Ashes

By John Warner


To create art as before is to accept complicity. (Paraphrase: Theodor Adorno)

I am not an ordinary man – that is not to say I am extraordinary, I am neither uber nor untermensch. I suppose I use the phrase to indicate that I am unusual without the implied, or, most often, inferred negative connotations. I live alone, which in the eyes of many is worthy of comment at my age; the human species is a pack animal and deviation is impermissible without reprisal. For the perennial bachelor this comes in the form of the suspicion and innuendo with which I have learned to live, unwilling as I am to change. In truth I don’t like people, I don’t like the way they smell, I don’t like the noise they make, their opinions or their company. I am, however, fascinated by their form. I am a sculptor, or at least as one critic remarked ‘a creator of pretty clay figures’ from the sales of which I am at least able to live in reasonable comfort, though without luxury. The ground upon which my home and workshop sit is rich with clay, a deep red that takes on the colour of clotted blood when fired; though the ground is the only thing, I fear, which has ever been rich with clay.

The local potteries effluesce their owners and employees into the nearby village on Friday evenings and, on the rare occasions I attend one of the bars I am surrounded by a double-bass throb of bitter complaint, layered upon which is the trill of drunken excitement. The overall effect is one that assaults both registers of my hearing with the effect of inducing nausea. These people are not entirely despised by me. I have little doubt of their comparative worth, but suffer an allergy to the human condition. It is an affliction of the body more so than the mind. Yet, despite this, on rare occasions, I feel compelled to visit these places. I sit in some sullen, nicotine stained corner of the room and observe the bodies, in all their vivid deformity, that eventually fill the room. I watch them as the night, as the the alcohol take their toll, inspecting, storing in my mind’s eye the contortions of their form as they drink and sing and whore. The concavity between a woman’s heel and ankle bone hold an unrivalled fascination briefly before I find myself staring at the flex of sinew and stretch of ligament that accompany the most banal action of the human animal. Such beauty is there in the barbarism of a brawl: as limbs knot and flesh writhes with the motion of muscle beneath.

Lately, the mood of these places has darkened.

There is a war on. That is the only way I can put it – as though it were some sporting event. The problem is that one can seem to be being over dramatic if one begins to state that war was sweeping over, or even stalking, like death, the land. So we must allow the horror of war to be imparted only by the word itself and leave hyperbole aside for less catastrophic times and events.

When I say I live alone there is a wider reach to that statement. I am not simply alone at my property, but mine is the only property for miles around. Through the doors of my workshop there was once an unbroken view of the horizon, unsullied by any evidence of man.

In the mornings I dig and work my clay, hammering out the air, forcing it to accept a consistency with which I may work. I find the physical aspect of this provides a real focus, so that one feels closer to the clay when one begins to shape it, I understand that may seem conceited, but I have to believe that art must be permitted its occasional pretentions. My days, until recently, were almost identical, I have a routine from which I seldom deviate, yet this routine was thrown into turmoil by the building that began to rise from the horizon.

Slowly the skeletal scaffold begin to piece itself together – or so it appeared, I was too far from the site of its assembly to see the people that scurried about its construction, yet it grew by the day, this accretion, as though a hulking wood and metal behemoth was hauling itself from some unseen swamp. As I dug the day’s clay from the ground each morning, if the wind was right, I felt I could hear, in the merging, distant sounds of sawing and hammering, the rattling breath of a beast filling its phenomenal lungs for some infernal exhalation. The construction seemed to entrance me. My eyes were drawn over and over to the horizon, numbing my hands so that my work began to suffer. The forms I wrestled from the clay were misshapen homunculi that stretched the meaning of the word human, they seemed to writhe or cower in my hands resisting or retreating by turns, their limbs swelled, contorting at odd angles as though broken upon a wheel, their faces repelling all but the most mournful of expressions. Having overheard some long passed reading, they repeated in their agony: ‘Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me Man?’

The clay blistered and charred in the kiln. I could not bear to look upon the finished figures.

Eventually – I cannot tell you how many days had passed, they did so as in a dream; day followed day and during each I tried to ignore the malign shapes that I had fashioned and then begun to hide from sight with a stained sheet in one corner of my workshop – there rose from the beast a tusk or horn of gargantuan proportions, the same blood red colour of the local clay, projecting into the air like a reproachful finger directed at the heavens and which filled me with a strange sense of dread, paralysing me at my workbench where I sat and watched the blood red dim to infernal black as the sky bruised with its incursion and darkness descended.

When I awoke the following morning the opalescence at the window led me to first believe that the house was immersed in a thick fog, it was not until I put on my spectacles that I was able to detect the particulate nature of the barrier. I dressed slowly, with trepidation I could not quite explain, before proceeding out into the preternaturally pale dawn. The ground, every surface was coated with grey-white powder, the last of which hung in the air, cloying at my throat and nose, accruing in dirty alabaster drifts in every corner. As I approached my workshop the air was clearing, the last of the dust settling to the ground and, by the time I had retrieved my spade, the air had mostly cleared. The ground from which I would dig the day’s clay had been completely coated. I collected my clay in an attempt to regain some semblance of normality, brushing away as much of the dust as possible, then proceeded to work it, my eyes as ever drawn frequently to the horizon where the building squatted, inert. Not the inertia it should have possessed, however, that of a lifeless material construction; somehow it was imbued with a potential energy, as with a coiled spring – or perhaps the building was the eyes of a crocodile, a mere indication, almost camouflaged, of the danger lurking beneath the surface.

The clay had been altered by the presence of a small amount of dust, its colour lightened; it felt waxy, seeming to sweat under manipulation. Once more I found it difficult to work. It squirmed, avoiding any effort to force it into the human forms which had, until recently, been effortless by comparison. It was growing dark by the time the trance began to lift. I saw, then, what I had been working on for the first time. Much larger than my normal work, it was a monstrosity far and beyond the warped objects I had produced in the previous days. Limbs projected as though at random from the emaciated torso, some ending prematurely in ragged stumps, others jointed inappropriately, clearly shattered by some awful trauma. I could infer no gender, its sex so mutilated as to be unrecognisable. Beyond this, worse still, was the head – overlarge, hydrocephalic, with faces straining beneath the skin at every point so that none could lay claim to the skull as its own, each of its mouths seemed to contain at least one eyeball which peered out from behind fractured teeth, jaws projected like tumours. Once more I felt compelled and, weeping, carried the monstrosity to the kiln.

I slept fitfully that evening, tormented by the form I had shaped, dreaming that it spoke to me from its multifarious mouths, the shattered teeth giving its voices a hideous sibilance that made it impossible to understand. Yet I found the sound still with me upon waking. It was not loud. I cannot claim to have been assailed by the Telltale Heart, but the low, burbling susurration seemed, too, to originate inside my own head, so that even pressing my hands to my ears would not block out the sound. I stumbled through my home, throwing on a dressing gown in passing, opened the front door and stepped out into what appeared to be a blizzard of that same powder which had come to rest there the previous day. My heart was thundering in my chest as I turned the corner to see that the door to my workshop lay open. I considered running yet felt myself drawn on, knowing somehow what I would see. Returned to the workbench with no intervention was the creature I had fashioned the day before, its surface – like those other monstrous forms which were somehow positioned around the room, staring blindly at where I stood – was also blistered and blackened. The air grew thick with their soft, broken whispers, which seemed to have developed an edge of pained and pleading panic that I struggle to equate with anything of this world. It was the sound hell would issue were it to permit its victims sleep: the whispered nightmares of tortured souls.

The voices took shape – not as though speaking at once, but almost as though the overlapping anguish of each voice were producing words incidentally. They came one at a time, strangled but unquestionable.

You, the voices formed.

Must.

Not.

Look.

Away.

I turned from the figure, consumed with fear for both my person and my sanity. As I did so, the dust seemed to settle all at once. There, on the horizon, was the beast.

You.

Must.

Remember.

Us.

I don’t want to remember. Yet the clay speaks. In truth I have, through cowardice, in an effort to halt their pleas, destroyed more figures than I could count. Yet even when I resist the urge to enter my workshop, when I lock myself in my home, refuse to countenance their existence, I find myself waking up, hands stained the blood red of their clay. When I return to my workshop, they are there again, in all their desperate, broken horror, pleading with me not to turn away.

There is a war on. That is the only way I can put it – as though it were some sporting event.

I must not look away.

I must remember.

I must not look away.


John is an aspiring novelist and Creative Writing student on the John Moores Writing MA.

Ashes was inspired partly by the work of Primo Levi and partly by a conversation about the nature of writing fiction regarding the holocaust. It can be perceived as crass to re-imagine such a horror and for someone such as I am, so far removed from it, would, I felt, be disrespectful – yet I believe that the memory of this travesty must live on and so I chose to approach it in the only way I could, in metaphor and suggestion, A Narrative at a remove, as I am from the event.

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