For Lucy Greaves
who had no idea she was a muse
"Scaling the silence she sings, a twisted
Drowning peace that dreaming brings,
Locked in her world she lies."
Liz Green, 2000.
Hercules tosses back his head and pounds on, snorting, pumping muscle and churning up turf, sweat stinging and sticky under his mane, sinews taut, exaltation infectious.
Lucy rides him like a beast possessed, knees clamped in tight to his flanks, holding on for dear, thrilling life, pleasure blooming in her belly, fingers snared, groping for purchase through hair tossing wildly down his neck.
And Lucy loves him.
Lucy smoothes the brush along his back and grooms down his flanks, pampering and relaxing. Soothing. Hercules fidgets under the tines like a nervous child, every tendon constantly primed to burst into action. Willing to accept gentle pacification, but far too well bred to succumb completely.
A hank of silken raven curls flows from Lucy's shoulder and sighs against fresh hay, plucking threads of gold from around her feet. Aching just a little from the day's exertion, body calling out for hot steam and foaming submergence. Lucy aches even more to be back aloft in the saddle again; clean air and countryside filling her senses, tossed on the wind and galloping clear of all the petty inconsiderations life insists on hurling her way.
Hercules aches to be out there with her. Born to run; to leap brook and hedgerow. To carve up lea and forest alike with hooves afire. Alive to run. Alive to carry her.
Lucy wraps him in a blanket, checks on food and water, hugs him tight and turns off the lights. "Goodnight Hercules. See you in the morning."
Closes the door and locks him safe against the night.
And Hercules loves her.
Lucy's dreams assault her as she lies in her bed.
She's supposed to be safe here. Once tucked under the duvet, curtains closed and lights extinguished, nothing's meant to eke its way into her head and screw up the sweetness inside. Bogeymen and spectres, murderers and monsters are all repelled by the impenetrable shield spread across her bed. Any threatening situation can be combated by simply retreating beneath the sheets, imploring the nightmares to skulk away.
That's the way it works.
But not tonight.
Tonight evil has seeped up out of her pillow and traced an invisible trail from the ends of her hair up into the roots to eat a way through the bone-weave below and scatter infecting barbs throughout the frowning neurones knotting her sleeping brain.
Hercules whinnies and stomps as the door pounds again. Something unspeakable is trying to pry the locks and hinges away from the frame, splintering wood, levering hinges from sparring and sending shudders reverberating under his feet, above his head. Rattling deep into the centre of his bones. Panels shatter and explode inward, battering Hercules' head and legs, nicking, gouging tender flesh. He backs away into a corner, unable to turn and run, too scared to try to bustle past the nightmare glowering full of screaming intent filling the doorway. Sweat begins to froth at Hercules' sides, eyes rolling and panicked, breath heaving, hooves toeing at the straw.
Lucy thrashes in her bed, experiencing every jolt of Hercules' fear, flinching at every blow, screaming in agony every time the blade slashes another steaming scarlet stripe into his tender skin. Tears course down her cheeks as he sinks to his knees, unable to hold in the fountains of red that begin to dye every strand of hay across the floor, streaking the walls and seeming to drain the colour from even his hide.
Hercules' breathing is laboured and sterterous, tongue choking his throat, vision blackening and voice broken. All he hears as his lungs begin to clog with his own lifeblood are the pattering, faltering beats of desperation tapped out by his failing heart and the hideous, slurping rants of hysterical psychosis. Manic, euphoric laughter follows him down into the abyss and his heart is stopped. Breathing stopped.
But the blood still flows.
Out of Hercules.
Into the misshapen black intruder that rises to eclipse Lucy's vision of her beloved.
Lucy startles awake on her sodden pillow.
And Lucy weeps.
Lucy picks at her breakfast as though presented with a plate full of mouldering offal. She can't hide the red rims lining her eyes, nor the blackened, puffy skin supporting them.
"Are you alright?" they ask. "Did you not sleep well?" they pry.
Lucy slept very well. Until black fingers of vileness massaged her subconscious and moulded their outpourings into the shape of her most forbidden fear. Her face is still crossed by lines of tension drawn under their torture. Her cheeks are still stained and blushed by sorrow, mouth still turned to the floor.
Her dream has followed her into the sunny daylight.
Unable to shake the seething sense of brooding foreboding left in the wake of so torrid an aftermath. Sleeping only to start awake again and again as the visions left trailing behind the dream kept prodding her with spite, jabbing her fearful back into the waking darkness.
She can't get out of the house quick enough. To fling open the stall door and pour out her troubles into the ever-empathetic ears of her beloved Hercules and climb on his back, there to bounce and breeze the last feelers of nasty discomfort out of her mind and trample them underfoot.
At last the edges of Lucy's mouth begin to flex in the right direction. She hugs herself against the chilly air, away to the stables.
And Lucy smiles.
The stables are a flurry of activity, buzzing with life traipsing back and forth. Not surprising on the day that the Manor Show opens it's gates and beckons the region to compete in trials, pursuits, plants and parading. Backstabbing and banter. Good-natured rivalry and downright feuding.
But something feels amiss.
Too much fever to be last minute preparation.
Too much noise to be peaking excitement.
An odour alien to smooth running workdays.
Lucy turns the corner and sees the throng of babbling people crowded along the row to Hercules' stall, faces drawn and voices shrill. Everyone seems to be moving at a hundred miles per hour, but appear unsure of what exactly it is they are doing.
And Lucy spies the top of the door above the heads of the troubled crowd.
And one of the grooms spots Lucy heading for her horse.
"No, Lucy. Don't go in there," he calls. "You don't want to see inside." His hands are all over her like an insistent lover, intent only on stopping her getting past.
Lucy doesn't want to go in there.
Lucy doesn't want to see.
But she must.
Shattered splinters hanging from mangled hinges are all the clue she needs. The ashen faces insistence at barring her entry all the confirmation she hates.
Lucy already knows exactly what she is about to see. Has been witness to the scene laid out inside the innocent cell where her beloved received sentence.
But the smell hits her unprepared. Thick and heavy and heady and hot. Utterly wrong. The smell of salt and sugar and stain and defecation. Of corruption. Of despoilment.
Lucy pushes her way past well-meaning hands and steps into the stench. Steps into the midst of torn, painted ruination.
Her eyes want to be scratched out of her head. Her fingers want to tear her eyes from her face, claw malodour from her throat. Her legs are water. Her bowels are mercury. Her mind is racing numb.
She struggles desperately not to throw up. That would be one indignity too far to greet her noble prince.
And Lucy screams.
And screams. And screams.
Lucy stands beside the enormous hollow in the meadow. Hercules' favourite field. He lays shrouded in silk, pieced together at the bottom of the hole, looking so tiny and lonely down there against the enormity of the gash in the earth. Against the swallowing black walls of soil.
Against Lucy's despair.
She can hardly reach the end of the eulogy. Desperate to maintain dignity to honour his passing, but utterly unable to keep the words from tripping, her throat from clenching and tears flooding. A carefully scripted remembrance becomes a tremor-shaken outpouring of utter desolation. Moaning and crying, it's all too much too soon.
Nigel helps her bow to the pile of soil beside the grave and she tosses in one crumbling handful. As it thuds, patters atop the spattering of roses and bounces down around his flanks, Lucy collapses, legs no longer able to support the weight of her sorrow. Wracked with sobs she watches earth piling on top of what remains of her Hercules. Insistent on staying until he's safely tucked away from the pain and horrors of life above ground before she can be led away to hide indoors. Away from the world and it's evil distortions.
Lucy weeps into shaking hands.
Withdraws inside the false safety of her own head.
And Lucy grieves.
Lucy picks out another wilting stem and puts it into the bag with the others, replacing them with crisp blossoms. She arranges them in their urn and tops it up with cool, fresh water. Picks out a few, curling leaves from one of the wreaths and weaves new greenery to cover the holes, embellish the design.
Sunlight rebounds from Hercules' headstone with little care for the pain it causes Lucy's sunken, grey eyes. Even the lace veil cannot mute the glare enough to calm her squinting. Her movements are slow and deliberate, a sullen attempt to cover the trembling that infests every muscle. She hasn't eaten properly since it happened. Can't banish that final, cauterising exhibition from behind her eyes. The nightmares return every night now, stopping her sleep. Sometimes even invading waking moments, requiring only vacant relapses into exhaustion to patch into her subconscious and drive raw, dripping horror into her eyes. Recreating desperate, impotent revulsion. Beckoning teeth-clamped metallic nausea.
She covers her ears and squeezes eyes tight, rocking back and forth and mumbles his name like a litany against the pain. But still it shines through almost non-existent defenses like razors through horseflesh.
The monster snuffed out Hercules' life in moments.
Tormented, terrifying moments.
Dismantling Lucy's life in the process. For her, though, moments of decay stretch into hours, days, weeks. An eternity to let the wounds eat away at her sanity. Dissolve her body down to a shriveled shell.
Hercules' body rests beneath her.
But Lucy's grief is ravenous, alive.
Hercules prowls the meadow in compounding frustration. Through a gauzy, insubstantial veil he can see Lucy every day, coming to visit him. He can hear her speaking to him and roaming the grounds like a black, billowing wraith that haunts the land, bound to it by death and circumstance. Hercules tries to answer, walks with and around her. Nudges her elbow and offers a consoling whinny.
But Lucy doesn't hear him. Can't see him. Appears to be coming as insubstantial as Hercules himself. Wasting away to nothing.
Powerless to help her out of her grief, to make her see that he is there, forever with her. Hercules rages and battles to make the connection. Livid with grief that his beautiful, vibrant Lucy is being dismantled before his sightless eyes. Her spirit broken, heart bleeding and shattered. All hope extinguished.
And Hercules seems powerless to intervene.
Somewhere beyond the voices keep calling, so strong when he'd first found himself dragged away from what looked something like an inadequate jigsaw of his body. They sang a soothing, enticing ballad from out of enveloping light. So tempting, the ethereal beckoned to him, as still it tries. At first he walked towards it, bathing in welcoming warmth.
But he turned back.
No matter how attractive the throbbing, pulsating eternity of light and companionship, there was something missing.
An enormous hollow that could be filled in only one place.
Hercules turned and ran. And still he runs. Back to the only sustenance his spirit needs. Ever running back to the glowing fires of redemptive love radiating out from one tiny space in the universes.
Back to his Lucy's arms.
Back to Lucy's love.
Hercules' body rests.
But his spirit wills him on.
Lucy's eyes run red with constant tears, cheeks permanently moistened, nose sniffling the only breaths she draws.
She barely eats or drinks anymore.
And but for the slack-jawed, waking nightmare intervals, she doesn't sleep. Practically Breatharian, she subsists on nothing but grief and the drive to protect and maintain Hercules' grave.
She knows that no one else will care enough to take on the task should she become incapacitated, has heard whispered conversation plotting committal, threatening hospitals. But she knows it will never happen. After all, she has their pity, if nothing else. And that's enough to stay their traitorous hands.
At times his presence is almost palpable.
If only she could find some way of bringing him back. There are times when she feels she could almost reach out and touch him. Run her hands along his flanks, bury her face in his mane. Nestle in the saddle of his back and ride away forever.
Weak and diminished, she has no real reason to go on living.
But Lucy survives.
Hercules' heart bleeds.
Lucy sits before him, tending flowers and plucking blades of grass in absent contemplation. Her beauty is weighted, almost hidden by a withered countenance. Perfect pale skin has become sallow and drawn; beautiful, sparkling eyes sunken, red-rimmed and smudged by charcoal puffiness. She has shed so much of herself that he can almost see through her. Her outline is indistinct against the meadow's lush greenery and only the too-big black lacery she wears creates any tangible evidence that she is there at all.
That and the tears that patter at his feet.
He struggles in vain to reach out to her, let her know that he's there. To let her know that he suffers too. And that reconciliation is the only remedy.
With all the power of his will he strains to break through the intangible barricade hemming him inside frigid, painful nothingness without her. Tears squeeze out of his eyes and his muscles ache and complain at the effort.
But it's all illusion.
There's no body except what he imagines. No cramp to cripple him. No heartbreak to incite weeping.
Without his back he has nothing to carry her by, without hooves nowhere to run. Without lungs no way to breathe in the summer-blessed scent of his mistress. Without contact he has no hope.
And Hercules despairs.
The shattered pieces of Lucy's heart cry out to the Heavens in impatient entreaty. All her desperate prayer and pleadings go unheeded. She's been cruelly deserted by an unfeeling deity. Life and happiness ripped out of her at the whim of a megalomaniac, sadistic hedonist creating misery for His own amusement alone. Continually destroying small pieces of His universe, as though in spiteful embarrassment at creating it in the first place.
He has abandoned her.
And His hollow laughter echoes down to mock her despair. With Him He's taken the single grain of connection she ever felt with the life she was born into. So deep the dislocation from existence, she can't even contemplate suicide. The notion so alien to her ill-existent nullity that it no longer occurs in the fretting preoccupations of her wretched family, let alone transfers itself into Lucy's spectral actions.
All that she wants is the gaping, bleeding wound repaired.
She wants Hercules back. Needs to see him trotting across the meadow to greet her. To feel the move of his muscle galloping beneath her again. Needs to erase the knowledge that his beautiful, noble body lies in tattered pieces beneath her feet, never again to tread impatient pathways for Lucy's freedom.
Time seems to stretch with every passing day.
The flowers seem to wilt quicker than she can replace them. Empty daylight and lonely, disconsolate nighttime merge into a single, grey eternity.
And Lucy has no choice but to endure.
Hercules strains and fights and roars and pleads. Battering resistance and passivity alike, the overwelcoming ministrations of the light left so far behind that he can hardly remember that it had been there at all, much less that he was supposed to be surrendering himself to it's custody.
Gallops headlong across neon spaces of meaningless void. Remembering himself in the only thing that gave his life any meaning. The thing that death took so prematurely. He frees his soul in pounding rhythm, hooves drumming a steady, flying refrain across the aether. Giving him sight of his existence on any plain.
Back to himself.
Back to Lucy.
And Hercules snorts in triumphant euphoria.
Lucy feels, listens to the ground vibrate.
The sky is suddenly darkened. Dimmer. But there are no clouds to shut out the contemptuous sun. No thunder to sling down jagged forks of lightning to salt the hills. No rain to follow fiery heralds.
Fresh flowers rot into blackened sludge before her eyes and the grass is degrading to withered, yellowed degeneration. The birds have all stopped singing, as though they were but a recording cut before ending. The bees don't buzz and the humming, busy refrain of countless, thronging insects has shriveled to nothing. Even earthworms have stopped their scraping through the soil, and Lucy is plunged into charged silence.
And Lucy is afraid.
Hercules can't move. His eyes are closed and cramped in soiled darkness. Unable to decipher any of the garbled messages his ravaged body is screaming at his brain, Hercules does the only thing that seems to have any relevance anymore.
He tries to make his legs scramble back into motion.
Back to Lucy.
Forever back to Lucy.
It feels like he's trying to force his way out of a tightly bound harness. Blindfold gouging at his eyes and forcing choking fingers down his throat. Clammy bindings rasping his legs into excruciating inactivity.
But still Hercules runs.
The earth beneath Lucy's hand dances and sings.
But there's no music in the air, no melody. No uplifting, swirling beat to carry her mind away, distract her from melancholy for the duration of its attention. Instead there is fury and pain - so much pain - carnage and wrong embedded in the sound. Vibration hums a grimace of unnatural excision and spears a focus into the centre of her grieving. Intensifying the hurt, the longing. Swelling desolation and highlighting every blackened morbidity that seethes inside her being.
Lucy's choked by clouds of malevolent intensity. Battered by waves of shuddering depression that stream out and back inside her like wildfire breathing death into the life of a townhouse.
There's darkness crowding in on her vision, darkness closing down the light into a flattened tunnel that squeezes in on the sides of her head like a million migraines delivered in precipitous concatenation.
Consciousness pleads for release and she's swooning awake, utterly unable to detach herself from nauseating, electronic reality.
Forced to watch. Forced to experience every nightmare morsel, Lucy's hold on fragile sanity calmly drops its hold.
And Lucy screams.
Lucy wails and cries and shouts denial.
And Lucy screams. And screams her voice into destruction.
Hercules spirit soars and dances, exhilarated and elated.
There's chinks of light in front of his nose and the unbearable, crushing weight that's ground him into dissolution lifts, falls in rattling clumps from his head and he is forcing himself free. Reborn. Rejoicing. Revealed.
Light crowds in on too-long darkened eyes, blinding and confusing. Too bright. Too soon. Air forces itself into his mouth and down his throat, pushing out filth and suffocation. He scrambles up and out, legs thrashing at the earth, scrabbling for purchase, slipping and scraping until he is standing. Standing on his own feet on solid ground, feeling grass beneath his hooves, flowerbeds crushing under his weight. Suddenly the sound of birdsong is deafening, insects digging through the undergrowth louder than the beating of his own heart, even though the blood in his veins pounds out around his body like never before.
Hercules joys at being alive. Drinks in the pure air and possibility. He takes gulps of cleansing existence and stretches himself back into life. His life. He giggles and snorts at the victory he's won.
Escaping the darkness and tearing himself back into his body.
And Lucy is there.
He can see her beautiful face. Can feel the irresistibility of her presence. He smells her perfume - heady, intoxicating, invigorating. And his heart sings. Every emotion, every nerve in his body comes alive to the thrill only that knowing she is near can provide.
But something is wrong.
Lucy's backing away and covering her eyes. Covering her mouth, face. She is crying out and pleading for release. Waving away something that terrifies her, disgusts her, as though she can't see Hercules standing reanimated. Returned to her. All her fondest wishes granted beyond all hope.
And she screams, trips backwards and falls. Shields her head from the horror and howls, wails like a lunatic.
Hercules heart shatters anew to see her still suffering haunting torment and rushes forward to help, to give her comfort. To nuzzle his breath against her hand and soak it's calm rhythm along her fingerprints, taking the tension out of the tips and off into the sky.
But something is wrong.
Something is desperately wrong.
Hercules throat produces only gargled splutters, offending his ears with guttural indecency. His chest is full of stuffing once more. Filling with inconsistency and rot, as though someone has scooped out his lungs and replaced them with liquefying, maggot-ridden offal. His legs are unsteady and misplaced, uncertain of their own function and weak as a newborn, malshapen lamb. His hooves feel chipped and uneven, tail kinks limply down his back legs and his eyes begin to worsen, losing light and focus, rather than adjusting to its surprise. Thoughts begin to spiral out of control, whirling a descent into final, unhallowed, unwanted truth.
He realises that for all his effort, all his protests and rebellion, he hasn't run away from the light of enduring persuasion at all.
He's galloped a frantic journey of self-deceit right around into its inevitable embrace and it's there, in front of him, approaching, reaching out to swallow him. To welcome him. Conjuring up all the lives he's known, past and present and future and juggling them about his consciousness, to introduce him, at last, irresistibly into the fold.
Still reluctant, Hercules has no choice and concedes to supremacy. He is granted one last, adoring vision of the thing his poor Lucy has become before it is washed away. And only the finer reality of the glow of her abundant love propels him on into the netherland.
He sees that he achieved his aim. And it did neither him nor Lucy any good.
He accepts release and prays that she can forgive and forget him.
Hercules lets his broken body fall back to it's grave.
And accepts lamented harmony.
Lucy recoils from the trembling abomination that lies in limpid pieces atop the ruins of Hercules' grave. Something hideous, some evil beyond her comprehension has taken the collection of decay and disease and rank despoilment that had once been her own, beautiful creature and dragged it kicking and slurping out of peaceful rest, thrust it up through the earth to dangle on ethereal strings in some odious, crumbling parody of nightmare puppetry.
Just for her.
To punish her undying love, as though it were wrong for her to mourn him so heartfully.
Through her confusion she crawls forward, unable to halt her limbs and looks down upon the splinters, splashes and gashes, mould and maggot leftovers that sits, rests back on Hercules' headstone. A pustulous bag of decay. An abomination spawned to taunt her.
A nightmare sent to haunt her.
One hand sinks into foul ooze that was once her beloved, sucked deep beyond the wrist and gripped with glutinous viscosity.
A purple, blackened hank of rotted muscle that may once have been a tongue lolls out of the corpse's mouth, twitching as though eaten from within, and the tatters of flesh left on top of smashed, stained bone pulses with the stink of impregnated, creeping life, feeding greedily on the spoils of death.
One eye rolls around to centre upon her own, upon her face and there is a brief spark of intention there. Something tangible and peaceful and familiar.
And in that moment Lucy recognises the soul inside that stare.
And he's gone. Taken from her again. Denied her even in her madness.
Lucy's tender hold on frayed threads of brittle sanity hang on just long enough to deliver the knowledge that she dreads.
Lucy cannot have Hercules while she lives.
Yet Death will not take her.
And Lucy laughs.
The nurse finds Lucy first.
She screams and panics and turns away. Runs and drags the doctor back to the bathroom.
Lucy's mouth is smeared with scarlet smudges, spread across her lips by the holes her teeth have torn through both wrists. They lie upturned atop her shriveled thighs, bobbing serenely on the surface of a becalmed pink sea, punctuated by pale, bluish islands.
Paper skin barely conceals tightened sinew. Muscles all-but wasted away.
All the life had been sucked out of her long before she forced Death's hand. Unable to resist, the Reaper's clammy hand finally had to clasp her soul to its bosom and yank it out of her suffering cage.
And left her there.
Lucy stares down at herself, barely able to recognise the wizened ragdoll as her own body.
She watches in awe for a while as first the doctor tries vainly to save what's no longer there to be rescued. Before deferring to paper and pen and certification.
Eventually she becomes bored and sets off in search of the light. And Hercules.
He's gone beyond, and all she can feel is the desire to follow him into eternity.
And Lucy seeks reconciliation.
Lucy's spirit roars derision. Cries out in twisted frustration. There's no light beyond for her. No words and thoughts and waves of comfort flowing over her soul to welcome her into the never realms. No Hercules to carry her across the divide.
She is anchored still to the house, to the stables, to roam the meadow.
Hercules is as dead to her now as ever he was.
She has been cheated again.
Punished beyond unfairness. Damned beyond salvation.
Hercules' body lies in the ground. And his spirit rests.
Lucy's body lies.
But Lucy grieves.