Carl pondered the barren landscape. An appropriate place, he conceded bitterly, to grieve over his partner and companion of the past 20 years – who had tragically given up the fight with cancer a mere two weeks ago. The prospect before him had a feeling of finality; as arid and black as his sour thoughts.


The V-shaped valley beneath his seat descended sharply in rocky bluffs, bands of ochre vying with the grey weight of millennia. Occasionally brighter sienna streaks fell like a watery torrent, as loose shale indicated a dangerous footing for all but crows. An iron-studded hillside. Occasional clumps of fescue grass, leached and hopeless, clung to the gaps between larger boulders. There was no suggestion of green. This 'grass' was merely an extension of the rock. Half way to the bottom of this rift all colour merged into the deep blue shadow, created by the bright conditions. Carl couldn't see the bottom but he knew a meagre beck leaked north-eastward.


The air up here at 750 metres was unusually still. As Carl considered this rare fact, he also realised it was warmer than expected, based on many similar expeditions. This lack of atmospheric movement was undoubtedly linked to the temperature, and his all-weather jacket now seemed overdressing for today's casual fell-walking. Redundant. However he also knew that the weather could change dramatically with little warning so he kept it stubbornly on.


Lazily he scanned the opposite side of the valley. A stone involuntarily moved with a scraping sound down to his left quickly picking up speed until it leapt and bounded with sharp ricochets into the shadows below. For some reason Carl found this not unusual event irritating, as if his private thoughts had been invaded by sharp-beaked birds; cracking snail-shells. An omen perhaps. Suddenly he became alert, glancing at the sky between the peaks over his right shoulder to see if any dark clouds might threaten his reverie. Nothing, except the sky had assumed a slightly yellowish hue.


Focusing again on the opposite side of the ghyll he was drawn to a dark fissure or rent in a small scar about half way down. It seemed to enlarge, coming
nearer his questing eyes. An illusion perhaps but not one to quiet a sudden sense of unease.


Was it his imagination or did he see a wisp of dark smoke crawling downwards from the mouth of this cave? Like a serpent coiling back on itself, unsure of the light, and ever so cautiously.


Carl blinked. Yes it was still there, and seemed to have an oily, viscous consistency that gradually grew in intensity. Seeping thickly down to the valley floor, this 'smoke' was slowly spreading an inky, impenetrable carpet. Of course from where he was perched, initially he couldn't see where these thick, sooty emissions were collecting; and besides he remained transfixed in semi-shock at the phenomenon, defying all known rationality. However when he saw this billowing wall of blackness begin to rise up the ghyll, he began to appreciate the huge volume of pollution that grew and spread outwards and downwards, like the exhausts of a billion unserviced diesel engines. Carl could smell it too, reminding him of previous walks amidst the volcanic regions of southern Iceland (and since that was something he and Cynthia had done together) it brought a renewed sense of pain. If anything the air became more spellbound; a charged presence absorbed by its own indifference.


Later, as he saw this dark cloud inching up the hillside, his panic became real. Was it all some monstrous hallucination? And if so, what did that say about his inner mind...? Or was it something else?


And it was then he began to hear the moans and screams below. Faint but getting nearer. Madness! (What Carl did not know was that similar fissures had opened up around the planet, as if the Earth had decided to dilate this day and deposit a huge blackness in the air and on the ground. It was as if all the accumulated filth of endless centuries of human savagery was escaping onto the surface in one almighty heave.)


The approaching noise sounded like the howling and sobbing of tortured children, intent on burying all of humanity under the weight of its collective guilt. All, that is, with ears to hear.


And shortly this would turn into an unbearable cacophony of despair and misery as the volume trebled – and the treble tone also rose without control. A deafening pain would follow as humanity unsuccessfully tried to mitigate this horror by pressing hands to ears; to head, collectively running and stumbling in its
haste through a pitch-black land, without beginning or end. And to no avail. This is the meaning of Hell.


Carl, in his anxiety, his hysteria, fled from this encroaching apparition, from himself perhaps. But it was useless, for wherever he ran, he was now on an island of rock, surrounded by a seething sea of blackness. He finally succumbed to the agony of thirst and profound deafness. Eventually the crows, or other surviving scavengers, gave him a ruddy send-off. He sings now, like everyone else, in the massed choir of the condemned.


And so, a recuperating, convalescing Earth was plunged into a new 'silence', pleasing to its senses.


*

Paul Ellis 2015


Another story from Paul Ellis ....

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