Authors: Richard Wright
Thy Fearful Symmetry
By Richard Wright
Copyright © Richard Wright 2012
Cover design by
Interior Art by Malcolm McClinton
All Rights Reserved.
Dedication & Acknowledgements
The first draft of this novel is over ten years old. It’s been written, rewritten, and written again since then. The things that made me write it lost their influence several years ago. That is not to dismiss the help the book has had along the way, and I’d like to thank Mark Lancaster and Jackie Donnelly for their proofreading efforts. It goes without saying that any remaining problems are all my own doing.Thanks also to Steven Savile, a proper good bloke who’s always been unstinting with his advice and support, and Matt Schwartz, who would have published a much earlier version of this book if I hadn’t dropped the ball. Emma Barnes and Malcolm McClinton have each done an astonishing job of the cover and interior art, helping Thy Fearful Symmetry evolve from words on my laptop to the book you’re reading now.
Finally, a profound thank you to my wife Kirsty and daughter Eva, who make life interesting enough to be worth writing about.
“When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered Heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made them Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright
In the forest of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry.”
, William Blake, 1794.
First published in
Songs of Experience.
Heaven pulsed around him like a vast, beating heart.
At the very centre of the pulse, he floated in a void of scarlet light. Each silent thump sent ripples of deeper crimson sluicing from him in all directions, man-shaped disturbances in a cosmic pool that had been still before he arrived. There was no question that he was an intruder. His presence was like grit in a delicate machine. He wondered what had summoned. If he was not welcome, why had he been yanked there?
Though he was aware of the question, it barely floated above his subconscious. Most of his mind was devoted to not shutting down in shock and awe. Eyes bulging, his chest quaking with the exertions of his exhausted heart, he waited and watched as the redness shimmered around him. There was peace to be found there, he knew it immediately, but it was not his time to sink into the blood colours and become part of the whole.
A manic snigger escaped his lips, though no sound reached his ears. Heaven was supposed to be lush fields of flowers and newly cut grass, with choirs of angels singing and every wholesome delight on offer. Perhaps he was in the other place then, but that made no more sense to him. Hell was fire, branding, and torture, surely?
No, even though he could not remember how he had come to be there, or what he was doing before he arrived, or even what his name had been before this immense vacuum claimed him, his body and soul knew he was in Heaven. His cells responded to it, and embraced it. His mind could not.
Not my time
, he thought.
Not my place
When the voice came, it was directionless, emerging from the surrounding colour, from the fibres of his clothes, from his own flesh and hair. The tone was rich and soft, but powerful, like a giant's caress. He was certain that the voice could sharpen in an instant and tear him apart, though he felt love there too. The name of his Lord refused to appear in his mind, and he was glad. Naming the being who wrapped him up was too close to owning Him, and that would be sacrilege.
I am your thing
, he thought, knowing that he was heard and understood.
I am your servant and tool
. For the first time in his life, bathed in the red light of his Lord, he understood exactly what the words meant.
Something nagged at his soul, a contradiction that had recently puzzled him, but he could not bring it to the fore. He could do nothing at all but bathe in the voice that came from everywhere, and the light.
At first the words were incomprehensible, just vibration and tone on an immense scale. There was meaning there, but he was too small, too limited, to understand what it was. It was like sitting in a tree and trying to see the forest. Slowly though, as he drifted, the words narrowed, the frequency shaping into something he could comprehend.
Inexplicable dread gripped him as he strained to hear. Again, something nagged the corners of his subconscious. Lingering parts of him, which had clung on tenaciously during the unreal sensory assault that had driven most of his sense of self fleeing from his body, tried to attract his attention. The nagging spread downwards, cramping through his shoulders, locking his gut, seizing his legs in a vice grip. His body was an ugly whorl of tension against the backdrop of soothing red. The ripples cleaving from his body adjusted to the tautness, perverting as they spread, mocking his attempted self-subjugation with ghoulish parodies of his own image, expanding ever outwards.
When the words narrowed enough for him to understand them, his fears proved true.
Each word hurt him, physically as well as spiritually. The red brightened, morphing from heart's blood to a blazing furnace with such speed that each time he blinked he witnessed an unrecognisable universe when his eyes opened anew. With the colour shift came a heat to match, and his flesh started to cook.
, he thought, in his last moments of sanity,
what did I do to earn this?
Then his eyeballs began to sizzle and pop, dripping scalding fluids over his cheeks that raised blisters across his blackening face. When he opened his mouth to howl, steam shot forth as though from a dragon's maw. A distant crackling, the first true sound he had heard in that place, told him his hair was on fire.
His flesh erupted in slow-burning flame, his fats fuelling the blaze and finally, blessedly, scorching the sanity from him.
The dividing line between dream and waking was lost on Calum Baskille as he burst from fitful sleep. There had been fire, and culpability far beyond his everyday, all-purpose catholic guilt. Despite the frosty breeze sliding through his open bedroom window, he could feel the burning. Taking heaving breaths, certain his throat was still swelling shut beneath the onslaught of his own scalding breath, he beat frantically at his own flesh. Sheets tangled around him as he writhed, soaking up his sweat and adding to the crush of claustrophobia that had him reeling.
His exertions took him to the edge of the bed. Sudden emptiness beneath his shoulders jolted him fully from his sleeping terrors, but too late to catch himself. The bedroom tipped backwards, and he was too entangled in linen to do anything but close his eyes and tuck his head to his chest.
Calum landed awkwardly on his shoulders, his head bouncing firmly against the polished floorboards, and then was still.
Thank you God
, he thought, with not a little touch of irony,
I needed that
. Remembering why he felt so guilty, even frightened, gave him a shudder. He wanted to snatch the thought back, even though it was offered in jest. For a moment he froze, hoping yet again that God had not heard him.
, he thought.
I've spent the last eight years gambling that He can hear me, that my dog collar isn't the brand of a wasted life. Now that I know beyond doubt that He really is there, I'm hoping He's been struck mysteriously deaf.
In the gloom, the glowing red numerals of the alarm clock on his bedside table reset from 05.59 to 06.00. The colour was from his dream, one of the shades of red he had floated in. Heaven? Or Hell?
There was no point dwelling on it. Calum had never put much purchase in the significance of dreams, and recent experiences gave him cause to believe that if God wanted to chastise him, he'd do so much more directly. No, he'd dreamed out his guilt, and that was all.
With a groan he swung his legs down from where they still rested on the bed, wincing as his backside slapped against the floor, and began to wriggle free of his sheets.
Breakfast was a bowl of cornflakes heaped high with sugar, and a strong black coffee. In the summer he might have gone for a run first, especially having woken so early, but Glasgow in January was a challenge that bested his already half-hearted motivation to maintain some sort of physical fitness.
His flat would be cold for another two hours until the heating came on, and leaving the windows open overnight had not helped. With his sinuses as they were, sleeping in a closed room always left him groggy and stuffed up, so the chill was something he had learned to live with. That didn't mean he liked it, and he gulped the coffee down while it was still near to boiling, accepting the scalding in exchange for the warmth that spread out from his belly.
Tissues in his throat protested, and he was back in the dream, his own fluids boiling in his chest.
Calum shook his head to clear the thought away. It was hardly surprising that the dream disturbed him so much. Three weeks ago, he had committed to a path of sin unlike anything seen since biblical times. How he had wandered so neatly into his current predicament bewildered him, for he had been a good and honest priest for eight years He wondered whether novelty alone was ensnaring him. Every day, he saw things nobody else alive on the planet did. Was that really enough to cast his eternal soul away for?
, he thought.
, a sly voice at the back of his mind answered.
Calum winced. If he really had wandered from the righteous path, then he was so hopelessly lost that he didn't know if he'd ever be able to find it again.
Tightening the belt of his bathrobe with a tug, he went to wash some of the night's sweat away. The narrow bathroom, like the rest of the flat, was a modest affair. A year before he had taken on this parish, there had been an expansive house owned by the church, which he would have moved in to had his predecessor not burned it to the ground after falling into a drunken slumber in front of the television while smoking a cigarette. The church had taken on the flat while the repairs were organised. They had been complete for weeks. Calum could have moved back in anytime he wanted, but he liked where he was, and kept inventing excuses to stay. The flat was one of a dozen in an old, converted mill overlooking the river Kelvin. The building stood alone on Old Dumbarton Road. If he turned right out of his front door, he crossed a bridge and came straight on to Byres Road, the bustling heart of Glasgow's West End.
The old university defined the area, an eclectic collection of buildings between forty and four hundred years old, making up a campus stretching from Byres Road all the way across to Kelvingrove Park. Calum supposed that was part of the appeal. Walking up Byres Road, past students and lecturers, brought back memories of his time at Newcastle University in the north of England, studying philosophy and theology when he hadn't been drinking and partying. That was a different life, before the car crash had hurled him into God's arms. Having now betrayed his Lord in a way that he still could not fully fathom, he wondered if his hell raising days had been a truer reflection of his character than the collar and the crucifix.
Calum ran the cold tap, letting the basin fill. When it was deep enough he plunged his face into the icy water. The shock ran through his spine, but it woke him up. Since he had given up smoking, it was the only thing guaranteed to get him moving in the morning. Without the nicotine igniting his blood, even coffee didn't bring him round to the day, and so shock tactics were called for. Feeling his cheeks go numb, he jerked his head back out, his too long fringe sending droplets of water arcing over his shoulder. Shaking his head, spraying water still further afield, he grabbed a towel from the rail on the back of the door and rubbed some warmth into his face.