FICTION (May 2018)
Blastoblet by Claudia Wardle
I can hardly bring myself to pen its name, Blastoblet, such pure and unadulterated dread as it sent for so many years coursing up my spine in bolts.
And yet, I know I cannot postpone any longer recounting the tale of the beastly thing; perhaps some exorcistic release will come of the retelling. Who can know?
For years, I think even half my life, I have lived with the burden unshared so that there has been no means for its conceivable division into any fractions of itself. I have suffered alone and as a changed man, if I thus remain in any usual sense of the term. Barely had I begun to reintegrate into society after some years, when over a decade later the matter was unexpectedly exhumed, leaving me in this state.
The whole thing began twenty years ago when I was working in the north of Italy as a younger man, twenty-six I believe.
I roamed the streets of the historic centre one night in search of a new bar for a stiff drink, as was my wont on a Wednesday. Granted, I had already had one at home without having dined, but I include these details as a way of reiterating to myself and to my reader that I am unequivocally certain that what ensued was no result of hunger, fatigue, or inebriation. On this matter, if no other, I am unswayed any longer by the desperate compulsion to explain or justify the atrocity that befell me.
As I say, I was seeking a venue in which to drink some spirits – into oblivion perhaps; I scarcely recall my intent – which cost little in that particular city at that time, a city unplagued by the comparatively lesser horror of foreign tourism.
The exquisite Romanesque façades were illuminated in flattering swathes, marble stripes revealing their rich colours in the glow. I tended to favour the smaller streets, but on this particular evening I regrettably headed for the main square, sitting at a table in a bar opposite the Duomo and sipping a negroni. I gazed upon the cathedral in not insignificant awe, possibly augmented by the religious affiliation I had at that time (since in those days I was a Catholic).
I watched as people ambled by, taking an autumnal evening passeggiata in couples and in groups, all dressed in the latest à la mode attire, principally monochrome. Of my own apparel I remember nothing, though in those times I was known to wear some elements of colour.
A mild feeling of loneliness overcame me, as it had not been long since my partner of two years had left me on quite bitter terms and I was also rather missing my good friend from England who had departed only a few days beforehand after a good visit.
I leant back in my chair, slouching and observing. I noticed that the church was open, despite that no human activity occurred in either direction through the threshold. I made the regrettable decision to finish my drink, cross the piazza, and enter the building.
I was struck by the absence of any artificial light, only the amber of wick-dancers to assist the eyes. I felt myself but a shadow beneath the barrel vaults, blackened and ephemeral, encased in enduring stone and flame. I stared at the looming crucifix of presumed bronze upon the altar, transfixed.
I ought to have noted the unusual circumstances: an open cathedral devoid even of a single widow shrouded in a black mantilla. Yet somehow I did not. I began to encroach upon the apse, my footsteps resounding in the expanse as I passed the chapels and pews. I felt quite content, enticed by what I felt was a spiritually nourishing atmosphere, and decided that a second drink could be put on hold for a while as I envisaged sitting down to pray in the enchanting peace.
No sooner had I reached the front pews when I heard the west door suddenly slam shut behind me and the candles were extinguished. Alarmed by the sudden darkness, I turned around with the notion of exiting once more at the end of the nave, an easy beeline from the apse.
Instead, I was suddenly forced into a kind of paralysis upon the ground, with no control over my own body and convulsing as though a puppet master controlled my limbs.
I endured this seizure for some unknown and imperceptible while – months, it seemed, wondering whether I had developed a gruesome form of falling sickness – until my state transitioned into a true paralysis in its strictest sense. I lay upon that ecclesial floor unable even to detect it beneath me, nor to discern anything beyond mere existence. I surmise that I remained there, though I saw nothing to confirm it.
At this point, the scarcely describable ghastliness and terror commenced: compressed within my altered and numbed psyche, I was suddenly weighed upon, not physically but in essence, if this makes the slightest sense to my reader, by the creature to which I then bore witness. It was hircine in form and poised in some unintelligible posture over me, suffocating and eradicating my identity, all-consuming.
I continued to struggle to breathe whilst I perspired, my sweat burning, searing, and simultaneously of an extreme cold that almost laid waste to my skin. I was incapacitated and constrained to observe this most abhorrent goat-monster, winged and foul. I shook deeply within my muscles and bones, albeit perhaps not visibly (and there was nobody to testify besides the creature, if independent it truly was), in a way I can only compare in hindsight to the effect produced by the Taser, a neuromuscular incapacitation. Voices then pervaded my head, unrelenting and painful. The voices came, it seemed, from each and every direction and compartment of my brain. Demonic, foreign, familiar, voices I felt I had known throughout my life turned sinister, threatening, horrifically changed. What they said I cannot remember verbatim, but they accused, damned, cursed me, and said things of the most grotesque perversion. It was unlike anything that could have happened in usual conscious life. Had a crowd of hundreds shouted simultaneously these horrific things, it could never have approximated that penetration of my skull and my being.
I would have grasped and clutched at my cranium, even smashed through the bone, lobotomised myself, had I not been utterly frozen in the torment by my hideous gaoler. I know that for aeons it seemed I was trying, simply unable to command or even identify my body. The beast’s image flashed before me, central and yet peripheral, seen by my eyes and at the same time in my mind’s eye suspended in the blackness, so that neither could comprehend it truly.
I knew that it hid from me intentionally by splitting itself in this way. I yearned for someone to bring an axe to my skull as I thrashed and writhed internally while remaining in paraplegia. The voices persisted, ever louder, ever increasing in number, for years, I felt, time morphing from lines to ellipses to circles, spinning around in the crashing of war drums. At last the harangue echoed through the abyss: Blastoblet.
It wanted to embody lexically all that was occurring. At this mental utterance, everything began to fade, the years that had gone by coming to an end, years engulfed by unspeakable terror. But who, or what, had expressed this word? It seemed to emanate from the blackness of my very self. And yet, it surely did not originate from my knowledge or past experiences…? The creature perchance uttered the term, but its identity was by then inextricable from mine, so I could not be certain. Did my own mind conjure a label for the experience in order to make sense of it? Or was it the beast’s own expression of its name?
It finally faded from its fusion with me. I regained some semblance of consciousness and the paralysis was lifted. The entity bid me no farewell but melted away as though never having existed.
I twitched slightly upon the marble, my overwhelming fear keeping me in a Stockholm Syndrome self-inflicted paralysis. I did not know what else to do than to remain motionless after all I had known for the preceding epoch. I had forgotten what existed outside of immense dread and I dared not move, especially given the unfamiliarity of having a working fleshly form with which I could identify and connect. I had re-entered into a life I had led up until walking into the cathedral, and it meant nothing to me.
Eventually I must have fled as an animal from a wild fire to my home, only to then experience days unending, days tied with nights, alone in my flat. I ate little and took no pleasure in it, forcing myself through sheer instinct to refuel. How I managed the administrative foresight to arrange a flight back to England leaves me bewildered. I believe my landlady must have had some involvement.
Nonetheless, a life of suffering extended into my native country. Acquaintances deemed me a ‘changed man’ whenever they attempted to turn up at my house and engage me in conversation or any form of communication, throwing words about such as ‘catatonic’ and ‘deranged’. I ensured however that they leave me alone without contacting any medical authorities. I was sufficiently compos mentis to address anyone coherently enough should they threaten me with such things, muttering that if they cared at all for my wellbeing, they would leave me in peace.
Years elapsed until I gradually attained a state capable of functioning in human society. The residual effects waned and people put it all down to an unexplainable breakdown. They were all so glad that I had recuperated that they dared not probe into a cause or interrogate me. Surely there was some good deal of conjecturing among them, but they hid it well from me.
On one occasion I mustered the wherewithal to host an evening of wine and canapès with a few old friends. After a number of glasses one of them, through genuine care and concern, seemed to attempt to extract information concerning what had befallen me.
I had left the party in my living room right in the thick of a jolly round of charades and entered the kitchen to replenish some refreshments, and the woman in question followed me in, unsteady on her feet and missing the door handle the first time she reached for it to close the door behind her.
“James,” she slurred placing her hand on my shoulder from behind. I turned around and her brow was furrowed. “What… What I want to ask is… You know, you can always talk to me.” At this point I braced and ceased to breathe, the muscles in my back tensing of their own accord. I backed away toward the sink. “Jim,” she pleaded. “Are you ready to talk? You know, about what happened to you?”
She was pouting somewhat, striving to convey utmost sympathy and compassion. She extended her arm to touch my shoulder, but I fell onto the tiles, curled in the foetal position, and I pushed my palms over my ears. All I could do was to block any path that could possibly lead retrospectively. The avenues to the past were all of them occluded. There was a thick iron shutter and no uninhibited tenderness was going to penetrate it. I could not scream for the exacerbating effect it was bound to cause. I simply repeated over and over in a harsh whisper with my eyes shut, “No”.
Finally, I rasped metallically, “Never mention anything of this again and forget about it. This did not happen.”
My breathing calmed and I removed my hands from their position, beginning to stand up. When I did, I turned around and saw my friend remaining where she had been, wide-eyed and frightened.
I took a bottle of Bordeaux (Italian wine was out of the question) from the rack and picked up my waiter’s corkscrew to begin the uncorking.
“Do you want to return to the others and I’ll bring this bottle in?”
“Yes,” she stammered, nodding her head with excessive speed.
“Marvellous, see you in a moment.”
She scuttled out of the kitchen, somewhat sobered. I breathed a great sigh and swigged a mouthful of the deep red straight from the bottle, a most uncouth gesture reserved only for crises. A few drops dribbled onto my white shirt and I looked down, staring at the blemish for a few moments, inhaling its banality, its normality. I smiled and returned to my guests.
“Is it time to try the Bordeaux? Pass the saucisson, George, old boy!” I exclaimed, grinning in the direction of my kitchen companion.
“Why Jim, I do believe it is!”
This was all before the exhuming, of course.
It was a Sunday afternoon a few months later in early August and I had just finished a late lunch alone at home – since the very notion of intimacy with a fellow human being was beyond the bounds of possibility – and was reading the newspaper, when I received a telephone call. I picked up the receiver and was greeted by the chipper voice of my good friend of many years, Cyril Addington.
“Afternoon, Jim! Susan’s gone out with some friends and I’m left all alone on this, shall we say, meteorologically pleasing day!”
I chuckled and said, “Mr Addington, are you suggesting a trip to the pub?”
“I think that’s the undertone. Which watering-hole?”
I coped best with familiarity and so suggested our usual spot. “The Golden Ram?”
“I’ll see you there.”
At the pub, we sat in the beer garden drinking local ale and laughing at trivialities. I dare say I even began to relax, the warm sun lulling me into an orb of safety and contentment. Cyril returned from the bar with a fresh round of drinks and sat on the bench.
“Ah, this is the life. No obligations, just a few pints.”
“Agreed,” I said.
“I haven’t felt relaxed like this since watching the Porcelain Terrapin Project at the open-air festival.”
“Oh, I bet they were great!”
“They absolutely were. Cigar?”
“No, I’m all right, thanks.” He lit his cigar and slouched down a little on the wooden beams. He exhaled vanilla-tinged smoke and tapped some ash onto the floor absentmindedly, while I looked over the emerald dales. After a couple of minutes and sips of his golden pint, Cyril began to laugh sentimentally.
“D’you know what else this is reminding me of?” he asked.
“What’s that then, old chap?”
“Remember when we were – oh, I don’t know – twenty… I want to say twenty-five, six? In any case, it’s immaterial. You were living in Italy and I came out to visit you that fine summer. You remember, yes? We sat around in that brilliant sunshine drinking various Campari-based things.”
“I remember,” I replied, picking up my pint and primed to change the subject away from that era. “It was splendid. Now, this ale really hits the spot, wouldn’t you say? A good English ale can’t be beaten in its right time and place.”
“That may be true, but we had good times that summer, my friend. I remember it all fondly. Except,” he began, taking a liberal gulp of his pint, “for that one occasion.” He was wafting his index finger around, presumably to indicate his authoritative memory. I kept silent, ready again to move the conversation away from anything that related to my mid-twenties. “Remember? It was a God-awful blur.”
“What are you talking about?” I snapped, more irritably than I had intended. Cyril laughed in a manner conveying some disbelief and difficulty in recollecting.
“We’d had a few snifters and we ended up meeting all those people, a diverse bunch and prone to a good party! We went back to their villa, if you recall, and… indulged in various unknown substances.”
The memory was returning to me, imbued with unease. My eyes darted from side to side as I grasped at the memory, hitherto entirely suppressed.
“It was quite something, all that revelry! The continentals, eh? But there was some very weird hippie stuff going on there. I suppose things like that were going on over here too, but I never saw anything quite like that! Do you remember? They were doing quite bizarre things with cards.”
I could envisage them, in the crepuscular magenta tones of nautical dusk, laying out cards, lighting fires, dancing, and I was in the midst of it all, my mind altered and my body elated. I too danced and laughed, spotting the young Cyril by the swimming pool, engaged in conversation with a young woman, clinking glasses with her and trying to woo her. I was giddy and curious as to what I considered such exoticism occurring in one group and I bent down to examine the peculiar cards in the arrangement over which a woman conducting an alien chanting. I took a card and ran away with it in glee, to the dismay of the group who played with them.
“You really ticked them off running away with the ace of spades or whatever it was!” laughed the Cyril beside me in the pub. “Crikey, that was a wild night… Ah well, when in Rome…! Though, of course it wasn’t Rome…” Cyril’s voice became white noise as the memory, previously non-existent, returned to me.
I am approached by one of the group as I sit catching my breath. I am still laughing and holding the card. He speaks to me. He has a foreign accent of sorts and tells me gravely: it is not a joke. The card has to be returned to the set immediately. I am so changed by the substances we have all been smoking. I am so enlivened by the hallucinatory effects. I take the card to its original situ. I look at it illuminated by the fire and, still cackling maniacally, I drop it into the flames.
“Hold on, didn’t you even burn their deck or something of the sort? That’s right, they asked us to leave after that! You were a naughty boy, Jim…”
The image on the card was regurgitated upon my mind: the hideous goat-beast within an infinitely intricate geometric pattern of curves. It was as close a visual configuration of the event in the cathedral as could ever exist.
“Crikey, Jim, what’s wrong? …Jim?”
“…is that man … a seizure?”
“Jim… hear me?! …the eyes, Jim …speak!”
“Mummy …man shaking? …scary!”
And thus ended the period of societal functioning. I do not blame Cyril. It was all an inevitability; I know that.
Part of me desires to drag out this account, since it is my only means of effective communication. The capacity for speech has abandoned me, substituted with deafening squawks. I also wish to postpone the white straitjacket over my body and hooves that prevents my flight.
Now that I have given you the document you asked for, will you set me free?
I feel my power growing and I know that you will not be able to hold me here much longer.