BY BARRY CHARMAN
The children call him the Chalk Man, but I suppose everyone’s come to call him that. No one knows his name, he just paces the town, slouching back and forth, always there, always wandering. His pockets are filled with broken, worn down stubs of chalk and whenever he stops, he draws. He draws windows and peers into them, as if hoping to see another world. He draws doors and knocks until his hands are raw and bloody. He draws circles, but only with his ever-decreasing red chalks, and stands in their centre. His was always an unfortunate but harmless madness, until yesterday.
Yesterday he started to draw people. Except they weren’t people, not exactly. Some children saw his etchings and screamed and ran home. His “people” are sickly and pale; their arms are unnervingly long, their heads float above them, attached to their spines with pieces of red string. Parents confronted him, angered by troubled children; they asked him what he was drawing, why did he have to draw such strange things? He told them he saw these people, clearer and clearer every day.
I listened from my window as my neighbours discussed him. Apparently he’d stood for ages on a street corner. Something about a shadow he’d found there had fascinated him. He’d rummaged deep in his pockets, then brought out fists stained by different coloured chalks. They said he’d looked like a killer who’d strangled a clown. They watched as he traced the shadow on the wall. At first he’d worked carefully, delicately and with much precision; but then suddenly he’d frozen. He stopped and stared at the shape on the wall, and then they heard him laugh. They went quiet then. As if they had been disturbed by the sound he’d made, and their fascination had abruptly ended. One said he’d never properly understood madness, until he’d heard that laugh.
I’ve heard that laugh as well, somewhere. It was the sound of something clawing from the inside, a berserk thing that seemed only barely restrained.
The next morning I look out the window, to see chalk children littering the sidewalk. They have all been maimed, torn apart by something wild and savage. Their mouths are slim blue lines, and their eyes are blind white dots. Little thought bubbles float away from them, confessing to sick and perverted wants.
But the Chalk Man is nowhere to be seen.
All day, people come out and take it in turns washing those children away. It is extraordinarily difficult, as if the chalk used for the work has been made from some unnaturally long-lasting substance. Even when the children are gone, their ghostly outlines remain. You only have to have seen them once to know where they were, and what crooked posture they held.
I watch a group of men talking on the corner, most likely about the man and what they want to do to him. I hear the sound of women chatting below my window; they are angry, but beneath that anger is something raw and afraid. We all feel, somehow, that he is trying to make us understand something. We don’t want to know what.
In the night, there is movement in the street. Then a voice hollers angrily. A drunk, perhaps, crying out at the moon for revealing him. But his words come more clearly. They are personal, they are intrusive. The voice is shouting secrets about the people, about their lives. He tells about the liars and the cheats. He tells about the concealed crimes and the hidden thoughts. He somehow knows it all.
The next morning people emerge sheepishly from their houses, they awkwardly stand about, trying to mock and belittle the madman in the night. On the street there is a new chalk figure, a man with a third eye in the centre of his head. His mouth is a wide gaping maw from which the truth spills in a froth of cryptic symbols. A woman walks over to the figure, she extends her foot, as if intending to smudge or smear the face. She looks down at it, holds its gaze, and then she runs away.
There are chalk palm prints going all the way up the road, as if the Chalk Man were here last night, screaming, but walking on his hands as he went.
Over the next few nights, some of my neighbours patrol the streets. I watch them from my window, seeing their torchlights swing about. The Chalk Man does not return. Where is he, I wonder? How does he know when it is not safe to roam?
It is nearly a week later, when we wake to an alien street.
He has come again in the night, and left behind a tapestry that has overwritten, no consumed, our ordinary world. His chalk designs are everywhere. Alien plants decorate the walls, with diseased looking purple vines that unfurl and wrap around streetlights. There is a patch of foliage now apparent on one wall, a dense series of plants that are a bruised color, a sort of violent violet.
From between these plants, strange children peer, and look at us. Their eyes are blank and without intent, but their lips are pulled back, into disgusting leers. There is an appetite to them, and once they are noticed, they cause distress to anyone unfortunate enough to see them.
He did all this, in one night? Alone? I find I almost admire whatever… dedication drives him.
And I wonder, what comes next?
They have failed to clean away the chalk world. I look out at my window at night, and it is all still there. I can see the plants in the streetlights, and glimpse the shapes of those children beyond. There are silvery grey flecks that might be their eyes picked out by the moonlight. The longer I stare, it seems as if those flecks are moving, blinking. Soon, I have to look away.
His world has encroached on our own, it has not been held back. Somehow I know this is a mistake, I know people will regret permitting this incursion.
In the morning it is overcast, grey. I stand at the window and look out. The children have multiplied. They have left the bushes behind and are skulking everywhere. Each one has his or her face turned away, or concealed. Their hands are hiding something behind their backs, others are holding bunches of black flowers. They are closer than before. Much closer.
People are out there, trying to hose the images away. Some throw water, others use their feet to scuff the children away, but it doesn’t work. They endure.
Some people are pointing up at my window, I overhear them talk in raised voices, and understand their concerns. The children are on the walls. They are climbing.
When did he paint this, becomes how did he paint this?
I hide behind the curtains, I want to go outside and share my concerns, but I find I am reluctant to do so.
That night I wake, sneezing. The smell of chalk is everywhere. I am already standing by the window, but do not remember moving. The window is open. I look down to my hands and see they are smeared in chalk.
I turn and study my room. The children are here. They are on all the walls around me, staring at me, watching me for their next move. Now I see that there is something wrong with their faces. The eyes droop, and are entirely black, but for those silvery specks at their centre. Their features are off-kilter, as if the bones beneath are constantly changing, undecided between something insect and human.
Their expressions are cold. The patience that I have given them does not come naturally.
They look to me as if I have summoned them, and I realise I have hidden my actions from myself as best I could. But the mind cannot hide forever.
Despite these lurid colours, I have dealt with darkness. The knowledge does not sit well in the soul.
I find myself working without thought. I put weapons in their hands; I colour their thoughts with murky intentions. I kneel and draw a red box on the floor. Inside this I use other, more basic chalks to draw the faces of those neighbours who have mocked me, taunted me; jeered at me in the street. All because I am different, and ask for peace, and solitude. They do not know I live among them, but it is only a matter of time.
Beside the children, for good measure, I draw other things. Creatures that I have not given boundaries to.
There is only one patch of wall untouched. I realise I have reserved it for something special. I draw a window, and look through it to a world I have only glimpsed in fevered thoughts. I draw another night, and another moon. A landscape that I have dreamt of, but have never found. I draw the footsteps of a man who has walked through the window, and towards the alien cliffs in the distance. There are children below those cliffs. They are pounding decayed stone into powder and chalk. Theirs is a world that cannot survive, it is a realm consumed by things that have left a natural world behind.
Distantly, I wonder how I know this.
It is easier to sleep, than to think any further. I lie down, and allow my mind to drift, to drift further than ever before…
In the window there is a beach. I hear its cool water, lapping closely by my head. I feel the coarse grain of the sand beneath my hair. In the distance, far away, I hear something that could be screams, or cries for help.
I do not know. Eventually, I can only hear the sea.
Barry Charman is a writer living in North London. He has been published in The Alarmist, Bare Fiction Magazine, Firewords Quarterly and is soon to be published in Ambit. He has poems published online at Every Day Poets and Postcard Poems & Prose. He has more recently had poems published in The Linnet’s Wings, and Lunar Poetry.
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