Tower Of Fog is a short story written by P.S.Clinen. It has been shortlisted for a number of awards, including the Atlantis Short Story Competition 2013 and the Lane Cove Literary Award 2014. It appeared in the February 2017 edition of Australia Times Unearthed Fiction magazine. Below is the story in its entirety.
The sun rose, and through the veil of mist, threw its rays with furious abandon at the cloud that perennially coated the mountains. These mountains wound along the bleak coast, corroded fangs weathered by the lashings of sea foam, as stone grey as the sky that stood over them like a loveless parent. They crawled from the earth with the ocean salivating at their heels and reached, reached for the nurturing warmth of sunlight. But the fog remained, the sun set again, and all was lost in eternal monochrome. The northern tower jutted crudely from the peaks, needle-thin, so that the wind that rushed about its zenith whistled like a tuning fork.
In the highest room of the tower, where joviality was given up to the valleys of echoes, Greywaite sat atop a stool.
He was of crumbled carriage, as though the oceanic air had weathered his posture inasmuch as the disintegrating horizons surrounding the tower. His white hair receded like waves on a domed beach, slithering backwards from his scalp in lengthy serpents that tumbled floor-bound. Beneath the layers of beard and hair, his cloak bloated about his shapeless form. The navy blue of this cloak, so muted that one must look twice to confirm the presence of any colour at all, pertained to Greywaite’s ghostly ensemble, yet added little worth to the stormy gloom of the room. He had waited all night, and now the morning crept upon the tower. The transition towards light was one sluggish and subtle; the overcast sky seemingly dragging the daylight back towards night. It was not as though Greywaite noticed the morning anyway; he merely stared from the window of that airy room out across the peaks to the southern tower that stood in the distance. His eyes were searching, yet old age appeared to have limited his ability to do so. When the yearning for his vision to focus upon the other tower became too frustrating, he turned his gaze to the floor and sighed heavily. The fraying wires of his mind had shot currents betwixt each other in an attempt to comprehend his depression, depression that turned to irritation as a knock sounded at his door.
The door groaned ajar and a figure stepped in, though this figure was somewhat ignored by Greywaite, who continued to stare from the window. For several seconds, there was only the sound of laborious breathing in the room.
“It is you, Flagcloak?”
“The same you would see.”
Greywaite turned his head slightly, so that little more than his profile could be discerned from Flagcloak’s position. The visitor was of similar stature to the man by the window; perhaps age had been a touch kinder on his rugged features, his shock of hair maintained the golden glow of youth, and coupled with a beard shorter than that of Greywaite, he carried a lion-like appearance. It was from his cracked mouth that the exhalations of a man exhausted exhume, for he had climbed the corroded spiral of stairs to its very summit in order to pay visit to Greywaite. Had Flagcloak not climbed the steps once a day, who else would there be to see him? In spite of the lonesome outpost in which Greywaite perched himself like some crestfallen eagle, Flagcloak, his sole companion, still readily appeared once a day to visit.
The leonine man began to circle the room and admired the dusty ornaments that lined the shelves with a most steady patience. His digits stroked the spines of moth-eaten tomes and caressed the plumage of a stuffed falcon perched lifelessly on the shelf. Flagcloak coughed, for the dust unsettled from some ashen snow globe had permeated his nostrils and surrounded him in a ghostly shroud.
Greywaite, as though only just remembering that he had company, spoke. “I saw him again last night.”
Flagcloak turned and followed the aquiline nose of the elderly vulture to where it pointed beyond the open window. “And how did the night fare?”
“My night was…”
Here Greywaite grew frustrated at the very idea of speech, and wished only to tear at his own voice box until silence conquered. He grunted and felt his shoulders droop. His lips parted slightly and from his throat he made to speak again; he fought against his abhorrence and attempted to croak new notes in his birdsong once more.
“As it is every night,” he began. “That charlatan. That supercilious apparition – taunting me with its deafness. Every night, Flagcloak. I see that ghost in the southern tower, from the window level with my own. It is but the only light lower than the stars, yet it glows from the highest room of that wicked tower.”
“The face, my friend?” replied Flagcloak.
Greywaite snorted, face twisting with disgust. “Ah that face! Staring deadpan from those horrible black eyes. Ignoring any signal of mine to engage with it. Is he so much conceited that he cannot acknowledge me? So long have I sat friendless in this tower, and he mocks me with his staring.”
The pair, though not of any conscious accord, switched positions as Flagcloak paced to the window. Greywaite slumped from his stool and leaned heavily upon his writing desk, as though to pour fury from his very beard.
“Had you not thought of going there and uncovering the wight yourself?” Flagcloak asked.
“When he may do the same?” Greywaite retorted, and then calmed. “The perspective, Flagcloak. You do not understand. I have never been to the southern tower. To stand in place of that ghost, to see my dear northern tower from another vantage point… No, I could not.”
Greywaite drew beside Flagcloak and gazed at the southern tower, where the window of the accused apparition gaped – a blackened maw.
“A horrifying thought,” he muttered.
Flagcloak eyed the old man perplexedly.
“Perhaps tomorrow a change will come,” he said.
The cease of speech accentuated the sounds of silence; waves hushed in distant din, and about the pinnacle of southern tower the shrill bell-cry of the seagulls rang sempre forte. Those gulls, spinning as though on the strings of a mobile, would soon drift from the tower and plunge sea-bound with the encroaching night. This Greywaite knew, and as such did not acknowledge them. Readily he returned to the writing desk and allowed his face to droop into his arms – his features contorted with self-inflicted torture. Flagcloak let his vision glass over as the hypnotic gulls sung and glided about the other tower. The light entering through the window illuminated his features – that white and static light held him as a flame embraces a moth.
“The birds…” came Greywaite’s muffled voice.
Flagcloak drifted slowly from his reverie. “Hmm?”
“The birds return with the daylight.”
With a sigh that shook the dust from his shoulders, Greywaite rapped an impatient fist against his desk, then absently traced the corroded brickwork patterns of the wall before him. An involuntary twitch shivered down his back, and he turned to observe Flagcloak’s vacant eyes pouring into him.
“Why do you stare so?”
“I… would like to be alone,” said Greywaite.
“Would you?” replied Flagcloak.
The two men stared at one another in a seemingly eternal stand-off before Flagcloak broke his gaze, and with little more than a sleight of his hand, pocketed a small item in his cloak – a single match – before heading for the door.
“Until the morrow.”
Greywaite did not respond, and returned to the windowsill where the southern tower taunted him with its presence.
Out on the threshold, Flagcloak shivered. The cold hanging dismally over the mountains had not withheld itself from Greywaite’s airy room, yet the gusts blowing unabated against the outside walls cut deep into Flagcloak’s bones with a new menace. The peaks jutted in serrated hostility, stretching far in three directions. To the east, the sea moaned with the gale, and as Flagcloak began his descent of the spiral stairs, he felt naught but discomfort. The steps coiled about the exterior of the northern tower like an ivy vine, and Flagcloak could not balance himself on any sort of handrail. To his left, the oyster-sharp wall crumbled with erosion. To the right – a sickening precipice. As such his pace was sluggish, and though no sunlight told of the remaining hours of day, he knew he must move somewhat faster if he had any hope of beating the night.
Onward he trudged, a vapid spectre in the approaching dusk. From his rattling lungs came a wheeze of exertion, steadily breaking with the sound of shore-struck waves. Flagcloak moved as swiftly as his archaic legs would allow, his bare and calloused feet gripping tenaciously against the rocky path that crested the sea cliffs.
He arrived at an overhang of rock that hid the entrance of a dank cave. Mechanically he took an old lantern hanging from a rusted hook just within his reach. Assailed on all sides by the roar of the ocean echoing off the cave walls, he fumbled with the match procured from his pocket, and despite the moist and loveless air, was able to ignite his lantern. He cast an awful shadow, one hunched and distorted against the cave walls, warping madly as the flame flickered in the oceanic chaos. The sickly orange glow sank further into the cave, until those remaining birds huddled for warmth near the cave mouth were left in the darkness.
Flagcloak began an ascent as treacherous as that descent from the north tower, fumbling through the gloom up each slimy step; all the while the waters below growled hungrily for him to plummet into the maw. But this was a journey that Flagcloak knew too well. In time he noticed strange shapes forming in his peripherals; a curious light seemed to lurk menacingly outside the range of the dingy lantern, and Flagcloak realised he was close. That curious light was in fact the moon, which signaled his way out of the upper entrance of the cave and up a spiraled stairwell, from which moonlight poured through adorning windows. Round he went,, up the steps – seeing now the waxing lunar orb cutting the gluttonous shadows of each protruding stone, and now the inky pitch which consumed the next turn as he climbed the spiral.
Finally, battered and exhausted, Flagcloak reached the small room he called home. He hung the lantern on the wall by the window, so that the flames contoured every crevasse of his cracked skin, and shadows blackened the globules of his eyes. Flagcloak took a seat upon a stool by the window, from where he could see the distant northern tower, and the hideous figure of Greywaite staring back at him with oblivious hatred.