in over a decade.

That evening, however, I was struck down by a terrible migraine. Perhaps it was the parts of my mind that dealt with sight becoming re-accustomed to use, a long-dormant machine working through rust and stiffness. The sheer intensity of the experience left me overwhelmed. And although the headaches persisted during the evenings for the next few weeks, they were undoubtedly a small price to pay.

The following Monday, I finally went to see the statues surrounding City Square. I was made aware of them through talk of their brashness and frank nudity, but I was not convinced the sculptures could be as immoral and pornographic as my house servant had suggested. They depicted women as they really were: not the idealised beauties of Greek marbles that always struck me as being more akin to perverse male fantasy. It seemed incongruous to me that the Greek statues were preferred to those more realistic renderings.

While admiring the statues, I became conscious of being watched. I saw a group had gathered to stare at me from across the square. At first I ignored them, but the group became more brazen and a man with a tattered suit and flat-cap started calling at me. Soon after, catcalls of ‘freak’ and ‘crank’ echoed around the square.

I was pleased when a policeman approached me, but this feeling was quickly dissipated when he alleged that I was causing unrest. He asked me to remove the helmet and I refused. I explained that without it I would be unable to see to make my way home. He suggested perhaps I would be best staying housebound in future so as not to cause upset to others.

He treated me as though I had escaped from High Royds. I was dumbstruck as to how to respond. I have since played out the confrontation a number of times in my head, each time recounting the scenario with what I wish I had said to the officer (evidently I can be very witty in retrospect).

Arriving home, I was filled with anger at how the policeman had treated me. I had always respected the rule of law, but I took up a pen and began to write for the first time in many years. At first it took me a few attempts to make the writing legible to a reader, but by my third sheet of paper my writing became clear and neat.

I wrote to the Chief Constable, the Lord Mayor and to my Member of Parliament detailing my experiences. I told them I did not accept the advice of the officer to stay housebound and the letters became a long exposition on the rights of people to go about their business without interference from the authorities.

A sensation of guilt swept through me as the letters dropped into the pillar-box. I did not want to be seen as bold, as a crank or rabble-rouser, but another part of me was assured that I had behaved appropriately.

As the sun set and the sky darkened that night, and in spite of what the policeman said, I felt an urge to try out the helmet’s night-time functions. I tested the its ability to enhance the limited light of the gas lamps that hung above the cobbles at the end of my driveway. I was impressed by the way the night came to life: I saw a fox as it skulked around the side of the butcher’s shop; a young couple sharing a kiss in an alleyway; and torch-lit carriages bouncing over potholes on their way to unknown destinations. As the power began to fade from the helmet, I switched the lever and turned my attention to the heavens. With an adjustment to the lenses and aperture, I spent the good part of an hour staring in awe at the multitude of stars that spread out above me, more and more of them revealing themselves with increasing clarity. I saw what I believed may have been the planet Venus and wondered whether there was a being looking up at Earth with the same feeling of wonder. That night, I drifted into sleep feeling happier than I had since before the death of my husband.

A week or so later, I received a knock at my door as I was preparing breakfast. I expected my house servant to accept the caller, but when the visitor continued to knock, I quickly wiped my hands and ventured to open the front door. What greeted me was a short man with a round pinkish face, tweed suit and a grey mop of straggly hair. He started for a moment when I opened the door, before composing himself (this always surprised me, as I forgot the appearance of the helmet must have been quite shocking when first beheld). He explained he was a physics professor at the university, and had taken an interested in my husband’s work. He said he had heard rumours of the helmet, and was most apologetic about the unsolicited call. He was charming and friendly, and I quickly discovered that despite his slight stammer and mumbling utterances, he actually had a wickedly funny sense of humour that put me in mind of my late husband.

Over the weeks that followed, I spoke to the professor on an almost daily basis (save Sundays as we both attended different churches). I granted him access to my husband’s papers, and in turn he gave me access to the university library. Though open only a few years, the shelves were brimming with books on every subject: art, philosophy, chemistry, literature, theology – a single modern building filled with more knowledge than one could hope to consume in a lifetime.

I spent most of my days in the library devouring Shakespeare, Darwin, Plato, Newton, Descartes, Chaucer, Hume, Marlow, Hegel and Kant. I buried myself in the stories of the Bible (the deeds of Jesus and the Apostles, many which I had never heard in church). They filled me with a renewed sense of vigour. And although I could often sense I was being watched by students who doubtlessly found intrigue in the helmet, I was nonplussed, so focussed was I on this new world of knowledge.

New ideas and connections between texts formed in my mind and I spent many lunchtimes and evenings debating with the professor. It was he who suggested I should start writing my thoughts down.

On a mid-autumn evening, I arrived home to find a group of around fifteen people gathered along my street to ask me questions about the helmet. I obliged and explained its functions. I bid them good evening, but as I tried to retire to my home, a few of them became particularly forceful and rude. One woman even insisted she be allowed to test it herself, grabbing at the helmet to try to remove it from me. I pulled myself away with a jerk and quickly pushed past her, shouldering my way to my front door.

I was quite shaken and found the house to be dark and cold when I slammed the door behind me. A feeling of estrangement I hadn’t experienced in months drifted over me. I lit a candle and it dawned on me that I missed the anniversary of my husband’s death without it passing my thoughts for a moment. The date was always something to dread, an ever-approaching marker on the horizon. But, for the first time since his death, it passed me by and I was gripped by a surge of grief, of yearning, of guilt, of heart-wrenching sadness. My large, empty house was larger and emptier than ever. I removed the helmet and began to sob – alone.

The following morning, I awoke to the sound of a commotion below my bedroom window and an ache thumping in my head. I didn’t know how I’d made it to my bed, but groping around my bedchamber for the helmet, I found it to be missing. I panicked for a moment before remembering I had left it near the foot of the stairs. I called for my house servant, but there was no response. I slipped on my bedshoes and wrapped myself in a dressing gown before making my way downstairs. I fumbled around for a good few minutes, bumping into furniture and stubbing my toe on a table leg before finding the helmet lying haphazardly at the edge of a rug. I quickly put it on and found my vision blurred and doubled. I adjusted the wheels for half a moment, and sighed with relief as the room became clear once again.

There were voices outside my front door. On drawing the curtains, I saw a crowd gathered outside. There were men with scrawny terriers, a butcher’s boy leaning against his blue and white handcart, and even a slender woman who was rather well-to-do and active in some of the city’s most exclusive social events. I opened my window and, before I could ask what the devil they wanted, the crowd lurched towards me with cheers and jeers, some of them pointing and gasping in wonder as if I were a pickled Siamese baby. I slammed the window shut and drew the curtains, cowering behind them to shield me from the tumult.

It took me a few minutes to regain my composure. I had a stern word with myself and, after some deliberation, I resolved to leave the house and head for the library. There were whispers and taunts from those gathered, but as I stepped out, they moved aside, clearing a path for me. I asked them to leave me alone, but many of them followed me. One particularly foolish young man asked if the helmet was magical, another if I had come from the stars. It was only when I passed a newsstand that I realised why the crowds had gathered: I was on the front-page of at least a dozen newspapers. Some of them proclaimed the helmet a scientific wonder; some made claims of black magic and satanic rituals; one tale even declared I was a Martian and illustrated this theory with a crude drawing of me alighting a spacecraft. Looking back, I can smile at how ridiculous it all is, but in that moment I was so very afraid.

I marched as quickly as I could to the sanctuary of the library. As the large oaken door boomed closed behind me, I inhaled the quiet calm of study. Yet, as I went to reach for the comfort of a large bound index, twenty or so people slipped inside, bent on resuming their insidious heckles. The librarian’s assistant chided me and asked if I would leave. I tried to reason with him and explained the mob was following me against my wishes, but he was insistent. At that moment I jumped with a start as a hand touched my shoulder. It was the professor.

He glowered at the assistant and asked if I cared to lunch with him and get far away from this ignorant young man. I agreed without hesitation. He led me through a side-door and along a corridor. We exited through a tradesman’s entrance and moved with haste to the city centre.

We dined at a small cafe on Great George Street across from the Infirmary, and took a dimly-lit table in the far corner. I spoke of my anguish of seeing myself as the main subject of speculation in the newspapers across town (I later found out the headlines went beyond York to the north and Sheffield to the south). Though the cafe was relatively empty, I noticed I had not escaped scrutiny: a woman dining at a nearby table took surreptitious glances past her apparent study of the menu and a youngster cupped her hands against the front window as she passed by before her parents shooed her on.

The professor joked the gawkers were not interested in the helmet, but rather by a woman who spent her days seeking knowledge. He tried to assure me that most right-minded people would recognise the stories as fabrication. But it is difficult to find humour, comfort, or solace when you are the subject of unwanted attention. I removed the helmet and lay it beneath the table. We ate in silence.

I tried in vain to focus on my lunch. I reflected that all I wanted was to get on with life like everybody else. My near-blindness was never a problem to other people until I resolved to overcome it. That I ventured out wearing something so unsightly had made me more conscious of my impairment than ever. It was other people with their pitying and accusatory looks, their quick glances and nudging whispers that made me feel this way. I hated them all, I hated myself and I hated the helmet.

Following our lunch, the professor volunteered to guide me home.

In the comfort of my own bed chamber, my head and heart ached with the pains of the previous days. I called for my house servant to bring me a soothing cup of tea. When he didn’t respond, it occurred to me I hadn’t seen or heard from him in a number of weeks. I was in need of a friend to talk to: I wanted to hear how his children were growing up, about his mother’s health and his sister’s awful husband. He had been a solid and reliable companion since my husband’s death, and it struck me that I didn’t even know where he lived.

Having to fend for myself, I began to use the helmet again in a utilitarian capacity as elective blindness proved unsustainable. I made the decision to keep away from the university library until the newspapers lost interest. My husband had kept a number of books in his study. Though many were too technical for me to find of interest, I knew there were some broader, more general texts that would suffice. He kept a copy of the Old Testament on his desk, along with the works of Aristotle and Plato, so at least with them I could be satisfied.

Entering his study, I noticed to my horror the lock on the bureau was broken. I looked inside and a file of share certificates, bonds and other financial documents were missing. I frantically searched the room, pulling out the drawers and emptying them onto the floor. But it was in vain.

My suspicions began to mount and after seeing no signs of a forced entry. I concluded my house servant must have stolen them. Although it pained me to draw such a conclusion, there was no other satisfactory explanation.

It dawned on me that the dividends paid out from the investments formed my income since my husband’s death. Although I had enough funds to last me for another month or two, there was the troubling realisation that this would leave me financially ruined by the spring.

Perhaps my house servant would not have committed such a theft had I continued to be reliant on his care. No longer did I need him to take me for walks, to cook, to clean. I had become self-sufficient and was quite unaware of how long I’d not needed his services. Maybe there was a part of him that needed me as much as I did him, or more likely he was an opportunist waiting like a snake to strike when the moment was right. However it fell, whatever his motivations, I felt betrayed and powerless and concluded the helmet brought me nothing but anguish. In finding this new life, I had left my old one behind, but I was mistaken in believing in this ridiculous notion. The helmet made me self-centred, even selfish, and I would have to live with the consequences.

The next morning, I heard a knock at the door – it was the professor. I was glad to see him, though my mood was sour. We talked in my late husband’s study and, as I told him of my suspicions about my house servant. I broke down. I was such an old fool. He tried to turn the conversation to extolling the virtues of the helmet and I began to berate him. I shouted for him to leave and forced the helmet into his hands. I told him he should do what he wanted with it and I never wanted to see the cursed thing again.

He left, deflated; his voice full of hurt. I took myself back to my bed. I was back in the cave and seeing only shadows. Only now I knew the shadows were but a mere glimpse, a mere spectre of the reality that lay just beyond my reach.

The next few days were the worst days I have ever known. I lost the helmet, lost my house servant – I was bereft and my blindness was worse than ever. My eyes were raw from tears: I thought of slicing my wrists, or ingesting a poison, or launching myself from a high building or bridge. But in the end, I didn’t have the will to make any realistic steps in that direction.

After more than a week indulging in shameful self-pity, the professor returned with the helmet. Evidently he had returned each day to apologise but I was so engrossed in my own desperation to pay the knocking at the door any heed.

He explained that within my husband’s papers were the sketches and diagrams of the helmet’s design, and sought to sell the plans to an interested party if I was willing, and the monies from such a sale would keep me financially secure in my twilight years. He also mused if more people wore similar helmets, they would not be such a novelty.

We agreed upon terms and, over lunch, the conversation turned to the subject of the ridiculous outrage that was still ongoing about the statuary on City Square. The professor compared it to a similar storm that a statue of a nursing mother adorning the British Medical Association’s headquarters in London had prompted. I told him I had not seen those works, but would like him to show me.

It took some effort, but I resolved to ignore the derisive looks and whispered remarks of the ignorant, telling myself that the real world, the wonders of art and nature and the marvels of science and technology were all outside the cave waiting for me.

I vowed to wear the helmet with pride.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

The Ray Bradbury Challenge: Day 031

Short story: The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe (1843), listened to through Librivox.

Poem: The Charge of the Light Brigade by Lord Alfred Tennyson, listened to through Librivox.

Essay: The Paradox of Immortality by John Gray, listened to on the BBC’s A Point of View podcast, from July 2012. Highly Recommended.

What is the Ray Bradbury Challenge?