3LBE #10
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Coma

by Neil Ayres

 

My independence is a bane to bear. It is not that I would challenge anything, of course that is not our way. I hold no truck with those that would. The mistakes of the past are tutors enough for my hungry mind. Therein lies my problem. I am an intrigued and curious individual and though that may not be wrong per se, it is certainly not a desired trait among my kind.

The trouble began with Michael, my third charge of the nineteenth century. Everything had been fine for the first seven years, before his father had taken him along to the mill. I followed them dutifully, ignoring the father’s own Katib, an individual I had not seen for nigh on a millennia, and who I would not be sorry were I not to see him once more until the end of time.

As we walked, the sound of my quill scratched its comforting trail across the pages of Michael’s records. He had been bathed the evening prior and staggered bleary-eyed but clean in the wake of his father’s footsteps, through the muddy and windswept field until the four of us reached the edge of the road.

Michael’s father tromped on regardless as the rain fell, first in spits and spots and then in great torrents. The pair of them got soaked through. I allowed the rain to slick my hair and touch my face. My fellow Katib disdained such mortal sensation and stalked down the dirt track like a phantom, supernaturally dry despite the lashing storm.

I felt a twinge of sympathy for little Michael. In struggling to keep up with his father he tripped, not watching where he placed his feet in the grey light of the dawn. The thing that felled him was a tangle of bramble that had escaped from the hedgerow. Michael’s father ignored him and the boy stood once more, his knee grazed and childish tears gracing his face but did not voice his discomfort.

At the edge of the village Michael’s father met with a group of work-mates. The boy fell into step behind the band of men and was accompanied by a pair of grubby faced lads, one of them not much older than Michael was. Here also was Dyrwer-el, one of the Fallen. Michael’s father’s Katib furnished his face with a sneer when the Fallen angel took its place beside me.

“This boy before you is one of ours,” Dyrwer-el explained unnecessarily, indicating the freckle faced urchin who was eyeing Michael with the look of a man weighing up a calf at market. The Fallen ones seemed to enjoy any respite from their eternal duties. I nodded in response and carried on with my scribbling. “He has in his young mind already the seeds of an evil, heretic soul.” I was careful to treat everything that Dyrwer-el told me with a healthy dose of cynicism. The Fallen’s lies could be insidious things, but Katib were less susceptible to their schemes than many of the other Orders, having everything before us in black and white as it were.

At the factory gates we parted company. Michael’s father pushed him forward and left him in the charge of a crooked middle-aged man who smelled of Bitter and damp cellars. Michael was shown into a back room along with half a dozen other young children. In this room were a score of looms, already whirring away. My young charge was taught in all of ten minutes what was required from him. From five forty-five each morning until seven-thirty at night he would dive in and out of the machines with his cohorts, removing stray strands of cotton from the deadly mechanisms.

Shortly after noon, Michael’s father arrived and gave him a piece of bread brought from home. It was the first thing the boy had eaten since the previous afternoon. And then, with the sounds of the factory finally dimming down, and the Sun — cloaked for most of the day beneath a canvas of angry clouds — set on the horizon, the tall thin man came to greet me. It had not been a week since last I had met him, or one of his kin at least. I can never tell whether he works alone, singly, or is part of a grander whole.

The tall thin man gestures lightly with his hand and Michael screams. The man shrugs his shoulders, or at least it seems so to me, before he melts into his more usual form. A huge black dog, ribs showing through at his flanks, prowls out of the factory. One of the children shrieks at the sight of Michael’s blood seeping from the gash at his forehead. A sanguine rivulet flows easily from his brow onto the dirty floor and my charge lies quietly at the supervisor’s feet.

• • •

That was how it started, Michael’s death, my initial meeting with Dyrwer-el and the few seconds of contact with the Barghest before the boy’s demise.

Throughout the lifetime of my next charge I had little time to reflect on Michael’s short and grim existence in the Yorkshire dales. My next two contracts were to prove almost as short as my time with Michael. The two great wars, one after the other. A time that took all of the suffering and love from the preceding centuries and concentrated them into a smattering of decades so that all that was left of the twentieth century afterwards was greed, fear and uncertainty.

After such hectic schedules with my soldier and my sweet nurse, I was pleased, as time passed, to learn that my next commission was one of the twentieth century’s more interesting subjects. So different to all that had come before. But such sinners these people are, though mostly they keep it all inside, where only my patron and the Cherubim can see them. Not such easy pickings for the Fallen by any means, but nor are they easily gathered up now by my patron either.

After two more encounters with the Barghest, I took a leave of absence from my work. In 1947, after a three year reprieve, I was assigned to a child named Daniel. He was strong-willed, adventurous, and had a zest for life. And I was absolutely enthralled by him. Even as a baby he stunned me with his yearning for exploration and excitement. I was smitten with him and it was a blissful existence following him around, recording his endeavours.

Shortly before events brought me here, I met Dyrwer-el once more. Daniel was a young man by then, due to celebrate his seventeenth birthday, and in all of my life I had never felt such love for one of my charges even as I loved each and every one of them with my entire being.

Dyrwer-el was chaperone to a young lady, several years Daniel’s senior with whom the young man was quite taken. Her name is Daphne and still she sits by his bed, as if in mourning even though he is not dead.

Daniel left home one morn, without a word to his parents, spellbound by this extraordinary and challenging woman who had become his lover. They married with minimal fuss in the hills of Scotland where young couples do not need the consent of their parents.

All was fine until the pair returned to Yorkshire to inform their parents of the news. We stood silently around the pine dinner table as Daniel, seated and holding Daphne’s be-ringed hand recounted the tale of their elopement.

To my left stood Dyrwer-el, a benign look of satisfaction and happiness adorning his dark features. To my right there was a gap separating myself from the Katib of Daniel’s mother. No angel watched over my charge’s father.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Katib were becoming scarcer, vanishing from existence. Some whispered of the possible origins of this occurrence, mainly it was the Fallen who spoke of it, although it affected those of my own allegiance as much as theirs. Many believed it to be a sign of the times, the decline of theology and faith in general, though none could be sure.

I felt privileged to be serving one as free-spirited and open-minded as Daniel and so I gave little thought to the problems that evidently faced many of my fellow Katib. And then my world was shattered. Daniel and his father argued violently and the newlyweds fled the house. Out on the street that was lined with two-score of terraced houses I sensed a figure standing beside me.

Any emotion other than love is rare amongst my kind, so the rage that grasped me may have been more powerful than it would have been if manifested in a mortal. As the thin man raised his skeletal hand to begin the fatal gesture I flung myself sideways, feeling the crunch of his bones beneath my suddenly corporeal weight. His symbol, half-complete, proved my undoing. Daniel was dragged beneath the front wheels of a speeding white van.

Now I am tied to this object of my love. For eighteen months he has lain here, unmoving as Michael had been beneath the spinning mechanisms of the factory loom. My only companions are the silent and predatory Barghest and sombre Dyrwer-el. The Barghest is, at times, that thin dark-robed figure with its eyes obscured by shadow, and at others, a hulking heavy mastiff whose panting beneath its fleshy jowls steams the window of Daniel’s hospital room with ghostly condensation. Then Dyrwer-el, my Fallen associate who waits patiently besides Daniel’s lover, waiting for the day she is escorted away from the reach of the black dog and into the warm belly of his master’s home.

 

 

Neil Ayres was born in London in 1979 but now lives in Surrey, where he shares his hime with his girlfriend, his Samoyed and an aquatic apple snail. His debut novel is entitled Nicolo’s Gifts and is available from Bluechrome publishing. Neil is the editor of Fragment Magazine, and his web site is http://pootle-and-rat.livejournal.com.


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ISSUE #10

June 2002

FICTION

ART