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The Storeroom of Grief

The Storeroom of Grief
by John W. Sexton

A year and a day after the death of his wife and child he decided to place his heart in the centre of the world, so far away that his grief could no longer touch him. And so he came to the vast heath.

Beneath the dark winter clouds a fluid ball of starlings was shifting the evening nearer and nearer to the earth. Presently he found himself at the Tree of Exchanges, an ancient whitethorn burdened with a crop of haws. He snapped a thorn from the tree and scored the thick veins in the back of his right hand. On the mossy trunk of the tree he rubbed in the blood.

He stepped forward and looked at the sky, where he was told the Keeper of Hearts would be found. In the distance the starlings began to increase the volume of their communal piping.

He watched them closely now, moving east and west through the sky. The squealing whistle of their grouped voices increased considerably, until he realised beyond doubt that the massing cloud of starlings was getting closer and closer. The sky was dark with them now, until the sky was them.

And now as he watched, the starlings condensed into an urgent ball of many millions of bodies, tighter and tighter until it was as if a small feathery planet was hovering above him. A smaller ball of starlings, the size of a hut, broke away from the main body and flew in a swirling vortex towards him. As the ball reached the ground the starlings suddenly broke their formation, heading back in groups to their fellows above. As the smaller mass of starlings dissolved in this way they revealed at their centre a small dark woman. Her face and head was covered all of feathers, and her body also; and she was thus in no need of a coat or cloak. Her hands and feet were clawed, but with long delicate talons that shone in the dusk. Her face was that of a bird, and she began to address him in the whistling, rattling, clicking notes of a starling.

He had no knowledge of her language, but thoughts began to intrude in his mind and he understood quite clearly that she wished him to state his business. He told her that he wished to rid himself of his heart, for it was soaked with grief. She stepped forwards and took a hold of him by the waist. A shiver ran through him, a moment’s uncertainty. But of a sudden the air about him was thick with birds, and he was carried into the sky in a dynamic channel of movement. The Keeper of Hearts held a hold of his waist and sang out aloud in the communal cacophony of the cloud of starlings. And although the body of starlings was dense, he could still see through it, for it was layered and complex, with shifting windows of sight. He could see the heath below, and then the miles of headland and then the open sea. They were moving at a tremendous pace, and in swirling arcs; but he felt no discomfort, for it was like being in the hold of a living vehicle. And it dawned on him then that that’s exactly where he was.

Below him now was nothing but cold ocean, and he saw that they were descending towards it at great speed. The cloud of starlings entered the water in a frenzied cyclone of turning, and the waters parted at their entry. From time to time he could now see the innards of the ocean itself, great schools of fish, even once a whale as large as a palace. He began to feel cold now, and an intense pressure was squeezing him in its grip. Then suddenly there was quiet.

The starlings broke away without a sound and disappeared into darkness. He was in an underground chamber, alone with the Keeper of Hearts; this was the centre of the world, the Storeroom of Grief. In her hand she was holding a strange jelloid, pallid and limp. He recognised it now as a jellyfish.

Then his mind became dark and he was standing back at the Tree of Exchanges. The heath was troubled by a fresh breeze, and the moon was now very high in the night sky. No bird or sound of birds was in evidence. He felt calm, utterly unburdened; for his heart was gone.

Pulsing in his chest was a jellyfish, living in the inner ocean of himself, alive in the totality of his blood, which was now clear and unsullied by hurt. The path home would be short, for life would be long.

* * *

John W. Sexton lives in the Republic of Ireland. His sixth poetry collection, Futures Pass, was published by Salmon Poetry in 2018. A chapbook of surrealist poetry,
Inverted Night, came out from SurVision in 2019. He is a past nominee for The Hennessy Literary Award and his poem The Green Owl won the Listowel Poetry Prize 2007. In 2007 he was awarded a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in Poetry. His poetry and fiction is widely published and some has appeared in Apex, Dreams & Nightmares, The Edinburgh Review, The Irish Times, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Mirror Dance, The Pedestal Magazine and Strange Horizons.

Where do you get the ideas for your poems and stories?

Folk and fairy tales, located as they are in a kind of indeterminate everyplace, have always drawn me. In all of the best ones there is an underlying emotional center that exerts its pull on the story and on the reader. When I first discovered the work of the fabulist Harlan Ellison in the latter-half of the 1970’s, I recognized that his stories resonated in the same way. I also felt in them a kindred connection to poetry, for they often had embedded in them many of the techniques of language that one normally associates with poetry in its many forms. His tales from that time and all the way into the 90’s exerted a fundamental influence on a lot of my attitudes to storytelling. In that spirit I’m dedicating this short piece to his memory - he died in 2018 , on June the 28th, at the age of 84.

A personal aspect of this particular story, however, is my artistic identification with the Aisling tradition of East Kerry and West Limerick, where both sides of my family are from. The Aisling is a form of vision poem. When it was first promulgated it represented political and nationalistic aspirations for a country under vicious Colonial rule, but it owed its origins to earlier goddess worship. It is in the latter, pagan sense that I associate with it. One of the principle figures of the Aisling is an Spéirbhean, the Sky Woman. It is the spirit of an Spéirbhean, albeit in a very personal interpretation, that partly informed and inspired my story of the Storeroom of Grief.