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My mother gave me an indirect, covert education. Our lessons were conducted in the wan light of country afternoon and the velveteen absence of light in her darkroom. Her photography bore the odd angles and blurred sun dogs of the enthusiastic amateur but she worked at it with a dogged focus that lent our lives an amiable chaos.
I was a quiet child, open to instruction and taking everything in with wide bright eyes that my mother stared into and declared luminous. I was trusted with handling the negatives, the tangible reversals of the fundamental.
Bleached, pure white.
Utter, relentless black.
We captured wilderness scenes, candid and unguarded moments which were fed into the darkroom and came out as photographs in the way that pigs went into abattoirs and came out as sausages. Her missteps were as fascinating as her triumphs but the lessons she passed to me were considered elitist and prosaic, a reality I had to go into state education to realise.
It was just the two of us. When her body started to prepare itself for the second and last living thing she would host, our roles were reversed. I cared for her, lifting and changing for me until she was an insensible abstract, a twitching nerve rooted in sweat and foulness.
She held me when I was helpless and I returned the favour. The funeral service was sparse and perfunctory as per her wishes. The idea that a single ceremony could put the loss of someone you loved into any context was like holding a shell to your ear and expecting to get wet.
I stayed on in the nest of my childhood, forever outside the eggshell and missing the kiss of mother’s beak.
The house was swollen with emotional resonance for me but it had been built on a considerable amount of debt. Sentiment and sympathy held no import over the demands of my mother’s creditors so I was forced to start the process of clearing and selling the house. It was akin to being a stand in for the cancer, killing her memories rather than her flesh.
Any decision considered adult held its own agony. The ache came to me from the past, a child’s anguish fitting wrong in my woman’s body.
I had to sort through her things. She had laden the house with photographs, oddments and scraps that pleased her eye. Feathers from birds including some massive black variations that I had always held to be fake but she would never answer.
I found her journal, a patchwork quilt of concerns, lists and tentative explorations of her craft and her feelings towards it. She was her own cheerleader in so many things because she had to be. The words blurred before my eyes but I continued to read. I had not known this woman, only the mother she became.
Her tone changed as her expertise grew, becoming more technical and impenetrable with each month that passed. Then one entry drew my eye for its lack of detail.
He landed at the bottom of the garden. He flew back before I could get the camera.
A chill prickled down my back and I read it again, tried to figure out what she meant.
Code to avoid questions about her actions.
The next month’s worth of entries returned to the prosaic and technical.
He likes shortbread. Cries at the taste of tap water. He doesn’t speak English but I understand him perfectly.
A week later.
I can’t put down into words what his touch feels like. There is strength there, but he controls it. I know I shouldn’t. I don’t even know if he can.
The next entry was a drawing of a winged heart, done in HB pencil and shaded with red ink.
She did not mention him again. She began to talk about her body, the changes she was experiencing. It became as terse as her grasp of photography and the dates of the entries represented some interesting possibilities.
My intuition blazed into life. She would have photos of this man. I tried to stop flipping through the calendar in my head and actively looking for something would have helped me do it.
They were in a small album. Carefully pasted photographs and the negatives next to them. I tucked it under my arm with the journal and left the darkroom.
My life had never overlapped with anything uncanny or mysterious outside of the human heart or a good book.
The figure crouched, rendered indistinct by the bushes and shadows at the bottom of the garden aside from a pair of luminous eyes, open and soft like the cap of a mushroom. Black wings stretched out from his back that gleamed with oil, their dimensions softened by the night.
I put my hand to my mouth and the kitchen lights flickered. The album fell from my hands and I ran to the window. Night had fallen and the whole world was a darkroom now. I looked outside and wondered what might develop.
The windows rattled in their frames with the gust of wind that came. I opened the door with my heart thumping like I was running a marathon.
‘I know you’re there.’ I said.
I sounded frightened to my own ears but my nerves sharpened my senses and I saw him at the bottom of the garden, his wings tucked behind him.
His pronunciation was careful. Not someone speaking a language they lacked fluency in, but the care of someone whose voice was capable of great and terrible things.
He was taller than any man, with lean black limbs and a taut midsection. He carried a scent that combined leather, damp wool and incense. His face wore a perfect mask of surprise as he cocked his head and looked at me.
His lips curved into a smile, revealing perfect white teeth.
He bowed at the waist, the gleam of his bald head caught the moonlight like blood on glass. He looked up and his smile fell away.
His voice had become low, stretched out on the rack of grief.
I told him and when I had finished, he put his hand on my shoulder. It was difficult to breathe in his presence, the weight of faith made tangible pushed at me from every direction.
I reached out and put my arms around him. He held me with the detached care of a cowboy with a calf, a detached gentility that became more humane with each moment. He put his warm, dry lips to the top of my head and I closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, he was gazing at my face.
I had his eyes.
THREE DAYS, THEN A FOURTH.
Once Upon a Time, Eilhu laid in the garden and stared at the sky. His insides hummed with a persistent fear, an acidic burst of hot, squalling concern which made itself known with each breath he took but he willed his face to remain calm, even bored. The servants had instructions not to disturb him, handed down from the king, but they watched him with a growing unease. For three days, he exuded a cold silence which stopped anyone from approaching him as he laid in the garden.
The sounds of his grief travelled across the castle like migrating birds.
Eilhu laid in the same spot each day beneath the largest willow, staring up at the gentle dance of the branches as petals made wistful arcs of descent into the ground beneath. The good, soft earth bore the outline of where he laid, blades of grass flattened in all directions and underneath it, a small divot of earth replaced by hand. Eilhu laid atop it each day as his head throbbed with the weight of secrets and a child’s faith.
Dusk fell on the garden, made the shadows thick and strong as Eilhu sat up and patted the ground underneath him before he got up. He glanced around, saw he was alone and allowed himself the grim luxury of a smile before he turned on his heel and spat onto the ground then worked the saliva with the heel of his boot before walking away with his hands behind his back.
The courtyard stunk of burned hair and flesh. Eilhu held his breath until he was back in his chambers and closed the door behind him. He washed his hands and face and walked over to the window which looked out onto the garden. Paul had The Wild Man’s corpse tied to chains and dragged up through the castle, teams of soldiers working in concert before being hung by the ankles from a large wooden frame. Eilhu turned his gaze at the first flash of the blade and the joyous howl of the court made him nauseous. Paul pronounced the sentence, but he knew the crowd were beyond the call of reason so he played to the theatre of the event, talking about the Wild Man’s crimes against the kingdom. He retold the story of Eilhu’s abduction, emphasising his brother’s grief and how it had stolen the breath from their lungs.
Eilhu held himself in check as he watched his uncle. His teeth gritted together and his hands were fists, bouncing against his lean thighs as he played the grieving, wounded son. His hand strayed to the tuft of hair held in the pocket of the tunic as he waited for the celebration to conclude. He made himself watch it all, including the point where they decapitated him, two soldiers with axes who worked in concert to compensate for The Wild Man’s thick neck. His insides were ash by the end of it, but he made himself walk to the garden afterwards and stand underneath the willow tree.
He dropped into a crouch and with his right hand, dug his fingers into the earth and pulled the grass up, tossing it aside before he scraped into the dirt with his fingernails. He buried the tuft of hair in the hole and covered it with a sweep of his hand then laid down, covering it with his body as he stared up at the sky.
The anger was bitter medicine, boiled on the fires of his grief for Mirabelle, blended with the bitter berries of suspicion and sweetened by the promise of revenge.
Justice was for kings and courts. Eilhu’s need was base and crude, but it gave him the will to get up and fight.
On the fourth day, he did not go to the garden but instead joined Paul at petitions, which drew concerned glances from the court but his presence lent Paul vigour and generosity of spirit. Eilhu joined him for a cup of wine afterwards, asking questions which showed his understanding of the questions and decisions made during the hour. He followed Paul for the rest of the day, retiring to the garden at sunset to sit in his usual spot before he went to his chambers for the rest of the night.
Paul laid on his narrow bed, tracing the silver scar where the arrow had punched into him all those years, the flesh puckered and warped from where the shit had gotten into the wound, ravaging his body and eating tissues like a starved man at a feast. It ached at night alongside his other injuries but this held special associations for him. It had been mortality’s first and lasting gift to him, a transition for boorish warrior to the man he was now. He laid there, awash with a cautious optimism which he forced himself to deny to avoid disappointment during the last few years.
The rumbling began and Paul got up from the bed, staggered over to the window and saw a column of earth shoot upwards, filling the twilit sky with clouds of spilled earth. He bellowed for his guards and shielded his eyes from the dirt which flew in every direction. He thought it sounded like a roar, such was its volume. He accompanied his guards to see what had happened.
The garden was a crater which went deep into the earth. All the plants and earth evaporated into dust. Paul took charge and assigned soldiers to clear it away. He retired at dawn, tight and fragile with pain.
An hour passed when Paul heard the rap of knuckles on his door. A guard entered with fearful eyes as he bowed to his king and when he gave his news, his voice was a broken, fragile thing.
‘Eilhu isn’t in his chamber.’
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Cara rolled her eyes in dismay at Gloria.
Gloria picked up her drink and took a sip and shuddered with the strength of it.
‘So you don’t question intelligent gas clouds, but you question a simple hack?’
It’s false nails and a set of contact lenses. You’re talking about some fucking Galactus level event and I go up against it with haute couture?’
Cara sighed as Olivia shifted in her seat, added to her ever growing mental list of questions about what or who was a Galactus. Drea wanted to punch the air that something was said that she actually understood. She ached for John and consciousness with a pang of deep, palpable longing that normally ended up in John’s hands getting the good kind of mean with her. Here, she took another drink and listened to the reserved bitching that characterised the failure of womankind to dominate society. Especially smart, white women but she kept that to herself in favour of enjoying the free show.
Cara gestured to the box.
‘Pop them in and on.’
Gloria sneered again but picked out the index fingernail, pearlescent and when she pinched it between her fingertips, it hummed pleasantly like the vibrator that laid gathering dust, hollow without batteries, much like her heart. It changed consistency, a warm plasticity as it looped over and adhered to her fingertip. A low charge ran up her forearm. The other nails leapt from their casings, with a graceful glee and the symphony of purpose used her body as the orchestra. The lenses elongated as they left the casing and attached themselves to her eyes, plasticized tears in reverse.
Gloria, in the healthy spirit of youthful experimentation, had experimented with hallucinogenic drugs for recreational purposes and the earnest, slightly grim spiritual ramifications. Peyote, psilocybin and lysergic acid had formed the river of her consciousness raising. The combination of the lenses and nails made it look like baby aspirin or the candied gummy vitamins that had characterised her sickly childhood.
Gloria had been given access to the operating system of the universe, a drop down menu floated in her vision like sunspots and she sat back in her seat, dumbstruck with a quiet awe. Olivia was fascinated by the shifting spectrum of colours that overlaid Gloria’s eyes even as the trembling posture of reverence unnerved her.
Gloria clicked on a free floating icon marked ‘tutorial’. Cara chuckled and sat back, gestured towards her with her glass.
‘She’s going to be a while.’
Olivia grew pale and gestured to Gloria.
‘What did you do?’
Cara furrowed her forehead and rolled her glass between her palms.
‘She can change things.’
Olivia swallowed and glanced between Gloria and Cara, concerned at what she might be gifted. She liked her own mind, even the distasteful streaks of self loathing and guilt were hers, goddamn it. Cara touched her hand, Olivia experienced a moment of raw satori and smiled at her.
‘I get it. You’ve put us together with the right tools for the job.’
Drea recoiled in her seat. She had seen the gesture, reminded of when John would use the quasi-hypnosis, social engineering tricks that took nervous young men and divorcees back into the dating arena with the confidence of bull studs.
‘Don’t do that to me.’ she said.
Cara smiled at her, eyes glittering as she picked up her drink.
‘Again, you mean. After all, you’re still convinced you’re dreaming.’
Drea gritted her teeth and forced a stoic expression onto her face to hide her disquiet.
‘So, what do we get?’ Drea said.
Cara clapped her hands together.
‘You two get to do something really spectacular.’
Olivia and Drea had grins appear on their faces in perfect symmetry.
Gloria, meanwhile, studied the physics of a falling leaf, the beauty of a broken hip and the pressures of being a good girl with a god’s eye for the sheer gift of it all.
What offended Lou most about the protest was it’s lack of taste.
The signs were written in black, bold fonts on neon and hot pink pieces of card glued to lengths of wood. Some earnest art project gone horribly wrong. He stood and watched them with his forehead furrowed in amusement, smoking and smirking to himself.
He seldom took time off. Today though, he had outsourced the day to day affairs to a few ‘trusted’ subordinates and had found himself in Pensacola. The weather was something that he found entirely comfortable, even with the dark pinstripe and the cravat, his hair remained a perfect sculptured wave of white blonde hair and his face was a perfect study of milk poured atop ivory.
He tutted to himself, cast the cigarette to the ground and crushed it beneath the heel of his boots before walking to join the other mourners. He walked alongside a young couple, their eyes red with tears who kept looking to the small, vicious knot of people across the street. The elder of the two went to approach but his partner put a steadying hand out and shook his head.
‘They’re not worth it.’
The young man turned and looked into the perfect, violet eyes of the stranger.
‘Sorry, he hates those guys.’
He looked past them and narrowed his eyes.
‘On grounds of taste alone, I’d agree.’
He knew that the couple were Iain and Benjamin, that they had met in college and were at one point, experimenting with the deceased in a polyamorous relationship before primal notions of dominance asserted themselves and they did not speak for a while. He knew the worst in people, and that was why he loved them so much.
Looking at the church, he knew what would be said and what would be meant. Funerals were clumsy affairs and seldom captured a life, good or bad. They were for the living, and the dead oftentimes spoke of the self serving omissions and errors that irritated them. The event that marks your passing has all the depth and veracity of a celebrity autobiography.
So, seeking amusement, he walked across the street. He heard calls and ignored him, lit up another cigarette because it would irritate them and he smoked like a fiend. He was not afraid of cancer, cancer was afraid of him.
‘YOU’RE GOING TO BURN IN HELL, FAGGOT.’
They spoke in upper case, angry comments on the internet without the excuse of anonymity. He pitied how empty they looked, even he knew the fullness of existence. Even though it hated him.
‘I was actually coming to thank you, actually.’
His fringe had fallen into his eyes but he kept it in order to avoid having to look at them directly. He inhaled the cigarette smoke, enjoyed the tickle in his throat and how they had lapsed into silence.
One of them, with his dad bod, undulating chin waddle sparsely covered by a beard that resembled glued on pubic hair stared at him. Every instinct screaming to run, but self righteousness and hitherto undiagnosed fetal alcohol syndrome made him stand his ground.
‘For saving your immortal soul? I should think so.’
Lou chuckled, a dry, ugly sound like dessicated branches sweeping against a window pane. It was a laugh that once sounded chimes in the heart of creation, but time and circumstance had rendered it’s beauty into something practical and terrifying.
‘Oh you sorry little sac, you really have no idea how it works, do you?’
Lou managed something that had eluded the great and the good who encountered the group’s feverish infant protests.
‘He doesn’t concern himself with hatred, neither does the boy. He pities your lack of understanding, if anything.’
He lit up another cigarette. It carried an unearthly scent, due to the fields it was grown in, fertilised with the eternal corpses of the damned. It made marijuana look like child vitamins and the crowd’s noses wrinkled collectively in response.
‘But why let the facts get in the way of the resolutely good time you all appear to be having, eh?’
Dadbod gripped the sign in his doughy hands and began to advice. Lou laughed and waved his finger in a mocking gesture.
Dadbod, looked around, lost in a storm of primal panic and aggression, before committing to the worst possible decision and charging him. Huffing to accommodate his lack of experience with actual aggression and a cardiovascular system that would lose in a race with a sleepy dormouse, he charged and for a moment, imagined shoving this petulant asshole to the floor. In an instant, he saw the approval of his peers as a parade of hateful good feeling and was heartened by it.
Which was when Lou stepped neatly to the left and watched him tumble, using his face as a brake. Pink and scarlet shreds of skin laid in streaks against the asphalt, like abandoned gum, devoid of flavour but not colour. Dadbod screamed, clutching his face and Lou walked over to him.
‘This, Gary, is a perfect metaphor for your approach.’
His smile uncoiled, a bright and terrible beauty that made it’s mark on this world and he continued.
‘I have no time for lectures, but I encourage you to really pray. Listen to that small voice, the one that you actually struggle with but you pretend is dyspepsia, and follow that.’
He stood up, bowed formally from the waist and went about his day with a wink that made the nascent libidos of many of the protestors and crowd flutter like a newborn butterfly. There was a woman at the tent hire place he wanted to look at, and a plate of chicken parmesan to enjoy.
Abigail opened the window and caught the scent of honeysuckle from the garden, brought in by the breeze as she looked down, watching little Perry sleep in that febrile intense way all babies did. She touched the crib, wondering who the baby would take after, as he grew up.
His father, Jeff, had a spade of a jaw, sharp grey eyes and jet black hair that had manfully accepted ageing with a light greying at the temples. Football had given him a broad chest and wide shoulders, but he hid his bulk beneath good tailoring. As a boy, she could hope that Perry would be half as handsome as his father. It could be a burden for a son, to try and thrive in the shadow of his father’s achievements but Abigail believed that there was some cast in his infant expressions that suggested a palpable wilfulness.
She looked around, the nursery had been decorated with the same exquisite if disconnected taste that set the rest of the house apart. Every room had the detail of a movie set, a magazine aesthetic made real and Perry in time, would understand that toys were things to be put away and he would learn from his parents how important appearances were.
Abigail could not restrain herself and reached into the crib. He was a quiet baby though, and his big dark eyes popped open, black pearls against the cream of his skin as she lifted him into her eyeline. Such a beautiful boy warranted her complete attention.
Jeff called out Rosaria’s name. He looked at Belinda, sleek and angular in the black dress that she had spoken about getting into again before the epidural had worn off. She would not let him touch her but she wanted to look good for the summer again.
The baby was supposed to have changed things. Rosaria had not responded to his call. She was not a patch on her predecessor but Belinda had not appreciated criticism of her hands-off approach to parenting. That, and Belinda had mentioned something about the background check coming back with some odd discrepancies in it. Still, his irritation with the new nanny had deepened into a piquant concern.
Belinda’s shriek made his back teeth ache and he ran up the stairs, heart thumping hard in his chest.
Rosaria had been bound at the wrists and ankles, eyes wide with panic as she swallowed against the gag that sat between her teeth. Jeff turned on his heel and ran towards the nursery. Belinda stood there, shuddering and reaching into her purse for her cigarettes.
He opened the door to the nursery, saw that the bay windows were open and the cot was empty. Belinda had lit a cigarette as she kept asking him what he was going to do, and as he opened his mouth to speak, he caught the smell of the flowers from the garden and realised that he had no idea at all.
Clea kept flexing her right hand as she waited in the queue. The surgery had been successful but she would never have full function again, and the painkillers merely took the edge off the pain but never removed it entirely. She would shift the small pile of books from one arm to the other. Her library card was, out of everything, the most valuable part of her new identity for her.
Books were her only escape now, aside from the painkillers and the SSRIs. The therapy, a condition of her parole, left her scrubbed raw for days afterwards and she needed these library visits to give her some sense of herself again. She had spent the last five years under the eyes of several institutions, none of whom looked upon her with kindness. She had her supporters but their generosity of spirit was short lived. Another cause, another victim to raise in their estimation and she was left to deal with herself again.
She would have googled herself but she was not allowed to use a computer with access to the internet. Life for her was lived in the margins, defined by where she could not go and what she could not do. Who she could not speak to, or call, or write. A small apartment, so damp that the walls breathed, paperwork and everything cracked, worn and patched up. A second act as depressing as a Werner Herzog documentary.
Today was her son’s seventeenth birthday. She had spoken about it, the therapist sat there, digging into his furred nostril when he thought that she wasn’t looking and staring at his faded brown loafers when she was. She had arranged for a card to be sent, but she would never know if he received it. Christmas had been especially difficult for her this year.
Christmas was always difficult. It had been a time for family, for love and contentment, defined by the pressure for bigger presents, brighter and larger lights, more food and for her to show the world that as a wife, a mother she always went the extra mile.
Steve worked hard, long days and even bringing work home with him, barking numbers into the phone as he sat in his wood panelled den. He loved her, not in the way that she wanted but as a symbol, a symptom of his invention and his determination. He looked at her but barely even saw her.
Unlike Finn, her son’s friend. Cerulean blue eyes, jet black hair and honeyed skin. Lean from track, ungainly as though his limbs had a life independent of his will. Shirts versus skins in the yard, watching him with a frosted glass of lemonade pressed against her cheek. Flush with heat as she watched him.
It had seemed so small a thing, to express an interest in him. Both his parents were absent in their own ways, Greg ran a car dealership and Rebecca drank. He bloomed at her attention and her thirst grew more complex, sharper and richer. He had come over when she was alone in the house one afternoon, thirteen years old and trembling with curiosity and confusion. A stronger woman would have turned him away.
Clea would have turned him away.
But her name was not Clea then.
Later, with only dry literature to sustain her, she had come across a quote from Oscar Wilde. Had missed it during the cycles of mom memes, photos and passive aggressive status updates. That he could resist anything except temptation.
Then, Finn had brought a friend.
And another. Feverish, damp knots of flesh in the basement.
She had been at the PTA meeting when the police arrived. By then, it was almost a relief. She had reached down into the fire of her need and been scarred by it. The trial, the sentencing, the comments online all spoke with either vulgarity, muted indignation or dissembling. Even prison had been brief, and Clea knew that had she been a man with a pubescent girl, or god forbid a boy, she’d never have seen daylight again. The shiv through her forearm had been the only notable incident and that had shaved some time off her sentence.
Today, she had picked up John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick and there was a copy of Germaine Greer’s The Boy that she knew would necessitate hiding but still, she needed something. Without making conversation, she checked the books out at the self service terminal and went outside. She could have waited for the bus but it was a nice evening and she wanted to walk. Such small pleasures were all she had left.
She could look through the Greer on the way.
The park would have taken ten minutes off the walk but she did not risk it, not at night and so she kept to the main streets until she saw the sagging building that she called home. She had the rest of the tagliatelle for supper, then it would be a cup of tea, a bit of reading and then sleep. She had the privacy of her head, at least, both heaven and hell to her dependent upon her mood and her circumstances. God loves a trier, her daddy had said.
Then she felt the cold hard object at the base of her spine.
‘Gimme yo’ fucken’ purse.’
She panicked, eyes watering as she put her hands up, dropping her purse and her books. She inhaled the tangy musk of perspiration, layers of that cheap body spray and the faint hue of pot.
‘It’s on the floor. ‘
She turned her head, looking into eyes that were tawny gold, like fresh cider, brown skin over high cheekbones and all of it framed in a faded hood as he raised the pistol up to her face.
‘Pick it up, ain’t got all day.’
She reached but her fingers touched the cover of the Greer book, the index finger blessing where the collar bone of the angelic boy on the cover, the face that made her ache with longing as Finn’s face had.
It had gotten to her that he had not coped well afterwards. The memory had been hidden for so long from her conscious mind that she began to turn, infected with the same fervour that had brought those packs of beautiful boys to her, their first and for Finn, his last. Someone had shouted at them and she looked up, the boy’s face was a mask devoid of sentiment and passion. Beautiful and terrible all the same.
He raised the barrel of the gun, and she did not close her eyes. She smiled at him and wished that she’d been given time enough to thank him.
She brought up her hand and the world went red.
Milk 4 pints
Bread white toastie
The size waist I had before the children
Oh god probably too much of that
The guy who works in the butchers to look at me again
And he’s wearing the t shirt so I can see his arms
Some way to ensure that the top gets put back on after use.
All the hours spent providing emotional labour
The way my feet used to look