The Shack

Ted J. Gibbs

Standing by the railway line, and the bridge overhead. Looked into the stars because they were many and secured up there, hanging and full of something he couldn’t access. This is the nature of being down here when everyone else is up there – out there. Can’t think of anything else, looking at the metal tracks. He felt his heart as if it was in the right side of his body. Even further, outside looking in. When he speaks to you then you have no choice but to look right into his face because there’s something in it that repulses you and you want to see it clearly in the night sky. But this was years ago.

Waking up in the cold of the open world with his arms held together. This was a clearing somewhere in the woods, a place far enough from the road that no one ever came here and the days were silent except for the occasional movements of a harmless creature. One or two or three in the morning – the nights were unbearable when it rained because the roof of the metal shack he lived in wasn’t sealed enough to keep the pooling water at bay. But there was a pond beside it and when it fell from the skies the sound could be heard throughout the woods, echoing against the trees and it sounded like cars. This was the exchange that made the day go by.

When he pulled himself from the old mattress that he slept on the day stood out before him like a peaceful dream. This is because he thought he heard the woods calling out his name to come and join them. But first he had some things to do – needed food and water, needed to wrap his aching body in clothing, just like yesterday and the day before but that was okay, the rhythm of it all pushing at the back of his mind and holding it all in place. And then there was the need to speak to the people who listened to their radios in the cities or in the mountains, in the hills. This would all come together nicely.

He opened the door and the sunlight warmed his aging skin, fell against him, pouring out. It reminded him of a distant place that was obscured from him, whatever that meant. There was no need to remember anything anymore. Not out here. You step out into the world and it’s all there to greet you, smiling warmly, friendly faces looking up at you and waiting for your attention. Speak to me, you faces, and show me your world. And all of a sudden everything looks different now, you realise things you never knew before. You can all laugh together like tiny suns yourselves, revolving around some famous point that people seek to capture. And you are alone.

The trail he normally took that led him to the house on the hill was overgrown and secluded, meaning he could walk freely without fear of someone else seeing him. He could remember the day he found it, out to the west of the shack. By chance, he thought. By chance that he would find a place like this that could sustain his life for so many years, however many it had been now. Something moved behind him and made him jump. He fell forwards and turned sharply, ready to run and plead and tell his story. Nothing there. He laughed because someone told him it was the thing to do but inside he was scared.  

And then he saw it, through the bushes and the brown leaves. The house was white and pale in the sun, held together by streams of wood that lined its corners, and beyond it was the cornfield. It stretched out for miles, he knew it, and this was what he had come for. But recently the house had been playing on his mind, aching in the corner. These things didn’t happen to him, hadn’t for a long time but no, he couldn’t forget the house. It persisted in his vision even when he was on the other side of the pond, even when he closed his eyes. He saw it underwater and saw it in the skies. Saw the girl in the window looking past him, some faceless stranger taking her hand and leading her away to oblivion. Always saw her, couldn’t see her now. He was too far away.

The trail ended at a long line of trees that he had never gone past. Even now the woods eluded his understanding, even after all this time. The thought of this made his chest hurt, filled his lungs. And when he stepped out into the open he crouched down and followed the outside edges of the wooden fences, just like he always did, circling round to where he needed to be. How many times had he followed this path, found the house, looked for the girl, held his eyes open as he looked into the clouds? Approaching something else, some foreign object in the earth ahead of him. It reflected back the pouring sunlight. A shard of glass embedded in the ground, facing upwards, and he pulled his face close to the earth to look at it. Saw it looking back at the mudded ground, wanted to hold it in his hand. He looked into it and saw the lines of his face in another man.

Moving along by the trees now, and the morning fell against the sky with feeling. His leather shoes were wet and old but he didn’t mind, glistening in the dew, because the house upon the hill was at the centre of his vision. Hanging in the dawning, it towered over the cornfields that stretched out across the horizon. Couldn’t see a soul walk across the wooden decking outside, nor linger in the windows where the drapes were always shut. If they wanted to speak to him they could. He was near enough to be able to hear their calls from the window, if they wanted. They could speak of things and go on about their days. This is all very virtuous, he thought.

He held a piece of corn in his hand and inspected it for any signs of damage or rot, saw it was fine and felt that old joy. He bit into it, its hard outer layer cracking against the few teeth that remained his, and smiled – that was it. Another day well-fed, could take these home and store them away for a couple of days before coming back again, filling out the role he was doomed to play from the beginning. But he didn’t mind – in many ways he was thankful. It brought sadness to his heart, thinking that he would never be able to thank the man or woman who drifted through the fields, planting the seeds that filled the void beside him. They rose up in his mind like ghosts, intangible and unimaginable. Featureless. Part of the wider world – but he was thankful. Nothing had ever changed since he’d began so they must’ve never noticed, or maybe they did and saw nothing wrong with it. Maybe they even wanted him to come, had started growing extra crops just for him, and in no time at all they would wait up for him early one morning to greet him and say to him – yes it’s you! you are the one who loves our work so much, and we’ve been waiting for you to join us – and he would lay down that insistent feeling of distance and bow to them. Come in, come in, they said into his ear, and the comforting warmth of furnished rooms collapsed within him. This belonged to a future that lived without him.

Then he heard a noise again, louder this time and not like before. He looked up with his eyes wide, staring at the walls of the house. This was the feeling of vulnerability that he had always tried to run from, crashing down upon him now in waves. It reverberated within his ears, within the wooden fences and the open courtyard and cracked amongst the trees. And then again, another sound that came from the house, not like anything he could recognise. He wanted to run but feared they would look out and see him, and then he would be done for and they would drag him back to that place he hated with a burning fury that he had always said he would never go back to not ever not now. They fed him things that made him choke and asked for words he didn’t know – that was the place. This was the world he was born in and had escaped from to be free, open as he was now.

Caught up in his own mind, he drifted from the present. And then the noise again came pounding in and brought him back with a start, and he knew he needed to leave before the time was up. Then it struck him, this overwhelming feeling of horror and dread that wouldn’t leave and moved through his blood unendingly, shakingly, telling you don’t go don’t go don’t go don’t go. And his life was over. Standing there he realised that he could never go on as he was. This is because her shadow lingered in the windowpane, looking out for something inaccessible, all quiet and heartless and lingering still with a form that was innocent and pure and blinding, and she had seen him. She didn’t move when she saw him but he knew that she had, even though he was far enough away to see her only in fragments and buried in the shattering sun he knew she had rested her eyes on him, if just for a moment or maybe still her vision blurred with the outline of him. Bury her bury her bury her and if he moved she would see him even better so he did and then his spirit was crippled with regret and the light began to burn his skin I think and it made it break and sting and his feet were buried in the dirt and the shard of glass in his hand. This is what she sees and that is enough to drown me.

But still he moved forwards and was propelled by something more complex than the need for food or water, the need to harm himself with that image haunting the corners of his eyes, constructed from dust and nothing but looking at him now. Stepped closer to the house and closer to the window, moving slowly as not to scare her away, looking at him like a deer from the window. This is the thing that separated them – of all the things that it could have been it was always going to be this. In his mind he tore himself apart, repeated to himself WHAT IS THIS WHAT IS THIS as he moved through the frantic passages and useless feelings that now took control of what had otherwise been a pathetic and fruitless life.

Before he could see her face that old hand was raised again, and he could think of nothing and if he was asked could speak of nothing other than the feeling that something was being ripped away from him, that time outstretched, those past incidences that meant nothing to him now, all returned into the company of absence. And just as soon as she had appeared before him that hand led her away into the dark. This was the end of something significant that he had never been able to name.

There was nothing left of him after that – he had been drained. The noise had stopped and he returned to the trail, stepped along the path that he had lived upon for far too long. There has to be an end to this somewhere, in something greater than what we’ve been through before. It’s looking increasingly likely that there will be nothing. Those days had been reduced to a single memory that burned in circles. Images that rose up and made his stomach hurt, sounds from old songs that he could remember the tune of but not the words, and late at night when he struggled to sleep he would sit up on the mattress and hum to himself. And once again the time would fade away.

He couldn’t remember how he’d found the shack, but he knew that in some way it had found him also. It was made for him in some nebulous way. These are the phrases that he muttered to himself as he walked back and forth through the clearing, looking at the ground and his old leather shoes. Thinking of things to do today. Maybe later he would go for a swim in the pond and in the afternoon he would fish. It was strange to him that he’d never caught a thing. This is life.

That night he lay stretched out on the metal roof, looking out into the darkness. The rain had stopped long ago and now the world was dry. It all felt lighter when he closed his tired eyes. When they were open he would look out towards the South, and all the timeless sky hanging up above him would be tinged with the seeping light of cars and houselights.

Ted J. Gibbs

Ted J. Gibbs is a Brighton-born writer currently living and working in London, where he has recently completed his final year of undergraduate study at King's College London. When he is not studying or writing, he can be found walking on Hampstead Heath or reading.

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