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.
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.