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Our Francis. A Ghoul’s Tale.

By: David Wildsmith.


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All of us are born innocent. All of us. How quickly nurture or nature catches up with us varies. For some the chisel of exposure to things abhorrent doesn’t start to hew away our innocence and sculpt what remains into a gnarled remnant of a person until many years have past. For others, like Francis Gibson, the angelic beauty of youth is just a fleeting moment in an unnecessarily long and painful life. But inside, the heart stays the same. We all die with the same sized feelings. All of us.
Francis reached that point in his life where he realised that much like yesterday, innocence wouldn’t return and the regret that much of his purity had been spent frivolously laced his days with torment. He struggled to relate to photos of himself as a toddler and would wring his hair questioning the path down which he had stumbled since then. There were things that he’d done that his memories would never forgive even if his friends and family did. Yes, friends. For Francis wasn’t alone in the world, he was even moderately successful. But he had been a stranger to himself for so long now that he was, in fact, lost both to himself and everyone who knew him.

There had been a part of life where he was a working family man, a man with a respectable car, gardens that showed effort around an above average house, but even these moments had peeled and flaked at the edges. All of these memories soon faded; grown over by the mold of time and despite how recent these events were, he struggled to recognise himself in them. This period of his life had ended on a particular day in October the previous year, a day that others, when they shared tales in an attempt to understand his demise, would cite as a landmark in his tragedy.
Maybe others wished for more romance in his story, they’d say they could see things changing for Francis from that day. But they would be wrong; he’d been broken a long time before that autumn. As he would stand staring at the freshly turned soil above his wife, onlookers would cry for him whilst inside he only battled inner conflicts of pleading, to feel anything. For he did love her. When he could love. What was that euphoric period of life when there was love? What was that? The joy that could feel that way had fallen from him. But even when you’ve lost as much innocence as you think you can muster, there’s always one more grain to go. That was the case for Mr Francis Gibson.

Frances pulled at the scarf around his neck, trying to shut out the icy wind from biting under his collar. He walked through the house-crowded streets, along cobbled back-alleys and towards the downhill, winding tarmac lane that passed underneath the wretched sycamores to the graveyard. His beard spiked at the wool as he nestled his mouth into it and breathed humid gasps to warm his face. The anniversary of his wife’s death, written pragmatically into his kitchen calendar, had surprised him and despite it being over a week ago now he’d found himself compelled to return to her grave several times since. As he past through the small, grey, village community in which he lived nobody seemed to notice him. This beat slowly at a large bass drum inside his chest and he lumbered to that cadence of loneliness all the way to his wife’s grave.
He stood snorting and uncomfortable in front of the plot trying to find his place, his feelings. The ground looked sick with foetid, fungous bulbs. He felt as though he could smell them more distinctly each day and their presence seemed to leach into him, itching like a blight he could not tolerate. They sprouted at all angles like an ungodly surge of earthly catharsis. It had been like this every day and every day he’d tear them from the soil and cast them away. Some would crumble in his hands and he’d curse the clouds of spores re-impregnating the rich soil. As had become more frequent, he’d stop to blow his nose and gasp for breath as he’d struggle over the plot, labouring until the ground was rid of its disease. When the area met with his agreement, Francis would return to a more conventional stance at the foot of the grave, stare at the headstone and begin berating himself about his lack of empathy.
His mind raced with tangled root confusion as he paced away from the graveyard that day. The urge to understand why he felt nothing appealed to him paradoxically ensuring that he felt, something. These thoughts were only interrupted by the nasal irritation that now seemed to plague him, compelling him to wipe at his nose, his face, his beard and then he was repulsed by that repugnant stench of the fungus on his fingers. It’s everywhere. Francis snorted as he imagined spores sitting on his beard, taking flight with each breath into his sinuses, his lungs, his bloodstream. That night Francis believed he dreamt. Of what these dreams may have been he was unsure but he awoke, he thought, with a slightly different disposition that escaped his definition.

There were duties that he was responsible for filling, drone-like activities that needed to be nudged, people that expected his presence to sort, tick and move things from one place to another. People that needed impressing otherwise they could cast harsh but meaningless judgements of him come the end of the month. But this morning, he had no volition to attend to these activities. He sensed a need, an opportunity to understand himself. If anyone knew this man, how being dead inside was familiarity to him and a sense that all emotions were lost, they would have forgiven his attraction to this intrigue. They wouldn’t have shaken their heads, cast their harsh judgements early and wrongly accused him of, “poor bereavement skills”. Francis returned to the cemetery without thought.
Due to the incessant growth of puffballs the grave had failed to grow a healthy head of grass since his wife’s internment. Today would be no different, as the night had sprouted more of the prolific white spheres and broken open the mealy earth. Even the ground nearby was torn open as the plot next to his wife’s had been freshly dug and awaited an occupant. Regardless of all of this muddy earth, the whiteness of the fungi appeared especially mesmerising today, the aromas not as pungent, although Francis was not deterred and fell into habit, plucking them from the earth and piling them against a nearby tree. His fingers appeared nicotine stained by the time he had finished with his harvest, the brown fungal enzymes soaking into his skin. He looked at his hands and then the grave. He snorted at the irritation on his sinuses. A cloud of expired air whipped away from him on the cold autumn breeze.
Without a singular conscious thought he plunged his little finger deep into his right nostril. His eyes closed in concentration as he hooked at the walls of his upper nose with a spore encrusted finger nail. On snaring the mucous build up he targeted, Francis began to withdraw his finger. An orgasmic, cleansing draw twisted his face into a reflection of peace and concentration as he carefully withdrew a long, gelatinous body of several inches in length. With a snap of his wrist the artefact was slung to the ground. He looked at it absent-mindedly, the cool air slick in his clear right nostril.
What he saw in front of him didn’t shock, scare or excite him in the least. He just acknowledged it as fact and looked back towards the cleared grave site. The artefact initially appeared like a large mass of nasal mucous with an odd whitish core. It was of a size that should have been enough to concern the common person but even without this reaction, the presence of rudimentary roots at the distal end, tangled in dark, bloody clots would be enough to rush terror through even the most idly health conscious individual. Francis just stood alone, coughing, snorting, staring at his wife’s name. By the time he walked away from the site he felt blocked up and nasal again, but he missed her.

That night Francis raged in and out of sleep. He saw clear memories of childhood; cricket on paving stones, pulling off pebble-dashing, leaving a fight at school. He felt colours from his early teens; riding his burgundy racer into the windy hills with friends, the grey, coarse material in the back seat of his parent’s metallic blue car, his first job on the cracked white milk float. The dreams brought him odours of the first house he owned, his wife’s perfume and a jacket that had been his favourite. He found himself awake in front of the bathroom mirror at 2.30am, rubbing his stained thumb and forefingers together as though examining fine silk. He returned to his bed and dream, briefly catching his topless reflection in the mirror, a reflection of sickly, chalky skin surrounding hollow, black eyes that were framed with sore-pink lids.
It was still dark as Francis left the house in a light, long sleeved t-shirt and work trousers. His husky breath trailed behind him in clouds as he eagerly raced towards the cemetery, coughing and absently spitting diarrhoea-like fungal phlegm onto the pavement. The fragrance of the puffballs greeted him pleasingly as he passed through the sycamores along the downhill lane that led to his wife’s resting place. He arrived feverishly hunched over to gain a stronger purchase on the intoxicating bouquet of the fungi. On his hands and knees he brushed the fungus aside with the back of his forearm and swore the ground had the subtlest hint of her perfume. He grasped two white spheres in his hands and crushed them together. Their brown treacle innards spread across his palms and he inhaled. It’s her. Francis felt love.
To his utmost surprise, Francis cried. He flattened his body against the ground, holding his heart as close as he could to where he felt his wife to be. And he cried. In the breaking dawn light Francis Gibson lay prone against the humus, arms stretched across the width of the grave and purged a barrage of lost feelings into the ground. His tears stung at his eyes, ran over his nose and dropped to the soil. In the dim light he looked at the fungi in front of his face drawing up the nutrients from the earth and he became ravenous with the need to stay here, in this moment. He felt he could see the emotion raining up from the nitrogenous soil into and through the fungus, it was beautiful.
For a moment he was oblivious to the outside world before an iron gate turned heavily on its hinges. Adrenalin burst through his veins and a murderous panic shot his eyes wide open. I mustn’t be taken from here! On the verge of being the teenager just told his first love doesn’t wish to see him again, desperation placed his gaze onto the empty grave next to his wife. With a single, four limbed leap he sprung into the open chasm and fell to its muddy floor. Even if the earth had been frozen it may still not have stopped this desperate, dying man. With nothing but his bare hands and fingernails, which were quickly cleft from their beds, he madly tunnelled into the wall of the grave.
Francis dug without care and bereft of fear for a cave in. Before long he replaced the earth behind him with the earth in front of him, sealing himself into the ground and leaving very little at the base of the open grave to give clue to anything more than a slight collapse of the wall. With each raspy grab of air he took into his already choked lungs he broke his body from the inside. But he refused to stop his flailing dig until his bloody hands reached the lacquered exterior of the casket. With a final desperate and violent assault on the wooden case he broke through and as best he could, slithered inside.
There he rested. There he vomited the remains of his lungs through his nose and choked silently out of view from anyone who thought they knew him. There he smiled, in love again. His head rested on the remains of her breast, a tear on his cheek. There the burning in his muscles, his hands, the stumps of his fingers were all an honour for the feelings he’d finally found. People would come to imagine that he’d finally left town as an outcast, a lonely man that would try to rediscover himself in another village. If they had known the seemingly abhorrent way he ended his life, the common impression might have been that to commit these acts he’d lost all touch with the innocent child he once was. But Francis had found his contentment. We all die with the same sized feelings. All of us.