Anna Tambour presents 


The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted


Rough Trade

by Robert Hood

"Why was I not made of stone like thee?"
(Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in 
The Hunchback of Notre Dame)


Looking down made him dizzy.

Mac Rusch closed his eyes and tried to pretend he wasn't sitting seven storeys above the street, maybe even that he was lying on his bed. But the roar of space around him, stone-texture pressing against his thighs and palms, and the acrid smell of the creature, were stronger than his imagination.

"I don't like this," he said.

The gargoyle didn't reply.

Night — vast blackness that disappeared into a haze of distant streetlights — scratched at his skin like tiny claws. Luckily there wasn't much wind — the chill he was feeling was mainly inside him, a numbing wash of fearful expectation, now that the initial shock, the hysterical terror, had faded. Perhaps his mind had decided it was all a dream. After all, events like these had to be dreams, didn't they? Reality wasn't this bizarre.

Blood drying on his skin made him hope so.

"Why am I here?" he asked.

The stony face ground towards him. It shocked Mac. Though he had seen the gargoyle move before, many times, and a while ago much more expressively, the unnatural sight was still enough to drive nails into his fingertips and ice into his chest.

You made me, the creature said.

"Made you?"

True, yes, superficially true. He had guided the hammer blows that chiseled its distorted features — its low brow, horns, broad snout-like nose, fanged mouth (wide like a surreal grin) and hunched, bent body, clawed hands, and wings — yes, he had done that. His muscles had driven the blows, his fingers had felt their vibration through the stone-chisel's cold steel. But at that point of creation the creature had been a mere design-element, part of a stylistically ragtag facade. Mac hadn't made this absurdly living thing, this impossible entity.

"I didn't," he said weakly.

The gargoyle's dead eyes watched him.

It had come to him while he slept. Beside him someone human had been breathing. A woman. Her name was ... what? He couldn't remember. That made him sad. He couldn't remember her name any more, mere hours later, when she needed to be remembered. His mind was playing tricks with him, eroding his immediate past, making him more callous than he wanted to be. They had made love, hadn't they? Had had sex, at least. Gaye? Perhaps that was it. Sounded familiar. Mac had met her in the local pub, after she'd called out of the blue to ask him to come; she was someone from his past. Who? He hadn't wanted to go and depression had settled over him like a shroud. Feelings of void had oppressed him. Coldness. Why was he forty-seven, and dying?

Mac woke out of a dream that had no details, but was potent with menace. Woke, felt the woman's flesh pressed warm against his thigh where now there was stone. Nearly remembered who she was.

And the gargoyle spoke. Let me live, it said.

Mac spasmed in shock, screamed. He'd thought it was a nightmare. But the woman had woken. She looked at Mac, ready to berate him perhaps, then sensed the thick shadow, smelt its bitterness, heard its voice like cockroaches scuttling. She looked at the thing instead.

"No," she whispered.

Her denial was confirmation for Mac. This was not a dream. Not something excreted from his mind.

"You came as a nightmare," he said now. "But you're a statue. I was paid to sculpt a statue like you, maybe it was you, a long time ago. The money's long spent. If it's you, if that thing I made was you, you've been sitting on this building for twenty years."


It hadn't said anything more. Hunched up in bed, in the semi-dark created by a wash of cheesy light leaking through the window from the moon, Mac had watched its claw take the woman by the throat, holding her up so that it could look into her eyes. What was it after? She couldn't speak now, the stone fingers constricting her windpipe, but gargles and moans bespoke fear and pain. Mac had been unable to move. Terror drained all motion from his limbs.

Its dispassion was insupportable. It reached into the woman with its free claw, stripping flesh from her bones, while the other claw dangled her before it. For too long, she remained alive, conscious that she was being killed and tortured by the agony of it. Blood and intestines slithered down her legs, gathering into a glistening shadow on the floor there. Mac could see the torn muscles convulsing. Her ribs gave way, but by the time her heart spilled out of her, she was dead. Still, the creature showed no anger, no rage. It seemed to watch each moment of evisceration intensely, seeking some mystery in flesh and gore. What knowledge could there be?  It wrenched off an arm, baring thick bone at the shoulder, splintered now. It dropped the corpse. Mac continued watching, sickness welling in his throat, shivering, but he could not take his eyes from the creature of stone, as it stripped flesh away and then prodded at the exposed bone, as though it were a revelation.

For several days news programs had been reporting bodies found in a bloody state in dark alleys, on a lonely stretch of foreshore, on top of a semi-demolished tenement, dripping blood onto early morning commuters. Mac remembered reading about the other deaths. "They may be ritualistic," a police spokesperson had said. Were they all the work of this creature?

The gargoyle was pulling the meat from the woman's arm over its own stone-sinewy limb, giving itself a layer of bloody flesh. Skin over bone. Its body was hard, like bone. Did it want to cover its nakedness with flesh?

Gore slipped off it and flopped messily onto the boards. The gargoyle looked at Mac. No flesh, it said. Then it came toward him, where he trembled, not even thinking of moving, and held its arm out. Its surface was bloodied. It reached with its other arm and Mac thought he was gone. Like the woman, like Gabrielle ... yes, perhaps her name was Gabrielle ... taken by the throat. Eviscerated. He held out his hands ineffectually, to ward it off. "Please," he said.

The gargoyle's hard claw took his wrist, dragged the hand toward itself. It pressed Mac's fingers onto the arm that had been covered in flesh. It held him there, feeling cold sliminess and the hard, stony texture beneath. No flesh, it repeated.

"Yeah," said Mac, numbly, "No flesh, I get the point. No flesh."

It released him. Stood staring as Mac rubbed at his hand where the stone had held him.

You made me.

As it spoke these words, the gargoyle stepped forward on its left leg, dog-bent and hoofed. It indicated a blemish etched on its ankle. Mac didn't have to see in the dim light to know what it was. His mark. The signature he'd carved into the stone on that night nearly twenty years ago when he finished his work and felt the desire to leave evidence of his effort. He hadn't known it was responsibility that was being proclaimed.

Wind increased for a moment, so Mac had to grip the stone ledge harder to stop himself from tumbling off it. Sudden insecurity made him glance down at the dark fall across the building's facade to the street far below, and vertigo wrenched his gut.

"What do you want of me?" he asked.

The creature of stone, its chest unbreathing, shifted minutely, but the grinding sound of its feet and wings against the side of the building filled Mac with horror.

You made me stone, it said. Now make me flesh.

"I'm not responsible," Mac protested, "You were just a statue, one of several. You couldn't move, you weren't alive. Statues are inanimate, stone can't move itself."

I am what you made me to be.

Mac tried to remember what he had made the gargoyle to be. It was long ago, in his youth, and the emotions and desires of that time were like the memories of someone else, so distant and alien he couldn't understand them at all. What had been in his life at that time? Hope? Commitment? Enthusiasm? They were gone now, all of them. He remembered that, at first, he had welcomed the job. Just an art student, that's what he'd been, penniless but determined, hired as one of three sculptors to decorate the front of an otherwise utilitarian building. Government grants, the desire to minimise costs, political manoeuvres — he couldn't recall what had motivated the project; but he did remember that it wasn't a happy time. Contracted payments had seemed petty as months passed and the enterprise soured. The architect, who was a self-opinionated philistine and hated the gargoyle concept, badgered the artists continually. "His resentment is blemishing the stone" — that's what Mac used to say, and Gwen would call him pretentious. Mac ignored job opportunities elsewhere, because of his commitment, so that by the time it was finished, he faced a period of unemployment, followed by a diminishing of his ambitions that led him into the public service. A bad time.

For a moment a woman's face, laughing, smirking, teasing, flickered in his memory. Gwen. Stress had made them fight, in that penumbra of dwindling enthusiasm, and they had been so close to hating each other during the final days of the project, that a future together had seemed unlikely. Nevertheless they married, afterwards, and a bit later on had a son. But the gargoyle-sculpture was always there, reminding each of the other's failings, and in the end they parted, not angry, but worse, indifferent, to lead lives that somehow never achieved even a basic level of satisfaction, no matter how much Mac pretended it was otherwise. Maybe he never saw her again, his wife, Gwen, nor his son, and not one of a long succession of lovers had produced a single moment of commitment. Now Mac had cancer in his prostate, and that fact seemed a logical development, not an aberration. He hadn't thought of it before, but perhaps that gargoyle he'd sculpted had been imbued with too much of his energy for him to ever find peace again in himself.

"When did you ... wake up?" he asked the gargoyle.

Wake up? it said. Is this awake?

"How far back can you remember? When did you first know ... anything?"

I remember coldness, I remember stone. There was fire, which did not make me warm.

Fire? What did the creature mean by that? Mac glanced around, but night revealed no details to him. What fire could there be up here? Then, above the ledge on which they crouched, on the roof of the building, he spied an aerial — a conductor. It made him think of lightning. Had the gargoyle been struck by lightning and brought to life by it?

"Are you going to kill me?" he asked, suddenly conscious that such speculation was useless, especially in these circumstances.

Kill you? it replied, as though it didn't understand what he meant.

Mac's gut had started to tremble again, chilled without being cold. The gargoyle suddenly moved its head away from him, shifting slightly and staring into the dark, as though it saw something far below. Mac gasped in expectation, not knowing what to expect, but fearing what the creature might do.  Wind tingled on his skin.

Then the gargoyle was no longer beside him. It had launched itself into the air, its bat-like wings beating easily against the currents. How was it possible? Mac thought, feeling despair like something undigested in his throat. The creature was made of stone — Mac had felt the stone. It was too heavy to be able to fly. He watched as it glided out and downward in a circling motion that carried it along the street and into the night. It was as though its shape, not the logic of the natural world, governed what was possible, so that having the form of wings allowed it to fly, just as having the shape of a being, albeit mythical, gave it life, and appearing monstrous made it a monster.

He could no longer see it. Mac squinted into the night, suppressing fear and hoping, in a futile gesture he didn't believe for an instant, that it had all been a dream of some kind, that out-of-sight meant out-of-mind and that what he'd done was dispel the delusion by having it fly into the darkness, never to return. But he knew it would be back. It was real, at least according to the definitions of real that Mac had functioned by all these years — he had touched it, felt it, feared it. It would be back because, somehow, it belonged to him, and sooner or later it would trade his life for its own.

But perhaps its absence gave him a chance to escape. If it was real, if it was, according to whatever logic was operating here, a physical being with limitations imposed by its shape, it wouldn't be able to find him if he hid himself away, far from here, in another town, another state. Living so close to this building, mere blocks ... that had been a mistake. Christ almighty, he'd lived here in the shadow of this thing for twenty years. Twenty years! Why, for god's sake? Why hadn't he moved away long ago?

Mac glanced around desperately, along the ledge, up toward the roof. That was the way he had to go. No other choice. He couldn't scurry down the outside of the building like Dracula. But the ledge was six or seven metres below the top and in between the wall was recessed and without handholds. He couldn't climb it. Perhaps further along there would be something, a drainpipe, something he could use to get up to the roof. A ladder? Perhaps, if he followed the ledge as far as it went, it would lead him to some sort of access door. He couldn't remember, now, what the rest of the building was like. How had they put the gargoyle up there in the first place, given that it hadn't flown? Probably a crane. Yes, he remembered now. A crane.

The thought suddenly leapt into his head that there were three other gargoyles on the building, sculpted by other people, whose names he had long ago forgotten. Was it possible that the other gargoyles were alive too?  He leaned slightly, glancing along the building through deep shadows and past the pillars that stood on the ledge every five metres or so. He could see what was probably one of the other gargoyles, crouched motionless where it had been placed years before. No, it didn't seem to have changed. When he thought about it, that made sense. His gargoyle was alive because it was his.

That thought made his mind revolt, because he didn't understand it and it didn't seem reasonable. Nevertheless, there was a truth to it that he found himself unable to deny. But why should such a thing be true?

Dwelling on metaphysics was pointless. Mac stretched his legs, and as he did, pain stabbed through them, muscles that had been unused since the gargoyle brought him here protesting at the sudden movement. Then a gust of wind touched him. He felt his balance tilting over into imbalance and consciousness of the fall that would follow stabbed through him as panic. He jerked back against the wall until he felt relatively at ease again.

He must move. Mac pulled his legs up onto the ledge, which was wide enough for him to crawl along on his hands and knees — though beyond the wider platform that the gargoyle had sat on, only just. The dirty stonework, decades of residue and bird droppings gathered on it, hurt his knees as he edged along. Something flapped close by. A bird? Perhaps. Mac glanced around, nearly lost his balance and had to spend a moment deep-breathing to calm himself.  His back was aching now, as though sitting on the stone, and being so tense, had bent it unnaturally.

Several times he felt like stopping, giving up. The fingers of his left hand would feel the space hanging over the edge of the concrete, his left knee would slip and the fall would come into his mind. He wondered how long it would take to reach the road. Would he scream all the way down? Would he be conscious when he struck the footpath? Would his head burst open like an over-ripe melon, as it was always described in the paperback thrillers he read? Maybe. If it did, he would never know.

But he didn't stop again and he didn't fall. Soon he reached the first pillar, which cut across the ledge, blocking further progress. He pulled himself up against it, grabbed the stone with his fingers, and peered around the pillar, stabilising himself easily on its square edges. It was about half a metre wide, that was all. Mac glanced upward, hoping there would be handgrips, or a down pipe, so that he could climb up onto the roof. But there was nothing. The surfaces were still too smooth. Maybe it was like that all the way round. No, there had to be piping somewhere.

Then he saw it. A window. It was well beyond the pillar he was crouching against, just before the next, obscured in a thick shadow cast by the second pillar itself. The window seemed to be about the size of an average bathroom window and was probably shuttered in some way. If he could only get it open—

He stood, his legs weak and shaky, and waited until they felt stronger. He gripped the wall fiercely. Then he slid his left hand to the opposite side of the pillar; the action made him lean outward, but he inched his fingers around, imagining that they were digging into the stone, and tried not to think at all of the long drop behind him. Once he was steady, he swung his left leg out and across the face of the pillar, feeling with his toes until they found purchase on the ledge again and he sensed his weight redistribute itself. The moment when he committed himself to his left leg, and launched his right away from the wall, was like the first instant of an irredeemable decision that would prove a disaster. But he didn't fall and another moment on, the sensation of disaster had dissipated and he was standing, secure, on both feet. Carefully he lowered himself on to his hands and knees again and continued toward the window.

It was securely fixed. Metal bars, corroded into lumps of rust but still firm, protected the glass from him. The glass itself was covered in grime. He tried to peer between the bars, to see what lay beyond the glass, but all he could make out were vague darknesses that could have been anything. Annoyed, he pounded on the metal bars with his fists. He only succeeded in making his fingers bleed.

"Break, damn you."

He grabbed one of the bars, the weakest looking, and pulled, hoping it might snap or its bolts rip away from the windowsill. Indeed, he heard them give slightly, and the encouragement urged him to greater effort. But yanking hard, he unbalanced himself, slipped and nearly tumbled off the ledge. Would have, except that something held him. Something hard and stony. He glanced over his shoulder.

It was the gargoyle. The creature was hovering about an arm's length from him, its wings sweeping up and down gently, keeping it in position. Wind buffeted him. Its long, serpentine tail was wrapped around one of Mac's arms. As he regained his balance, flattening himself against the wall, the tail released him.

"Um, thanks," he muttered automatically.

At that point he noticed what the gargoyle was holding.

The man's head looked for a moment like a dummy's. The skin seemed unnaturally pale and bloodless and the eyes were glazed like marbles. But it was no dummy. Dark blood dripped from the ragged shreds of skin and flesh that hung on it below the neck, and Mac saw the shoulder and arm that remained attached to it, the long backbone like a tail, and the ribcage, still covered in gore. A piece of intestine dangled in the breeze. Mac turned aside and was sick.

The voice of the gargoyle drew him back. So slight, underneath the flesh, it said. And for a while so warm. I too would be warm.

"I can't do it," Mac choked. "I'm not a god."

You started me. Finish me now.

Mac felt tears running down his cheeks. Deep sobs that arose from fear and grief wracked him and he sank into a crouching position.

"I can't," he managed.

You must. The gargoyle tossed the man's remains and Mac watched as they disappeared into darkness, finally striking the distant road with a dull plop.

Do this, the creature continued, And there will be no more killing.

Mac looked it in the eyes, but there was nothing to see except stone.

"I don't know how."

As before, it said, as before.

Then it reached for Mac, plucking him off the ledge, and for a moment he was hanging over an abyss. He closed his eyes, felt movement numbly, and let the moment pass, opening his eyes again as the gargoyle placed him on the shelf where it had sat unmoving for twenty years. The creature landed beside him, folding its wings across its back and squatting in its original position. It held something out to him.

"My tools?" he said, staring at the familiar leather satchel, faded and mildewed now, after ... what? ... maybe fifteen years untouched. "Where'd you get them?"

The gargoyle didn't answer. Mac reached out and took the bag. He opened it. The chisels, hammer, files were all there, though patchy with surface rust.

Make me live, the creature said.

Mac stared at it — just a statue when it wasn't moving. But what he saw was more than that. In its lines, in the curves of its body and the intricate texture of its face he could suddenly see the pain and coldness — twenty years of regret, two decades of anger and humiliation. Again, tears welled into his eyes.

So cold, whispered the creature's gravel voice.

Mac reached into the bag and grasped a hammer and the largest of the chisels. He put the bag gently to one side.

"You want to be human?" he asked.

The gargoyle might have been looking at him, but it was silent.

"I'll finish the job," Mac added. He shuffled toward the back of the creature, against the wall, his sight blurring with tears. The gargoyle did not turn to see what he was doing, but rather, moved its head to stare out across the city, toward the east, as though hoping for sign of dawn. Mac placed the chisel head at the base of one wing, raised the hammer and struck. The clack echoed like a bell, then was sucked up by darkness. Again he struck, and again. Each time, chips of stone shot away from the chisel head, and sparks flashed in the night. After a few more blows, the stone cracked and the wing fell, smashing at Mac's feet. Still the gargoyle did not protest.

"Life is flesh," Mac said. He rested his chisel against the creature's shoulder, where its second wing sprouted asymmetrically now. "Life is warmth." He struck with his hammer. Sound cracked into the void, echoing along the facade of the building. He struck again. "Life is ..." If he'd been going to say something, his blow muffled the word. The second wing split off and fell. He stepped back. The gargoyle was still gazing into the distance, ignoring him. It was perched near the edge of the shelf, its clawed feet cumbersome on the marble surface.

"I haven't been very effective at life," Mac said.

This time the gargoyle's head ground toward him, and for a moment Mac thought he saw its stony eye catch light and gleam.

Mac leaned forward, resting his hands on the creature's back. He lowered his head onto the cold stone, as though listening for a heartbeat. Tears ran off his cheeks onto the lifeless figure.

"Life ..." he said sadly, "... is the certainty of death."

And he shoved. The gargoyle didn't offer any resistance; it was totally committed to whatever course of action Mac wanted to take. It hung for a moment on the edge of the fall, then disappeared, without protest and without attempting to save itself. The sound of it striking the road below was like a bomb going off.

After a while, his eyes still watery, Mac crept to the edge and peered into the night. He couldn't see much — it was seven storeys down and there were many shadows, but he thought he could make out the rubble that had been his gargoyle. It must have landed in a puddle of water, because dim glow from a streetlight was shimmering off the surface of something wet — something that spread out from beneath the shattered pieces of stone. It looked like blood.

Mac pulled back, squatting on the shelf where the gargoyle had been. He hunched himself up, feeling nothing but a deep chill that seemed to originate in the pit of his stomach. Part of him said that he should move, crawl along the ledge again, find a way up to the roof. Another bigger part didn't want to move. It wanted him to stay there, getting colder, and thinking of nothing.

 Wind picked up as dawn approached, but by that time Mac couldn't feel it.


"Rough Trade" was first published in AUREALIS # 13 (March 1994), and also appears in Robert Hood's still-available collection of ghost stories, IMMATERIAL (MirrorDanse Books 2002).
For anyone who wants to chase it up, the publication in AUREALIS is accompanied by a great illustration by Shaun Tan.

Robert Hood has a lengthy writing resume that contains a large number of published stories, several novels, assorted children's books, plays, cartoons, non-fiction books and articles, an opera libretto and a vampire-slaying game for mobile phones. His work lies most commonly in the horror genre, with forays into SF, fantasy, crime and "literary". He recently won an Atheling Award for a major article on the 1933 "King Kong" and his anthology, DAIKAIJU! GIANT MONSTER STORIES, edited with Robin Pen, received the Ditmar Award for Best Collection (2005).
photo  © Cat Sparks 2001

'Robert Hood is Australia's master of dark fantasy, seducing the reader with stories that are lavishly grim and rife with a quirky, unpredictable inventiveness. He takes us along streets we prefer not to travel, even in daylight, and finds humanity in the blackest of shadows.' (Sean Williams)

'Robert Hood is a brilliant fantasist. I've seen work penned by Hood that is absolutely luminous, unnerving, and original. This man can write!' (Jack Dann)

Learn more about all this stuff on his website:

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"Rough Trade" copyright © 1994 - 2006 by Rob Hood
"Rough Trade" appears here with thanks to Rob Hood, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. – A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004 - 2006