Art doesn’t so much mimic reality as morph, stretch, and bewitch it. The so-called rabbit holes, the night thoughts, the stray bits we dismiss, the teeming multiplicity of various “realities” – in the coming months, the Action Books Strange Fiction Series will showcase texts that delve into such zones. The world is always waiting to be more haunted.
Torn trash rambles along a dry gutter. After dark the night air stagnates as flying ants lose their wings and crawl into the open mouths of sewer alligators. I kick up pavement dust and it scatters in the light of shopfront windows. We pause to let it clear. Encased behind thick glass, frilly cakes blaze under blue LEDs, in a display staged to mimic a glittering undersea grotto. A silver bride and groom atop a wedding cake catch the reflections of headlights passing on the street behind us.
My eyes fix onto the plastic bride and I wonder if our Mother looked that way on her wedding day, if the dress was a little snug, if we’d started to show. The smooth contour of the cake bride’s waist glistens, and I stare deeper, through the chrome dress and underneath, into the womb. You stayed inside there for a full seven minutes longer than me, alone in that dark, swooshing, rhythmic place, where we’d been locked together, wiggling, pushing, pulsing together. Then I’d left you, in such a violent way. I think of our Mother writhing on the hospital bed, still adorned in her wedding dress, its cloth torn down the middle to accommodate the gigantic size she’d needed to expand to as we grew, insisting she wear the laced garment after our father left her just before the wedding ceremony, skipping town our Grandma said, bastard blood our Grandma said. After the birth they knocked her out with a sedative and Grandma cut off the bloodied dress with shears.
Wildfires outside the city rage and smoke cloaks the sky. Transformers blew and set grasslands alight beyond the city limits. At night it makes the sky strange, all the city lights burning underneath, light swallowed by an atmospheric swamp. The towers disappear, bright blocks of office lights suffocated into high darkness. Cooled people venture along the pavements, walk their dogs on surfaces that burn skin pads away in the day. Our Grandma is dying in a hospital room across town.
I take your hand as a roadsweeper passes us, displacing dust into a cloud we walk through, a moment’s blindness. Since the lights won’t turn off my eyes see halos. I ask you if you think Mother expected a boy and a girl, one of each. You shrug your shoulders and lead me into the park and a quiet embankment where we can watch all the nocturnalized people. You check the ground is clear and we sit with our backs to reedy plants.
A bitter gleaming hints behind the city towers, a warning that morning sunrise creeps towards us. Among the plants it’s easier to breathe, a moist microclimate near the greenery. You ask me if I think she could be dead already and I look out over the park, to the bright pathways and lethargic walkers. I tell you anything is possible and that we should start walking too.
We arrive at the hospital as a white sun lifts above the horizon. I pause outside the main entrance and look at it, rising between blanched skyscrapers, the white orb, hazy behind white smoke-filled skies, white and blank.
Her room is white too. They’ve given her dark glasses because the ceiling light won’t turn off and keeps getting brighter. After they moved her to her own room away from the ward she speaks less. The small tv in the corner is tuned to a news channel talking about solar flares. I look out the room’s large window at city buildings struck by bright blank light and surrounded by sitting haze. The lights of the city burn inside buildings, their windows shimmering in gold eye-shine. You sit in a chair by the end of the bed, my brother, holding your head.
After a time Grandma wakes enough to recognise we are in the room. I take to her side. She doesn’t look frail, like old people do. The blank light falls into the room and over her. Her will shines against it. She asks me if I remember the place with indigo clovers. You blink, brother, and I can feel you look at me.
The place where indigo clovers grow beside a stone bridge. It’s way out of the city, along an old barren road, empty flat land for miles, it resides straight through. At a point the road crosses water and a simple dark bridge carries it. After Mother left we’d stop on the bridge, and Grandma would hurry us down the low bank until dried grass turned to green leaf and indigo clovers covered the ground up to clear dappling water.
Grandma nods and asks me to push her shades up onto her forehead. Her eyes are closed and she’s smiling. She points to the unit at her bedside, to a folded piece of paper, and says she made the nurse write something down and promise to give it to me, or to you, brother, if Grandma couldn’t deliver it herself. I unfold the paper and she opens her eyes a crack, sparkling black and small. She nods and sees I’m reading and closes her eyes back up again. Indigo clover, it says, at the top, underlined. Then underneath: eight across, thirteen up. I hand you, my brother, the note, and you read it and we exchange a look.
You can go now Grandma says. She says she’s all right, that we shouldn’t be here, that she wants to be alone. I say are you sure but I know she is. She wants to be cremated she says, she makes us promise. I remember sitting in the indigo clover years ago and Grandma telling us how she was afraid of being buried alive, of waking up after having been mistakenly found to be dead, and dying for real in a dark lonely place. I promise but I don’t know how we—you and I brother—are going to make it happen. The city has banned the cremation of the deceased, while the air lies thick with burning.
We replace her shades and thank Grandma and leave the hospital.
Away from the hospital we wait until late afternoon, when the heat doesn’t scorch lung linings with each inhalation. We attach our masks and put on our silvery heatproof ponchos. The city ends quickly and soon we are out and walking the long road. Open flat land covered in dried grasses borders us in every way but behind. We don’t turn back to look at the city. Far in the distance, to the east, dark smoke rises above a horizontal slit of revolving red flame. We walk for hours, until the white of daylight dims a fraction and a shadow hand starts to stroke across the fields. The red fire stays far away, or at least appears to. Dark smoke reaches monstrously high to the blank heavens.
After some more minutes you pull on my arm. I’ve almost walked over the dark bridge without noticing. The road is flatter than I remember, with the bridge only visible from the stream below. We scurry down to the right, the way Grandma would direct us down every time as she’d stand on the field edge and watch our descent. Then we’d pause and look for indigo violets, the place where they clump at the corner of the bridge. They’re here, as bright as ever brother. You say yeah, here despite the heat and the fire and the smoke.
Under the bridge the air is fresher. We pack our masks and ponchos away. A dirty yellowish light falls around us, a twilight made of smoke and dust. I kneel in front of the indigo clover, bushed around the bottom of the dark bricked bridge. The bridge’s tunnelled arch amplifies the stream’s trickling travel. I dip my hand into clear water. The water level is lower than years ago. That the stream’s water still runs makes me almost lose my composure. You sense this and step towards the tunnel wall, taking the folded piece of paper from your pocket and unfolding it. Placing your finger on the bottom end brick, behind indigo clover, you count eight bricks across, and then thirteen bricks up. We stare at your finger as it rests on a brick that looks like all the others. You say this is bullshit. I place my hand, palm-first, onto the brick and push. It gives a little and in reflex you pull your finger back. Shit, I say. I push again and rotten mortar falls away. With a little force the brick moves inwards and then disappears into a dark space. We gently pry brick by brick free, the mortar soft and sandy, enabling us to wrench each brick carefully away from its place. Faster, afraid of running out of sickly-hued light, we are so distracted in our task that the hole reveals its contents and it’s only that I stumble on the stream’s edge when lowering a freshly released brick that my attention strays to the bridge’s open wound. There are bones inside, roped up, a skull affixed with manky strings to what looks like a wooden board. You step away, into the stream, getting your feet wet, awkwardly nestling your ankles amidst the rocky part underneath the bridge.
I let you stand and watch me, and you silently observe as I release more bricks, making my hands bleed while the rough surfaces scrape me, and then the hole is big enough to drag the wooden panel out. We see it is a door, a door we recognise from our Grandma’s place when we were young, a door that went missing from its position gathering cobwebs in the garage where we’d play. It became absent with our Mother and the small hole in the skull tells us she didn’t walk away from us like Grandma said; she sank. I put the door down flat so that it rests at the side of the stream, fixed on rocks as water passes. Some of the bones have detached, some of the rope has disintegrated. I fetch what bones there are at the bottom of the hole in the bridge wall and place them with the others, building up Mother on the door. She did leave us then, you say. We exchange a look.
At the centre of the door, where folded hands might once have been tied and placed to hold, a small bundle is fixed, criss-crossed with rope. Mother isn’t the only thing Grandma wants us to have. I break brittle rope away from the bundle and unwrap degraded material. As I peel the layers I see the cloth is shredded and laced and stained. At the centre is a small box that rattles as I turn it over. The fastening is rusted shut.
Somewhere behind the blank sky the sun sends out light that brightens the twilight unnaturally. Underneath a bitter glow I drape what remains of Mother’s dress over her dusty bones and place a posey of indigo violets to replace the bundle in the void where her hands once were. Stepping away, I crack the box against the foundation of the bridge. The metal crumples in on itself and one side opens up. Old coins, tarnished by years shut in a damp and stinking place, slip over one another as I examine the contents of the box. Most of them are darkened but a few smoulder gold. I show you and a coin accidentally falls free from the box. You stagger backwards to catch it, and mid-stumble your foot impacts the top corner of the door, dislodging it. The door spins so that the wood eddies free and Mother heads bony feet first onto the deeper stream, taken by the force of the water, heading east.
With the coin retrieved in your fist you stand sodden through. We stare as the door floats on, taken away from us, scooting regally down the creek, between the flat grasslands. Dust covers the distant fields, making them grey, a dead skin landscape under pluming dark smoke clouds.
I take off up the short dry bank and along the stream edge, running to follow Mother, like she’s escaped, like we are supposed to do something with her, now we know. The stream rushes and I keep sight of the door. Flatly, she sails.
The light is fading. A pungency fills my air, thickening with smoke as I head towards the red wildfires. Burning crosses the stream further on. I can see that if I run more I could get caught by flame, if the wind whips around and pushes differently. Sparks wind up high. I’m close enough to witness new fires arise where cinders are catapulted. I stop and turn around and see the dark bridge aglow in reflected inferno. I know you are there, watching from the tunnel.
I stay for as long as I can, spinning. I can’t take in the landscape. Smoke hurts to breathe, tart and acidulated. Mother on the door floats onwards, towards flames dancing over the stream. She’ll have a cremation, but its Grandma who is more deserving.
I trudge back towards you, crushing crisp grass with my steps.
The tunnel is darkened as I enter it. You stand surrounded by black but lit by the crimson on the fields behind me, closing in, and we know we have to move. You have the box, we have the coins, and we’ll find someone to sell them to, the collectors in these days more fervent than ever, seeing importance in their act of preservation.
You ask me if I think she’s dead. I nod and say most likely.
Rebecca Gransden lives on an island. She is published at Tangerine Press, X-R-A-Y, Expat Press, and Ligeia, among others. Her books are anemogram., Rusticles, Sea of Glass, and Creepy Sheen.