Well, yesterday was one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had. I can always rely on summer camp to make it so!
How can one have faith in a world where bullshit politics and petty squabbles lead to such devastating losses of innocent lives on a daily basis?
Another day, another witless victim.
It’s their own fault, Regina told herself in a twisted form of justification. If they weren’t such curious bastards, they wouldn’t fall into my little traps in the first place. But no, they just have to peek through the open door. The door that was really an elaborate magical trap, designed to do exactly what it had just done to the young man now suspended upside-down by glowing tendrils of sparkly light.
All because Regina happened to be a newly-qualified witch, although she didn’t look like one. The old hag victims saw was simply an illusion to keep the reputation she had carefully cultivated, keep the locals scared and therefore away from her little thatched hut in the woods. In reality she was young and pretty, barely eighteen, which just wouldn’t do for a witch with such lofty ambitions. Her shoulder-length, dyed red hair had been the talk of the witching academy she had attended – a bunch of kids huddled in the midst of a stone circle in a field – where labels passed her way included rebel, troublemaker and demon. If you believed her classmates, that is, which would have been a prudent idea indeed. She’d developed quite a reputation for playing tricks and bullying others, and was soon expelled, cast out into the chaos of finding her own way in a male-dominated world. Not that she cared; she’d already exceeded the skills of any of the lecturers there. Call it natural talent, if you will.
She had also developed an insatiable penchant for inflicting pain and death in the name of something the far-off ancients called ‘science’. That and total domination of the known world, which to her was a few green islands and The Land Across The Sea. Blame daddy issues, lots of them.
Poor man, he looks so innocent.. Why do they always look so innocent?
The man had a name, Arthur, which she soon discovered under the influence of various forms of truth serum and sadistic torture. What a pitiful name. I’m doing him a favour here, no success will ever come to someone named Arthur in these times. Is it supposed to be progressive or something, giving a kid such a weird name? In time, this particular Arthur would come to be associated with a great legend, something about a lady in a lake and a magic sword. Which was utter nonsense, of course, but most legends were like that anyway. Arthur, who probably suspected as much right about now, was about to meet his maker, and as far as Regina knew she was the only one in these parts who could reanimate the dead. Which is precisely why she laid out these little traps for those souls whose curiosity got the better of them.
Arthur was a simple traveller, lost on his way to a town he’d never visited before in a country he’d never even heard of until the week previous; at least that’s what he told Regina as she waved a hand to levitate him towards a heavy oak table, one carved with channels that looked suspiciously like their job was to carry blood away from a prone victim. As he was being psychically restrained upon it by more sparkly tendrils, he felt a rather large pang of dread and impending doom, and imagined he could smell the blood of previous ‘visitors’. Although just how he could identify one smell in particular among the pungent stench of various herbs and once-living creatures she could not fathom.
Stop blabbing, man. The more you struggle, the weaker the results, and we just can’t have that. What’s that, you’ll give me anything I want if I let you go? Why would I do that, when I can just take what I want anyway? Wait – do you have a dragon going cheap? I always wanted one of those. Perhaps the bones of Merlin - that wrinkled old bastard needs to be brought down a peg or two. No? Thought not. No, begging doesn’t get you out of your little predicament, but it really does suit you. Oh, be quiet, nothing can help you now, so don’t bother telling me your life’s sob-story. Do I have to cut your tongue out? No? Okay. Don’t struggle, DRINK!
Arthur quietened down as the potion she forced down his throat took effect, and didn’t even whimper as she drew a long fingernail across his chest. He assumed she was tracing some kind of magic symbol, which was sort of true. She was purifying the organs she was looking to harvest, which she guessed counted as magic. She cackled wildly, as much for show as anything else. Certain things are expected of a witch, the tutor at the Academy of Supernatural Sciences had said. She chuckled to herself, mischievously remembering her time at ‘The ASS’. What a stupid name for such an amateur operation, she reflected. It wasn’t even a building.
She reached for a silver knife, several runes elegantly carved on its blade. The way she casually tossed it in the air, catching it by its hilt, made Arthur’s eyes widened in terror, and that effect was skill she had an uncanny knack for and took a rather morbid pride in. That’s it, my boy, be afraid. Fear makes the organs so much tastier. She licked her lips slowly, again more for the effect than anything else. He really thinks I’m going to eat him. Poor boy, he knows nothing. I wonder if the finished product will remember? She brought the blade closer to his chest, and he began to struggle wildly. Fight, my dear, fight; show me how strong you are! Which was futile, because he gave up, exhausted within a few seconds. She sighed, and plunged the knife in.
Arthur screamed, soundlessly, and just as soon as it had started, it was over. Regina admired her work with a wry smile. Not bad, Gina, not bad at all. Managed to keep the kidneys intact this time. As I always said, patience and none of that mead you’re so fond of, that’s the way forward. Her bloody hands waved in a flurry of weird signals, and with a flash the organs she had harvested found themselves arranged neatly on a shelf in jars of formaldehyde. Arthur lay on the table, miraculously still alive despite the absence of either a heart or lungs. The channels had done their job superbly, a large bronze milk pail full to the brim with sweet-smelling fresh blood.
I suppose I should put you out of your misery, no? He nodded. Oh, alright then, seeing as you’ve been such a cooperative guest. Any last words? He nodded again, and she waved a hand listlessly, enabling him to speak once more. He groaned, and begged for his life. Really? Nothing profound to say, no epic last words? No, Arthur, you’re not getting out of here alive, surely you knew that from the moment my little trap snared you? No? Gods, why are they always so stupid? ENOUGH!
She waved her hand, again lazily, and Arthur vanished in a maelstrom of light particles. Atomised. She sank into a rocking chair on the porch, listening to the birds of the forest sing their optimistic songs.
Gosh, am I glad I don’t have to clean up manually, she thought.
She was on her period.
I pondered that for a moment as we stood atop a small waterfall nestled between wooded mountains, gazing at the splendour all around us. It really was beautiful. Perfectly clear skies, bright-but-not-too-hot sunshine, a gentle breeze that ruffled our hair. The sound of the crystal-clear water was hypnotic and soothing, and birds chirped in the trees. As good a day as one could have wished for.
But the only thing I could think of, or worry about, rather, was that she might attract bears.
I’d heard that on TV once. I’m pretty sure it was a documentary on Animal Planet or something, but I might have been mistaken. I didn’t want to take that risk.
“Would you like to jump into the water and bathe?”
“Why, do I smell or something?”
“No, no. I just don’t want you to go all day unclean, if you know what I mean. Time of the month and all that. Might be a while in these mountains before we get a chance to bathe again, and I don’t want you to be uncomfortable. You know it’s a good idea.”
She looked at me blankly, unsure what to make of what sounded more like a desperate request than a considered suggestion.
“It never bothered you before,” she said after a moment or two, winking.
“Er, yeah, I guess, but I’m just thinking of you, that’s all.”
She laughed, stripped off and jumped into the water. I sighed in relief.
I followed suit, if only to placate her and mask my real fear. I leant back against a rock close to the edge, just letting the water rush around me and fall to its angry doom. She waded over to me and straddled me suggestively.
“Do you remember our first time camping?”
I nodded. I did indeed. Somehow she’d managed to tie me down, so that I couldn’t move without uprooting the tent pegs and therefore giving away exactly what we were doing. I can’t say I complained, really; no bears came to disturb us, and it had even been enjoyable. Bondage had been a thoroughly new experience to me and she had seemed to revel in the power she’d had, so I had forgiven the aching and soreness the next morning. She sensed I was thinking about that night, and pressed herself harder against me.
“Want a repeat?” She smiled mischievously.
“Sure,” I said.
What did it matter? No bears would be feasting on my flesh that night.
“Somewhere, over the mountains, bluebirds die.”
Oh, wait, I got that one wrong, didn’t I? My apologies. I never did have a good memory for things like that.
How about if I say that they sing beautiful, melodic songs with profoundly deep lyrics and incredible philosophical undertones?
And that they do so sitting on thrones of lavender and the lushest soft grass, while the sun shines and the clouds are fluffy and white, and there are cherubs and angels and other heavenly creatures watching over them?
But really, somewhere over the mountains is where I live. Over the Cheviots (which are really just small hills in Northumbria), over the Alps (which I guess are somewhat bigger) and over the Carpathians (which I got lost in the other week and avoided bears), is a place I like to call Tiny Mountain Town. It’s a lovely little place, and although the pull of the place is strong, it’s no longer enough.
I’ve been here four years now, and like the weather here, it has been a tale of extremes and everything in-between. Today, I feel exactly like the weather is at the moment – blue skies, but threatening to change at any moment. I feel like I’m reaching some kind of turning point, in which I grow the fuck up and take responsibility for what happens to me in life. Like wanting something more.
Like wanting somewhere to truly call home, somewhere I can feel settled and loved and needed.
Now, I can’t do that living in the cave that I currently inhabit, on the salary I currently earn, in the job my qualification-less self is lucky to have, being so laissez-faire with responsibility and life. So it’s time to stand up and be counted. Get qualified, get my driving licence, maximise my employment opportunities - given I have what in my field is called a ‘fuckton of experience’ that shouldn’t be hard – and finally leave my Twenties behind.
Far, far behind.
And for once, I feel optimistic about it all. Although I imagine that will change when I see how much credit I have to take out to make this plan work.
Wyrd bið ful aræd.
Fate is inexorable indeed.
Under the intense heat of the late afternoon sun and the cooling breeze that offers little respite, I run. Across the main road through town, past the hulking figure of the Dom Kultury. Stopping for a moment on the one road-going bridge over the river to catch my breath, wipe sweat from my brow and gaze at a partridge scouring the well-tended field on the riverbank. It lets out a cry, which rouses me.
I continue running, pounding the concrete until it’s time to turn off the beaten track, leaving the town behind for the country roads, for the freedom they afford. My muscles ache as they shake of the lethargy of a winter hiatus, but my mind aches more as it tries to shake off the lethargy of a lifetime of mistakes, of stupid decisions, of loss of control. I want to stop, I want to give it all up and fade to black, but something keeps me running. Something keeps me pushing myself to survive this storm that’s raging inside my mind. This storm that’s dark, deep and despairing. This storm that doesn’t seem to have an end, a happy ending.
I run past newly-built houses with their pastel-bright facades, past lovingly-sculptured allotments and weather-beaten barns, past reverent shrines to the Blessed Mary and the wooden bungalows that define this ancient bastion of Slavic Europe. Many times I stop and gasp for breath, bereft of hydration and hope, weak and wasteful of all the chances I’ve had in my thirty years. How many more do I have, before they finally run out? How much father can I run before I collapse upon the tarmac, expending that last breath in a twitching mess?
I think about all that I have been, all that I want to be and all that I am – I am a cockroach, whether I want to be or not, for I survive regardless of the pain, the sorrow, the loneliness. I don’t want to be. I want to live, I want to grow strong and tall like the ivy that adorns the walls of farmhouses, like the sunflowers that reach ever upwards in great optimism. I want to mean something to somebody, not tear them apart as I always seem to do. I want to heal, not destroy.
I keep on, stopping at the wooden bridge back across the river, thinking about how easy it would be for Thor’s rage to strike me down as I hang onto the coiled-steel cables that suspend it above the muddy waters. Why doesn’t he? It would be so easy in that moment to give myself up to a cold-hearted, humiliating death. So easy to give up. Above me, the skies darken as rainclouds roll in, and I cross the bridge that leads back to civilisation. Do I belong in such a world? Am I really destined to plant roots there, as I have longed for since I can remember? Have I lost the one I have dreamt of, needed to guide me back into the light after being consumed by a terrifying darkness? I don’t want that to be the case, despite my naivety, despite my faults.
I tread an asphalt road now, past a factory bleak and grey like the prison my mind finds itself in. The fields fall behind me, new life replaced by old life, new hope replaced by the old fears that have weighed me down since the day I became aware. Is it a sign, that I cannot truly run from my fears? That I am destined to face them and fight them and either die trying or conquer them?
I desperately hope that is it the latter. I also desperately hope that my legs hold up, for they are screaming at me in rusty pain as I cross the train tracks that border the town, and run to the end of the leafy street there. Something catches my eye, and I accept the opportunity to catch my breath once more. Up high, I see a stork’s nest atop a telegraph pole, where a mother tends to her cawing offspring. They stare at me for a moment, just long enough for them to distract me from the pain in my legs, the sorrow in my heart, the dull ache of failure and self-doubt in my mind.
And then reality returns, and I know I must finish my route. I run past elderly folk sitting on terraces enjoying the re-emergence of the day’s dying sun, a golden glow cast upon their time-worn, smiling faces, and snatch at a few ripened cherries as I pass under the branches of tree hanging over the pavement, desperate to alleviate the dryness in my parched mouth. I slow almost to a walk as I climb the hill by the ancient stone church, my broken knees buckling under the stress of all-too-familiar wear and tear, struggling to the top before picking up the pace again to cross the open space of the market square, dotted with families enjoying ice-cream and gossip. The cobbles uneven as I stop at the water-pump, drinking lustily.
It never rains but it pours, they say, and that’s what I feel as I allow the water to cascade over my head, feeling for a fraction of a moment that I am drowning in a sea of inadequacy. I am nothing, I will always be nothing. I will always be a fuck-up. Now I am in pain, serious pain, as I run the last kilometre down the hill to the place I call home these days.
Home.. what is that? Is home a place, or a feeling? A feeling of being wanted, of being loved, of not fearing the future as you’re curled up on the sofa in front of a raging, reassuring fire with that one person you call ‘special’? If that is the case, then I have no home, because once again I have broken that home with my folly. That last kilometre is always the hardest, the one with the most pain, the biggest weight on these shoulders Atlas would look upon with envy. That last kilometre, the last rites on a lifetime of disappointing those around me.
And then there’s the collapse on the steps of this home, the shortness of breath, the hope that soon my mind will be clear of the demons that have lived there for so long, the fear that perhaps they will never be exorcised. The fear that no amount of these runs can save me.
And yet still I run, because that’s what I do. I swim against the tide, I fight the future, I try to learn from the past. Each step I take is a new memory, a new weapon against my own failures. And so I live in hope, that I can fix the mistakes I have made, be trusted once again, that I can run without the pain that I feel right now.
Several Final Words
Quickly, as I am running out the door (which is my usual activity on a Friday afternoon)…
Can we put the YA thing to rest? I know I said my piece and maybe I’m just overprotective because I read a shitton of YA and it feels a bit personal over here.
I teach high schoolers. I pre-read 90% of the books that go on my shelf for independent reading and have read in-depth the books I teach in class. Some of the books are “literary” (see my posts when I got to teach Gatsby), and some of the books are straight up YA.
But can we please, please, PLEASE remember that most commercial fiction (which is something in and of itself) is written on approximately a 5th grade reading level?
Because that’s what the general public can and will readily consume.
Go back to the basics here. Average IQ is 90-110. Go to Walmart (because I won’t). Look to your left and look to your right. There’s your 90-110 IQs. Drive down the street. You’re surrounded by people who purchase and consume books written because THEY WANT TO FUCKING READ.
Keep your snobbery. It’s fine. Everyone has their own tastes.
But I go back to my original statement here: If you’re shaming people for reading, you’re doing it wrong.
I don’t give a fuck WHAT people read. I give a fuck THAT they’re reading.
You cannot be a person who writes while also dictating what others read. That just smacks of a lack of insight. And I’d hesitate to pick up your book for fear that it might look down its cover at me.
Okay. I’m done now. No more from me.
As a teacher, who despairs because kids don’t seem to give a crap about reading anymore, I wholeheartedly agree with this.
It does NOT matter what we read, important is that we do it. Especially when it’s apparently dying a death because of a lack of support in the education systems of our world and parental encouragement and snobbery in the community.
Who gives a shit about the Nobel or any other literary prizes? They’re often, IN MY OPINION, bullshit books that are barely readable because of their fancy elitist styles and subject matter.
If Dan Brown, E.L. James, Stephanie Meyer, John Grisham et al sell, it’s because people WANT to read. We should never judge those who want to read, who want to take part in OUR passion.
Because it is not JUST our passion. Sure, we can jest about their choices, but never judge - for they are two different kettles of fish.
Do we really want to alienate the masses, those who in effect keep the publishing business alive? - because just like with films, the big blockbusters like those named above are what essentially pay for those elite authors you so love to exist, allow them to publish their nothing-selling books which invariably make losses. No blockbusters, no “crap fiction” = no books.
Hell, as a teacher, if getting my kids to read nursery rhymes is all I can achieve, then that is one hell of a bigger achievement than not getting them to read at all.
I’ll say it a little more strongly than Kate did, because I can and I’m in that kind of mood - if you’re a judgmental, elitist reader, then your opinion is not even good enough for me to wipe my arse with.
And you writers who think you’re all that with your elitist ideas - in the end, you live or die through opinions, don’t forget that. One person’s “literary fiction” is another person’s “airport fiction”.
Midnight Tryst (NSFW).
The road was empty, and we coasted along effortlessly in the powerful, luxury 4x4, returning home from an evening spent together. Darkness loomed overhead, the shadows of trees alongside us tall, sinister and foreboding. The sky was cloudless, but there were no streetlights or moon to guide us on our way. We neared the crest of a hill and then turned, first onto a smaller, tarmac road, then onto a winding dirt track. A backroad to the ruins of an old castle sitting atop the hill, off to our left. An ancient seat of power, now reduced to broken stones and restless ghosts. I looked over at the driver, my better half, and smiled. My own ghosts were absent, banished by the way her alluring grey-blue eyes beheld me.
We pulled over, killing the engine and the lights. With a flick of an overhead switch she opened the sunroof, the air refreshing. We reclined the heated electric seats and gazed up at a kaleidoscope of tiny silver pinpricks, some brighter than others, some twinkling red and blue through the cold of the atmosphere. I pointed out some of the more recognisable stars and constellations, my other hand resting on her thigh delicately, and then we were wordless, our breath taken by the sheer magnificence of it all. Wondering just what it was we were looking at, the significance of what we could see.
Her hand came to rest on my own, a finger stroking my skin delicately, lovingly. I turned to her, my head resting back, her gaze fixed upon me. Her fingers danced on the skin above my wrist, something she knew was like catnip to me. I watched, saw a faint smile appear on her lips, mischievous and playful. I shuffled a few centimetres towards her and reached across to pull her into my arms. Still wordless, we held each other, chests rising and falling slowly and rhythmically. Her head came to rest upon my shoulder, and I kissed her forehead softly and stroked her flowing, blonde hair. Delicate, fine hair, which smelt good.
Her hand rested upon my thigh, forefinger and thumb gripping the flesh of the inside through my black pinstripe trousers. A jolt of electricity surged through my body, awakening. She sensed this, or perhaps I gave it away by gripping her shoulder in return, and her hand began to climb the inside of my thigh, purposefully. I returned the favour, my fingertips teasing her leg where the hem of her skirt met her satin-like tights. She sighed, and I sighed. My mind was on fire.
She knew all too well how to get me going. She leaned up and kissed my neck sensuously, her hand cradling my face. It was always the delicate touches that got me the most, the little touches that betrayed her love for me more than the animalistic desires. But those desires she had also; she knew how to switch between the two at will for maximum effect. I was always powerless against her charm offensive. Just as I was now.
Her hand reached the top of my thigh, and gripped my groin tightly, as if she was gauging just how much of an effect she had had. She must have been satisfied, for she let out a hum of approval and gripped tighter. I was fully aroused by then, and when she looked at me I saw the carnal fire in her eyes. I’m sure she saw the same in mine. My hand slid under her skirt, and she squirmed as my fingers rubbed her burning desire. She reached for my belt, ripping it back to free it from its clasp, tearing at the fastening to my trousers, yanking down the zip and the prize that lay beneath. My hand pulled at her tights in order to get inside and savour the wetness that awaited my touch.
She groaned loudly as a finger probed her, followed by a second. Her hand grabbed hold of my hardness and worked it furiously, unable to control herself as I lost all control and slid a second finger inside her, as deep as the angle I was sitting at could manage. We both writhed in sync, allowing the pleasure to drown us, oblivious to everything but the stars watching over us; ancient gods and goddesses whom we didn’t care if they judged us or not in that moment. We were lovers bringing each other to ecstasy, lost in each other.
The windows steamed up despite the sunroof being open, and our groans would have been heard by any and all who passed within a few hundred metres, but we didn’t have a care in the world. I throbbed and she pulsed, wanting more but not taking it. Working each other furiously, each desiring the other to climax and feel that punch-drunk relief from the sexual tension being together invariably built up. She came first, her orgasm paralysing and intense, every muscle in her body tightening in spasms simultaneously, her breath held and a fine layer of sweat coating her brow. I pulled her close and held her as tightly as I could in that moment, as I knew she liked, ignoring the sheer strength with which she gripped my hardness. Seconds which felt like minutes passed until she exhaled deeply, satisfied.
Headlight roused us from our reverie, and panicked we dressed ourselves and tried to mask any sign of our temporary insanity. She looked at me in a state of delirium, before looking up at the stars, which had barely moved a millimetre. I caressed her face, stroking her hair, and asked her if she was alright. She nodded, still breathtaken, before pushing the switch to close the sunroof and pressing the engine’s starter button. I smiled at her, and she smiled at me, and through the windshield we took one last look up at the night sky and at the shadow of the ruins, before returning to the main road to continue our journey home, words unnecessary.