by Stephen McQuiggan

‘GET UP, BOY!’ Kirby was shaken roughly from his dreams of Baldoon Fair by his father’s calloused hands. ‘Shake yourself in His holy name, there’s evil afoot and you lie prone inviting it in!’

For a moment Kirby did not know where he was. It was pitch black and he was disoriented; the only thing he had to cling onto between the waking world and sleep was the familiar stench of oil and manure emanating from his father.

‘Get dressed quickly, you heathen slugabed, before Old Clawfoot takes possession of your soul.’

Kirby rattled the chains that shackled him to the bedstead (he hadn’t masturbated in over a year but Father still deemed them necessary, blaming Kirby’s last bout of Onanism for the death of his prize bull), wondering why the blackout curtains were still drawn.

‘What is going on, why are we rising so early?’

‘Early?’ his father grunted, unlocking the manacles with a practiced hand. ‘It’s past the noon.’

‘But it’s so dark.’

‘That’s why we must hurry.’ He dumped some clothes in Kirby’s lap. ‘The sun is broken—it went out hours ago. Me and your Uncle Trot have been in the barn since what should have been dawn. We thought it best to let you sleep, but now we need your help.’

Kirby had pulled his jerkin on and was struggling to lace up his clumpy workboots. ‘You mean ... I’m allowed to go with you into the barn?’ The thought made his heart gallop, pounding out the fears (still dreamlike) his father’s tidings of the sun had triggered.

‘Aye, lad, it has come to even that.’

Kirby had never once set foot in the barn, had been beaten for so much as daring to peek through the slats. His father took him by the hand and led him out into the hallway. The darkness was not so dominant there—familiar shapes rose to meet him in dull, drained recognition and he found he could navigate by their silhouettes.

‘What about Mother and Aunt Ruthie?’

‘This is no work for women, boy,’ his father barked, ‘hold still.’ He bound something around Kirby’s eyes and the darkness was complete once more. ‘I need to blindfold you.’

He spoke slowly, calmly, the way he did when he relayed important information that must be heeded at all costs; the way he did when he was filled with the righteous anger of the Holy One and reaching for his belt. Kirby knew better than to dare question him.

‘With the sun broken it will be dangerous out there. If you were to look upon that broken vessel you would invite His wrath—remember Lot’s wife, boy. Close your eyes tight, even beneath the blindfold, and trust in me to guide you. It’s not far.’

Kirby took his father’s hand, something he had not been permitted to do since he’d been a child and had fallen off the ploughshare, skinning his knee. This simple act left him feeling younger and more frightened now than it had done then.

‘Take it slow,’ his father chided. Kirby heard the heavy farmhouse door open, smelt the sweet meadow flowers on the warm breeze that licked at his face.

‘What of the Baldoon Fair, father? Will they cancel it if we can’t mend the sun on time?’

The door slammed hard and Kirby nearly jumped from his mud-caked boots.

‘The very world lies in the balance, evil on the cusp of overthrowing the light,’ his father’s breath, so close to his ear, reeked of mutton and Uncle Trot’s fetid sourmash, ‘and you fret over frivolity. It’s my belief the Lord put out the sun Himself to spite us for such debauched jamborees.’

His father’s curt dismissal of the Fair was an unexpected slap in the face—since the harvest had been brought in it had been all he and his uncle had talked about. Yet his father and uncle went to such lengths every year to win the Golden Chain—things must be serious indeed if he spoke of the Fair in such demeaning tones. Under the deluge of his father’s disapproval, Kirby felt his inner sun doused too.

‘You’re right, sir,’ he quickly interjected, ‘forgive me. I must still be groggy from my sleep and my grace has not returned to me yet.’

‘Watch your step,’ his father grunted. ‘The yard’s full of the stones I asked you to clear after last Sabbath.’

He steered Kirby at a decent clip nonetheless and several times he almost lost his balance. Despite the sun’s absence sweat ran down his back and stung his eyes behind the blindfold. He was relieved when his father brought him to an abrupt halt and he heard the long rusty bolt being drawn from the barn doors.

Kirby held his breath as he entered. As the darkness enveloped him in a syrupy embrace he felt like he was walking into an oven. He heard the doors clang behind him and, a moment later, his father was fumbling with the knot at the back of his head. When it was removed Kirby rubbed the nagging moisture from his eyes.

A series of oil lamps had been set near the back of the barn, casting strange, elongated shadows against its walls—walls that were draped in stifling, heavy canvas. No wonder I could never see through the slats, Kirby realised, though it had been an age since he had dared to peek.

Uncle Trot stepped out of the circle of light, his bare forearms slathered in grease that shone like blood, hailing them both in his usual coarse manner, but Kirby ignored him. His attention was snagged wholly by the bizarre contraption that squatted in the centre of the lamplight—a huge engine, spiked with all kinds of pipes and razor-toothed protuberances; a man-made porcupine that growled bad-temperedly to itself as it hiccupped steam into the rafters.

‘Want a closer look?’ His uncle was beside him, little spit-bubbles in the corner of his mouth popping with excitement. Kirby looked to his father who solemnly nodded assent, then stepped carefully into the bright circle toward the machine.

‘Careful,’ Trot warned, ‘she’s still hot.’

Kirby quickly withdrew his outstretched hand as if the contraption had suddenly transformed into one of Farmer Adley’s vicious curs.

‘What is it?’ His eyes wandered all over its complicated shell, trying and failing to make sense of it.

‘It’s the heart of the sun,’ Uncle Trot said, sinful pride in his voice. ‘It’s what makes it burn so bright.’

‘It fell in the south pasture at dawn,’ his father added. ‘We have it nearly up and running but we need someone–’

‘Scrawny,’ Trot sneered.

‘–of your size to make the final adjustments.’

The heart of the sun, Kirby marvelled, the sweat on his spine turning to an icy tongue at the thought of how much he had been honoured this day. He quickly ignored the fact that it appeared to be made of solely of scrap metal—he recognised pieces of rusted gate, the door of his uncle’s tractor, the top half of Mama’s old stove—as unimportant. Father said it was the heart and Father would not lie; he had simply repaired God’s great gift with the materials he had to hand.

‘How do we get it back up into the sky?’ Kirby felt a rush of urine spurt down his leg and pulled his jerkin down to cover his shame. ‘After we fix it, I mean.’

Uncle Trot turned to Father. They regarded each other as if this thought had never occurred to them.

‘The Holy One will send his angels to hoist it into the heavens,’ Uncle Trot said, his tone lacking its usual brusque certainty.

‘Do you think we have time for your doubts, boy?’ Father snapped. ‘Don’t you know the Lord has prepared for all contingencies? Now do as you’re bid and help us.’

‘Certainly sir,’ Kirby said; he had questioned his father too often already this morning—the next time would be answered by a belt rather than a rebuke. ‘What would you have me do?’

‘Why, we need you to climb inside.’ Trot smiled, gesturing toward the machine. ‘You’ll find some levers and pulleys and you can tell us which ones are broken, which are frayed. We’ll pass you in the replacements.’

Kirby licked his lips but his tongue was as dry as old boot leather. Oh, if he could repair the sun and save the Fair what a tale he would have to beguile Amy Dickson, one that would surely knock her bonnet sideways and win her fancy. His eyes travelled back to the sun machine, searching for any signs of access, but all he saw beneath the jagged points were rusted plates bolted together in haphazard confusion.

‘How do I ...’

‘Go round the other side,’ Father barked, ‘and be quick about it, the Earth is already cooling. There’ll be panic in the village soon and the Devil grows fat on anxiety.’

Kirby made his way around the machine, flinching as random bursts of steam shot out at him as though warning him to keep his distance. His father and his uncle followed in his wake, their silence making him ever more nervous. On the opposite side, close to the back wall of the barn, Kirby spotted a section devoid of poles and blades; a small square of copper with a handle made of twine.

‘In there?’

Uncle Trot made a sucking noise with his remaining teeth. ‘Give it a good tug and then crawl through.’

Kirby got down on his knees and shuffled toward the small burnished door; it reminded him of the old shield that hung in his uncle’s pantry, the one he claimed to have used during the war. He felt the skin on his forehead contract as he inched closer, the heat emanating from the machine singeing his fringe.

Well, it is the heart of the sun, after all, he reasoned and carried on.

He snatched at the handle and the door flew open with well-oiled ease. He expected a furnace blast to engulf him but although the air inside was warm it was not overbearingly so. The interior of the Sun Machine was draped in heavy shadows. Kirby squinted as he scuttled forward on all fours, but he could make nothing out save a few dim shapes.

Tentatively he poked his head through, holding his breath lest he get a lungful of the Divine and expire on the spot. He could see no levers or pulleys, just harsh slits of lamplight seeping through the myriad cracks in the casing.

He let his eyes adjust a moment, despite the protest of his elders to get a move on, certain that they would soon alight on some kind of button which, when pushed, would illuminate the interior. He had seen such devices demonstrated at last year’s Fair, and the man with the top hat and ornate wagon who wowed Baldoon had proclaimed electricity to be the future.

All Kirby could make out though was a heap at the far side—something, a control panel perhaps, covered in rags. He reached out to whip the covering away, his fingers sticking to the rags as if dipped in wet glue, and he pulled his hand back in disgust. The rag-heap flopped over and, betwixt its folds like a putrid egg in a fetid nest, a face was unveiled.


Her eyes were staring straight into Hell, her cheeks and forehead draped open in fishmouth slices, her pale lips parted and her tongue skewered by the tip of a broken saw-blade.


Kirby banged his skull as he scrambled his way back out, stars imploding across his vision as he staggered from the machine, from his mother and her blank accusing eyes. Lamps crashed in the wake of his retreat, spilling their fiery guts across the floor, Uncle Trot cursing as he fought to extinguish them, Father yelling something he couldn’t hear; the blow to the head and his mother’s hypnotic, empty gaze had combined to swaddle him in a numb silence.

He backed up until he could go no further, jolting his tailbone against the barn wall. Robbed of movement, his legs failed him and he sank down, clutching at the canvas as he fell until it pooled around him like a shroud.

Father and Uncle Trot were lit by the sudden sunlight that stabbed through the slats in burning bars; Kirby was lit by the scalding revelation that they had lied to him. His elders appeared paralysed by the molten day, the spell only broken when Kirby regained his feet and, his arm twitching manically, pointed to the machine.

‘Mama,’ he said, his voice choked with guilt and grief.

Trot moved first, swooping down upon his nephew, extracting him from the crumpled canvas and enfolding him in a bear hug from behind.

‘Christ’s bitter tears!’ Father roared, slapping his son across the face. ‘Why can’t you just do as you’re told for once?’

‘Grab his legs,’ Trot panted; it wasn’t exertion that left him breathless, but rather an unbearable enthusiasm.

They’re going to carry me back to my room, Kirby thought, his ear still ringing from the force of his father’s palm, then they’ll send for Doctor Mell—he’ll check on Mama too, she’ll be fine, she’s been knocked cold is all, probably bumped her head just like I did, she’ll –

His elders were lugging him back to the Sun Machine, grunting as they went, and uttering the most unholy curses beneath their breath. When Kirby saw the open door, the silhouette of his prostrate mother, he struggled so hard he caught his father’s chin with his boot and sent him sprawling.

‘He’s as slippery as a damned eel,’ Trot complained, squeezing his nephew’s chest so tight the barn grew dim once more. Father gained his feet, his face set into the vacant mould his son knew so well—it was the mask he donned before he meted out his harshest of judgements.

He tugged on his beard in a thoughtful manner and then, with a scorpion flick, planted a work-hardened fist squarely on his son’s temple. All the fight seeped out of Kirby, along with another splash of urine, and he slid out of his jerkin and his uncle’s ratchet grasp, drooping boneless to the barn floor. In the numb netherworld he now inhabited he could still hear his elders speak but their words were disembodied, too distant to hold any meaning.

‘Should’ve done that in the first place,’ Trot was grumbling. ‘I don’t know why we had to go along with the whole damn ruse.’

‘It worked for his mother,’ Father said, ‘and I thought it kinder, all told.’

Kirby felt himself lifted, the skin scraped from his bare shoulders as his yielding body was stuffed unceremoniously into the Sun Machine and its door slammed behind him. He felt a surge of relief, safe now that there was a barrier between him and them; safe, that was, until he remembered his mother.

He turned his head in the cramped confines and saw the thin light dance on the cold jelly of her unblinking eye. Kirby screamed then, kicking out at the door, but it refused to budge. The echo of his boots sounded like a demonic heartbeat and made him scream all the more. He only stopped when the screams turned to sobs that hitched stillborn in his throat.

‘Jesus, Trot, fire up the machine before his caterwauling brings the whole of Baldoon out here to see what’s occurring.’

‘Best we give it a few more minutes, let it cool down. I think we fed it too much juice when we despatched your Missus. Still, we learn as we go, eh?’

‘Aye,’ Father concurred, ‘for so the Good Book teaches.’

‘And He who wrote the Good Book,’ Trot smiled, ‘will be more than happy with our sacrifices. How can he fail to bestow first prize upon us at the Fair after the blood we’ve spilt in honour of His blessed name?’

‘Aye,’ Father plumped out his chest and allowed himself a contented grunt, ‘true, true, though it was hard to dispose of the wife. She was, for all her faults, a fine cook.’

‘A fine cook says he,’ Trot slapped his thigh, ‘but one with the face of a hog! Now, when you claim the gold chain at the Fair with your mincing machine, do you not think the Widow Rankin, or even Farmer Dickson’s eldest daughter, Amy, will come sniffing your hind? I bet those two lookers can cook up something hot and tasty in more rooms than the pantry.’

Kirby let out another bellow that echoed in a hellish choir—how could his father have designs on his sweet Amy? That hurt more than his lies. He turned to his mother’s corpse to tell her all about it, though he knew it would hurt her even more.

‘Boy’s lost it completely,’ Trot said. ‘Will I give it a crank? Should be cool enough by now.’

Father nodded.

There was a clanking roar that stopped Kirby’s chattering. He looked up at the fringed slits, his mouth open, his mind closed. The machine shuddered, jostling him onto his mother’s cold body. There was an ominous rattle and then the blades shot out, piercing Kirby from every angle before withdrawing again.

In the few brief seconds he carried on living after their retreat he felt his fear burn so blindingly bright he was convinced he was truly trapped in the molten, pulsing heart of the sun.

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