Sarah Das Gupta
Maddy stared at the casket on the table. Why had she been the one to bring it back? After all, there had been a crowd of business associates and closer relations who should have taken the responsibility. The urn seemed to glower resentfully across the darkening room. lo The polished wood, the brass fittings gave it an air of authority, even a suggestion of power. Yes, menace too. Maddy found herself thinking aloud. She turned to close the door. The urn was surrounded by an aura of strange light. A pale blue glow seemed to radiate from the tiered base. Surely, it was just the fading light from the window reflected on the polished wood?
The next morning a strong coffee and buttered toast had revived Maddy’s spirits. Funerals always left her depressed, even though nobody really regretted her great uncle’s death. Maybe that’s why she had felt a strange emptiness as his coffin disappeared through the crematorium curtains. There had been an unspoken feeling of relief, a sense of finally disposing of a long- endured darkness. Maddy pictured the old man’s thin lips, his hawkish nose which had given him a vulture-like appearance. She remembered seeing vultures in Africa, fluttering and fighting as they ripped open the stomach of a dead antelope. She remembered when she had fallen over in the lane and cut her knee. He had commented, “That’ll teach you not to rush ahead.” He had stared at the dark blood running down her leg with a sort of grim fascination. Then there was that other time which she desperately wanted to forget. Perhaps that was why she had collected the urn. Proof at least that Uncle Peregrine was finally dead.
On her way off to work, Maddy opened the door of the spare room. The casket was standing in a small puddle of liquid. Odd, she was sure the table had been perfectly dry. Maddy ran back to the kitchen and grabbed a cloth from the edge of the sink. Damn, I’m already late for the bus. She could see that the urn was standing in a sticky, black liquid. It must have been something in the taxi yesterday on the way back from the funeral. She quickly mopped up the thick, sticky substance. Leaving the cloth in the hall, she slammed the front door behind her.
Maddy glanced at her watch. She’d been at least ten minutes washing her hands in the staff bathroom. Colleagues had come and gone, giving her curious looks. Whatever the black liquid was, it was nothing if not persistent. Rather like Uncle Peregrine himself. Maddy laughed but shivered involuntarily, despite the hot summer day. As she sat at her computer, she stared at the black, feather- shaped mark on her left hand.
“Hi, beautiful! See they’ve given you the black spot at last!”
“What do you mean Joe? What ‘black spot’?”
“You must’ve heard of ‘Treasure Island’ and Long John Silver? The pirate, the guy with one leg and a parrot.”
“Oh, yes! A kid’s story.”
“Well, the black spot means, death!” Joe whispered the last word melodramatically, an arm round Maddy’s shoulders.
“Get off Joe! She pushed him away and bent over the keyboard.
Joe wandered off to his own desk, muttering that somebody had got out of bed on the wrong side that morning.
° ° °
By the time Maddy opened her front door later that evening, everybody in Westhaven seemed to have noticed the black mark. Her boss, the man at the deli, the supermarket cashier, an old lady at the bus stop. “It’s as if I’ve been branded,” she complained to the girl in the seat beside her. Despite a sunlit evening, the hall was dark and gloomy. She picked up the cloth she had thrown aside that morning. In the kitchen Maddy automatically ran it under the hot tap, her mind concentrating on the food in the freezer and her evening meal. She wrung out the cloth and was about to hang it up to dry. She felt a sudden shiver. Her heart lurched. The cloth was spotless, not even the hint of a stain. She stretched out her left hand. The curious ‘black spot’, or feather, was still there. In fact, it had darkened if anything. Even more strange, Maddy could feel its shape, like a scar or wound.
By ten o’clock, she felt completely exhausted. Going to bed with a hot chocolate and finishing the novel she’d been reading for weeks seemed a good plan. An hour later, Maddy had to admit defeat. She had read the last chapter twice and her eyes refused to stay open. Swinging her legs over the bed, she reached for her dressing gown. She felt something wet on the floor, by her left foot. As she sat back on the bed, Maddy twisted her leg to examine it closely. She felt sick. On the sole of her foot, a mark like a feather was already emerging. Despite standing in the shower for several minutes, she found the mark impossible to remove. As she crept back along the hall, Maddy passed the spare bedroom. Despite her fears, something seemed to force her to open the door. She pressed the switch. Light flooded the room. The casket sat on the table, detached, almost smug in its aloof indifference. As she turned off the light, the same blue glow surrounded the wooden base. Maddy shut the door quickly. She turned the key in the lock.
A hook-beaked bird is pecking at her hair. Its wings brush her face as it sweeps in to attack. Red eyes are burning, with a cruel detachment. Long talons dig into her stomach. Blood is spattered over the covers. Desperate, she screams, but only silence - the soft flutter of wings washes around the dark room. She is pulling the sheets over her. She can feel the pressure of claws tracing her covered body. The bed is floating away
. . .
Maddy awoke to that strange, twilight state in which nightmares clash with consciousness. The momentary relief was overwhelming. Then, in the half light, she saw the marks, the brands, on her hand and foot. Unlike the stories of her childhood, it had not all been a dream. Stepping out of the shower that morning, Maddy caught a glimpse of her reflection in the bathroom mirror. On either side of her stomach, the same black marks had appeared. She remembered with an involuntary shudder that in the nightmare she had felt claws walking over her body. These marks changed gradually. Those on her left hand seemed more deeply embedded. She rubbed her right hand over them. Maddy could feel small, bony lumps beneath the scars. She quickly found a pair of cotton gloves at the back of a drawer, pulling them on as she ran for the bus.
“Oh, here’s a real lady. She’s even got white gloves! This place isn’t clean enough.”
Several of the girls joined in the laughter and teasing.
“I know it looks weird, Joe, but I seem to have picked up an infection. The black marks are really sore. I guess you’re right. I’ve got the black spot.”
Maddy felt nearer to tears than joining in the jokes. During the day, she could think of little else. She dreaded going back to the apartment. She dreaded pulling back the left- hand glove. She dreaded taking off her shoe.
As she turned the key in the door that evening, Maddy convinced herself that there was no backing away. She had to deal with the casket of ashes. No time like the present, a small voice whispered. Better to eat first, a rather louder voice replied. She paused in front of the dreaded spare room door. She turned the key. As she walked in, the door slammed behind her. She stood looking at the brooding casket. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. The room seemed full of angry black birds. As they flew at her, Maddy could see into their red mouths, their scarlet throats. Fierce yellow eyes paralysed her. She felt like some dead specimen pinned and wriggling on a display board. She bent over, her face pressed against her body. The birds pecked at her back. She had a nightmarish fear of claws entangled in her hair. Then, as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. The room was screamingly, deafeningly silent. Slowly Maddy stood up. Her eyes went straight to the casket. It stood still and detached, except for a tiny feather lying beside it on the table. She wrenched the door open and ran down the hall to the kitchen. If only Nick had still been there. She stared forlornly at an odd black sock she’d found in the washing machine. The temptation to call him was almost irresistible. But it had been so final. Not the angry, passionate exchanges at the end of a first affair. She’d been so secure, so settled. That had been the trouble. Nick already felt like a middle -aged bore in the shoes of a thirty- year- old.
° ° °
Maddy sat staring out of the window at another relentlessly hot and humid day. She had phoned into the office for the third time that week, pleading an attack of food poisoning as an excuse. She forced herself to look down at her hands. Her left was undeniably worse than her right. Her fingers were bending towards her palm in a permanently clenched position. Her nails, normally neatly cut, were long and too hard to file. The black mark had deepened into a stubbly incision. Dark hair had appeared on the backs of both hands so that Maddy had felt compelled to wear gloves, even in the sweltering weather. She had been avoiding looking at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She’d been terrified to notice, as she passed a glass fronted cupboard, that the face that looked back was longer and thinner. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but her once retrousse nose now seemed sharper, almost aquiline. Even her voice, when she slipped out for some bread and milk, had seemed rather high-pitched and shrill. The girl in the corner shop had given her a quizzical look. Maddy knew she had to get rid of the ashes. Something more than ashes was bottled up in that urn. She remembered being rather surprised at the reading of Uncle Peregrine’s will.
“Now we come to the wishes of the deceased in regard to the final disposal of his ashes.” The solicitor had paused to allow the attention of the listeners to recover. It had appeared that the disposal of the ashes was of considerably less interest than the disposal of the estate. “The deceased has expressed the wish that his remains be scattered in the sea off Brighton. A place of many childhood holidays . . .”
She didn’t want to think of Brighton of all places. Not that sultry, suffocating day on the beach. She’d been laying out her collection of shells when her uncle had leant forward in his deck chair and whispered so casually. Maddy suddenly felt sick in the crowded, stuffy room.
° ° °
As she made her way to the station next morning, Maddy knew she cut a rather eccentric figure. Her sun hat was pulled down over her face while large sunglasses covered most of the rest. Her long, loose coat drew a number of puzzled glances as the mercury had already climbed to over thirty degrees. She carried a large, blue canvas bag over one shoulder. The bag itself had been the subject of considerable thought. Her immediate choice had been a plastic, supermarket bag. She had dismissed it as being disrespectful to her uncle. The smart, blue canvas seemed more placatory in the circumstances.
The uphill walk at Brighton from the station to the sea was tiring enough on such a hot day.
The bag seemed to get heavier, the coat more suffocating, as Maddy dragged herself towards the beach. At last, the sea sparkled ahead. The shingle was already dotted with deckchairs. Small children ran backwards and forwards with buckets and water. The ice cream kiosk had a queue snaking back to the beach. Serious swimmers were already way out from the shore beyond the modest breakers. Maddy leant over the promenade railings. She felt even more isolated in her ridiculous coat and gloves. For a minute she was tempted to drop the bag over the railings and make a run for it. Something, a certainty, a conviction, that it would never succeed, prevented her. She turned towards the main pier, and merged with the seaside crowds, who had that determined look of grim enjoyment which only a hot day at the sea with screaming kids, pushchairs, half-eaten ice creams and sticky pink candy floss can produce. Maddy remembered that pleasure boats, which took tourists out for short trips along the coast, usually operated from the beach near the pier. She plodded on, the hot pavements were burning through the soles of her shoes and the bag seemed an increasing burden. At last, she was outside the entrance to the pier. Strange Victorian palaces of delight which lead nowhere, she heard herself muttering. Maddy bought a ticket for the next trip. Half an hour to wait according to spidery, chalk writing on an old blackboard. She sat on a bench overlooking the sea.
All too soon twenty minutes had passed. Feeling old herself, Maddy made her way over the pebbles towards the predictably named ‘Brighton Queen’. As she sat in the stern on the uncomfortable wooden seats, she noticed almost all the others on the boat were elderly or the ‘zombie-like middle aged’ as Nick would have said. Maddy silently cursed herself for being weak and pathetic. Surely, I’m capable of throwing the contents of an urn into the sea without a man doing it for me? The boat was chugging away from the shore with the question hanging in the humid air.
In the background, the voice of one of the crew droned on about the delights of the Sussex Coast. Maddy calculated they were about half way through the trip. Her heart was pounding as if she’d been running for a whole week’s worth of buses. She had already decided to drop the urn itself, ashes and all, over the side. Luckily, she was alone in the stern. Most were further forward listening to old smuggling tales or stories of the derring-do of the local life boat crew.
Maddy reached into the canvas bag. She had reckoned without her increasingly claw-like hands. It was difficult to grasp the urn firmly, let alone pull it out of the bag. The boat was already turning back. The beach with its deckchairs, and all the clutter of a day at the sea, was now in focus. The talk was finishing, people were making their way to the stern of the boat. The ship’s horn sounded a warning. Maddy pulled with all her strength. Suddenly the urn had become like a heavy rock or lump of lead. Tears were streaming down her face The glasses had slipped over her nose. She tried to lean over into the water. She would drop it, bag and all. Her face was wet with spray. She felt herself falling into the sea. Foam from the wake surged towards her. She saw a thin face with a cruel curve of the lips looking up through the water. As the waves hit the side of the boat, the image was distorted, fractured into a dozen smashed faces. Suddenly a strong arm under her shoulders was pulling her back.
“Steady there, young lady. you almost fell in then. Feeling a bit sick eh? It’s the sun. The wife’s feeling the same.” Her rescuer nodded to a woman holding a paper bag over her mouth. “Now you let me take your bag. You sit back and take deep breaths. Maybe take off your coat and gloves?”
Maddy mumbled something about an allergy to sunlight and pulled the gloves on firmly. As they disembarked, she managed to slip away while the wife was vomiting at the side of the pier.
° ° °
Two hours later, Maddy stumbled through the front door. The bag had become even heavier, as if she had been lugging around a bag of cement. Several times she had been tempted to throw it into the sea, drop it from the pier, just leave it under a café table, shove it beneath the seat of the train. Every time it came to the point, she just couldn’t do it. She felt as if it were becoming part of her. Leaving it would be a sort of amputation, a betrayal of herself.
She hadn’t eaten all day. Wearily, she looked in the fridge. A piece of liver, wrapped in cellophane on a blue and white plate, was at the back of the top shelf. Maddy put it on the kitchen table. She took out a sharp knife. The blade gleamed, threatened, under the neon light. She stabbed the knife into the centre of the liver. It seemed to squirm away across the plate. Dark blood oozed from the cut. With her claw-like fingers, she ripped the dark meat apart. Slivers slipped down her throat. She ran her hands under the water from the cold tap. Red water, bloody water, gurgled down the plug hole. Tiny pieces of flesh stuck to the sides of the sink. As she undressed, Maddy noticed the soft, dark down spreading over her body and. . . Yes, like the down of the young fledglings she’d once saved from the blades of the mower. Curiously, part of her didn’t panic. She felt a strange inner acceptance, a sense of resolving so many issues. A power, much stronger than herself, was in control. She put the urn on the bedside cabinet in her own room. As she picked it up, it was so light. In the darkness she lay quietly. The blue light at the base glowed reassuringly. Maddy slipped into a dreamless sleep.
° ° °
It had been over two weeks since Maddy had been into the office. She had not really thought
much about work at all. Letters were piled up on the hall table but she only glanced casually at the envelopes. She had started ordering her groceries online so she rarely left the house in the day. She had taken to walking at night. Her eyesight seemed much sharper. In the nearby park, in the darkness, she could see the railings on the far side and equally clearly the secret life at her feet. Ants ran in well -ordered lines, snails left silvery trails, mice scuttled into the grass. Maddy felt comfortable, at ease, even on a pitch- black night. She cut back through an old churchyard. Broken crosses loomed out of the darkness. Clay was piled up by newly-dug graves. A shadowy figure brushed past her at the cemetery gates. She barely glanced up as she turned into the road.
In the kitchen her routine had changed. She had stopped cooking meat. Gnawed chicken bones lay on the table, among scraps of raw meat. A strip of fly paper with an array of dead insects hung from the ceiling. Her reflection in the hall mirror, showed a thin beak of a nose. Her clawed hands now struggled clumsily to grasp cup handles or combs. The down on her arms and body was thick and stubbly. Maddy often sat in darkness; it was becoming her natural element. Friends had tired of making unanswered calls or posting unanswered notes through the letter box. It was unexpected when about ten o’clock on a warm, stuffy evening, she heard a voice outside
the front door. At first, she thought it was a drunk or a junkie. After a few moments the voice was louder, more urgent. She walked down the dark hall, closer to the door.
“Maddy, are you there? Can you hear me? You never pick up the phone. I’ve been round to the office. What’s happening?”
She sank slowly to the floor. Nick’s voice seemed to echo, round and round somewhere deep inside. She felt totally empty, hollow. The sound of the voice, not the words or even the letters, washed about in this empty space. She instinctively pulled down her sleeves. She sat on her clawed hands. Her hair, now coarse, thick, black, fell over her thin, sculptured face. A single tear ran slowly down a near skeletal cheek.
“Whatever it is, I can help. Nothing is beyond friendship, beyond love.”
A heavy silence gripped the dark hall.
“I’ll come tomorrow evening, Maddy. Please, think about it.”
She sat crouched in the darkness. His footsteps faded away into the night.
Maddy must have been crouching in the hall for over an hour. She heard a distant clock sounding two as she pulled herself stiffly to her feet. She stood for a while looking at the person in the bathroom mirror. The clawed hands and feet, the dark, stubbly down on her body, the tightly stretched skin over high cheek bones. the nose, bony dominant, eyes narrow, focused. It wasn’t the girl who always ran for the bus, the girl who flirted and joked with Joe, the girl who had almost dropped the ashes into the sea, the Maddy Nick had once loved. Perhaps it was the girl playing with the shells on the sand. The girl created by those cruelly whispered words. Even as she looked, her face was breaking up, reforming. Now it was an old man’s face, then one of the vultures pecking into that dead deer.
° ° °
“Haven’t you ever wondered why your father ran off?”
Maddy concentrated on the shells. She reached in the bucket for a pale orange conch. Its iridescence glowed in the light. She held it closely to her ear - the sound of a warm southern sea, lapped on a palm-fringed shore. It couldn’t silence the dull thud of grey breakers on the stony beach or the angry arguments. It couldn’t erase the image of her father walking out of the front gate nor the sound of his footsteps fading into the distance.
"Of course, he wasn’t your father. Anyone could see that. No, he was the fall guy, slogging it out in Northern Ireland, being booby-trapped in Iraq. She was whoring her way through the dinner party crowd of North London.” He glared at my mother, a distant figure, screaming with laughter, as she dodged the waves of the incoming tide.
° ° °
As Maddy stepped out of the taxi, just for a moment she hesitated. The wind was blowing off the sea, the darkness thick and impenetrable. She reached back to pick up the blue canvas bag from the back seat.
“You ok miss? It’s very dark and chilly here.”
“Fine thanks. It will be light soon.”
She stood for a moment listening to the taxi driving off, its back lights disappearing into the early morning. Taking off her shoes and gloves, Maddy walked down the beach. The sand felt warm. The tide was out, just on the turn. Far off the sky was lightening, about to burst into flames. The water was warm, the sea still, barely moving, just the suggestion of a sigh. Maddy walked steadily towards the sun, now a red rimmed eyelid above the smudge of the horizon. The bag was lighter, the water bore the burden. The waves were up to her shoulders now. Maddy let the bag go, watching it slowly sinking. The sunlight blazed a trail across the sea. Maddy walked steadily onwards . . .
A single falcon wheeled and turned on the currents of air. It floated, effortlessly, its dark wings gilded in the dawn light.
Sarah Das Gupta is a teacher from near Cambridge, UK who also taught in India and Tanzania.Her work has been published in twelve different countries and many magazines including - 'Green Ink', 'Paddler', 'American Poetry Review', 'Mule Skinner', 'Black Poppy', 'The Chamber', 'Berlin Review', 'Dark Horses', 'Tales from the Moonlit Path', 'Grave Light Anthology' among others.