Interregnum

First of the dead comes callling

 

The world no longer tolerated human sounds.

We again had only the wind and birds and streams, not the constant thrum of industry.

Cars and trucks and trains lay askew, smoking and silent under gunmetal skies.

Whatever happened had passed us by – it was elsewhere, an abstraction.

In the first weeks we heard only whispers and rumors – fevers on a distant continent.

We cut wood and drew water while the world bled away from us.

The sun warmed our shoulders and backs in the garden.

We made love, and ate, and said beautiful drunken things.

We ran naked through the house, delirious in the aftermath of history.

We lived as the Creator had always intended.

And it was only after the first of the dead scratched lightly at our bedroom window

That we realized the world would have its horror – our dreams be damned.

_____________________________________________________

For the flash fiction contest over at terribleminds. The theme was disease and horror. Happy Halloween from Sitting In Darkness!

Image by Burtoo


The World Came and Fetched Them…

I“m on my way to the Writer Unboxed “Un-Conference” in my hometown, Salem MA, in a few weeks so I was revisiting my post on fictional characters being swept up in events, taken out for an adventure, and generally being fetched by the world. Because, don’t we all want to be fetched by the world, even vicariously, through the characters in our favorite stories? Anyway, since I was reading it again, I thought I’d just be lazy and re-post. Slacker!   7355298242_d07136a15a_z Over at terribleminds, Chuck Wendig recently asked his readers (many of whom are also writers) some interesting questions. One of them was “What gets you to read a book?” The answers he received (nearly 200!) ran the gamut from ‘great covers’ to ‘word of mouth’ and on through to ‘authorial voice’. While it could be argued that a slew of writers giving their opinion on this topic might not actually represent the tastes of the reading (but non-writing) public, the answers do give a writer some interesting food for thought. A follow up question posed by Chuck was, “What makes you put a book down?” This question garnered an even larger comment tsunami from his readership. One of those comments struck me as particularly interesting. A respondent opined: “I would sooner read Mein Kompff (sic) again than another novel, or any piece of media, that is infected with the Hero’s Journey plot structure. The rantings of one of the most evil men in the history of the world is a far more enjoyable than seeing the schlub everyman hero be coerced into an ‘amazing new world,’ murder his bizarro-father, and bring the macguffin back to the mundane reality to resume a more cushy status quo. I like to think of Joseph Campbell as the Albert Einstein of the creative world: a well meaning guy who made an amazing discovery that’s being used to commit atrocities.” Hitler’s self-serving (but ultimately boring) pseudo-autobiography notwithstanding, I at first reacted with anger. But I sort of get the commenter’s point: when the “hero’s journey” is mechanically pushed into your face, it can be a turn-off. Seems contrived. Done before. Boring. It is a waxwork of art. It looks real. Like a story we should be into, but we already know what’s going to happen. Sure, we can read on to see how skillfully the author puts his characters through their paces, or we can just toss the book in disgust. I think it’s a valid criticism. I especially admire the comparison of Campbell to Einstein and the unintended, ‘atrocious’ consequences of their respective accomplishments. “Fetched by the world.” Recently, I was reading an author interview in GlimmerTrain (I can’t remember who it was). But this author stated she wrote her characters to be ‘fetched by the world’, and it just stopped me. Yes, that’s it. What an excellent phrase: fetched by the world. So preferable to the more tiresome “hero’s journey.” Great stories are peopled with characters ‘fetched by the world’. Sure, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Frodo Baggins spring immediately to mind (Thank you, Hollywood), but it needn’t be all fantasy and quests. Who else was fetched? Jonathan Harker, Emma Bovary, Humbert Humbert, Kunta Kinte, Grendel, Atticus Finch, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Jean Brodie, Gregor Samsa, Scarlett O’Hara, Dorothy, Clarice Starling, Siddhartha, Okonkwo, Ahab, Ishmael, and Titus Groan. Each and every one of them – fetched by the world. In a big way. And we continue to read those stories through generations because, sooner or later, the world comes to fetch us all. Not a white whale, maybe, but a shadow on the chest x-ray. Or finding love with the wrong person. Or losing your job and having to drink it away or reinvent yourself. The world fetches us. That’s what it does. We can ignore the call, or we can jump on the train, follow the yellow brick road, go to Alderan, or Mordor, or walk endlessly across Dublin, or swallow the red pill, or go down the rabbit hole. We can undergo chemoradiation, or get divorced, or secretly love a 14 year-old or, or live through the day of our child’s funeral, or win the lottery, or ,God forbid, have sex with road kill. Or we can do nothing. No blood, no foul. The world isn’t the explainable stage of rationality we want it to be. All bets are off. And we can heed the call and bring back our macguffin. Just as Hitler envisioned himself the ‘hero’ of his epic ‘struggle’ and brought back to our ‘mundane reality’ the spectre of National Socialism. Campbell, I believe, knew it. He wasn’t worried about artistic overkill, the tired boredom of the reader in the marketplace. He was onto the very root of storytelling itself. Something buried deep inside us. Fear and aspiration. He was writing of characters being fetched by the world. Failing. Succeeding. Dealing with life, death, love, anger, jealousy, beauty, loneliness, alienation. Joyous rapture and murderous intention. It’s what stories contribute to our common understanding, unchanged, across all these generations. The ‘hero’s journey’ isn’t a formula. It’s a way to understand life. Your very life. Image by Lost in Scotland


Sitting In Darkness 2.0

Sitting In Darkness has lain fallow long enough.

New stories are coming…

Enough said….

I thought the blog needed a little color via an updated theme to go along with the new stories.

The fall is rapidly approaching. This time of the year always stirs my horror bones..

I hope you’ll stop by to see what shows up here.


A Glass of Water

A Glass of Water

Note: I originally published this a couple of years ago when the Fukushima Daichii nuclear plant was crippled in a tsunami, subsequently poisoning the ground water and leading to domestic water shortages. Now in the news we hear of the contamination of the Elk River by a coal processing compound and the ensuing ban on the use of the domestic water supply, including drinking water. I just wanted to throw this out there again (because it’s newsy). I became fascinated with the choices this situation could force on ordinary people.

A Glass of Water

Atsuko heard the creaking of the porch screen and hurried out to greet her husband.

“What?” she asked. Her eyes bulged and glistened.

Hoshu limped through the door after removing his shoes. “There is no bottled water left at any of the stores.  Where is Tokutaro?”

“He’s out back playing with his friends.”

A breeze blew in the open door. Atsuko rushed to close it. “The neighbors have said the same thing. No bottled water at all. What will we do? Maybe we can go to Kamakura and stay with my sister and her family?”

Hoshu looked down at his gnarled hands and sighed. “It will be the same thing down there sooner or later. It’s in the wind as well as the water. It goes everywhere.”

“The radio and the television both said the water in the tap was fine to drink. The levels had gone up and babies shouldn’t get any. But they said it would not be a problem for anyone else. It is not too high.” Atsuko twisted a dry rag in her hands.

Outside in the street, children yelled and Hoshu could hear a ball slapping against the side of the building: Tokutaro playing football with his friends.

What does she want me to say? Hoshu wondered. He’d been at work laying bricks all morning and had finished his last bottle of water before coming home. Atsuko had promptly sent him back out in search of more. Now he was parched and found it hard to speak without coughing.

Atsuko said, “Tokutaro has a bottle with him outside, but that is the last one.”

Hoshu looked at his wife and shrugged. “It’s tap water then. The man at the store said they won’t have bottled water at least for a week. We can’t go that long without water to drink. The neighbors are all in the same position. I don’t see we have much choice.”

“Tokutaro. He is only eight years old, Hoshu.”

“Do you think I don’t know the age of my son? That a few hours without water have damaged my brain?” Hoshu stood up and went over to the sink. He peered down the drain looking for any telltale sign of contamination. What was he supposed to see, a green glow from deep in the drainpipe?

“What are you doing over there?” Atsuko came across the room and joined him at the sink.

“Looks fine. Smells alright,” he said.

“Don’t Hoshu.”

He grabbed a glass from the drying rack and held it under the tap. His hand did not shake at all, which surprised him.

He looked at Atsuko and took a deep breath, held it for a second, and then exhaled.  Hoshu turned the cold-water handle, letting cool clear water spill freely onto the white porcelain of the sink.

Atsuko took two steps back and bit her lower lip. “Hoshu, no…”

He filled the glass, turned off the water and walked to the kitchen table. Hoshu placed the glass in the center of the table. They stared at the glass of water in silence. Hoshu imagined downing the water. What would happen, really?

Finally he broke the silence. “Sooner or later, we’ll have to drink.”

“But let’s wait.” Atsuko said. “Maybe one of the neighbors will have a relative who will bring some. Or we could go down to the store one more time. Can’t we wait until we’re sure there’s no other way?”

They stared at the glass of water while joyful shouts floated up from the street. They heard Tokutaro yell “Goal!”

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I was driving around today and NPR was airing a story about the partial meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The story centered on the questionable safety of the Tokyo tap water.

The government has advised that infants not have any tap water. The question remained if older kids and adults could drink with impunity. Government pronouncements indicated that radiation levels, while elevated above baseline, were not such that a health hazard was likely.

Bottled water is getting harder to find…


Ghosts of Savannah

creepy fiddling ghost family

I originally published this story on the blog some years back but then decided to expand it, remove it from the blog, and send it out for consideration.  After some well-earned rejections, I’ve decided to just put it back up on the blog (in its expanded form) but with the original picture. I have also changed the title from “Tecumseh” to “Ghosts of Savannah”. I think the letter format may not be what publications are looking for (or, more likely, I didn’t execute to those standards), but I like the voice and the questionable origin of Sherman’s visitation: war guilt or something more sinister?

________________________________

December 24, 1864

My Dearest Ellen,

It is with the warmest devotion that I write to you from once-proud Savannah. I am alive and well. This morning, I have posted a letter to President Lincoln, offering him this fine (but now burning) city as an early Christmas gift. He and Grant, especially Grant, have stood by me all these months of hard war, from Shiloh to Bull Run to Atlanta. I can only hope the destruction my army has wrought all through Georgia will be adequate recompense for their many kindnesses, my prior difficulties notwithstanding.

Savannah lies prostrate before me. However, a soldier’s pride in victory cannot completely eclipse my growing sense of revulsion at the human toll of this war. I confess, with no shame, that I am tired of fighting – it’s glory ephemeral as moonlight. Even the most brilliant victory rests atop dead and mangled bodies, and each evening I must read the heartfelt lamentations of those distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers who will never return to them in any recognizable fashion, if at all. It is only those happy souls who have never heard a shot, never heard the screams and groans of the wounded, dying in pools of blood, that cry ever louder for more death, more vengeance, more desolation.

The acrid smoke wafting through the city mixes with the odor of the salt marshes to the east, where we have stacked the rebel dead, soldier and civilian alike. This evening, even as I write these lines to you, the humid east wind whispers through the gauze curtains of this room, the carrion stench nearly too much to take, even for me who has seen (and caused, God help me) so much human calamity.

Despite this tropical heat, my spirit is cold and damp, like West Point in November. I can only hope the imminent Christmas and New Year celebrations will see an abatement of the horror that threatens to engulf me once again, and cast me back into that pit of despair from which I felt I had finally, and permanently, extricated myself.

Upon entering the city this morning, victorious, but somehow detached from those around me, I dutifully saw to the security of our positions and then rode out to inspect the “dead fields”, as the men call them, out in the marshes. And it was there I saw steaming piles of men, women, and even children, the old and the young, putrefying in the heat, facing the sun with vacant, milky-eyed stares.

At one point in my inspection, a young woman, half of her torso blown away, came scrabbling, one-armed, through the mud and blood, dragging behind her the viscera that spilled out of a gaping hole in her side, and shrieking, “Amanda? Amanda!” Her daughter? Sister, perhaps? A mere phantom of her delirium? I could not say. But in spontaneous revulsion, I drew my saber and slew her. I tell myself it was only to put her from her misery, but I know deep in my bones that it was to silence those pitiful calls to Amanda, whom, I knew, would never in this life respond.

I made my way to quarters, a commandeered house of concrete block located at the end of a long, twisting lane at the eastern extremity of the city. It sits under a stand of enormous willows and so remains in shifting shadows, even at midday. The grand house is the color of salmon flesh and adorned with intricately detailed, glossy-black ironwork.  My aide, Lieutenant Driscoll, escorted me through the foyer into the main parlor which was adorned with the most exquisite tapestries. Mahogany moldings, as dark as chocolate, melted down into blood red tiles, which were highly polished. A grand piano stood silent as the grave before a magnificent floor-to-ceiling window.  A rattan ottoman with a richly embroidered cushion bore a small fiddle with the bow askew, as if thrown there in haste or without care.

“And what of the inhabitants?” I asked Driscoll.

He appeared somewhat discomfited and shot a glance at a black door on the eastern wall. “A woman and three children were found hiding in the basement and, I’m sorry to say, General-sir, they were cut down by several of the first men to enter. Their bodies remain down there, sir. Wrapped in sheets. I will have them removed to the marshes immediately.”

“That can wait, Lieutenant,” I said.. In my exhausted state I wanted nothing more than to lie down. “Have my trunk brought up to my room and leave me. I ascended the stairs with one last backward glance at the basement door.

Dear Ellen, after so many years of this damn war, one would think I would have a heart stony enough to remain unperturbed in the face of civilian casualties. However, the memory of those mounds of the dead and dying out in the marshes (“Amanda?”) threatens to unhinge me, to release that madness I believed I had so well put behind me.

The sun now is spilling a deep scarlet across the western horizon, as if the very sky bleeds above Savannah. I must rest.

***

I write to you now, Ellen, after three hours of tortured sleep. A sleep in which the faces of the dead rose before me out of a misty swamp. In truth, my exhaustion has only increased.

The heat and humidity have driven me from this bed. Whose bed, I wonder? Hers, perhaps, lying in a bloodied heap in the basement? Surrounded by her dead children? Did those same children, so silent and still in the dark beneath me, in happier days come bounding into this very room to surprise their Mama and Papa? The lithographs on the bedside table tell the story.

I can hear voices, not in my head like before, but outside, in the trees, whispering in the Spanish moss. No doubt skipping over the willows and cattails, up out of the dead fields.  And what, I ask, do the dead have to say to one another? Or to me? My despair grows, and this letter to you seems my only tether to the rest of humanity. Love and fellowship have abandoned this place. The scents of sweetgrass and honeysuckle that should permeate this room are pushed aside and replaced by the stench of the swamp.

Perhaps I am simply overwrought, after this recent campaign. The willow trees outside my window are silhouetted by a gigantic, orange moon which hangs fat and low in the sky, too tired to lift itself very much past the horizon.

In my hand I hold a lithograph of a happy family. Those bright, black eyes stare out at me and all I can think of is you, dearest one, and the happiness and warmth that have attended our lives, our children safe and growing. Strange, how the death of innocents never captured my imagination before, my mind filled only with thoughts of duty and country. Victory. Yet, in just the last several months, how many deaths have I brought to the world? Is there any measure of atonement that can pay for the dead I own?

Now the voices seem to be in the parlor below. And is that music I hear? Some unearthly strain I cannot identify. I am trying to employ the reasoning Dr. Turgeon recommended, that I must realize these sounds I hear have no place in the real world. They are spectral phenomena, merely the products of an overactive mind. Yet, despite my attempts to ignore them, I feel compelled to investigate.

***

Dearest, I have charged back to this room from the basement where I was led, and I will try my best to find the words to relate to you what I experienced in that hellish place. I can only hope that time will inevitably dissipate my memory of this house and its…inhabitants.

I left this bedroom, as I last wrote, to investigate the sounds —voices and strange music —that emanated from the lower level of the house. With no breeze to kill the tiny flame of my single taper, I made my way slowly down the grand staircase. The voices and music had stopped at some point during my preparations. All was silent down in the darkened parlor. I was clearly alone in the house. Nothing moved. Tentatively, I stepped to the kitchen where a stone cistern promised cool water to drink, but it was empty.

I reentered the parlor, with no thought but to return to my room before my taper could sputter and die.  A night bird screeched in the rear garden. I passed the ottoman I had seen earlier, the tiny violin still lying atop it. I even stopped to pluck a note or two. It was still in tune, recently played, no doubt.

A soft thump behind me made me start. I turned and found myself staring at the door leading to the basement. It was painted with a glossy, black enamel. My taper’s small flame reflected brightly off the paint and for a moment I was terrified by my own distorted reflection.

Realizing my error, a small nervous laugh escaped me and I found myself inexplicably fearful of alerting someone, — or some thing— to my presence. I looked back at the black door and I was suddenly possessed of a mad notion to open it and descend those stairs. To what end, I asked myself? I only can say that a burgeoning desire for forgiveness and peace suffused my spirit. I resolved to seek atonement by bearing witness to my dead hosts down there in the dark.

Madness, some would call it. But, as you know, I am well acquainted with  that particular affliction.

I opened the door, sniffed tentatively, and was relieved to find that no odor of putrefaction swept up out of the blackness. Just an earthy, muddy smell.

My taper cast but a meager globe of light not more than two feet in diameter. And in my imagination, horrifying images of what lay beyond in the dark assailed me. But, as I said, I was compelled to seek that forgiveness for which I had undertaken this descent.

I stepped slowly, as quietly as I could. I realized the burning in my chest was a result of having held my breath all the way down. I let cool air rush into my lungs as I inched forward into the gloom. An irregular, pink mound—blood-soaked sheets they were— materialized on the floor, about two feet in front of me.

I stopped, unable to draw another breath. I heard a trickling in the darkness. Of course, I reminded myself, the house sat not far from the salt marshes and thus admitted water freely. The earthy smell of the root cellar, mixed with the coppery scent of the four dead at my feet, produced in me an overwhelming sense of dread. And a horrifying revulsion grew at the base of my throat.

Fully in the throes of madness now, I waited for the mound to move. For sliced, bloody hands to slide from beneath those sheets to clutch at my boots. To pull me from this world to a dimension where neither death nor peace could ever find me. The night bird’s cry outside the parlor window above seemed impossibly far away.

As my taper burned down and sputtered, sending irregular shadows dancing over the sheets, I was left with the impression—no, the certainty—that the mound was alive with jerking movements. When the taper finally burned out, I resigned myself to never finding those stairs behind me again.

Overcoming my growing desire to flee, I resolved to complete my mission. In the total darkness I got down onto my knees before the butchered family. Blubbering, and with my hands raised in supplication, I managed to say, “Please forgive me!”, the sound of my own voice startling me out of the fugue. I now thought I heard shuffling in the darkness. And hissing. Surely, my overwrought imagination now wildly out of control.

I shot to my feet. Those approaching noises, either real or imagined, were enough to send this old soldier sprinting for the stairs which, when I found them, I ascended two at a time, too terrified to look behind me. For I was certain those poor, angry corpses reached out for me with, not forgiveness, but with bloody vengeance in their black hearts. I reached the top of the stairs and slammed the door shut, my heart thumping wildly in my throat.

I made my way back across the parlor, tripping over the ottoman and spilling the fiddle, which clattered across the red tiles. I sped up the grand staircase and locked myself here in this bedroom, where after several much-needed glasses of bourbon, I have set down this sequence of events for you.

The bourbon has done nothing to quell my fear, and my despair grows unchecked. Madness or murderous spirits, what difference to me? My life feels forfeit. The hot wind carries with it the smell of the dead fields, and I must close the windows and lie down. I will, if God allows, continue this letter when I awake in the morning.

***

Unable to sleep, I write to you now after only forty minutes of lying in bed, fighting off a growing sense of unreality. I am untethered from the world, floating toward a blackness that whispers a malign invitation.

Despite closing the windows, the stench of corruption continues to worsen. And there is again shuffling and muted conversation down in the parlor. I initially held out some hope that it was Driscoll come to check on me, but the growing odor of rotten meat is enough to convince me who is down there. Up from the basement. Waiting.

Once again, I must leave you to investigate — proof of my insanity.

***

Now, Ellen, you must know how it ends.

I am writing as quickly as I can. I can only hope that I have time to scribble what I saw below in the parlor, and that somehow this letter shall be found, even if I am not, and delivered into your hands. Perhaps what I set down here will somehow protect my posterity from any suspicions of madness, and that the world will believe that malignant spirits do walk this earth with us, meting out the justice we the living cannot seem to discharge.

I lit a small taper I found on the bedside table and left my room.  The music and muffled voices below in the dark stopped as I descended the stairs. The air was so humid, the bannister on the stairs was slick with dew.  At the bottom of the stairs, I stopped, tried to see anything beyond the meager circle of light cast by my little candle. I listened, hardly breathing.

The silence was complete. Only the rush of blood thrumming in my head.

And then, the most exquisite strain of music reached out to me through the darkness. It was “My Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home” from the Dowland Lute Book. I know it well. Someone was playing an arrangement for solo violin, an arrangement so beautiful, so expressive of the fallen soldier’s sad return to his family, that I was moved to tears. Tears that had been amassing in my eyes all day, nay, all my life.

I closed my eyes to blink back the tears and let the music flow through me. I felt as if I had dissolved into the darkness. And the tears continued to flow. The music led me on forward into the parlor. I was suffused with an overwhelming sense of forgiveness. I cannot describe the joy that held me in its sway at that moment.

When at last I opened my eyes, they were there, the dead ones, enveloped in an opalescent green nimbus, the beaming mother and two young ones looking on while her older son, his right leg resting on the rattan ottoman, coaxed unearthly beauty from his violin.

I could only moan, breathless and remorseful. And that was my undoing, for as I intruded upon the scene, their eyes sought me out and grew cold. The boy with the fiddle was now a demonic apparition I have no words to describe. It cast down the fiddle and hissed. The family, all now similarly transformed, rose as one and advanced upon me. I screamed like a raw recruit in his first pitched battle, and staggered back up the stairs, locked the door—little good that will do!—and came to this desk where I now scratch these last lines to you while they pound on the door.

Despair floods my heart to think of you alone in the victorious North. What future awaits the country remains unknowable. I am sorry I cannot be there to accompany you into that future. My business lies here, in the South.

My sidearm can no longer affect those on the other side of this door, those who wish me such grievous harm. But it will be the instrument of my salvation. My physical death will come at no one’s hands but my own.

Let them call me mad, you will know the truth.

When the sun’s first rays wake Savannah later this day, perhaps my body will be found at this table. But I know my spirit will finally complete this journey, this long march to the sea. A sea of atonement and peace, I can only hope. I pray my spirit will find company with the dead, out in the eastern marshes.

The war is over, the Union preserved. What this nation becomes is of no concern to those of us rotting in the swamps. We will sink into time and be forgotten.

We will become flowers and mud.

Merely a scent that reaches you on the breeze.

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Reaching Out

 

 

 

 

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I am still in here.

In this blog.

In these stories.

New horrors coming.

Parched and dry,

Reaching out to you.

Can you see me?

Am I real?

________________

Sitting in Darkness has been inactive for a while – but I have sprinkled the ‘tana leaves’ into the tea, and made the dusty beast drink. Soon Sitting in Darkness will be dragging its dead feet into your reading space once again. 

Image:Eflon

 


Mama You Been On My Mind, redux…

Two years ago, I wrote a piece called “Mama You Been On My Mind” as my entry in a flash fiction challenge to envision real people doing fictional things. I didn’t even think, just started writing, and this weird little story of Bob Dylan and Mother Teresa in Calcutta popped out.

Those who know me can attest to my lifelong admiration for the artistry and courage of both these people. Anyway, of all the stories I’ve published on this blog, this is the one that I’m most proud of. And interestingly, this story still gets a strong number of hits this far out past its publication date.

So, I wanted to throw it out there to the winds again and see whose shores it might reach.

Follow the link to the original story: Mama You Been On My Mind

Dylan at the ganges


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