Selected Dark Surrealist Short Fiction
All stories here appear in my anthology "Chrysalis: A Journey Through the Dark," available to purchase at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Chrysalis-Journey-Through-Michael-Burnett-ebook/dp/B08297MSMP
I returned to him through fields of charred skeletons: poor souls whose last thoughts were flight, but whose final actions were to crawl. Their bony hands grasped out at the blackened remnants of the last harvest in a twisted parody of a life now obliterated. This ground would never yield again. Not for them, and not for me – not for anyone. In low buildings, gutted and lifeless, I waited for him. The black rain coursed across the ground like poison tar, and I kept my vigil, eyes haunting the unbroken line of desert mountains. In the village pond, the insects multiplied. Cold life flourishes in the darkest of spaces. A billion tiny mouths fed on rotting corn, and I could not compete. The corpses, at least, were no banquet. A sanctity of a kind for them.
His memory kept me warm through the sunless days and moonless, starless nights. The recollection of his face was the only light source in a world darkened to oblivion by a great endless shield of ironclad clouds. I dreamed of him, mouth and eyes full of dirt, struggling blindly through tonnes of festering soil, inch by inch towards me. I awoke knowing he would never come, but glanced across in the gloom each time, straining for a sign of his presence. He had told me he would never leave me and I had promised the same.
There is a safety in desolation. I knew there was no danger; the destroyer had moved on, satisfied that there was nothing more to take. I counted the days in the filthy plumes of smoke that rose from the earth. I listened to the hiss of the wind and the droning of the swarms, but my eyes never left the horizon. Delirious, in my waking hours I imagined him still trapped below the earth; that by will alone I could free him, and bring him back to me. I drank from the well, and though its water was foul and tepid, it kept the thirst at bay. But the ground would yield nothing but vermin, the thick dark soil laced with the larvae of flies and tunnels squirming with rats. When my body failed me, the ravenous creatures picked my dead flesh to the bone. Spiders crawled inside me, searching for my heart, leaving tangled criss-crosses of lethal silk. In my hall of marble pillars, they caught and killed; caught and killed.
And still I wait, eyes now unblinking, forever cast towards the empty horizon.
Words. Are not thoughts.
Words: approximations of thoughts; reductions of thoughts.
Words? Misrepresentations of thoughts, betrayals of thoughts.
Words. Are all. You have. A poor workman with even poorer tools.
Open your mouth and prepare to be misunderstood. Revel in the drowning act.
I would often retreat from the day into the stillness of my own home, and relish the idea of absence, of negation. Silence is the negative of noise. Solitude the opposite of company. When around others I would miss these absences but not painfully; I would often think of them fondly, soothing me behind my mask. But in the silence of my home, I would not miss company or noise; unquestioningly, I would assume silence was my refuge. Noise and activity were tolerable only for the fleeting nature of their passing; I understood that, even in the midst of the chaos of human words and actions, these unpleasant but necessary situations would be replaced by their counterpart, and I would be restored once more. In this manner I continued for years, my existence waxing and waning. Silence and noise; company and solitude. Demands counteracted by respite, and responsibilities offset by repose.
Throughout this time, I dreamed of unbroken silence and constant solitude, a continuous stream of what I truly craved, uninterrupted by the clamouring of the external world. I worked towards this end slowly and surreptitiously, aware of my hidden efforts, but in denial of them all the same. I was considered polite, though not genial. Efficient, but neither selfish nor generous. I did what had to be done, and no more. Other people entered and left my life time and again – like bats, perhaps, flitting across the sky of late evening. Interesting, in a manner, but easily forgotten. Throughout these years I betrayed not a single person, nor did I make any bonds that could not be broken in an instant without harm to either party.
The silence, now, feels like a flood.
What was once a refuge now binds me as if in shackles. No-one thought of me when I had gone. Try as I might, I still cannot remember a single face, not one interaction has left its imprint upon me. I can sit for hours, trying in vain to recall what noise sounds like, receiving only vague intimations, inaudible over the roar of my precious silence. The mouths of others move, their tongues roll and twist, forming syllables that no longer mean a thing, and it is as if no sound emanates from them at all. I stumble away each time, struck blind with confusion. They don't try to follow but merely vanish. Each time I am left with an empty street or room, and I clutch my ears to keep out the cacophony.
If you could only hear me above the silence, I might tell you of the one hope that I have refused to release from my grasp. I wish for salvation in disaster. I yearn for chaos, for the unexpected. Tear out my eyes and drag me to a crowded room, if only to hear the shrieks of disgust and delight, to feel a response from those I threw away. Something. Anything.
But you can't hear me, can you? It is not your fault. My tongue moves but not like yours; it flounders like a drowning child. Give me your hand or watch me go under. Take a chance based on nothing but instinct, or smile, confused, then forget about me.
“I love you.”
Her voice is feminine, but possessed of a peculiar hissing, almost croaking quality as she speaks out in the dark. I stand still for a moment, looking into the blackness, contemplating what lies within. Then, moving outside, I push my full body weight against the door, battling the mound of sodden earth which has accumulated in the storm waters of the previous night. A foetid pool remains below the sill, minute insects skating across it like children across an icy pond. I thrust my bare hands into the mud, piling it up as high as I can against the corrugated iron. She would never consider coming out, but this simple act soothes my fears, at least partially. Either way, I know she will linger in my thoughts for the remainder of the day, dread the only constant in the turmoil of my conflicting emotions.
I have a long walk ahead of me, so I start out across the featureless expanse that lies between me and the factory. The storm water extends far beyond my home, reaching out like a corrupted nervous system, with I the nexus point. Filthy channels of it permeate the landscape before me, flowing like treacle over rocks and decaying leaves, or standing putridly in pools buzzing with mosquitoes. The grey sky is devoid of clouds. Its single hue is mirrored on the surface of the water until the ripples are obscured completely.
Still only a few metres from our shack, I can make out faint scratchings within, and I know she has begun to move about. A sharp crash tells me she's found the food I left out for her. Note to self: she prefers to eat from the floor. She does not tolerate change.
“You idiot,” I chastise myself, knowing that she'll still be in a fury when I get home, ten hours later. I could never make her happy. I always had to make at least one mistake, one too many for her, who could never forgive nor forget. I've told myself that it's not my fault she is the way she is, but a larger, more critical part of me always dominates. I could heal her, I know I could, if only I had the energy. But I am drained. I bow my head, trudging across the sunken paths, losing all track of time as I keep company with dark thoughts. The factory gets slowly closer as she gets steadily further away, trapped in her rusted prison, all alone.
Rain cascades from the night sky in torrents, the monochrome, sunless grey ripped away and replaced with an angry shroud of black and purple. Flashes of lightning explode from above as I stagger towards shelter. My limbs shake uncontrollably with cold as I grab at the earth piled up against my door, throwing handful after handful behind me. I can't hear her over the cacophony but I know she's howling, as she always does when the weather gets like this. I'm almost blinded by the time I clear the last of the dirt, casting the last few chunks aside in a swath. I grasp the door handle with both hands, then I pull with all my might. It does not give way immediately. It relinquishes its control gradually, its resistance broken down bit by bit.
I have to clear the webs that have appeared across the door frame before I can fully enter the room. I can hear her now, even over the violent drumming of rain on the thin metal roof, and the incessant dripping of water into the meagre space. She has dug a hole in the floor, today. A hole filled with my personal belongings and hers, jumbled up in no particular order, for no particular purpose. She sits on her haunches, fishing through the random collection with her thin, spindly fingers, then scraping her nails into the dirt and drawing them up to her mouth. Through her muffled shrieks, a few barely audible half-words escape her lips.
I wander into the kitchen to make myself a sandwich and a cup of tea, trying but not quite succeeding to ignore the fact that she's crying now, and she's thrown something against the wall. Guessing from the sound of splintering plastic, it is my alarm clock. She sabotages me like this all the time. I still love her, inconsolably, though I don't know why. My shame at her is greater still.
The foul rainwater has seeped into the taps somehow, and the cup of tea I make is flecked with tiny particles of dirt which swim in the hot brew, mimicking the insects outside. My sandwich is damp. The rainwater gets in everywhere, it's not possible to keep it out. I sit down in a frayed armchair, and take my first bite of the meal I have prepared.
Through the narrow slits of her eyes, she watches me as I eat, her body still, as if frozen in time. As still as a mammal can never be, calmly motionless as a waiting predator. Under that unrelenting stare, I feel my muscles tense involuntarily, my thoughts contracting in defense. The reality of the situation closes around me at times like this, and I realise it is hell that I live in. A hell permeated by a sickness, generated from a single source. Disease flows from her, a wellspring of entropy, plunging everything around me into decay. The walls reek of her degeneracy; her illness eats away at everything like an acid, ceaselessly. Her sickness gnaws away at my soul, scraping away at my insides and leaving ragged scars. Though these walls keep her locked in, my thoughts of her know no such boundaries.
My shouting is almost completely incoherent, all reason lost under strata of anger, fear and hopelessness. Her limbs become a flurry of unnatural movement, all at once, and she retreats to the safety of a dark corner of the bedroom, hissing and blinking and still staring. Even through the impenetrable dark those eyes never leave mine, and I know that there is no escape. I watch through my eyes as my body betrays me, my rage targeting all about me, my mouth spewing venom as I listen, disgusted at myself.
When I finally fall silent, she is still staring, and in that stare I see a forgotten intelligence that douses my anger and leaves only love and pity. Her limbs move again, aware of the change within me. Her body strains forward but slightly, her lips twisting into something like a shy smile. Her embrace is cold and brittle, but I still welcome it as I lie there in that same dark with her until she falls asleep, those hateful eyes finally closed. It is over for now. This is my favourite part of the repeating pattern, when I can convince myself that it's still worth it. This thought alone is enough to grant me the rest I need before daylight breaks again.
I awake early, the chill light of dawn barely visible through the shack's single window. She is not beside me. My eyes are drawn to the few dark blemishes that she has left on the walls, and the small dent in the mattress that tells me she's been there only recently. Small sounds emanating from just beyond the bedroom inform me that she is up, and moving. The soft, metallic clacks she makes as she stalks about are unmistakeable. I can hear her eating or drinking: the loud, vulgar slurps tell me she's found a bowl of water, perhaps. I groan painfully and rise. Cautiously, I peer around the door frame, vision still blurry from sleep. She is sitting in the centre of the kitchen, and her limbs are longer and more angular than I remember. A long, moist black line shows me her several detours on the way to the water basin. She has been sitting on the sofa, and clawing at the front door. She's been crouching at our window again too, from the looks of it. Sometimes she can sit there for hours. She looks up and sees me watching her.
“Good morning, honey. Did you sleep OK?”
Her voice is crisp and almost human.
“Yes, all things considered. You're up early,” I respond, doing my best to swallow the bile that's risen unchecked in my throat. I force the feeling away.
“I made something for you.”
Her fingers are more emaciated than ever. She has thrust a plate out in front of her, in my direction. It is toast, though its dark, moist-looking topping I cannot guess at. I take the plate and then eat the food in a few large bites, ignoring the bitter taste. She is lucid today. I force myself to look at her. There is an animal desperation in those dark eyes of hers that grows stronger every day. I turn away, heading for the bathtub. I sit by it as it fills up, then, scooping the scum from the top of the water, I undress and get in. She has moved from the kitchen back into the bedroom, but I can hear nothing, though I strain for any noise. It is still early. Perhaps she is asleep. I sigh, my whole body relaxing in the tepid water. I know I have plenty of time before I have to leave. Before long, I drift off.
I awaken in water now uncomfortably cold. There is still no sign of her, but the dark slime on the walls confirms my suspicions of her recent activity. I have no idea how much time has passed, how long I've been unaware of her, and this uncertainty weighs heavily upon my mind. Though it must be later in the day by now, the room seems darker, not lighter as it should be. Shadows hang in the corners of the room that weren't there before.
My breath catches in my throat as I realise why. The webs she has spun are far more numerous than they should be. Some of the thick, silk-like filaments that criss-cross their way across the small room are attached to my naked arms, the threads intertwining with each other to become as thick as ropes, filthy with the dirt that festers in every inch of the place. I cannot now put the cold I feel entirely down to the water, and the chill in the air. Mine is now the chill of one who knows he is caught in a trap. The oppressive, cloying air betrays her to me, warning me of her intent, though it makes no difference now. I am the centre of her world. The sole object of her love, hate and rage. Her only prey.
Restrained as I am, I cannot fully turn my head when I hear the faintest of noises behind me: the soft, dry creak of chitin; the subtle, ominous drip of saliva on the cracked tiles of the floor. An arachnoid shadow extends above me, denying my body what little light there was left. This trap was sprung a long time ago, though I realise it far too late. This world we share together, barricaded off from all others, has been the trap all along, for both her and me. This prison is ours alone, and through this communion, we have consumed each other. I am everything to her, as she is to me. I have fled time and time again, I have barred the doors from the outside, I have walked miles and tried to push her from my mind, but in the end I always came back. The wasteland beyond holds no sustenance. Out there in the endless wilderness I would weaken, then finally perish from malnourishment, and the last thing I would think about would be her. So each day I returned, and each day our tiny world has grown colder, filthier, more desperate. But it is all we have, and we succumb along with it.
I can feel her hot, liquid breath on my neck now, but I do not struggle as I feel her fangs caress the tender skin. Black droplets of venom fall into the water around me until my body disappears into the inky blackness.
My muscles relax as hers tense. I feel her draw back, her whole body coiled like a serpent, poised to strike. I know what will come next. I lean my head back as far as I can, straining to expose my jugular vein, eager to comply. Every drop of my blood belongs to her, and always has. She takes everything then, my motionless body offering up no resistance, my blood pulsing weaker and weaker until only one of us remains, an amalgamation of all we were before. She discards my broken husk; it is as meaningless to her as it is now to me. She crawls off to find the darkest corner in the house.
There, she waits.
The dream came to me in colours and shapes: vortices of unimaginable depth, far less than physical but immeasurably greater. Fictitious memories haunted an imaginary past, stretching for aeons, limitless.
See this. Understand this, and much more in time.
The voice spoke like a benevolent and faceless father. Time whirled in radiant tendrils, snaking and winding through the formless matter of thoughts. In a spark or flash was all that ever was; the sprawl of all future potentialities, encapsulated in a single, burning pool of pure water. Such knowledge.
See this. Know this, and more. To know oneself is to know all.
See this, know this. Know what? See what?
In the mirror, I traced each contour, each line, each incomplete recollection, for the source and significance of those words. It was futile. Attention only dissipated it further, and I grew more and more frustrated. This was no ordinary dream; no false recollection of truth, no sham and nonsensical insight, laughable upon waking. The entity remained, hovering, silent, and invisible. Yet still present. Mirrors are known to reveal what the outer world will not. But they speak only when they so desire; most times, they sit still, inscrutable effigies of normality. The real world awaits.
* * * *
This mind stands like a wall
Scratching the surface bears no witness
As yet. Time is no object
Space in completeness is our context
My purpose is divined
His destiny written like a book
Back to front, all laws broken
Freedom from constraint, the desire of each and every mind
There is yet hope for this one
Perhaps all others
* * * *
I struggled with vague impressions and disjointed insights, assaulting me as if in fast forward. So many images, all meanings lost by the speed of their passing. But finally, in amongst the flickerings and dead ends, a surge like waves appeared and would not leave my mind. Even these dark dry walls cannot keep it out. An image of crushing transcendence, as though ripping through the earth itself: Aestus. The vision of incomprehensible knowledge had a name, at last. A name, but nothing more. And with that realisation, a tearing fissure. An unutterable separation, as if from a lover, but mute, save for one, single word. Shimmering out of the boundless depths, this word was a lantern in the twilight of deep sea.
The returning visions obliterated the darkness of every night, and I awoke more refreshed than I have ever felt. Day by day, I felt it grow stronger, that presence. And with it, my longing for the unknown increased. The sphere of my world by day seemed so very small by comparison. By night, my perspective scaled the abyss of light and weight, my lantern shining on, keeping me from harm. Who knew what those depths contained? Those realms are not for mortal man, I felt, but I feared nothing when in its presence. Such thoughts as fear – surely, even now, I cannot imagine to be possible. But the Aestus would reveal no more of itself. Or perhaps; perhaps, I simply could not listen. Its patience, however, far exceeded my own.
Time is no object, it said, and I believed.
* * * *
The listener listens
The speaker speaks
Cannot the hearer hear?
* * * *
Why does this mean nothing to me? What am I missing?
Questions without answers and thoughts without conclusions. Nights full of sleep, and days full of waiting, and waiting, and finally despair. No. Despair is not final. That despair was tentative, but its transient nature only heightened its iron weight, the pressure of fathoms.
Nothing is final, it said, and restored my faith in an instant. But then the voice was lost again and I sunk my head in my hands, waiting for the next flash of insight, bestowed from the unseen. The darkness and the litter were barely noticed below the transcendence which I sought. Body and mind, so readily separable, when the cause is great enough. Only fools think otherwise. I was no fool, not even with the hindsight I have been granted could I pass such harsh judgement; not on myself, not on anyone. To strive for such heights. These things are not decided by the lowly you or I.
Hours, days, spent with hands clasped together, imploring. The messages always came in time. Sometimes it was all I could do to bar the floodgates, stave off the leagues of torrents of ice and inspiration. My mind, at capacity, overflowed and spilled out where I lay, and still a part of me begged for more. Sometimes it was granted, other times the stillness only expanded in response. At times, days would go by. Weeks with nothing but the mundane tasks of life, a flurry of bland activity to hide the truth. And always knowing the return drew closer, with each moment passed.
Weeks at last turned to months. The great wall of silence had grown and reformed: a subterranean cave, its oxygen pocket besieged on all sides. Down in these depths, I could no longer survive alone, brought here, far out of my element and abandoned. But the violent waters seemed more fascinating when bred with solitude. When the light came back I clung to it harder than ever before.
* * * *
The seeker and the boundary
These are one and the same
But the finite spirit thrashes blindly for an anchor
And finds none
The tides have no axiom without union
With the divine
The spirit grasps, greedily, hungrily
Just like a fool
Burning fires, even underwater
But there is still time
There is always time
* * * *
The light shone with a new brilliance, as if more insistent. A feeling like compassion or disappointment; the kind contempt of a sage. Still, the shadows were barred outside, their nebulous forms drifting slowly, all rage dissolved. I have learned many things: my understanding now defies description. But it is a borrowed wisdom; an iron submarine, joints rusted beyond repair. Surely I paid too great a price? It would seem that way to you, as it would have to me. Before; but not now.
This ocean is vast and terrible indeed. A black lake of inhuman creatures, scaled and thrashing. But its beds stretch on to infinity, ageless sands strewn with uncountable treasures. Diamonds for the picking, for those that will.
But we were always creatures of the barren land. Fearful to stray even to the shoreline, compelled to turn in terror, without even knowing why. Keep away from those gnashing maws. Shun that treasure, for it will destroy you. Spurn the light. It hangs from a thread which took root in a prehistoric cranium many aeons ago, its inhuman skull lined with cruel teeth. The Aestus did not turn from me, but I from it. The light lingers on, but my eyes are closed to its wonders. I am full to bursting. Each new fragment of knowledge boils my blood.
Did I leave? No. I could not.
* * * *
The mutiny was unintended
The error of a child
The spirit climbs the spire too fast, then comes the vertigo
Clouding the wisdom of aeons
If only for a splinter, of a fragment
It is not over, spirit
Truly, the torment
Is worth a glimpse of the divine
* * * *
I had forgotten the taste of the air, the feel of the solid ground. The stones will cut your flesh to remind you. All along it warned me. The pursuit of the divine cannot negate the cravings of the flesh. The creatures of the deep need that weight to live; we ourselves need lightness, freedom from the burden of knowledge. Our bodies are not built to withstand such force. The ocean reviles and fascinates us in the same instant. It is not ours to own.
Why paint a portrait of eternity, then force on a blindfold, so that all becomes shadow? I bore witness, and thereafter all boundaries were arbitrary. This was a mistake. But it was my mistake. Perhaps I am not one worthy of faith. Perhaps nothing more should be expected of a mind of mortal parameters.
Surely, I will never see the surface again. What I can never attain has been decided as my goal. That ageless creature, believing so strongly in my freedom, traps me below the waters of impossibility, far from air, far from ground. I will strive towards enlightenment for all time, knowing and seeing less even than the lowest of the earthbound. It sees in me what has always burned within. I chose this path, and I enforced it. A vicious desert storm would caress me almost tenderly. I would choose even the Arctic tundra as shelter, had I but a choice.
And now, I dream of ignorance.