The Miasmae - Short Story
(Submitted for the 2021 Die Gute Fabrik Narrative Competition)
Horatio Vox was late for the third time that week. As he hurriedly lurched towards the metro terminal, his ill-fitting trousers starting to chafe, he could see the outline of the word ‘Flustered’ starting to hop up and down his left arm. Trying to ignore the miasma, he continued his trudge towards the station, hoping that he could shake it before his arrival at his office on the 9th floor of the Department of Philology. Horatio was not alone in possessing a miasmic word; all around him, the people in the streets, the children playing in the road, pets on leads, and even the birds in the trees had these strange, nebulous yet distinguishable words floating around them. Some of these miasmae were clear and bold, able to be seen from some distance away, whilst others were small and faint, perhaps only noticeable to their owner. Some, still, had no owner at all and seemed merely to state the current nature of things; it was not unusual to see the cloud-like script of ‘Hush’ floating around the local library, nor see the faint outline of ‘Dim’ crouching in the corners of poorly-lit rooms on winter evenings. Horatio felt rather envious as he pushed his way past two old men wheezing with laughter at each other’s familiar jokes, his frame passing straight through the bouncy bubble writing of the miasma ‘Jollity’ that surrounded them. The busy entrance to the metro loomed in front of him and Horatio weaved his way through the crowd to get through the ticket barriers, the familiar ‘beep’ sounding as he swiped his government card to pass through. ‘Brandt is going to kill me if I’m not there in time for the morning report send-off' Horatio thought to himself, the faint and trembling outline of the word ‘Panicked’ starting to appear on his right shoulder. To his relief, as he lurched onto the platform, the locomotive pulled into the station and Horatio managed to find a seat in his usual position – right by the door, so that he could make a quick exit and scale the elevators at the other end before the crush of commuters could slow him down.
The hydraulic door closed with a hiss and soon the platform disappeared into inky blackness as the train entered the complex network of underground tunnels that led towards the city centre. Horatio calmed himself and steadied his breathing; he had to try and look presentable for Mr Brandt, the senior overseer in the reporting section of the Philology department, a notoriously foul-tempered man. Horatio shuddered to think about that angry, jowly face shouting, mere inches from his own, resembling that of an old bulldog, and with the breath to match. He looked down at his watch to check the time and was relieved to see that the trembling ‘Panicked’ on his shoulder had disappeared and that the ‘Flustered’ on his arm had reduced to faint pulses. Soon, the gentle rocking of the carriage had nursed his adrenaline away and Horatio started to feel apathetic in its absence. He had a brief look around, to see that the carriage was only half full: mainly business men and women, looking equally as disinterested and disengaged as he, a mother absent-mindedly rocking a pram back and forth, and an elderly pensioner, only half-concentrating on her crossword. Amidst the silence, the miasma ‘Boredom’ could be seen floating along the carriage at knee-height, oscillating up and down a little, as if it were being directed by a gently rolling wave. Horatio smirked to himself as he watched it undulate by. ‘Good to see at least one familiar friend’ he thought to himself. These sentimental musings were interrupted however by the sound of the connecting door at the other end of the carriage opening.
Horatio was not alone in possessing a miasmic word.
The outline of ‘Boredom’ quickly faded to be replaced by its more colourful and animate brother, ‘Mild Interest’, with commuters looked up from their newspapers or knitting to see what the noise was. Their gaze was met by a scruffy, unwashed-looking man, with long yet thinning hair and leering eyes, clutching a handful of creased pamphlets. Immediately, many of the passengers went back to their crosswords or blankly staring at the floor. ‘Boredom’ reappeared once more, but this time was also joined by two ugly twins of ‘Distain’ and ‘Annoyance’ that often reared their heads when commuters were met with beggars and the like. Although some way down the carriage, Horatio could hear that the man was not asking passengers for money, but instead was trying to convince them of some grand conspiracy, thrusting the crumpled leaflets into their hand one after another. Met with little response, the man limped his way into Horatio’s carriage, ignoring the familiar figures of ‘Annoyance’ and ‘Distain’ that followed him around like avid puppies. “Are you aware of the government's manipulation of its people and its interference with the miasmae?” the man garbled at the smartly dressed businessman sitting opposite Horatio. The businessman shifted his newspaper a bit higher over his face, doing his best to ignore the leering eyes of this strange man. “I said, did you know that the government is creating machinery that will purposefully interfere with the miasmae and its message to us??” the man angrily barked. Horatio could see the outline of ‘Frustration’ starting to bubble up on the back of the man’s neck, clearly brought on by the indifference of the businessman. “Leave me alone, you crackpot!” the businessman replied in a wavering voice, the distinct black shape of ‘Fear’ beginning to appear on his wrinkled forehead. “What? Don’t think you can ‘andle the truth, do ya?” the scruffy man asked, ‘Anger’ beginning to appear on his clenched knuckles. “The signs are all around you, aren’t they? People goin’ missing, executions without trial, strange sightings of miasmae unnaturally distortin’ themselves.” The man placed an outstretched index finger on the top of the businessman’s newspaper and started to draw it downwards, forcing the paper to crumple down and to lock eyes with the now terrified passenger. “But you don’t care about that do ya? ‘Cos you get a nice fat paycheck from the bastards, don’tcha!” the man roared angrily, ‘Anger’ starting to throb on his hands like two red blisters. His finger darted from the top of the newspaper to the centre of the petrified businessman’s forehead. “See, you know exactly what I’m talkin’ about, I can see that black mark of ‘Fear’ on you, clear as day. You might be able to lie to yourself but you’ll neva be able to lie to the Nous – She always knows wha’s goin’ on and she’ll always tell us how...”
Before the scruffy figure could finish his speech, the train screeched and jolted to a halt. Horatio turned his head to the other end of the carriage where several gruff and uniformed figures had stormed through the doors – he recognised the tell-tale dark blue shirts of the Fugasi, the police wing of the state Church. The semi-circular outline of ‘Surprise’ had barely formed above the scruffy man’s head before he was being dragged through the doors of the carriage and onto the platform. Through the window behind him, Horatio could see the man on the floor, struggling against the handcuffs now locking his hands behind his back. “Oi! You can’t do this! I ain’t done nuffin wrong!” As the man gasped out his defence, another miasma appeared above him, however Horatio noticed that this one somehow appeared... different: its edges were fuzzier than normal, its colours inconsistent and its outline juttering, like the picture on a poorly tuned VCR. The word read ‘LIAR’. The Fugasi officer barely looked up from scribbling in his notebook as the bedraggled man was dragged before him. “You hereby stand accused of disturbing the peace on his holiness’s transport carriage. How do you plead?” The cuffed man started to roll around on the ground, struggling against his cuffs. “I ain’t done nuffin guv, I swear” he pleaded. Another miasma flickered into vision, this one stuttering into life like an old neon sign needing its bulb replaced. In the same slightly miscoloured script, Horatio could make out the word ‘GUILTY’ hovering above the struggling figure. “Hang abou’, that ain’t right, I ain’t done nuffin, I promise!” The train began to pull out of the station and the vision of the crumpled man started to get smaller and smaller as the train headed towards another tunnel. The sound of the man’s cries and the boots thudding into him echoed in Horatio’s ears as he disappeared once more into the blackness of the underground.