The Smoke in the Fog
Throughout the night, the moisture on the cold stone floor had turned to frost. It began to seep through the fabric of David’s trousers, thawing a patch around his knee. The poker clacked against the grate, stirring the embers and spreading the cinders. David exhaled a misty cloud of breath; blown ashes fluttered. A man of simple thought, he gave no credit to the actions of sleeping body and mind, and he wouldn’t even if he were awake.
Through flickering eyes, David placed logs on top of the glowing residue in the grate. The bellows wheezed in time to the sedate pace of his breathing until antlers of flame lapped at the wood. With the day yet to trouble the windows of his room, no light to compete with the growing gown of fire, David straightened and made back to his cot. The moment he lay down, a final blink returned him to deeper sleep.
A scraping sound was coming from somewhere. In the isolated room there were always unidentified noises, through morning and night. They weren’t even worth the attention that David didn’t pay them.
It was bleak rays of sunlight, backlit upon his eyelids, that woke David proper. With the cuffs of his jersey gripped in broad fists, he growled as he stretched. The blanket fell from his back and his feet found the floor. From the stool beside his cot, David lifted a tin cup and drank until it was empty. Before the cup was back in its place, David’s dull gaze was already turned towards the smouldering logs and their mast-less sails of smoke.
Having crossed the room and poked the logs into pieces, David laid two more chunks of elm in the grate and nestled an iron skillet on top of them. Hissing gasses were soon escaping from the wood; splinters crackled; bacon sizzled in the water released from snowy waxcaps. David dipped his fingers into the skillet, wrapped the bacon around the mushrooms, and he ate, mindless of the running fat that soaked into his fingerless gloves.
When the skillet was empty, David used tongs to stand the logs endwise at the edges of the grate. The skillet he placed into a washbowl. Against the woollen sleeve of his jersey his beard rasped, transferring the grease from his face.
Some of the previous groundkeepers – those who had occupied the same room: sat in the slack-seated chair, slept upon the shaky cot, and the many hands that had stoked fires in the grate – had kept dogs as their companions. When the sun warmed the stone floor, the wet scent of them still arose from the rugs. There was further evidence of these past occupants. Long scratches ran deep on the inside of the thick wooden door, to be let out, and on the outside, to be allowed back in. The sole companions of David were silverfish that wriggled unseen through the moist, dark corners.
With a final wipe of his chin, David grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair – a silverfish slipped from the armpit – he unlatched the door and he stepped into the morning. It was warmer outside than it was inside the stone building, as was usual even in the harshest frosts. From the storage shed – a lean-to attached to the side of his home, itself a former storage shed – David removed a leaf rake and placed it in his wheelbarrow alongside a pair of shears.
The chill of recent weeks had taken respite. Even so, all around the headland the sky was the grey of the jackdaws’ hoods, cackling unseen from the tops of the yew trees beyond the small, stone building. Following his wheelbarrow up the lawn, David saw that a fog was approaching, a swirling cloud riding over the sea. It had not yet touched upon the shore, nor the disparate landscape beyond the grounds of the fort, but there was no doubt that it was coming. Standing and watching for a moment, David fancied that he could see the advancing fog moving through the weather front.
So bitter had the wintery spell been of late that the visitors were few. Nevertheless, no guests at all would be arriving that day. Might every day be Christmas Day, David mused, he would not have to observe these mindless people who walked upon the finer grass in spite of the signs; not bear the sight of them stepping through the flowerbeds. Tidying nature’s litter was one thing, but it was quite another to sweep up after these unwanted encroachers. In their absence there was not really any work required to be undertaken but, perhaps because he was almost programmed by each day, David set towards the fort, flattening wormcasts underfoot.
Save the noise made by the rooks and the far-off wheeze of the sea, the ruins of the fort were silent within its flat land; ever watchful, even in its ruined years, as it peered out at the barren vacancy. Buddleia, taken root at its base, brushed against the curtain wall. Juniper, seeded by birds perched upon on the parapet, had claimed the rampart. In places along the boundaries the drifting sand had displaced the spiked iron rail fence, where it now leaned into the face of the incoming weather, armoured pikemen stoutly facing off the cavalry elements – an advance that was never fiercer than in the raw winter months.
Approaching the fort, David noticed that trickles of opaque cloud were drifting out through the Sally Port entrance, thickening before making their escape into the clearer air. It confused David; the fog was still fast approaching but it was yet to breach the shoreline. A scruffy dog suddenly breezed through the ghostly puffs seeping out of the fort, head down. Tendrils of fog trailed behind its lurching movement. Unbothered, or incognizant of David’s presence, it headed alongside the scarp, past the rampart, towards the scrubland, and out of view.
Facing the Sally Port, David lowered the handles of the wheelbarrow and stood there with his hands on his hips. ‘Go on then,’ he spoke. ‘Where are they?’ And he waited; waiting for the family of the dog to follow through the opening. His hands played over the shaft of the leaf rake; thinking of what he might say, if anything at all, should his look alone not convince these intruders to leave. But no family was forthcoming.
A meagre frost had softened the ground; the grass was thin where leaves had smothered it. The smell was of nothing but wet air and the sweet scent of summer’s decay. While he worked, David kept watch for the owners of the dog and he listened for their noise. Before long, his mind settled into its usual place, focused upon little but the process of his actions.
When the emboldened fog finally did arrive it seemed to bathe David’s skin, leaving a dewy mist upon the surface of his hair and his clothes. With each movement it cleansed him; each exhalation cleared wisps in the vapour. Soon the denser air had covered even the caws of the jackdaws, lending distance to their cheep and trill. The fog had brought a sound of its own: the lungs of the suspiring sky.
Visibility was not yet so restricted that David couldn’t see where he was working, but each time that he looked up more landscape had fallen away into the nothingness. Peering into the billowing wall, David’s eye was occasionally fooled that some darker shadow was moving through the swirling droplets; shapes formed but melted into the cloud no sooner than they appeared. David continued to work until the air was so close that he had only a vague sense in which direction his lodgings were – by the lines of the paths and flowerbeds. Only when the wheelbarrow was full did he think about returning to his room.
Descending into the misty mass, the chill of the moisture grew greater upon David’s skin. Although he was well-used to the cold, his dampened clothes were heavy, overcoming his body’s heat through to the bones. The lower he headed, the more the air seemed to freeze around him. The shiver that was trying to overpower David’s blood bothered him none – so acclimatised was he to the brutal conditions of the headland at winter. Walking behind the wheelbarrow – a shape that he could barely see – David thought only of the warmth of his fire that would soon be flaming.
From nothing, the cottage began to form a shape within the fog. The elms around the building were regurgitated from the swallowed air. Only the occasional alarm of a bird calling, before its sound was smothered. Heading beyond the building, into the deeper air behind the elms, David’s foot struck into a hole, jarring his knee and twisting his hip. Firing a cannon of curses, he was limping to the piles of mulch when soundlessly out of the fog there lurched a shape; a scruffy shadow appeared from behind the gross trunk of an elm.
‘Garr,’ David called, a roux of shock and irritation. ‘Gertcha.’
Without a glance, the dog disappeared behind another of the elms and was lost to the fog. Upending his wheelbarrow into the mulch pile, David limped after the dog, with shears and rake in hand.
Perhaps held back by the branches of elms, the fog was not so thick by the ancient graveyard. Beneath the drifting wisps, the ragged intruder was standing low beside a concrete cross, with its head so close to the ground that it seemed to be staring through the covering of samaras and roughened leaves. Its foreleg was softly troubling the rich earth upon the grave, pawing at the ground.
Ten feet away from the dog, David’s foot landed on a brittle twig. It snapped. The dog’s head lifted to the sound. Through milky eyes it stared at David; a slight lowering of the white hairs within its brow, speckled with darker fur. There was a noiseless moment, with only the ropes of fog between them.
‘Git,’ David said. ‘Go on.’ He stamped his leg towards the dog. It sent a shock through his inflamed nerves. Untroubled, he stomped once more. ‘I said, Git!’
With not a flinch, the dog placed one wary leg forward, a step closer to David. And then another. Its eyes were forever trained on David’s, and his on the dog’s. Still it came.
‘Go on.’ David scissored the shears twice closed, two snips in the air that sliced through the fog. ‘Git out of it.’
One single slow step at a time, the dog continued to approach David. It made a sound in its throat; a lost noise, a tiny whine shrouded within a growl. Another step forward. A shiver as its paw landed upon the dark ground.
‘Brah!’ David leaped forwards. The shears snapped closed in front him, only a yard away from the dog.
With a flicker of its brows, the dog lowered its head and slunk back towards the headstone. Over its shoulder, with eyes that were the colour of the fog, the dog appealed for a final time.
‘Out of it,’ David growled. He launched forward. Another uncomfortable landing, and a heavy shockwave that transmitted through his leg. That one he did feel, tight right through to his hip, enough to constrict his features within a grimace. He released a roar that startled some of the unseen birds from the tree. And with them, the dog squirrelled away behind an elm.
Rotating his hip, David limped to the thick trunk. With a hand against the rough, fissured bark, he eased his way around it. But there was nothing to see there except for the wet air and the thicker drapes of cloud. The dog must have disappeared into the fog. Gone and good.
In the absence of an updraft, the kindling was not keen to take. Both the building and its chimney were moistened by fog. Tickling flames licked at the wood and whistled, teasing to draw and then retreating. Readjusting his weight onto the uninflamed knee, David blew lightly towards the grate. For a moment the flames lifted around the kindling, and then they sighed away.
Beneath his clothes, a shudder of chill air breezed through the hairs on David’s back. He glanced towards the latched door. The fog was pressing against the windows, brightening the dingy room with its stark white luminescence. Frosty droplets chilled the glass of every pane.
Easing himself upwards, David hobbled to the chair and dragged it next to the fire. When seated, he clamped the tongs around the upended logs and settled them on top of the kindling. Within a gasp of air, the spritely flames took to the logs and forced the cold moisture up through the chimney and the fire steadily grew.
Now that he was seated, the warmth radiating from his throbbing knee was not entirely unwelcome. But to raise his leg and rest his boot upon the grate would be unwise, should he fall asleep. Instead he stacked two more logs on top of those blackened ones and carefully stepped towards his cot.
With some pain David removed his boots. In his damp clothes, he climbed beneath the blankets and allowed himself just one shiver. The topmost logs were yet to take to the fire. But they would.
A spitefully sharp pain from his knee shocked David’s eyes open. It was cold. His clothes were not yet dry. He was standing – where, he could not tell. Everything was blinded by thick fog. When David lifted a hand he could see only the dark ghost of it in front of his face.
Not only was there the pain and the freezing chill, there was something else. A wheezing noise followed by a gasp; rhythmic but frenzied. It breathed with the watery movements of the fog.
David stepped forward and his shin bumped into something. The tin cup clattered onto the stone floor.
The wheeze again, and a gasp. Beneath them a scraping noise. A rapid scratching sound. A dull orange glow bloomed through the fog somewhere to David’s left. There was the wheeze and the gasp and it bloomed. The wheeze. The gasp. The bloom.
One unsteady step at a time, David moved towards the dull glow. Accompanied by that irrational wheezing, there the light grew through the fog. Another step closer and the orange flare; a solar halo through clouded light.
At the sound of the gasp, a lungful of fog blew away. David was offered a momentary glimpse of what was there, before handfuls of the cottony air gathered and it was shrouded.
Another gasp. David could clearly see the figure of a man sitting in his chair. Flames reached to the very top of the hearth. Glowing embers spit out of the fire, into the room. One of the crazed sprites landed hot on David’s stockinged feet. Close to losing the balance of his weakened leg, he stamped upon it. Those ossified hands once more eased the bellows apart with a wheeze and they were both enveloped by fog.
In the next gasp, David noticed that the rug beneath the figure was flaming in places; growing orchids of fire.
A wheeze, and the figure’s pale features were covered.
A gasp, and the horror of its terrible, agonised face was again revealed, unfazed by the flames that were crawling up the rotted fabric of its trousers.
Unwilling to look upon the figure again, David felt his way towards the door. He allowed his feet to dictate the direction. The growing flare of light in the room could not help to find his way; rather, it thickened the opacity of the invisible air. With each step his toes clung to the stones set into the floor, feeling like fingers.
Somewhere out in front of him, one of David’s hands reached ahead through the fog while his other hand supported his stricken leg. Stumbling forward into nothing, the fog seemed to have added an impossible depth, the breadth of a cloud.
The scratching sound again. Unrestrained by the terrible wheeze and gasp and the glowing threat of flames. It was closer now. Somewhere underfoot.
David willed his eyes to see but there was nothing. He knew that he surely must be close to the door – it was somewhere beyond the mad, endless depth of the fog. All around him was the trapped orange radiance. There was no longer telling where the furious fire was at its source. His hand continued to reach beyond his visibility but still it touched nothing. Cold air quivered at the tip of his reach.
The scraping stopped. Hidden somewhere beneath him, David heard the tiny whine made in a throat and the sigh through a wet nose. He heard the clack of claws against the floor, as persistent as a dripping drainpipe. And again that whimpering noise.
Adrift somewhere in his room, David froze. Icy breath sighed onto his hand before a rough tongue, like chipped slate, licked his skin. The chill of it climbed David’s arm, creeping beneath his veins. Another lick upon his hand; pincers of ice gripped him. Within a gasp of the cloud, David stepped backwards into the smoke in the fog.