Microfiction 339: Eye

The Lord Eye appeared low on the horizon on 26 April, 1986, changing us entirely. The Lord Eye occluded the sun, and we were plunged into a cool and watchful night.

The Lord Eye never blinked, and instead of the old heavenly bodies we began to study the position of the Lashes, the transit of the Tear Duct, the waxing and waning of the Pupil, the Iris, and the likely eclipse of the Lid. After the shock of the change wore off, astronomers recalibrated their instruments and began to study the Lord Eye, who permitted this – up to a point. When a bright light was shone directly at the Lord Eye, with the intention of looking right to the unthinkable Retina itself, there was a fractional shift, as of a universal head moving, and the vast swathe of equipment which had cluttered the horizon was submerged.

But that had been early in the days of the Lord Eye’s Gaze. With a line established, there were no further attempts to transgress it. On the whole, this vast supervisory presence was beneficial. Children playing on the shore could not be better behaved than the Lord Eye made us. Some were taken over with a passion for the Lord Eye, which alone saw them as they really were. The Gaze was never withdrawn and its interest was absolute, riveted, never sleeping, never introspective, never wandering. How could this presence fail to be the object of passion, when it had replaced, or prefigured, or partially was, God?

Around the Lord Eye mysteries orbited. Was there a partner eye? What did it mean to be an object in the Lord Eye’s Gaze? Could the Gaze be part of the object upon which it gazed? Theologians, ethicists, phenomenologists, epistemologists – all went happily back to work.

A morning dawned. The world awoke and found, on the opposite horizon, a second eye, bloodshot and newly awoken, staring angrily back at the first.

Microfiction 338: Leopard

Veronica had invited her to the group, she said, ‘to give some historical dimension’ to the idea of anger. Veronica was annoying, and she couldn’t believe that a bunch of delinquents who had been sent to an anger-management workshop would be interested in the dimensions of anything less than a baseball bat. But a PhD in Representations of Anger through the Ages didn’t command many audiences, and she figured it would be good practice with the kind of people she’d end up teaching when she finally had to get a job in a high school.

The delinquents were quite good. Heavily medicated, she suspected, but silent and reasonably receptive. She showed them a manuscript image (Yates Thompson 3 f.165v from the Penitential Psalms in The Dunois Hours at the British Library) of Anger as a man riding a leopard and stabbing himself with a long dagger. He looked miserable and dripped a rosary-bead of blood onto the grassy foreground.

The delinquents perked up. ‘ ‘at’d make a wicked tat, that would,’ said one, with a gigantic wet sniff.

Veronica leapt in. ‘That’s really interesting, Channing. Remember we agreed that anger leaves invisible scars, though. Would you really want to make scars where you didn’t need to?’

‘Yeah, but a tat ain’t a scar, innit,’ said Channing, spreading his tracksuited legs even further apart. He looked as if he was attempting a seated plié.

‘ ‘Sbetter’n a tat,’ said his friend, a ridiculously handsome boy called T’Challa. He had skin the colour of a star anise and cerulean eyes and probably specialized in beating up old ladies. ‘Riding a leopard. That’s fuckin mad, that is.’

‘And stabbing himself,’ Veronica persisted. T’Challa sucked his teeth at her in disdain. Defeated, Veronica called it a night.

They went to a wine-bar nearby, where Veronica took out her frustration in a long and critical speech about the luxuries of doing a PhD after thirty and the need to Give Back and Bear With the Channings and T’Challas of this world.

Veronica had parked in a dark corner of the community centre carpark, so when she slid down the side of the car under a well-thrown punch, it was unlikely the CCTV caught it. She gave a few more kicks to Veronica’s prone form. ‘Don’t be so prissy, Veronica. Anger’s a leopard. Who wouldn’t want to ride a fucking leopard?’

Microfiction 337: Half-Rapture

Jost kicked one of the shoes. ‘Who does this?’

‘Angels, that’s who.’ Jost hadn’t kicked that shoe before, Pete thought. A size 38 Saucony ladies’ running shoe, worn relatively evenly, although Pete could tell that the woman who had worn it had pronated ever so slightly. He had been a physiotherapist before the Rapture.

Jost asked the same question at the same point along their walk every day. He just kicked a different show. The Rapture had happened 73 days previously and for those who remained, the Mess Left Behind made a welcome change from the weather as a topic of harmless conversation. On this particular street there was a litter of single shoes (all right shoes, too), as if the angels had gripped each of the Righteous by the left arm and hooked them upwards, leaving their legs kicking and dangling, losing the right shoe.

‘We should call it a Half-Rapture,’ said Jost suddenly.

Pete stopped. This was new. ‘Why?’ he said slowly. ‘It’s not as if they’re coming back for us.’

‘No, but I mean – I mean, they did a terrible job. Single shoes left everywhere, houses burning down because the dinner was cooking, kids left without their mothers – and them being the sorta kids that need their mothers, and not a single person left who knows how to make a coffee worth a damn.’

‘Yeah. A Half-Rapture. I get it,’ said Pete.

They walked in silence for another block. The concept of a Half-Rapture was new. Or maybe it was just that they had higher standards now. Perhaps Pharaoh, critically watching his army washed away by the Red Sea, had thought of a Half-Exodus. Or the Lord God Almighty, looking askance at the substitutionary lamb, had mentally earmarked it as a Half-Atonement.

Eventually the shoe-litter stopped. A few minutes on it began again, but this time it was writing implements in the playground of St Bartholomew’s Elementary school. A nature observation had been in progress in the leafy playground when the Divine decided to get the party started. The ground was covered in wan leaf-meal and the writing implements left behind. Only one child had been found, sitting splay-legged among the orange leaves and blue crayons, clutching his iPad.

The radio still broadcast, mostly as normal. It seemed that not even an act of God, however poorly executed, could stop Taylor Swift, although it was not clear whether she had been Raptured or not. From these broadcasts Jost learned that around sixty percent of the national population had been Taken Up. It was assumed that this figure could be translated globally, unless God had wanted a significant American population in heaven.

‘Does that mean there’ll be a second round,’ said Pete, meditatively. ‘To get the ones they missed?’

They stopped in the middle of the street to consider it. You could do that now. ‘Hope not,’ said Jost.

‘Really?’ said Pete. He realized he had been afraid of his friend – his only friend, now – wishing to have Gone. Life was very pleasant now that more than half of humanity was gone, and it was clear that God had condemned the Remaining Ones to a life without the Sight of Him. It became clearer with each Godless day that the really oppressive nature of life had been due to the feeling of being watched, and the desire of 60% of the population to impress this fact on the other 40%.

Jost put his hands in his pockets and pursed his lips. ‘What’s the point of heaven if everyone else is there?’ he said.

They continued their walk, thinking how nice it was that the Lord was in his Heaven, heavily attended, where He would stay.




Photo: Everything will be alright by Brian Day

Microfiction 336: Rutilated

‘Going ring shopping,’ George said genially.

His mother swooped on Alice in a billow of Yves Saint Laurent Parisienne. ‘Choose something beautiful, dear. Something your own daughter will wear. Something really you.’ She kissed Alice in a mother-in-lawish way and went off to tennis.

Something beautiful, by Mummy George’s standards, was at least five carats, flawless, and on a gold band. It would not need improving through the engagement photographer’s dark photoshop arts. It would procure tables for lunch anywhere and at any time.

‘I don’t really like what your mother likes,’ Alice said, doing up her seatbelt.

‘Nobody likes what she likes,’ said George. ‘Ignore her and get what you want.’

They looked in Tiffany (where a woman extolled the brand), Cartier (extolled her), Van Cleef and Arpels (extolled him), and Hardy’s (extolled marriage) before she began to get a headache and swollen fingers. ‘It’s like being back in the hospital,’ she said. ‘All your choices watched with an eagle eye. Someone silently working out what you’re like, what you’re worth.’ She scratched fretfully at the scars on her arms. ‘It all looks like the kind of life I couldn’t manage. Cold sparkles, time, pressure, and a whopping price tag. The sort of women who don’t wash dishes.’

George put his arm around her. ‘That’s a horribly accurate way to describe my appalling family. Let’s forget it for today and get some lunch.’

They were on their way back to the car when Alice stopped at a pawn shop window. She pointed to a ring with a cracked-looking pink stone on a gold band. ‘I like that,’ she said.

George looked dubiously at the electric guitar, stack of CDs, the inevitable masonic signet rings, and a new-looking set of Le Creuset pots which surrounded the ring. ‘Do you want the ring or a new fender for your guitar?’

A young man with a university rugby shirt and signs of a vicious hangover stood behind the counter. He looked unlikely to extol anything except Berocca and bed.

He took the ring out and made an attempt at a sales pitch. ‘Rutilated rosy quartz. Box is extra.’ Then he lapsed into silence.

It fitted, and Alice held her hand up looking at it. ‘Not quite what your mother would get, is it?’

George waved that away. ‘I’m not marrying my mother. But why this one and not the others? We saw a pink diamond at Tiffany.’

The Hungover One looked incredulously at George. Tiffany to Cash Converters within a morning sounded like a Leonardo di Caprio film.

‘Maybe because it’s cracked,’ Alice said. ‘Like me.’

‘It’s not cracks,’ the Hungover One said. ‘They’re inclusions of rutile. Inside the quartz. Needles of titanium geologist.’

‘Titanium?’ said George. ‘Are you a geologist?’

‘Student. Geology student. ‘If I ever graduate.’

Alice looked at the pink stone, which resembled cracked glass. Some pretty, fragile thing ruined by a sharp blow. But the cracks were titanium, deep within the stone, formed before the pink prettiness had even come fully into being. In places almost opaque with the rutile needles, the stone would never be a five-carat flawless getter of lunch-tables at clubs, but it had its own hardness.

‘I like it,’ she said. ‘This is the one I want.’

The student grunted. ‘The box is an extra three.’

‘That’s fine,’ said George. He kissed Alice. ‘We’ll tell my mother it was very expensive.’

Microfiction 335: Alexandrine

Happy Birthday Phoebe!

His greatness dead in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, Alexander cast a last look behind him. Nearchus slumbered in a chair by the deathbed. Sisygambis lay, exhausted with nursing, on a sofa nearby. Alexander shaved his head, losing the last resemblance to the curly-locked conqueror and set out for the East.

He was a day away from Babylon when the mourning wails of his army sounded across the marshes.

It was a hard journey, but he enjoyed passing through cities and towns which were not called Alexandria, and where he was treated as a wandering holy man whose name (if he was pressed to give one) was Calanus. He came to a bazaar in the foothills of the roof of the world, and noticed his reflection in a polished mirror. He saw an old man, wizened from the illness which had killed his previous self, bearded as a sadhu, and drawn with hunger and wisdom. Satisfied that he was no longer Alexander, he passed on.

Crossing the roof of the world in a train of pilgrims he fell sick, and lay shivering with others in a caravanserai. He was nursed back to a shaky health, but the line between sleep and waking had crumbled during his nights of illness. He realized the truth: he was one of many sacks of skin, a loose assemblage of bones set around a tiny flame of consciousness.

He descended into the fertile plains of northern India, and saw buffalo ploughing fields, and rivers, and the lush trees with deep skirts of shade. He sat down beneath one and resolved not to rise until he had something more than empires to offer those around him. At some point, he died again, but this troubled him very little and he remains there, sitting beneath the tree in a village, where no one fights over his legacy, and nothing is named after him.


Microfiction 334: Claro

Some elements cohere and exist only for a fraction of a second. Organesson-294 lasts less than a millisecond, Livermorium-293 less time than three beats of a hummingbird’s wings – which take 56.4 milliseconds. Who knows what we can use them for. We are human, so for these elements to exist is enough, we think.

I was passing the low field near the Blenheim home farm when I saw the Devil riding Alan’s French warmblood Claro. He was putting Claro over some jumps – just a few trot poles and a low fence (better than Alan ever had, I thought) and He saw me watching. He drew rein and it occurred to me that He should have been on Cintar, Alan’s pretty grey. Wasn’t the Devil supposed to ride a pale horse? Claro was coal black, even after a month of weak English summer sun.

That was all: I saw the Devil riding perfect twenty-metre circles on a black horse called Claro. When I looked again Claro was untacked and grazing peacefully far from the trot poles. It was not an illusion, or a trick of the eye, or an oddity of the space-time continuum. It was, briefly, and then was not. Who knows what use we can make of it. For humans, it is enough that it exists.

Microfiction 333: Zois

‘Does it have to be on a height?’ Nicodemus said nervously, looking over the parapet of the Solar House.

‘No,’ said Dr Peniel, ‘but it clears the mind. An important element of seeing accurately is perspective. Between walls we all seem more than we really are.’

‘I’ve heard some people do it before a mirror,’ said Alo.

‘And so we would, if it was bad weather,’ said Peniel, putting down a carpet large enough for them all to sit cross-legged.

‘Isn’t that Mistress Weekes?’ Nicodemus pointed to a slender shape on a besom, flitting in the direction of the twon. A second, dumpier figure rose up from behind the dome of the camera and joined the first.

‘Oh yes,’ said Peniel. ‘I think it is. Don’t point, Bellknap. Better to cast a distant eye beyond ladies’ business.’

Alo and Nicodemus settled on the carpet, looking outwards. “I’m not sure what we’re meant to be summoning,’ said Nicodemus presently. ‘The lecture went on about how the zois was our highest part and connected to the Nous, but if we can’t summon the Nous, how can we summon the zois – even if it is our own?’

‘Well, Hapglass?’ said Peniel to Alo.

Alo thought about it. He had paid less attention to the lecture than Nicodemus. This was almost a habit now, because he found the lectures distracting. The battery of the lecturer’s otherness put up a gale between Alo and the idea he was trying to grasp. Then there was the constant buzz of the other scholars, whose nerves, yawning, sneaked glances and shared terror of the final exam was like a fly at his ear.

‘I think it’s not so much summoning the zois,’ he said slowly, ‘as watching for it. Like when you see a deer among the trees. It’s always been there, but you can’t summon it forth from the forest. You can only sit and look until you see clearly what has always been here.’

Peniel nodded approvingly. Nicodemus rolled his eyes. ‘You see these things so much more clearly than I do,’ he said, complaining.

‘That is because you want to be told what to see and then to see it,’ said Peniel. ‘In that way, you will always be limited by what other people see and how well they can explain it.’

‘But I trust that they see more than I do,’ muttered Nicodemus.

‘You shouldn’t.’ Peniel settled himself on the carpept and looked out at the domes and spires, the fragile pinnacles and roofs of The Stowe. ‘Alo is right that summoning is a bad term for what we are trying to do, but his figure of the deer misses something, which is this: the deer is watching you. The zois is that part of yourself which sits apart from the rest, motionless, watching you act and choose, not creating your desting but helping you achieve it.’

‘But if it does nothing, how can it help me achieve anything?’ persisted Nicodemus.

Peniel turned again to Alo and raised an eyebrow.

‘I don’t know,’ Alo confessed. ‘I’m usually busy just doing the acting and choosing.’

Peniel nodded. ‘That is the feeling of being taken up by the world and pushed headlong into its rush. But consider this: when you are in the library, you do not kindle flame. Why?’

‘Because we’ve sworn not to,’ said Alo.

‘Because the librarians are watching us,’ said Nicodemus.

Peniel laughed at their different answers. ‘You are evidently a beter creature than we are,’ he said to Alo. ‘Most of us don’t light a lantern on our desk, or smoke a pipe as we read, even though we would be careful and would certainly not set fire to a book, because we know that we are being watched. The simple knowledge that something of power watches our choices, our actions, alters what we choose and how we act.’

‘So if I act without considering that my zois watches me, I cannot be sure that I have acted well?’ Alo said.

‘You might have acted well,’ said Nicodemus suddenly, ‘but you haven’t acted for the Good. Even if it all comes our wrong, you’ve still chosen well – you’ve chosen in favour of the Good – if you know that your zois watches your choice.’

Peniel sat back on the carpet smiling. ‘Well done,’ he said warmly. ‘Well done indeed.’