This is a short story I wrote inspired by gothic literature.
A man. At least he believed himself to be a man. He’d never seen anyone else in his room and he’d never seen another room. Without reference, how was he to know? The room had been his life. All his life. You could say he grew up there, although he had no memory of being younger, smaller or in any way different from how he was then. Remaining perfection through all time. Though without change, time is but the intrusive noise of a clock, doomed to repeat over its endless march to eternity and perfection is whatever you want it to be.
He had no thoughts of place or time, no thoughts of food or activity, age or death. Only of the heavy stone bricks with their mossy coverings that built the room around him. He had books. Filling shelves of great, dark oak bookcases set into thin alcoves and bolted into the masonry with elaborate mechanisms. The dust whirled when he slid a tome of knowledge form its accustomed place, though when he returned and when the book returned, the dust too, returned. Thoughts straying from time. Books that spoke of things misunderstood and things unimaginable to the unconditioned mind. Words of things that couldn’t be touched or seen. Words of things that moved with time and changed with circumstance. Even words that seemed to rise up inside him and for the briefest of endless moments, fill him with a red desire. Those were his favourite. He spent his time scouring the thin, tall pages, his fingers moving softly over the rough textured ink patterns, seeking something. When he was looking, it was hopeless and bottomless. When he found it, he knew.
‘Time’ was a word that showed up all over the books. He knew very little of it. Just like ‘change’. He lay down on top of a hard, white stone slab and beneath dulled crimson sheets every time he found himself exhausted with the work. He closed his eyes. Thoughts strayed from time and things. Strayed from himself and his room, the thick desk he studied at, the occasional strips of floor that sounded different to walk over on account of the slightly raised wooden beams penetrating rock. Grained continuously as if they were once all part of the same tree. A mammoth of a tree, the tree of time itself that grew until its roots encompassed the world and its trunk, the heavens. Cut into this tree and lay down a foundation of stone, held in place by ridges of trunk left untouched by the saw that fell the arborous titan. Then you may have the room free from change.
When he awoke, a sense made itself aware to him that something had changed. Certainly nothing he could see but something inside him had moved on. This was the feeling that washed over him when he read of ‘time’.
There had never been need for much else; he had light and he had his things. The ever-burning candles spaced evenly across all the walls took care of that. Stained bronze holders intricately stained the stonework with delicate shining patterns of gold that spread like the lattice of a butterfly’s wing. A butterfly that had once been a caterpillar, crawling at an arduous pace through infinite corridors. Over leaf and stalk until it sat. Until it flew.
He had read that candles dripped wax to anything below them, that they took on bulbous shapes and new positions as they burnt but his never did. Sometimes his hand would stop upon the emerald-bound book that held information of candles and the dripping of wax and sand, the secrets of pyramids and the ladders of the gods when, as was his custom, he walked, arm out by his side gently feeling the familiar rise and fall of uneven books on the shelves until he instinctually stopped and chose his next study subject.
They had been read and he had read them. All time and no time. But still days passed while he, hunched over the desk and engrossed in a world that wasn’t his own. Sometimes he would wander around, for the room wasn’t simple and small. Not when he didn’t want it to be. He would walk to the other end and around the corner that appeared there. He could search other corners and bookcases, examine more candles and their holders; he would become entranced by the heating glow beneath golden hairline cracks and he would find new corridors and places to spend what he had read was called time in what he read was called place.
One day, like any other, he found something new. A book, of all things. It was tiny compared with his great tomes of mystery. Though thin and written in large print, though less than half the height of the shortest others and barely a fraction as thick, this book had more words than he had ever known. It was poetry for the soul. It spoke of vast times and ancient places. Trees and clouds, grass and gravel, wind and waves, storms and roots, buds and nectar, soft music and ivory: Things that were small that became large and larger still. Like the book itself, the things it spoke of changed, shifted and became something new but not different. Something else the same as the last. This book he kept on the side of the desk and, when engrossed in the heaviest of manners in the gloom of his prison, the red desire would return and he would feel a sudden earthquake in his chest, a beating that awoke him and drew his gaze to the thin book. A sad-looking brown thing, it was. No embroidery or jewellery. When this happened he would sweep his tome to the floor and slide over the Chronicle. The word embossed on the front cover only slightly and with no change of colour to indicate its presence.
At times, the oppressive air would feign to send him mad. Once the heat passed, he would undertake another journey through his miniature lair. Checking with the attention to detail of the most skilled celestial watchmaker the place he had found his Chronicle. On a tiny plinth jutting intrusively through the side of the room like the natural formations of a blessed rock but no matter how he fondled and scanned, he found nothing more there.
The idea appeared one day. To take the book with him. It slid quite well into his eternally empty pocket. Until that moment, pockets had served as an all-enduring question. Now, though, they were the shoulders of elephants and the woven baskets of flowergirls carrying their burden.
When the book was near him, the sense of change and movement itself grew and seemed almost real. He found more and more from this point on. Furniture of stranger shapes that all told of another unspoken story of time unending, books that held the same information as before but in newer and newer bindings and on smaller and smaller bookcases, sometimes a desk tipped onto the floor or pages left free from their bindings floating with jocund glee, at which he would gaze forever, other times strangely shaped winding stairways that led nowhere, cellars that dropped down into darkness where the rarest rumble of agitated purring would fill the deep until the door closed behind him, the candles lit themselves and he found himself stood next to his bed, stretched thin with a sense of unease.
It was during and after one of these times that he saw it. The red curtain. Embroidered with the finest designs of spiders and webs, leaves and petals in a fading and glittering silver. Heavy brass and copper rings thread through the top of the curtain and looped onto a marble pole along its length sat still and eternally unmoved. The pole was carved at either end into unmatching geometric shapes, like handles on his desk drawers. Filled with a dread of all the terrors and sufferings of progressive life and age, his head flashing with words and images of the grave, he could think of almost nothing but the need to return and drop his memory of such a terrible thing. But he didn’t. He remained because the red desire had taken hold and was on the move. Passion had become ignited in his lifeless bones and he could do nothing else. He pulled at the curtain and saw, before what was to come, the stonework dropping away and above, falling as if through the wall. When both curtains had slide the poles length and were open, he saw something that touched his heart and brought back the full force of the earthquake. He recognised what this was. He had read about it. This was in the big, blue book from the bottom shelf of the bookcase nearest to his resting stone. This was a window.
Through the tiny gap at the end of the stone funnel was colour and nothing more. A deep, rich azure that pulled at him like the teeth of a starving wolf. So he balanced and he stretched and he climbed up, steadying himself up onto the uneven brick beneath the opening and squeezing himself almost out of breath until he could get his head up to the final hole at the end of the tunnel.
For the first time, his words clashed with reality, his lips opened and his tongue moved. Without direction and without any understanding why, his words became sounds and he spoke to no one of what he saw.
“Trees. Forest. Green,” he spoke with rising intensity, “leaves, sky, blue, water, lake,” it rose to a triumphant shout as he began reciting poetry from the more bewildering passages of his books, “all the power that wrests itself from me, and the life that fills my heart. Would that this moment last for eternity.”
From behind a cloud, a vivid, shining moon of silver rose and lit the dark forest below. His words stopped as his sense and his mind were overwhelmed. Breath was trapped but still he pushed to see. The gleaming light swept majestically from bough to bough across the coniferous canopy, glittered through the still lake like a beam of sun over a polished mirror that lit the sky and opened the horizon. On and on he looked as everything became clearer until he became aware of a structure on his right, almost out of view. A tower, it seemed. Crafted from mighty bricks hewn from an age-old stone and sitting high above the trees, dwarfing the sky itself. So large that the detail was imperceptible while the form was undeniable. It rose and rose to a precipice among the cloud, whereupon it grew even greater. At its top it was brimmed with a steely overhand of twisted shapes that shone like a precious, heavenly metal.
He found a higher hold with his foot and pushed with all strength further up the rectangular slope of the tunnel until, high enough to reach with his arm, he was pressed against the opening. Desire, movement, passion. They had all taken him by this point as he frantically tried to push his hand through the opening but it wouldn’t happen. It must be big enough, it looked big enough. Nonetheless, there was some kind of invisible barrier preventing his passage. He pushed and slammed his hand forward until, wracked by aches and furious passion he pulled his other hand from the wall and, still with the Chronicle in his hand, he thrust both hands up and scrambled like a rodent escaping the very jaws of death. The book slipped from his grip and, although he was halted by some barrier of no corporeal making, the book had no such impairment. It fell from him and, landing on the other side of the opening, upon the opposite shelf of the window, a tiny downwards slope, barely the thickness of the thin book balanced on it, it fell. He shrieked for the first, and last, time in his permanently regressive, progressive, passive life. Digging his nails now into the rough stone and kicking his legs out behind, he still found no relief from the barrier and, as the realisation began to dawn on him what had become of the little brown book, his heart sank through him and his guts opened up a yawning maw that threatened to collapse inwards and take him with it.
The Chronicle had left him.
He was shaken by an immense movement as fire erupted from the tower’s base. Stone flew and time started, slowed, stopped and started again. Fire, right away, began spreading over the forest, blackening the canopy, dirtying the air, blocking out the moon, suffocating the plants, thickening the lake and covering its surface with ash. The tower left with a gaping hole most of the way around its base began to tip. A grating noise of stone rubbing on stone under the weight of the earth itself cracked through the woods and through the window. He watched it fall. Slowly at first but then quicker as it approached the ground. More forest than it is possible to imagine crushed in a second as the tower splits and lands, the great metal shapes slicing their way into the ground like murderous knives.
Screaming now from the deepest pit within himself, the force of the impact shook him by his roots and, his nails scraping quickly down every bump on the unshaven rock, he fell with a crash onto his back beneath the window.
Looking up at the open curtain, he wept aloud at the noises of death outside the opening, reaching out with his bloody hands shaking, unable to pick himself up. The hole seemed to widen, like the mouth of a world-devouring shark, darkening and hinting at world-ending teeth hiding in the deep.
Screaming ended now. Weeping took hold and faded. Darkness spread and ate the light. Strayed from thought. Sound bubbled away. Strayed from time. The world eater swims back to the gloom. Strayed from all things.
He awoke. His eyes contracted, adjusted. The crimson sheets thrown back and the candles still lit, he swung himself up and looked blankly at the room. Stood by the bookcase, he ran his finger along the tops of books and, coming into contact the red and silver volume, he flinched briefly before choosing a book and setting to read.
‘Time,’ he read ‘is the measurement of change and of movement. Things move from old states to new states over a process and through a time,’ something inside him twitched, ‘memory is the recollection of experiencing the older states of things. Foresight is the recollection of future states of things to be. Time frames everything. The past is destined to march away and the future is bound to march towards.’ with a clearing of his throat, he finished the paragraph, albeit with only the words in his head and not on his lips ‘Time: once a change has occurred, nothing will ever be the same again.’
The red desire he craved rose for the briefest of moments and he smiled at first and then, stopping himself, was left silent with a dull sense that something had changed forever.