Others. Others that hear; the strange, outside children; the shadow-chasers, the unsmiling. They don't love us; they can't. Too beyond them; too different. It's all right, for me. Not for everyone; my brothers and sisters. Some...their strangeness too much; they hurt for it; bruised and split open, screamed at and condemned. I hear those stories, too, often before they've begun to play out.
We don't come together; no strange little tribe, no outcast theatre. Alone; not like the rest; deaf and blind, scurrying, cockroach things, not realising, not even knowing their own stories...we don't need closeness, comfort; warmth and light. We sing so loud, the ones who hear, it hurts to be near one another.
I know; the first time I found her, it hurt so much, I sobbed and sobbed, Mom and Dad calling it tooth ache, growing pains...any lie, where there was nothing to know.
But her...the instant I saw her face, heard her voice: knives in my mind, opening the way for screaming ghosts; the spectres of her future, so vivid I didn't just hear, but experienced:
Choking to death on my own vomit at the age of twelve, left to wallow in a fever that my parents thought to be faked; a means of getting off school in the morning. The black lightning, the weightless agony; the broken glass inside my skin: flung in the air by a speeding white van, age fifteen, flying for what seemed hours, suspended in a place where I came apart, where I frayed and fell like blood rain on the up-turned faces below. Hands around my throat, hot tears on my face; seventeen, something between my legs, more painful, more vile, than what stopped my breath. A face, blurred to almost nothing; a molten Halloween mask, a voice that I knew, but distorted, as though bubbling through bath water.
Sweeter threads: the revelations of twenty and the decade that follow; falling in love, shedding myself, realising my passions, making art and infamy from them...somehow muted, less vivid and intense than their viler cousins, but agony still.
The first. The same; screaming likewise, agonised by me, my stories, which she teased out and devoured like strands of spaghetti from a densely tangled fork.
Put to bed, given a sleeping pill from Mom's drawer, told to be quiet; there were guests downstairs.
I still know her...perhaps better than anyone, as she knows me. Sometimes, we come together; we've learned, since then; how to shield ourselves, how to contain ourselves. It's...difficult; an effort of concentration, but we manage; whispering every word, every thought.
Others; at school, the ones chasing shadows in Summer, the ones shying away from noise and sunlight...the ones avoiding other children's eyes, other children's games. We can't bear them; the stories too dense, still too clotted to discern anything clear; just clamour, chaos. Unless we sit with them; unless we...
But no; not yet. I can't tell you that.
The end of innocence; a story I can tell; one we all know: fever and trembling obsession, the prayers to anonymous gods, carnal angels: Please, please let her be mine.
They answer, for the first time in my life, a story I've known since infancy coming to be:
I fall in love with her stories; not with who or what she is , but the possibility of what she might be. They sing, beautiful, even in their ugliness. I want them; to bathe in them, to wrap myself up in and be part of them, forever and ever:
...an operation to remove polyps from her throat at the age of twenty nine, the surgeon having an unexpected episode, slicing her open, severing nothing essential, but mutilating her beyond repair...
...the man she has called husband, the Father of her children, for over a decade, ignoring her in the dark; taking her denials as part of an old game, not played for many years, but one he is happy to resume...the tears that follow, the violence, enough to send him bleeding from the bed, a red trail to the bathroom where she finds him, slumped down, in an expanding pool...
...knocks and demands at the door; demands to know where her teenage son is. Knowing, even before they tell her; the truth a jagged, living stone in her entrails, slowly twisting, turning, reducing them to pulp: a brawl on the school field; her boy, the girl he hates and obsesses over. She knows; has read the scribbled diaries under his bed, the bleak, nihilist poetry; seen the drawings and sketches; enough to express, she hoped, enough to vent the poison inside...
...tomorrow, never waking; her corpse already cold before morning; a ruptured gas-pipe, slowly seeping, lulling her down into dreamless sleep...
...tomorrow, woken by the roar and lap of flames, orange and scarlet tongues licking up between the floorboards, already proliferating across her bed, the curtains, in her night-shirt. Screams, door and window blocked, smoke in her throat, stinging her eyes, the fire already blistering, charring her skin...
...tomorrow, barely woken by the kiss of silver, the shiver of cold as it trails kisses between her breasts. My breath, my whispers; professions of love that hitch and stutter, more fervent than any she will ever know. Down, down, to her pubis, meeting the wound that nature has already carved; whose ambition I help realise. Welling, ruby beads decorating her front, wet expressions of shock, of surprise, maybe even delight...
I tell her, in the aftermath of love, in the heat and sighing and sweat of it; through the music that rings in my ears, that un-spools behind my eyes: what I hear, what I see.
Knowing. Knowing that she's as blind and deaf as the rest; in love with the condition. Knowing how she'll respond before she so much as blinks, opens her mouth:
“...I don't like this. Stop it.”
“Just being honest. You said you wanted everything; here it is.”
Already up, already out of bed; still heaving, still seeping, her eyes wide, those of a prey-thing, shimmering and watery in the murk.
“...fucking mental-case. Stay the fuck away from me.”
I smile, laugh, unable to help it. History unsettled, the stories I told severed, made impossible by being known. A temporal fit, the darkness lurching, shuddering around us, though she doesn't see, can't possibly know. Lingering longer than instinct demands, part of her -buried, sublimated since before birth-, wanting this: to know, to see; to no longer be blind to her own possibility. Whispering, chattering; the walls, the shadows: stories re-arranging, editing themselves to cope with the paradox: the character that somehow becomes aware of its own plot, of the conclusions its author proscribes.
Breaking, head shaking, eyes half closed as she makes for the door.
In that moment, as she stumbles away from me, half dressed, still heaving, as the room tremors and distorts around us, I see. A moment, only; a temporary tearing: the wound that I open with my honesty:
What waits, what lingers, barely a fingernail's thickness away:
A place of screams. A place of certainties. A place of blood and breaking and great, great fires. A moment, the faces I glimpse so torn, so twisted, I can barely see what they are, screaming their stories; testimonies of pain and abuse that obliterate all else; the flailing, idiot variety of probability; the pointless potential to which we are born, in which we will die.
That place...I know stories of it; heard them in the screaming confessions of men and women on the street, on buses and trains; that I've shared tables with in cafes and restaurants. At school, university; at work.
Grotesque fairy tales; sadomasochistic fantasies, the accrued myths of BDSM dungeons and exotic sex cults...all true; waiting for us beyond the world; for the stories to play out, to fray apart. Waiting to write new parables, on our backs, our bellies; our flayed-off faces. Tales tattooed, tales scarred and burned and scored upon us. Tales painted in the flow of our veins, accrued in collage form from our wet bone, our divested organs.
I see it. I hear it. I smell it. The ones that linger there, forgotten to themselves, the only stories they know those they carve or that are carved from them. No imposition, other than what they invite; no proscribed narratives or destinies to fulfil. I shudder, still coming, wanting to be there, wanting to see and hear and know...
It closes before I reach it, sealing over, the room still, the cockroach chatter of Hell's gospels seething in the darkness, drowning out my despair.
Nowhere. Out in the dirt, the delusion: all it really is; the plaster over the wound, the holding pattern. Inevitable unravelling... what waits for all of us, at the end: even those that make a temporary Heaven from their moments, that spin little joys for themselves...it never lasts; we all come to the same impasse, the same confusions: those with which we entered the world, no wiser, for all our suffering.
She's home, though she doesn't answer her mobile, doesn't come to the door.
I stop. She knows. Of course she knows.
So I wait. It'll be a while, yet. The mobile...still echoing, still ringing in my ears. Something about electronics, especially communication devices...they channel and emphasise the stories. As a boy, it was TV, radio. As a man, it's mobile phones, computers. I stay away from them, as much as I can.
Scratching, behind the door; a chain being drawn away, a lock disengaging. I hear; I feel them, scraping at my skull, the barriers in my mind. Stronger, more insistent than I remember. It's been a while.
She doesn't ask me in, stepping away from the door, leaving it open. I go inside, following her down the hallway. Pictures lining the walls; paintings and charcoal sketches: her way of getting it out, most of them abstract things, apparently scrawled in moments of fury or despair sufficient to tear the paper or canvas. All familiar, despite their impressionistic nature; images I know, having had them described to me, more than once.
A cat, curling around my ankles, its eyes pleading, meows plaintive, as though I can give it something that its lunatic mistress can't.
Jardis, twenty years old, heart stopping in her sleep. Unless she escapes through the half open doorway. Unless she chokes on a stray biscuit in two months time. Unless she's poisoned by the bleach her mistress scrubs the bathroom floor with. Unless, unless, unless.
A kettle boiling, cups being stirred. The scraping at my skull...no longer blunted fingers, but surgical hooks, attempting to wear their way through. Nothing they can tell me; nothing I haven't already heard, a hundred times.
She doesn't say hello as I seat myself, moving with utter confidence around her kitchen, following steps she knows to the slightest, as I do; a surety that alienates more than it attracts; the same that my parents identified when I was a child, and hers; that seems almost animal to others, repellent as a spider's skittering.
This close...it hurts. It hurts.
I almost want to laugh, it seems so absurd: we know, we hear; everything else and one another, the radio turned high in the kitchen window, scratchy, tinny rendition of '80s power ballads barely even disturbing the flow of stories through it. The kitchen threatens to flow, wavering around us, flickering between various states, decors...stories, both fulfilled and potential, seeped into its wood and plaster.
A child runs through, spectral, slipping and cracking his head against the corner of the breakfast bar. Blood in blonde hair, so vivid it almost glows, faint screams, weeping. A black, shaggy haired dog, greying around the mouth and nose, nuzzling the elbow of its mistress, who lies all but still on the tiles, one leg twitching, the stroke that claimed her almost five minutes old. Pasts and potentials; stories that might never have been, that always were and are, somewhere, somewhen.
A mug of steaming coffee, white, three sugars. Tea, black. Fruit juice. Nothing.
She shirks back before our fingers can make contact. That has happened before, once or twice; usually when we don't know, we don't recognise. Always traumatic; whatever strange devices our minds contain amplified by the presence of another, as though they weave out of our heads, forming invisible conduits in the air. The effect is...well, the last time, I was in hospital for a little under two weeks. From what I hear, it can be worse than that; several of our number in comas from the shock of it, others straight jackets.
She watches, as I sip; the stories swarming around us, swirling between us, her form shimmering like a mirage. And yet, we are still; at the eye of the storm, all possibility whispering around us, intent on confession.
A smile, a breathless laugh.
“You fucking idiot.”
You retard. You Moron. Imbecile. What the fuck do you think..? What the Hell are you doing..?
“I know. I'm sorry. I had to...”
She knows; the story already told, several thousand times, in a million different ways and forms.
“What can we do, Annie? How do we break it?”
She slumps against the kitchen counter, uncaring that her bathrobe parts, that my eyes stray.
“We can't. Why are you even asking? There isn't a story like that; none that I've ever heard.”
“There must be. There must be.”
She laughs, turning from me, distracting herself with the dishes.
“So what? What if there is? What will you do, if you find it?”
“If we find it. Don't you know?”
She stops, shoulders sagging, staring out of the window.
“You'll try to make it real. You sick fuck.”
Yes. And she will help me, because there is nothing else.
Nothing but this:
Drawn back more readily, this time, as I was before the world poisoned and smothered me; when the stories were everything, when I could listen and live and breathe them.
A new depth, a new way: sailing, carried over the great wastes beyond; the desolations of shattered not-quite-stone, the ruptured, seeping flesh, plains heaving and rippling like the backs of fevered, mating titan, red and black rain falling from grey and yellow storms.
Endless; the plains of nothing, where Abarise stands; the ruins of others, less enduring, still littering the deserts and valleys: places that once arose to lend humanity some meaning, forged from common stories; from collective hope, desire, inspiration.
All failed, decayed and collapsed in on themselves.
Only Abarise endures.
Whatever calls me, whatever seeded me in my Mother's womb, planted the devices in my mind and soul, it wants me to see; what humanity is without it, all it will come to: the witless, wandering things; lost, mad, scabrous tribes, gnawing on their own leprous limbs, on one another, weeping en masse in the rain, cowering from the winds, beating themselves senseless against the walls of cliffs or the fragments of ruins...no release; not in life, not in death; despair and deprivation, continuing, escalating, after the grave. A worse notion than any Hell; any promise of oblivion.
Abarise...rising in the distance, beyond the storms; sweating them, its great spires and minarets impossible in their elaboration; structures that could not exist in waking life: vaster, more various in design and substance than the greatest city on Earth, structure sprouting structure sprouting structure, clusters resembling immense, continent-scale fungi, conical or trumpet-like, spewing ashes, smoke...less identifiable vapour, naked, skinless things riding the thermals, shrieking as they scald, laughing as they emerge blistered, bleeding, but alive. Others broken; great eruptions and conglomerations of shards, metallic, rusted, gleaming; crystalline or stone-like, grinding against one another in strange, tidal or mating motions, lubricated by those carried and dropped into their masses, bodies ground and pulped into paste, the effluent they become sluicing down into the lower regions, there to be further refined, fed upon, shat out; synthesised and refashioned. A cloister whose spires flicker and distort as though nothing more than projections on the ether they vomit, though the howls from within seem real enough, another that quivers and whips as though sewn from the most delicate of silks or cloths, its inhabitants carried on the same tides, tumbling and hurtling, snared before they can fall into the reaches below.
Great bridges bind the various towers and cloisters together; a web-like network of pathways, many vast enough to admit armies or nations at a time, some intact, others long since collapsed, numerous smaller threads and branches breaking away from the main boughs, some leading nowhere, others inverting, in defiance of themselves, leading back to where they begin or other portions of the complex.
I know this... have been here, so many times; born here; where all stories end, all stories begin; in blood, in pain; where we learn our true poetry.
Yes. They call to me; the lucky ones, who have already passed and found their way; the ones like me, who have fulfilled their waking purpose, and now live secrets of another order. I grasp out, trying to reach them, though I have no hands with which to do so, call, shrieking for them to find me, though I have no mouth or throat.
Please, not again...don't let me wake again...
The oldest prayer, always denied.
The winds carry me, scented of burning, of great pyres and charnel pits alight upon the plains below. Barely beyond the outskirts; the ancient, outer walls and clustered settlements, many of which stand in ruin, abandoned, save for those that have wandered in from the outer wastes; the failed and forgotten, those hoping to be plucked up and carried within...closer than I am, maybe than I'll ever be, however wretched, however lost...
Nothing; the same winds that carried me this far sweeping me up and away, ash and smoke obscuring my momentary vision, roaring sufficiently to drown out the choirs, the screams, the summons and seductions, the only Fathers I'll ever love or pray to...
I know this story.
Waking, slick and cooling, trembling in the aftermath.
Hissing, yowling, the animal responsible keeping its distance, knowing better. One of us...always one of us. I wake; the one the stories swarm to, now that her skull is open, now that her eyes have been put out.
She begged me, begged me to dig it out of her; the machinery in her mind, the devices that Abarise implanted. I couldn't; the very concept beyond blasphemy. She came at me, then, knowing how it had to be. Always one; why I came, how the world will know.
What will you make of this, Doctor Weathers? Not that it matters; you'll be seeing much worse, doing much worse, before long.
The knife...still in my hand, trembling, my fingers biting into the wooden handle. Voices outside, knocks at the door. They'll come, soon, take me, or kill me. Either way, I've only just begun.
George Lea is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.