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.
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.