They don't ask, though the questions in their eyes burn bright as stars. I'm grateful for that, as I stagger to my feet, port livid in my veins, warming my blood. Grateful that they know better.
Others, the shadows of before, who I can barely remember now, weren't quite so considerate. Every year, the same demands, the same wonderings. I can't answer, never have. Part of the compact, the terms of my vocation.
Full to brimming with duck and stuffing, carrots and roast potatoes, I manage to struggle into my coat, the woollen scarf that her Mother knitted for me, out into the dying day.
So, so quiet, always. The cold air still, not a whisper of breeze. I already hear them; echoes from the hill, echoes from yesterday.
I follow their strain, through empty streets, past garishly lit houses, windows that glow with warmth. Scents fill the air; not the usual acridity of dirt and petrol, but roasting fat and basted meat, spiced vegetables and boiled puddings.
They won't see, not even if they come to the windows, if they stare at me passing. A shadow only, passing across their eyes before they forget, return to their frivolities. I don't linger long enough, weightless as I drift, a thing apart from the world, happy in the condition.
The church chills me with its stillness, its emptiness. No lights here, no candles or lanterns to call in the lost and the wandering. No one is welcome here. Pausing across the way, I consider turning back, denying what I've sworn, wondering what the penalties might be. I'm sure I knew, once upon a time, that I was told in explicit detail what would happen, should I fail to attend. Too long ago, now. Many, many faces, many, many names. Lives beyond the ability of any skull to contain.
It doesn't seem entirely real; a projection, paused and faintly flickering, as though time strains around it, aching to move on. I don't pretend to know what manner of mechanism or miracle is responsible; have never dared inquire.
Crossing the road, I start up the winding path, feeling the change in the air, the sense of impetus: one moment, the world recedes, blurring, the ground beneath my feet seeming to drop away, leaving me treading nothing, the abyss before stars aching above and below, all around.
Then, coherence, my feet making contact with stone once again, air rushing into my lungs, albeit of a different quality (sharper, colder, cleaner).
Snow. None in the day I trespassed from, but here, heaped all around, burying paths and scant gardens, quilting hills and fields.
Shivering, I make my way to the entrance, where a figure is already waiting, his breath describing blue and purple phantoms in the air.
Rubbing his hands in the chill, he smiles, the relief he radiates palpable.
“I was beginning to think...but no. No! Of course not. You wouldn't, would you?”
He profers no hand, offers no greeting. As in love with me as I am with him, this place. All he knows is what tradition tells him; that I come, when the time is right. That he aids me as best he can.
Not the man I recall from last time; younger by far, though no less harried. He stares at me from the open doorway, the suspicion in his eyes matched by the frown he wears.
“Believe me, were it up to me, I'd have nothing of you here. I don't pretend to understand this business, but it has nothing of the Bible about it, I swear on it!”
I smile, extracting a cigarette, its head flaring without any need for match or ember. The smoke tastes sweet, sifting blue between my teeth. What must he make of me, this child? This man who likely never believed the stories he was told?
“No, we're in agreement there, my friend. Nothing of the Bible at all. Not yours, anyhow.”
He pauses at that, a stoniness creeping into his features.
“I know I can't deny you. God help me, I wish I could, but I know.”
He aches to; I see it in his every inch, as though he's a reluctant marionette operated by abusive puppeteers. Turning, he eases the door open, its hinges grating. Shuffling inside, he twitches and jerks, some spasmodic tick overcoming him. Snuffing out the cigarette beneath my heel, I follow, snow beginning to fall again.
All the necessary propitiations; the church temporarily scoured of its Christian trappings. No mark or icon left to determine where its faith lies, what stories it holds sacred. Tonight, other powers hold sway, whose names neither of us know.
I check and check again; every inch, just in case the fool has decided to scratch some errant prayer or icon into stone or wood, to hide a crucifix beneath cloth or beneath the pews.
Nothing. Thank God.
The place is so cold; the stones radiant with it, an unnatural chill rising from beneath, sifting from without. The engines have already begun to turn, the clock about to strike.
He accompanies me, though my presence clearly offends him. Questions, questions, aching in his eyes, on his lips. I can't answer, any more than I can those of my own children.
“I know the way.”
He hesitates at the sealed door, his brow knotting.
“I...I was told...I have to accompany you.”
I shrug. “If that's what you really want. But believe me; it's not necessary.”
He sighs, unlocking the door, his hands moving over the wood like a blind man's reading braille, the unseen mechanisms he deactivates making no sound, no visible sign.
“What would I see, if I did?”
“Nothing that would please you, of that I'm sure.”
The man stares, the conflict in his eyes maddening.
Opening the door, he steps back, tendrils of raw cold rising, scented of dirt and rotting wood. Whispers assault me; echoes of the confessions that await. We both stare down into the dark, wondering what it conceals.
Shaking his head, he steps back, clutching at his ears.
“Sweet Christ. Sweet Christ.”
More sensitive than some of his predecessors, then; able to hear what sings and whispers below. Going to him, I take him by the wrists, drawing his hands down.
“It doesn't have to be terrible. I used to think it was, once upon a time. Before I made my peace with the angels.”
The man stares up at me wet eyed, in torment.
“Go. Go and forget, if that's what you want. I wouldn't want to threaten your soul more than I already have.”
The tremors of a grateful smile, soon swamped by horror and hatred for me. I let him go. He runs, scampering from the church with muttered prayers on his lips.
He was right, my superstitious friend; the dark he has opened for me is terrible. It sifts and coils around me as I descend, the torch I took from its sconse flaring, inspiring it to hideous dance. Not merely an absence of light, but a viscous and tangible phenomena, matter that seeps from the walls, that drips from the steps and ceiling, pooling above and below and all around.
Shapes swim in it, bubbling up from abyssal depths, barely achieving coherence before dissolving once more. Smeared faces, reaching hands. The most definite moaning impotent pleas, clutching at me, as though I can help them be whole again.
The darkness grows denser, more insistent, the deeper I trespass, the stone steps descending far, far beyond the foundations of the church, beyond the constraints of whatever synthetic condition it occupies.
At times, I'm certain I hear lighter footsteps on the steps behind, knowing better than to play Orpheus, that to turn and look would be tantamount to suicide or worse.
I continue, until my legs ache and the cold bites my fingers, until the warm and festive world I left behind seems little more than a cruel fantasy, the dream of an idiot child.
They grow more insistent, the phantoms in the dark, their voices whispering in my ears, amongst my thoughts, until I can barely discern one from the other. Visions come with what they tell; flashes of lives not my own, of sins I have never committed, but that I share vicarious guilt and shame for:
Adultery in a brother's bed, a child murdered in drunken stupor, left to bleed out at the roadside. A lie that turns a trusted friend into a pariah, a rumour that ends another's profession. They fill me, seeping through my veins like black blood, through the channels of my mind like the excrement of angels.
By the time I have reached the foot of the stairs, I am ragged; hunched and shivering, barely able to stand under my own strength.
I try to hold on, though it hurts to remember, to be awake and knowing. Swollen to capacity, bursting at the seams; a sack of sorrow, a wineskin of human filth.
The door does not open for me. In an instant of panic, I cry out, black tears coming as I struggle to remember, to understand the means of its opening.
The locks and seals give way, activated by the expression of grief itself.
They scream and whimper in my head as the door swings open, dragged by phantasmal fingers that char and freeze the old wood with their touch. Beyond, a place that hurts my eyes, that makes my head ache as though my skull has been ruptured.
A swirling miasma of pale, tinted light, a delirium that shifts and ripples in every direction, great eddies and maelstroms forming that threaten to pluck me up, to tear me from the stone and cast me adrift in lunacy. Staring into its depths, I almost collapse on the spot, vomitting all that I contain, all that I am, until there's nothing left but a torn and tattered shell.
All insanity is here. The visions of lunatics in their asylum cells, the dreams of demented children, the hallucinations of the feverish and inspired. I can't bear it, but I know that I must, if I want to return.
Lowering my eyes, narrowing my sight, I focus on the stone underfoot; black, broken, dusted with pale ash. Step by tortuous step, I stagger out into the storm, fighting the forces that threaten to pluck me up, to cast and toss me on the tides, to tear me apart and re-sew me in the most deviant and nightmarish of shapes.
It has happened before, to others who follow the same paths, who have signed similar contracts with Heaven doesn't even know what powers. I see them, now, out of the corners of my eyes; figures that, like me, shuffle from doorways and ruptures in the delirium, that approach the great well at the centre of this madness, kneeling at its edge to open themselves, to vomit and bleed and ejaculate the miseries they host into the depths.
Not all human; not all distinct. Things that lack any semblance of sane shape, that would have made me vomit or run screaming, barely hours ago. They come in their hundreds, slithering, seeping, fluttering, many lost, not remembering why they're here, collapsing upon the ashen stone, turning and fleeing back the way they came. The rest, those that hold to some purpose, find themselves at the edge of the abyss, opening, flowering, to deliver what they carry into the depths.
I remember, though it hurts to; every time I have made this journey in the years, the decades before, every time it has almost torn me inside out, undone me, left me mindless and wandering, until I heal, stitch myself back together.
The memories shudder me to my core, almost convincing me to turn, to deny it, at the last step. Why? Why must we do this? What vile engine do we feed and lubricate with our collective miseries?
I don't know, don't pretend to; only that, without this, without us, it fails, and creation itself ceases to turn.
Swollen, slit and altered by the confessions I carry, I stagger along the allotted path, ignoring those that dance and gibber around me, that crawl seeping and spurting upon the stone. Eventually, they'll deliver themselves into the well, become more grist to whatever infernal mill churns in the dark.
With every step, they threaten to overwhelm. With every heartbeat, they attempt to rake me open from the inside, spilling to the ether.
Not merely the confessions accrued during my descent, but those unwittingly devoured in the days before, during my waking and dreaming life. The dreads and despairs of an entire world, of a self-mutilating, near-suicidal species.
I carry them, experience them, assimilate them. At the very edge, I collapse, unable to hold myself upright, to bear the grinding of my swollen skull, the sickness, the taste of blood and bile.
Worst of all, the shame and fury; the sublimated guilt that clots in my mind, that swells in my soul as metaphysical cancer.
For a moment, I forget, finally lose myself, become like those others that remember nothing, that have no sense of themselves. Wondrous, in its relief, the abandon that floods in to scour me clean. An ocean of burning blood and boils away every nightmare, every memory.
Then, I blossom; a sense of flowering that feels like auto-dissection, anatomy that cannot be seen with the naked eye splitting and peeling back, convulsing as it empties itself.
Black and shrieking filth, matter that screams and claws at itself, infested with human-faced parasites, pours from me, burning and raking as it passes, threatening to tear me inside out with its hooks and talons, its teeth and barbs.
I experience each and every memory, every cruel fantasy, every dream of vengeance and sadism, realised and merely imagined. Mine, in that instant, then torn from me, leaving behind only lingering residue, that might become the seeds of nightmares in days to come.
I am the abusive husband and Father, the betraying wife, the uncaring child. I pull the wings off butterflies, the legs from spiders, I sprinkle dirt and salt into my best friend's orange juice. I push my sister down the stairs, I kick the family dog until it yelps and whimpers. I cut and I bruise and I betray. I lie and I defraud and I rob. I pass by, jusifying my indifference to cruelty in every way imaginable. I taste blood and raw meat, splintered bone and burst eyes. The whimpering of wounded children makes me cry in delight, the groans of tortured men sets lightning blazing in my belly.
All of it. Every evil, small and significant, every instant of shame, every sublimated story...lived and relived, until I don't care if the expulsion takes blood and marrow along with it, until I hope I pitch forward into the unseen wheels grinding below, become more unfeeling, unthinking pulp to slicken their cycles.
By the time it is done, the last strands dripping from me, I don't know the name I wore when I came here, the names and faces of the children that I left behind. All I know is the echoes of old pain, the residue of illness, sifting like ashes and bile in my belly.
Weeping, unravelling, I stand, resisting the urge to stare down into the abyss, to witness the turning of barbed and spiked wheels vast enough to pulp stars and worlds between their teeth, to see the hideous motions of those swarming things that infest and maintain them.
Tearing my eyes away, I stagger back, towards the open door, towards a darkness that is now silent and empty, blessedly cleansed of what haunted it.
The ascent is long. As long as I need it to be; to begin to forget, to reknit, to heal. It may be hours, it may be days. Time means nothing. Distance means nothing. Pain means nothing.
He's waiting when I finally reach the church above, overcome his cowardice, seated in the foremost pew, his eyes wide and wet, the prayers on his lips quiet but fervent.
He rises the instant I emerge, leaping up with a yelp, hurrying to the door, slamming it shut almost before I'm fully through. The mechanisms that seal it require no input from either of us; reforming, engaging themselves of their own volition.
Stepping back, he looks me up and down, incredulous at my condition.
“It's done, then?”
I let out a shuddering breath, a whisp of blackness emerging like smoke, vaguely whimpering in the air.
For all his contempt, he knows his duty well, coming to me, taking my hand, guiding me away from the door and towards another; one that he's only too glad to show me through.
Pausing at the threshold, I stare out into the snow, the purity of its whiteness blanketing surrounding roads and hills, reducing everything to a fresh page, an untouched canvas.
“He never told me there'd be another.”
I turn away, looking the young man in his affrighted eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“The boy. The one who came after. I...didn't understand. I was never told.”
Something black writhing in the pit of my stomach, revelation that pulses like the onset of a migraine. But I can't even attempt to grapple with it; not here, not now. I have enough, barely enough strength left to make the way home. Then? Rest. Dreamless sleep. Oblivion, if only for an hour.
“It doesn't matter; not for you.”
“I won't see you again, will I?”
Barely able to conceal the fervent hope in his voice.
“I doubt it. But who knows? Stranger things have happened.”
Fishing in my tattered coat in hope of finding a cigarette, I start down the snow-buried path, away from nightmares, towards the waking state where they're born.
She's waiting in the front door when I arrive home, her expression all apology. I know before she even begins to speak, before the pleas and the sorrow come:
“He didn't mean to. You know he didn't. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry; he was gone before I could...”
Harry. Always the most curious, the one who burned to ask but never could. I already know the story, its terrible impetus cascading in on me as she babbles, as she collapses in tears against me:
Sneaking out while the Christmas films played on the TV, while everyone dozed, recovering from dinner. His absence not even noticed until she thought to take him a hot chocolate, to ask if he was hungry.
Not in his room, his toys abandoned. Not in the garden, the spare room, behind the shed.
“I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. He...he didn't mean anything. Please, bring him back.”
Bring him back? I don't understand. How can I, when I don't even know where he's gone? She steps away, staring at me, pleading with her eyes, until understanding finally dawns.
“You won't, will you? It doesn't matter what I say...”
I am not part of the world. I am not the man who stepped out of the front door, barely hours ago. I am not the boy's Father; a thing that is now little more than residue in my soul.
“I can't. I'm sorry.”
The sound that escapes her then...enough to shudder babes in their cribs, to curdle the unborn in their Mother's bellies, to turn the sweetest dreams to nightmares. Slinking back inside, she shuts the door behind her, leaving me to walk away and forget, as another mask melts like snow, already draining away, leaving behind only stories of despair.
He has to drink. They watch as he accepts, as brother smiles. All fraternal sweetness, conciliation. No more war, no more bad blood. He has to drink. The eyes demand it, the desperate, silent screams. Though he knows what worms will be born in his belly, what eaten-hollow thing will walk away from here, if he does.
They don't see, for all their urgency, their idiot, aching need for things to be whole and pure:
There is no undoing what's passed between them, the wounds they've done one another beyond scarring, let alone healing. Wounds with words, for the most part: vile, venomous things slurred at christenings and funerals, behind one another's backs, to whoever will listen.
This last attempt to synthetically sew them together the most blatant, the most pathetic. As though it matters, given what's happening out there, in the world.
He even dared hope there might be some small commonality in that: the pair of them reluctantly united by their incredulity, the sheer disbelief that the zoo they call "family" could be so concerned by what doesn't matter, what never has.
But no, he saw the moment he arrived: the mask Frankie wears, the part he plays, though it must feel like a costume woven from living spiders, a thing of splinters. Smiles and embraces, words whose synthetic sweetness is carcinogenic. He sees the game; an old one, in many respects, that Roger is a past master at: a play of innocence, of regret, for the peanut gallery: Mom and Dad, Aunt Trish and Uncle Warren. The niece and nephew who are now young adults, hair and clothes somehow too plastic-pristine, eyes glassy: those of psychotic dolls.
Of course. Weary the moment he steps through the front door; weary and weak. The last battlefield, where the corpses of the murdered lost have long since dissolved, where their ghosts echo so distantly, fading, fading with every passing year.
Those old wars: vicious, violent, even in childhood: perhaps even moreso, for their lack of restraint, their inability -and unwillingness- to hide mutual contempt. The only time he remembers bloodying another, being bloodied in his turn, that he remembers feeling hate so profound, it bubbled up inside, washing his bones and organs black, threatening to spill out of him, bursting him like some septic boil.
It has changed since then; congealed, calcified, become something harder and more sepulchral. Hate as a living fossil, a form of cancer, that will never be excised, can never be cured.
Only through absence, abandonment. They all know it; blame him for daring to leave them, forgetting them, making a life for himself beyond the tribe. He sees it on every face, as they urge him to smile, to accept the lie of brotherly love, the frothing, fizzing vessel.
Don't they know? Can't they see? He wants to scream at them through his smile, to shatter it and the masks they all wear, to rip them naked and show them the wounded, screaming truth of themselves.
Frankie smiles, as sincere as a prosperity minister begging his flock to empty their wallets. They love him, always have; love him for staying, for looking after Mom and Dad, for maintaining the garden and house when they couldn't.
For simply existing, whereas Jason. . .Jason's a ghost, a trespasser in the temple, who brings heathen word of a world they've never believed themselves part of, that they've never wanted to know.
Haven't you seen what's happening out there? Don't you know? He could scream it into their faces, scream until he's hoarse and breathing blood. They won't care; the state of humanity and the world beyond their borders of less concern than Christmas cards and token phone calls.
They know, of course: they must've seen for themselves. Those the worms have claimed.
He's seen them, writhing in red and bruise-purple knots from grass and brick and concrete, clumped together in trees and branches, worming their ways up from cracks in the road and pavement, swaying like undersea creatures, in some strange currents that only they can detect. Knotting, twining together, the music they make a migraine-hymn.
He was lucky: at home the first day, away from the main areas of outbreak. No one able to determine how and why; where they came from, why they proliferated so suddenly, why some areas were spared whereas others. . . From what he's read on the internet, the fragmentary photographs and video footage he's seen, some places are still totally cordoned off, the military brought in to make sure no breaches occur. A few days ago, a fifteen year old and his girlfriend were shot somewhere outside of Burton. Yesterday, a Mother was mowed down in front of three children on the edge of Hartlipool.
No terror, no rising swell of panic: if anything, a dreaming distance, everything slightly unreal, a dream of a dream of a nightmare. He remebers feeling this way on 9/11, watching the towers fall on TV, when Princess Diana died, when the Prime Minister was knifed to death on live TV last year. Nothing real, nothing he might see firsthand or touch or taste. A play of tragedy, a confection as ludicrous as any pantomime. Part of him still believes none of it, that any world that might allow it and the million other atrocities that TV and radio and internet insist on would be too sick to survive this long.
The worms. Accounts on every news station, on myriad YouTube channels and live-streams: people finding them everywhere, waking to houses festooned with them, their pets and children smothered by them. Others not waking at all; the infestations claiming them before they can so much as stir. Entire towns and villages subsumed in a single night, the creatures emerging in such density, they cover land and houses, choke roads and rivers, smother entire counties in their undulating mass.
But they don't care. It's a problem that will be solved, eventually. Like homelessness or the floundering economy, rising temperatures and sea levels: someone else's business, the purview of better, smarter people.
All they care about is that he drinks, that he smiles, that he kisses them goodbye and promises he'll call in a day or two.
They've seen. They don't believe it, but they've seen: what happens to the ones the worms infest. Everyone has; impossible to avoid it, camera-phone footage on every news broadcast, flooding the internet: people screaming, seeping, people that are all bruises and black, blistering flesh. People that aren't people anymore, by any meaningful definition: hunched, hissing, sloughing things, matter trailing from them, their bodies bursting with every step. Inside? More of the worms, their bodies made incubators for the vile things. The aspiring film-makers cursing, running, as they realise their jeopardy. Some making it, some not, the phones flying from their hands, as things they might have once known as neighbours, as family, bear them down, gibbering and gasping, pressing malformed mouths to their victim's own, more fervent than lust-maddened lovers.
The worst footage he's seen the most intimate: shakey, grainy images of the same, parasitic process: the infected seeking out family members, spouses; anyone and anything that might make a viable host for their beloved disease. The intimacies that follow more vile than any rape, even more intrusive in their violations: biting or tearing apertures where lover's lips refuse them, ripping open faces and bellies and writhing backs. The braver documentarians seeking out places cordoned off by the government or military, sneaking past sentries and through hastily erected wire fences, recording every step of their trespass. How the worms became public knowledge, how the denials of newspapers and television were exposed as the most repugnant propaganda:
Footage of places not only infested with the worms, but by what they made of their hosts: black, swollen, shambling things, that look like bags of rotten meat, tumorous masses with withered, sore-pocked legs, some of them dragging themselves across the ground by ravaged hands and fingers, others writhing in emulation of the parasites that squirm from their mouths, their eye-sockets.
The worst, the very worst he's seen, not the myriad testimonies of atrocity and forced infection (though some of them have been so vile as to make him nauseous) but those of the strange communions between the diseased: images of the infected gathered together around heaped piles of their infested kin, those that haven't survived the process, their bodies surrendering, hearts giving out, minds dissolving, before the worms might make something more meaningful of them. The recorders gagging at the sight, some openly vomiting, unable to contain themselves. Around the heaped high piles of infested, human offal, circles of the infected still-living, their delirious swaying in time with some silent music, the same that the worms themselves dance to, seeming to rejoice in.
The footage soon becoming illegal to view; people purportedly arrested, teenagers and housewives and children, entire families dragged away for the crime. No reportage of such via TV or newspapers: footage existing on-line, uploaded surreptitiously, not to mainstream venues, most of which have revised ther policies to designate such material as "obscene." Instead, to murkier depths and recesses of the internet, places where it might be disseminated, becoming like an infection in and of itself: viewed and viewed and viewed again, by those curious and perverse enough to seek it out.
And yes, he numbers himself amongst them, seeking out new uploads when he comes home from work (the place a madhouse with so many absentees, so much work to do. The last couple of weeks back-breaking, soul-crushing), promising himself that this will be the last session, the last and last, insisting that he's already pushed his luck too far, that he'll wake to find himself dragged from bed, handcuffed and blind-folded before long, shepherded to whatever undocumented sites the powers-that-be have prepared for his over-curious ilk.
So what? A part of him still hopes, still believes in the smiling lies of tabloids and TV: that the situation will be sorted, that the powers-that-be know how to handle it. Tomorrow, he'll wake to a world purged of such sickness, humanity already beginning to smile and forget, commenting over its coffee at the craziness of it all.
And, perhaps, in five years, maybe ten, it'll be nothing but a story, somethingt that kids read about in history books before snorting laughter, moving on.
But the rest . . . the wiser part of him, knows far better: there'll be no morning after, no hung-over oaths of never again. No neurotic denials. This is the end. Of everything. There've already been fragmentary reports of the worms outside of the cordoned areas, in other countries. For all he or anyone knows, they could be everywhere by now, waiting to stir, for whatever unspoken call or genetic imperative roused their siblings.
Only a matter of time.
But they . . . they don't care. Won't speak about it, save to tut and sigh over the TV of a morning before they head out into the back garden to dig and weed and smoke, before they shamble off to the paper shop, groaning at the splinters in their joints, the stories splashed across the front pages. More lies, purchased, home-made. The latter always the very best.
All they care about is this: the smiles, the play of reconciliation. After this, it won't matter if he and Frankie don't see one another for a year or more, a decade. Lies of texts and telephone calls will suffice, at least until the next summons, the next desperate intervention.
Even if they know it's all a play, a pantomime for their benefit.
He can't deny the pressure of their eyes, their quiet desperation, though he knows what the bastard's done, what froths and ripples in the mug he holds. Were there some hope, some promise of tomorrow he believed, perhaps it would be easier, perhaps he could work up the breath or passion to sustain himself in spite of them.
As it is, he shudders, gags as the first mouthful of bitter, lukewarm liquid flows down his throat, almost spits it over his brother's hyena-grinning face, laughing as the worms seek out his eyes, his open and screaming mouth.
He swallows, living strings writhing in his gullet, already multiplying, anchoring themselves to his flesh, which is their flesh, now, perhaps even moreso.
He'll stay here tonight, in his old room. Lie awake, feeling them knot and swell and chew. Maybe it'll hurt. Maybe he'll have some of the dreams he used to experience in that bed as a boy or teenager. It doesn't matter. By tomorrow, there'll be no dreams save what worms proscribe, what they weave through the warping, tumescent meat of his mind.
Dreams he'l no longer be afraid of sharing.
The same bird. Again. Was it that one yesterday or the day before? He thinks so. Strange. They never used to do that, back when he was young, when the world was more solid and certain. He's fairly sure of that.
Was it yesterday or this morning? Hard to say. He could ask, but they'll likely be angry again. They get angry a lot, these days. He doesn't quite understand why. Only questions. He likes to talk to them, likes to know, though he can't always remember their names, why they're here.
Shimmering and songs, tinsel and ornaments. He doesn't remember her putting the tree up, but he's sure that he might have helped, at some point, that she might have sighed and sent him away to sit down with a cup of tea or brandy. Why? Why isn't he at home, with the TV and fire and garden? Where's the dog? He used to know her name, used to remember her so fondly...now, it's all ghosts, all mist.
He wishes he could go the same way.
A boy. Old Winter, old Christmas, in that freezing farmhouse, the stone walls, no central heating, no boiler. Only the open fire, the stove, boiling kettles to fill the tin bath. Spiders the size of his hand. Massive, black spiders, skittering between the stones. Not even knowing about the war, save in the vaguest sense: something that Mom and Dad sometimes talk about, something that sometimes comes on the radio.
It might as well be happening in a foreign country.
Outside, the ground is frozen hard, the surrounding fields buried in snow so deep, he can't wade through it.
No playing outside; not this winter. Too cold, enough to freeze the blood in his veins, enough to turn his eyes to ice. He stays upstairs, with his brothers and sisters, huddling under the same blankets, their breath misting as they whisper stories and secrets to one another.
Lies, he'll later learn; all lies, but ones he loves, even now.
The same bird. He's sure of it; outside the window, staring in at him with its dark, dark eyes, somehow clearer, more real than everything else. It sees him here, he knows it, and it sees him there; little boy and old, old man, not yet formed, not yet sculpted, going to sludge in his own head, on his own bones.
The boy is merely fascinated, wanting to crawl out of bed and open the window, invite the thing in and feed it scraps of ginger loaf. The old man is afraid. Afraid of what it means, what it brings. Of remembering and drowning in his own tears.
It's gone from the farmhouse window, from his childhood, with a croak and a flap of its wings, the boy all but forgetting it in the next instant, intent on some other game, some other story.
It's cold here, too. So cold. Coughing through the afternoon while they laugh and drink and eat below. Doorbells, frightening voices: ghosts come to say hello. He used to know them, but today, they are no one: misty, smoky things with uncertain, swimming faces, who use words and names he doesn't know any more.
It's so tiring. He tries...tries to hold on, to follow them, but it's like trying to grip a live fish with his bare hands. He can't go down, can't even bring himself to wake, yet. Not entirely.
A few more moments in this cold room, with its bare floorboards, its immense window, the trees and empty sky staring in at him.
She used to be here, the one whose name he can't remember, whose face has begun to dissolve behind his eyes, no matter how eagerly he tries to maintain it. He remebers her...oh, he remembers her! Twenty five, when they first met, how pretty she was, how funny, how much his.
And later: years and years, endless roast dinners and arguments and bills and dogs and cats. Motorcycle rides and foreign holidays: Austria, once. South Africa, three times.
And later, with wires and tubes and beeping machines, with tears and questions and pain.
The bird comes again, today, waiting for him. It has never been far away; he remembers, now: how consistent it has been, there almost every day, in the branches of trees, perched on rooves or windowsills, grubbing worms from gardens or fields.
Always there, eating his eyes and his thoughts, waiting for him to be almost empty, so that it might tear him open, carry what's left away.
Standing, shivering, he listens to the voices below: daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren, neighbours, friends.
Unknown to him here, at the end; alien, no matter how much he has loved them, how much he has tried to make them laugh or safe or contented.
They don't know him and he doesn't know them. Their world is one of ghosts, and he...he can't bear to live there any more.
The window sticks, obliging him to lean against it. It gives all at once, the bird not taking fright, not leaping into the air, taking his one chance of escape with it.
Instead, it cocks its head, regarding him with its dark, inquiring eyes, asking him if he remembers, if he knows what was promised, when it came to him as a boy.
Cold air, chilling his flesh, reaching cold talons inside. He feels them around his heart, gently slowing it, freezing the blood in its chambers and channels.
Do you remember?
An old pact, older than humanity, older than ghosts, older than snow and souls. The bird flutters its wings, coming to him now that he no longer stands, now that he sloughs off the born burden of yesterday.
They don't hear, down below. Christmas songs and laughter, drunken barks and affectionate arguments.
They don't hear, and he doesn't care any more. Worm-eaten meat, fungus-minded refuse. He already sees and remembers so much more.
Spreading new and old wings, he takes flight into the cold, happy to forget and be forgotten, at last.
I don't remember what he was to me before.
This twisting barb of deju vu, of having walked here many times before. A nightmare of the cradle, that I resisted with every infantile breath, that I woke from screaming in the dark. No one and nothing to console, to quiet me with nonsense and lullabies.
Maybe why I went wandering in the first place, why I fell. Losing myself, cold, feverish, starving. Hungry eyes through the snow, between the trees. Black, sweating hulks, eyes like sick stars, teeth like black thorns.
All I remember, before waking there, in the quiet darkness, beside the lake, in the flowers that should never have bloomed so far beneath the Earth.
Elation. I remember that; to be alive, to be lost at last, with no way back home, to its emptiness and unwanting, to its dead eyes and cruel tomorrows.
Hunger. Hunger that stabbed me almost as sincerely as the cold of the mountainside, that twisted like frozen fingers in my belly, threatening to pull me inside out.
I remember...faces. Faces in the shadows, faces in the water, skittering across the stone. Faces that stared at me with curious, frightened, mistrusting eyes. Faces that formed from the mist, straying close to me before others dragged them back, dispersing them.
Forms that fled, melting to meaningless nothing when I spoke, when I tried to approach them, leaving behind only whispers and dreaming suggestion.
Except a smiling few. All lost, now. Nameless dust. I think he may have been one of the first, before today, before we met for the first time in this life. And the last. Not afraid of me, not even after everything I've done, the emptiness behind, the unravelling I've inspired. The seams of this subterannean world slit open, gaping at my back, bleeding chaos and reality. The dream's children burned, slaughtered, scattered with little more than words, glances, gestures.
Times when I might have reformed it, times when I might have allowed it to recoalesce, when I would have been happy to fall again and again, to wake to stories I already know.
Not any more. I'm tired. So tired of it, of remembering. A time when I might have prevented that, when I knew how. Now, all I have is memory, as confused and uncertain as it is. All I have are lost and abandoned lives.
There are those in which I live, in which I learn from them: the arts that have sustained them here, that allow them to be. In which I show them the way, break open the mountain, re-write them so they might walk in sunlight and rain and stars without being scattered, without fading to dust. Stories in which I lead them out, amongst my former kin, in which I become their ambassador in the waking world.
Such strange, strange stories. Tales that irrevocably alter humanity, history, all that is, that force those I fled from to re-evaluate their own conditions, their place in being. Stories that expose them for what they are: unable to see, unwilling to change. Brutes and bigots and abusers, animals I have no choice or compunction in slaughtering, allowing my adoptive kin, my truer tribe, to take their place.
All ultimately failing, no matter how long the legacy, how far into time and possibility they thread. All returning me to this essential moment, a lost and lonely child, frost-bitten and bitter in the snow. Falling, not even seeing the hole in the ground, the statues protruding from beneath the snow, between the trees.
Not allowing it, this time. Not allowing the child to take me, to subsume me. Fighting, when my time finally comes, activating arts and devices I concocted for that very purpose, that flared at my final breaths, my last heartbeats.
Agony. I remember that; the lunatic searing as I became a walking contradiction, the child whose skull and skin I infest crying out soundlessly, tumbling in the snow, spattering it red.
How he cries, how he laughs, as he struggles to rise, as the hated, smothering world around him wavers, fraying apart.
The wolves coming, then. Wolves no longer, but cruel boys and girls, their dark pelts shed in favour of snow-pale skin, their animal snarls giving way to wicked leers.
He knows them. I knew them. Once. The one that leads them...a tall, muscular girl, her hair pulled so taught against her head, it stretches her features back across her skull, making her eyes narrow and feline, her grin unnatural.
A gnarled bough in her gnarled hands, the violence in both plain.
The others...pathetic whelps, baying and snapping, shimmering between states of beasts and children.
"Where are you running to, Taylor? Where do you think you can go?"
The girl, Simone, having said the same a thousand times in waking memory, in a thousand different ways. No response I can give that doesn't end in violence, that doesn't result in blood. Times when I've laughed at her, when I've fled, when I've lunged at her with sharpened stones or boughs of my own. Times when I've called her a slope-browed troglodyte, a thick-as-pig-shit whore. Nothing I can say or do that doesn't bring pain.
Until today, when I am not me, and the boy, Taylor, isn't himself. When we are both and more, when we still mourn in the ashes of the one we've forgotten, who he has yet to meet, but knows, through me, my memories, the days that will never come.
Today, he lets her approach, shivering in the snow, as the gale howls, as the sky darkens, the last, pale pink rays of day seeping down through the clouds.
"Dad's gonna beat you senseless, you know that? You'll be lucky if you can walk anywhere ever again."
I laugh in her face. She stops, the cruelty in her eyes giving way to something far darker.
"No he won't, you brainless cunt. He won't ever touch me again."
For a moment, the snow seems to pause in its descent, the wind slows, the boughs freeze. Her followers yip and yammer at one another, almost rabid at the imminence of violence.
Until she howls, a sound to shame any wolf's worship of the Red Mother in the sky. She's on me before I can breathe, before I can think, black stars bursting across the world as I hurtle back, as it melts around me. I taste snow and dirt and blood, thoughts shattering, feverish fingers trailing down the side of my face.
Still laughing, as I struggle up, as she comes for me again, as the bough catchs me beneath the chin, cracking my jaw, my teeth crunching together, carried another several paces back down the path I carved through the snow.
Heaving, steaming, hurling the bough aside as she shifts and swells, the wolf taking her place once more.
"You're never going home. I'll tell them I found you already dead, ripped open, eaten alive."
Sputtering laughter at that, spraying the snow with blood.
She comes, loping towards me, muscular and scarred, lips peeling back from throat-puncturing teeth. What will she start with, I wonder? My eyes? My entrails? My cold-shrivelled excuse for manhood?
The others hold back, content to watch, certain that, were they to interfere, they'll be the ones bleeding out, the ones opened up and gnawed on.
"You...you won't tell them...anything."
The wolf yelping, becoming smoke again, the girl beneath staggering, clutching at her throat as though invisible hands clench it.
They still don't come, even then. Too afraid, of her, of me, as I stagger to my feet, as I stumble to her, smiling through my mask of blood.
"I...know so many ways to hurt you, Simone. So many ways to make you scream."
She doesn't, though she knows, though she sees. Not the same creature she expected to find, that she has a thousand times and more in the past, in different whens and wheres. When the rules of reality still applied.
What does she think I am, now? As I hold her fast, as I hoist her up, with little more than looks and gestures. Some sort of goblin-thing, a changeling of the woods? Ha! Not so wrong. Not any more.
The bravest, the most loyal or mind-rotted of her followers, skulk from their places in the shadows, laughing anxiously, begging me to stop:
"Hey. Hey there, Taylor. Man, we were just kiddin' around, weren't we? Come on, man!"
I used to know their names, once. Now? I don't know anything about them, any more than I do the ones below, the lost people who would have made me just like them, conditioned me with the same sickness and called it necessary, called it truth.
She struggles, her legs kicking, her jeans darkening at the crotch, her face turning purple.
"A game. That's all it is. Everything. A sick children's game."
I smile at them, the ones who haven't run yet, not knowing what they see; only that they squeal, gasp, skitter away. Not even a gesture, barely a breath, and they fall, clutching at themselves, the sounds in their throats those of beasts strangling on blood and splintered bone, of wolves choked by wasp's nests swallowed whole.
The masks fray and fall away, red and glistening meat. Beneath? Wet, dark fur. Quivering shadow. Cold burning eyes, reflecting a moon that has yet to rise.
Better. Far better. Truer than anything their Mothers and Fathers tell them, that they've convinced themselves of, over lifetimes of lying.
They growl as they stagger to their feet, barking feebly. I silence them with a look, a smile that spreads far beyond the bounds of my face.
They flee, wailing into the woods, to become their own monsters, beasts that will become the sources of fairy tales, in time. That the surrounding villages and townships will tell tales of, to their surviving siblings, warning them against the wolves that wail like children, when the moon is full, that weep and pray as they howl.
As for her...
I let her go, let her fall. She lands hard, bruising, breaking, her wails music, her pain more beautiful, more comforting, than anything the child I was ever knew in the life they shared.
She scrabbles away, spitting curses, streaming snot and tears. I follow, reaching for her, though not with my flesh and blood hands.
Nowehere she can go, nothing she can do, now. This hot, sweating, bleeding moment; the most perfect we've ever shared, in which the child she has tormented and abused his entire life bursts into black flame, sheds himself and becomes his own species of beast, far removed from the unseen creature that she's made of her own soul, that she's swollen and sickened on a diet of perpetual, unthinking cruelty, to the point whereby it has become rabid beyond control.
The shadows find her, swarming upon her, plucking her up like a wounded fly, stretching her limbs out as she quivers and denies, as she slurs every species of prayer and apoology.
Not enough. Not enough for him or me. My gift to him: payment for the days that will never come, but that he remembers, through me.
Letting him take her, letting his unseen talons rake her, tearing away clothes, lacerating the flesh beneath, steaming chunks falling from her, a rain of deep red, as she silently screams, as the crows and magpies in the boughs overhead take flight. As the surrounding snow flushes scarlet.
They hear. I make sure of it: the idiot, shivering, hateful things in the villages below, especially the ones that love her, that remained wilfully blind to the momster they made. I make sure they'll hear until their dying days, until, perhaps, they happen upon her again, following her pathetic, mewling cries in the woods, and murder her, for the crime of her own consumption.
A wet and shivering scrap of a thing, a cankerous beast, lame in one leg, blind in one eye, infested with silvery fleas. It drops from what remains like a mewling turd, a thing shat rather than born into being. What remains of Sister Simone rains around in strings and tatters, that it instantly begins gnawing on, momentarily forgotten to itself, in its agonies.
He would love to sit and watch her, to laugh as she gnaws at her own hide, as she yelps at sounds and shadows, as she twitches in irritation and dementia.
But we have no time. We fall, soon, into that place, beside the lake, in the darkness, amongst the strange and impossible flowers, the uncertain shadows.
Only this time, we do not fall. We find the edge, buried beneath the snow: the fissure through which we first plumetted, running from wolves. This time, we see the broken statues surrounding it, that perhaps once held some art, some magic, for swathing or shielding the place, preventing our intrusion. If so, nothing left of it, now: the stones broken and eroded by time, whatever might have been woven into their stone long since faded.
No cries, no sudden dissolving of the world, no flares of pain as we bounce from outcrop to outcrop. We step out, into the darkness, with not even a backward glance for the world we leave behind.
Drifting, descending serenely through the layers and depths, seeing as we couldn't before: the places we might have landed, the states we might have walked and dreamed of.
All dissolving with our passage, becoming as insubstantial and ephemeral as smoke.
Until we set down, familiar yet alien flowers caressing our naked ankles, the familiar smell of water on rock in the darkness, shapes and shades already emerging, already whispering to us, hissing welcomes, threats, casual curiosity.
We know them well. This time, there'll be no introductions or revelations, no gradual seduction. Our last smiles for them, their names evaporating as they go to the same stuff as discarded memory, as they flee, realising the apocalypse we represent.
Dust and echoes left, the ones that fled, the ones that remained, the thin and unlikely darkness in which they carved their kingdoms, their nurseries: places that stretched for many, many miles underground: a tomb kingdom of the happy dead, in which black and mouldering skeletons and barely held together corpses perpetually lit their blue torches, engaged in their absurd sports and arenas. A worm-realm of eaten hollow tunnels, a labyrinth whose sides glowed with luminous excretions, their creators singing through their maws full of rock and earth, choirs that rang out amongst the other kingdoms, that lulled them to sleep or roused them from dreams. Underground forests of luminous, crystal trees, their jagged structures shimmering with all colours, surrounded with refracted rainbows, the strange, spidery forms that tended them of the same stuff and substance, weaving the light into webs that stretched and clotted between the boughs.
All dust, now. Not even darkness: only this grey emptiness, that I have trailed since I first fell, since I first realised the absurdity of this dream.
And now, him, whose dust is still warm between our fingers, that still snares in our eye-lashes, whose name we cannot recall, but who we see smiling his strange, lop-sided smile, whose scales shimmer with nacreous bands of colour with every motion, whose tail scrapes along the rock and stone behind him, whose mane bursts into blue and green flame when he's excited or afraid, amused or aroused.
Why? Why can't I remember his name? The others...they are more fixed, more certain in my memory, though I know I never shared anything close to the same intimacies with them.
Not a single marriage, an isolated affair, but countless; a million lifetimes lived together, down here in the darkness. Sometimes happy, sometimes not: always, always adored, regardless, regretted when they finally came to their ends.
I met him here, in the snow, just like every time before. But, this time, I knew him, and he knew me. He said he'd dreamed of me, wept it through a smile, his teeth shimmering, dripping their purple venom. He said he knew I'd come, even before the cries began, before the silence that consumed them.
He knew, and knew what I'd do.
But came anyway, to see me one last time.
"And it is the last, isn't it?"
No more wakings, no more revolutions or rebirths. I've broken the engine, through my remembering: by infesting the child that was and showing him days he has yet to live and now, never will. Time and history are undone, and we are flailing at their ragged edges, hastening their decay.
This dust is all that's left. That, and the rumour of him that lingers in it. As it rises, sifting from the snow, from my hands, it forms a vague, smeared shape:
An echo, a rumour of him. Not even of the thing I knew, but of another: the child that went before, that perhaps fell or fled into the dark, that was stolen and secreted in it:
A youth, long limbed, attenuated, shimmering in the snow. He writhes, hating that he's returned to this half forgotten atrocity, this accident of birth, crying silently to me with his distorted jaw, pleading with me to either end it or return him to the condition he adored.
It takes so little; a blown kiss, and he's gone, dispersing into the snow.
I kneel for a while, wondering if perhaps the snow will bury me here, freeze the blood in my veins and allow me to sustain as a semi-living statue at the edge of all creation; a marker of the calamity that might have been.
Then, I stand, the frost on my skin melting, my veins pumping molten darkness. Oblivion flails and pulses at my back, the wounds I've carved in creation widening, merging to become more terminal hurts. It demands, with its silence, its emptiness: to be fed, to be evangelised to all who will listen and those who will not.
Happy enough, in that, now that there's nothing left for me above or below. Now that I've murdered the dream of my own strange Eden, and the possibility of waking from it.
Maybe, after it's done, when there's nothing left but this dust and the echoes that swirl and whisper in it, I'll pierce the mountainside from within, have it spill out into the waking world, let those I've left to suffer and shiver there have some measure of peace.
Perhaps, if forgiveness is a capacity I ever learn.
Until then, I'm happy to leave them to their wolves and their fireside stories, to the beasts in the wood that steal and devour their children, to the changelings that transform stolen infants into wolves and ravens.
Until then, there are still songs to silence, dreams to murder, an abyssal god to feed.
And maybe, maybe, when there's nothing left, when even the dust and echoes die, when there's not even darkness, I can dream something new. Something more. Something so terrible it will infest the dull, insipid imaginings of those that made me, and inspire new nightmares in its turn.
Her eyes are empty now. She cannot see. That's all right. The man by the window, grunting in the pale light, can do nothing. He wants to do nothing, other than scritch and scratch in his tattered sketch book, to record her here, at the end, as no one ever could in life.
It's all right. I'm here, Nikolai is here, to stroke her hair, to listen to the whispers in her skull, her flesh. I don't know what will happen when her last breath hitches, when her cankered heart grows still. Ha! Maybe it never will; maybe the things that have made their nests and nurseries of its chambers will keep it pulsing forever. A strange kind of life, I suppose.
She loves them so much, her unborn children, the things birthing and devouring their young in her cold meat, her suppurating bone. I see them in her hair, feel them: the silvery fleas that sing as they devour her, that I distress with every stroke.
The man at the window, the artist, as he thinks of himself, grunts in frustration, appalled at me, that I can sit here and fawn over her, afte everything we've done, everything we've been to one another, that I allowed her to come to this.
Not my doing, not my dream! Nothing I could do, after she made her wishes plain. This, this is all she desired, at the end: to lie and listen to her children's parasite hymns, to whisper their numerous names, singing them like a nursery rhyme to herself.
Not to me, never to me. Unworthy of their songs, as I am of being their host. The fleas, the worms...they retreat from me, recoiling from my touch.
That's all right, too. I never loved them, not like her. My siblings, she called them, when she still spoke to me, before her tongue swelled and her throat filled to bursting with tainted blood: my brothers and sisters. Never understanding, never knowing them as such. My true siblings, the hundreds she birthed from her belly, that she dreamed and breathed and wept and spat into being, all dead now, along with the stars they sired, the worlds they wrote and painted.
I am the last, and so is this place: a scrap, a mote of being, that she has sustained for so long, against every entropy and apocalypse, against fire and cold and corruption, against the rising and drying of oceans, the withering of woods, the collapse of every nexus and corner of creation.
This place, this sanctuary, sustaining, until its architect herself no longer dreams.
"I don't know why you're wasting your time. There's no one to see."
The artist doesn't glance up from his work, maybe doesn't even hear me. He didn't even when the screams of a million murdered children rose from the vale below, when their souls raked and scraped at the walls, the gates, the windows. Barely even blinked. Not even when the angels of a thousand different Heavens descended, hurling themselves against the walls and windows, singing such temptations to us as to make their fallen brothers blush. Not even when they started to wither and sicken, when the silence stole their exquisite songs. Not when the stars that sired them and they sired in their turns started to flicker out.
I almost laugh. Almost cry out. The first voice, save for those of the unborn, that I've heard in so long, so long. Dry and dusty, croaking and quavering, the most unlovely thing, compared to the choirs she contains, but, against the silence that presses in from outside?; The poetry of angels.
Barely pausing in his renditions, his chalk and charcoal and blood smeared fingers moving over the page, tearing failed or preliminary sketches free, letting them fall like Autumnal leaves around his chair, to drift into the nearby fire.
A time when there might have been some ritual element to it all, when the symbolism of our state might have spawned new states of being. I've seen it happen, watched her dance and sing worlds, witnessed her tears and poetry become stars, her blood the oceans from which new gods arise, as I did, though from what manner of effluent she would never tell.
"The last...the last."
The artist sneers, eyes roving to and fro like a bird's enraptured by some clockwork engine, some machine in perpetual motion.
"Don't think that means anything. You were lucky; that's all."
As was he, though he seems to be in denial of the fact. Yes, I was lucky. I came to her, wretched and bleeding and empty, as I so often did, seeking her pity, her milk and songs. Why she ever indulged me, I can't say: I was never the most beautiful, the strongest or most inspired. When I think of the brothers and sisters that have gone before, who have been forgotten, while I have survived and sustained to her final days, to the last days of all...
No, there is no poetry here, no artist's intent, no wider purpose. Maybe, maybe, we might have made that together, once. Maybe we could have created something more enduring than the states we did, the sad and sorry rounds that hosted the same sad and sorry creatures, portraits and gospels of the same misery, over and over and over...
We deserve our pain. She certainly does; not the Mother of all suffering, but of enough to make little difference. So much of it ours, her lost and abandoned and unwanted children, so much of her abuse heaped upon us, as though we might bear some blame for the rapes and random chances that saw us conceived, the violence with which we were born.
"You can stop, now. For Heaven's sake, you can stop."
The artist laughs, dry and rasping and humourless.
"For Heaven's sake? What has Heaven ever had to do with it? I know I can stop. I've known since the last bells ceased pealing, since the last whimpers faded. I know you won't look, wouldn't understand, even if you did. I know there's no one, except perhaps the fire."
"The void. The dark. The emptiness. When it comes, and it is so close, now, I will show it my work. I will let it gaze into my soul that I've poured out on these pages and fill me with such abyssal nothing, such a lack and silence...oh, you can't imagine. Can't imagine how much I ache for it."
He's wrong. I know that ache, to be nothing. I've known it since my first kindling, since the earliest thought. Of course I have! Wretched, writhing whelp! Ugly, deformed, diseased little grotesque! Of course I know. In the hateful light of my dead brothers and sisters, in their luminous beauty or fathomless, majestic darkness, of course I know. I should have passed long ago, become less than rumour, as they all have.
But she...she wouldn't allow it. I don't know why; she's certainly spat her share of cruelties my way in the past, heaped disgrace upon me that should have inspired hatred enough to abandon and forget her, as so many of my brothers and sisters did, before the end.
Always allowed to crawl back, to sift through the open window, the cracks in her temple walls. Always rewoven, from her milk and menses, from her spit and filth. I don't know why, even here, in extremis. Will never know and don't care to.
All I want now is to be here, to wait and watch as the fire burns low, as the whispering silence closes in, as we wither together, praying against all hope and despair that there'll be no revolution or rebirth after this, that we can go to nothing together at last.
I never deluded myself that there'd be any dignity at the end, when I finally felt the last of her flicker out, the last ember dying in the cold night. I never pretended that I'd be more than I've been in all of the myriad lives and states she's woven for me, that I've crafted and stolen and scavenged.
A thing of shit, always. A thing of gnawed bones and disease, of rotting flesh and deformity. The resented babe, who robbed her of all ego, who showed her at the last what monstrosity she was truly capable of creating.
But even I didn't expect this.
A scream that shudders the surrounding stone, cracking the glass in the darkened windows, that makes the wooden beams and book cases groan and splinter.
They swarm from her, the nameless and unborn children that she so loved, that she adored more than any that inherited her divinity.
Bitch! Selfish, uncaring bitch!
The last lamentations, the final cries of all creation: a spoiled child's resentment of its own birth. What else does it warrant? What else can there be?
No storm, no fire, no blood: nothing like the ends I have witnessed and sired, that I have watched her weave in her moments of ennui and disappointment, in her rages and despairs. Such ends we have seen! I wish there were time for at least one more, a world to sire, to dream, to allow to dream of itself, then to crush, crumbling it to nothing between my fingers like a grain of dust, the cries of those lost to it my only lullabies, the only diversion from my own wretchedness.
I don't try to stop them; my wiser siblings, her more beloved children. They surge from her, the sack of her last flesh withering, bursting before my eyes, the children of her rot, her diseased marrow, her black and septic soul, spilling across the stone floor, swarming across the the walls as they blister and bleed darkness, fading with every heartbeat.
The artist, the one they used to call Peake, before he went mad, before he lost all he loved and lived for, scribbling furiously, biting his lip bloody, trying to record these final moments, this ultimate decay.
Not even a whisper of love left for me, not a rumour of contempt. She is gone, the Mother of all creation, murdered by her dissatisfaction with what she spawned, the ignorance of her most beloved.
And we are left: the most wretched and diseased of her bastards, the great ones, the lords of death and storms, the makers of oceans and galaxies, the inspirations of civilisations, all long, long forgotten, no one left now to remember them, except me.
And I have forgotten most of them by my own will, out of envious spite for their beauty, their brilliance.
They feed themselves to it, the carrion and parasites she loved more than any of us, swarming to be devoured by the silence, to become emptiness in their turn.
I know that inclination, feeling it like invisible chains lodged in my entrails, drawing me away from the fireside, to the windows as they fracture, to the door as it shudders in its lintel, swelling, splintering.
Peake murmurs as he scribbles, his pencil worn to almost nothing, his fingers bleeding. Prayers to divinities that no longer exist, that wouldn't answer, even if they did.
He and I, the last. A whelp and a mad man, all that remains of everything. Every myth, every dream, every state and story.
Standing, I stumble through them, the living, seething carpet as they worm and skitter towards the pools of expanding darkness, the absence that hurts my eyes and mind, that isn't even darkness, the mere absence of light, but nothing, a condition that even she never dreamed of, that she never believed could be, until the very end.
That she is one with, now, as my siblings are, and we all will soon be.
"Where are you going?"
Not glancing up from his work, his lips bleeding freely, now. His fingers, too.
He sniggers, understanding the joke. Maybe the only man who ever could.
"Are you coming? The fire's almost out. Not much paper left."
Piles of it surrounding him, that might have become the inspiration for hills or mountains, in a more verdant and inspired age.
Not here, where there's nothing and no one to imagine it, nothing and no one who cares.
"No, I...no. I'm going to sit for a while, and think of nothing."
Leaning back, setting down the wretched nub of his pencil, closing his book at last. With barely a flinch, he hurls it into the fire, lambent tears streaming down his face as it and he both kindle, as the pages and his skin char. He doesn't scream, doesn't even quiver, but watches as the stuff of his soul goes to ash, as its embers rise and fade.
I think I hear him laughing, as I go to the door, as I grasp the handle, so cold that frost forms upon the moulded brass, wrenching the frozen mechanism open.
Nothing. Emptiness and silence enough to make me scream, to break whatever parody of sanity I ever entertained.
It whispers to me, its silence sings, abyssal hymns, a suicide's lullabies. It won't merely take me, as it has everything else: it will fill me, it will undo the fact of me. Every rumour, every echo, silenced at last.
What else have I ever begged for?
A choked farewell, mutilated by fire. Then, I step out into the dark, forget myself and everything: the answer to my first choked and shrieking prayer, that of all born things, in resentment of the being they never asked for.
A happy gathering...lost friends, lost children. Found, at last, though no way home for them, for any of us.
More...more than I ever might have imagined, than have ever come before, here, at the edge of the abyss. All known to me, dear to me, their stories mine, over the decades, the centuries of their living.
Told, now, all come to this same moment, this same precipice.
The last echoes, and the first.
New stories, from here on, that even I don't know, that I can never tell.
This strange silence, this bizarre togetherness...almost maddening, after so long alone. But I do as I swore; I tell what I can, of those that are here, of those they remember; those they have loved and abandoned, adored and betrayed. Those they have abused and raped and mutilated.
Oh yes, every species of sin here, and every virtue, too.
No distinction, for my part; long since lost the ability to discern; one story as welcome as the next, pouring through and from me without any recourse but to love, and to adore the children who made them.
With every telling, a last word: none faltering, none reneging: oaths they swore to themselves, before they even took their first breaths, before thought sparked in the womb.
Happy, so happy, to have an end, to be an end, their myths echoing from this place, out, out through the spires above, into the sick and heaving skies, to the dying stars beyond. Out across wastes and desolations, across dying realms and boiling oceans, through the darkness between worlds, finding new minds in which to anchor themselves, new hosts to infest. Retold, again and again, distorted, transformed, rendered new for each teller and audience.
A matter of millennia, as long as their original telling, the living of them, but shared, here; these others, whose tales diverge and contradict, carried along; worms between the words, parasites growing fat off of other fictions.
While I wither, while I split and sift away, only dust inside.
Wavering, at the last, when there are only two left: beautiful children, serpent children; naked and bloodied sadists, smiling through their masks, the stories they tell so hideous, I almost falter, breaking the rhythms that threaten to reshape all.
Smiling, as they cling together, as they refuse. As I choke on my own dust, the last words stuttering. As the chamber shudders, as Heaven screams. As the abyss itself howls, shrieking metal, agonised voices, those already passed caught within its mechanisms, ground and pulped and shrieking to be forgotten.
Pleading with them, with my eyes, where words no longer serve; tears of dust, the most empty mourning, for a life of purpose so cruelly denied.
So beautiful, almost luminous in their allure, their hands on me cold and cruel, but welcome, so welcome, as they drag me to the edge, laughing their angel's laughter, and hurl me into my own engine; the god-machine where all stories originate, and where all now end.
Forgotten...remembered. Of course, now, here. Where else?; The place where the fires found me, and I found myself.
Still the same, after all these years...claustrophobic corridors, high flung windows, just out of reach, as though to prevent even the thought of escape, the only hint of the outside world whatever the sky has to tell.
Dust. Dust and echoes; every breath acrid with adolescent sweat, rampant hormones, tribal rages, sexual fantasies, dreams of pain and vengeance and of abuse returned three fold.
Barking teachers. Jeering boys and cackling girls. The cries of those tripped or spat upon, the odd worm turning, pummelling their abusers bloody before teachers can tear them away, often receiving bruises themselves in the process.
Panic attacks. Break downs. Autistic fugues. Schizophrenic episodes. Spontaneous, Tourettes inspired expletives.
Basking in them, hearing them behind my closed eyes, vicarious emotion, sensation, playing across my senses.
The stink and noise, the pain and desperation. Rare, rare flickers of beauty; a mind retreated into itself, lost in dreaming; consumed by some fantasy, of worlds read about or imagined on the spot, of video-game realms and role-playing table top games. Of cartoons and films and comic books.
Rare, rare souls; those able to deny the dust and disease of the place, to remove themselves from it, into some other state of mind and being.
Routinely snared, dragged back by the ridicules of teachers and classmates, accused of “day-dreaming,” as though there's any great sin in that, when what the waking world provides is so shallow and sceptic.
Happier there, in the realms of their own dreaming. Knowing, because I was of the same tribe, once; one of the happy lost, the unanchored and wandering, apt to float away at a moment's notice, from boredom and barbarity, from tribal idiocy and pretensions of wisdom.
One of the few who questioned, who suffered for it; who elicited gasps of disbelief from his classmates with his defiance:
“Why? What's the point?”
Told to shut up, to remove himself, dragged back for detensions after school, during lunch break.
Remembering, how they looked at him, how they glared, though rarely ever saying what was in their minds:
How dare you? How dare you question me, in my kingdom?
The child learning, through that: how truly futile it all was, how pointless and stupid the routines and systems he'd been fed through since early childhood were. How broken and damaged the sad, weary emperors and empresses of those states were.
Before this...the event that draws me back, again and again, no matter how deeply I forget, how alien I become to myself:
Permutations of the same...in the worlds I have walked, the states I've trespassed in; permutations in which the place shines, in which its students are paragons of health and freedom, where they are not denied, but encouraged and inspired, where the assumptions of their imprisonment are so far removed from those that gave rise to me as I stand, here and now, in the dust I created.
White and beautiful places, curving walls of pearl and nacreous matter, shimmering with expressions that the children write with their fingers in light and colour, that they project onto the structure with their thoughts, their inspirations.
Nothing denied, nothing censored, from what would be considered lewd and lurid here to the violent, the sadistic, the graphic:
All welcome, the artists responsible so far beyond the feral, stinking, bestial ghosts that surround me, they may as well be of another species.
Remembering...my first. Why, I don't even know, now: only that the fact of her; her abused and lunatic eyes, her cackling, desperate voice, her baboon smile, that turned her face into a distorted clown mask every time she tripped some kid in the corridor, every time she cried that some poor boy had made her pregnant and forced her to abort the babe, every time she slapped some random girl in the corridor or spat in their face...
Arousing fantasies that shamed me, once upon a time; back when I was capable of such foolishness: fantasies of sadism that I scribbled down in my myriad journals and notebooks, that I sometimes used as inspiration for art projects (my parents, whose names and faces I can't recall, called in for discussions on the subject, hour long sessions with the school councillor, in which she pretended some understanding of what I expressed).
Fantasies of blades and blood, of bondage and burning. The things I did to her in my head...a litany of sadism to shame the most canonised of serial killers, to make Jeffrey Dahmer wince and recoil.
Fantasies only, no different, in their ways, than the myriad others swirling in the dust around me, now: dreams of vengeance upon teachers who dared to ignore or shame us, who screamed and snarled at us, who quivered us with their sarcasm, made us writhe like worms in our seats. Upon the leering, ape-like ones whose unthinking violence became the measure of our days.
Never me, the girl never saying a single word to me, just like most of them; the abused abusers, the victimisers, the violent ones. Most of them bizarrely fond of me, treating me with odd respect, like some sort of mascott. Scenting, perhaps, what she became the focus of, that day.
Remembering, through the fog and storms of years; time that none of us are born to comprehend or endure...
Lifetimes separating us; the child that was, the not-quite-man that is; the former as much a ghost now as those he shares the dust with:
No spur, no particular event or circumstance inspiring the moment: seeing her, from down the dimly lit corridor, in a rough line outside of Mr. Heldridge's history class. The same gaggle of twitchy, nervous, idiot companions, quivering from and laughing at her cruelties, not realising that they would become their subjects just as readily when all other opportunities exhausted themselves.
Seeing her, seeing all of them. Knowing, even then, even as the child I was -barely thirteen in body, already ancient in mind-, that she was nothing; not the source or inspiration of it, merely the focal point, the cypher.
Feeling it, as I sometimes had before, during moments of strange exultation or particular despair, in arousal or inspiration: that same lightning, the potential for transformation in my cells. A sense as of lifting from the ground, of lightning arcing from my fingertips, fire at the corners of my eyes and mouth.
Far more than a dream, this time.
Knowing, when the mutters in the corridor took on a new timbre, when eyes turned to me, when cries and screams came.
Remembering...raising a hand to my eyes, laughing at its translucence, the light that ran in its veins, the fire that seeped from its whorls and ridges, liquid like sweat, rolling in fluid beads to my finger tips, coalescing there, bursting into flickers of blue lightning or dripping up, to kindle on the ceiling.
Laughing, having imagined this moment more times than I could count, knowing it would come, from my earliest fantasies; prophecies conjured in the womb or before.
Only just begun to doubt, through my disappointments at the world; that, even in the most intense and soul-burning moments, the fires died, nothing manifesting.
And the cold that followed...oh, that cold! Knowing it well; almost enough to drive me to tears, to self-excoriation, raking at myself with bitten ragged nails, biting deep into the flesh of my arms, my hands...sometimes enough to make myself bleed, offering it as sacrament to whatever passing powers might hear, might help me realise what I ached for...
Running, now; murmurs rising to screams and cries, as they stampeded, as they fled, the surrounding corridor kindling, blue and green and blazing gold fire spreading across the walls, floor and ceiling, teachers emerging from their classrooms, bellowing demands for calm, before seeing, before joining the route.
The first emergence, the singularity that transformed not only me, but this sad, sorry state I was born to.
The girl that was its focus...her ghost coalescing before me, now; a naked, distorted thing, simultaneously ancient and snared in a state of hateful adolescence, its smeared face stretched in a perpetual scream, raking at its own dust with hideously elongated fingers.
Her blood and burning flesh in my nostrils, her voice in my thoughts:
Laughing, unable to help myself, remembering how she glared at me, how her companions abandoned her, fleeing down the corridor, not sparing her a second glance, not caring to drag her away from the fire.
Finding others, too; not just her. Others I didn't know and never will, licking their backs, their flailing legs, their screaming faces... not all of them burned:
Those who dreamed, those who found ways of sustaining their essential selves, beyond the ruin that unwanted being might have worked on them, kindling in other ways, becoming like me; pyres of their own imagining, screams turning to laughter as they blazed in their turns:
A blonde, quivering boy grinning from ear to ear as he exploded into a state of light and luminous dust, as his new condition flapped its wings, spreading further embers throughout the structure. A pale, dark-haired girl, raising her hands to the flock of shadow-born ravens that swirled and croaked around her, plucking her fleshless, leaving her a thing of bone and blue fire, smiling through its own immolation, apparently well content with its condition.
My tribe; the tribeless, the species of one.
The nameless, glaring girl, the victim who made all the world her victim, not moving, not trying to flee.
Staring as I approached, as the corridor flowered around her.
No words or recriminations, what I brought...nothing she didn't already possess, that she hadn't dreamed for herself, again and again and again.
Not even screaming, as the fires found her, as she blistered, bled, as the flesh bubbled and sloughed from her, leaving behind a charred, quivering skeleton, raking itself to unhappy ash.
My first, that conflagration...so intimate, feeling every tongue of flame that licked across and throughout her body, her mind...tasting every darkened recess, every corpse-strewn swamp inside; the places where she cast her shames and guilts and despairs, where they festered, becoming mires so polluted, their stink poisoned every inch of her being.
Not my doing; not even the fire's. Her own work, as it's always been, as she'll never allow herself to know.
Swirling my fingers through her dust, watching her come apart, distort, only to recohere, agonised by my touch.
Still? After all these years?
Sighing, inhaling her, tasting her madness and despair, her hatred of me and herself; of everything that is...
“You know I can't. Why do you still cling to this? Haven't you made enough Hell for yourself?”
The spectre weeping, retreating from me down the corridor, lashing out at all it passes, disrupting and distorting them, not realising that they aren't like her; shadows and echoes, incapable of appreciating her sadism, just as she's incapable of acknowledging what she inflicts on herself.
If she only knew, if I can only show her...what she precipitated, what I've seen and done...where I've wandered in the centuries since...what she might be, if she'll only allow it.
Following, calling to her, though she denies me, though she flees and disperses, though she lashes out, attempting to dissuade me with her violence.
Nothing she can do, any more than there was all those years ago, when we became Father and Mother to one another, more intimate than twins in the womb. Nowhere she can hide from me, in this place; sensing her, wherever she cowers, terrified of knowing, of accepting what I have to give.
Intent on this; my last gift, before I kindle again, and what remains of this place, this womb of dust, is finally forgotten.
This slow dying, that I ache for in the Summer months...burning cold, setting fingers and thoughts alight, a blue fire in my chest.
Witch's fire, imagining myself breathing it, igniting every bronzed and beautiful sun child, every slave of Summer. Laughing as they writhe, as beauty goes to black filth on their bones, as laughter kindles to hate in their eyes.
A cruel fantasy, though not the first, certainly not the last. What does it even matter, with no means to make it more?
Snow on the canals, hideous green waters not frozen, but somehow denser, congealing towards a state of ice or jelly. Pausing at the image, grasping the cold, rusted balustrade, staring down into the murk that reflects nothing:
Something beneath, coiling through the muck, serpentine bodies or quivering tendrils, rearing up, too wreathed in shit and filth to discern, screams as they constrict around barges and narrow boats, breaking them in two, dragging them down...as they lash out, plucking people from the path, from spanning bridges, pulling them apart, their remains raining down, turning the mire below into a rancid stew.
More hideous dreaming? A day for it, clearly; a day that most lament, surrounded by blasphemous complaints of it all fucking day; perpetual, Pavlovian remarks on the cold, the snow, the wind...weary, whinging tones, dead-eyed, drear expressions that look like badly fitting masks, that I might reach out and pluck away...
Those I walk with, the stream of humanity already threatening to become torrential as 5PM nears...all similarly dour, resentful; huddled and hooded, swathed in successive layers of winter coats, gloves, scarves and ear-muffs. Those that aren't...snarling and squinting, muttering quiet curses against the wind.
Happy to be the rock around which they break, refusing to be swept along by their desperation, their wittling, idiot fear of beauty. Happy to endure their snide looks, their sidelong glares, their muttered curses.
So very British; not a one stopping to challenge me, not a one making a remark above an unintelligible grumble.
The fire kindling in my fingers, now; the tips of my nose and ears, searing nerves, making them dance; a welcome pain, making me hiss breath through a rictus grin; the smile of something dead and in love with the condition.
Maybe I am; maybe I'll remember, after so long forgetting; finally peel away this mask named Indu Sunya, this face that has always felt like something borrowed, and become the abortive child of my own imagining.
No. An adolescent ache, that I refuse to entertain. No longer a child; dreams fine, in their place, when not indulged as I once did, to the despair of my family, my friends; almost to my ruination.
Flying, eyes closed, talons of frost-bitten wind raking my face, tears streaming as I become molten, as my back ripples and breaks, as great wings unfurl...
Laughing at myself, my own absurdity, some pausing in the stream's flow to throw confused, fretful looks my way.
Truly believing it, feeling it; my skin bursting, my bones flowing and rearranging, new nerves knitting as what I'd dreamed since adolescence made itself true in flesh...
No angel's flight, no laughing from on high, no rain of moonight tears to rouse the rest of humanity from despairing slumber.
A fractured skull, dislocated arm; four broken ribs, severe concussion. Lucky to escape with just that, or so they tell me.
Part of me still doubting, still believing that it happened as memory insists; that they took me, dragged me to earth, bound and mutilated me, to prevent me from inspiring the rest to sprout wings and fly...
I can't. Can't even entertain it. No knowing what will happen, if I do. Distractions. The pretty boy, with his blue, blue eyes, a crooked smile, as he catches me looking. The stinking drunk, muttering incoherently to himself, rousing complaints as he veers from one side of the path to the other, disrupting the stream's flow.
Not enough. Never enough; not my job, not friends or family. Not anything. The urge so strong; to jump into the foetid, freezing waters, part of me knowing that the things in their depths will find me, invade and remake me, raise me up like Scylla, transformed into something hideous and glorious, that I'll lash this ridiculous city to splinters, freeze it to glitteing waste with me breath...
Knowing that, if I fly again, there'll be nothing they can do; that I'll soar beyond their reach, laugh my scorn into their frozen, fractured faces, watch them fly apart, revealing the rancid, cockroach things beneath their facades.
Knowing, and despairing at the prospect of another tomorrow, of waking only to find myself here, again, on the same dead men's paths, following in dead thing's footsteps, over and over and over, until I join them, just another victim of the slow dying, the unravelling world.
No screams, as I clamber over the balustrade, some muted calls, muffled pleas; no efforts to stop me.
The fire consuming me, blazing from my throat, my palms, shrivelling my eyes in their sockets, leaving me as a bizarre species of Ifrit, not born of desert, but arctic waste.
Serpents rising from beneath the mire to embrace me, infest me, the monstrous remaking they promise welcome.
Wings of frost and white flame erupting from my back, blazing the eyes from the impotent who watch, filling their skulls with embers of the same fire.
No more slow dying, no more playing witness at a sick Mother's bedside, deluding myself that Cancer might recede, that all might be well again.
An end to sickness, an end to dreaming, and the idiot disappointment that inspires both.
The way between unremembered, seeming to almost teleport from the moment I stepped out of my front door to this. One second, terraces, schools, white clad and red brick houses, fenced off fields, locked and chained industrial estates.
The next?; Sunlight filtering through trees, frost on weeds and banks of earth, a low-lying mist coiling across fields that undulate into the distance, disappearing into shadowed forestland.
Not noticing the sharp cold, the frost underfoot; not consciously, though it bites my fingers, burns my cheeks, sets blue fire in my lungs.
Not noticing the cries of crows and gulls and children, the former two squabbling over scraps on the frozen earth, the latter with one another in the playgrounds and schoolyards, already driven half mad by their imprisonment.
Too much inside your own head, Harry, that you are...
An old mantra, familiar condemnation.
Too much inside your own head...
No curse, insofar as I'm concerned; never has been, though I'm so often sealed away from the world, though I sometimes don't see people I pass or say hello to those I know...though they ring or text me later, wondering if they've said something to upset me, accusing me of looking right at them, right through them...
Most understanding; shrugging it off as just how I am. Happy to let them have that, though it doesn't mean a great deal.
Happier there, in whatever dream-world I walk, whatever waste or wood or mountain I wander, with the dream things that infest them; the fey, the dragons; the things that have no name, because they're mine; my creations, as close as I'll ever come to children...
Lurching out of myself, this time, away from a long, white beach, curving around the roots of great, black mountains, the sea singing as it laps the shore...
Torn away, as violent and involuntary as any birth, as protested.
A sound, tearing my attention out and away, to the dense trees off to my right; a sound I've never heard before along this path, though I walk it almost every day:
Some animal...a shriek that rises, ululating, before dying to silence; some chimpanzee set upon by its siblings in cannibal frenzy, in incestuous assault.
Pausing, peering through the foliage, seeing nothing but shadows, the skittering silver of squirrels and rabbits.
Making to move on, when the sound comes again. Louder this time, longer; much, much closer. A rising shriek, not seeming so animal this time; almost like a child, a babe..?
I've heard foxes down here before; seen them on occasion, chasing squirrels or rooting trash through the undergrowth. Pretty things; blazing red or dusty yellow, bright green eyes. But not what people think; not like cartoons or puppets: often scarred and mangey, flea-infested, mutilated from whatever battles they fight in the undergrowth...qualities that only make them prettier, in my eyes.
When they cry, for mates or as a warning to rivals, out of grief for murdered and devoured young, they sound like babes whimpering, like tortured women screaming.
I hear them in my dreaming places, sometimes; the strange woods I walk there, where the trees writhe as though in fire, where they resemble the intertwined bodies of burning women, blackened beyond all sex and distinction by invisible flames. Hear them amongst the red grasses and fleshy flowers, where they rise bloody-muzzled from their feasts, scraps and tatters hanging from their jaws, eyes luminous in thanks.
Nothing quite so familiar, here; the sound so unlike a fox or rabbit, like the squirrels that chatter and squeal to one another, the buzzards and kestrels that sometimes dive down to snatch them from the grass, carrying them up, up into the clouds, sometimes dropping them to snare brokenly in the branches below.
Stepping from the path, something I rarely do, the earth soft and sweet smelling beneath my boots.
“I'd be careful there, mate.”
Heart snaring in my chest, catching my breath, straightening.
The trees stirring, breaking from their agonised dances, their tormented love making, to grasp the invader, to drag him back into the flames, where he burns, where they claw and kiss him apart, using his filth to water their roots, to fertilise the surrounding soil...
Turning with a smile, the man a dumpy, doughy creature, red-cheeked and worry-eyed, ugly, tattered tracksuit bottoms straining around his lower half, the meek greyhound at his side eyeing him as she shivers.
“Ye not read it in th' paper t'other day?; Some kiddy wen' missin' down 'ere. People said they 'eard summat, but...”
Lapsing into silence, baring his nicotine-yellowed teeth.
“...ah dunno. Ye 'ere stories, don't yer?; Big cats escapin' from zoos, alligators an' snakes an' all...ye don' know what yer gonna find, do yer?”
Nervous smiles, shifting from foot to foot, desperate eyes.
“I just heard...something...”
“Ah! Mebee a fox, as like. But...like ah say; ye wanna be careful; ah know the kiddee wus only small, an' all, but...”
“Well, thank you for the warning.”
Turning from him, silently praying for him to move on. Feeling his eyes on my back as I return to the edge of the path, step between the trees.
Cracking branches underfoot, crushed weeds and wildflowers. A pungency of wild garlic. Skitters of movement in the undergrowth, the boughs overhead. No sign of any big cat, alligator or otherwise.
Waiting, hoping the sound will come again.
A flicker of motion, but distant; catching my eye through the low-lying mist, disappearing between the trees at the far edge of the field, into woods where I won't follow.
No big cat. No alligator; nothing any zoo has ever boasted.
Knowing it, with the immediacy of love, the scintillation of hate: one of mine, somehow escaped, torn its way through, to the waking now.
The briefest impressions: a bloated bulk, shimmering as though wet, pitted and seeping, viscous matter dribbling down its flanks, many legs, pawing through the grasses, rising to taste the air.
Gone, melting into the shadows of the wood before I can even catch my breath. How? How can it be here?
Resisting a lunatic urge to follow, to flee after it, call it back, beg it to explain.
“'Ere, you all right, mate?”
My doughy, self-appointed guardian, quietly cursing his dog for growling in the back of its throat. Staring after, hoping to catch the beast re-emerging, to find myself wrong, deceived by my own fevered imagination...
Just a fox or badger, caught up in a tattered bin-bag.
But knowing, knowing otherwise.
“Mate! You okay?”
The way I used to snarl at my Mother, when she repeated such idiot questions.
“All right, mate, all right! Jus'...ye know, don't want yer to end up like that kiddie..!”
Smiling, almost laughing, making my way back to the path. My companion as faithful as his dog, still waiting, a distinct glare of fear in his eyes.
“Ye find anythin'?”
Almost confessing, the story buzzing in my throat, behind my eyes: I saw something from my nightmares.
Sighing, shaking my head. “No. Just a fox or something, I reckon.”
The man nodding sagely, as though this is profoundest revelation, never meeting my eyes, seeing something in them he doesn't quite like.
“Ah. Righty ho, then. Better get 'er back. She's frettin' over summat.”
Glancing at the dog, its arched back, its terrified, bulging eyes, the wet stain on the concrete at its feet.
“Yes, you'd better do that.”
The man nodding, slinking away, dragging one foot as though partially lame. So sad, so sad a creature, so eager to be friends with one who will never, never reciprocate.
Letting him go, not even taking a step until he turns away, some meters up the path. Pretending I don't see his farewell wave, hearing him curse ripely at his hound, dragging it along as it shivers and seeps.
Already late. So strange, for me; texts flashing on my phone: R U on shift today? R U coming in? Sharon needs to go home.
Curiously unconcerned, though only yesterday, the notion of being late would have had me near a panic attack.
That cry, coming again, distant, now, but enough to draw my eye back to the woods.
Something there, a shape in the shadows, all but obscured by them; barely a suggestion of huddled, twitching legs, of immense eyes, catching the mid-morning sunlight.
Staring back, seeing me, knowing me, as immediately and intimately as I know it, promising without a word that we'll know one another far, far better, in the days and nights to come.
Still smiling, I turn away, no longer quite so lost in my own head, the path I follow no longer quite so drearily familiar.
Long abandoned any hope of arriving before the last sun, before its red paints the ruins. Hoping only to see them, one last time; before light itself ends, and day becomes a memory.
The dark at my heels, devouring land and distance and time; memory and experience and everything, everything, everything.
Not a wound; a wound might heal, a wound might be stitched or bound. No...absence, the obliteration of even possibility. Devouring all; every star, every dream, every playground I've ever known.
Leaving only this; the last, decaying outposts of being, the temples erected against it, by those I no longer remember, those already given to it: the mad ones who maybe still wander, who still scrape some semblance of living from the shattered stone.
So cold, here; the dusk scarlet and heavy, shadows dense, almost fungal. Dead trees, dead flowers; grasses dried to shards and splinters. Great idols and sepulchers, partially swallowed by the earth, listing at strange angles, shattered or obscured by infestations of long dead weeds.
Distantly, within the walls, beneath the earth...music, the stuttering rhythms of the engines they built, that they stole and scavenged and cannibalised; murdered entire civilisations and species to attain, orchestrated wars and genocides and pogroms and apocalypses to shame any and all in history to discover.
Hated, denied; many not believing, not understanding, even when they saw evidence of it with their own eyes: the emptiness undoing all, swallowing their creeds and cultures, their empires that spanned stars and realities...some even concocting their own means of sustaining against it, of insulating themselves...
Dead dreams, now. Forgotten.
Scrabbling, a serrated knife twisting in my belly, hunger that has waxed over leagues and miles of desolation, where there has been nothing, nothing to sustain; nothing to even sift from the air or dig up from the charred dunes. No bones to gnaw or sewage to sup on; no vermin to devour.
Not even ghosts. Even ghosts can provide sustenance, to those who know the means of their rendering.
The absence taking them, too.
Weary, stumbling, half mad with it, what clothes remain to me scraping over lesions and sores, infected, weeping wounds.
Laughing, knowing that I've endured worse, though I can't recall where or when; what faces I wore, what roles I played.
Maybe for the best; maybe what we all deserve, at the end:
No more deceptions, no more theatres; only the unravelling we have denied and denied and denied with every mask, every contrived and practised verse, every orchestrated step of the dance.
Grinning, though many of my teeth are gone or shattered, grasping at a nearby statue to keep myself from toppling, bursting open against the soil, seeping away...
The scarlet sun blazing through a curious circle carved into the uppermost spire, clearly designed to capture its light at this point and channel it, a shimmering pool of arterial red staining the surrounding earth, animating the shadows, making the statues seem to grin or sneer, to weep blood or sorrow for the surrounding desolation.
Knowing their names, once; vague impressions of the saints and messiahs that inspired them: misty, smeared faces, far removed from those purportedly carved in their likeness, those that once bent knee to them, praying for guidance, not entertaining the least clue as to the truth of them in life; this one's flatulence, that one's penchant for bedding a different lover every evening, eventually losing his voice and tongue to a rot he contracted as a result. That one's casual cruelties for those that defied her word.
Saints and martyrs, prophets and messiahs.
Drunks and whore-mongers, perverts and sadists.
All one and the same, all equally forgotten, soon enough.
Maybe why I'm here; not to see, not to play witness to the final hours of light, but to hasten the end? So difficult to remember, now...so intent on the journey, on reaching this point, I've forgotten why.
Maybe they could have told me, once; the forgotten ones, my companions gone to bone and nothing along the way.
No more. Not even in dreams.
The emptiness yawning, not even cold, not attempting to snare or seduce; no need, its inevitability beyond denial, even here, in the last place, in the light of the last star.
Resisted, all this time, never turning to look, not even when I physically felt the leagues falling away at my heels, memories of the last steps and heartbeats flying apart. Warned, again and again and again: that to see it will be the end, that I'll not survive or be able to resist; that it will take me, the stories I have sewn, leaving not even echoes or shadows behind.
The urge all but irresistable, now. At least I'll have that, at the end: a moment, a heartbeat of the most terrible purity, the only perfection that can ever be. Then, I'll be one with it, and with all that will never be again.
The gates long since torn away, walls rent and collapsed; shattered in numerous assaults and cataclysms, sabotages and betrayals.
Remembering...the stories I've heard, the rumours that have whispered on the winds from this place: the temple perpetually under siege, by its last days, those that denied the very notion of oblivion in common cause with those that regarded it as holy; the final solution of whatever creator and destroyer they worshiped.
Smiling at that, the bitter irony; that even gods succumbed to it. I've seen, watched them stand against it, rouse all the Arts at their disposal to forestall it.
The eldest, the most omnsicient...coming apart, consumed, before breathing a single ember, not even slowing it.
Old gods. New gods. Dark gods. Blood and fertility and elemental gods. Gods that were men and women, once; re-written and made mythic by their own hands, through rites or technology, through Arts and stolen status...all of them failing, no matter what they roused or brought to bear.
None left, now; no prayers to court them.
Only me, and this place; the engines woven throughout its every inch, whose circuits thread its stone and shattered pillars, its strange statues and icons.
I don't understand...why I'm here, why I came, why I was sent. How I've been able to outrun it where so many have stumbled, been forgotten in a thought's span.
Comapnions, co-conspirators, lovers. Betrayers. Too painful to even try; the temple's burned and broken interior shimmering before my eyes, seeming unfixed, a paused image on old and warped VHS tape, about to tear and fray apart under the strain.
Alien structures; pillars that resemble the bones of titans, sculptures of molten wax, coral-like and sea-shell formations; things grown rather than carved or sculpted. Others betraying themselves; examples of the strange machinery that the temple and its surroundings are part of; that threads invisibly through the air, on shafts of light, in the shadows: pulsing, churning masses, states impossible to discern; seeming one moment to resemble flowing, molten plastic, the next to swell into organ and nerve-like systems married to bizarre devices.
Forms visible amongst the conflux, subsumed within it, protruding from it; the only certain elements in otherwise maddening ephemera:
Slumbering things, their elongated heads bowed against their chests, arms crossed, wires and umbilici threaded through their anatomies, binding them to the temple and its systems.
Its priests and architects, its dreamers and makers.
Told not to look, not to touch, but by who, I can no longer recall. Looking regardless, no longer caring if the sight of them drives me mad, bursts my eyes in their sockets, makes my mind bleed. What difference does it make, with oblivion aching at the door?
No such punishment for my trespass; the creatures stirring as I step ito their midst, raising their elongated, swollen heads, dark eyes blinking, amber lights blazing in their depths.
Their attentions spitting me, unseen spears of fascination, pinning me from all sides, hoisting me up quivering and gasping, filled with the cold light of a Winter dawn.
Inside, scouring my emptiness, surgeon's fingers running over the hollows where memory has collapsed or been torn from me, whispering to me and one another in their strange, mellifluous tongue that seems comprised entirely of hymns.
A hideous illumination; allowing me to see as they do; how mutilated I am, a rag-doll thing, scraps and tatters of self, barely held together.
The spears retreating, apparently satisfied with their autopsy, letting me fall, crying out as bones splinter, as wounds tear against the shattered stone floor.
Not understanding their strange whispers, but catching stray echoes of emotion; a bleak humour that rises in my throat like laughter riding a vomit of blood, a weary sadness, that things have failed, that there will never be a second experiment.
Over. Nothing they or any of us can do. The most ancient, the first and last, who I have come in search of, hoping they might have something, know anything...not a means of forestalling the inevitable...I see that, now; not even me and mine were naïve enough to hope for that...only something; some secret or revelation that we might take with us, into nothing and forgetting; that might make sense of the endless, idiot round of deaths and resurrections, of the lives we have lived over and over and over...
But no; nothing here, nothing they can or will say, at the end. Nothing I might understand, even if it were otherwise.
Rising, gasping blood on every breath, spitting on the stones at my feet.
Turning from them, from my path, at last, heading out, into the crimson dusk, where I look upon nothing at last, and lose myself in its perfection.
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.