Delighted to introduce you to a new short story by one of our most prolific writers in our skills exchange, Mark Kelleher
The child plucked the fluffy-duck from under its velveteen pillow, inspected it with an odd confusion, and began to strangle it. The act was delivered with a guttural gasp, disgorged through clamped teeth. The sound was a common projection from his lips, the first he made after sleeping. Sometimes it was espoused in a lower tone, as if the child had surrendered to the routine of it. Accompanied by a leveraged sigh, most mornings at least, he would arise, brush off the lasting effects that sleep brings, and get about doing his task. Simply yet always precisely. Some mornings, however, had much more of a frenetic beginning, depending on how he’d woken – his earliest adoration, of the very few he harboured in his short life, was for untroubled sleep; to be roused out of sleep, purposefully by her or by some accidental noise, infuriated him beyond belief. Awaking to the shuffling of feet on the floors of other rooms, or the baying of far away dogs, the child would prop himself quickly, toss his duvet aside, and attempt to shatter his ribs with desperate screams. His fingers entangled around the duck’s ruffled neck, he would twist tightly with all of his young strength. It was the creature’s eyes, marbled slits of mauve, which the child became lost in, staring them down hauntingly. He hated that fluffy-duck with an absolution that defied his years. He was six years old then.
The act lasted for mere seconds and took place immediately after the first chiming of his alarm-bell. There was the initial head-rise, the quick stretch and sigh, the arising, and then, finally, the reach for and strangling of the fluffy-duck. Gripping the creature’s neck, the child’s pointed face contorted with awful spasms. His tiny teeth clamped tighter than a vice and his eyes sunk back into his skull, diluted and convulsing as though wired by some fit.
To contemplate the act was beyond the child. The timescale of his first doing it to the present day could not be mapped by his limited memory. It was only in the instances of now, all the moments of the immediate present, which his mind chose to function in. The only genuine semblance of all his doings was in the rooms which he inhabited, the possessions he embroiled himself with, the long-term effects of his movements and wrongdoings. He was, in essence, a child possessed by nothing at all. His intentions were unclear and wholly irrational.
The neck of the duck was severely worn, a wealth of its red stitching having loosened and burst through daily mangling. Its head, for now, lay in place – though for how much longer it could not be known. A fluffy-duck, no matter how well it’s manufactured, can only take so much toil. Why the child chose to orchestrate his own misery through that and not something else was also unknown. It was a present, as far as he could recall, but why it had come to this – routinely engaging in battery of the damned thing – never troubled him or came to him. It was, to put it simply, an abandoned toy one day, and then it became a necessary tool another. In rare moments of contemplation, or when thoughts emerged out of the dream-world of sleep, the only purpose he could assume was accurate was simplistic and, to him, somewhat understandable: someone, something, somewhere in between his days, needed to die badly.
It could just as easily have been something else, some other fixture of his room: the porcelain faced Mickey Mouse clock on the far wall; or the star-stickered universe of his ceiling; or an even more prime candidate: the buckled rocking-pony. But no, it was the duck, perhaps because he was nothing more but too close to the child, that got it at the beginning and would be condemned now forever. Its eyes refused to blink. The silly dickey-bow of silver and turquoise stapled to his miniature sailor-suit stank of mould. The fluffed tail, complete with toy-store tag, had been dropped in some sauce sometime. Enclosed inside the fluffy-duck’s chest a hard, squared box lay, where the child’s father had once put batteries in. Back then, when its beak was pressed hard, it would jerk into motion, mouthing ‘quack-I’m back, I’m back –quack,’ but now it was broken and the box felt like a festering dead heart.
One day, the child planned, he would set down to dispose of it – to take mother’s nail-scissor to it and incise its stuffed belly, removing it and letting it smash on the wooden floor. But for now it would stay, he decided without much hesitation. The lifeless heart, black to its core and dead now, would remain as a sign. He thought of the thing he once saw – an idle body dumped on a hospital bed, drool spooling at its mouth. It was little less than 2 years before the present day. It was whilst visiting his dying grandmother. A spastic, his father noted.
This morning it was no different. The electric din of the Mickey Mouse-clock buzzed and rattled with the rapidity that inhibits all kiddie trinkets and pulled the child from a dream where he was being chased by a hedge-clipper headed monster. As he arose he slammed his hand at the wall beside him and waited as his blood curdled and ran in a cold wave from his toes and back to his waking brain. Then he arose. He looked around the room – left to the clock, across to the still rocking-pony, down to Fluffy-duck – and scrunched his fist and began to beat hard against his duvet and pillows and wall, grunting loudly. The horror of familiarity droned into his ears, pained behind and into his pupils, and tore at his face. It was another day, the child realised, of arising to the exact same moments that every day brought.
His animalistic moans, stronger and more violent than ever before, shut out the door’s creaking as it opened. His mother walked in, clicking her tongue hard against her pallet, her be-ringed finger waving frantically. She was used to this by now, used to the horror of it all.
‘Oh, child, what is the matter with you now? Tell me, for Heaven’s sake.’ She inquired.
Cloaked in a flower-patterned nightgown, her hair concealed by a tightly wrapped towel, the mother made towards the child’s bed. Tight-lipped with a faint dagger-scar trailing jagged through her jaw-line, she had a face that appeared older than her thirty two years. Her nose had a slight concave in the middle, and when she spoke her throat bulged, as if words were bilious and not meant to be spoken. The floor creaked under her as she strode across it.
If he heard her, or caught her motions, he didn’t show any recognition. His small fists continued to rain down hard on the tussled duvet, the pillow, the ruby-red headboard with dust-clouds springing from it. The pillow became crushed and he focused specifically on where his head had indented it, pounding down and down again on it as if it would somehow enter a wormhole and invade his skull. Each hit brought with it a small gasp, again guttural and pitched like a bewildered gull’s squawk. His mother was used to the spectacle and though saddened by it looked on with a sense of intrigue. She was familiar with the routine strangling of the duck and had come to terms with leaving it as it was. After having toyed with removing the creature from the child’s ownership, she hadn’t the heart to do so in the end – to remove from him his sole source of comfort: violence, and his daily enacting of it.
Sensing the child’s toil had momentarily ceased the mother stepped forward and stooped down to where he sat and slowly began to whisper in the motherly way of mimicking children.
‘Come on now – who’s my bestest little boy?’ she wanted to know. ‘Tell mummy, come on.’
The Child hosed out an exaggerated sigh, letting his arms drop to his legs. A trail of snot had suffused with his spilled tears and he drew an arm across his face, removing the thick glob with it. Fury had once more inhabited and left him, as it did most mornings, yet something was different. He scanned the room once more and concluded that his dream, where it felt like mud had eaten his steps as he trailed away from his chasing beast, was more fulfilling than all of this. He wanted it back. That desperate sameness which greeted him each and every morning jutted out, paining him everywhere. The clock’s ticking may as well have been a set of pincers stroking the centre of his small brain. The pony, that awful pony Santa Claus had delivered upon him, was quietly dead – a far cry from a horse, that proud beast he had specified his interest for in that useless Lapland letter. It was somebody’s fault, he felt, and maybe it was his. Either way, somebody was faulting his world and he had enough of it.
His mother remained quiet momentarily, leaving the child – as she was used to doing by now – acclimatise and adjust his mind and his ways to the new day. Her eyes were averted towards the floor where not a single trace of dirt or speckle of dust could be seen. The child was an ardent sweeper, had been since learning the skill of standing upright and walking unaided. In between the fierce bouts of anguish, the child was a meticulous cleanser of dirt. His nails were consistently milk white; he tended to his teeth thrice a day, attacking them with his brush and peach-tinged paste; any item of clothing daubed in grime, or wet through from rain, was quickly discarded and fed to the machine. It was a quirk, another unexplainable schism separating the child from normalcy, that the mother could only observe in silence and hope would somehow depart, like bed-wetting, crying, or childish greed.
The child didn’t respond, hadn’t even heard the words she had formed. They came to him in a light drone, barely audible under the enormous clicking of the Mickey Mouse clock on the bedside.
‘Well,’ she inquired further, ‘how about it, then?’
She stood and whipped the curtains open. A blast of sharp light burst through the room, invading the corners of it – the high-ceiling with its lapsed universe, and the child’s expressionless face.
The mother, her back to the incoming sun, stood and studied the child’s stillness. His eyes were now closed, his mouth very slightly ajar. His fingers were rubbing against themselves slowly. The appearance of light and warmth on his face did little to stir him.
‘Oh, what’s the mat…?’ she started.
‘Leave,’ the child returned. His intonation was harsh, a spat demanding whisper.
The mother, used to this by now, but no less incredulous, sucked in a lungful of air. Her face dropped into a rigid anger and pulled the scar tightly across her trembling jawline.
‘You brat – what did you just say?! Come on – out with it, boy,’ she cried, wielding her finger at the child’s unblinking face. ‘Repeat what you just said. Right now. Repeat the thing you just said, god damn you!’
The question, she soon realised, was to remain unanswered. Trance-like, the boy remained, his sleep-encrusted eyelids fluttering as if stirred by another dream. His hands were now still, crossed. The light remained on his face and made him appear ghostly where he sat.
Often she thought of the young boy not as her child, or even a child alone, but a just a thing. A vile thing, more often than not, but a thing she was responsible for, was burdened by.
She looked on with puzzlement and cursed her decreasing love. She was aware, of course, of the many purported certainties of motherhood: of eternalised love; of harbouring an unerring patience for your infant; of cherishing the sorrow as well as the glee. But the fallacies always broke through, as they do, manifesting deep and growing true in her all of the time. Later, having had these thoughts, she would envision the child dead and not being around anymore. His untimely expiration would take on differing guises, infiltrating her as she went about the daily chores. He would be snatched and never found; the morning milk-float would reverse onto his breaking body; a phalanx of cancerous cells would bed-bound and eventually reduce him to little but bone. Guilt, she was horrified to admit to herself in those quiet moments, did not come with her visions. Staring at his pictures, into the glaucous and uninterested pupils, she felt little or no love at all. The child was an it, not a he. The truth’s turbulence kept hovering, like a faint mist on her day to days. It was only in the quiet moments, where she was reminded that he was still merely just a child, that a brief sadness came over her. In the gnashed teeth of the cartoon dogs etched into his woollen socks and the stabiliser bike with its woven basket and the sandals with flashing lights that he wore – it was in these moments that his reclusive nature dissolved, and the solitary, cruelly helpless, child emerged to her.
Today, however, was without sentiment. His cryptic stillness had begun to infuriate her. She wanted him to arise, to flurry around the room like any child his age would.
‘Get the hell up!’ she ordered. ‘Come on – I really have had enough of this. Up, now!’
The child continued as he was, obscurely aloof and content to be just sitting there, listening to the wailed soundtrack of his mother’s anger, her spasmodic arm-chopping and spit.
‘Get out,’ the child said. ‘I told you once already. Leave my bedroom, and shut the door. Go.’
A moment later, he was upended atop his mother’s shoulder, digging his nails into her spine neck and back. Scratching turned to awkward punching and, finally, desperate slapping. Then it struck him: the world seemed different from this angle and the sameness was momentarily vanquished. Upside down, the world seemed new and alive, and revealed to him scenes that appeared to make more sense. The hallway chair was attached by its legs to the ceiling, as was the landing table. The ceiling itself, up there, was carpeted, it’s bright threading offering an overhead view of woven flowers and patterning. Mother’s feet, cocooned by her slippers, were there also, clapping along above him. He didn’t want it to stop. He wished the calmness that was now settling in him would stay inside him forever.
The mother sat the child at the kitchen table, where a spread of food had been laid out minutes before. Three seats had been pulled up, like they always had been, and he waited for the man his mother called Pop to sit and grunt and spoon the gooey slop into his toothless mouth like he did every morning. The child’s fork and knife – with its plastic jagged edges – always pleased him. They were purple and on the neck of each one a roaring dinosaur, a T-Rex, his father once informed him, was stationed. They were wholly different to the steel, featureless utensils his mother and ‘Pop’ attacked their food with and this pleased him. On his plate there was a cup propping up an already beheaded boiled egg showing the sun-side. The child expounded a sigh and looked to his mother who was buttering a slice of crisp toast.
Catching the child’s embitterment, the mother dropped the slice and the slid the knife across the table.
‘Spit it out, child. Go on, then. Letting it rest on your tongue will rot your teeth,’ she announced, reaching out again to retrieve the knife. ‘And don’t forget, Pop’s at the table.’
The child kept staring, wondering if concentration like this could hurt, perhaps even kill, someone if he kept at it. On television, an outlet he devoured, men changed other men by thought. Once, he had seen a paratrooper fix a tangled chord not by his hands, but by his mind, or prayer – a word lay stranded in some lost memory, a word uttered by a man he once knew but had gone away. His father, perhaps. A man whose quotes lingered, but face did not.
‘If you’re going to remain silent, I’m feeding your food to the dumpster. So bold,’ she ventured.
The old man’s throat made a sound like an old car trying to start, as he stuffed his mouth with a hunk of the bread, his tongue slopping and trailing his lips for all the escaping goo. He wore his glasses not on his ears and over his eyes as people should, the child noted, but on a loop of string dropped over his neck. When he leaned to his right, a common occurrence whilst dozing on the veranda, a piercing whistle sounded from a contraption in his ear that looked like an ear a robot would sport. One time, when the man was having a rare bath, the child pilfered it and put it on his own ear; hoping that it would perhaps produce a sound, or feel funny. Disappointment came when it did nothing. He later brought it to the outside alley and smashed it with a rock, before burying it under the leaves. A replacement had to be bought. Pop, his mother had said, was old and must surely have misplaced it.
Sensing an answer wasn’t forthcoming, his mother returned her eyes to her plate once more.
‘Why did you do that?’ he sparked up, his eyes hollow. ‘Again and again, and loads of many other times, I have told you never to do that. Never ever. Now tell me why you do it.’
The Mother’s mouth dropped in shock, a halved breadstick dangling like a cigarette from her lips. Pop disgorged a low belch and ran his tongue along the walls of his pink gums.
‘Well?’ the child continued. ‘It’s unfair and I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. Hate it!’
His fingers wound tight around his plastic cutlery. The child continued to bore his eyes through the mother. Tears, he could see, were beginning to sluice out of his mother’s eyes. There were different types of tears, of course, and many different reasons for shedding each type. Her pupils were not yet streaked with lines of blood, and the way she forced herself to stare him back down rendered it all a moment of impending anger. Her arms shook and her head began to rock from side to side; she dropped the spoon into the cup and pushed it away to the middle of the table. Her throat swelled. She stood now and slammed the table.
‘You absolutely horrible thing, you,’ she said softly. ‘You horrible, horrible brazen brat.’
Cornered and sensing now, like so many other occasions, it was he and not she who was in the prime position for the next move, the child raised a doleful smile and plunged the discarded knife hard and deep into the egg. The yolk flew onto the child’s shirt and bottoms.
‘Yeah, if you say so,’ he conceded. ‘But you know I like to cut the head off on my own. I do it every morning. Always. I don’t know why you have to stop me having fun.’
‘Stop it, stop it now,’ the mother yelped. ‘Stop all of this, or I’ll remove all your toys.’
Smirking, the child stretched his smile and replied: ’Do. I hate toys, anyway. Do.’
Looking up to take pleasure in his demand, he found she was standing by the door, holding it open and directing a hand towards what lay outside. The tears had quelled now and only a silent anger remained. Pop slurped some tea down his throat. Puzzled by her placement at the door, the child sniggered exaggeratingly and lanced the egg again, its sun spitting into a crushed and delightful mess. Then a billowed roar that shook the whole room.
‘Getoutaerenow, getout, getout, getout,’ the mother ordered. ‘Getthehelloutnow!.’
The cacophony died. Turning to Pop, whose face had been contorted by the episode, the child waved to him.
‘Mister, Mister,’ he billowed. ‘Mister, I think you’re supposed to leave. She doesn’t want you. Ha ha he ha ha,’ he continued, still smashing violently at the mishmash before him.
Pop sprang his tongue out in a flash before studying the child with the bewilderment of familiarity breaking through senility. Aghast, he arose and shuffled away out of the room.
‘Get the hell over here. And now,’ the mother ordered again. ‘Or I may do something I could regret.’
‘Do. Go on!’ the child returned.
Within moments made quicker by noise and grabbing and panic, he was outside, naked to the towering morning light and listening to the door almost crack as it locked shut from inside. The morning chill had begun to feast on him already. He tired to not shiver.
From inside came the mother’s voice, nasal and indecipherable, making some other demand. It was, he soon suspected, an order to remain outdoors, though for how long he wasn’t aware of. Minutes, maybe, while she sat, sucked a cigarette, and telephoned Mrs. Jones across the street – just to warn her that the child was loose, and, as a result, a danger to everything in the yard. It could be hours, sure enough. A lengthy punishment that would last for the duration of her errands, leaving him to dally at free will in the yard with its grass and locked up shed and trailing vines. Similarly, and just as likely as the other imagined stints, his sentence in the garden could stretch to forever – an eternalised banishment to the 10 x 10 lawn. He would live and die here now. Yes, he pictured it vividly; Pop would be summoned to scrape his skeleton from the lawn after a week or two, and the funeral cortege trailing out the drive and onto the road, and, finally, to the bone-yard and burial. Uncontrollable sobbing would ensue, forced tears most probably, and the pictures which framed his face would be held by and sighed at by sympathising strangers. He’d then be forgotten. Life would roll on.
He arose on the step and stooped down to the pavement. It was cluttered with potted plants and upended brush with broken bristles. At the far end of the yard a small bird, possibly a wren, fought with the hanging feeder his father once fashioned and hung. The child enjoyed birds, took pleasure in the quick twists of their small heads, and the wide outstretching of their wings throughout flight. He had once before requested a caged bird for a birthday, but the mother bluntly refused. It was cruel, she had warned, to cage any creature.
Undeterred, the child had fashioned a catching device out of a stick and a bin-bag and went about snaring a ubiquitous jack-daw. But his arms were too slow, his slow steps too loud – and the bird, he quickly realised, was too smart and flew off without returning again. He watched the wren now, or what he believed was a wren, and smiled widely at it. Having pecked the seeds from the hanger, it was now clung to the ground, dropping its head low to whip a worm from the earth. The child footed ever so slightly forwards, his tongue extended.
Suddenly, the child set at it, screaming ‘Leave the worm, the leave, let Mr. Worm alone.’
The bird, terrified, duly obliged and aimed into the hedging bordering Lavender’s cottage, out of sight but traceable through wild, desperate squawks. The crisp coldness of the morning air climbed into the child’s throat and he sat and began coughing violently.
He sat on the grass and lifted his knees to his face, swallowing as much air as his lungs allowed. His throat oozed and he thought of his screaming and the frosty air and spat a glob of bile onto the grass. Unused to being in the yard, the child thought about his situation.
Something was different all right, something wasn’t sitting right and something wasn’t like what it always was on every morning. He spied out through a gap in his legs, raising his eyes to the cloudless skies miles and miles above. Why was he out here, like this? Tantrums were a daily occurrence, of course, and the house’s wide walls and ceilings were well used to echoing off his and the mother’s wild screams, but something odd surged in him. Was it the dream? Was it still alive, terrorising him into the present? He stared up at the sky.
The sun scorched in the middle of it, bleaching everything in the yard, and probably, he supposed, the entire county. He’d once read of men reaching the moon on a rocket and wondered why they hadn’t aimed for the sun, that brighter and more craven planet glorifying the sky. Its scorched yellow ignited within him a moment of recognition; it reminded him of the duck, awful thing upstairs. The truth of it reared throughout him and be started to tremble.
How had he not seen to it, how hand his hands, never mind his brain, forgotten to take it by the neck and pulverise it to its daily death? He clamped his hands and stood up, tearful now.
Shifting his glare to his bedroom window, the child focused on the thrown back curtains, and began to imagine the fluffy-duck up there, for once spared the immense grip of his hands, the morning routine of pain and suffering. The thought irked the child and a dribble of tears began to form in his eyes. It was inconceivable, he thought, that a day could journey through time without the advent of his routine: that the sun could bear itself, that sounds could sound; that the mother could breathe like she was, yet today he played no part.
At the other upstairs window, the child had something else to train his sights on. There, aloof and coldly serene in military stance, was Pop – his arched over frame pressed to the glass. This spectacle did not surprise the child. The old man did this regularly, if not every morning. He was, as usual, stripped of the gown he cloaked himself in at breakfast and was now he was dressed in a beige uniform, an emblem-stitched cap atop his skull. He appeared to be chewing on something, but the child knew through experience that it was not gum, or candy, but merely his wordless tongue. Old men did that, his father once told him, and though there was no reason why, he wasn’t to question it. Pop raised his arms now, his right arm extended out far, the left drawn tightly to the ribcage. The child knew from the films that Pop watched that he was focusing an invisible gun. Pop’s target was the window, firstly, and then whatever lay beyond it. Perhaps, the child found himself thinking, if it was a real bullet it would burst through the glass and down to him in the yard. It would be with him before the sound of the glass breaking had reduced and he would be slumped there on the cold floor. Would there be thoughts? Would it be painful, like an agonising headache? Would Pop be taken away for it? He didn’t know, but part of him wanted to. To experience what others deplored, just for change. Sometimes on Sunday evenings, when forced by the mother to indulge in an hour-long garden traipse, he heard the sharp cracks of faraway rifles, terrifying the air with speed and impending bloodshed. The county men sent bullets to the brains of rabbits, he’d once heard, and the underbellies of young foxes. Looking up at the old man, he saw the man’s lips slowly give way, just hang there, as he began to look back at the child. He then lowered the invisible gun back into his sad imagination. The child turned, uninterested now the charade had been strained of danger, and began walking the path to the locked gate.
The gate: that double-bolted, just too high, plug enclosing him into a world he hated. There were no gaps to spy through, to cast ones’ glances to the landscape that lay beyond it. He knew precisely what stood on the other side, of course; it was another patio, running width-ways along the front of the house. But from behind the gate, incarcerated within the yard without any glimpses, it was that little bit different. It was the concealment he hated, the unnecessary restrictions emplaced for reasons he could not even begin to comprehend. The road out there was quiet, and what little cars that used it drove slow, as it was locals, and only locals, who used it – always weary of the stray children. He put his face to the gate, not sideways but full ahead, as if trying to melt its steel with his nose – but it was of little use, and so instead he cut back four shuffles and queried it by just staring ahead. He thought of his father, then, a character who was less a memory than a shadow in his young brain. His name, the child recalled, was Bernard. The neighbours, and sometimes the mother, called him Bernie for short. He spoke little, preferring instead to work relentlessly as a stone-mason in the town. A moustache rested atop his lip, and he walked laboriously, as though he shouldered the entire world. Those few contents were the maximum of what the child harboured in his memory-vault of his father. And the gate, he now conceded. The gate, he thought now as he looked at the bloody thing, was open once, though it appeared so long ago to the child it may have been from during some other life. It was open once, he was sure, and people would freely enter and exit. And one day it closed and never opened again. It was a morning, one where it looked as though the sun was spilling golden dust on the whole land, and he had been at the window, like many other times, looking at nothing but enjoying the time alone. The serenity of the scene dissolved when the child saw his father at the shed door. Smoke spooled from the cigarette dangling from his lips and his eyes, the child thought, were low and sad. Bolting the door, the father crushed the flared cigarette under his boot and then bolted the shed shut. Then, surveying the yard, the child saw his father’s lips move, though who the man was talking to he couldn’t begin to imagine. The shaped words were ‘no, ah, no,’ and he had the confused face of a man who’s suffered a terrible accident and who has woken in a hospital bed half-dead and unknowing. The father, now quiet, had then ambled towards the tree, and ran his palm along the hollow ancient wood, as if saying goodbye and farewell to the giant thing. And then, the child remembered, he walked with a stride he had never before showcased towards the gate, spun his head around once more, and left. And that, as far as he could recall, was that. No one questioned it, as if it was natural to just disappear.
The child rushed forward and launched a kick at the gate, smashing his slipper-covered toes at its locked chain. A hot pain panged throughout his foot and up his leg to his belly. He felt it bleed inside his sock and when he tried to wiggle his big toe it wouldn’t move. It was a curious feeling, this one, and not as horrific as others make injury out to be. He forced another curling of the toe, quicker now, pressing it hard against the wall of his slipper. Pain oozed inside it and his face began to contort itself violently. He sighed and at the same time smiled. He was thinking of the fluffy-duck, that lame heap of happiness. He wanted the thing now, in his arms, or at the end of his slipper, or under it, or against the oak tree, staring down the barrel and waiting for the wild crack of Pop’s invisible gun to pierce a hole clean through its marble eye. The realisation that the thing had not suffered this morning – had not lost life in the grips of his hands – began to trouble him deeply. It was there, everywhere, gnawing at him now. He felt the ever-familiar pincers scrawling sharply inside what could only be his aching brain. His gut felt as spacious as a deserted ballroom, open to all sorts of irregularities and oddities unknown to him. Inside his chest, there was, he was sure, absolutely nothing at all. He inspected the floor, expecting to see his burst heart on it. Even his teeth felt tumultuous, pressed together as they were by his clamping. The toe, that desperate bloodied and bone-crackling thing down there could have been someone else’s. Unusually, it was his hearing, and little else, that was violently now. Everything boomed.
A voice was carrying on the low wind, and when the child looked he saw his mother on the lower step. Her hand was set in a frantic waving, beckoning the child up close to her.
‘My god – you’re bloodying the floor! What’s happened?! What’s happened?’ she roared at him.
The child looked at the blood trickling from his slippers. There wasn’t much there, certainly not enough to warrant the wild meandering screams his mother had let go.
‘Tell me now,’ the mother continued to call. ‘What have you done to yourself? Well?’
As the child drew nearer to the door, he made sure to greet his mother not with the puzzlement of his situation, but with a smile – to conceal, as he always did, what lay inside his very core. It annoyed him to see her there, a daisy-patterned handkerchief held lightly between her fingers, staring at him. He made the walk slowly, taking time to jump and flick the wind-chimes with an outstretched thumb. She sighed at this, scrunching the hankie into a fist, and lowered herself down onto the pathway before him. The sun had receded behind heavy clouding, casting the garden into a heavy shade. A thick shadow engulfed the yard.
‘Hurry,’ the mother ordered. ‘I don’t know why you try to drive me beyond insanity. But I tell you, child, I’m not having it any more. It’s hideous and unfair, on both myself and Pop inside there. You don’t understand the things he’s been through, you have to settle yourself!’
‘He doesn’t even know that I am here,’ the child returned. ‘I am a ghost.’
Suddenly the mother’s face had fallen from the high tightness of anger down into the falls of an inescapable sorrow. The child’s words had haunted her, his clear intonations starkly surreal espoused from the lips of a mere infant. She let the hankie fall to the floor, didn’t even notice it, and ushered the child as best as she could through the door. The child’s eyes were averted to the floor, his smile huge. He walked with a slight limp and she noticed how his slipper had given away at the seams. Across the yard, beyond the fencing that separated their house from the Doran’s, a spool of smoke was rising. It was Charlie Doran, she knew, standing in his own yard, smoking at the spot where he had buried his wife’s ashes. How odd, the mother thought, to be both burned and buried following death. She turned to see where the child was, but he had already disappeared. Like a ghost, she imagined. She made her way across the kitchen, surveyed the cluttered table and flung back chairs, took in the bird-chime of the hallway clock, and brought herself towards the downstairs landing.
She craned her head up high and listened intently for the creaking of floorboards. Like all mothers, her intuition was illimitable and she could tell, just by sound, where someone was in the house. Still angry, she had forgotten about the child’s foot, and wanted him away.
‘I hope your punishment has served you well,’ she declared. ‘Have a good think.’
She took off back towards the kitchen, fully assured her calling would be replied with by nothing but stoned silence. It always was. She saw no reason for change now. The kitchen needed tidying, Pop’s medication would need to be divvied shortly. Her body was shattered.
The child had traversed the upstairs hallways on his knees, not to protect his battered foot, but to spare the house, the mother, of the noise he created. Observant, he knew her tricks, her conniving mannerisms and her own just as practised observatory skills. The trip across the floors took an eternity. But he had arrived now and was standing by the doorway, the room’s silence relentlessly perfect. The anger was beginning to take hold; a desperate fury that came from nothing, but took over everything. His hand gripped the brass doorknob so hard that he thought at any moment it would be set alight. It was the sight of the fluffy-duck, unharmed and at peace and probably appeased, that set him off once more. Bearing witness to the room, knowing that it lay perfectly still and exactly as he’d left it, infuriated him. Why this was, he didn’t know, but he knew, or perhaps just felt, it was linked to something indescribably awful. Every feature of the room trained in on him: the seconds bouncing off the clock on the ball; the pony receding into further declination; the small, now cold, bed strewn there. Letting go of the doorknob, the child quickly strode across the room, his sight partially unhinged by the sharp light cascading through the windowpane. Rather than cast an arm to shield his eyes, the child made a point of throwing a glance to the sun, as if trying to stare down and haunt the thing from the sky. Within four or five footsteps he was at the bed, had passed the clock and pony, and he bended now and dropped to folded knees. Surveying the fluffy-duck, he thought it had gotten the better of him, its laying there a cruel form of mockery that had by now almost reduced him to tears. There was a curious hate in its immobility, he thought, and it was all he could to restrain himself from pulling its head off there and then. The eyes were like they always were, aflame and too eagerly wide. Its faults spooked him. If only the thing would explain itself, he felt, perhaps it wouldn’t be as terrible as it was, but it could not and never would. He was sure of it. Seconds passed, as he knelt and stared, and the child came to the realisation that something irrecoverable, something light-years within, was yearning to climb out of him and attach itself to the fluffy-duck. He was used to his bouts of fury by now, had become them, but there had always been a sense of knowing, a feeling that it was in some way explainable. But this was something different, a total consummation of sound, movement and, vitally, the totality of mind. He paused a while.
And then, with the sun gone, and the seconds flickering by, and the bolted gate outside, and Pop with his lost world, and the mother with her dying world, he took hold of the thing and lost himself in all of it. Used, by now, to losing oneself in motion, he could not think, as if already dead. Already he had reduced the thing to numerous clumps of wool and stitching and the fabric of its small clothing. The eyes had popped out and hammered to the floor, rolling away under the bed or pony. The pulling apart of the thing had ripped tiny tears across his fingers and some of the thread found its way under his nails. The parts that hit the floor, he kicked against the furthest wall, or picked up again and placed them in his mouth, biting and chewing before spitting them back into his hands. He saw the droplets of blood bubble from his fingers and hands and at them he licked and sucked hard and began to smear all of it that he could across his face. Trance-like as he was, the child didn’t know if he was crying or laughing, but the uncontrollable jerking and shakes suggested both. His foot continued to bleed, and he stooped now and cupped the blood and smeared it on his bony arms. Somewhere in the act, though he did not know when, he had undone the locks and thrown open the window. The yard below was as still has it had been, but the widowed neighbour had gone inside. He looked to the floor, and noticed how, where once it was pristine, dustless, it was now strewn with the dismembered parts of the fluffy-duck. Unaware about how to feel, the child simply froze and lost himself in nothingness. The throbbing in his body had ceased, and the fury, for now, had subsided. He bent to the floor and using his finger etched the word ‘hello’ into the still wet blood on the wood. The sight of blood, his own blood, failed to trouble him. It was, he felt, an extension of him, like his body, and pain, and the wild thrashings he was compelled to enact in the moments where he was lost. He sat a while, waiting for the crudely inscribed message to dry into the ground, and as it did he felt something awful emerge within his body, or his soul, as mother once called it, and he wept.
After some time, he looked up and inspected the Mickey-Mouse clock. He soon realised that time, as it’s prone to doing when you’re locked within yourself, had flitted by and he thought that maybe he had fallen into an unexpected sleep. ‘Hello’ was before him, tattooed on the floor, looking like it had been there forever. The room was as he’d left it, a mess of ripped limbs and scattered innards. Wiping his eyes, the child stood and quickly paced the length of the room. Always craving change, this change, this utter transformation, had somehow been different, and not at all comforting. In the world outside the room, with all its unrealities and protruding nightmares, it was change, precisely complete transformations, that he became most enraptured by. But not here, not his room – the one and only place that needed without exception to remain the same, even if he didn’t know why. The scene enraged him and he set off like a spinning top, fury burning from within. He tried to scream, but his voice had been lost earlier in his initial rampage, and now all that came out of his mouth was a creaking helplessness that sounded like a crow with its wings in pieces. On the floor, a little under his bed, he found the only semblance of what the mess once was: the duck’s head, its eyes popped out and nose hanging loosely by an unspooled thread. He reached and grabbed it and pushed the thing to his face, eyeing it with the meticulousness of an obsessive scientist. The child wondered how the thing would feel as it was, without sight, a ripped out nose, and bedraggled mouth; would it, he felt himself asking, be so happy now, unable to see, to smell, to mouth words like it had? No, it wouldn’t, he thought – how could it? But he still sensed aliveness in it. The head scooped and carefully cradled in his hands, the child made his way to the open window, where out across the valley he heard, like so many other times, the wild pops of stray distant bullets in flight. The child looked down to what lay below – a cemented path, a pot housing a cluster of Madonna Lilies, a rickety shovel leaning dolefully on the side-wall, a bucket of cigarette ash and butts. The grassy area was on the other side. He looked once more, stilled a moment in thought, and flung the head out and down to the yard.
Upon hitting the floor, the head bounced and rolled along the pathway, soundless yet eerily terrifying in its freefall to the ground. The child pushed his body out over the windowsill as far as possible without falling, and surveyed the damned thing down below. Again, as with all his wild actions, he began to ask himself why he did it – why pick up the thing and condemn it to further pain? And again no answers came forward – no conclusion from any of this arrived in his mind, in his being. The sight of the beheaded duck with its eyes gouged out was unsettling him. He soon felt a weird sadness stirring inside him, a hollow lurch in his empty stomach, and so he stepped back from the window. The room around him began to spin, and as if out of nowhere came a racket of animalistic screaming; at first he thought it was the radio, but he soon realised he was imagining it. He forced himself to the window once more and peeped over the sill, down to the thing, way down there. The side of the head where the eyes were once stitched faced up towards him, as if calling out silently. The truth of the thing, the utter innocence that the duck was and nothing else, came bounding up and towards him. All previous misconceptions, the illimitable delusions and litany of inhabiting day-dreams, then began to dissolve, and the child stood and shook and felt that, all at once, everything that was wrong with the world was his fault and there was nothing he could do about any of it. He howled. He dropped to the floor and writhed animally. Oh, he cried in thought, oh god, why is everything like this? What’s happening?!
Down below, the mother sat with an ear pressed to a radio turned down low. It was a symphony concert, and she, too, was weeping – not for the child, but for the maudlin pitches of the violins. Pressing the handkerchief to her crimsoned cheeks, the mother’s mind gave itself to the slow music, her eyes lifting and fading with each rising and crashing crescendo. In the distance, she thought a noise had come from the upstairs, and momentarily thinking of the child she did what she always did: let madness carry on where she could not see it. She twisted the knob and music erupted in the room. She closed her eyes, and for the next few moments obsessively folded and unfolded the handkerchief. It took her mind away from it.
By now, the child had ceased crying and was arching his way onto the edge of the windowsill, stretching an outstretched arm in the hope he could somehow summon the head to fly back to him. For a reason unknown to him, he wished for it hard in his mind, as if praying, but knew it would not work. It stayed down there, hopeless and on show to the birds who vulture-like flocked around it. He lowered himself and sat on the sill, letting his legs hanging and swaying in the air. The light rain that had been falling grew heavier, drenching the grass and making the lifeless head sodden and sadder than it already was. This emptied the child of all feeling; numbness enveloped his whole body and for once his thoughts were at a loss too. He felt then that he was dead and that he had been the one that brought about his own end. Mindless destruction, a continuous crusade he embarked upon, had reduced him to what he reduced all things to: nothingness. Rage had been displaced by a clear sense that now there was nothing much left at all. Turning back towards the room, he surveyed it and struggled to even curse the thing, perhaps because it was different, messy, and likeable this way. He felt his feet grow cold and soaked from the rain and the dried blood became runny and slid off the ends of his toes. The music that was soaring from downstairs burst through the house but failed to pervade the child’s mind. Up there on the sill, he felt on the edge of another dimension. The gate his father had escaped through, had opened and through it disappeared forever, was in sight. So was the shed where on that morning he had emerged from, but the wood now was rotting and the door was halved by an event he wasn’t aware of. Where Pop was, he did not know, nor cared. The fact of the aging man’s feebleness, the tiresome routine of appearing at the window, and the eternal sounds of warfare that boomed from his television and radio, provoked sickness in the child. For it was the sameness, and little at all else, that terrorised his days, and compelled him to violence. Sitting as he was, the child felt he was now on the edge of the world, a world spinning at a hypnotic, ceaselessly nauseous, pace. The child, realising this, wanted to get off. He pushed and jumped down.
On the way down, the child flipped head over heels, like he had done earlier on his mother’s shoulder, and spiralled to the ground that way. Unlike in the accounts of freefalling in the movies, it was not a slow journey to the where the air gives way and solidity takes over. The child saw the sky from his brief vantage point and heard absolutely nothing whatsoever. As in all instances of oncoming death, a natural reaction to recover, to reach out for a lifeline that has been eroded, took over and failed. Maybe the child flapped his arms a little, like he had watched the birds do so many times, but the sadness that humans are not birds, and cannot fly, hit him before he thumped to the floor. The child felt no pain, not immediately anyhow, and for a time was unsure if he was still dropping or if he had indeed met the ground. He had heard, not felt, a hollow crunch, as if had landed on a phalanx of twigs. What he didn’t know – why should he have? – was that his spinal column had snapped upon impact. If he was going to survive now, which he wasn’t, he would never again independently move a limb. The feeling that his body had flooded with cement overtook him, but clarity of mind had arrived, too, and for this he sensed a feeling of gratitude rise within him. The child was struggling to keep his eyes open, but his head was positioned towards the fluffy-duck’s and he saw it now in the way that all others except he could view it: for being nothing but a toy to play with. Minutes trickled by, and maybe he was dead, or on the way to it, or just merely slipping in and out of consciousness. Who knew? His eyes were shut to the world now and he knew would never open again – he had seen all he had wanted to see in his last moments, and lay with a contentment that was either forced or natural. Either or, it didn’t matter. At the upstairs window, the man called Pop rested his eyes on the scene, looking at the child like he was a felled troop downed by a hidden sniper. He rested the imaginary gun at the window and with his hand raised a salutation to the dead hero below, before moving off again to sit by the radio. Down in the yard, a door opened and a woman emerged, her mouth gaping open in a scream so terrible it wouldn’t even project its sound. And somewhere, most likely in the throes of expiration, the child heard a symphony concert float in the air that hung heavy over the shell that he had left there on the lawn. It was Bach, or Shostakovich, or Schubert, it didn’t matter which. The tight strings hit notes to carry the child into an unforgettable new plain.
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