The Weight of Nothingness: A story by Vicky Burke
Fighting Words 2019: Vicky Burke is 18 and a student at St Aidan’s Community College, Dublin Hill, Cork
She felt a certain heaviness lift from her chest as she drifted down the steps of the house. Photograph: iStock
The cemetery was seldom frequented upon the hour approaching midnight. Ophelia drifted in and out of consciousness, staring upward with solemn eyes. Her view was reminiscent of a canvas flooded in ink, adorned in freckles of glittering constellations. The moonlight pooled over the ashen hills of the graveyard, illuminating the jagged silhouette of the distant cathedral. The solemn church bell rang out a dozen times and reverberated through her spine. The distinct smell of chimney smoke and iron swirled through the wind like dancing leaves and the bitter air of late November brought with it an arbitrary smattering of icy rain which dissolved within the soil.
She glanced around at the marble headstones which were scattered sporadically, draped in a patina of ivy and age, slumping indolently against the damp earth. Ophelia could almost feel the weight of the sky pressing against her chest as she sat with her spine curved against the willow tree which hung in gloom beside a freshly dug gravestone. A gravestone adorned in an ornate inscription of her own name.
With the only audible sound being that of the whispers of spirits as they drifted past like silky shoals of fish, Ophelia heard the aching whine of the cemetery’s gate echo sharply throughout the grounds. A broad-shouldered figure appeared through the misty fog. His face obscured in shadow. He shuffled across the gravelled path and over the tangled tree roots which twisted through the earth like rotting veins. Ophelia’s heart sank to the floor as he stopped abruptly at her gravestone, close enough that she was able to discern the purple shadows which hung from his sullen grey eyes and nestled in his ashen skin.
Ophelia stared at this man for what seemed like an eternity as he stood in silence; she watched his chest rise and fall rapidly as though he were short of breath. She felt the acidic bile churn and spit through the burning pit of her stomach as her eyes penetrated his, urging him to acknowledge her. He didn’t stare back. Instead, he wiped a bead of rolling sweat from his forehead, cleared his husky throat and turned his back on her. His wrinkled face dripped like candle-wax as he faded slowly into the smog which hung throughout the grounds like a quilt of billowing breath. Tonight, however, Ophelia would not allow him to merely disappear. She wanted revenge.
She peeled herself from the ground and followed the sound of his footsteps as they crunched against the gravelled path. She drifted through the wrought iron gates, dripping in amber rust and groaning deeply under the weight of the hinges as he pushed them open. She floated through the cobblestoned streets in a dreamlike fluidity as the heels of his leather boots clacked against the pavement, echoing through the unaccompanied silence. She wondered if he would be able to hear her.
“Hello?” She called out, her voice a hissing whisper as though she hadn’t spoken for years. A cloud of dust trailing from her marble lips against the icy air.
The man stopped, a pool of yellow lamplight casting an ominous shadow behind him. He turned furtively to face Ophelia.
“Who’s there?” he whispered, his black eyebrows furrowed and lips twitching. He remained entirely oblivious to her physical presence, lingering for a moment only to suddenly tighten the jacket around his shoulders and quicken his pace until he reached home.
The man’s house stood in solitude, overgrown weeds wrapping like snakes around the ornamental fence which framed the property. The cracked windows shone like sheets of silver against the reflected moonlight and the brickwork bordered on precarious as the edifice appeared to slump entirely to one side. The unkempt lawn swam across the entryway as he stepped through the gate, Ophelia close behind. The front door creaked and whined like that of an ancient tomb as he pushed it open. They made their way inside and the sudden aroma of death and rotting wood pervaded her senses as though the house itself had let out an exhale. The entryway was consumed by an infinite void of darkness, the moon scantly illuminating the paintings on the walls.
The man peeled the coat from his worn frame and dropped it blithely beside him. He kicked off his shoes and began to climb the narrow staircase as though each step would collapse beneath his weight. The eyes of the Victorian figures followed Ophelia as she floated weightlessly behind him. She ran her finger along the balustrade, a layer of dust and cobwebs gathered within her translucent fingers and pirouetted to the floor like ivory tears of light.
They stepped into the cold bathroom. The unadorned lightbulb hummed with energy as he flicked the switch and Ophelia glanced around the dimly lit room in despair. The floorboards were covered in a patina of dust and grime, creaking under the weight of his footsteps. The cobwebs in the corners of the room billowed aimlessly as a chilling breeze swirled through the slightly ajar window and the mould-infested ceiling seemed to be peeling off in shreds. The ceramic sink squeaked as he fiddled with the rusty tap. He held his osseous palms under the stream of boiling water and splashed it against his weathered face. A sheet of milky steam pierced the frigid air and gradually appeared on the bathroom mirror as he hunched over the basin with his eyes shut tight.
Ophelia narrowed her eyes. He shouldn’t be allowed to move on like this, to feel at peace, to wash his skin, to breathe. She felt a sudden bitterness throb against her bones. She glided beside him. Her diaphanous finger trembled with increasing rage. She traced the word ‘guilty’ against the dripping condensation. He peeled his eyes open to find the word glowing eerily against the stark lamp above him as though it were written in blood.
“Ophelia?” He heaved, breaking contact with his own reflection as his bulging eyes shifted around the room. “Are you there?”
“Yes . . .” Ophelia’s voice hissed malevolently against the rigid hairs of his neck, resentment bubbling within her pulsating body.
He dug his nails into the basin, reaching blindly for a sense of balance as his legs buckled beneath him. She smiled wickedly as she noticed his chest rising and falling erratically in an attempt to steady his shallow breath. She felt the satiating fury hum throughout her veins as though it were a bow running slowly against the strings of a cello. She glared at his reflection with an unyielding hatred. Without warning, a prominent crack began to bleed through the centre of the mirror and spread like black veins. He recoiled in horror as her twitching eyes rolled back and a sinister roar escaped her lips. The looking glass shattered into a million pieces. She plucked a shard from the floor and held it up to his neck.
“Please forgive me Ophelia.” He panted, saliva dripping pathetically from his cracked lips. “I never wanted any of this . . .”
She twisted the silver piece of glass in her hand as it glinted in the lamplight. She had dreamt of the day she could plunge the shard right though the tender skin of his chest. She wanted to feel the bones of his ribs and the thick muscles of his heart as the fragmented glass ripped through his flesh. She wanted to see his eyes widen in terror as he saw her stand there with a smile plastered on her face similar to how he had smiled. She would watch in glee as the crimson blood spluttered from his lips as he heaved a phlegmatic cough. The viscous liquid almost congealing through the fabric of his worn shirt as he would crumble to the floor and let out a final breath in defeat, succumbing to an endless oblivion that he had similarly subjected her too. She wanted to end his life as abruptly as he had ended hers. She wanted to kill this man.
More than that, however, she wanted revenge. She stared at his cadaverous face. Ophelia knew she didn’t hold much physical power in the mortal realm. He could escape her grip with ease. Why didn’t he? Though his teeth chattered pathetically and the tears streamed in tandem with the water of the faucet, she noticed that, without saying the words, he seemed to be pleading. Pleading for something. Pleading for anything. Pleading for an end. This man was so plagued with guilt, rendered unable to look at his own reflection, unable to bear the sight of himself, a life like this seemed worse than death itself. A life like this seemed, to her, more appropriate revenge. Ophelia dropped the shard of glass and stepped away from his cowering frame. She felt a certain heaviness lift from her chest as she drifted down the steps of the house and into the shadows of the night, unburdened and free.
This story took shape at one of the workshops run by Fighting Words, which was founded by Roddy Doyle and Seán Love in 2009 to nurture young writers around Ireland. It is now in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Mayo, Wicklow, Galway, Donegal, Kerry, Wexford and Kildare