Short Story of the Month
‘Dubh’ by F. E. Clark
Our new short story of the month is ‘Dubh’ by F. E. Clark.
‘I’m the watch-keeper. It’s all I can do now—bear witness. I’ve not slept properly for months. I won’t leave my post for I fear I’m partly to blame for what has happened. I wait for the dusk that will not fall and sit guard through the night that does not come. At the allotted time I’ll make the birds sing.’
F. E. Clark lives in Scotland. She writes, paints, and takes photographs—inspired by nature in all its forms. A Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions nominee, her poetry, flash-fiction, and short stories can be found in anthologies, and literary magazines including: Eyeflash Poetry, Fly on the Wall Press, Kissing Dynamite, Burning House Press, Matchbook, Molotov Cocktail Literary Magazine, 404 INK, CHEAP POP, Bending Genres, and Spelk. More details can be found on her website, www.feclarkart.com, and she tweets intermittently at @feclarkart.
I sit by the window in Eaglecliff—our stone and glass eyrie. It’s a chimera, looming on a crag looking away out to sea on an island off the coast of Scotland. The salt blasted ruin of a medieval fortress, and modern architecture inspired by the wooden boats the islanders used to make. The old stone foundations and walls still stand proud, but now they are fused with the slick steel, glass, and wood. A folly—the architect’s final project. There are caves the smugglers used to use beneath me, and the vaulted steel-boned glass atrium soars above my head.
The waves are calm today but there is a storm approaching. It seems the sun’s always in my eyes now. I dream of nights past. I’m the watch-keeper. It’s all I can do now—bear witness. I’ve not slept properly for months. I won’t leave my post for I fear I’m partly to blame for what has happened. I wait for the dusk that will not fall and sit guard through the night that does not come. At the allotted time I’ll make the birds sing.
‘Becca, my dear?’ He strides in as if nothing is wrong. I pretend I don’t hear him. I can’t remember exactly when I first turned my face from my husband—only that it was after night became forever day. When I realised he couldn’t be stopped.
I rock as I scan the horizon. It’s time. I press the button and turn to look at him.
My Becca sets the dawn chorus ringing out around the compound every day. It always begins with a single blackbird and its fluted trilling. It pleases me a blackbird should begin, though of course the name of the bird is not correct anymore. Here come the robins, wrens, and thrushes. An old recording she salvaged. Her meditation she calls it, this daily chorus of the birds. We all have our peccadillos. I leave her be, glad she doesn’t know what I’ve done. I have no care for the hour or the birds, but they please her, so I grant her this.
Becca, my wife with her ethereal skin, raven hair, and aquamarine eyes—an enchanting combination. I will admit I never imagined the effect my actions would have on the world or my Becca. Her once beautiful shining hair is now flat brown, her skin ashen, making the blue of her gaze more intense than ever. Blue enough to quench any man’s thirst. Though now she reserves her gaze mainly for the window. This pains me.
She sits, wrapped in layers, her skin tinged grey, eyes half focussed. She seems to be drifting ever further from me. I asked her once about this vigil she keeps—what she watched for. ‘Shifts’ was all she would say.
There is no dawn, not anymore. Just a continual day stretched tight over the earth. On the mainland sales of sunglasses, tinted glass, eye-masks, and all manner of darkness-bringing gadgetry have soared. If one were smart, one could make one’s fortune. There have been cataclysmic changes. At first it was thought to be the storms, the jet stream, global warming. Pods of whales had run aground on the coasts. Apple trees blossomed mid-winter. Crops at first thrived then began to die.
I know what happened—why night is a thing of the past, why there is an absence of true black. Others may suspect but no one can know for sure, save I and the daemon I made the deal with. I felt the dark pull away like a table cloth jerked from a loaded table. The world has been teetering ever since.
‘I am going to my Dark Room, Becca.’ Her body stills then she continues to rock slowly backward and forward. The sky is a clear pastel blue—in the distance I can see the white of the incoming tide slashing the navy of the sea.
‘Good morning Mrs Stewart,’ I say as I move through the kitchen.
‘How are we today Mr Dubh?’ our housekeeper replies. I do not pause. I cannot abide the woman, but she keeps the compound running and cares for Becca who has increasingly come to need her. Dubh is not my name, I was furious when she first called me that, it sounds ridiculous. I looked it up, found it meant Black in the Gaelic—it was then I realised Mrs Stewart perhaps understood me after all. I hasten to my Dark Room.
‘That’s him away to his room again Ms Becca.’
‘Yes, Mrs Stewart,’ I sigh as she pats my hand. With the frequency of his visits I feel more shifts coming. Mrs Stewart is dressed in her work uniform of a white blouse and grey trousers, covered by a flowered apron. The magenta flowers and green leaves remind me of walking amongst the heather that flowers on the moor further inland.
Mrs Stewart and her husband live in the compound. They’ve a separate cottage that has a glass walkway joining it to the main building, but they maintain their ties with the island’s only village a few miles away.
‘What news today?’ I no longer have the energy to leave the maze of Eaglecliff. Mrs Stewart is my only contact to the outside world. Today she brings me tea and sits for a while. Since the shifts have increased she has stopped asking if I would be better in the village, like she did when my health began to fail. I’ve told her I won’t leave him. Today she tells of more dead sheep on the moor between the village and the cliff, of the boat from the mainland being delayed again, of bright plumed birds landing on the church roof, and worse.
‘Auld McCrae had to be pulled from the harbour this morning. He’d been howling at the sun all this week past. Nobody could stop him, and the water is that cold still. They hauled him out on a fish hook. His bairns shouldn’t see their father like that.’ Mr McCrae whom I remembered as a jovial character, a fisherman by trade, was the latest in a growing list of islanders to become unhinged since the shifts began.
We sit, Mrs Stewart and me, watching the coming storm. I grip her hand tightly. A grey bird swoops outside the window focusing us again, and we share a helpless look.
At the Dark Room door, I present my right eye by peering into the mechanism. My retinal landscape is the key, the locks release and the door glides open. My Dark Room, pardon my little joke. Not a photography studio, though a chemical smell taints the filtered air. Built to my specific instructions, this was to be our safe room. I try to limit my visits.
I step inside and the door glides shut behind me. I sigh—the dimness is a relief after the bright sunshine. My body tightens with anticipation. The room is subtly lit. There are no windows. A table sits like an altar in the centre of the room. Here, a silver box glows. It is ornately decorated with what I had first thought were angels.
Hands shaking, I shed my clothes, treading out of my trousers, throwing my socks and underwear on the floor in my hurry. Quickly I am naked and at the table. I reach out and lift the lid of the silver box. Grains of black drift out. Languidly at first. The trail of black twists up and around, circling me. I sigh, breathing it in. The grains begin to seethe. The timbre of the black changes, deepening, swelling. It snakes around my neck, my chest, my heart. Pure, perfect, endless BLACK. It is softness and velvet. It is utter silence. I gather it in my hands and rub it on my face and body. Slowly I merge.
Soon I am one and part of it. Such relief. Such release. I glory in it for what seems like hours. Afterwards, utterly consumed yet utterly powerful, I sink to the floor as if my bones are made of mercury.
Mrs Stewart goes to finish her chores. While my husband is still in his Dark Room, I sit thinking on it all. I remember when I first met my love in Paris where I was a student of fashion at the atelier. I was young and so full of life then. It felt as if the world and I spun at a faster rate than the lives of others. Since I came to Eaglecliff I’ve aged so quickly. And I was good, I could have become…, but I didn’t though. ‘I am a collector of beauty’ he’d said when he first introduced himself in that Paris café.
At first we had laughed about him, my friends and me. This brooding stranger with his expensive clothes and car—he hung around. He tells it as love at first sight, but all I remember of that summer was his insistence and the shifts, of my friends pulling away from us, the ‘happy couple’. He was charming in his persistence, he’d seemed good natured—my Dark Prince. Even then I must have known deep down that his was an obsessive kind of love, later I discovered it was not just for me. By then it was too late, I’d become hooked by him and his darkness. He is indeed a collector, a ruthless one at that. It’s an addiction. A dangerous one from which I’ve tried to avert him. I’ve failed. Utterly.
Oh, he does not stray with other women, never that. I remember him wanting a painting—an abstract canvas. He lost it at the auction then suddenly it was on the wall of his apartment. He’d look at it for hours. He said he could dive into it, that it brought him peace. Then came the want to live on an island. This particular island. The purchase and modifications of Eaglecliff, which had not even been for sale. The disappearance of the architect who lived here, then suddenly we were packing and moving. But it wasn’t until the black I really feared him. It will not be enough. It will never be enough. I fear what will come next.
The storm is nearer now. I can see by the waves the gale is beginning to rise. It’s almost upon us. I wish he would come out of his Dark Room. I daren’t go and knock or warn him.
I sleep on the Dark Room floor dreaming of the now rationed blue of my Becca’s eyes, of diving into their sea. Of every cell in my body being quenched and recharged.
I dream of when I first met Becca, our first eye contact. It was in a café in Paris, more years ago than I can fathom. I introduced myself as a collector of beauty and she had smiled that enigmatic smile of hers whilst her friends had whispered and giggled. The blue of her eyes had knocked the breath out of me. I wanted her immediately. I couldn’t stop staring.
I swim in the blue. A wave of pure wanting envelops me—blue-blue-Becca-blue. Time ebbs and flows, laps away far beyond my safe room. I dream I demand all the blue in the world. When I awake I feel such peace.
The black is mine—all mine. I closed the deal and here it is. When I had heard the news that an artist had bought the rights to the blackest of black, I did not rest until I had rectified the ownership. All the black in the world, perhaps all the black in the universe, here, condensed in my Dark Room.
How does one buy all the black in the world? Had you asked me that when I made the deal, I would have said money, of course, what else? The highest bidder, the one with the most currency this is true, but there is more—the one willing to deal with the devil. Those creatures I’d imagined were angels on the silver box—at first I did not see their horns. When the colour drained from the earth, chaos ensued. It was widely blamed on man’s mistreatment of our planet. Still, we are safe here in the compound, self-sufficient. I made sure of that.
As soon as I leave the Dark Room, the darkness fades from me so quickly I feel the air rush. I almost retrace my steps for another draught, but force myself to walk away. My clothes feel heavy and cumbersome. The light looks odd—perhaps the storm has come already.
A terrible thought begins to dawn on me. I can see no blue. I run to the living area. Becca turns slowly from the window, behind her the sky and sea are the colour of the dregs at the bottom of a glass of painting water. She lifts her head, her once luminous eyes are filmed with white—the blue is gone. Blindly she reaches for me.