Inkwell was the runner-up in our 2020 short story competition. (Image © Emma-Rose Hooker)
by Emma-Rose Hooker
When I lie in the still of the dark, it is easier for me to remember the first time I vomited black ink. I cannot tell you what vector infected me; I do not know what serpent slid up on me undetected and punctured me and filled me with venom. All I know is that one day I was well and the next day I was not.
I can remember the taste most distinctively, hot and bitter, thick with oil. It was churning in my stomach and then it was crawling upward and through my tightly pursed lips came spilling out black ink. It went everywhere. It stained everything. It was spilling through the creases between my fingers and dripping onto the floor. It bled into the folds of my fingerprints. I was confused, anxious, disorientated. I was exhausted, miserable, frustrated. And from that day forward, I was filled with black ink.
Some days I only cough up a few speckles, my lungs crackling like kindling with each inhale. Other days the volume seems limitless and I can only lie in the spill and soak the sadness up through my pores like a sponge, ready to regurgitate. My brain is oversaturated, the core is swollen and the leaves are rotting, sour and septic.
Sometimes I vomit black ink in front of other people. I am desperate to keep it inside, but with every muscle fibre fighting and the chambers of my nose burning, the black ink always wins eventually. Other people look at me. Other people wonder why I have to vomit black ink right in front of the path they are walking on. Other people with bright white teeth tell me that they vomit black ink, too.
In the still of the dark, I think there is no one awake but me. But outside, in the little row of cottages at the end of my garden, life is moving on without me. A dog barks. A light flickers on, and then off again. Further away, a car speeds noisily down the distant bypass road. My window is open even though the air is bitterly cold. Perhaps if I leave it open, the life down there will drift inside and not have forgotten about me after all.
It’s 2:08 a.m. Too late now to go out, and yet something outside, something further than the bypass road, is calling to me. No, not to me. To my black ink. It is responding; it’s bubbling and boiling. It is stretching out its tentacles and filling the hollow spaces in my limbs.
My thoughts are null, my conscious completely empty when I stand and pull on a thin jacket over my pyjamas. There is nothing to think of when I grab my phone, keys and wireless earphones from my bedside table. My black ink is pumping the pistons in my legs and pushing me out of my room and down the stairs.
I slip out of the front door undetected. I have barely pulled the key out before I am yanked away and marched up onto the pavement and down the road. I put my earphones in and listen to some ELO and wonder where we are going. The air is feeling colder because the breeze is getting stronger. We are walking downhill.
When three ELO songs have passed, we are there. Even though it is dark down here, the black horizontal wall spread before us is unmistakeable.
Somewhere deep down in that black ink I know that there are giant squid, each one enormous and sleek and prehistoric with one huge bulbous eye. The daylight on the surface has never been close to reaching them in thousands of years. And they, too, are full of black ink, just like me.
My legs plod onto the sand; they feel like swollen lead weights now. There is no one else here. Why would there be? I lie flat for quite a while. The sand beneath me is cool. There are no clouds, so I have the honour of staring endlessly into the galaxy. The stars are infinite.
It is bitterly cold. Some of my small toes are going numb. I am shivering and my eyes are heavy and somehow here on this vast plane I could sleep easily and perhaps be lifted somewhere beyond.
Black ink tells me it is time. I check my phone. It’s 3:00 a.m. I leave it on the stones, along with my keys. I pop my earphones out and drop them. We approach the edge. My legs take themselves forward and the liquid rises and spills into my shoes. My black ink sings.
It is rising further, and my skin is numbed as soon as it is touched. That is the mercy of black ink. My feet have disappeared and yet I am still walking. My legs keep pushing me forward. I wade through until at last I stop, completely submerged to the collarbone.
I kick my feet against the floor – so they are still there – and float on my back. When the back of my head hits the water, I am weightless. My black ink seeps out of my body and leaks into the rest surrounding me. It is a river joining the ocean. I can feel it is gone, I have been drained. And here are the stars again, unwavering, unmoving, unchanging.
My fingers have turned a bluish purple. I turn to look and I’m not alone after all. Someone is walking briskly along the promenade with their hands shoved in their pockets. There is no way they would see me all the way out here.
I turn back to the stars and my eyes are heavier.
I am lifted.