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.
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.