A deep sucking followed the crack of bone. The slurping of marrow, the fluid dripping from her jaws, the varied noise of her digestion. The bitch’s snout was buried in disinterred remains. Albert froze, no longer struggling, seeking to delay the moment he came to her attention.
That silk could bind so tight.
A charnel house in the familiar church yard. The stench of decomposition and the dripping remnants took him back to the Western Front. Only his eyes moved, darting from horror to horror. What was happening?
The thing was globular in the moonlight. Heavy breasted. Round haunches curving to a woman’s thighs that soon became dog’s legs.
Or a jackal’s.
He tried to control his shivering in the warm night. She would turn and see him. Otherwise, why would they have tied him and left him here?
Soaked. The stained grains on the surface would blow away, to be lost amongst billions of others. But the gallons that soaked through, blood wending its way like water through gravel, heading for a parched destination.
Ross recognized the shallowness of what he had once thought had been at his core, his desire for the exotic. When faced with the truly foreign, he had run, and was still fleeing, leaving names and identities behind like confetti floating on the wind.
Afterward, his overwhelming sense had been of clockwork, a mechanical tableau played out. Instead of brass, the mechanism was rock, driven by energies greater than the forces of desert winds and scorching sky. When the images returned late at night, they stretched beyond the cave, gears turning the ancient rocks of the planets and asteroids as they spun in slowly decaying orbits around the sun.
His captor evaded the bare foot easily, snaring it in silk and tying it to the post. “Don’t do that.”
“Why? Will you shoot me?”
The man shook his head. It was covered, the head garb trailing down over his shoulder. Not a turban, but Albert did not know the word for it.
“If you try,” the man began, producing a serrated dagger from the folds of his robe, “I will cut you.” Matter of fact. “Not tie you. Slice through the tendon above one heel. Maybe both. It will be a long time to heal. You will never walk easily again.”
“I am to live through this?”
The man sought the right words. “This is the appropriate attitude to bring to the endeavour. Fatalism creates the wrong atmosphere.”
Beneath the afternoon sun, Albert was chilled.
Awake, unbitten and unsavaged. Eyes adjusted in the murk, wondering where he was. He marvelled that he had slept. The ground shook and the rumbling echoed in the hollow of his chest. He knew why he had woken.
Oceans the size of a duchy persisted below Arabia. Ancient water remained from the sea that had left behind the mollusc shells he had seen on rock exposed after centuries beneath dunes. His imagination preferred a massive watery expanse with subterranean storms and huge eternally dark waves, though he knew the sea was trapped within shale and stone like oil. Even so, rivers travelled where rock had failed and pressure had forced the water out, and he guessed the rumble was the stream that fed the sheltered pond that had drawn him here.
Ross (though it would be many years and several other identities before he adopted that name) shuffled along, further away from the entrance. A strange quirk of the local quartz, or chance angling of the rock recess enabled him to see where he was going, despite the entrance being lost from view. The happenstance of a breach in the rock continued downwards, an easy slope leading him on hands and knees where he otherwise would not have bothered going. A litter of stone fragments disguised that the turning floor was smooth. If it had been outside, it would have been a helter skelter, a ha’penny to slide. The burrowing of a great worm exuding acidic slime from its maws as it moved beneath everything. Now, there is an image for Dr. Freud, he thought. Which way did the worm come? Magma forcing its way up, or water wearing its way down?
He followed the path further and further down.
They were in the church yard. Surely someone would see. Someone would walk through in the next instant.
“Is this a joke? This is very serious, what you are doing.” Careful enunciation, so the little foreigner could understand him. He didn’t know where the other one was.
“Of course it is not a joke. To take and tie up a policeman like this. We would want to have a very good reason to do such a thing.”
How far he was from that cave. Now he breathed in steam and coal dust, not dry desert air, and brushed soot from his serge sleeve, not ash from a thoab. Ross rapped the bench. reading railway station said the sign, and all is right with the world. He brought his knuckles to his mouth, and sucked unwittingly at the fresh cut from this morning.
The steak knife had slit through the side of his finger as he’d hacked at his orange, leaving a pouting lip. A scimitar of blood arose, and awareness returned. Ross had surveyed the mess, his search for clues in the archaeology of his breakfast.
Steam billowed about him, the engine chugging out clouds as the train was readied. All that had passed between then and now. How difficult to return from the war and live what was thought to be a life. Empires had fallen, and here he was, catching trains instead of blowing them up. Sitting on benches instead of crouching behind dunes. Bearing an umbrella instead of a rifle. All will be well, and all manner of things will be well, he recited. Then he glanced at his wristwatch. The face of it squirmed and made no sense, and his stomach sank.
The fog that obscured the station around him could not have poured from the steam engine. The humdrum world was gone, the busy people lost to him. The set was struck and the stage stood bare.
A new cave presented itself, bored through the fog, clouds hiding the sharp edges that would cut through and tear at him. In the distance, a smile bearing the promise of pain. Heisenberg was right, though the professor could offer him no practical assistance. Ross had observed, and in observing had become part of the equation. Now he suffered the unforeseeable consequence of disturbing a mechanism worn delicate.
The tunnel telescoped. The distant image resolved. Slim, barely female, the colour of tea with a brief splash of milk. Observed, its spring sprung, the androgyne began to stroll towards him.
Before he was lost, Ross acted. He ignored the tendrils of steam, the infinitude of confusion that led to world after possible world. All the men he could have been, all the fates he may yet suffer. One foot in front of the other, just the way his mother had taught young Ned all those years ago. Avoiding the sick-making suggestion that Reading Railway Station was less than real, he strode the distance to the carriage from memory, stepping it out yard after yard, not looking to see whether his feet were hitting the platform, or sinking several inches into it. His own machine drove him on, its clockwork as hidden as that of the orange. He walked, he climbed, he stepped up, he grabbed. There was a lurch, and whether it was the train or the world that shifted, he did not know. He froze, eyes scrunched and head bowed, as though waiting for a sandstorm to pass.
Solidity ebbed back. The carriage floor grew firm. Ross opened his eyes. The world had returned. The train clattered over a bridge, and he looked down at the Thames.
He had left his satchel behind on the platform. The price he paid to flee this time was only his manuscript, a year’s work.
Then he was taken from behind. His despair that he was taken so easily, that he was held and could do nothing.
They stripped him and his heart galloped. His shame would be exposed, he could not live if it was, could not bear it, but they had left him his drawers. He stood, near naked, while they were robed. Like Bedouin or such, he guessed. Some Arabian Nights affair. Not that he could know for sure, his war had been entirely on the Western Front. When had they changed their clothes?
He worried that they would leave him alone here, until someone came upon him. Then he worried that they wouldn’t, and some poor soul would be caught up in whatever nonsense was taking place.
Where were the villagers?
There was no geological purity here. Igneous rocks penetrated sedimentary. Great spans of years wore all of it down. The tunnel grew a little, the descent ceased. A sleeve of shale had fallen away, sharding the floor, exposing granite beneath.
The roof moved. He thought his vision blurred, then that some creature was above him, or a breeze was blowing ... something. Then he realized. Through the wound in the shale, he saw the source of the earth’s vibration. Ancient rock slowly dragging itself through a mostly hidden expanse. A wheel not quite the same darkness as the roof, bearing markings he could make out but not understand, despite his education.
It was close enough that he could have touched the wheel, let the eons drag across his fingertips as it circumscribed its way through rock. Eyes closed, he concentrated on the noise. In the distance, a similar sound, of higher pitch, joined it. Another wheel?
And finally, his attention complete, underneath it all, from just next to his head, he heard a moan.
He jumped, of course. Barely there, it emanated from the rippled wall. His eyes were playing tricks, searching for meaning that was not there, like astronomers seeing canals on Mars. It was an illusion of a fossil, a vague resemblance to a visage reduced almost to nothing by deep time.
With the merest disturbance of dust, the story failed, as a lid lifted and a rock eye stared out at him.
Now that he could see one, they were everywhere. Not some bas relief. A foot protruding from rock here. An outline of a torso. Things in the earth that had become exposed.
He touched nothing. He went no further. Slowly, then quickly, he retraced his steps, the corkscrew of the tunnel more obvious in his faster ascent. Behind him, a new sound, a whisper. He was sick, as though something obscene had been exposed, and he would not remain here a moment longer.
He had climbed down, of course he could climb up. It was an illusion that the tunnel seemed to have narrowed. It was very, very old, and could not change in a few minutes. Only fear suggested the pinprick of light was vanishing. The entrance would still be there, he would not be trapped. Still, he hurried, dragged himself up, leaving skin on stones, a small price to pay. Scurrying, fleeing, and as he reached the entrance to the cavern, the bare trace in the earth, he burst out, breath exploding from him as though he had been underwater for minutes. He exalted in the open space about him. The hottest hours had passed. He wasted no time leaving.
Behind him, below him, infinitesimally, heads turned. He had observed. In turn, he had been observed.
Enough really was enough. Unbidden, a decision formed. He could hold out until mid-autumn. Why bother with another winter’s gloom? A mild day, before it became too bleak. Streaks of cirrus against a still blue sky, the hint of frost to come, crunch of straw beneath his feet. A last look at the turning leaves. He would stumble. Bad leg, you know. War wound. A simple hunting accident, not uncommon at all, even for one adept at handling arms. He could almost pity the farmer who would find him, but after what he had seen, not really.
When the twilight dwindled away, it left a blackness penetrated only by stars. He could have been floating in space, and despite the persistent warmth, he shivered at the thought. Then, fooling him (because he thought it was not due for at least a week, and he was not wrong), the full moon rose.
He blinked, and when he did something shifted, and in the lunar luminescence, he saw through another’s eyes.
Albert gasped. His body sagged. Everything had been a dream, these past twenty years an illusion. He was awake now, and back on the Somme.
A butcher’s field. A desolation. Bodies buried after earlier onslaughts, disinterred by explosions, their parts scattered and draped, a landscape furnished by the eviscerated. The earth a churned quagmire, the soil a sponge that if pressed, evicted blood. It was over, he had not survived it, he had died and haunted the battlefield, his apparent life the daydream of a wraith. Where was his corpse? Was it the one being fed on over in the corner?
What was that?
Sufficient to each night are the worries thereof. Days were for the work of hands, and he rubbed them together. This morning was for him and his motorbike.
The grumbling beneath, the solidity of road pressing up against the rolling wheels, the security he cherished and loathed. A fraud as much as always, walking about in a borrowed persona, hiding in the world. Ned, T.E., Chapman, Shaw, Ross: all the men he had been. Pick a name, any will do.
Vibrations coursing through him, sun warming, fields alive with green, exhilaration tempts him. A crass approximation of joy stabs his heart, the magic of a summer’s day. He would prefer a world with no magic at all, straightforward Newtonian physics, with cause always preceding effect.
What does a hint of happiness precede? Rounding a bend, she is there, the sudden scorpion spoiling an English attempt at paradise. Surprised, he swerves to miss her but she has already vanished. Her winding path has spiralled outwards, and he has intersected it again.
She appears outlined against storm cloud, a foul sky that was not there a moment before, but has always been here, at this place and time. This is how she is for him. Slim, boyish hips. High cheek bones, semitic nose. The promise of everything, wanted or not.
It is not cloud. It is darkness pressing through. The wind is not blowing a storm, it is air fleeing the breach of reality, streaking from huge fingers that unfurl and part the sky. At night, he has been constructing a poem to convey it, using images that a mind evolved to survive on an African plain can understand. Formlessness beyond creation. He chooses not to look up. What sense would his mind make of it? Would he picture a distant eye staring down, a djinn peering at a world trapped in a bottle?
He is a man. He can make choices. He will not be part of this. He will have no truck with things of the air. Any accidental transgression has been paid for time and again. The blood that has been spilled, the lives lost, the causes betrayed.
She is there. The sacrificial slaughter of the battlefield has kept the door open. Is blood required to close it?
He will have none of it. He waits. This too will pass. Meanwhile, he sits astride his bike, booted feet firmly planted on bitumen. He is not stupid. He has studied the lore, taken precautions. Lodestone, inscriptions, herbs, incantation. He is not bound.
Around the corner, puffing as though they ascend the latest turn of a long corkscrew, come two boys on flimsy bicycles. They swerve all over the place. They are oblivious to the androgyne and the torn veil. They know nothing of the howling winds that would bear their small forms away in an instant. They lean into the corner as they turn on the ascent. He is stabbed through at the sight.
Her smile is canine. Her face is hunger. She is not composed of atoms. If she could be held, if she could be dissected, there would be no space in her but the gut demanding to be filled. She is Freud’s onion, the same all the way through, no mystery to be revealed, only appetite.
Her shape is that of a curse.
She flowed, a quivering mirage of soil and night, not bound by the complexities of human locomotion. She poured towards him, and for Albert she was milky in the moonlight, and round, oh so round, not like the pinch faced city lasses of recent years. Observing, he determines her for the moment, fixes her shape with his pointless desire. Though he does not want them to, his eyes travel down the marble whiteness of her, the smoothness of the curved belly, and he yearns despite himself, despite his wound, pulls at his bonds while his mind reels, knowing what has gone into that mouth to fill that stomach.
While he pulls, she marvels at the gift that has been presented, and turns to look at the human skull she holds, as though to share the moment with a companion. Albert can see that the skull has been gnawed. He presumes it has been dug from the grave she was worrying at. Her raking nails protrude through the eye holes, and he wonders if he is staring at his own remains, if he is a ghost haunting a battlefield.
An animal, he decides, a night creature thrown up by evolution, filling some monstrous niche in the food chain. She surprises him though when she breaks the silence, throwing his theory of a mindless beast into disarray.
“Son of Eve,” and of course the ‘s’ is sibilant, dragging on, longer in his mind than on the air. Her face is human. She touches him, and he sees the stain of muck on her fingers as they approach his face, readies himself for the nails to penetrate his skin. He imagines the fingers at play, worrying beneath the flap of his scalp. “Al Bert”, she says, picking his name somehow from the aether, and he shivers at the connection she has made between them. She smiles again, as though at some tremendous play of words, and the slaughterhouse stench rolls out with her breath. She will flow about him and he will be lost. She is made of teeth, every part of her a mouth, he will be consumed, he thinks, when he hears another voice.
“Ghoul.” A simple declaration, a cataloguing statement made from somewhere to his left. She is fast, very fast, and Albert sees seized in her other hand not the skull but the small Arab, her worshipper, the one who left him as sacrifice to this thing.
This close to her, he sees the fresh blood on her face, and the thought comes; there are no new dead here. Not in this yard. What rawness has she been eating, that it could still drip fresh down her chin? Time was not right, things were out of joint. The little Arab does not look happy, her fingers are through his robes. Albert sees the black seep at his shoulder and knows it is moon lit blood.
“Sons of Eve,” snake drawn out, “I have you both,” and triumph was there, pleasure at a victory achieved. Though the victory was beyond Albert’s comprehension, there was also a hunger, which Albert understood very well. Her head rose, taking on again a wolfish cast. Her eyes lifted to the impossible moon, glowing green.
Reaching low, her nails scratched at Albert’s groin, dragging across his scar. Momentary confusion, expecting one thing but finding another. She reacts, and it is then that Albert sees a tiny star streak across the yard, a light broken away from the litter of the others in the heavens. She moves, but not quickly enough. She leaps, but the orbit of the star bears into her, tearing into the flesh above her breasts. The meat of her splits and there is a hiss of escape. Only as she falls does Albert hear the bang.
The small Arab was down. Despite his wound, he was cutting, hacking at her neck. Albert heard the crack of her skull as her severed head was flung against a tombstone. The man chopped, breaking off her limbs, throwing each to a different corner of the field. There were words of course, a constant muttered litany, but they meant nothing to Albert.
With only the torso left, the Arab dug with the point of the knife, the same point that had been in Albert’s mouth just hours before. Albert felt a sympathetic twinge in his cheek. Wiping away gore, the man held up the treasure he had retrieved. As he did, his companion walked across the yard towards them, bearing a long rifle.
“See,” said the small man, as though Albert was a fellow enthusiast being shown an interesting specimen. “Meteor iron. Struck down by iron from beyond the earth.” He smiled. “Don’t want to lose that.” Then the knife came toward Albert.
“No,” he cried, leaning away, but they held him firm. They cut the silk and caught him, bearing his weight gently.
“We owed it to him,” said the small one, speaking English for Albert’s benefit, but the other shook his head, and Albert realized they were speaking not about him, but of another.
“We did not, but in honour we could not leave him like this.”
The grass was a soft meadow, no sign of the viscera that had littered it moments before. Albert’s naked feet were no longer in danger from splintered bone. “It is dead,” he said, but it was a question.
“Whatever ‘dead’ means to a thing of that order,” the small man shrugged. “It will feed on him no more.”
They bore Albert up before a grave. The moonlight gone, they shone a lamp at the inscription.
to the dear memory of
T. E. LAWRENCE
This was where he had first seen the creature, but now the grave was undisturbed. Nothing monstrous had dug its way out to emerge from its larder. A vase of marigolds rested there. All still, all quiet.
An oppressive weight was lifted from him. Other than the ache in his limbs, all Albert felt was a sense of liberty.
He straightened and looked at the Arabs. “What happens now?”
The taller man turned and walked off, shouldering the rifle. Looking back, he said, “Now? It is up to you.”
Albert had been a wind-up toy, borne here on the inevitable track of his one life. Now he was derailed. Possibilities stretched before him, definitions beyond the gelded policeman. Not every path led to that autumn morning in a frosty field.
Ross wheels the bike away, gunning the accelerator, as though he flees, as though he has not all these years and many miles been following the path set for him. As though he could not have been plucked from the air or dragged down through sand or vanished from a railway station.
The world is distorted at the edges by goggles. It does not bother him. There is the wind in his hair and the rumbling machine beneath him, and in that moment, it is enough. What is a curse, what is fate, other than an inability to jump from one track to another? He has travelled more than enough tracks for any man. All the men he has been.
The blackness above him is unobscured by the order we have imposed, no longer papered over with the legends and habits from which we have cobbled together the mundane. It is a place beyond creation and rationality, a place of its own senseless causality, a wilderness of pain and evil refreshment. It is a long night with the Turks.
Faster faster, Ross accelerates until he reaches the rock that marks the edge of the road, and he is up, he is flying, he has found the path that has no surrounding. He climbs the invisible road. The bike roars and he is tearing, he is rending the air, climbing the wall of it, boring through. The hole in the sky takes human shape, and she — it — descends.
He leaps his last track. He meets it in the air.
The boys hear the noise. There is a flurry. They see the man catapult, turn through the air, a stunted flight without wings. They say it was over in a moment.
They did not hear the screams. They did not see his face, torn between terror and desire.
They cannot know that the moment stretched more than a thousand years.
Enough time for the granting of all wishes, known or hidden, consistent or not. The price he paid. The careful filleting that can occur over such a long time, the precise slicing required to lay a delicate mechanism bare.