Broken Strings

Broken Strings

I dreamt of tapping on my bedroom window. Little fingers tap, tap, tap, wanting to come in. I woke up and the tapping continued, but i had not risen far out of sleep, and I turned over and sank back down into the dark.

The dream was forgotten, as most dreams are, until I noticed small oval smudges on the window pane when I pulled up the blind. I stared at them for a while, then decided that it must have been something blown by the wind. I opened the window and looked down into the garden, but I saw nothing out of the ordinary. It is twelve feet or so to the ground so I could have missed something small.

Later, I cleaned the marks off, though they were already fading.

This carried on for three more nights and it was really starting to get on my nerves. I tried to work out what was causing it, and finally decided that it must be bats. There are a fair few flitting about here on the edge of town and I thought they might be after spiders or something around the window frames.

I didn’t — I did not think of anything unnatural. Nor did I think of anything human. There were never signs of a ladder under the window, and why would anyone want to do that anyway? There was no reason.

None of this disturbed me too much. A few peculiar dreams, I’m used to them; waking in the night; a few marks on the window. Just a puzzle, nothing more. The worst of it was that it disturbed my sleep.

I make puppets, all kinds, but mainly marionettes, carving them from wood. At that time, I was working on a difficult commission, and the sleeplessness was making it impossible for me to get on with carving the face of the main character. One slip and I could ruin a whole piece of wood, and wood is much more expensive than it used to be.

On the fourth night I dreamt that someone was banging on the widow frame, as if they had lost patience with me. I woke up and lay there listening to the banging for a while. Should I get up and see what it was? Did I want to see? I told myself off for being so cowardly and started to get out of bed.

The banging stopped.

I got up anyway, and pulled up the blind. There was nothing there, and nothing in the garden that I could see. Back in bed, it took me a very long time to get to sleep.

In the morning I pulled up the blind again, and an electric jolt of fear went through me at the sight of small handprints all over the lower part of the window pane. I may even have emitted a tiny scream. Bats most definitely had not left such marks.

I tried to take photographs, but the prints would not show up. I even called the police, but they were not impressed enough to come to my house. They filed a report, I think, but there was no break-in, nothing stolen, so I came very low down on the list of priorities.

These things were happening around one o’clock in the morning, so I decided to catch whoever was playing tricks on me. I went to bed as usual, but sat up waiting, clutching a torch. It was a long wait and I did not make it, dozing off to sleep sitting up. Banging on the window pane woke me suddenly. It was so loud I thought the glass would break. The whole window rattled.

I jumped up, dropped my torch, fumbled on the floor for it. The blind rolled up of its own accord and I saw that the window was open. All that rattling must have loosened the catch.

The banging had stopped. I got to the window without the torch and could not see anything outside. As I shut the window and pulled the blind down, I thought I heard something behind me. Slowly I let the blind back up so that a little moonlight would shine in, and turned around. I didn’t want to see, but I also didn’t want something unknown jumping on me.

There was something in the room, something small, coming towards me with odd, jerky movements. I stayed very still until it moved into the moonlight and looked up at me with beseeching eyes.

‘Pablo?’

He was one of my favourite marionettes. I put my soul, and some blood, into carving that appealing face and always regretted that I had to sell him — but here he was in my bedroom, walking towards me, his face broken, half his mouth missing, one hand smashed. Some kind of crazy dream.

I dived for the bedside light. Pablo was no longer there. I called for him, but got no answer.

In the morning, as early as was reasonable, I phoned the director of the puppet theatre that owned Pablo.

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘a few days ago there was an accident. Our metal storage shelves collapsed and quite a few of the puppets were broken. We’re going to have to get rid of them and claim insurance.’

‘Pablo?’

‘Well, yes, he was one. How did you hear about it?’

‘A friend told me. I’ll come and get Pablo. I’ll repair him for you, free of charge.’

‘He’s quite smashed up.’

‘I know, but I can repair him.’

I carved Pablo a new lower jaw and a replacement hand, and glued in and received some fresh wood on the side of his face. the puppet theatre took him back with gratitude, and he has not come calling since.

I remember all of the other characters I have made, putting something of myself into their faces, their hands. They don’t belong to me any more, but I cannot help feeling that I belong to them.

I leave my window open at night.

What We See In The Woods, Part 4: The Nemeton

What We See In The Woods, Part 4: The Nemeton

Lost in the woods —but how could he be? This wood was not big enough to lose anything in. Just walk straight in any direction and you would be out of it in five minutes. He had been walking straight for half an hour now, or at least he thought so. Perhaps he was walking in circles. No matter how hard he tried to keep an eye on where the sun was behind the canopy, he was being deflected. That must be it.

Keep the sun to the right, he thought, and wasn’t there something about the side of the tree the moss grows on? The north side. Or the south side. Trying to remember, he noticed a dog standing a few metres away, looking at him.

He stopped and assessed the problem. The dog did not look aggressive, but it was not wagging its tail either. Those stories about the spectral black dog came to mind, but this dog was a dusty grey colour. It looked like a wolf, but there had been no wolves in these woods for four centuries or more. Just a big grey dog.

‘Hey boy,’ he said.

The dog turned and walked away. Jacob followed, convinced that it would show him the way out. Dogs rescued people. This one would rescue him — though he was in very little actual peril, lost in a small wood.

‘It’s just that the trees all look the same,’ he said out loud.

Then everything changed.

There was a clearing filled with bright sunlight. The dog stopped at the centre of it and looked back at him. Jacob stepped into the light.

The clearing was roughly rectangular without any small trees or bushes. Grass grew in the sunlight. Jacob stood at one of the short sides of the rectangle and at the other, directly opposite him, stood what appeared to be the trunk of a massive dead tree. He looked up into the sky, but could not see the top of it.

He looked down again, and the dog was gone without a sound. Alone in the clearing, he felt compelled to approach the tree trunk. Laying his hands on the warm reddish wood, he felt vibration. Pressing his face and then his right ear to the tree, he heard a rushing sound inside, as of sap pumping upwards to an invisible canopy. The tree was not dead at all. It was enormous and he — he was tiny, insignificant.

Pressing himself close to the tree, he wanted to be absorbed into it, to live here forever, feeling the sap rushing through his veins.

He kicked off his shoes and began to climb. The wood was smooth and shiny, but Jacob was no longer human. His body became supple and sinous, his hands and feet stuck to the wood and allowed him to climb, to go on climbing, up and up until he reached the branches and leaves and fruit that were somewhere far above.

Walking back home in the late evening sunlight, Jacob felt the joy of life in his bones. He was smiling, thinking what a beautiful day, what a strange dream.

As he put his key into the lock, the door was pulled open and his wife was there, crying. His brother and sister were behind her. They were talking all at once, pulling him into the house, touching him.

‘What’s going on?’ he said.

‘Where have you been? What happened to you?’ they asked.

‘I went for a walk. I climbed a tree.’

‘You’ve been gone so long!’

‘I did stay out a couple of hours longer than I meant to, but—‘

‘You’ve been gone three days.’

‘Three days?’

He caught sight of himself in the hall mirror, hair sticking straight up, face sunburned, eyes wide and crazy.

He could smell the scent of the tree, feel the warm smooth wood under his alien hands, hear far away overhead the promising rustle of foliage and the cry of a strange bird.

Realities lurched and crashed together.

‘I climbed a tree,’ he said.

Out of the Ordinary

Out of the Ordinary

Lucy bent to smell the scent of a rose, but was startled when a fairy leapt out of the flower. Oh. No, not a fairy, but a bee. The bee hung in the air in front of Lucy’s face as if it were wondering if she was a flower. Then, the moment of mutual misidentification over, it flew away.

‘Why did I think it was a fairy?’ Lucy asked herself. ‘What’s the matter with me?’

There had been something wrong for a while now. Things seen out of the corner her eye, strange things — an unexpected small person, and emerald snake rearing up, a cat in the corner of the room — but when she turned to look there was either nothing there at all, or only shadows, a twist of leaves, branches fluttering. Even so, she was left with an odd feeling that there had really been a presence until she turned her full attention to it.

That evening she was reading a rather dull book. Her mind, and then her eyes, wandered away from the text. As she was thinking of something else, she saw at the edge of her vision a large black spider detach itself from the printed words and begin to walk over the white page. Resisting the urge to scream and throw the book across the room, she watched the progress of the spider without looking directly at it.

It moved up the page, walked along a line of text, then settled down on one particular word, seeming to melt into the ink. Lucy looked to see what the word was.

Spider.

She put the book down and walked away from it. In the kitchen she poured herself a glass of wine and contemplated the idea that she was suffering the onset of schizophrenia or some other psychosis. Not liking the idea at all, she preferred to think that she had noticed the word, spider, on the next page and her unruly imagination had conjured up the hallucination of an actual spider for her.

So it went on. Day after day, improbable creatures appeared in the edges of her vision. Lucy stopped trying to look at them directly, instead observing by pretending not to notice them as they danced or loomed or lurked.

Then, a real cat turned up at her door. It was fearful at first, but she began to feed it and eventually it decided to move in with her, when she named it Henry, for no good reason, and began to think of it as a person, he.

The phantom cat shape appeared in her vision on evening as she sat watching TV with Henry. He noticed it, too. He sat up, flattened his ears against his skull and hissed right at the corner where the shadow cat sat. It vanished.

It was both comforting and disconcerting that Henry saw it. Comforting because it meant that she was not suffering from the onset of mental illness: Disconcerting because it meant that she was seeing things that were actually there.

The next time she mistook a bee for a fairy she looked at it straight on and said, ‘I know what you are.’ But it turned out that she did not. The creature dropped its bee disguise and she saw a peculiar twig-limbed winged creature. It buzzed angrily, gave her a small, but eye-watering smack on the nose, and flew away.

Henry had followed the whole encounter, and as the creature flew past him he leapt, like the predator he was, and caught the creature in mid air. He came to earth with it crumpled under his paws and leaned down, teeth bared.

‘No,’ said Lucy, ‘No, no.’

She prized Henry’s paws off his quarry and scooped it up. It looked like a collection of tiny sticks with a pair of transparent wings and a small, angry face.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, and took it to the nearest tree where she laid it in the crook of a branch and watched until it recovered enough to fly away.

Lucy knew that if she kept on seeing these out of the ordinary beings, she would not be fit for normal society. People would notice, even if she never admitted a thing. So she refused to believe in their existence, even when Henry clearly saw them too. Gradually, with much practise, Lucy made them fade back into the usual world, to become shadows and nothing more. She was sad, but there really is no room for magical things in the everyday human world. Henry continued to chase shadows, but hardly ever caught them.

What We See In The Woods: Part Three

What We See In The Woods: Part Three

The fragment of a song was playing in Angie’s head — couple of half-remembered words and a bit of melody — over and over on a loop. She paused in her digging to try to recall the rest of the words, but could not, and went back to her task, shovelling earth out of the hole to the rhythm of a mostly-forgotten song.

A fox leapt the neighbour’s fence onto the lawn, a small rabbit hanging from its bloodstained mouth. Angie gasped. The fox looked at her, the rabbit kicked, and Angie instinctively stepped forward and reached out. The fox gave the rabbit a brutal shake, sauntered past Angie and in two jumps went over the fence at the end of the garden, into the woods.

So much for the joys of nature, Angie thought. She dropped the hardy palm tree into the hole and began to fill around its roots, wondering if it was not going to look out of place against the deciduous woodland behind it. Not so Mediterranean after all.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw someone watching her from the woods, someone peering through a mass of green leaves. Angie turned to look. There was rustling, but no-one there, only the trees and bushes. A bird, perhaps? They had heard owls in the woods, so maybe an owl had been looking at her. She turned away again and pretended to be absorbed in filling the hole around the roots of the palm, but all the while paying attention to that place at the edge of her vision where the shy thing might reappear.

It took a while, but at last she heard the undergrowth rustling and saw two large round eyes watching her. That could be an owl, she thought, but it was hard to see anything else but leaves.

Angie wondered what she could do earn its trust. What might it want? Owls were carnivores, so the next day she brought out a piece of steak and laid it on the flat top of the waist-high fence. she retreated to watch from the house, but no owl showed up. Eventually a magpie swooped down and carried off the steak.

Perhaps it was not an owl. She laid a row of peanuts along the fence and stayed in the garden, half-heartedly pruning a rampant buddleia. This time it came. Softly, slowly, as if they were playing a game of statues. Each time she turned a little towards the creature it stopped and seemed to vanish, but when she turned away the eyes opened again, fixed on her, and came a little closer. Now she could tell that it was not a bird, but some other creature. All she could determine from the limits of her peripheral vision was that it was larger than a fox, and had eyes set in the front of its head, like a human.

She stood quite still. There was a quick flurry of movement and when she turned to see, all the peanuts were gone and so was the creature.

The next day she set out more peanuts and stood quite still next to the fence, looking away from the direction of the creature’s approach. After a while she sensed its presence and then saw it softly sneak towards the peanuts. A swift movement took the nuts and the creature retreated.

Without looking round, Angie placed a few more nuts on the fence. Minutes passed as the creature moved up again and took the nuts. She replaced them and turned part way towards it, trying to make out what it was as it crept towards the nuts.

They repeated these moves several times. Each time Angie turned a little more to face the creature, though never looking directly at it.

Eventually it waited just beyond the fence for her to drop more nuts. She did, and fingers like twigs brushed her hand. It was hard not to react, but she managed.

Pulling the last few nuts from her pocket, she laid them down. As soon as she saw the movement, she turned her head to look, and saw two large brown eyes in a face made entirely of leaves, a short body covered in shaggy brown lichen, and little twiggy fingers filled with nuts. They looked at each other for a moment.

She gasped. The creature gave a low squeal and sped away, vanishing into the bushes.

Angie was never able to coax it out again while she was in the garden, but she continued to leave out peanuts, and something always ate them.

The Legend of the Mirror

The Legend of the Mirror

In the Shuckleigh Museum there is an exhibit labelled ‘Eve’s Mirror’. No-one seems to know where the name originated.

The object in question is a solid silver disc about twelve inches, or thirty centimetres, in diameter with a patterned rim and an elaborate twisted handle across it, terminating in stylised flowers. It is a mirror, but the plain polished surface faces away from the viewer in the museum for display purposes, or perhaps for other reasons.

It has the local reputation of being a fairy mirror, but the museum curators assure us that it is, in fact, Roman.

The first known record of this beautiful object in in the 15th century when it was in the possession of Eleanor Mosse, wife of Sir Thomas Elkin Mosse.

Sir Thomas went away from his lands for two years and returned with a wife, Eleanor. By all accounts she was beautiful, with dark hair and eyes, and she often wore green. She was tiny and most delicate looking, but with a fearsome glint in those dark eyes when she had cause for anger. The rumour spread that she was a fairy woman.

She brought with her a number of remarkable things which reinforced this idea, the mirror being prominent among them, and her pure white horse which only her own groom, himself an odd, taciturn fellow, was allowed to tend.

Having the reputation of fairy origins was probably an advantage to the lady. No-one would have been eager to anger her in any way, for then they would not only have had her to deal with, but also all of her kind.

Sir Thomas had a young niece, who came to stay in his household under the protection of his wife until the time came for her marriage. A rich baron had taken a great fancy to the girl, who was lovely in that pink-cheeked way of young girls, and the marriage was a significant step up for the Mosse family.

Eleanor showed every sign of fondness for the girl, and would allow her to sit in her rooms as she was dressed and her mirror was brought to her, covered in a silk cloth. The maid held up the mirror by the twisted handle and drew away the cloth so that only Eleanor could look into its reflective face. One day the girl asked to see herself in the mirror. Eleanor refused.

‘But why?’

‘The mirror tells only the truth, and the human is rare who can look upon the truth without harm. People must live in their lies in order to make life possible.’

The girl was indignant.

‘I do not live in lies! I want only the truth.’

‘That may be what you believe, but you are very young and have dreams and a world in your head that is not like the world that is.’

She put away the mirror and ceased to allow the girl into her rooms when she was dressing.

The girl was disappointed and angry, believing that she would see the truth of her own great beauty in the mirror, and that Eleanor did not want this. She kept her counsel and waited for an opportunity.

One day she was left unattended for a while, and Sir Thomas and Lady Eleanor were out riding. The girl took her chance and slipped into Eleanor’s chambers. Taking the mirror out from the box in which it was kept, she slipped off the silk cloth and gazed upon her own beautiful face in its reflective surface.

They found her there, the weight of the mirror dragging on her arms, her face haggard, eyes wide, unable to look away until the cloth was thrown over the mirror once again.

The girl spoke only nonsense afterwards, and she cried a great deal. when she was not crying or babbling, she fell silent and stared into the far distance at things only she could see.

She was quite unfit for marriage.

Sir Thomas was furious. He burst into his wife’s rooms and demanded the mirror.

‘It is not the fault of the mirror, but of the girl,’ the lady said, but Sir Thomas was in a high fury. He took the mirror, rode to the lake, and threw it in.

Eleanor called for her white horse and rode away from Sir Thomas’s house, along with her groom and the few things she had brought with her. When she did not soon return, Sir Thomas set off to find her. He came back five years later, a broken man.

He had the lake dragged and the mirror retrieved, polishing it clean himself. For the rest of his life, which was not long, he sat in his library staring into the mirror, weeping, and begging whatever he saw there to bring back his wife.

She never returned, for a fairy once offended can never forgive.

Sir Thomas’s line ended, and the mirror, boxed up safely and locked away, passed into the hands of his brother, and then down the generations until the last of the Mosse line donated it to the museum.

Did the curator who polished it for display wear a blindfold, or did they take a look at themselves and see the truth? The museum label does not say.

The image with this post is of the Wroxeter mirror, which is on display in Shrewsbury Museum. If you ever get a chance to visit this museum, I can recommend it highly.