Basilisk on a Yellow Field featured on the 600 Second Saga podcast

My short story Basilisk on a Yellow Field is now available on the 600 Second Saga podcast.

The story was first published on this website and features in my collection Her Name Was Red.

Listen to the story on series 2, episode 16 of the podcast here:

Preview: Wizard of the Wasteland – Chapter 1: The Wizard

The wizard rolls into town at dawn, his cart rumbling through the gap in Trinity’s towering fence. Scores of residents swarm around him.
Abel squints at the sun’s orange glare as it rises over the rooftops. “Come on, Pip,” he says, patting his thigh. A brindle-haired dog looks up at 1him and runs in a tight circle, her tail wagging. He looks around at the huddled shacks, at the curls of white smoke dotted across the settlement, and the people gravitating towards the wizard.
Abel follows the gentle sloping dirt track towards the entrance as Pip trots at his left. Chickens run in haphazard zigzags, confined by a line of wire mesh to his right, shedding feathers as they avoid the dog. The looming crucifix beyond the fence spreads shadows across the rooftops. Children duck past him, laughing as they chase each other.
A brown and grey mule lumbers forward, its head bowed as the wizard brings the cart to a halt. The cart rocks on four rubber tyres. Its sides are painted in garish daubs of blue and gold.
Engulfed by dusty blue robes, the wizard drops down from the cart, reaches behind his seat, and pulls on a blue point hat. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he booms. “I am the Great Alfonso. They call me the Wizard of the Wasteland.”
Abel joins the edge of the crowd as Pip sniffs around behind him, unconcerned by the new arrival. He looks around as people step aside for Sal. She moves past him and through the crowd to speak to the wizard, her dreadlocks hanging loose from her hooded robe behind her.
“My good lady, am I correct in assuming that you are the Sal these good people have been talking about?” the wizard asks.
“That’s right,” says Sal, folding her arms. “And you are?”
The wizard removes his hat with a flourish and bows his head in a single, fluid motion. His skin is darker than Sal’s, his hair an explosion of twisted curls, streaked in black and grey. He raises his bloodshot, yellow-tinged eyes and meets Sal’s gaze. “Madam, if you please. I am sure my reputation precedes me. I am the Wizard of the Wasteland.” He lifts his chin, offering her a toothy smile as he spreads his arms wide. “I am the magnificent, the splendiferous, the incomparable, Great Alfonso.”
Sal shakes her head, letting the silence hang in the air for a long, awkward moment. “Sorry, I’ve never heard of you.” She examines his cart, running her fingers along the whorls of paint. “Are you a trader?” she asks, turning to him.
“Yes, yes,” the wizard says, raising his voice and a finger. “But more.” He smiles again and sweeps his gaze across the gathered faces. “What I offer is the wonder of the Great Alfonso’s magical extravaganza.” He thrusts his arms out.
Abel smirks as a few titters spread behind him.
“Magical what?” asks Sal.
“What I have for you today, ladies and gentlemen, is the culmination of many years of tireless research into the arcane arts of magic and alchemy, glimpses into our once great past, now long lost to dust.” The wizard reaches down to the soil, grabs a handful, and lets it fall between his fingers.
“I still don’t understand,” says Sal.
“My good lady, you strike me as an intelligent and learned woman, which is why I will ask you to be my first volunteer.”
She looks around and shrugs. “Okay.”
She makes a face as the wizard moves around the side of his cart, unbolting a series of locks. An oak panel swings down on a pair of hinges, bouncing for a moment against its supporting ropes as it rests perpendicular to the cart’s side.
The onlookers move in closer as the wizard arranges apparent pieces of junk along a series of shelves — an ancient television set with a curved grey glass screen and wooden casing, a fish tank, a hand-generator in black and brass, and a toy car.
The wizard lifts the toy car from the shelf, its red paint faded to a cloudy pink along its edges. He takes a metal key from a pocket inside his robe and makes a show of putting it into the back of the car. “This,” he declares, “is an ancient and magical key. With this key, I can bring power to this otherwise inanimate object.” He places the car flat on the panel and winds the key, the mechanism clicking and crunching with each turn. The wizard mutters an incantation, closes his eyes, and wriggles his fingers over the toy. He lets go, smiling as it shoots forward, hurtling over the edge before landing in a clump of soft grass. A few people clap their hands.
“Thank you, thank you. You are all most gracious,” the wizard says, lowering his head. “What you’ve seen here is just a mere hint, a mere glimmer of the extent of my magical powers.” He leans down and takes the car and wipes away the dust with the corner of his robe before placing it back on the shelf.
He takes something down, turns to the crowd, and raises a pair of binoculars above his head. “Behold! These magical eye lenses allow their user to see objects that are far away, as though they were right in front of your very eyes.” He hands the binoculars to Sal and shows her how to look through them, gesturing for her to point them towards the spherical form at the top of the water tower behind her.
A hush drops over the crowd as she looks through the lenses. “These are wonderful,” she says. “Where did you find these?”
“That, madam, is a secret.” The wizard taps a forefinger against his nose. “Please, pass those round, let the other members of your wonderful community experience this glimpse into the possibilities of alchemy and magic.”
People take turns looking through the lenses. Abel smiles at the gasps of awe and the occasional burst of laughter. When they reach him, he looks through the lenses and focuses on the wizard rifling around one of the shelves. He looks down at a tug to his elbow. A kid jumps up and down with eager excitement, clapping his hands and staring at the binoculars. He hands them to the boy, takes a moment to show him what to do, and turns his attention back to the wizard.
“As you will observe,” the wizard says, holding up a light bulb, “this is a simple globe of glass. I would offer to hand this round, so you can witness for yourselves my ingenious design. But, because the magic is so powerful and so very dangerous, I will instead ask that you all take a few paces backwards to give me room to perform this most incredible and delicate of spells.”
He places the light bulb on the panel and checks the wires are connected to the hand-generator. He steps over to the dynamo and mutters an incantation with a raised chin and half-closed eyes. Smiling to the crowd, he winds the handle.
A low hum and the sharp crackle of electricity emanate from the generator as he turns the handle. A scattering of gasps spread around the wizard as the light bulb glows a brownish-yellow. “As you can see, with this ancient magic, I have created fire within this glass. I’m sure you will agree that this might be the most marvellous, magnificent, magical accomplishment you have ever had the good fortune to witness.”
He stops abruptly, sweeping his gaze across the faces of the crowd, now rapt. He raises his right forefinger with a sudden jerk. “Oh, but there is more.” He makes a dramatic turn, his robes billowing in an expanse of dusty blue.
The crowd moves forward with tiny, hesitant steps as they strain to get a closer look. The wizard disconnects the wires from the light bulb, places it in a pot filled with cloths on the middle shelf, and then connects the wires to the television. He turns back to the crowd, spreading his arms wide. “I must ask again that you take a few steps back. This is very ancient and powerful magic. What I am about to show you is the most amazing sight. Where are the magical lenses?” He waits a few moments for the binoculars to return to him. He looks through them, smiles again, and places them on a shelf. “With those lenses, you were able to make objects far away seem as though they are close enough to touch. Using the same principles, I have devised and constructed a magical box that allows you to see over great distances to lands to the west, beyond the edges of the wastes.”
He reaches for the hand-generator and cranks the handle again. The belt hums, crackling and sparking as the smell of burning rubber fills the air. He leans over to the television set, mutters a spell, pushes a button, and keeps turning the handle.
White noise hisses from the television’s speaker as the screen comes to life in a random array of white, blacks, and greys — a dead signal. “As you can see, ladies and gentlemen, what we are witnessing is a window into another land, another land shrouded in —what is it?” He tilts his head and rubs his chin. “A dust storm, perhaps?” He drops the handle and turns to the audience with a dramatic shrug.
The white noise drops to silence, the screen fading to black. The gathered crowd applauds. The wizard makes a deep bow. “Thank you, thank you. You are all too kind.”
“What I am about to show you now may be my greatest miracle, the pinnacle of my magical achievements.” His face drops to a grim expression. “I warn you all that this is ancient and powerful magic and urge you again to stand back.” He reaches up to the fish tank on the top shelf and takes it down, placing it carefully on the flat panel.
He reaches into the tank and pulls out a green frog, holding it up by one leg for the audience to see, its body squirming as its free leg flails wildly. Stepping over to Sal, he dangles the frog before her. “Madam, please do me the honour of telling the members of your wonderful community what you see before you.”
“It’s just a frog,” she says.
“It’s just a frog,” the wizard repeats. “Never has a truer phrase been uttered. So you will agree that this is a living, breathing frog? You agree there is no trickery, no shenanigans? It is, as you say, ‘just a frog’?”
She nods, looking around. “As I say, it’s just a frog.”
Without ceremony, he swings the frog in a downward arc, smacking its body against the panel. He waits with his back to the crowd for several seconds and then raises the frog’s lifeless body for all to see. “As you will observe, the life of this frog has been taken.”
He turns his attention back to Sal. “Madam, would you like to take a moment to examine this frog, assure the ladies and gentlemen gathered that this is the same frog?”
“You killed one of God’s creatures,” she says, shaking her head. “I wouldn’t call that magic.”
“And you would be correct in that most astute of observations,” he says, giving a slight bow. “There is no magic in killing a frog, but as much as it pains me to do it, as much as it pains me to take the life of an innocent creature, it is unfortunately a necessary component of the Great Alfonso’s most important magical discovery.”
The crowd looks on in silence as the wizard lays the frog flat. He takes the wires from the television, attaches the crocodile clips to the frog’s torso, and mutters the words of a magic spell, making complex shapes and symbols in the air with his fingers. He turns to the crowd, gives a solemn look, removes his hat, and gives a deep bow. “Observe,” he says, looking up, his voice little more than a whisper. He steps over to the generator and turns the handle, building up a rhythm until the belt hums again.
The frog’s right leg twitches. The wizard winds the handle faster, smiling when the frog begins to convulse, its arms and legs quivering spasmodically. Dropping the handle, he places his hat back on his head and turns to the audience, triumphant. “As you have seen, ladies and gentlemen, the Great Alfonso has brought this frog back from the dead.”
He turns back to the frog, now limp, and drops it into the fish tank. He faces the crowd, taking in the applause. “Thank you.”
A few men shake their heads and walk away. Children run over to the wizard, jumping up and down as they ask him questions. The wizard closes his cart.
Abel weaves through the crowd, making his way over to Sal. “What did you make of that?” he asks.
“He’s clearly a charlatan.”
“Yep. But he certainly knows how to put on a good show.”
“It’s just technology from before the end times,” she says. “There’s no magic to it.” Her eyes narrow as she watches a few residents leading the wizard’s mule away to be fed and watered.
“I know,” says Abel, rubbing his beard. “But you got to admit, pretty fascinating stuff.”
A frown spreads across Sal’s face. “You’re not seduced by this fraudster are you?”
“I’m intrigued,” he says, shrugging. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything with real electricity.”
Sal nods. “Perhaps.”
A tall lean man with pale skin and dark hair wanders over. “Jacob,” says Abel, dipping his head in greeting.
“You look healthy. I take it you’re still keeping clean?” Jacob asks.
“Yep. I’m a full-time trader now, no plez for me.”
Jacob nods and turns to Sal. “What’s the plan for this guy?”
Sal shakes her head and sighs. “I don’t know. The residents are clearly taken with him. Might cause friction if we ask him to leave.”
Jacob casts a cursory glance towards the wizard then nods his agreement. “What do you say? We treat him like any other trader and hope he goes by the morning.”
“I don’t trust him,” says Sal.
“Come on, Sal,” Abel says. “It’s hard out there. He’s surviving. It’s different, I’ll grant you, but he’s not raiding, or dealing. He looks like he’s probably clean.”
She raises her hands. “Okay, you’re probably right. But I still don’t like it. This promotion of magic and mysticism doesn’t sit well with me.”
“Just a different kind of magic to what you’re used to. You’ve got God, this guy’s got…” Abel’s voice trails off at the sight of Sal’s glare.
“He can stay for breakfast, but then I want him gone,” she says, turning to Jacob. “Hopefully, we’ll see the back of him.”

The communal hall rattles with the noise of chatter and movement. Abel takes a tin plate from a pile being passed along the central table. The plate has a blue rim. Occasional chips in the enamel expose the tin beneath. He sits at the end of a long pine bench. Jacob takes a seat to his right, handing him a clay cup.
Abel passes the plates along to Sal. She sits to his left, leaning back on a chair at the head of the table. Pip rests against the front of his legs, warming his feet with her body heat. The wizard vaults the seat across from him.
Abel takes a boiled egg from a tray and watches with anticipation as fresh slices of bread make their way towards him. “Where are you from?” he asks, smiling at the wizard.
The wizard gives half-shrug. “My travels take me far and wide.”
“You ever been by the Grid?”
“The Grid?” The wizard pinches the bridge of his nose. “Yes. I went there once, had half my stuff stolen.”
“Yep. That’s about right.” Abel takes two slices of bread when the tray reaches him, drops them on his plate, and cracks open the boiled egg, its orange yolk soft and steaming.
“Where do you get the items for your show?” Sal asks.
The wizard shuffles in his seat, raising his chin. “Many years of exploration, painstaking research, and alchemical experimentation.” He makes a wide gesture with his hands. “Understanding the ways of the ancients, understanding the inner workings of magic is something I’ve made my life’s work.”
Jacob gives an incredulous smirk. “You may have most people believing what you do is magic. That’s fine. You’re a showman. I get it.” He raises a silencing hand when the wizard poises to speak. “You’ve obviously found a haul of technology from before the end days and worked out how to use it for your little show.”
The wizard gets to his feet. “I have never…”
“Sit down,” Jacob snaps. “You can eat with us and trade, or you can leave now. Either works for me.”
The wizard hesitates, drops to his seat, picks up a slice of bread, and pouts.
“Jacob, please,” says Sal. “That’s no way to speak to our guest.”
Jacob nods and raises his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “You’re right.” He turns to the wizard, offering a handshake. “Great Alfonso, if that is your real name, please accept my apologies.”
“Of course. I understand that my work can sometimes leave some people feeling…” the wizard hesitates, reaching for the word. “Uncomfortable.”
“My issue is that you’ve found this important technology, the ability to generate electricity, but instead of doing something for the betterment of everyone, you waste your time on a frivolous magic show.”
The wizard gets to his feet again, grabs another slice of bread, stuffs it into his mouth, and storms out, his dusty blue robe flapping behind him as he leaves.
“What did you do that for?” asks Sal, her lips pursed.
“He is only walking away because I told him the harsh truth.”
Abel turns, leans away from Jacob, and rests on his left elbow. “I’ve got a lot of respect for you, Jacob, but Sal’s right. You say what that wizard guy does is frivolous, that it’s not for the betterment of others, yet I saw the faces of the people watching. There’s not much in this damn world to smile about. You’ve got your God, but a flesh and blood man showed these people something real, something miraculous.”
Jacob sniffs. “It’s just old technology. There’s nothing magical about it.”
“It doesn’t need to be magical. It’s still something marvellous. I feel sad for you that you can’t see that.” Abel stands and turns to Sal. “Are we okay to go to the trading house? I need to get on the road.” Pip jumps to her feet, her tail wagging.
“You ready, girl?” He leans down and pats Pip’s back.

The trading house stands dark and musty. A cocktail of smells hang in the air: old clothes, damp leather, paraffin, and bread. Abel’s eyes adjust slowly to the candlelit gloom. He walks around tables scattered with shoes and clothes, car parts and cutlery. He steps over to a sagging table piled high with books, scanning the familiar titles. “Anything new?”
Sal shakes her head and folds her arms. Pip sniffs around the bottom of her robes. Sal looks down, smiling.
Abel leaves his backpack on a table, reaches inside, and takes out a few office supplies: a pencil and a ruler. He reaches farther and pulls out a copy of the New Testament. “I remember you saying you’d offer me top trade if I ever found any Bibles,” he says, handing her the book.
“This is in wonderful condition,” she says, turning the leather-bound volume in her hands, its embossed gold title flashing against the candlelight.
“Yep.” He walks around the tables, examining the goods. He picks up a child’s doll, pink and naked and grimy around the fingers and toes, its hair a tangle of matted blonde. He shakes his head and puts the doll back. “I’ve not seen anything great around here to trade though. I don’t think I’d be able to carry the amount of tins I could get for this.”
Sal nods. “There is something that came in. A piece of old technology, something electrical.”
“What am I going to do with something electrical?”
“This is different,” she says. “You’ll see.” She opens the door at the far end of the room, hidden by shadows, and emerges a few seconds later holding a black cylindrical object, a little longer than the length of her palm.
Abel takes it, feeling its coldness and weight. There’s a glass lens at one end, and a handle at the other. “What does it do?”
Sal takes the object and winds the handle. A broad grin passes over her face, illuminated by yellow torchlight.
Abel’s jaw drops. “How?”
“You think this will be enough for the Bible?”
“Yep. Throw in a few tins, and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
Sal flicks through the Bible’s pages again, smiles, and shakes her head. “Fine, fine. You win.” She walks over to a pile of unlabelled food cans. Taking four tins, she drops them into Abel’s backpack. “What are you going to do now?” she asks.
He shrugs. “Get back on the road, I guess. Head back east.” He swings the backpack onto his shoulders and adjusts the straps. “Hopefully, I won’t bump into anyone from the Family again.”
“You’re past that part of your life.” She places a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s still hard though. It never leaves you.”
Sal offers a gloomy smile as she leans forward for a hug. “You look after yourself, and look after this one.” She gestures to Pip.
“Thanks, Sal.” He pats his thigh, makes a clicking sound with the side of his mouth, and heads to the door. “Come on, girl.”

Click HERE to buy Wizard of the Wasteland today!

Telling the Story

Everything was normal before the incident. You heard a knock at the door, a call to adventure. There was hesitation. You weren’t sure you could do it. The incident was an incitement, a catalyst.

Life was normal, too normal. The incident meant you could never go back to the way things were. The choices were death or adventure, but there was still time for doubt, for debate.

The choice was made and you took up the quest. You met a love interest. They didn’t tell you what you wanted to hear – they told you what you needed to hear.

You made preparations. Events passed in the form of a montage. You chose a 1980s hair metal track to convey the passage of time. A mentor showed you your potential, but you were still not ready – you could never learn the forbidden secret.

You thought you had everything. Your confidence was your demise. A major event happened. The love interest kissed you. The clock started to tick. The mentor was killed. You vowed revenge, but still blamed yourself. You were told: “Something has to change.”

The antagonists closed-in. They chased you around. Things fell over. There were crashing sounds and a jazz-funk soundtrack. It was all very dramatic.

You were hurt by your own hubris. The love interest left you, perhaps forever. You had to face up to a harsh truth about yourself. That was the hardest lesson of all.

Wandering the city at night, neon signs flashed around you. Garish faces gurned at you, cackling and screaming as you clawed at the last threads of sanity. You had dark thoughts, but they led to fresh ideas. You knew you could never go back to the way things were. The love interest returned, pushing you towards the final confrontation.

You worked out the antagonists’ weakness. You had the knowledge all along. You knew you could win – but only if you really, really tried.

There was a battle and you almost died. The ticking stopped, and not a moment too soon. The love interest kissed you. You realised you knew the forbidden secret – it was inside you all along.

You won. You won.

You returned to the place of origin. All was normal, but it was a new normal.

You tried to ignore the hand reaching out of the ground – the promise of a sequel.

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

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 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.

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.

Reaching for a larlun

Joster fell limp onto warm stone as she pushed free from her cocoon. Ice peeled along her spine as she breathed and streched. She listened to the drip-drip-dripping of distant liquid.

She smelled gold, and iron, and five types of stone. Straining, she moved her outer eyelids, still frozen shut. Reaching out, she sensed a mind – the mind of a larlun – clean, slippery, wide.

Joster was weak. She was tired. She slept.

The larlun’s mind prickled. The pangs of hunger prickled. Joster unfurled her heavy wings. Their surface cracked as chunks of ice tumbled to the warm stone. She licked the water pooling beneath her and reached for the larlun. The larlun was slippery, but cleaner and wider than before.

Her tongue was dry and her eyes were still sealed. Joster uncurled her claws and pulled them along the warm stone, scraping, sharpening.

She closed her mind and slept.

Joster smelled life as she woke. She reached for the larlun, he was taut, was wide, was open and clean. Silent, she called to him, reached to him.

She waited. The larlun was close. He brought grass in a container made from dead trees. The grass crunched as it froze hard in her mouth.

The larlun shivered. His teeth chattered. She reached to his mind, but he was not afraid. She searched – his mind was wide and wide and wide. His mind told her he was cold. She cracked her icy wings.

Joster reached and asked the larlun why he was cold. The larlun said it was because he was cold. The stones were warm under her belly, so she drew the larlun close. She felt him shivering more. She smelled his blood and fear. His mind told her he was colder than before.

Perhaps she could kiss life into him like her mother did for her. Perhaps she could make him a cocoon, then he would become more, then he wouldn’t be cold. She reached with her mind and breathed her icy breath.

Joster heard the larlun cry out with his voice and his mind. She breathed into him, filling him with the life kiss until he stopped crying out. She kissed and breathed, making a cocoon for the larlun. She knew he would become more, become like her.

She reached out. His mind was thin, stretched, liquid. Then something snapped.

Joster reached and reached and reached, but the larlun was gone.

 

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