Monday, December 19, 2011

Encounters with Terror

"There can be no past without a future and, of course, neither without the way station of the present."   Rachel Mildeyes.

The little boy, in short grey flannel trousers, was on all fours upon the Persian carpet, watching a clockwork train that couldn't escape from its rails.  He laughed to himself, trying to imagine a real steam train chasing its own guard's van, with a huge heavy-duty key turning round and round in the side of its boiler.

                A large mother loomed at the door, spoke words that were below the hearing threshold and retreated with a wave of the hand.  The boy squinted along the line of tin soldiers that filed from the velveteen foot-stool towards the glinting rocking-horse in the dim corner.  The fire suddenly spurted, as a coal dropped, causing red sparks to march up the back of the chimney, and he shivered to think how cold this room would become once he had tucked himself into the cot (which already had its barred side down for him).  The fire would cease to be a friend, when the last glow died - but, in sleep, you needed no friends other than those you met in the dream, who would take you by your tiny hand and show you a path between the monstrous shapes that haunted the dream's edges...

The world is full of terror.  It stares from every corner, impends from clear and gloomy skies alike, follows its subject like an invisible shadow, waits in the wings for situations and moods to develop.

                Francis first came across terror when he was a new born baby in his mother's arms, gazing up for the first time into her beautiful face and watching her red lips move in tune with some meaningful sounds.  Terror stamps this memory upon his mind like a photograph blown up out of all proportion, since terror knows no boundaries, sometimes reaching into the womb and, at others, into the grave.

                He thus saw terror reflected in his mother's eyes: a baby with birth scars fit to frighten a seasoned surgeon.  It leered at him from her eyes, as if it were the evil changeling he could have become if different circumstances had prevailed.  And so, in her bed of confinement, his  mother cast Francis away to protect him from the creature in her eyes, but his umbilical cord became entangled with her diamante lizard brooch.  For a few seconds, he simply hung there like a lump of dripping butcher's meat.

He did not feel like mounting the rocking-horse.  But there was a long time to pass, almost a lifetime to someone of his age, before the little boy would feel sufficiently tired to crawl into the cot.  The clock on the mantelpiece which he was prevented from reaching (if not by the heat of the fire or the anger of his mother but certainly by the shortcomings of his height) turned over its workings as if it were about to strike - but it never did.

                He was tired of playing with with his toys.  He needed a pee badly, so he wandered out into the long landing, lined with paintings on one side that were too high up for him to make out their faces clearly in the half-darkness.  His little feet padded on the thick pile, before he reached the blue door marked "Necessarium".

                His mother had tried to teach him to unbutton the front of his trousers, but he always used the side of the leg-hole.  If he had only known all boys of his age did this little contortion, it would have made him feel less guilty. 

                The hiss of the stream against the side of the bowl had a temporary calming effect - but he never relished venturing far from his room at this time, when evening was putting on its night clothes.  He frequently feared that a red-hot coal might drop from the fire, in his absence, and burn a hole in the Persian weave - then bore straight through the floorboards, right down into the kitchen, only to kill his favourite servant, Nancy, dead in the top of her head!

Terror can have no diary, since there are no words to describe it.  However extreme and specific the event that engenders this orgasm of the soul, it will remain unwritten and vague, despite the vivid scars it leaves.

                The next time he recalls truly making the acquaintanceship of terror, however, was in his teens, although he knew that it was there all the time, whether seen or unseen.  Parts of wall, insides of wardrobe doors, in most bathrooms: he tried not to look directly at it, but he knew it was there out of the corner of his eye.

                Then, whilst at school, he was snatched from the changing-room shower one day by his sweaty peers, who proceeded to rumble him, frogged him to the cricket-gear cupboard and forced him to look terror in its one eye.

                "Hello, Francis," it droned drearily.

                "Hello," he replied through gritted teeth.

                "I'm glad you've grown up like me, son..."

                He managed to claw himself from his captors: most were helpless with cruel laughter, but some with kind tears.

As the little boy slipped back along the cold landing, he noted it had grown darker even in the short while he had been in the bathroom.  He arrived at the door of his nursery bedroom and listened at the keyhole, a ritual he often enacted, for no evident reason.  Except this time, the breathing was louder, deeper, longer in its rhythm.  He entered, heart in mouth, and saw the horse in the corner rocking in the same rhythm as the breathing.  The cot covers had been moved, he was sure, while he had been away, tucked tighter, neater, with a sheet lip where the silk pillow glistened.  Nancy must have been in already - or it was another servant, the one with the big teeth and and long red tongue whom he always tried to put out of his mind.

                He knew he would keep awake as long as possible, hurting his own tongue with his first childhood teeth to do so - in order that the day could be sealed with a goodnight kiss from his mother.  But he felt tired enough to get into the cot.  So, without clearing up the tin soldiers or retrieving the clockwork train from beside the jack-in-the-box where it had derailed itself, he climbed, with difficulty, between the taut covers that pinioned his body, whilst springs prodded his back.  He stared up at the ceiling, ill-lit by the fire, and discovered a new crack.  There seemed to be a new crack each time he studied its wicklow crazing.  There were worlds up there ... vast continents, warring nations, endless oceans and archipelagos ... where Nancy and he lived happily ever after.

Then comes his third and final encounter with terror.  It was a war that he'd been told needed to be fought, since causes were everything: he was not exactly a mercenary, but more one of those innocently caught up in the onrush of hostilities.  A tri-cornered affair with no causes other than  hate.  The last battle had been fought and he was the only one left alive.

                His own bravery disgusted him: he had fought as man would if possessed by a ravening beast.  He wept cruel tears, as he tried to prize his swollen hands from the blood-grimed rifle.

                The corpse of the soldier Francis had just killed groaned in death as if it were a fitful nightmare he sleeped.  The belly gaped upon wriggling innards as if these were new sexual organs the corpse wanted to be fondled and loved.

                Then Francis dreaded that terror was the sky itself, staring down at him with one searing eye.

                "Our Father up in Heaven..."

                Except he knew it was a mother, not a father.

                Francis muttered a nursery rhyme he had nearly forgotten from his mother's red lips.  And by smearing the changeling soldier's blood and guts over his own life-long ugliness, he prepared himself for healing reunion with the extreme of terror itself: the unsurvivable past.

As the fire began to settle in the grate, the ceiling cracks faded.  Just before sleep took purchase, the little boy managed to turn on his side within the tight covers and was sure he saw another little boy on all fours tidying up his toy soldiers in front of the fire and through whom could still faintly be seen the stunted flickering of the fire's one solitary flame.  The last thing the real Francis ever yearned for was the approach of his long-awaited mother's goodnight kiss, which would further ease him into deepest slumber - but he felt someone's big tongue and, then, the long teeth, instead.

"Terror has no diary, since Terror cannot write."  
Charles Maturin  'Melmoth The Wanderer'

Story Published: Dark Horizons #34 (1993)

No comments: