Louise Murray is a recent graduate of English from Queen’s University Belfast. Lately, she has been published in the Spring 2016 issue of The Ogham Stone. She is currently working on a collection of short pieces concerned loosely with identity, reality, and allegory, or would be, if only she would stop procrastinating.
(recording includes a short introduction).
Here’s an extract from Louise’s short story, as performed in the QR studio:
Robert noticed the light failing further as he and Silent Jim waded through the grass in ridiculous goose step strides, feeling strange. They entered the maze, which, although neglected, was unremarkable and not exactly labyrinthine. They followed it to a wide gazebo that reminded Robert of a tiered wedding cake, and a slope that revealed a modest vineyard, concealed beneath the vegetation of the maze. Just like the cool dark garage was filled with the absence of expensive cars, the vines were stripped of fruit.
As sweat beaded on their foreheads from wading through the garden and scoping the perimeter, they began to decipher other layers of sound beneath the shrieks of the peacocks. “What is that?” asked Silent Jim, who was always silent.
“Peacocks” replied Robert, although he had not seen any.
“Where are they?”
“I don’t know”
“It’s just peacocks, and us”, said Robert impatiently. And those who are not us.
Silent Jim fell silent again, but as they reached the back of the house for a second time the sounds that unnerved him also became audible to Robert. He thought of the zoological gardens in Dublin, a memory of childhood that speared him through the heart.
An aunt, or was it a family friend? A kindly, sterile woman at any rate- and his sister, she was there too, mean and red knees and ice cream cone. The polar bear in the enclosure, big and kingly and humiliated, panting in the far from home heat. The train back to smoky red brick Belfast thinking about lemonade men and their glass hearts, the sweet sickness in his belly from the ice cream. Patty cake, patty cake, nausea. Something about the sound ensnared his mind and wrenched him back there.
They had reached the back of the house, having completed a circle of the chateau twice, and suddenly, what they had previously missed became apparent. What, at first glance, the men had taken for a large conservatory or an orangery, turned out to verify, on closer inspection, what Silent Jim had hinted at when he first heard the depth beneath the cries of the peacocks. It was a zoo, a menagerie. The glass of the structure, which resembled a Victorian greenhouse for tropical plants, was dirty green and constellated with mold, while wrought iron domes, bare of glass, stretched out on either side, dwarfed by the glasshouse to which they were attached. Robert guessed that the glasshouse was once an aviary full of exotic birds, while the open wrought iron structures had perhaps held livestock; through the gloom he could make out empty, beautiful cages, big enough to house a standing man.
The others were out of earshot. Silent Jim and Robert were alone, apprehensive at the threshold of the abandoned menagerie. They could not decipher those sounds that they had heard beneath the cries of the vanished peacocks.
Silent Jim made ready his rifle, shouldered the door of the aviary, and pushed. To his obvious surprise, the door swung open with ease, almost as if some unseen man stood at the other side of the blurred, moist glass with his hand on the pane. Robert, working the bolt of his own rifle, followed, and immediately recoiled.
The smell was so repulsive that he instinctively bent over and retched. Dimly he registered Silent Jim coughing, spluttering and swearing. “Something’s dead”, he kept saying. “Something’s dead”.
Robert righted himself and held his breath. He started to explore the domed space, picking his way through debris, until he found the source of the stench of death. Pushing aside a mahogany cabinet built for the dust basin of a spoiled, pampered bird and its mother of pearl cage from the bird markets outside Notre Dame, Robert revealed the half rotted carcass of a male lion.
“Oh…Oh”, the utterance came involuntarily as he stroked the ruined golden hide, the smell of rot filling his nostrils, his throat. He and Silent Jim crouched above the carcass for what seemed like a very long time. Lost in tender horror, they did not notice the sudden silence in the glass house.
“Are there more lions?” wondered Jim. “This one must have been the last to give out when they left.”
Robert questioned, briefly, why it was the lion, and not what they had endured before this hour, before the grounds of the chateau or the chalk road, that struck primal fear into his heart, and into Silent Jim’s bulging eyes. Before he could continue this line of private questioning, however, the silence that had gone unnoticed ceased, and was replaced by that sound, this time low, and close, and near.
Both bolted upright, soldiers again. “Not a lion”, breathed Robert.
Wildly, he imagined a child, alone, and terrified, somewhere between beast and human. The image filled his mind like madness.
But, no, there it was. At the far end of the glass room, a little brown skinned thing in tattered rags. An urchin child.
Jim saw it too, turning on the spot. He did not lower his rifle. Robert was about to turn to him in outrage- a child!- a child!- when the figure, brown and red, leapt at them, screeching, screeching. Its arms clasped at Robert frantically and he struggled, vaguely registering the wrongness, the misplaced terror, in arms too long, too loose, and too heavy, furred and slick. He was knocked to the ground, and it was only when he managed to sit up, reeling, pain flowering in his body, that he understood what he had already known when he and Jim had entered the glasshouse all of ten minutes ago. There was nothing human left here, nothing wholly human.
Crouching before Robert, panting at the barrel of Jim’s rifle, was a chimpanzee, whimpering not in anger but in distress, and sounding uncannily like a crying child. The ape was wearing a red velvet waistcoat, made for a man, and its brown fur was matted and sorry. “Don’t shoot”, Robert said.
The ape looked at them, trembling like an invalid in a madhouse, pathetic and formidable. Robert had only ever seen its kind in pictures, and he found himself disturbed by the sight of the real thing. A thing that possessed a blasphemous humanity and a latent beastliness, fanged, thin lipped thing of the jungle.
Silent Jim offered it a ration, a morsel of dried beef. At the sight of his outstretched hand, to their horror, the chimpanzee began to perform a jerky, marionette-like dance. “We have to leave it and re-convene” said Robert, averting his eyes from the spectacle.
Golden opalescent evening light poured onto the crowns of their heads from a hole in the ceiling made by an errant shell, making the shattered powder of glass on the floor, the surfaces, the carcass of the lion, glitter like fresh snow. In a strange ruined place there stood two men and a cowering half.
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Recorded in the QR studio by Lucy Smith and Emmet McGonagle.