Little bastard. Stupid, pointless little bastard!
Hate that burned; a fever in his cheeks, his belly, making him want to scream and puke blood, to punch him and punch him until there was nothing left of his stupid, grinning face.
Across the way; barely a few strides. All he'd have to do; take a sharpened pencil, his pillow; stab out those blue, blue eyes, press the pillow down until he stopped breathing, grew still.
They'd never hear; not find him until tomorrow, until it was too late. His Grandparents...too deeply asleep, snores echoing through the thin walls, ragged and rasping.
But they'd know...know the minute they found the little shit...what he'd done, and why.
And they'd blame him, like always: the first they turned to, whenever The Little Shit grazed his knee or bruised his head; always the first they shrieked and hissed at, as though he could control what The Little Shit did.
Today, a familiar ritual, whenever they visited Nanna and Grandad: a new toy to keep them occupied. He'd picked one of his favourites: Arachnos, from The Drivers of Delirium; a comic he'd collected every issue of in the last four years; the stacks of them high enough to hold his bed up at home.
A fusion of man and spider, black-skinned, many-armed, a bulbous abdomen dragged behind, filled with tiny, rubber spiderlings that could be “birthed” by squeezing the toy's midriff.
The Little Shit had its own to play with and ruin; broken almost the instant he got it out of the package, as always.
“...can I have a go?”
“No! You've got your own!”
“But it's broke...”
“That's your fault, not mine.”
Knowing, knowing that, if he touched it, it would fall apart instantly.
Mom watching, frowning.
“Oh, stop being so selfish! Just let him have five minutes with it!”
“That's not the point, Mom! He breaks everything. I can't have anything without him...”
The woman sighing, wrenching the figure from his hands, placing it in the Little Shit's pudgey, awkward fingers.
“Now, you be careful, okay? That doesn't belong to you.”
The Shit not paying the slightest attention, any more than it ever had. Knowing, the instant it got up and waddled away; the way it looked at him, the way it smiled:
Arachnos's abdomen ripped open, the spiderlings scattered across the carpet.
“You little shit!”
Screaming it, bringing Mom and Grandmother running.
“What did I hear you just say?”
“Look what he's done!”
The Little Shit hovering behind them, protected by the screen they made of their bodies. How it would always be, forever and ever.
“I don't care about that: what did I hear you just say?”
Waggling the toy in front of her, trying to make her see.
“Don't throw that thing in my face! If I hear you swear at him like that again...”
Not even crying, knowing it would mean nothing.
He couldn't do it. They'd know. But maybe...someone else? Something else?
Rejecting the thought out of hand, knowing how stupid it was. How could he even ask? How could he make them listen?
Unable to sleep for it; the idea a thorn, burrowing deeper and deeper into his thoughts, growing sceptic, fevered.
They wouldn't come, not here, no matter how fervently he called: the room proof against them, insulated against their intrusion by years of prayer and accrued ritual.
No, if he wanted their help, he'd have to find them.
An idiot notion, a baby's dream: of course he couldn't go to them! They wouldn't listen, even if he could find them! Most likely, he'd be the one devoured, just as he always was, no matter what monsters he faced.
The night not leaving him be, not letting him dream and wake to a new round. Seeming to linger, hours dragging on for eternity, the moon rising outside his window, the barks of youths and drunks returning home from the local pub up the road filtering through.
Not daring to open his eyes, afraid of finding them, splayed out across the walls, seething from beneath the bed, silhouetted against the curtains.
Nothing, the room empty, cold and quiet.
Sitting up in bed, daring them to descend on him, swinging his legs out over the edge, the old-fashioned springs squealing, the metal frame shifting as though about to fall apart.
No hands reaching from beneath, curling cold fingers around his ankles, no whispers from the shadows.
Shuffling into his slippers and dressing gown, going to the door.
Something inside screaming as he twisted the knob, as he eased it open, peering out onto the landing.
A small space, light filtering through the window, hazey and chemical orange, his Grandparents snoring in the room next door.
No sign of the ones he came to find; no red, smear-headed phantasm before the window, no centipede-thing unfurling from the airing cupboard, no shining spider's legs creeping from around the corner, pawing at the wall.
Creeping out, shivering, though it wasn't so cold, remembering, remembering why:
Arachnos, his Mother's dull and hateful eyes, the Little Shit's smile.
Maybe he'd keep it; have them twist off his head, curl his lips up and pin them in place, have him smiling forever.
The airing cupboard. Strange gurgles and clatters from inside; pipes and the boiler, they always insisted, ever since the nightmares that gave birth to what he knew nested inside.
Maybe true, but not always; what they couldn't see or understand: of course it was nothing but pipes and boilers, in the day time, but after dark..?
Jerking away as he heard it moving, the thing knowing, sensing him; happy that he came to feed himself to it.
Holding himself fast, ignoring the sudden urgency in his bladder, the pain that had him dancing from foot to foot in the strange, itchy carpet.
“H...h...hey. Hey? Are you...in there?”
No answer, save for more gurgles and hisses, more bangs and clatters. Then...
Scratching against the wood, almost imperceptible, but not to him.
Almost bolting, hurtling back through his bedroom door, under the covers, safe in the darkness behind his eyes, where they could never follow.
Only the promise of days that might be holding him fast; days without broken toys, without disruption; without being blamed for everything The Little Shit did...when they'd forgotten, when it went back to how it once was.
“...I...I have something for you...”
The scritch-scritch-scratching growing louder, accompanied by a low hiss that almost made him pee his pyjamas.
Seeing it; coiled, wet and segmented, pale young clutched in a living ball between its many legs, its antennae waving in the steam-dank air.
Another sound; one that made him screw his eyes tight shut. Something on the ceiling above, its tread feather light, but not quite enough to disguise its presence.
Feeling it reach down, its legs disturbing the air around his ears, at the back of his neck.
Somehow smiling, though it didn't have mouth or lips with which to do so, delighted that the fly it had hunted for nights on end had decided to surrender itself.
“...N...not me, not me...take him! I...I'll give him to you!”
Soft footsteps in the carpet at his back, a chill breath making him shudder. Sighs, a voice filtering into his thoughts:
“Suppose we'd rather have you?”
A whisper, only; the voice of a dying woman, little breath left to waste.
The scratches and chitters from within the airing cupboard growing more agitated, seeming to almost laugh.
Closer, closer; the soft footsteps, the rustling skirts, the pawing legs from above.
“Look! I'll...I'll open the way...”
Opening his eyes, but keeping them firmly upon the wall as he edged around, turning the corner to the Little Shit's room.
“You'll...you'll like him better, anyway. He's younger.”
The feet following, the steps on the ceiling, the airing cupboard door clicking open...
Reaching out, as gently as he could, twisting the old, rattling doorknob. Letting the door ease open, the Little Shit muttering and murmuring inside, as it always did in its sleep.
Sighs of anticipation, the footsteps ceasing, the cold against his back enough to raise goosepimples.
The brush of a cold, cold hand against his cheek, a gentle caress at his shoulder.
Flying, clamping hands to his mouth, wrenching his eyes away from the opening airing cupboard door, refusing to see, catching only a glimpse of something shimmering inside, something moving...
Stumbling, something around his ankles, wet bursts and crunches beneath his feet.
On his knees on the threadbare carpet of his little room; the backroom, with its cold and steel bed and horrible, horrible paintings.
Wheeling around, slamming the door behind him.
Tears coming, then, as he slumped against it, as whatever followed scratched and hissed and sighed outside.
Pressing his palms flat to the wood, his forehead likewise.
“...take him, take him...”
Laughter, a cruel girl, a cackling witch. Shadows skittering in the dim, orange light filtering beneath the door.
They couldn't. They couldn't get him. Not here.
“I...I don't have anything else. Please...”
“Oh, such sweet lies! You have everything, child; you have yourself.”
Weeping openly, now, cursing himself for his stupidity.
“...just take him and go away...”
A muffled protest from the room next door, Grandad stirring in his sleep, cursing ripely as he shuffled out of bed.
“....bloody fucking thunder...”
The sounds from outside stilling, as though their makers froze at the sound of his voice.
The click of a light.
“What is it now?”
“...need to bloody piss again. Only the third time tonight.”
“It's them bleedin' pills what he gave yer. I told yer...”
“Give over, will yer? Go back to sleep.”
His Grandfather's heavy, slumping footsteps driving him away from the door as fast as those he held it against. Diving beneath the covers, drawing them tight around himself, screwing his eyes tight shut, momentarily so lost in the illusion of dreaming, he believed it.
“...what the bloody 'ell is this? Aye, Edith? What's all this on the landing..?”
A mumbled, slumbering response.
“Bugger ye, then.”
The man muttering and murmuring, creaking and cracking, all the way to the bathroom, pissing loudly with the door open.
Not seeing, never seeing; the night things invisible to them.
The flushing toilet, gurgling pipes.
“'Ere, Edith! Our Joseph's door's wide open!”
“Well, just shut it then, will yer?”
“All right, all right! Don't snap me 'ead off! Bloody Hell...”
A door clicking shut, more slumping steps, the crick and crack of old joints, muttered protests. A weary body dragging itself beneath covers, settling down to sleep.
Smiling, truly smiling, for the first time since The Little Shit was born, terror and anticipation slowly seeping from him, as he drifted into dreams that already echoed with the screams that morning would bring.
Poisoned memories swilling today, trying to convince me that they were born of some happiness.
From the moment I wake; dreams of that child. That fat, stumbling, awkward, anxious child, that they all loved, for his passivity, his sweet smile.
But who hated them. Hated himself. Hated everything.
If they could only see, he'd whisper to himself, into his tear-stained, fever-warmed pillow; if they could only see behind my eyes, then they wouldn't pretend to love me so much.
The only thing I love about him; the only thing I retain, barring the experiences we share.
Why this morning? Why not tomorrow or yesterday or never again?
Rising from dreams of him; a nightmare of parent's and grandparent's and parents-of-friend's houses, thrown together and co-mingled into a twilight labyrinth, haunted by perversions and distortions: their inhabitants lingering in doorways, in the darkness of stinking, freezing rooms, glaring at him as he passes, whispering threats as they swarm with spiders and cockroaches, as they hiss and yowl like cats, as their eyes blaze, their bodies tremble.
Phantasms, projections of old nigthmares, lurid, forbidden fantasies: the gleaming eyes and twitching legs of a great trap-door spider, burned into his memory from the nature documentary in which he first glimpsed them, exaggerated here, whimpering with a voice not unlike his Mother's. A naked, twirling girl, her frail body scratched and bleeding, bloody tears on her face, as she dances, scattering her matter into the dark. A ragged-haired, evil-eyed man, a feral dog's snarl, violence seething from his every pore.
Waking from that, the nightmare lingering, quivering between the dressing-gowned and slippered body of that idiot child, the strange ande naked man that sleeps in his place.
New dreams, older memories, as I drag myself from bed; as I exercise, shower, brush my teeth; check my phone for the usual tempest of demands and recriminations:
Heya Son, r u still coming 2day?
Do you have three hours to come in this afternoon?
Haven't seen you in forever. Let me know when you've got some time off, and we'll get together.
Is that it, then? We just not gonna talk?
None of them raising so much as a snarl; preoccupied, memories demanding, no matter how earnestly I deny:
My Grandparent's house, dark-bricked, semi-detatched; number seventy two Ingham Street, always smelling of bleach and cleaning chemicals outside.
As afraid of it as he was in love.
That strange quiescence, that palpable sense of time slowing, of care evaporating, whenever he stepped through the front door. The anxieties of home and school, of being known, done with there; mysterious, despite its small size: the strange wallpaper, the mismatched carpets, the scents of roasted chicken, pipe tobacco and pot pourri...
An alien place, whose backrooms and cupboards, wardrobes and out-house, he populated with the strangest creatures; monsters that would make him afraid to cross the landing to the bathroom of a night, for fear of them waiting, crawling in the dark from their warrens, where his Grandparents couldn't be of any help:
The hunched shadow, ragged and red-eyed, its long, pale arms and legs almost blue-skinned, slick with filth, his smile yellow, too wide for the face that wore it, crooked teeth stained with flecks of old meals.
The skitter-headed woman, her tattered red-dress flailing, her hands clutched beneath her breasts, her head smeared and wavering as she wanders, as she whimpers and wails.
The centipede-thing, immense and coiled in the airing cupboard, imagining it unfurling in the night, as soon as his head hit the pillow, vile antennae waving in the air, segmented body shimmering as it waited for him, for his brother, to open their doors and peer out.
His brother. His brother.
Some days, praying for them to take him, take him, take him. The little shit driving him to tears and trembling fury with his invasions, his spite, his clumsiness; his presence.
Dreaming of waking to screams, finding the little shit gone, his bed empty and torn up, trails of blood and bones leading to the wardrobe, the airing cupboard...
So unhappy, that boy; out of love with everything, no matter what nostalgia insists, how earnestly it tries to poison his mind.
Remembering: the truth of it; waking every day, every day, to anxieites both familiar and novel; to whatever new distorted horror his imagination made of the world. Trembling, breathless, terrified, every step, every word: not realising where it came from or why; only that it was his natural state.
Seeing him now, in imagination's eye, as I watch the snow fall through the kitchen windows; his affrighted eyes, his false smile, the terror beneath.
Happy, so happy, to be put out of his misery: swept up and battered against the wall of the cold, empty room where I find him, blonde hair staining bright, bright red, bone-fragments flying, burning warmth between my fingers, in the rain that pours through ruptures in the ceiling, until he ceases to laugh, ceases to struggle, and I rise, free of him, every toxic lie in his broken mind seeping away between the floorboards.
A mistake, to call it discomfort.
This? Nothing. Most don't understand; have never taken a moment to stop, turn their faces up, to genuinely feel it.
They do as their parent's did; still so much children, no matter how they insist otherwise. Running, muttering, whimpering; driven to panic and hissing hysterics by the slightest spot.
As though the rain is burning angel piss, as though it might scorch their eyes blind, melt the frowns from their faces.
Just rain; watching them huddle and hurry through it, never stopping, never slowing; never once considering their own response; what pleasure they might take in the bite and cold of it, the angel-finger sensation of rivulets running down their faces, their bodies.
Hereditary disease. Beyond any genetic defect or failing organ; the insanity we hand down, from parent to child.
Fortunate, I suppose. In that regard and so many others.
This rain...singing to me as it falls; crystal harmony, riding rainbows as it shatters against leaves and fingers and faces, as it paints the air. Songs whose lyrics I don't understand, but have heard since I was a boy, since I first learned the love of walking in the rain, feeling it hammer and burst against my scalp; shaved bald for that very purpose.
Child's fingers seeking entry, as though orphan phantoms might find some sanctuary in my skull, amongst the memories and fantasies that burn there.
Watching them, smiling, unable to help it; that same sickle-moon grin that brings so many to my bed, that slices their hearts open in the aftermath.
Not smiling back; only in the most fretful, frightened way: rabbit-things before a snarling wolf.
Not understanding, believing me insane, for this delight: for the thin jacket I wear, already sodden, for the flutter-eyed gasps as the rain sluices down, over and through: as its music saturates, sunshine in my soul, singing stories of the world I fell from, the dream that made me.
Lunatic, they think; addled, they whisper. When they arrive home, bustling and cursing, they'll tell stories of me, to the spouses they no longer love, to the children who have disappointed, the parents who endlessly betray: tell of the mad man they encountered on the way home, the rain-lover who smiled at them so strangely, who unsettled them inside.
Before the same cycles of lunacy begin, before they put on their masks and play their parts; pretending happiness where none can be.
And I'll still be here, wandering in the rain, until it ceases, the alien hymns grow silent, and I open my eyes newborn, baptised, a stranger to myself as much as to them.
Black and broken way, winding through empty mountains. Shattered, burned black bones silhouetted against stars, a heavy, amber moon.
A narrow road, no barrier against the abyss at its edge. How many have taken that plunge, accidentally or otherwise? A time when I might have condemned the latter for their waste, a time before I realised what a torment living can be, before my own skull became a cage, every thought a desperate bird, intent on escape.
Even if it means shattering itself, bleeding for a little sunlight.
A nameless place, what road-signs there are seeming to be in some alien alphabet, smeared or vandalised to illegibility.
Lost. So beautifully, blissfully unfound. The only place where a thing like me might find some sanctuary. So cold, no matter how high I crank up the heating. Night invading, sprouting teeth and thorns, patterns of frost forming on the windows. Jealous of the barely-born ghosts that seep from my lips; grey and purple spectres that hardly have time to mourn before fading to nothing. Not knowing who or what or why.
Knowing a curse, in contradiction of reason or revelation:
Why I woke to find her gone; why they left me while I dreamed. Idiot, letting myself hope for one second that...but no, of course not. How can an angel abide sin? How can perfection tolerate pollution?
And she was an angel to me, for a time.
Masochist memory, conjuring her amongst the ghosts: red hair unkempt, as though a fire rages in her that her skull can't contain, green eyes, almost azure, burning likewise, vents for the brilliance within. Strangely beautiful; alienating and attractive in equal measure.
Knowing from the first kiss, the first invitation to bed...a temporary arrangement at best; that, when she saw me sweating and naked in the night, what I wept, what I bled and breathed in my dreaming hours, it would end.
Six years. Six years. Still unsure how she sustained, what drove her to breaking.
Lying. To her, to myself; knowing precisely why:
The new dream, kindling in her belly, thast she wouldn't have my parasite species pollute.
Loving her for that, despite myself; as much as I hate her.
Perhaps, had she not shown me love; a promise of what life might be, I wouldn't be here now, defying her, chasing her from shore to shore, across oceans; defying the disease that made me.
A screech, the world dissolving, tumbling around me. Jerking the wheel right, away from the abyss. Almost ploughing into the cliffside, metal screeching against stone, sparks making the shadows dance.
Still again. Cold again. Though not inside.
Laughing, groaning, gripping the steering wheel hard enough to leave indentations in its leather.
No one and nothing; no passing cars, no sign of any living thing.
Just me, and the reflection of my suicide's smile.
A time, before I step out of the car. Minutes seeming to stretch into silent hours, my heartbeat and the various clicks and groans of the car my only companions.
Cold and dark calling, stars and moon smiling down on me, amused by the farce of my existence.
“Is this enough, now?”
Howling it into the night, chill stealing my breath, kindling blue fire in my lungs.
Bitter laughter, her ghost smiling at me, through those born of what breath remains.
The curse returning to me, mockingly echoed by whatever infests this desolation; the worm and maggot-things amongst its broken slopes and canyons.
Snarling, kicking out at the car, I stumble away from it, not caring if others hurtle around the mountainside, casting me up into the air, down into the abyss.
Juliana. Others before her; none remaining even half as long. Most no longer than the first nights we sleep side by side; few still there upon waking, the emptiness beside me aching, aching always, a severed limb, an extracted tooth. A part of me, torn loose and taken, into the new day.
Others...remaining long enough to hurt, to wound more profoundly: cold as the night, appalled by me, disgusted by what I leaked into their dreaming minds.
Never remembering for myself; the worst of it, not even knowing what sours between us, what could be so terrible as to revolt them so, some to the point of terror, threats of violence:
Don't you dare...don't you dare come near me...
Don't touch me! Don't touch me...
Every epithet, burning into me, almost as profoundly as the spit on my face, in my eye. The rumours that follow.
Long since past deluding myself, when I met her; no hope that it could be any different, that the disease might burn itself out, or I might find a soul immune to its infection. Resisting her, for so long; denying and rebuffing her, to the point of making myself repellant in her eyes.
Always returning, inviting herself to sit at cafe tables with me, beside me on trains and buses, talking as though we never parted.
Almost confessing it, as a means of finally murdering whatever she hoped might be between us. Unable to, though the words swarmed in my mouth like a vomit of wasps, desperate to fly and sting her affection to death.
The swarm murdered from the first kiss, frigid fingers rising to my lips in memory of it, touching her, tasting her; a cruel ghost, that can never be again.
“What you showed me last night...”
How the note began; no “Dear John,” no mention of my name:
“...I'm sorry. I can't do it any more. I can't let what's inside of you poison what's inside of me. Don't try to find us, please.”
Obeying, for as long as I could. Trying to make her just another of the lost; another shaming ghost in my memory.
The road broken, pot-holed beneath my feet, stumbling drunk across it, following the curve of the mountainside. Gasping in the cold, teeth chattering; eyes not ahead, but cast out, over the star-flecked darkness between the broken peaks; an abyss to match the darker specimen below, far deeper, infinite.
Nothing compared to the abyss inside.
“Show me...show me, fuck you!”
What horrors it boasts, what nightmares are born out there, on worlds humanity will never walk or see, in the dreams of alien children, afraid of things no child of Earth can imagine.
Nothing. Nothing compared to what I sweat and seep, what my lovers have seen in my arms.
Flickering torch light from my otherwise useless mobile phone (no signal since I first hit the lower slopes), panning white and glaring over the broken road; enough to partially blind any driver that hurtles around the bend ahead.
The night silent, stars likewise. Content to watch, to smile as I shiver, wanting to piss, to weep; to hurl myself into the dark, lacking the will even for that.
“...give me something, anything. Show me why.”
None other; no record or account the internet or history can provide of my disease. There must be others, there must be...
Stopping, stumbling; gasps that have nothing to do with the cold. Motion, catching my eye in the higher peaks, a sudden glare; a second moon, colder, paler than the first, emerging from behind their shattered heights.
My first thought...some sort of aircraft; a drone, a helicopter, quickly abandoned; the light somehow...wrong, its glare upon me cold and nauseating, leaving me stumbling away from the abyss, flailing out at the dark for some support.
A second moon, slowly sailing across the sky, whole where the other is a sickle smile; the cruel grin of some bitch-goddess, wallowing in my hurt.
All thoughts of Juliana, of the others before her...not evaporating in the face of it. If anything, perversely emphasised, recollection more vivid, more potent; moments in which I'm cast back, memory supplanting waking now: moments of weeping, of screaming, of snarled recriminations. Pleas and begging from my younger self, not understanding why they stand before him naked, unable to meet his eyes, tears streaming down their faces, such hideous, bitter words on lips he'd kissed only the evening before.
“...please, what is it? What's happening?”
“Shut up. Shut up, shut up! Don't come near me!”
Fleeing, leaving him dumb-founded, cold and nauseated, a boy without the least understanding of himself.
Until later, until those that lingered long enough to provide some clue:
“...vile. I saw...last night...you. It feels...Christ, I want to throw up...”
“Please. Tell me why...”
Something more than contempt in her eyes; dawning comprehension.
“You...don't know, do you? Fuck...I...”
Wretching, a hand to her mouth.
“...I...what you dreamed, last night: I dreamed it, too. I...”
Almost laughing, believing it to be some esoteric joke.
“That's...insane. How can..?”
“I don't know. I don't know! But...oh God! I can...I can still feel it, still see it...”
Fleeing, then, like the rest.
All of them; from anonymous fumbles to those I prayed might be more, relived, the shame and hurt and betrayal. The surrender that follows.
Juliana. The last. The only. So much more; the first night, when I fought to stay awake beside her, the notion of waking to find her gone, to find her weeping and repulsed, too vile to bear.
That first morning, the most hideous stirring, resisting it, as a child might the dawn of an exam or a dentist's appointment. Knowing. Either gone or awaiting me, to spit her contempt in my face, as so many had before.
Her hand on my chest, her head against my shoulder. Half-sleeping still, murmuring, but smiling. Smiling.
The first dawn, a new waking. Delight almost enough to make my heart combust, to prick my eyes with tears.
The weeks and months following, in awe of her, of every moment. Cycled through again in that light, experienced in a matter of heartbeats.
Then the end. No confrontation; no sign or warning. Just...absence, and her note, left on the kitchen counter, stained with coffee.
I can't let what's inside you pollute what's inside me.
Staggering, almost going to my knees in the road, shivering and sickened.
Raising my head, staring into the light, silently pleading for it to leave me be, to let the dark and cold have me again.
Laughter without sound, resonating through my bones, my nerves: a hideous sense of dirt, of shame: of being naked and stinking, stained and diseased. A parent's contempt, a deity's displeasure.
Something vast, impossibly enormous, silhouetted against the sky, blotting out space and stars as it heaves from behind the peaks, the new moon blazing in its swollen head, its only feature, the rest darkness so deep and cold, it eclipses everything, everything, threatening even the memory of light.
Not crying out, all breath leaving me, the blue fire in my lungs withering to ashes. On my knees, weeping, a sewer stench rising as bowels and bladder betray me.
Vaguely man-shaped, its limbs slender, many-jointed; those of a great spider, multiple arms reaching out to grasp nearby cliffsides, to anchor the entity, so it might haul itself up from repose.
Seeing me, knowing me, its attention an autopsy, invisible scalpels slicing me open, peeling me back, the most delicate, curious fingers plucking me apart fibre by fibre, thought by thought, setting all separate, to twist and examine, to assess and discard.
Burning, a frost fire raging through my every cell, withering every nerve, as it rifles through me, seeking out every sublimated memory, every denied or secret shame: childhood cruelties, lies and betrayals. Stumbling, fumbling idiocies, forcing me to relive them, again and again.
But most consistently, the lovers; the ones I might have made some semblance of a life with, who likely still wake cursing me, hating me more than adulterers and abusers, than liars and rapists, for my unwitting infection.
The entity seeming fascinated, the moon in its featureless face flaring, whenever one of those recollections stir, swelling to eclipse its entire head, to blot out the surrounding darkness, to consume me, leaving me suspended in blinding white agony.
Seeing it reach, gasping in silent terror, its immense, many-fingered hand stuttering as it draws close, as though little more than a projected image, the machienry responsible archaic, running down. Its shadow as hideous as the light of its eye, falling over me, swallowing me, sweeping away road and mountain, abyss and cliffside, leaving only...emptiness, the dark before or after stars, thought, dreams: a space in which I am all and everything; where I have nothing but what I've lived and accrued and regreted...
Grasped, its fingers closing around me, wrenching me up, up, from the roadside, up into the heavens, drawing me out over the abyss, the swarms of its young or parasites that squirm and seethe there, closer and closer to that burning eye, to the moon as bright as a new sun.
But cold. So cold.
Its touch... a wave of sensation that I have no word for: nausea, agony, ecstasy...all at once; licked clean by adoring tongues, rasped skinless by hateful claws. Made to see, made to walk the places I shared with my lovers as I slept alongside them:
...a stinking desert, a steaming waste: undulating dunes of black, seeping meat, barely-human things writhing amongst them like maggots, coupling and devouring one another, splitting open as they give birth to clutches of screaming, starving young...
...towers, spires; cities and cathedrals of intertwined, fused and shuddering bodies; meat that screams endlessly, endlessly; the shrieks of agonised babes, calling out into wastes where no one and nothing hears...
...a state comprised of fractured mirror shards, of black and shattered crystals, jagged fragments rising and interlocked to form a structure to shame any city on Earth; vaster, more ancient, the scarlet light that pulses from within staining the sky, the vapour that rises from between the shards engulfing it, forming storms that broil out across the surrounding wastes, whose red rains fall on the heads and up-turned faces of the thousands that make pilgrimage to it...
The filth that swills in my mind, realised here as not something born of it; not the sewage of my sub-conscious, as they all believed, but infecting me likewise.
That realisation...that I am not sick, but wounded; broken open at the soul, this shit fed through the rents and ruptures to poison me, enough to bring relief: laughter breaking from my bleeding, filth-choked throat, from black, suppurating lips.
The moon seeming to smile, before blazing to eclipse all, burning away even the hand that grasps me, leaving nothing but molecules of knowing dust, happy to go to oblivion, in the certainty that they will never be whole again.
Waking, walking. For how long, I can't say. Enough to wear my shoes to nothing, enough to make my soles bleed.
The smile never leaving my face, as red light seeps across the mountains, dispelling shadow, staining the sky, bathing me, leaving me bloodied and newborn, dreamless, save for her face, her name, and the certainty that I'll know both again, before our child screams its anguish at being born.
Lurching in my seat, a sense of vertigo; a hole opened in the world, pitching me down into its depths...
Grasping the keyboard, nonsense smearing itself across the page. Shivering, so cold...
A sensation of frost at my fingertips, sealing them to the keys. Laughing, slumping back in my chair. Not the first time I've allowed my work to run away with me; so deep, so immersed in it; sometimes dreaming more real than waking.
Several pages of work, though I don't recall half of them. Glancing at my phone. No missed calls; still twenty minutes before I have to meet Trevor. Good.
Aching to be back there; to know where my child is going and why; who it will meet, what it will find in the desolation.
Soon, sweetheart; I swear.
A cursory rummage through cupboards and freezer; enough raw material to prepare a Rogan Josh: a pair of lamb shanks, a tuperware box of my own spice mix, tomatoes, onions, coconut milk. Setting it singing; to slowly render down through the day (the prospect of him coming home, luxuriating in the scent of spices, roasting lamb juices, the pleasure that will come...enough to rouse a smile, and far more).
Like my imagined Winter, like the child that wanders there; something I lose myself in; the processes of peeling and chopping, of cooking out the spices, of setting the lamb to slow-roast...allowing me to drift; not to return, not yet, for fear I can't find my way back through the snow.
Other places; other whens and wheres...
Trevor, waiting at his flat, no doubt watching the clock every other second, counting down to when I buzz at his door.
Trevor, with his desperate, unspoken hopes; his obsessions and adorations.
Sweating, breathing hard; in need of air by the time I step back from the stove. Scribbled notes in case Alistair comes home early or for some lunch:
Lamb slow-roasting. DO NOT turn off oven.
Winter still calling, its chill in my thoughts; Autumn at my lips, my fingers. Not a bright day; no real dawn broken: heavy and overcast, clouds beaten blue by some celestial violence. Spots of rain in the air.
Wandering, lost as my sexless, story-devouring child, despite knowing my destination.
A beautiful day; dank and chill, a slurry of red and gold leaves in the gutters, swirling down the streets.
Rows of old, three storey town-houses, set back from the street on hillocks of earth and grass, many boarded up, in states of advancing disrepair. Weather-beaten “For Sale” or “For Rent” signs rising from their overgrown gardens, some torn up from their moorings or hacked down, left to sprawl amongst the weeds. Desirable properties, once upon a time; when people could afford such things.
Alistair and I lucky beyond belief; learning of the house from a friend of a friend; an estate agent, the current owner: Sophia Cawsen, letting us rent the place for a song and the promise of a few renovations, Alistair already in talks with her to arrange buying the place.
Buying a home. Waiting for my husband to get home from work. Impossibilities; fairy tales that my self of three years ago would have rejected for their absurdity. The dreams of others; never mine, never worthy or wanting of them.
Park and forest land across the way; paths that wind between trees and through fields to distant farms, across or beneath motorways and train tracks...paths known and alien; always a new way to walk, always calling.
A longer way to Trevor's, but unable to resist it; fishing my phone from my pocket as I cross the road, thumbing a brief text:
Might be a few mins later than expected. See you soon!
Trevor's kisses far from endless.
Not the only one chasing ghosts; sharing the path with other wanderers, no joggers or dog-walkers here. Only those in search of something even they likely can't name or define; avoiding my eyes, silently begging me not to say hello, to disrupt their communions of one.
More distinct, more real than these shades; these hollow-eyed and hooded strangers, my own ghosts; those that play and run and tumble between the trees, away from the path; that whimper and cry at the sting of nettles, the bites of thorns, the sight of their own blood.
The older species moving more slowly, more stiffly; not so bright to imagination's eye; grey where their former selves are lightning blue and burning amber; smeared and flickering where they flare and flow. Almost faceless; echoes of what once was; the strange, strange boy who came here to be away from the eyes and noise of all around him; away from the demands of friends and family and all the other stinking, bleating animals that confused him so. To walk unabashed and dreaming; to wonder at his own strangeness, the absurdities that tumbled from his every waking and dreaming thought. Those fantasies...flocking to me, now; clearer and more distinct than any shade of their creators:
Forgotten; the great dragon, coiled between the trees, molten stone and silver seeping from beneath its scales, from its great maw, slicking its worm-like way, its length winding from tree to tree, around the entire heights of some, its eyes half-lidded, flickering, smoke issung from its nostrils as it dreams. I remember...seeing it so clearly; the same species of projection that I stopped talking about to Mom and Dad, my sister...to anyone, for fear of what they might do; where they might send me. So clear, then as now; not flimsy and ephemeral, like an imagined thing, but as real as the fallen boughs in my path, as the magpies in the trees; the squirrels darting to and fro in the rain. Light seeping from beneath its eyelids, running in fluid rivulets down its horned cheeks. Not something merely encountered; something desired, that my adolescent self conjured, aching for his awkward, twisted, itching and too-tight human skin to be the delusion, the projection; the unwanted dream, for the dragon to be real, to wake and realise itself at last...
Others; a hunched, loping shape; a shadow against shadows, ragged and trailing tatters of its own densely furred hide...eyes swollen harvest moons in its lupine face, far too many, blazing in the surrounding air, orbiting its head as Lunar does the Earth. Many limbs, twitching and chittering like a spider's, its attention on me, as I trudge through the sludge and undergrowth, away from the path, inviting its suicidal hunger...
A lambent figure, striding upon great, goatish legs, the armour clasped to portions of its body seeming somehow grown rather than forged; too elaborately worked, too curvaceous and organic, to be anything crafted by human hands. A mane of silver hair trailing from beneath its beaked mask, multiple antlers breaking from its scalp, strung with dew-beaded spider webs, their weavers scurrying and dancing to the same rhythm as the entity itself, in its slender, jewelled hands, a wand or sceptre, every motion trailing light, its laughter echoed by others in the woods; others that come to dance, drawn by its joy...
So beautiful; all me and mine.
Smiling, almost laughing as I walk, hands in the pockets of my jacket, barely seeing the world, feeling the rain...
Snow. Still, silent cold. Sky blind and swollen, threatening another gale that might at last bury the world.
This park. These trees. These footworn pathways through the weeds and bracken. No wanderers here; no shades of reluctant humanity. Only statues of them; carcasses frozen in place, hands reaching up from beneath the snow like strange flowers, clutching at the sky, at the angels that were never there and will never come.
Barely feeling the cold, despite its lack of clothing. Whispers on the wind, rolling over the white, carrying suggestions of storms, stories of the dead but far from departed...
The walk supposed to clear my head; give me some respite. Barely feeling the rain, the grass softening to sludge beneath my feet, hearing the dogs that bark as I pass. The world a faded water colour, dim and distant; the shades that inhabit it impressionistic to the point of being indiscernible. Barely even recalling my way; destination as hazy as the rest. Grateful to be out, regardless; away from storms and whispers, away from...
Never. Of course, never. No way I can exorcise or divorce myself from it, any more than my blissfully ignorant child can the winter it was born to, that maybe it dreamed into being, maybe it precipitated; that maybe is its other, unwitting parent.
Knowing, in the strangest way; feeling me; a moth fluttering at its ear, a mote of pyre-ash orbiting its skull. Tossed on the currents of its confusion; the delirious curiosity at its own nature, the empty, ended world it has woken to.
Beyond the fields, now; stumbling as my sludge-slick feet make contact with concrete. The rain vicious, hammering against my head, streaming down my face.
Even those sensations vague, as though dreamed or remembered, rather than experienced here and now. Echoes of echoes of experience; some lingering thread of frayed childhood dreams, a rainy day lost in my sixth year of being, somehow embedded, resurging now, memory and fantasy and waking reality colliding: rain on my face, frost and snow in my mouth, cold fire behind my eyes.
Beyond the park, into the streets and neighbourhoods where the ghosts of my childhood still play. Hearing him, as I walk, the old streets and lanes and back alleys not much changed, since those times; new fencing, new coats of paint, gardens and houses more sealed away, now, more forbidden and fortress-like, the streets themselves quieter, less welcoming. My own ghosts agitating other memories, their games here, their flights and panics and strange fantasies giving way to returns home, to darkening evenings, to that evil, black pressure in the dead boy's mind...his Father's face, not flushed, but pale and still with fury, his Mother's...slack on the skull, eyes watery. Those of a terrified doe.
The child laughing as it finds them, protruding from the snow it kicks up, as though laid down out here together, in surrender to the inevitable winter. No longer furious, no longer vapid, but frozen in despair, tears shimmering like jewels on their cheeks.
Better. Away from proscribed paths, beneath trees, through long grasses, the air here...less tainted by civilisation, exhaust and frying fat and filthy concrete giving way to damp growth, old wood, rotting leaves...the funk of something dead and left to moulder amongst weeds and briars.
Others like the dead boy's Mother and Father; parents themselves, curled around the bodies of their babes, clutching them tight, as they never did until their hearts began to slow, until my winter claimed them. Siblings, cousins, lovers; perfect strangers clinging together in terror and despair. Frozen here, silent and unseen testaments to a world that was, that will never be again, for the lack of their love. Glittering pearls and jewels in place of their eyes, crystal tears on their cheeks. Whatever value they might have boasted beyond the aesthetic long since dissolved, gone the same way as the world they once believed so absolute, that they assumed unending; that nothing could undo.
The blonde-haired girl, on her knees in the snow, eyes upturned to the swollen Heavens, faint traces of a smile caught at the corners of her lips, star-dust sparkling in her hair, almost the same hue as the snow.
A wiry man whose torso is bared to the elements, mahogany skin rippling with acrobat's muscle, his crossed legs and bowed head lending him a priestly quality, as though he welcomed the winter that froze the blood in his veins, the thoughts in his shaved-bald head.
Pausing, catching my breath, laughing at my own absurdity; the sickness my imagination vomits up. Where the fuck does it come from? As though there's been a rupture in my mind since birth (maybe even before); an opening into other states and places, where the grey laws of this hold no sway. Where my stories seep from; not merely by-products of fevered mind, expressions of concern and neurosis I can't otherwise articulate, but living and alien things, parasites using me as their gateway into the world.
Ridiculous. I know, and yet, part of me refuses to entirely deny the notion...certainly how it sometimes feels, especially with pieces that obsess me like this one, that refuse to let me go, even beyond the bounds of the study where they're born.
Thirty five. Longer than he'd expected or hoped to live, at one time, not something he harped on or bemoaned. How many died before they even drew breath? Before they even fully coalesced in the womb?; How many more in the hours or days after sunlight, after cold, after pain?; More than any history could record, he was certain of that. Thirty five years... a miracle; five more than Christ. He wasn't certain he could have born any more; another year, another round of the same uncertainties and disappointments. Perhaps if he'd stayed out there, in the world, things would be different. Perhaps if...
A knock at the door, cushioned by the shower's patter, so like the rain, like the children, as though they'd finally eroded away the glass with their endless, endless tapping, now seeking entry to his skin and skull.
“Amber? Can I come in..?”
Aldwin, more familiar than Vanessa from the start; nowhere near as attentive, as technically competent; too much in his own head. Amber had always enjoyed his company the more; letting slide the little lapses; the tasks left undone, the checks left unmade. His company and conversation were enough.
The man peeked his head around the door, eyes travelling over the small bathroom as though not knowing where to settle. Not for the first time, Amber wondered how the Hell he'd fallen into nursing.
“Hey, man... you got a...visitor out here.”
Amber raised his head, the water sluicing over him, over-long hair clinging to his face.
Aldwin had already retreated, the door clicking shut behind him. Amber's shoulders sagged. A visitor? Since when had they been allowing them outside of designated hours? Since when had they been allowing them without his say? Someone come to build bridges he'd taken pains to burn, no doubt. Who was it? Lydia? Trothero? So much left undone; projects and interests and deals...all left to flail, bleed out, whatever money might have come from them not a concern; the relationships that soured nowhere near as lamented as he might have thought.
Whoever the Hell it was, they could wait; he refused to go to them stinking.
Breathless by the time he'd finished, skin raw, scalp feeling half flayed by the fury with which he'd massaged it. Where the fuck were Vanessa and Aldwin? He couldn't call for them; lacked the breath, the spittle, the pins in his chest having become sea-urchin spines, the venom they pulsed far from anaesthetic.
The button. He'd never had cause to press it before; never slipped or lost his balance. He wasn't a fucking old man; could at least do this himself.
Rising from his seat, he fumbled along the wall until he came to the railing. Leaning his weight against it, he stepped out of the shower, onto the mat that had been supplied. Towels, talc, a comb for his hair. He made some effort to make himself look halfway presentable, though the horror story in the mirror could scarcely be made so without extensive special effects.
Dressed in one of the silken bathrobes he'd brought from home (much to the hospital's chagrin), he made his way to the door, steam issuing out as he opened it.
A figure at the window, a slender hand pressed to it, as though to comfort the ghosts in the rain. Almost enough to stop his breath, to tear his heart in two at last. He hadn't forgotten...not entirely. Those memories, that time...he'd buried them, waiting for her, not wanting to see, to know...not when he couldn't touch and taste what she'd shown him.
Almost a whisper, not turning to look at him, her voice deep and resonant with an accent he couldn't place; different from the last time, not French, but faintly Arabic, like the skin she wore.
No words; those that rose in his throat strangling themselves in their banality, their absurdity. Only one; the only question that mattered:
She sighed, her fingers slipping down the window, trailing runnels through condensation. He staggered to the bed, unable to hold himself upright any longer. Sinking down onto it, he lay back, raising it so that he might sit up and see.
“I'm sorry...I heard you; I had to come.”
Beautiful, as ever; the face he glimpsed beneath hair that streamed like spun tar down her back and shoulders severe, not desirable by fashion model or movie star standards; too sculpted, too statuesque, but to him?; The only woman he'd ever desired, the only woman...
She turned away from the window, rubbing moisture between her fingers. Her hair shimmered, a scent filling his nostrils; spice and running water; frost on Autumn leaves...deep, deep wood.
Le Gevaudan...God, sweet Christ...he remembered her there; the first time he saw her; something...something that ruptured the world, that dissolved all presumption of it he'd ever held...
Green eyes, olive painted skin, elaborate rings and jewellery decorating her wrists and fingers. She wore a dress the same colour as the leaves she danced through in his mind; deep browns, muted ochres; ambers and yellows. She'd loved the Autumn; rain, frost; the promise of winter...
A smile, playing at the corners of her lips, no part of her still, as though she were constantly fighting the urge to break, to hurl herself through the glass, join the ghosts that danced beyond.
Faint fire in her eyes, dark brows rising. “I know. I'm sorry; I never meant...”
He shook his head, closing his eyes.
“It doesn't matter...I don't have time for it, now.”
She drew closer, seating herself in the armchair beside the bed, her skirts whispering around her. He couldn't help himself from picturing the body beneath; how different it must be from the one he'd known; dark where that was pale, fulsome where the other was...
The painting smeared, becoming tatters and scribbles in his mind. A wasted effort, clearly; nothing about her still or certain; not even memories of her.
The smile blossomed, the fire in her eyes flaring. He'd seen that before; something familiar, when she'd first caught his eye, when he refused to run, when he didn't look away.
“It's...been a long time since anyone called me that.”
Names; as temporary and ephemeral as faces for her; things she wore and sloughed off whenever the potential or novelty softened. Despite her insistences, he'd always called her by the first he'd known her by; the first she'd sung to him, though not through words or breath.
The scent...deeper, now she was closer; not some applied perfume or bottled essence; her own, that she breathed and sweated; the sacred perfume of her body, her soul. Deep wood; Autumn rain, mist and chill...wandering, lost. Something in the mists; dark eyed, not black, like a wolf, but white, so pale as to be almost nothing...
“Who...are you, now?”
The smile died, her eyes closing. She looked to the closed door.
“Arienne will do; I always liked her.”
Miracles. Art. That's how he'd come across her; in the midst of them; sweating, breathing; shatting and swathed in them. The memory of it...simultaneously intense and distant; something he recalled more acutely than his Mother's face, then his eighteenth birthday; than the aftermath of his first fuck, cigarette, glass of wine. Insubstantial as a dream:
The wood, Le Gevaudan. He'd wandered there, much against the warnings of the locals -the residents of nearby villages, the monastery where he'd been given bed and board; from which he'd taken all that he could carry, and a little more besides-, losing himself.
There. Singing, though not to him; a song that seemed so familiar, but that he'd never heard before. Something that snared in him, tangling in his entrails, drawing him deep, deep...
Stumbling over rocks, through the trees, he found her. No attempt to hide or conceal himself. Why would he? Why would he not wish to be seen as he saw, though every, animal instinct; every conditioning of culture, of law, insisted that he should? No. He stumbled to her, through the freezing shallows of the small stream on whose banks she stood, reaching for her, murmuring snippets of her song...
Fingers at the window, more urgent, more desperate; the rain hammering down furiously, as it sometimes did for whole days; softening as he stirred, attention returning to the present.
He raised his hand. She hesitated, looking at it as though she might somehow contract the genetic abnormality unweaving the fibre of his heart. In truth, he was as reluctant, knowing what a touch from her could mean.
Warm, faintly trembling; nothing of the contact he'd once known. Why? Why did she hold herself back..?
“I can't stay. They...are close.”
Always, always; every day, every night he'd spent with her, moving; fleeing. Occasionally, they caught glimpses of those who followed; little more than men and women to his eye, but so much more to her. She'd made no effort to describe or explain them, insisting that it would be better for him if he didn't know. He'd not pressed her, content to be in her company; to be shown a little of what he'd witnessed on the riverbank, in the woods.
A sigh, a smile. “Forever. Until they or I stop. I won't; not ever.”
“Is that why..?”
She gripped his hand, silencing him.
“I couldn't...couldn't let you go, not without asking..?”
Time, shearing away; every moment she spent here, a risk, allowing them to draw closer. The question; hanging unspoken in the air between them.
He'd not even considered it; not in the most desperate moments following his prognosis, when he'd courted every quack and magician he could contact: That she might return to him; that she might somehow smell or hear his distress and come with her miracles, her Art...impossible. She was gone; the absence she'd left still raw, sucking like a wound.
He smiled, almost laughing for the first time in many months. He'd begged her, even long after she'd gone, abandoning him; calling into the night, in his own dreams, begging her to come and make him like her.
She could; he knew it, but had always refused; in the aftermath of lovemaking, in the midst of argument or confession...always.
No. You don't understand what you're asking for...
Undoubtedly; he could barely accept, let alone comprehend, the fact of her; that something could have stepped from nightmares, from the fevered fantasies of his adolescence, into waking reality. Before her, he would have condemned the very notion; insisted that sanity would slip and shatter before it allowed him to accept it. Not so; he'd acclimatised with surprisingly little in the way of trauma; no sputtered denials, no fits or catatonia; only escalating awe, a sense as of blooming behind his eyes, new contexts flowering with every moment he spent in her company.
The world, which she called The Waking, so much stranger than it had ever allowed him to believe; beyond the remit of any myth or conspiracy theory; any potential he'd read of in metaphysical or science fiction.
She'd done that to him; torn open his eyes, his mind; the briefest of glimpses, the most momentary taste, before abandoning him to old delusions, leaving him to wonder whether it had ever been experienced, or if he'd simply slipped into momentary delirium; a state so acute, so richly detailed, it couldn't be discerned from reality.
Perhaps the same occurred now, with body and mind on the precipice, waiting for one or both to fail.
He understood no better; nothing of her mystery, nor of the world that allowed her to be. The very thought of walking there, with her, again...beautiful, but terrifying. Another year, another decade...no. To Hell with it; he didn't want it anymore; not ghosts or rain or wandering or mystery. Not Art or love.
She knew, her hand leaving his, drawing away. He resisted the urge to call her back, his fingers closing on empty air, ragged nails biting into his palms.
A moment, a heartbeat longer; a look. He held it, suspending her as long as he could, not even daring to blink. Questions, so many that he ached to asked her; that he'd called or scribbled or painted, in the throes of drunkenness or fever; in chemical ecstasy. No more answers now as then.
He let them go, let her go, the absence she left behind more traumatic than the holes widening in hs heart.
Welcome lies, calling me home. Forgotten 'til now; this path, these shadows, this moonlight.
A figure bent over the fire, staring into it, extending a hand to run fingers through the flames. Remembering, after so long forgotten.
“Mother.” Straightening, sighing. My bastard brothers and sisters whispering in the shadows.
“Don't call me that. Not ever.” The fire in her hand, illuminating eyes in the night.
“What else should I call you?; It's what you are.” Never before, never so brave.
She laughs, glancing over her shoulder, the same fires in her eyes, hair rising and falling as though caught up in ocean tides.
A smile, shadows playing over her face, reducing it to a crone's sagging skin mask; leathery, densely lined, eyes little more than sunken pits.
Turning away, to the flower of blue and emerald flame in her clawed hand. Whispering to it; the same songs that once kindled me. Or similar.
Returning the bloom to the fire before it can swell, before what she has dreamed can be born. “I never should have been. You know that better than most.”
The first; her original mistake, her beloved abomination.
“No, you shouldn't.” Defiance; no longer a child. No longer afraid, though I know what she can do; that she'll turn me inside out with a thought, if the inclination takes her.
“You've grown. You've loved. I have...grandchildren, now?”
Three; Edmund, Samuel, Lucius. All brilliant, all dreamers.
“Do they...walk here?” Unable to keep the tremor from my voice, the thought of it almost too terrible to bear.
A smile, my siblings stirring in their nests of shadow. “Sometimes. I can't stop them, you know that.”
No, she can't, and neither can I. “But you can watch. You can make sure they wake again.”
The thing she consigned to the fire writhing, swelling; a mewl emerging from the flames. Reaching into them, caressing its barely substantial form. Hisses and chitters of welcome from the dark.
“I can. Assuming that's what they want. You've always had a...conflated sense of what I can do here. The wood is not mine, child; it isn't anyone's.”
Old fury, old resentments; the same that drove me from here the first time, when I was barely a youth. A bitter wind stirring the leaves and grass beneath my feet. My brothers and sisters recoiling, hissing in sudden hostility. Eyes alight, teeth glinting.
“I won't let them come to harm, you understand me?”
The woman seeming to flicker like the flames; a reflection on water. Many faces, many facets: the crone, the fertility idol, the storm goddess.
All of them known; all Mother to me, in their own fashions. The thing in the fire reaching for her with boneless, gelid limbs, demanding her embrace.
“I thought you said you should never have been..?” Others approaching, shedding the shadows cloaking them, exposing themselves in the firelight. Reflections of what I might have been, given other Fathers: children of rain and frost and wind; of flame and fungus, of beasts and shadows. Children born of little more than her own idle dreams, nightmares that seeped out, polluting and transforming the wood, making it perilous for all that wander there.
Beasts, beauties; monsters and miracles. Creatures seemingly stitched together from the shadow they emerge from, others from wet sludge and mouldering leaves. A worm-thing, knotted and writhing on itself, a loping, black-pelted lycanthrope. Others less defined; elemental, ephemeral; aspects of the wood itself. A figure of smoke and embers, shifting form and sex as it stalks to the fireside. Another of rain and mist, causing the soil to fruit where it walks. Many-limbed, swollen bulks descending on silken threads from the boughs above, worm and beetle-like kin erupting from the soil.
The beat of wings, gusts of breeze through the boughs, greater specimens descending; coiled, silver-scaled, many-headed, spewing blue flame at the sight of me.
The unwanted, never born bastards of a reluctant Goddess; my brothers and sisters, the spawn and subjects of nightmares since humanity first began to dream.
Fathers as various as their forms; known, in some instances, lost in most: demons and angels; men and beasts. Elementals, born of the winds or rains; from sludge, blood and honey. Children of the ocean and deep woods, of the sky and darkness beneath the earth. Fungal and floral broods, the children of storms and mist and frost. Things born of engines; children of metal and plastic and clockwork; of strange, alien systems that fruit from their bodies like fungus, that infest them in the manner of parasites.
None quite so immaculately conceived as me, at least, if the myths she sang over my cot are true; none quite so close to her in nature or potential.
Surrounded by them, the woods wretched with them. Flocks and tribes and nurseries; dreaming nations that mostly know nothing of the waking worlds beyond.
Save what she allows them; what myths and fables she spins. Why I ran; why I became the prodigal child; her beloved self-abortion.
In love with waking, ever since her first tales of it; stories that she allowed no other, that she forbade me from telling, save in her presence: tales of concrete and disappointment, of time and love lost, of life lamented.
Aching to be there, always, even knowing how much she laments it; how earnestly she wishes for humanity to join her in dreams.
“No, I should never have been Mother. To you or any. But I am; what I was made, for better or worse. And you, my lost and lonely sweetheart, what are you, after all these years?”
Beyond years, beyond lifetimes; beyond all the idiot feuds and grudges; the fratricides she forced me to commit, that she hated me for. The hurts we unthikingly inflicted on one another: Idiot wars, lost and wasted and abandoned lives; my own loves taken in spite; drawn into the depths, lost to dreaming...children likewise.
And still I can't hate her; still I can't deny the ache that has drawn me here, beyond any purported concern for my wandering children.
Her child, still, after so long; the hurts and betrayals, the cruelties and abandonments. Still.
“I'm...” The answer choking in my throat, on the eager eyes in the surrounding darkness. What is she asking? What does she mean?
So many things; a husband, a Father; a cook, a gardener. A lover of ciders and horses, a walker, a wanderer; in love with silence, isolation...
“I'm nothing.” Laughter, hisses; growls of contempt. Wordless pleas to be let loose; to tear me apart for my blasphemous joke. She holds them back without a word, with barely a thought. Smiling with many mouths, her many eyes ablaze.
What swells in the fire no longer mewling and formless, its hand taking hers, a contradictory chorus greeting it as it she draws it into being.
Stumbling, trailing tatters of azure flame. Knowing before the fires die, before its form settles...what she has done, why she allowed me back into her presence.
“Vile bitch.” Smiling still, her masks and aspects in rare, rare accord. The newborn taking its first breath, raising its perfect face to the canopy, to its siblings clustered and calling there.
“You swore...you swore there'd never be another...” Our last meeting, an uneasy truce, drawn amongst the blood and moans of our almost murdered young.
“I did. Just as I swore to serve and adore my husbands forever. Just as I swore to be as my Maker demanded the moment It dreamed me. Haven't you learned anything out there, child?”
I thought I had. I thought perhaps that, after everything, we'd finally come to some semblance of understanding; that there might be peace...
Straining, their eyes burning cold, their hate and hunger and despair seething in the surrounding air, barely held back from flaying me on the spot.
Held back by her; no blood spilled on these grounds without her desire. Certainly not mine.
The newborn blinking, the fire in its hair, around its fingers, fading; the lambent lines tracing beneath its translucent skin likewise. Embers on its first breaths. Its eyes; pits of luminous fluid, tears streaming up over its brow to burst at its hairline. Such knowing in them, such passion.
“Not my choice, this time, boy; I would not have broken the peace between us. Not for all the world.” An idiot for believing, perhaps, but I do.
“Then what is this?” The new born smiling, closing its eyes, the soil and ash at its feet fruiting with strange weeds.
Barely able to look at it, shying away as if pained by its light. Never before; never so fragile or afraid.
Its light flickering over her, the fires of its birth burning low. Our siblings flocking to it, swarming around its ankles, descending from the boughs above to twine fingers and talons in its hair.
The newborn indulgent; gifting each and every one with its caresses, with coos and songs of welcome. Our Mother watching, not radiant with maternal pride, but withered, as though exhausted from the act of birth.
“This...this is everything you could never be, child; this is one that will never abandon or make war on us... one who will lead us from dreaming.”
My laughter breaking through the celebrations, disrupting song and hymn; the wood itself seeming to waver; an image painted on wind-swept curtains.
All eyes on me again, blazing at my blasphemy, cold light prickling my skin like frost. Its eyes the only source of warmth; its smile one of incestuous welcome.
“Is that what you think? That you're going to walk in the daylight? That this...thing will somehow show you the way?”
Two smiles; one indulgent, affectionate, the other cold, cruel. Newborn brother and ancient Mother; love and spite searing me with their contradiction. The others crawling close, breaking their communion with the newborn to silence me, to slit my blaspheming throat, to put out my lying eyes.
Held back, even now; wickering and whimpering at not being able to lay tooth or talon on me. “Why did you come, child? Why did you answer?”
Laughing, turning my eyes to the dark sky between the boughs. Stars flickering there; strange moons swelling. My sisters, or so she used to tell me; those that never took breath, dreaming or waking. Dreaming there, now; in the heavens beyond, lost in their own dances, their bizarre games. Knowing them as she never could; having heard their songs and stories; having walked in their strange gardens.
Not merely miscarried but aborted, by our Mother's own hand, for fear that they might, in time, swell to challenge or supplant her; new Mothers of the Dreaming, new Godesses in the Wild Wood.
Swollen; fat and heavy with their own broods. Never before; never having known Motherhood, until this moment.
Amber and pink and emerald, their contradictory lights shearing down, upon me, upon my brothers and sisters. Our Mother blanching beneath it, trembling as though strained by its weight.
The smile fading from my newborn brother's exquisite lips, light fading from its eyes. No more welcomes, no more invitations; from this moment, only murder; a myth that would weave itself throughout the expanse of humanity's dreaming.
“What...have you done?” The shadows swathing her blazed away beneath her daughter's moonlight, her aspect no longer shifting, but stilled in a state of bent and withered decrepitude.
Luxuriating in the same radiance, its touch not unambiguously kind, but invigorating as storm rain in desert heat. Old urges, old uncertainty, my dreaming state no longer contained, no longer an echo of waking...
Laughing, laughing as they scream; the howling of storms, the roars of cosmic maelstroms, calling my unborn nieces and nephews from their slumber, down into the state their Mothers were denied. Answering, as my skin splits and sloughs away, as my play of humanity goes to filth and dregs. Another condition; one she has never seen, that none of them know:
Swelling, swelling beyond the confines of the canopy, trees sighing as they bend and break, as they wither at my touch.
A state never occupied before; not in her presence, cultivated in conspiracy with the split and spilling bodies above; with the moons that howl agonsied laughter, even as their young rain down.
Vast, coiled and heaving; smoke and molten stone seeping from beneath my scales. Blood that blazes, a furnace in my mind and belly: An old monstrosity; one that once stalked my nightmares, that pursued me through the woods, before I found her, before I realised myself, and learned that the nightmare had my face, my voice.
No longer denying my siblings, the umbilici holding them back abruptly severed, allowing them to fall on me from every quarter: Talons raking, fangs piercing, stumps of blade-like bone attempting to spill me out amongst the leaves and wildflowers. Not one biting deep enough to draw blood, those that so much as score me eliciting arterial springs of burning matter; lashed away into the woods before they can inflict deeper hurts.
My sister's children falling amongst them, riding the light they bleed; monstrosities of another state and order, made alien to this dream by their exile:
Silver-skinned, translucent; things of mist and starlight, amorphous anatomies, shifting and swelling as they plummet; congeries of bubbling organs, their purpose ineffable, bursting to give birth to the next configuration. Flocks of the drifting boneless; bag-like bodies swollen with flickering star-fragments, tendrils leaving behind trails of colour that paint the night sky. Many-winged entities whose pyramidal bodies swell and contract, every rhythmic pulse issuing tinted smoke and swarms of shimmering parasites. Shoals of darting, luminous, piscine forms, swimming as though in ocean tides, their irridescence leaving after-images against the darkness.
Smiling up at them, into the depths of my aborted sister's anger and bitterness; a rain of newborns falling, the first already upon the Dreaming's soils.
A blow, the first to shudder me, cracking my great head aside, bringing burning blood to my lip. Lowering my gaze, so many siblings retreating, withering beneath its light, finding my Mother and her new child, the woman glaring up at me, stars reflected in the sunken sockets of her eyes, a staff trembling in her hand, held up in defiance where it previously helped her to stand.
As for my new sibling, it weeps on its knees, the blue fire of its birth pouring from its eyes, causing the sludge below to fruit with strange growth.
“If my children must walk here, Mother, then you and yours cannot.” My sisters singing, my nieces and nephews celebrating as they tumble and swarm throughout the Dreaming.
The newborn raising its face, features molten with grief, our siblings wailing all around, agonised by my attention; in conflict with their Heaven-sent cousins.
A wordless expression; an elegy that lances through screams and storms. Invisible swords puncturing my hide, burning with cold poison.
Many falling, squirming in the dirt and filth at the sound, raking at themselves in guilt, in horror, in disgust at what they are.
An agony beyond any that waking can contrive; the cold fire inside, burning my mind with unwanted memory, with stories of days that never were or could be: Stories of what we might have made, together; my siblings, Mother and I: my own children, told the stories of their ancestry and allowed to walk unfettered, to know themselves...
“Never. They'll never know. Even if I have to smother them in their beds...” No idle threat; an oath, to her, to myself. To this nightmare she birthed me to.
The bitch knowing, my bastard sibling the same; seeing through the scales and shadow in which I cloaked myself, into the cold furnace of my soul. Seeing my capability for infanticide; my history of it, in old, abandoned lives; in sloughed off states and skins.
Long forgotten children, wandering too deep, drawing too close to her and my kin. In danger of knowing themselves too intimately, of becoming bridges between dream and waking.
What she wants; what she's always wanted: not to love us, to know us, but to walk on our backs, for us to be her path from this Dreaming prison, into waking day.
That ambition dying around her, now; infested, twisted, transformed by her murdered daughter's young, what they'd make in its place an entirely other state; a new nightmare for humanity to walk and forget in the sun.
“I should have strangled you before you were born; burst your heart when I felt its first beat...” Slurred and spit-flecked regrets, more vicious than knives; a hail of black darts and needles pattering against me. Some finding the wounds already carved, burrowing inside; parasitic agony, entire acres of the Dreaming dashed to ash and splinters in my writhing.
My breath oblivion; a gout of black, smouldering flame, bursting from me, engulfing them both, obliterating the surrounding wood. My pain, my hate; my fear and contempt; everything she'd fostered in me, poison fomented throughout every life I'd lived and lost...hers, now, as it was always meant to be.
The eruption emptying me, withering the creature I wove, leaving it shrivelled and insubstantial, peeling away in the alien winds.
On my knees in the ash and sludge, gasping for breath. The black inferno raging; a mass of swirling shadow, of liquid darkness; of blood and fire and bile.
Around me, the Dreaming fraying, acres breaking apart, collapsing; drifting away, becoming ash. My sister's bastards swarming amongst the ruin and emptiness, already weaving their own Edens; the price for my Sister's aid.
Columns of light shearing down from above; amber, silver, emerald. My eyes drawn up, to the moons themselves, that break apart, imploding, dissolving, forms emerging from their destruction, descending in the light, carried by tides of their adlring young:
My Sisters. The murdered and lost, who've hated me as much as they hated her, in the past; with whom I've shared wars just as bitter.
Setting foot in the Dreaming for the first time since their exile, their expulsion from the womb; a trespass that undoes and transforms it; grass and wildflowers withering, soil erupting with new and alien species.
Ghosts; shades only of what they might have been; of the Powers that our Mother feared: nameless, never baptised in blood and rain, like the rest of us, accruing their own states and aspects through the dreams they touch and infest:
Emerald first: a slender, willowy form, her painted, tattooed skin bared, rippling with bestial muscle, as though there's wolf somewhere in her ancestry. Her eyes burning wild; pale fires alight in her skull, rising amongst the horns crowning her head.
Amber next; a thing of dusk and Autumn; a fulsome harvest Mother, wrapped around in elaborate skirts of purple and scarlet that shift around her like leaves in the breeze.
Finally, Silver; a knife in the dark, her angular frame swathed in robes woven from the emptiness between stars, her coldness a wound all but bled dry; a surgeon's scalpel, a corpse's kiss, howls and the flutter of raven's wings accompanying her.
My sisters, my enemies, my allies; our histories long, our wars almost too many and too bitter to recall. Nothing I can do, now, if they choose to betray me; too weak, too wounded.
Struggling to rise, the monster I was all but gone, now; whisps and tatters clinging to my bleeding limbs.
Their eyes not for me; attentions that might have been enough to murder me here, drive me from the Dreaming, were they to fall on me in concert.
No; every ounce of their fascination for the inferno I vomited, for the forms still flickering and writhing at its heart:
A scream of utter fury, of infanticidal rage, a hurricane wind bursting from within, carrying the black flames out across the surrounding desolation.
My Sisters wavering, shrouded by their veils of light and darkness, I and their children carried from our feet, cast towards the edge of what little Dreaming remains. Beyond?; Delirium, a miasma of light and shape and motion; the potential of all Dreaming, from which our Mother and we all are born.
Tearing my eyes away from it, resisting the siren summons to swim there; to not merely dream the dragon, but become it, and every monster, every nightmare; every state or form or possibility ever imagined.
My Sisters already in flight, screaming hollow war cries as they sweep and dance around what remains of our fire-born brother; a molten, almost fleshless thing, belching and bleeding its own blue flame:
Perfection desecrated, transforming before my eyes; limbs stretching, multiple maws bursting from the ruins of its face, skeletals wings erupting from its back. Our Mother's work, pouring her poisoned poetry into it, her dying dreams; making a monster of her perfect son, just as she made ghosts of her daughters, an exile of me. The beast lashing about itself with fire-wreathed talons, snapping at its murdered siblings with mirror-shard teeth.
One of our Sisters screaming; the fire kindling in her Autumnal skirts, flaring as she flails, frost-laden winds howling around her. Her children bearing her away, swathing her burning form, suffocating the flames with their own bodies.
The beast howling in frustration, its cries those of starving, abandoned children, of wild animals caught in snares and hunter's traps.
My emerald sister dancing around it, every motion leaving after-images drawn in sunlight on the air, a spear of bone twirling in her hands, jabbing out to pierce our brother in the throat, breast and back.
Howls of agony as her sunlight invades its wounds, burning, igniting its insides; as her children sweep in to aid her.
Braver than the rest, more vicious; flocks of burning birds, wolves woven from sunlight. Things that seem born from the dying Wild Woods themselves; dryad-like, willowy and ephemeral like their Mother or immense, hulking, battering the newborn with sweeps of branch-like limbs.
The thing still burning, still shifting; our Mother still singing her lullabies to it; every poisoned dream, every venomous nightmare she's ever hosted, made manifest in its flesh. No longer beautiful; a ragged, pulsing, seeping thing; spider or centipede like by turns, every state burning with the element of its birth. My remaining sisters wounding it over and over, suffering its reprisals in their turn.
Bitch. The rising growl of a dragon, the roar of a pyre growing fat on martyred flesh. Stalking to her through the ruin, through the ash and filth.
The woman glancing my way, scenting my intent; her focus on the newborn, on remaking it beneath my sister's violence, sustaining it long after it should have frayed to nothing.
A blow that snaps her head aside, that severs the umbilicus. A keening wail, the newborn collapsing where it stands, its rags and tatters twitching and lashing around it, my Sisters and their young descending on it.
A howl of grief, my Mother raking at her dessicated features, sloughing the flesh away beneath ragged nails. A spillage of tainted light from within; ichor like luminous pus.
No. Taking her, holding her fast with hands and thought, snaring her as she once snared me; around the throat, stopping her breath.
Hate. An explosion of contempt that bursts her hide; black blisters and tumors forming across her every inch, exploding to unleash spatters of tainted white, curls of hissing, snarling smoke. Nothing that can touch me; not any more. Insulated against her, over long years of separation. The poison having only one target; the same that inspired its expression.
Too late; her attempts to reign herself in, to hold the poison back: abortive intent, dreams of infanticide, flying from her, as the newborn raises its wounded, bestial face, as its remaining eye weeps and blazes.
A choir of sorrow, from child and Mother both; from the siblings that brought it to this state. Then it comes apart, the remaining flesh flayed from its bones by the murder intended for me, but that could find no purchase.
The death of perfection, of the one who might have shown her the way to waking. Mother sagging in my arms, all volition draining from her. A mire of filth and blue embers all that's left of her final dream.
“Mine will never walk here, and they will never know you.” The last abandonment, the creature in my arms shrivelling, becoming weightless, black and white dust pouring between my fingers, rags flittering away in the air.
The new dream barely born, already fading; collapsing where I stand, sunlight and birdsong invading my skull, sisters smiling, singing their thanks to me, promises of what the next night will bring.
A cold dawn, feet on the landing carpet. Muffled voices, clanking pipes. Rain at the window. The scent of blood and burning still in my nostrils, Mother's ashes still on my fingers.
Rising, pale light filtering through the window, the barks and bleats of waking humanity, so few remembering, so few realising the ancient dreams that almost made them slaves.
Fool. What they think; what I am. A road to nowhere. Warned, again and again: the woods too cold, too dark, so deep in winter. None left now to show me the way.
Warmth. A dream, forgotten in the dark, where the trees whisper, the shadows smile. Shivering, entranced by the fire...by faces I once knew, the lie of kindness.
Whispers on the wind, laughter beneath the earth. A hole in the path, eyes in the dark below. Flying, though eyes and laughter follow, though the dark will never let me go.
Flying, a phantom himself; something ragged, something bleeding. “Get out of here, fool.” The shadows follow.
They see. Light dying at my back, day a forgotten dream. The shadows I trail; the blood and pain; what the wild will love me for, when all else is gone.
Tomorrow...if tomorrow ever comes; if there ever was such a thing as dawn or light, maybe they'll find me. Or the night and the woods will go on forever, until I'm just another shade; bones in the boughs.
“No one would dare,” he said. Now I know why; the spirits of the Wild Wood following, mad invitation in their eyes.
“Soon you shall forget...” So the cold moon sings. How can I believe her, after what her children have become, the feasts they hold in her name..?
Rising...a frozen, breathless thing. Laughing with the shadows, no longer afraid. A new terror for the meek to tell tales of, to appal the children of day.
Feet sinking, sliding, soles burning. Ashes barely cooled, plastic splinters and bone shards, burrowing beneath her skin.
Every breath choked, tasting of holocaust, ashes in her mouth, ashes in her eyes, scouring her face and fingers.
Clutching at her, whispering to her; the ghosts that ride them, spectral faces smearing themselves across her sight, spectral hands raking at her arms and legs. Brusing, scratching, making her bleed.
Stumbling, stumbling to where it fell, the lip of the crater it carved, not knowing who or how or why; where it came from, other than beyond the sky it tore to shreds.
One of the few spared, the last whole, glimpsing them, now; staggering and streaming eyed, bloody-faced, like her. All children, some older; on the edge of adolescence, some younger, barely into double digits.
Ragged and wasted, bloodied and smeared.
Indistinct, here, at the edge of atrocity, called by the same song; the same barbed hymns in their thoughts.
So few, all wounded; many far more profoundly than her, the scratches and bruises she bears nothing compared to the gaping, red and black tears in the sides and bellies of some, the limp, twisted limbs of others.
None weeping for their hurts, long past that. None mourning the ghosts in the ashes; those that have been long dead to them.
Their tears not of pain or sorrow, but of incredulity; abandon beyond comprehension, at the death of a world that would have seen them mutilated, murdered over the period of a lifetime, of days that demanded their misery, as though it were a fee for the boon of being born, that none of them had ever asked for.
Here, now; over miles and miles, weak and shivering with old sickness, gnawed by old hunger, come to meet the singer, the wounder of sky and soil, the source of all fire.
Going to her knees as it rises, from the smoke, the flames, as its tendrils blot out what little sun seeps through the sceptic sky.
Bowels and bladder containing nothing to betray. Instead, a scream; a howl that the others take up, one by one, a choir of wolf-children, calling to their alien step-parent; the only one that might suckle them, lick their wounds clean, and tell them stories of why they remain.
Others. Others that hear; the strange, outside children; the shadow-chasers, the unsmiling. They don't love us; they can't. Too beyond them; too different. It's all right, for me. Not for everyone; my brothers and sisters. Some...their strangeness too much; they hurt for it; bruised and split open, screamed at and condemned. I hear those stories, too, often before they've begun to play out.
We don't come together; no strange little tribe, no outcast theatre. Alone; not like the rest; deaf and blind, scurrying, cockroach things, not realising, not even knowing their own stories...we don't need closeness, comfort; warmth and light. We sing so loud, the ones who hear, it hurts to be near one another.
I know; the first time I found her, it hurt so much, I sobbed and sobbed, Mom and Dad calling it tooth ache, growing pains...any lie, where there was nothing to know.
But her...the instant I saw her face, heard her voice: knives in my mind, opening the way for screaming ghosts; the spectres of her future, so vivid I didn't just hear, but experienced:
Choking to death on my own vomit at the age of twelve, left to wallow in a fever that my parents thought to be faked; a means of getting off school in the morning. The black lightning, the weightless agony; the broken glass inside my skin: flung in the air by a speeding white van, age fifteen, flying for what seemed hours, suspended in a place where I came apart, where I frayed and fell like blood rain on the up-turned faces below. Hands around my throat, hot tears on my face; seventeen, something between my legs, more painful, more vile, than what stopped my breath. A face, blurred to almost nothing; a molten Halloween mask, a voice that I knew, but distorted, as though bubbling through bath water.
Sweeter threads: the revelations of twenty and the decade that follow; falling in love, shedding myself, realising my passions, making art and infamy from them...somehow muted, less vivid and intense than their viler cousins, but agony still.
The first. The same; screaming likewise, agonised by me, my stories, which she teased out and devoured like strands of spaghetti from a densely tangled fork.
Put to bed, given a sleeping pill from Mom's drawer, told to be quiet; there were guests downstairs.
I still know her...perhaps better than anyone, as she knows me. Sometimes, we come together; we've learned, since then; how to shield ourselves, how to contain ourselves. It's...difficult; an effort of concentration, but we manage; whispering every word, every thought.
Others; at school, the ones chasing shadows in Summer, the ones shying away from noise and sunlight...the ones avoiding other children's eyes, other children's games. We can't bear them; the stories too dense, still too clotted to discern anything clear; just clamour, chaos. Unless we sit with them; unless we...
But no; not yet. I can't tell you that.
The end of innocence; a story I can tell; one we all know: fever and trembling obsession, the prayers to anonymous gods, carnal angels: Please, please let her be mine.
They answer, for the first time in my life, a story I've known since infancy coming to be:
I fall in love with her stories; not with who or what she is , but the possibility of what she might be. They sing, beautiful, even in their ugliness. I want them; to bathe in them, to wrap myself up in and be part of them, forever and ever:
...an operation to remove polyps from her throat at the age of twenty nine, the surgeon having an unexpected episode, slicing her open, severing nothing essential, but mutilating her beyond repair...
...the man she has called husband, the Father of her children, for over a decade, ignoring her in the dark; taking her denials as part of an old game, not played for many years, but one he is happy to resume...the tears that follow, the violence, enough to send him bleeding from the bed, a red trail to the bathroom where she finds him, slumped down, in an expanding pool...
...knocks and demands at the door; demands to know where her teenage son is. Knowing, even before they tell her; the truth a jagged, living stone in her entrails, slowly twisting, turning, reducing them to pulp: a brawl on the school field; her boy, the girl he hates and obsesses over. She knows; has read the scribbled diaries under his bed, the bleak, nihilist poetry; seen the drawings and sketches; enough to express, she hoped, enough to vent the poison inside...
...tomorrow, never waking; her corpse already cold before morning; a ruptured gas-pipe, slowly seeping, lulling her down into dreamless sleep...
...tomorrow, woken by the roar and lap of flames, orange and scarlet tongues licking up between the floorboards, already proliferating across her bed, the curtains, in her night-shirt. Screams, door and window blocked, smoke in her throat, stinging her eyes, the fire already blistering, charring her skin...
...tomorrow, barely woken by the kiss of silver, the shiver of cold as it trails kisses between her breasts. My breath, my whispers; professions of love that hitch and stutter, more fervent than any she will ever know. Down, down, to her pubis, meeting the wound that nature has already carved; whose ambition I help realise. Welling, ruby beads decorating her front, wet expressions of shock, of surprise, maybe even delight...
I tell her, in the aftermath of love, in the heat and sighing and sweat of it; through the music that rings in my ears, that un-spools behind my eyes: what I hear, what I see.
Knowing. Knowing that she's as blind and deaf as the rest; in love with the condition. Knowing how she'll respond before she so much as blinks, opens her mouth:
“...I don't like this. Stop it.”
“Just being honest. You said you wanted everything; here it is.”
Already up, already out of bed; still heaving, still seeping, her eyes wide, those of a prey-thing, shimmering and watery in the murk.
“...fucking mental-case. Stay the fuck away from me.”
I smile, laugh, unable to help it. History unsettled, the stories I told severed, made impossible by being known. A temporal fit, the darkness lurching, shuddering around us, though she doesn't see, can't possibly know. Lingering longer than instinct demands, part of her -buried, sublimated since before birth-, wanting this: to know, to see; to no longer be blind to her own possibility. Whispering, chattering; the walls, the shadows: stories re-arranging, editing themselves to cope with the paradox: the character that somehow becomes aware of its own plot, of the conclusions its author proscribes.
Breaking, head shaking, eyes half closed as she makes for the door.
In that moment, as she stumbles away from me, half dressed, still heaving, as the room tremors and distorts around us, I see. A moment, only; a temporary tearing: the wound that I open with my honesty:
What waits, what lingers, barely a fingernail's thickness away:
A place of screams. A place of certainties. A place of blood and breaking and great, great fires. A moment, the faces I glimpse so torn, so twisted, I can barely see what they are, screaming their stories; testimonies of pain and abuse that obliterate all else; the flailing, idiot variety of probability; the pointless potential to which we are born, in which we will die.
That place...I know stories of it; heard them in the screaming confessions of men and women on the street, on buses and trains; that I've shared tables with in cafes and restaurants. At school, university; at work.
Grotesque fairy tales; sadomasochistic fantasies, the accrued myths of BDSM dungeons and exotic sex cults...all true; waiting for us beyond the world; for the stories to play out, to fray apart. Waiting to write new parables, on our backs, our bellies; our flayed-off faces. Tales tattooed, tales scarred and burned and scored upon us. Tales painted in the flow of our veins, accrued in collage form from our wet bone, our divested organs.
I see it. I hear it. I smell it. The ones that linger there, forgotten to themselves, the only stories they know those they carve or that are carved from them. No imposition, other than what they invite; no proscribed narratives or destinies to fulfil. I shudder, still coming, wanting to be there, wanting to see and hear and know...
It closes before I reach it, sealing over, the room still, the cockroach chatter of Hell's gospels seething in the darkness, drowning out my despair.
Nowhere. Out in the dirt, the delusion: all it really is; the plaster over the wound, the holding pattern. Inevitable unravelling... what waits for all of us, at the end: even those that make a temporary Heaven from their moments, that spin little joys for themselves...it never lasts; we all come to the same impasse, the same confusions: those with which we entered the world, no wiser, for all our suffering.
She's home, though she doesn't answer her mobile, doesn't come to the door.
I stop. She knows. Of course she knows.
So I wait. It'll be a while, yet. The mobile...still echoing, still ringing in my ears. Something about electronics, especially communication devices...they channel and emphasise the stories. As a boy, it was TV, radio. As a man, it's mobile phones, computers. I stay away from them, as much as I can.
Scratching, behind the door; a chain being drawn away, a lock disengaging. I hear; I feel them, scraping at my skull, the barriers in my mind. Stronger, more insistent than I remember. It's been a while.
She doesn't ask me in, stepping away from the door, leaving it open. I go inside, following her down the hallway. Pictures lining the walls; paintings and charcoal sketches: her way of getting it out, most of them abstract things, apparently scrawled in moments of fury or despair sufficient to tear the paper or canvas. All familiar, despite their impressionistic nature; images I know, having had them described to me, more than once.
A cat, curling around my ankles, its eyes pleading, meows plaintive, as though I can give it something that its lunatic mistress can't.
Jardis, twenty years old, heart stopping in her sleep. Unless she escapes through the half open doorway. Unless she chokes on a stray biscuit in two months time. Unless she's poisoned by the bleach her mistress scrubs the bathroom floor with. Unless, unless, unless.
A kettle boiling, cups being stirred. The scraping at my skull...no longer blunted fingers, but surgical hooks, attempting to wear their way through. Nothing they can tell me; nothing I haven't already heard, a hundred times.
She doesn't say hello as I seat myself, moving with utter confidence around her kitchen, following steps she knows to the slightest, as I do; a surety that alienates more than it attracts; the same that my parents identified when I was a child, and hers; that seems almost animal to others, repellent as a spider's skittering.
This close...it hurts. It hurts.
I almost want to laugh, it seems so absurd: we know, we hear; everything else and one another, the radio turned high in the kitchen window, scratchy, tinny rendition of '80s power ballads barely even disturbing the flow of stories through it. The kitchen threatens to flow, wavering around us, flickering between various states, decors...stories, both fulfilled and potential, seeped into its wood and plaster.
A child runs through, spectral, slipping and cracking his head against the corner of the breakfast bar. Blood in blonde hair, so vivid it almost glows, faint screams, weeping. A black, shaggy haired dog, greying around the mouth and nose, nuzzling the elbow of its mistress, who lies all but still on the tiles, one leg twitching, the stroke that claimed her almost five minutes old. Pasts and potentials; stories that might never have been, that always were and are, somewhere, somewhen.
A mug of steaming coffee, white, three sugars. Tea, black. Fruit juice. Nothing.
She shirks back before our fingers can make contact. That has happened before, once or twice; usually when we don't know, we don't recognise. Always traumatic; whatever strange devices our minds contain amplified by the presence of another, as though they weave out of our heads, forming invisible conduits in the air. The effect is...well, the last time, I was in hospital for a little under two weeks. From what I hear, it can be worse than that; several of our number in comas from the shock of it, others straight jackets.
She watches, as I sip; the stories swarming around us, swirling between us, her form shimmering like a mirage. And yet, we are still; at the eye of the storm, all possibility whispering around us, intent on confession.
A smile, a breathless laugh.
“You fucking idiot.”
You retard. You Moron. Imbecile. What the fuck do you think..? What the Hell are you doing..?
“I know. I'm sorry. I had to...”
She knows; the story already told, several thousand times, in a million different ways and forms.
“What can we do, Annie? How do we break it?”
She slumps against the kitchen counter, uncaring that her bathrobe parts, that my eyes stray.
“We can't. Why are you even asking? There isn't a story like that; none that I've ever heard.”
“There must be. There must be.”
She laughs, turning from me, distracting herself with the dishes.
“So what? What if there is? What will you do, if you find it?”
“If we find it. Don't you know?”
She stops, shoulders sagging, staring out of the window.
“You'll try to make it real. You sick fuck.”
Yes. And she will help me, because there is nothing else.
Nothing but this:
Drawn back more readily, this time, as I was before the world poisoned and smothered me; when the stories were everything, when I could listen and live and breathe them.
A new depth, a new way: sailing, carried over the great wastes beyond; the desolations of shattered not-quite-stone, the ruptured, seeping flesh, plains heaving and rippling like the backs of fevered, mating titan, red and black rain falling from grey and yellow storms.
Endless; the plains of nothing, where Abarise stands; the ruins of others, less enduring, still littering the deserts and valleys: places that once arose to lend humanity some meaning, forged from common stories; from collective hope, desire, inspiration.
All failed, decayed and collapsed in on themselves.
Only Abarise endures.
Whatever calls me, whatever seeded me in my Mother's womb, planted the devices in my mind and soul, it wants me to see; what humanity is without it, all it will come to: the witless, wandering things; lost, mad, scabrous tribes, gnawing on their own leprous limbs, on one another, weeping en masse in the rain, cowering from the winds, beating themselves senseless against the walls of cliffs or the fragments of ruins...no release; not in life, not in death; despair and deprivation, continuing, escalating, after the grave. A worse notion than any Hell; any promise of oblivion.
Abarise...rising in the distance, beyond the storms; sweating them, its great spires and minarets impossible in their elaboration; structures that could not exist in waking life: vaster, more various in design and substance than the greatest city on Earth, structure sprouting structure sprouting structure, clusters resembling immense, continent-scale fungi, conical or trumpet-like, spewing ashes, smoke...less identifiable vapour, naked, skinless things riding the thermals, shrieking as they scald, laughing as they emerge blistered, bleeding, but alive. Others broken; great eruptions and conglomerations of shards, metallic, rusted, gleaming; crystalline or stone-like, grinding against one another in strange, tidal or mating motions, lubricated by those carried and dropped into their masses, bodies ground and pulped into paste, the effluent they become sluicing down into the lower regions, there to be further refined, fed upon, shat out; synthesised and refashioned. A cloister whose spires flicker and distort as though nothing more than projections on the ether they vomit, though the howls from within seem real enough, another that quivers and whips as though sewn from the most delicate of silks or cloths, its inhabitants carried on the same tides, tumbling and hurtling, snared before they can fall into the reaches below.
Great bridges bind the various towers and cloisters together; a web-like network of pathways, many vast enough to admit armies or nations at a time, some intact, others long since collapsed, numerous smaller threads and branches breaking away from the main boughs, some leading nowhere, others inverting, in defiance of themselves, leading back to where they begin or other portions of the complex.
I know this... have been here, so many times; born here; where all stories end, all stories begin; in blood, in pain; where we learn our true poetry.
Yes. They call to me; the lucky ones, who have already passed and found their way; the ones like me, who have fulfilled their waking purpose, and now live secrets of another order. I grasp out, trying to reach them, though I have no hands with which to do so, call, shrieking for them to find me, though I have no mouth or throat.
Please, not again...don't let me wake again...
The oldest prayer, always denied.
The winds carry me, scented of burning, of great pyres and charnel pits alight upon the plains below. Barely beyond the outskirts; the ancient, outer walls and clustered settlements, many of which stand in ruin, abandoned, save for those that have wandered in from the outer wastes; the failed and forgotten, those hoping to be plucked up and carried within...closer than I am, maybe than I'll ever be, however wretched, however lost...
Nothing; the same winds that carried me this far sweeping me up and away, ash and smoke obscuring my momentary vision, roaring sufficiently to drown out the choirs, the screams, the summons and seductions, the only Fathers I'll ever love or pray to...
I know this story.
Waking, slick and cooling, trembling in the aftermath.
Hissing, yowling, the animal responsible keeping its distance, knowing better. One of us...always one of us. I wake; the one the stories swarm to, now that her skull is open, now that her eyes have been put out.
She begged me, begged me to dig it out of her; the machinery in her mind, the devices that Abarise implanted. I couldn't; the very concept beyond blasphemy. She came at me, then, knowing how it had to be. Always one; why I came, how the world will know.
What will you make of this, Doctor Weathers? Not that it matters; you'll be seeing much worse, doing much worse, before long.
The knife...still in my hand, trembling, my fingers biting into the wooden handle. Voices outside, knocks at the door. They'll come, soon, take me, or kill me. Either way, I've only just begun.
George Lea is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.