Some gals we met through a local “Open Mike” event invited my family and I to pop out to their high school and participate in a public reading.
We love to show our support for stuff like that and were delighted to accept. The only problem is, I needed something new to read. And over the course of a couple of days, a notion for a short tale presented itself to me, pretty much full-blown. A few touch-ups here and there but nothing serious. It’s wondrous when that happens. All the proof I need that the universe is conscious, sentient and permanently beyond human ken.
The story’s short, vivid, to the point. Read on…
“Bagshaw,” my father says suddenly. He’s been silent nearly an hour and his voice gives me a start.
“What was that, Dad?”
“Who I was talking about.” Shooting me a stern look. “The little queer.” I don’t remember any reference to Bagshaw but, never mind; clearly he’s been off on some kind of mental ramble. “Worked at head office with me. A swish, and not ashamed to flaunt it either.” He pauses to get his breath. His lips are dry and grey. Everything in the process of shutting down. Propped up to help him breathe, Demerol to handle the pain. He’s making a sound, wheezing, could it be…laughter? “Lord, how I tormented that man.”
“What did you do?”
His face is still drawn but animated by something that looks suspiciously like a smirk. “I’d put thumbtacks and pins on his chair. Not every day, spacing it out so he’d always be caught off guard. I was down the hall but I could hear him squeal. Served him right.” I’m leaning forward, fists clenched. Make myself ease back in the chair, force open my furious hands. He angles his head toward me. His eyes sunken, lusterless. Dark holes in his face. “Other things too. I’d send him flowers, have them delivered right to his office. With a card, Love, Charlie or whatever.”
“You’re kidding.” I can’t help it, blurting it out.
“Sure.” His thin smile confirming it.
I haven’t seen this side of him before; I’ve often found him thoughtless but never believed him capable of out-and-out malice. “You hated him that much?”
“He made me sick. And I wasn’t the only one. But I was the sneakiest.” A sly wink. “I’d call him, late at night.”
“Never from home. Sometimes from other cities. He’d change his number, get an unlisted one…” His face crinkling with mirth. “Didn’t matter. I worked with the guy. In Human Resources, no less. Jesus. I knew where the bodies were buried and how to find them. That’s why I lasted so long.” He gestures for the water glass and I automatically move to comply. Holding it for him while he sips through a straw. One final indignity he must endure.
“What would you say,” I ask, once he’s done. “When you called him.”
“Sometimes nothing. Just letting him know I was still out there. Other times I’d be all…uh…y’know…you queer, you dirty, little faggot…you’ll get what’s coming to you. Just spooking him.” I back away, fumbling behind me for the chair. Then I realize I still have the glass and must rise once more, replacing it on the nightstand beside the bed. Finding it difficult to approach him again, this stranger I’ve known all my life.
“What was his first name?”
“What? I don’t recall. He only lasted a year.”
“Couldn’t take it, I guess.” There’s no remorse, that’s the thing. He’s talking about running over a dog in the street, thirty years after the fact.
“And then you left him alone? Or—”
“Hell, no.” Frowning at his foolish son. “That might look suspicious, give him ideas. I kept at it six more months. Just to be safe…” He’s fading again, ebbing away. “Old Bagshaw.” Almost a whisper. “You know, the bastard actually lisped?”
My father is sixty-four years old and staunchly conservative. A self-made man. In our house, he was the one who held the reins and cracked the whip. Stern but fair, I guess you could say. My sister sees it differently; she believes mom worked and worried herself to death, trying to please him.
I should tell him. Right now. Go over and spit it right into his face. Just to see his reaction. God. Wouldn’t that be something? I’m dying to tell him, I’m about to tell him…but at that moment his mouth sort of sags open and my dying father begins to snore.
© Copyright, 2011 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
The first one is a kook. Total whack job.
Rings the doorbell and right away starts babbling about ley lines and planetary convergences, everything explained by this crude chart he holds up for perusal. And all the while keeping his eyes cast down because he’s afraid of being “blinded by immanence” or something like that. It’s hard to make out what he’s saying because he’s weeping, practically vibrating from a combination of fear and excitement. The guy won’t be talked down or dissuaded. Eventually, he just wanders off, pausing every once in awhile to shout and point at the house. Weird.
But the word must be out because another one shows up the next day, an old man who won’t approach the door. Content to stand at the end of the walk, bracing himself on a cane when the arthritis in his hip gets too bad. He’s there until dark. And then he’s gone.
More arrive daily, most content to be bystanders, others bolder. There are all kinds of places on the internet. Conspiracy theorists and cultists and people who believe the apocalypse is due a week from Thursday.
A particularly awkward moment when a woman thrusts out an infant, screaming: “Heal him! Don’t let him die!” Closing the door but she won’t stop screaming. Rushing out to calm her, reason with her. And the whole time it’s “my baby, my baby”, the neighbors looking on with frank disapproval.
It gets worse. A steady stream of people arriving, knocking at all hours. The congestion creating a parking and traffic nightmare. It’s a quiet neighborhood and residents start to complain.
The police and authorities are, predictably, completely unhelpful. Initially dubious, suspecting some kind of publicity stunt. They check around, find the sites in question. Someone alerts the media, which means more unwanted attention, phone calls, requests for interviews. The situation only exacerbated when the Pope becomes involved, issuing a statement denouncing superstition and idolatry.
Uniformed officers are stationed around the clock, an attempt to keep the growing throng under control. Weapons have been seized, along with extremist literature and bizarre religious tracts. The situation quickly deteriorating.
Late one night, someone breaks through the cordon. Presses his face to the door, whimpering: “Libera me, Domine” and, as he is being dragged away, howling: “Miserere mei, Deus!”
Living like a prisoner now, never able to venture outside or peer from a window. And day and night, 24/7, serenaded by a continual soundtrack of prayers and hymns. Someone even sets up a loudspeaker and plays amplified recordings of rabbits being slaughtered and children crying—o, pity the suffering children.
Unplug the telephone, turn off the lights, sit in the dark. They’ll weary of this eventually, go back to their homes. Give them nothing to encourage their simple credulity.
Alone and besieged. Resigned and dangerously bored. Reorganizing the cupboards and bookshelves, performing a thousand small chores. Playing endless games of solitaire and, naturally, winning every single time.
© Copyright, 2010 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
So Dark the Night is done.
Editing, polishing and buffing now complete. After some proof-reading for typos and mis-spellings, it’s off to the printer in the form of a PDF and, hopefully, by early March we’ll have a physical book to offer you. Really pleased with the changes I’ve made; I’ve tightened the novel considerably, lopped about 5 pages from its length. Speeds up the pacing..the idea is to make the book impossible to put down. And I think I’ve come pretty close to achieving that goal.
Can’t wait to see Ado Ceric’s gorgeous cover art on a trade paperback. Hoping to keep the price around $17-18 max. And, of course, we’ll still be offering the newly revamped So Dark the Night as a free e-book for those of you who have evolved and now do most of your reading from some kind of screen. Judging by the number of downloads I’ve had over the past couple of weeks, I’d say a lot of folks received Kindles or other e-readers as Christmas gifts. After all, what else do you give a discerning bibliophile (if you’ve got over $200 to spare)?
There will be more posts re: the release of So Dark the Night (the book) so stay tuned.
* * * * * *
In the meantime, idle hands and all that: once I completed edits on the novel, I had some free time and indulged in some “automatic” writing. This is what I came up with, my first fiction and verse of 2010:
A witch’s heart won’t burn, so what do you do with it? It can’t be buried, its evil influence would still be felt, blighting crops, causing stillbirths. To cast it into a well would poison the water for miles around.
No, best to keep the vile thing locked away. In a lead-lined canister, sealed with wax, submerged in holy water.
And who better to steward the damned things than me? Serving as an invaluable repository for witch-hunters desperate to dispose of something infernal, indestructible. Making a pretty penny off it too, if I may say so. Not many willing to do the work, to be honest.
It’s the shrieking and carrying on that’s the worst. There are nights I have to stopper my ears. They never rest and they never stop yearning to be free. From a hundred shelves, a thousand faceless jars. Some of them claiming innocence, and they’re the most dangerous and insidious of all.
© Cliff Burns, 2010
They have departed to the pleasure domes
abandoned their husks to decay
Meatless, eternal, every wish fulfilled.
Etheric couplings, satisfaction guaranteed;
high adventure, simulated to the last pixel
experience without significance,
vouchsafed by an overcautious A.I.
You can never die and so
you can never live
and virtual love is no love
They can emulate everything except a soul
(but it’s only a matter of time)
© Cliff Burns, 2010
You’ll find it by looking to the right hand side, under the “Stories” widget. Just click on “Audio” and you’ll discover a large selection of my stories, poems, commentaries, even an excerpt from my novel So Dark the Night. All available for free listening and downloading onto whatever device (iPod or cell phone) you currently favour. Many of these pieces are accompanied by music, which provides dramatic highlights, a soundtrack that is either pleasing or provocative (or both).
The most recent offering is a six-minute chat about “indie” writing I recorded because I’ve received a host of questions, both here and in various forums where I hang out. People want to know what it means to be an independent writer…and I want to do what I can to dispel this notion that one goes the indie/self-publishing route because your work can’t cut it with traditional publishers. Hey, kids, I chose to go my own way because after 20+ years of dealing with inept, sociopathic, moronic editors, I’d had enough. New technologies like blogs, podcasts and print-on-demand put more control into authors’ hands, a situation I welcome with open arms.
For the record, here’s what I said–
–and after giving it a listen, I hope you’ll have a clearer understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish with this blog. And please check out the rest of my audio releases, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the production values and the power and intensity of the work.
Theatre of and for the mind…
I’ve been in a somewhat grim state of mind of late, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into. So I was sitting down today, nursing a blue funk, pondering the imminent arrival of All Hallow’s Eve. I turned on Garageband and started playing around; came up with some wacky tracks of music and thought about adding a few words, flipped through my notebook for something appropriate…and for some reason recalled “Darkness”, a poem Lord Byron wrote wayyy back in the early 19th Century. Dug out an old Norton poetry anthology, found the poem in question…and my face split into a nasty grin. It was perfect. Went with the music I’d laid down so nicely it sent a chill through me.
Here it is, a little something for the ghoul that resides in each of us, the darkness beyond the edge of town, as Mr. Springsteen would put it.
All this fun I’ve been having with Garageband means that I’ve been a trifle negligent with new blog posts and for that, my apologies.
But I’ll try to make it up to you by posting a new short story that I absolutely love. This time it’s a longer effort, around 2000 words–titled “Death Threats” for reasons that will become clear as the story progresses. I’ll post both an audio version and a PDF for those of you who either don’t like the sound of my voice (understandable) or who lack the ability to download the recording.
I have a great deal of affection for this story, which was written in mid-late May (2009). Have no idea what took me so long to add it to this blog. My guess is that this tale sort of fell by the wayside while I worked on the four linked stories that devoured my entire summer. This is a stand-alone effort and I feel quite confident that it will find favor in your eyes (and ears).
Enjoy, my friends and please do let me know what you think:
Death Threats (PDF)
My tunes have no shape, they flow and twist enigmatically, illogically. Mood music for troubled minds. Score for a science fiction film never made. Shimmering in the air around you, disappearing without leaving behind so much as a sprinkle of fairy dust.
There’s a strange dichotomy at work here: I’m using this advanced, amazing computer to simulate and record almost any instrument known to humankind…and flubbing and screwing up and patching and improvising…and ending up with some in-teresting stuff.
I’ve got over an hour of music stored in an iTunes folder. Every note of it selected, struck, plucked, bowed, strummed or sampled by yours truly. Using virtual instruments, of course, since I’d be virtually useless if you gave me a real one. Sue me, I’m an eejit savant.
So far this one is our favorite. Hand’s down. A bit of spoken word but just about all instrumental.
I call it “The Departed” and dedicate it to absent friends.
And awayyyyy we go…