The Sorrow and the Thunder by James Hayward (Lucent Dreaming Issue 3)

 

It was one of the most beautiful days I had ever experienced, that day in late summer. The sun shone clear and proud, the only clouds within its vault those faint, fragile wisps that serve to decorate the sky, not to cover it. A light breeze wafted through, carrying the scent of honeysuckle growing wild on the far walls. Birds dipped and dived through the sky, each with a brief burst of colourful wings and joyous song. The grass rustled, a rippling sea of green punctuated by bright wildflowers. The world had decided to show its full glory on that day and I hated it.

On the day of my mother’s funeral, there should have been nothing but rain.
It should have been overcast. The clouds should have been so dark that it would seem the Lord was wearing black to mark the passing of such a pure soul. Rain should have fallen softly on the grave, as if the angels themselves wept tears of grief while they watched from their lofty perches. The wind should have carried the scent of lilies and whispered a gentle eulogy between the tombstones. The world should have mourned her.

But the world did not care one whit for her, and its disrespect broke my heart. I had planned to be stoic, but I found my tears fell where angels’ would not, and my voice, choked with sadness, delivered the eulogy the wind refused to give. My father, through all of this, said nothing, nor did he move in the slightest. My heart was broken, but his whole existence was sundered from the moment she died. I knew that he would not have noticed the weather today, nor would he have noticed if a choir of angels had indeed descended to weep. He certainly did not notice all the people shaking his hand as they filed out of the graveyard, did not hear their condolences, did not react in the slightest as I led him back to our home.

In a very real way it was as if I had lost my father as well as my mother. How easily we were fooled at first, for he still breathed, he still moved around the house, and he would, at times, gaze out over the sea from his study as he had so often done before. But in truth he was no more a part of this life that she who had left it. His breath carried no words, not for me, not for those who visited. His movements were merely motions, a wheel still following a rut when there is none left to steer. And his eyes?… his eyes. There came a moment when I had resolved to reach my father, to drag him from this pale mockery back into life in truth. I found him in the study, watching the waves and I demanded his attention. His eyes met mine and I pleaded. I cried, I cajoled, I raged. And when my words ran dry, and my frantic motions were spent, his dull, empty eyes slid back to the horizon, as if my exhortations were no more than a brief flicker of light in the clouds. A momentary diversion. I could not say what he was looking for… or perhaps I could. But she was gone. And it seemed no man could live without a heart.

But life, in whatever strange form, goes on. I buried myself in work and the day-to-days of maintaining a household. Those who sought my father, silently rebuffed, came to me with their matters. Ours was a quiet house: me too busy for true life, and he with no want of it. My father’s sole flirtation with progress was that the erratic clockwork of his movements widened to include the gardens, and later the short path to the shore. At first, I would accompany him on such sojourns, for I hoped that the familiarity of such walks, so often shared between himself and my mother, would guide him back to me. But it seemed we walked in vain. Once upon the beach he would simply watch the clouds, just as he did from the study. Days became weeks, became months, and still his eyes held no regard for me, his breath carried no words for me. His apathy eroded my hope until I could not bear it, and eventually I simply sent a boy in my stead to mind him, lest he decide to wander further and his body become as lost to me as his mind.

Although, in a way, I was correct. It was during one of his littoral jaunts when he returned. It was on the night of the storm, a storm of such sound and fury that I would have remembered even without other events. The thunder could be felt as an impact to the very stones of the house, a bass counterpoint to the high screaming of the wind as it ripped at the branches and shredded waves to mist. The lightning flashed actinic across the vault of the heavens, so bright that its image remained on the eye when darkness fell again. It was a night on which civilisation falls to the wayside, and the time of myths and legends comes again. Faced with such primal potency, thunder became more than mere noise. It was the cracking of the sky, the door between our world and the next being torn asunder to let those gone before return to us, however briefly. It was not lightning I watched flicker and flash, it was Levan, scouring the sky in search for his lost love, or Adrasteia, lashing out against those who had wronged her.
But there was another thing I saw in the brilliance of the storm; not a lost hero or a fallen god, but a lone man. My father, walking slowly onto the sands of the beach, his movements rendered erratic in the flickering light.

I ran. The path to the shore is short and gentle, but my haste and the weather transmuted it into a labour, with my feet finding every hummock and hole in the half-light, and the rain making a mockery of the claims of my waterproofs. Nonetheless I reached my father before he was claimed by either angry sea or rampant storm. His meanderings had thankfully stopped well short of the surf.
There he stood, his stance so indifferent to the wind and rain that it was as if he was watching it from behind the windows of the study. But as I approached, the differences appeared. My father was smiling up at the clouds, his lips moving. He swayed, as if in a slow dance. The capricious winds brought a snatch of sound to my ears; the sing-song cadence of ‘How many miles to Babylon’.

Unable to properly comprehend the fact that my father was apparently serenading the sky with a nursery rhyme from my childhood, I found myself focusing on the more mundane, namely that my father was wearing nothing but a nightgown in the worst storm in memory. I tried to lead him away from the beach but he resisted, struggling weakly and raising a beseeching hand to the heavens. I felt a brief flicker of optimism, seeing his struggles as a small progress on the road to his return. Hope dies in the face of futility, but if there is progress, all things simply become a matter of time.

But it is not the fate of my family to change in slow, gentle motions, it seems. No sooner had we moved than a pillar of light smote the ground where we had been. The force of the thunderclap threw me from my feet, and all I remember is white light, and perhaps soft, distant voices.

I awoke in my own bed, a little dazed but otherwise no worse for wear. But one could immediately feel a change in the atmosphere of the household, a reinvigoration. My father had returned to life and brought fresh life with him.

The staff buzzed around, fixing and readjusting and tidying things to the master’s standards. When I sought the man himself, I was directed to his old workshop with instructions to force him to eat something. Apparently, he had been working all night, and roared at any who interrupted.

I entered the workshop to find my father finishing his work, applying his finest polishing cloths to a cylinder of glass. I later learned that it was called a fulgurite; a gemstone forged by the power of the storm as it spent itself in the sand. This one had been formed by the bolt that nearly took us both, and my father had dug it from the sand before returning to the house. At around eighteen inches long and thicker than my arm, it was a particularly impressive specimen, especially when polished, and it consumed my father’s attention until the last of the roughness has been smoothed away. Once finished, he looked up from his nights work and met my eyes, saying simply, “There is something I must do.”

And as easy as that, we became the House of Lightning. It took time, of course. My father seemed quite content to leave the management of the estate in my hands that he would have more time for his projects. At first it seemed like his work did nothing but drain the finances I worked so hard to maintain, but that did change. The house began to undergo a strange transmutation of crystal and copper as his experiments continued, and for all that his early attempts were disasters of shattered glass and acrid smoke after a few short months he had succeeded in generating his own tame lightning. I was beyond astounded as I watched the small sparks jumping across gaps in wire, but my father was far from satisfied. He created further wonders: sheets of fine glass formed from his chemical lightning, and a twisted skein of wire that made flashes of light. But the more he achieved, the more dissatisfied he became. He confided that he felt his ersatz lightning to be nothing but a mockery, and that he would capture the lightning itself. It was his most ambitious project yet, consuming an entire wing of the house with bizarre devices, sullying the skyline with a spire of steel that rose from the roof. Once finished, my father simply downed tools and waited for a storm.

And such a storm it was, when it arrived. I believe it was almost exactly one year after the storm that returned my father, and in ferocity it was at least its equal. As before, I was woken by the force of the thunder echoing through the stones of the house, but the panicked yells of the housemen that followed showed that something beyond the weather had transpired. At their direction, I hurried to my father’s workshop to find it… gone. Of all the devices and artifice that had been wrought there, only twisted wreckage remained, punctuated with spots of melted metal. But in the centre of the room, suspended in a harness, was one of the most beautiful things I had seen. A perfect sphere of quartz hung shining with unrestrained, flickering brilliance as bolts of power coursed within. As my eyes adjusted, I gazed fully upon my father’s triumph; he had truly captured the lightning within the orb. But whilst his achievement was evident, the man himself was not.

As before, I found him on the beach. He stood as if waiting for something. He did not turn as I approached. I asked him why he had run into the storm when he had finally captured the lightning.

He laughed at me then, mirthlessly. He brought cupped hands together as if catching an insect and presented them to me. “Have I captured the winds? No, only a component. A shadow.” He said, opening his hands “And lightning? I could capture the force, the light, the heat… but the air is not the wind, and these things are not the lightning. It cannot be captured. Or at least, the thing I want cannot be captured.”

He looked at his feet, and then the sky. “I am sorry for this. I know they say that the storm brought me back, but in truth I have not been whole.” There was the taste of thunder in the air, a sense of something building, and the hairs began to rise on my arms. “I don’t expect you to forgive me for doing this. I just hope that one day you will understand why I needed to.” He put his hand on my shoulder, tenderly, and then threw me backwards as hard as he could.
And the world went white.

The servants say they found me there on the beach alone, burned and blinded by the lightning. Of my father, there was no sign. Just a fused, glassy circle where he had last stood. They put me in the master bedroom whilst I convalesced. It was a slow process, and I spent the time desperately trying to make sense of it all. I lost my mother without getting to say goodbye, and then lost my father twice without the chance. What had driven his obsession? Why had he acted as he did, at the end? Why did he abandon me?

It may be that I will never forgive him, but as my sight slowly returns, I believe I have come to understand a little. On his desk, you see, is the fulgurite; I can see it clearly from the bed in which I lay. And at certain times, when the light is right, and when I am in the right mind, I swear that I can see, trapped in the glass, the outline of a woman’s outstretched arm.

 

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