Pipe and Slippers:
Good evening and welcome to my magnificently macabre miscellanea of tantalising tomes…or as some ridiculous personages have dubbed it – my lovely library.
I am Perilous Wight and here in the bowels of the city of Lancaster, in the disused tunnels of an underground train system that never was, I have made it my mission to collect every book that our self-proclaimed ‘supreme ruler f the universe’ and his mincing minions have banned from the bookshelves of the new world.
But this is not a public thoroughfare! If you have wandered in here on the ill-advice of a drag-dressed octopus and its dribbling Tea Fiend, let me advise you not to be so easily lured into a parlour by the promise of strange fruit. Well, you will find nothing sweet and alluring down here; here there is only the dark and the damp, the flickering of candlelight and the ceaseless toil of a man who did not re-animate from the dead to be pestered by people wanting bedtime stories!
But wait…what’s that you have tucked away under your arm there? Amontillado? Oh…. well, yes perhaps it is about time I put my feet up for a while, pipe and slippers and a little drop of something, the day has, after all been a long one. And I suppose I could read a very little something,
like this perhaps…
Sheath And Knife
It was a wretched night. The day had been, like all the rest that winter, blanketed by a sky as thick with yellow hairs as a she-wolf’s pelt. Around three o’clock, the sun had given up its feeble interruptions of the conversation between sky and earth and taken itself off to bed protesting a headache.
Richard keenly wished he could do the same. The great hall echoed with the sober sibilation of rote remarks, hissing like steam from vents stretched tight in cold calculated smiles. Wits upon a tight leash; conversations measured by the mark and the feather.
Only obligation held him upright in his chair. Obligation to an old friend, who had not yet arrived.
One by one the guests retired – like salamanders slipped away to cadge the warmth of some other, brighter flame. And still Richard sat, while outside the rain beat out its fury upon the leaded windows the wind sang with gusto as it swept the cobweb clouds away into the night.
Still Richard sat. And still his friend did not come.
At last, when the hall was completely empty and the fire naught but the lazy lip lick of the full bellied bear in slumber, the door of the hall swung open and in, with the storm hungry upon his heels, came the long awaited guest.
Richard greeted him as jovially as he could and bade him sit by the fire and pressed warm mead into his raw red hands and did all the hospitable things he was supposed to do as a host and his friend, Edward, thanked him and made himself at home.
It had been many years since the two friends had shared company.
Richard regarded Edward in the firelight. He looked pale and haggard – the kind of world weariness that comes from years, not hours, of storm-riding. The deep fatigue that penetrates bone and marrow until it feasts upon the delicacy that is the human soul and, bite by exquisite bite, devours it. The same exhaustion that Richard glimpsed each evening in the mirror before he snuffed the light upon another gruelling day of hollow living.
He kept his assumptions to himself.
He did not dare ask.
The friends sat in silence as only old friends can until, quite suddenly, there came a tremendous noise outside the door and Richard rose from his chair just as a gigantic wolf hound came bursting through it with something clamped tight between its jaws.
Edward rose at once “Gellert!” he chided, pushing the beast away as it leapt and lolled at him and capered all about the place shedding cascades of filthy water.
“He is yours?”
“Unfortunately, yes! I thought he’d stay put with the horses but the silly brute is loath to leave my side it seems…ho! What’s this he’s brought in? Gods above and below!”
Edward wrested the thing loose from the great hound’s mouth and held it up to the firelight. It was a bone. A human leg bone, by all accounts, and clinging to it – Richard clamped a hand across his mouth – fragments of tattered green and gold fabric.
“Curious eh? Wonder where he picked that old thing up.” Edward rose to shut the door but, before he reached it, the hound gave a loud bellow and charged back out into the storm once more. Edward shrugged, closed the door behind him and returned to his seat by the fire but Richard hesitated. He knew full well what this bone was and where it came from and every fibre of his being was trying desperately to think of a way to get rid of it before Edward realised what it was as well and ran screaming for his life.
But before Richard could do anything about it, the door burst open again and in crashed the hound, this time bearing another leg bone and a pair of feet to match. Then he wagged his tail happily and bounded off into the storm once more.
Well, this game went on all night – the dog coming and going and bringing back bone after bone after bone until Richard was on his knees with his head in his hands, Edward was opposite him with his jaw on the floor and two full human skeletons were laid upon the hall floor between the two of them.
Gellert sat and wagged his tail gleefully. As far as he was concerned, a good night’s work had been accomplished.
“Call the watch!” Richard groaned “Call the priest! Call everyone! Have them take me away! For here, before you, lie the rotted corpses of what should have been a noble woman and her innocent child. I could not stand the shame of their existence in life, but now to bear the guilt of their destruction? It is a far greater torture for your wretched hound to have unearthed them now and laid them out like accusations at my door! Oh for pity’s sake, do not look at them, take them away, and then go yourself and do not ever return for I know you cannot bear to know me any longer!”
Edward looked at the skeletons, bones shining silver and gold in the firelight.
He looked at his grinning hound and at his broken friend and then he took Richard by the elbows and he steered him gently back into his seat.
“Drink some wine,” he said carefully, “and while you recover yourself, let me tell you a story.
“We knew eachother as boys, you and I, but of course you remember that I was called away to care for my grandfather who was very ill. Eventually, the old man died and I was sad to see him go for we had grown mighty fond of eachother in the years that had passed. On his death bed he gave to me a rare and precious gift – a golden seed like no other on earth – and he bade me plant it in the soil outside his cottage and mark well to feed and care for it every day.
This I did and the tree grew so fast and so fine that within a few short weeks it towered almost as tall as the house and every kind of fruit imaginable grew in wondrous profusion upon its branches at every time of year.
Well, at first my friends and neighbours were very pleased – they wanted the fruits and I was happy to share them out, there were so many. But, after a while, they started to complain. Some of the fruits I gave them were bitter and did not taste so good, others tasted sweet but were difficult to swallow. The tree was getting out of hand they said – its branches overhung the road, its shadow fell across the whole town and its fruits fell like rain into the gardens of all and sundry.
One night they came with torches and axes in their hands and bitter cries of hatred upon their lips.
They cut down my tree until it was naught but a stump. The tree my grandfather had given me. The tree that gave fruit enough to feed the world. And I let them Richard, I sat at my window and did nothing while they hacked it down. “
Richard looked up a little, and wiped his eyes on the back of his hand.
“After they had gone,” Edward continued, his voice cracking like the charred logs upon the hearth, “I went outside. All that was left was one golden seed, lying there in the centre of the stump.”
“What did you do?” Richard couldn’t help himself.
Edward straightened up and slowly, tentatively, hands trembling in the darkness, he undid the buttons of his shirt. Richard saw his own pain and shame mirrored in his friend’s eyes. “I swallowed it,” Edward whispered, “and it has grown in me ever since.”
“Gods above and below!” Richard leapt to his feet. Edward’s entire torso was a twisted, gnarled and writhing mass of living tree boughs – bursting from his torn and bleeding flesh, forcing their way through bone and sinew like thick, black cobras, their fruits deformed and rancid; ripening and rotting in the crevices between his pulsing organs.
“How are you even alive?” Both men turned, startled, towards the voice which had seemed to grind upwards through some deep and long forgotten vault, and there, in front of them, stood the skeleton of the woman which had risen from the floor as Edward had been telling his tale.
Edward swallowed hard, “I…I do not know, My Lady.”
The skeleton approached him slowly. She reached out a hand that was naught but bone and with her skeletal fingers she reached deep inside Edward’s chest and, ignoring how he screamed and writhed and tried to push her away, she stoically removed the golden seed.
With the seed now gone, some of the roots and branches slithered away also in gory pools of bloated purple tissue and dark clotted blood. Edward looked sheepishly at the mess but Richard seemed not to have noticed.
The skeleton woman walked slowly to the door and heaved it open. At some point the storm had wandered off to play elsewhere and a morning pale and pink was peeking tentatively over a blanket of rolling blue cloud.
The skeleton woman crouched in the wet earth and with her bony fingers she gouged a hole just big enough for Edward’s seed. She bedded it down tenderly and covered it over and as she did so, out from the empty sockets of her eyes soft tears felt like rain and watered the earth beneath her fleshless feet.
At once the earth began to shake and groan and the two men stumbled giddily out of the hall to find a magnificent fruit tree towering towards the sky, its branches bent over heavy with fruits of every description. The skeleton woman reached up into the branches and she picked a fruit.
Just one golden apple.
She bit into the yellow pulp with her bare bone teeth and she sucked out flesh and heart and sinew, she sucked out lungs and every vital organ, she sucked out eyes, star bright and ocean deep, brain cells bursting with the energy of wit and wisdom, muscles lean and strong, hips wide and sturdy, breasts full and heavy with milk and every good thing a woman needs and desires. Then Margaret took her little skeleton child up in her big strong feather-soft arms and she put him to her breast and he sucked and sucked until he was as ruddy and chubby as any babe could ever hope to be.
Now I cannot lie and tell you that this is the end of the tale, for I know that Edward and Richard and Margaret and their little babe and their strange fruit tree had many, many adventures after that. But those will have to wait until another time.
For now it is well enough for us to remember that any treasure that we bury cannot remain so forever. Treasure is put into the world to be shared, the skill is in finding out who to share it with and for that task, it is always good to have a wily hunting hound, like Gellert, as your ally.
Hmpf, well, as for you, you have no ‘allies’ here, only a grumpy old ghost who wishes to be left to rest in peace…or at least work in peace, now go on, out with you all I …no I don’t give damn if you are afraid of the dark or worried about the man-eating birds …werewolves you say? Well, you should have thought of that before you broke the curfew, GOOD NIGHT!