The Exile

The Exile

The silence extends to the back of the church and back again, dragging its feet between rows of astonished faces and wide, frozen eyes. I imagine the silence as an old man weighed down with chains making his last, tortured journey in life. Up the aisle he comes toward me. To the altar behind which I stand. For an eon, looking at me. Then he dies.A muffled snort, and the church erupts. Lava their laughter. Red their faces. Hell is a roomfull of everyone I know.I flee.
  • * *
My days are predictable. Rise: peer through the curtains with my mirror. Does the old lady feeding the pigeons across the road think I’m sending her morse code? Keep the curtains closed.Dress. Take the lift down when it is clear. Five deep breaths before the street.Outside it is grey, or sunny, it doesn’t matter. My head is low and staring at the pavement. The old woman calls out something, some variation of “Good morning”, or some such. I pull my hat down over my ears and hope no-one has seen.These days I can walk to work. My position in life has sunk that far; but if there’s one thing to be said for the bottom rung it is that you don’t have to go far to reach it.Arriving, the worst is over, but I have yet to make it past the receptionist and her pity. If I am lucky she is busy with a customer, or a delivery.She notices my janitor’s uniform.“Hello,” she says.It takes me half an hour of rocking myself in the darkroom to calm down. It is quiet in here, and often empty. I like to look at the photos of smiling families and imagine I am part of their world.Three am and I am awake. From my pocket I withdraw the tattered picture of her, taken before she left me there. She is smiling, and squinting from the sun. I am happy with her here happy. But it is not enough. Tonight I escape.I make my move while it is still dark and run into the desert, until the walls of the city are lost behind me. Faster and faster, trying to outstrip the shame that rides me like a horse and whips me with the laughter I can always hear. I bolt, until I can bolt no more, until at last I collapse in the sand and sink into unconsciousness.The sun scorches me awake. My tongue is a claw in my dry throat. I allow a few drops of water to trickle into my mouth from my canteen. There is no sign of the city anywhere on the horizon. It might as well have been a mirage.Into the hot sands. Timeless steps, for an eternity. The wind whips back my hair and holds aloft my cloak, like an invisible bridesmaid, as though I am to be married to the sun that hovers on the horizon. Straggling, low bushes are my guests, the desert my chapel.Malign fantasies become my purpose. In one I stand in a cobbled street of the city, my head thrown back, laughing. I point at a figure crouched before me, its head trembling in its arms. It looks up, and it has a hundred faces, each one flickering in and out until it is everyone all at once, everyone I’ve known, begging my forgiveness. A crowd of people forms a ring with me and we whisper and share our secrets, and laugh. I am they and we are one voice raised against the world.Through this land of sand and fantasy I stumble until my skin becomes as harsh as the light in its gold and the blue of my eyes becomes that of the sky. My verdant cloak is the only incongruity in all that dehydration, but it turns brown, and then the canteen runs dry. For the last time I take her from my pocket where she has lived for so long and stare into her squinting face, her hand that casts a shadow across her nose. Then she falls into the sands; they drift across her countenance. The last of her leaving me. I close my eyes on the light.When next I open them, it is dark and I am dead. I feel curiously light and free, almost insubstantial. I laugh soundlessly and feel myself lift up into the air and float away above the desert. The sands move under me, but the direction I travel in is beyond my control. Something draws me on, and I am powerless to resist. Not that I want to. It is like being caught in a benign rip. The sandy desert below me is the sea bed, the air the water. I lie back and look up at stars that do not betray my motion.A long time passes, then something soft brushes my face and the stars vanish. The sky closes in, glowing softly in a fusion of yellow and purple; then it draws away again, but not so far. I could touch it, I think, if I reached out, but my body sinks down through layers of something heavy and soft and I am in heaven.A rustling disturbs me. Hunger pains wrench my belly and I am reminded of amputees that scratch at non-existent limbs. Something leans over me and says, ‘Are they ready for us?’I gaze at the angel above me and tears come to my eyes.‘I am ready,’ I say, and smile.The angel disappears and again there is a soft rustling. I lie there, motionless, looking up in wonder at the sky that looks like a circus tent. The light is stronger, and the purple clearer. It slopes down around me.A third time the soft rustling and my stomach cramps as strong, delicious smells flood my nose. The angel hovers over me again, now carrying a plate piled with food.‘Join us for the harmony,’ says the angel, although it has no mouth to move. The words chime in my head like bells. Again I smile, and again the angel is gone with the rustling. As I devour the food I wonder what they want me to sing.I am definitely in a tent. It is like something out of an Arabian fairytale. Plump pillows and tasselled cushions cover the floor and it is on an enormous pile of these that I lie. A small wooden table supports the tray of food, a jug of crystalline water, and a long silver knife for cutting the food. The walls of the tent are satiny purple, and in one is a kind of doorway, an overlapping flap of material that ripples gently. The walls run straight up and then angle in to a central point at the apex. I drink some water and look at the doorway and wonder what lies beyond.The angel returns, but it is like no angel I have ever heard of. It has no wings. It is not white or soft, although it does emit a subdued glow that either surrounds it or comes from within – I can’t tell which. It has brown, coarse skin, except for its face, which is smooth and golden. Two large eyes dominate almost half of its face, with a slender nose between them, and two enormous nostrils roughly where a mouth would normally be. It is completely hairless, and has long, graceful limbs.It approaches me and warmth rushes through my veins like a drug. I lie back against the pillows and stare up into its glowing, golden face.‘The balance is good. We have you in heart.’The words are like gentle rain. The angel reaches out a golden hand and places it on my forehead. My mind fills. The withdrawal of its hand is like my umbilical cord being cut for a second time. The angel looks at me.‘Where do you shade from?’I open my mouth and pain crashes out like an enormous wave, flowing in tears and sobs as the angel stands there, watching me drench the pillows. When I am done, the angel removes the food tray and exits the tent. I wonder if this was some kind of test.I wait for the angel to return and take me to heaven. This tent must be a divine limbo where they weigh your soul.Time drags on. The light in the tent slowly grows dimmer. Is it strange that time should operate in limbo? There is condensation on the outside of the water jug, and it dribbles down to pool in the tray. The pool gets bigger and bigger.This disturbs me, this waiting. I have been given no instructions as to what I should be doing. My muscles start to hurt from lying here so long. Shifting position doesn’t seem to help.Should I be experiencing discomfort when I am dead? Perhaps it is another figment of my imagination, like the hunger cramps I felt earlier. There would be no pain in heaven.There would be pain in hell.That’s a very disturbing thought.It is definitely a lot darker in here now.Something passed between us when the angel touched my forehead. I think it read my mind. Worse. I think it read my memories.The memory of her departing form.Even in death there is no refuge. They’re probably out there right now, laughing at me. All God’s angels, laughing at me.I sit up and look around the tent and notice again the knife on the tray. It looks sharp. It gleams. The handle is ornate, crafted to look like bamboo. I grasp it and feel its weight in my hand. It feels heavy. Good.Outside, I see that my tent is one in a ring of similar tents that encircles an oasis. A few palm trees grow in the area. Angels mingle in between the tents and around the oasis.They start to notice me, staring out of my tent. They come closer and stare back. Big eyes. Little ones point with fingers, and soon a mass of them is gathered before me. I am like a messiah, or an alien.‘You have returned,’ they say, the chorus glorious in my head, and they bow before me.I can feel tears forming at the corners of my eyes again. I force them back, but they beat at my eyes from behind. Blood pounds in my brain until my head could explode with the pressure. I raise the knife and point it at them. The blade quivers in the air.“You!” I scream, and spittle flies from my mouth. Foam flecks my lips. The angels have wide eyes. Wide eyes. A little one backs away and whimpers.“Bastards!” I wave my arm at them.The angels inch away on their knees.“Laugh at me?” I scream. Tears and snot streak my face. Words emerge. “It was her!” I sob, and my words are mingled with a great anguish that boils up from the deepest well inside me. “I loved her. I loved her! And she said yes!”An angel stands. It looks like the one who first comforted me in the tent. He appears to be crying.He raises an arm, but rather than pointing it at me he instead sweeps it over the gathering of his people and I hear his voice in my mind.“We too sought shelter,” he says, and he points with his other arm to where his mouth should be. “We, too, were disconnected.”Another angel stands and turns to reveal a hump that bulges from his back. His body curls in upon itself, his spine like a hook. Vaguely discernible are old scars that could have come from whips. One by one the angels stand and indicate various deformities that I had not noticed before. Humps, stumps, wings, gills, extra limbs – it is a heavenly freakshow. And they all glow.And each of them looks at me with understanding in their eyes.A queer feeling passes through me and at first I think I might faint. It begins in my belly, a tiny bubble, and it is so foreign to me that at first I mistake it for nausea, or sun-stroke. Gradually it grows and rises to my chest. Muscles that have not been used in years twitch up into a smile.These are the exiles. These are the outcasts from society. Living here in the desert, where I am still alive. A community of mutants and curiosities. Wanting to embrace me as one of them.The bubble inside of me rises until I can contain it no longer, and then the dam bursts and laughter bellows forth from my lungs, drowning the echoes of that day in the church. The weird creatures stand in front of me, and their solemn expressions only make me laugh the harder, until my knees grow weak and sink down into the sand where I cannot help but roll, and laugh, and cry. The knife drops from my fingers.Freaks of the world. We can save you.

The Exile


Joined December 2007

  • Artist


short story

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