It is my distinct pleasure to welcome DM Gillis back to the blog with another of his short stories. One of the real treats since starting this blog is being able to host stories by some fabulously talented writers - and DM Gillis is without a doubt one of those. If you don't follow him on Twitter, do. He's right here - you'll find him chronicling the world of politics in astute observations, and the world of Vancouver in classic photography. He's a fine fellow, and here, he carves out a story from Shakespeare and Coltrane, trapdoors and lies. As ever, this above all else, to his own self, he is true. Enjoy.
Hamlet, a Tragedy
He wept, looking up from his prison beneath the open air stage on the Thames, through the cracks between the boards where above the actors strode and hammed-it as he lay forever - sleepless in his paralysed and prone position upon the dark and spidery dirt. He’d been there so long that his self-pity had become a script in its own language, written overhead on the stage’s dark underside—an enormous page of words beginning at its centre and radiating out, dense and nearly endless, in all directions. A greedy soliloquy with no one to hear, for muteness was also an infirmity he suffered from the spell that held him in place. He hated her for it, and prayed to demons and angels and archaic realms, if there were any of those, for someone to come to his rescue. But no one had ever come, not for a hundred years.
Until the night he saw the burning red eyes of Cyro, peering at him through the floorboards above.
“Edwardo,” Cyro said. (It was more of a sizzling lisp.) “The stench of self-pity is more repulsive than the grave.”
“Meaning what?” said Edwardo, or thought, since he couldn’t speak.
“Meaning you stink.”
“Bastard. My plight is my own, and I’ll suffer it in my way. And if I stink, it’s because I’ve lain here a century without a bath.”
“Yes, there’s that too.”
“Who are you?” Edwardo said.
“I’ve been called Cyro. Let’s stick with that. I’m a spirit of a kind.”
“You’re the powerful demon, then. The one I’ve beckoned.”
“Not demon, but demon. One who once sat at a crossroads and heard a pitiful call, and came.”
“Then you’ve come to set me free from this spell?” Edwardo was delirious.
“Maybe,” Cyro said. “But this spell she’s cast on you is more than just ironic. (A talentless actor imprisoned beneath a stage; that’s rich.) No, a spell like this is like a house with many rooms woven one twig at a time. A clever witch knows how to squeeze time to make it look quick and easy, but in reality, it takes a very long time cast. Stones disappear in the time it takes to cast a powerful spell like the one you’re under. And a house with many rooms, like the one she’s built, takes time to deconstruct.”
“How long, then?”
“A very long time.”
“How long, damn it? How much more do I wait. Maybe I need to conjure a better demon than you.”
“The spell is already broken,” Cyro said. “I foresaw your situation long ago. Before many of your rude, muddy-faced ancestors were even born. Such is the imperceptible unfurling of mischief, as I’m able to see it, but that’s beside the point.”
“So I’m free, then?”
“Well damn it,” Edwardo startled himself by shouting for the first time in too many years, “I can’t move.”
“Try,” Cyro said.
Edwardo lifted a finger. The pain was cruel, but it was a start.
“Now hear the nails,” said Cyro.
Edwardo listened and heard the shriek of nails pushing themselves out of the boards and joists. Then the boards flew away, and suddenly Edwardo saw the light of stars.
“Now, Lazarus, rise up,” Cyro said.
Edwardo did, creakily at first. And as he stood for the first time in a century, he saw Cyro as a whole for the first time. The demon was at once hideous and handsome. A molten monster Adonis, and Edwardo couldn’t help his gaze.
“Don’t fall in love, fool,” Cyro said. “You’ve got a witch to hunt down.”
“Where is she?”
“A city in the New World,” said Cyro. “Look for her there. That’s all I’ll say, until we meet again.”
* * * * *
She waited for song, walking the streets of dreaming, hovering half haunted above herself in the dark. And she saw its face at her tenement window, its moist poisoned palms on the glass, its eyes of buttons and teeth of stitches. Of all the demons, her lips moved in unconscious summoning prayer, in all of the splendidly lonesome worlds, you are the one. Sing for me again, she said, dreams still thick round her shoulders and endless in the territory behind her eyes. But it didn’t sing, only watched. Night had come, and she woke to the popping of firecrackers and the not too distant booms of larger ordnance.
Having risen, she sat in the light of a computer screen, the grim pixels of war news. She ate thick-skinned grapes and drank coffee in her solitude, sealed in her cherished killing jar of isolation. A man upstairs played his jazz too loud, Monk and Coltrane, others. She listened carefully, and against all rules, lit a cigarette. American forces had been discovered in Niger, inexplicably. The dead marched off a transport plane at Dover Air Force Base. She showered, dressed, and left her rooms. The city was already ablaze. There was the conflicting threat of rain.
Her name was Bridget and she seemed no older than twenty, and she knew that it was her pale absinthe eyes and paper-white complexion that separated her physically from the ordinary. That even now on the burning sidewalks, eyes were on her, and she was glad. She kept the far less ordinary things to herself, however. The things that really mattered¾how she romanced shadow, could conjure and reshape matter, and how she’d survived for so long in her pale, slim body, while so much of what and who she’d known over the millennia had wilted beneath the rays of distance and history.
History and distance, they were nothing without seconds. This she knew. Seconds colliding and fusing. They were the source of everything that appeared and perished, hope and hate. Minutes and hours, atoms and ages, were incidental. Seconds ruled. Almost painfully ignorant, they were monsters, they were chaos. It was pointless to measure them the way men did. Only the dead and the shadows that ate the human heart could measure them.
She could measure them too, and she’d lived too many. She was a crypt of memory, of conflict, much of it thousands of years old, long foxed round the edges. It was the curse of immortality. Memories of torture, lunatic religion, genocides, jungle napalm. Witnessing the history of intentional inhumanity. Witch magic was a blessing; life eternal was damnation.
It was a neighbourhood of dark edges and ebbing angles in an angry, violent city. A left-behind kind of place that excited vandals and the instincts of the unseen. There weren’t even jack-o-lanterns this Allhallows Eve. The first hint of him was an out of place shape, still as a century, silhouetted against vandal-fire across the road. She stopped and said his name out loud, “Cyro.”
“I could never hide from you,” he said to her in his blistering lisp. “Not when so nearby, anyway.” He stood next to her now. “And, by the way,” he said, “I resent that this is how you see me now.” He turned a 360, showing off his filthy voodoo doll-like appearance. No longer robust and six foot tall, but the size of a plump child. “It’s offensive and clearly a slight.”
“It’s how you come to me in dreams,” she said. Seeing him how she liked, after so long was her privilege. “I dreamt you differently when we were lovers, before your many betrayals. When I could still see you beautiful and nearly human.”
“You have to take some responsibility for those betrayals,” he said. “You knew I was a villain when we met, and don’t the girls just love a villain?”
“I was a fool,” said Bridget.
“One of many.”
“Now you must end this curse. That’s why I’ve summoned you.”
“What curse?” Cyro shrugged.
“This curse of endless life; you know what I mean. End it.”
“You called it a blessing once. You begged me for it.”
“I’m begging for something else now,” Bridget said.
“But you’ll die if I do it,” said Cyro with questionable concern. “Besides, I’ll say it again, you were the one who asked for immortality, and it was granted.”
“I was young and ill-informed,” she said, now having a familiar vision, remembering a lantern lit cave in the hills over the sea in what was now Ireland—priests and fellow witches chanting in a circle and in dark passages, drumming, phantoms dancing. It was a memory of them both, the night he granted her wish. Him terrible and handsome, savage and vile. And her, ambitious, a witch too young and guileless to be consorting with a devil, unaware that it wasn’t necessary. She’d seen his cold, warning eyes in that cave, and he’d tricked her by granting her wish of life everlasting. A spell, he knew, that would cause everlasting pain.
After that he used her. He sang so beautifully from afar and in her dreams—a demon’s most powerful lies are told from afar and in dreams, he’d said once—and she was smitten. It was an innocent adolescent smitteness, though, which made it all the more amusing to him.
“I’ll die for certain,” Bridget said, “when you remove this spell. I want that right returned to me, and only you can do it.”
“I saw this coming,” said Cyro.
“Then do something.”
“You should have asked me for wisdom, instead.”
“Just do something,” she hissed.
“Who says that I won’t,” he said, “but you should know that doesn’t end with death. Death just changes the scenery.”
“Do it now.” Bridget held her head in her hands. “The suffering is endless. This world is Hell.”
“Immortality requires patience, my dear. Death is an idiot. It lacks discipline. It lacks subtlety and courage. And it routinely fails to follow instructions, even from someone like me. Especially in a case like yours. Immortals scare the life out of death. But don’t worry. Because of this maddening moan of yours, I’ve intervened on your behalf. Watch this night for a man we both know.”
“I’ve granted him certain advantages.”
“Who? Tell me who it is.”
“It’ll be fun for me, entertaining, because he’s only a man.”
“Who, damn it?”
“I think he found you a little while ago, actually, but has waited for tonight to reveal himself—a night of witches and darker things, the moon waxing like an animal chasing itself in orbits. He loves irony. He’s creative that way.”
“Tell me who it is,” she shouted, “or I’ll send you back into the fire.”
“Then I’ll cancel everything.”
She said nothing. Cyro vanished.
There was a massive explosion in a tenement two blocks away, more festive high-explosives. She saw the building’s facade crumble onto the street, as the blast wave nearly knocked Bridget off her feet
“Hey bitch,” someone shouted behind her. “What you doin’ on our street?” It was a neighbourhood gang. They were all wearing devil masks. She thought she recognised the voice of the leader. “Tonight’s some serious shit,” he said. “We’re out huntin’ for some treats, and you’re lookin’ very edible.”
“Don’t hassle her, Elijah,” someone said. It was a gang member heard from the back of the small crowd. “She’s that spooky wench from up the street.”
“Yeah,” said Elijah, “I know it, and I’m sick of lookin’ at her walkin’ round the hood. She don’t sell it; she don’t give it away. Maybe tonight we take care of her.”
“Yeah, yeah Elijah,” came assenting voices. “Take care of her.”
“We’ll cut you up,” Elijah said to Bridget, pulling a knife out of nowhere.
Flames glinted off of the blade, and she wondered if this was it, if somewhere behind a mask was the face of the man Cyro said they both knew. Elijah broke from the group, and walked up to her.
“Take off the mask,” she said, and the man did. Bridget recognised him. He was local. Tall and well built, but a bully and petty criminal. Maybe this was the night he hit the big time. Rape and murder. “You know Cyro, then?” she said.
“Don’t know no Cyro.” Elijah spit out the words, as he held the blade against her throat.
“Then too bad for you,” Bridget said, grinning.
Suddenly there was fear in Elijah’s eyes, as the knife in his grip began to move back, away from her throat and towards his own. He clearly couldn’t stop it. In seconds he was holding the knife against his own throat. Blood began to trickle. Then began to stream.
“See,” she said to dying Elijah, “your homie was right. I’m spooky.” There was horror on Elijah’s face as the blade dug into his throat. He screamed, and Bridget said, “Bye-bye, tough guy.”
Now she heard words like and coming from the gang, and Bridget set each member afire without warning. There were shrieks of agony and a grotesque dance for several moments, before the scene was reduced to nothing more than smoldering bodies and bones on the pavement.
“Well done,” someone said behind her, slowly clapping his hands.
She turned to see who it was.
“You?” It was Edwardo. “You moldy ham sandwich,” she said, “you’re what Cyro sent me? Last I checked, you were where I put you—under that stage with the bugs. This is very disappointing.”
“Not for me,” he said. “And you had no right casting a spell on me.”
“But you outted me as a witch.”
“But you are a witch.”
“But I was run out of London by the Church, because of you. By a horde of cross-dressing priests with their torches.”
“But I thought you’d enjoy the drama, since you’re such a bloody aesthete.”
“But you only did it to get back at me,” Bridget protested, “for questioning the quality of your acting.”
“But you’re not a drama critic.”
“But you stank,” she said. “Your Clown Hamlet was an apocalypse.”
“It was innovative for 1917.”
“It stank the place up.”
“Besides,” said Edwardo, now dewy-eyed, placing his hand loosely over his heart, “I thought we had something.”
“You’re mad.” She waved him away. “I don’t carry-on with mortals. I’d tear you to pieces in bed.”
“But we attended parties together. Gala dinners. They said we were inseparable. I thought they were right.”
“It was all for show,” Bridget said. “You’re a fool if you think otherwise, and you know it. A witch either hides or takes the town by storm. She doesn’t have a quiet little flat and attend the shops daily. Not when you stand out like I do.”
“A pale goddess. Everyone said so.”
“It would never have worked, Edwardo.” She was sneering now. “Besides, you stole from me.”
“Well, I was willing to try.”
“You lied,” she shouted. “You told the whole of London that we were sleeping together.”
“I did it because I loved you.”
“You were a pickpocket and an embarrassment,” she said.
They both paused and look into each other’s eyes. So many memories for Edwardo. Just a miserable pinprick in time for Bridget.
“I hate you,” she said to him.
“And maybe after all,” said Edwardo, “ I hate you, too. For leaving me in that prison. When was my term to end? When would you have released me?”
“Maybe never,” she said, smiling as a heavy rain began to fall.
“You pig!” he said, grabbing her round the throat and digging in his thumbs. “I hate you more than anything.”
She’d promised herself that she wouldn’t struggle when her time came, but this was Edwardo. Passivity was out of the question. Cyro had made him strong and had seized her immortality. Suddenly she was witnessing her life passing before her eyes, one infinite second at a time. The carnage and injustices of man. In Washington, DC, a fat sociopathic apricot held the nuclear codes in the sweaty palms of his diminutive hands. Things would never change.
If Edwardo succeeded in killing her, he’d be left behind to live out the remainder of his mortal life, to artlessly walk the streets of an unsuspecting world. Perhaps even to take to the stage again. She knew she had a duty to prevent it, and reached up taking his throat in her throttling hands. Now it was Edwardo’s turn to struggle as a small crowd of revelers raced past, and ran into a derelict building across the street, oblivious to these two people violently trying to kill each other.
“You bitch,” Edwardo gagged and gulped. “Cyro said you’d die easy, so die.”
“No,” Bridget wheezed and heaved, “not at the hands of a degenerate, no-talent stage fart like you.”
“I thought this would be more meaningful,” Edwardo choked. “I hoped for some last minute intimacy coming out of my strangling you, but you’re still the cold blank landscape. I thought you’d show some appreciation, some passion in dying so savagely, but I was wrong about you again.”
Now, as the revelers sped out of the derelict building across the street, he reached under his coat and pulled out a revolver.
“I’m going to splatter your brains all over the sidewalk.”
Bridget knew she was in trouble. Suddenly, she wanted her immortality back. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to muster whatever magic she had left to cast a spell. Just a small one would do. As she focussed, she heard the hammer of the snub-nosed revolver against her head drawn back, but no spell seemed forthcoming.
“Say your prayers and good-byes,” said Edwardo, “you little whore.” And he pulled the trigger, somehow missing his target. As it turned out, Bridget did have a speck of magic left inside of her.
The bang, however, was much louder than either of them expected from such a puny weapon, though neither was experienced in such matters. In fact, it was deafening and had caused a shockwave, pushing them both down onto the pavement. And looking up, as they fell, they saw the facade of the derelict building across the street exploding outward, its lethal flame and aggregate soon to snuff them both out as the revelers who’d set their masterwork Allhallows Eve firebomb danced and jumped with joy a block away.
She was in what was either a small gymnasium or auditorium—Cyro standing in the centre of the room in all of his tall, purple lava-like glory, surrounded by an adoring crowd of geriatric women. He seemed to be signing autograph books. Bridget smirked and made a self-deriding tsk-tsking noise.
“Oh!” said Cyro, looking up and acknowledging her. “There you are.”
“Yes,” Bridget said.
“Well welcome to our little troupe meeting. Ladies, meet our guest.”
The circle of aged women turned its attention on Bridget and applauded.
“And look!” Cyro enthused. “There’s our very famous guest star, Edwardo.”
Edwardo skulked in a far off corner. One or two of the senior women made as though to swoon.
“We’re dead, aren’t we,” Bridget said.
“Why, yes you are,” chirped Cyro. “Isn’t it wonderful? It’s just what you asked for.”
“And this?” Bridget waved her hand, taking in the entire room. “Is this what you meant when you said that death just changes the scenery?”
“Yes it is.”
“Well,” Cyro said, “this is a ladies dementia ward, and they’re rehearsing their production of .”
“,” Bridget said flatly.
“Yes,” said Cyro, with joyful enthusiasm. “It’s Hell, don’t you see. The ladies are rehearsing for a Shakespeare Festival that will never come. Never ever, ever, ever,” Cyro grinned. “And you’re the director, and our cringing Edwardo in the corner is the star. Isn’t it wonderful?”
The elderly ladies applauded some more.
“So I guess suicide’s out of the question.”
“Don’t be such a Silly-Willy,” Cyro said.
Edwardo now wept and gnashed his teeth, as a bevy of demented old women danced round him in his corner, nakedly waving their diaphanous hospital gowns over their heads.
“I hate you, Cyro,” Bridget said.
“That’s the spirit,” the purple one beamed.