Re lack of recent material: we are up to our fucking pineal glands in new-house work, supervising Fir the rampant demon in puppy form and trying to keep all the other real-life plates spinning. Ceiling to coat. Floor to sand. Floor to poly. Vanity to install. Trellis to put up. Painting to finish. Garden to install. Steps to build. Finish exterior painting. You get the idea. I will post some pics when I get a chance but christ on a cracker, I do not have time to scratch my own arse at the moment.
Losing Felix was a throat punch from hell. I just can't overstate how hard it's been for us these last few weeks without him to make life worth getting out of bed for, but you've probably lost your own dogs and know only too well how that feels. It suffices to say that things have been bad.
We began looking at NZ poodle kennels just to get a feel for how long we'd have to wait for a pup from a reputable breeder (don't buy random/backyard dogs, people). We would like to have taken a rescue poodle, but there aren't many suitable candidates around. We also love the breed in particular and don't think it's unethical to support the people responsible for maintaining it in good standing; it's pretty glib to condemn show kennels when they seem to be the only ones who give a toss about genetic testing, appropriate matings and breed integrity. Those things matter. While some dogs are definitely being held to ridiculously extreme and physiologically deleterious standards, many more of the canine strains we love are with us today only because of the diligence of dedicated breeders. I just wanted to say that because they get a lot of hate from some quarters, much of it founded in ignorance.
We liked Inchcolm Poodles for their black miniature-only program and emphasis on health and confirmation, but we were resigned to waiting months. As it turned out, one little fellow was looking for a home and we were overjoyed to give him one.
These pics are about a week old and he's grown so much in that time. He had his first big boy haircut in the last couple of days and looks so much like a tiny adult that people stop and stare, unable to decide exactly what the hell is going on with him. Like most poodles, he is freakishly- some say malignly- intelligent, inherently militant and hero-worships the long suffering Hamish, my mother's Bichon/Maltese/Schnauzer veteran who has had enough of his shit already.
He sleeps in the bathroom (toilet training necessity) and brays like an angry helium-huffing werewolf when placed there. Fir shows great promise.
In its cryptic, pristine harmonies of form and saturated colour the forest might have seemed to Susan a sympathetic refuge, at least to that part of her most weary of her own shape. Its disregard was perfect but its anamorphic scale, crowded so unremittingly over watershed ridges and stream-hewn valleys, resisted idle appreciation and began by late afternoon to inspire sentiments that shared their hue with its sombre, tannic shade. Dryad saddles, iron-grey and corpuscle-red, flourished in tiers upon parasitized boles footed with golden hordes of leather shanks. Sullen, bronze-eyed vipers basked on moss mounded like velveteen malachite, their muted livery overlaid with glossy opaline under scattered scales of sunlight, unseen as she followed William beneath the canopy. Its deciduous component was bleached tired lime and livid golds by the late season, borne on stout, diverging rafters that sheltered both their callow saplings and perishing progenitors. The latter were pressed deeply into the earth under their own ponderous weight, taller supine than Susan stood on both feet, shorn roots and broken crowns draped in moss and absinthe-coloured lichen, indistinguishable from each other in decay. Fallen boughs were lesser shapes amongst the dead leviathans and lay both arched and lax like old mens’ arms in infinite variation.
Her tread had long ceased to remind her of the burn in both legs; stripes of smudged mold on her forearms were tokens of missteps arrested by the flashbulb timing of her companion’s hooked grasp on her clothing, the ease afforded by his profound physical advantage throwing her own breathless efforts once more into unflattering contrast. William walked with his head slightly inclined, draped by a lace-like line of sunlight where the leaves were cast in ornamenting shadow over his back and down the length of his arms. Appetence pursued her, the rhythm of her stride and breathing speaking to inclinations gratified but not assuaged by the taste she had enjoyed under the votive oak. She felt herself naked and sunlit, and the gorgeous, transportive pleasures of his mouth and hands, enjoying them privately while he braced himself against a nest of bramble canes and pinned it back for her. Turning sideways, she shuffled past, halting with her back to him; his free hand slid into the warmth between her thighs as he leant down and licked the nape of her neck.
"How do you know?" she smiled.
"It's my job."
"Don't... I'll be picking out thorns for a year." she murmured, the slow stroke of his hand staying her almost to the point of disregard for her own caution. She sighed and ducked out of the brambles, waiting while he extricated himself and allowing him ahead of her again. He helped her over a steep case of rock onto the apex of the hill, a long plateau shouldered by two greater masses. Susan wished heartily for some view of their wider surrounds but the rise afforded no particular outlook, waist-high grass crowding the level ground between the trees. “At least look knackered.” she grinned, drinking from her bottle and wiping at her chin. William lapsed back slackly, flattening the grass beneath him and lying with his arms upturned beside his head. “I said knackered.” she complained. He encircled her calves with his legs then rose on his knees to hook his fingers into the back of her jeans, biting softly at the flesh on her hip. She whispered over the chiming sounds of his teeth on the button of her fly and the zip descending, her mouth falling open as he used his own to its greatest effect. A small stone sailed across the clearing and struck the trunk of the tree overhead, then his skull, prompting him to curse and rise; he held up a hand to her inquiry while she closed her jeans. Twenty metres distant through the overgrown glade the manual elements of Edward's silent communique earned a reply in kind.
“House, half a click north, empty... stay behind me, I run, you run.” William related.
Susan mouthed the first word back to him as he picked up her pack, but swallowed her frowning incredulity, crossing the grass behind him and keeping her head down as they discovered the narrow suggestion of a path. It led into the trees, the intensity of the gloom beneath compelling her to close and accustom her eyes while he stood and scanned it for himself. William crooked a finger to her, picking up a stick to trace the spoor that deer had trundled by a large stone in the midst of the way, directing her attention to a small russet shape amongst the leaves banked behind it. When she shrugged, he stroked back the litter to reveal another brown point, then two more, until she recognized them as the rusted teeth in a pair of grinning iron jaws lying armed beneath the featherweight debris. She whispered expletives; he used the twig to indicate again the discursive tracks of the other creatures and Susan nodded at the exemplar, appalled by the size of the gaping snare as they stepped around it.
The structure to which Edward had referred loomed in beech shadow, the netted branches squeaking and groaning against each other in a stir from the east. Seeming a simple black shape from its south end, it extended itself as she approached into a windowless longhouse under a single hooded gable, standing on shoulder-high piles of oak and walled with pit-sawn slabs greened with moss. The roof and beaten paths on either side were masked from any aerial view by the limbs interlaced along its length. Edward returned from his reconnoiter and made one more sweep of the space between the piles.
“What is this?” she asked, unscrewing her bottle.
"An eidiré." William exchanged more densely-phrased gestures with his brother. "Alujha summer house."
He nodded. A line of steps had been hacked into a trunk set against the north corner; he made a silent offer of the interior, to which she shook her head emphatically. Edward had already set off on a more intimate examination of their surrounds, and William climbed into the longhouse on his own. Fatigue settled on her unexpectedly as she sat down at the edge of the dirt path, inducing her to lay her head upon her knees though she regretted the shade immediately, its stagnant pall thick with floating spores sifted from the timbers overhead. The ground between the piles was rank and bald of vegetation. Toward its midst she found a strange coherence amid the stale, paddled mud and drew out her torch, playing it over two coiled chains, their fat links crudely-fashioned and corroded, extended from a collar of iron encircling the foot of a pillar. Another shape lying between them, half-swallowed by the mud, prompted her to reach into the darkness with a stick to pry it loose. Its slack curve refused her at first, then pulled free. It was a woman's shoe, its scuffed red patent heavy with engulfing soil, the diamantés on its narrow ankle strap stained grey and lustreless. Susan reversed out of the shadow and dropped the stick from her grasp, taking herself swiftly to the steps in William's wake.
The eidiré’s lateral scale was far more impressive from within, daylight falling through the eaves and slatted walls to lie in stripes upon the floor, its jet-like timbers polished by bare feet and bedding to an ambiguous lustre, on which the soles of her boots squeaked loudly, keeping her still. A flat stone slab formed an open hearth beneath a cooking frame, the iron tripod rubbed with fat. The thatch and timber were soaked with the dirty ghost of smoke and the rude bass notes of barbarous masculinity, full of a low and shuffling fougére green and animalic elements that touched her like unbidden hands in a darkness already congested with the black taint of proscription. Her companion's glance at her discomfort was overlaid by the silvered green of its internal structures.
“Tastes evil.” she murmured.
"Nāmeré.” he replied, miming a pair of breasts against his chest and crossing them out emphatically. “Heavy duty no-skirt beef."
"There were women on Caleb’s hahdri... what about Gévaudan?"
"It's loose in the New World, and Auberjonois is a geris alujh, a bear wolf... méchant loup... he can do what the fuck he likes." William scowled at the smell of the hearth. "These dickheads are sausage party fundamentalists."
"What would happen if they caught me in here?"
"Their balls would crawl up into their arseholes."
“They would chain you to a tree and use you like a midden until the next moon.” said Edward, his shape filling the doorway in silhouette. He reached up into the rafters with one hand, sliding fingers along the central beam in a swift, purposeful sweep, his gaze briefly challenging her own until she turned from him. Eager for the distraction, she counted off the number of berths on the floor, their presence worn into the timbers like the dim, inscrutable casts impressed by medieval saints in the course of their austerities. The restless sounds of her clothing as she moved began to trouble her and she dropped both hands to her sides, shrugging back her shoulders uncomfortably.
“There could be thirty people sleeping here." she asserted, looking to William. "Where are they all?”
“This is laid up... they're on their way to winter quarters.”
Outside the longhouse the afternoon seemed blinding despite the ponderous clouds that had begun to catch on the hills and gather thickly overhead. She watched her companions step down onto the path with the same strange, remote expression, as though some fraction of their attention had departed to course their surroundings independent of conscious instruction. Her ruminations tangled in the chains beneath the eidiré and payed their spectre out behind her, the other filthy, despairing artifact adding its weight to the drag. A train of wind pushed through the trees and blew the moldering litter past her boots as the first cold splashes of rain dropped through the branches, striking her cheeks. Edward glanced at the sky while William took her arm and directed her around another trap set into the final stretch of visible path. The sight of another deliberate mass through the saplings and brambles of a second clearing stopped her in her tracks, the great black walls of an even larger alujha barracks standing not ten minute's walk from the first. Edward walked on alone to satisfy himself of its desertion and she leant heavily against the tree behind her, sheltering from the rain beneath her parka hood; the forest shifted again, tilting southwards as the incoming front blew a sudden clout across the rise.
"Sachiin... if something happens, if we get split up... I don't want to end up chained to one of those things." she said quietly, nodding toward the longhouse. William did not reply, but set down her pack and crouched beside it, delving blindly amid its contents. Sliding the handgun he had pressed on her from the pocket of her parka, she held it out to him, wiping at her nose. "I know you know the best way to do it, and I need to know, so just... show me how." she urged. "Please." He shook his head and whispered in his own tongue, and she glanced toward Edward's return from the eidiré; he took the weapon from her and replaced it, upside down, in her grasp.
"Put it in your mouth. Angle up an inch from the base of your skull and keep that line." he advised over his shoulder on his way to resuming point.
Her breath threw plumes of thick white vapour as she stood staring dumbly at William, rain dripping from her chin onto her boots. They marched on inside her skull as she held the end of the tent with hands that glowed, crimson and freezing, inside her wet gloves. The wind had stripped the leaves from the tallest beeches, leaving a short black-stone bluff and its footing of bracken to offer a brake from the rain that had already worked beneath her parka and soaked her jeans, nightfall chilling it down to wet specks of slush that pressed a cold burn to her face.
They crowded the wedge of level ground, William stamping down the ferns to cushion the tent from the earth. When she did not avail herself of it immediately he reached out and helped her from her parka, its padded folds clinging like a hundred years of dead, wet skin. Even within the thickness of her sleeping bag she took a long time to recover while he sat crossed-legged beside her like a placid giant beneath the mottled fabric, as undiminished by the day’s travails as she was beaten by them. Leaning over his lap, he unzipped the bottom of the bag and eased her feet onto his legs; she groaned, protesting the removal of her socks. Her heels wept thickly, having been rubbed raw by her boots and he muttered to himself as he examined the damage, licking each short length of birch bark he had taken from his pocket and pressing them to her blisters. Satisfied, William split a packet of soba and foisted the contents upon her. She lay with the stiff noodles between her teeth, eyes closed, prompting him to take two cigarettes between his lips and shake his head at her pleading look, pointing sternly to the packaged meal. The taste of cold miso was strangely appalling, thick and gamey as she chewed the gelid mass, glancing at him reproachfully. With it swallowed down, she lay back while William tucked the cigarettes into the box. The bag's hood puffed slowly around her ears. He smiled sideways at her.
"How long do I get?"
"Four hours." He saw that it taxed her to question him and reassured her preemptively. "I don't actually have to sleep, poupée, it's just pure fucking laziness on my part."
"How can you... not sleep... your brain must be.... it..." Her breathing devolved into a snore before she could complete the sentence, and he listened with a frown to the slight catch in her chest until she rolled over. Outside, the rain subsided into a cold, expended calm.
He changed places with his brother when Edward’s watch came to an end, the latter so silent that it was a cramp in Susan’s back that opened her eyes, his seated vigil concerned solely with the ground beyond the tent. In his right hand he held not the gun that she had expected, but a long, inornate knife, its edge turned out in an avid white plane, the black stock folded in his fingers. Closing her eyes again, she dredged both the empirical and apocryphal for something equal to the task of getting past him, drawing a wide and satisfying blank. How often he had been weighed thus by fraught companions, valued by the lethal ounce like some fabled poison, was likewise beyond her. When she looked at him again, his gaze had descended through the floor of the tent, past the life secreted in the darkness of the soil and deep into the stone beneath, lending him an attitude of sorrowful reclusion so plain that she was reminded once more of its cause. Susan wondered if that distant protagonist shivered with the same untended wound.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce
Felix passed away last night after a short battle with an unexpected cancer relapse. He was brave and loving, as usual. We are so ripped up and bereft. He is laid to rest with us in our garden, as is our custom.
If you live with another animal, please love them and do your best for them.
Thank you to Tenoch and Jo, who helped him get better and eased his path at the end. Thank you to the vets that helped him do the same, particularly Sue who saw that he passed so quickly and peacefully.
Roger just showed me this photo he found from our time with Foofie at the reservoir, a place he adored beyond measure. I love it and wanted to share it with you. If you've been reading our blog, you probably know what he meant to us.
Go safely, Felix. We thank you and love you, always.
Wonky panorama taken on a phone from the central balcony.
The Regent is a late Victorian baroque extravaganza and apparently the only intact survivor of this idiom, at least in the southern hemisphere. I know all the ones in Chch were knocked down in the 90s and the remaining, partial stragglers were taken out by the earthquakes. Which makes me sad; you'll never be full feral til you've sat through Wild at Heart or Anatomie de l'enfer amongst that particular kind of feverish, moulting grandeur. It's like tonguing a lollypop in the lap of a benevolent if superannuated courtesan with mercury poisoning. There may be odours, but you learn so much.
The Regent was infamous for rejoicing in special arse-punishing seating; I remember writhing my way through a screening of Metropolis and swearing never the fuck again, so it took a lot to tempt me back to watch Romeo and Juliet (free tickets fuck yeah). Despite the original coccyx-compressors having been replaced in a recent restoration the new seats are just as bloody hard on the buttockal region in an entirely new way. Goddamit.
It was fun to watch all the flinty, thirsty ballet mums trying to out-alpha each other, less fun seeing more than one nascent ED in their anxious offspring. The Royal NZ Ballet was mmmokay (Juliet was awesome); special mention for set and costumes. No pictures of the performance because people who do that shit need to die in a fucking fire.
The thin warmth of the morning’s first unimpeded rays struck her face as they emerged from the edge of the pines and climbed downward over ground sloping steeply and unevenly. Thistles pricked through the legs of her jeans as she made her own way to the narrow, sunken curvature of another river, walled on its far side by a towering scarp of forest. The water was an explicit demarcation between the cline behind them, long accustomed to incursion, and primal, unchallenged arborea; its stalwarts crowded right to the edge of the far bank, too starkly massive for the axe, the proud volunteers on the clearing beyond scions of a puissant archetype, its league-long shadow creeping backward with the sun's ascent. Where the ground rose from the root-sewn cut two sauropodian spruce stood abreast of one another, long, pale staffs of light dropping through their heads into the depths of the water beneath. Branches sawn from their pointed crowns had left vacancies exposing the thickly-crusted trunks where the bark had been adzed from two great discs of naked, whey-pale wood, forming totem eyes that glared across the river. Their scale and foreboding import served its hostile edict well. Monstrous plumes of fern, twining bindweed and other supple subordinates choked their feet as though in worshipful rapture, trailing their roots and whiplike greenwood in the river.
Edward stood at its edge. She turned from staring up at the íve to study him in the same mercenary earnest, sitting down on a stone to do so.
"So through all this, there's a pile of rocks crawling with rats with our name on it?" Susan inquired, her appraisal concluded.
"I don't think too many rats would bother with it." William admitted.
"If we weren't staring down the barrel of a full moon, I'd say... five easy days, but we are, so you'll have to do it in three.” The wind came up around the river bend and swept a pall of corrugation across its surface, moving the dry grass against their legs.
“What if we don’t get there in time?"
"Sai ilsii nais ii'syln si sa'ilya." Edward observed unexpectedly, prompting her to look back to his brother.
"He said you won't survive the night."
Brushing the dust from her water bottle, she lifted what remained in it to her lips.
"Anything else I should know?"
William edged a pile of little stones into a berm with his bare toes.
“Just the usual rural bullshit... if the weather turns, we could be forced to sit out a month, and you’ve got food for maybe two weeks. That's not a dealbreaker... you can eat flesh and there's plenty around. But if something happens to you, there's no opiates, no antibiotics.” he explained. "Sorry, cloudcheeks..."
"It's not your fault." Susan sighed. "I should have brought some."
“If I have to make a run for pharms with these alujha arsehats in the way, it’d be forty eight hours, minimum, and you’ll be left chewing wood with that there tap dancing on your fucking morale.” he added, nodding at his brother.
"He doesn't speak English any more." she reminded him. They shared a brief and private smile.
"It's the distance, more than anything. Three days... it's not enough time.”
Her dark, dry eyes caught Edward’s gaze.
“There you go... it might not be a dead loss. I might not make it, and I'll probably break something trying. I could be begging you to shoot me in twenty four hours, so don't bother looking like I'm the one who'll get you fucking killed." She turned back to William. "Do you think he ever wonders why he's out here on his own?"
Dissent lapsing, he waited while she hauled herself to her feet and walked with him to the water’s edge. She knelt to fill their bottles and slake her thirst; to her surprise, her two companions began to shed their packs and weapons, then their uppermost items of clothing, descending to their knees beside the river. From its shallows they each lifted a dripping hand and touched it to their heads, murmuring a private orison, abashing her own thoughtless entitlement. William glanced at her silent inquiry.
“Puja... thanking you, Great Mother, for not smiting us in advance, and for the use of your gracious amenities, sincerely, your loyal servant Sachiin, PS, please don’t smite my godless bitch either, I’m not done with her arse, thanks again, yours truly amen etc.”
“She’ll smite you for calling me your godless bitch.”
“She knows I mean well.” They watched Edward assume his burden of ordinance and pick up half the water she had collected, wading out into the river alone. William waited until he had disappeared between the two gigantic spruce before granting her a look of secretive admiration. “Nice burn back there, but I’d wait til he gets off his rag before tweaking him again.”
“Yes, well now he’s got my fucking drinking water, hasn’t he?” she whispered.
“If you think about his romantic orientation Christabel, the kick he gets from yanking your chain is probably semi-erotic, so er, yeah... keep that in mind.” With her boots tied across her shoulders, Susan climbed awkwardly onto William's own as he knelt for her; he secured her legs and rose so quickly to his full height that she cried out and clutched his chin with both hands, urging him to stand still. “I am standing still.” he replied. She gazed around them with his rifle balanced across her thighs, directing him via her grasp on his ears.
"How can you stand being so far off the ground? Be careful..." she added, sucking in a breath when he stepped down into the water. It rose to lap the bare soles of her feet while he paused in the midst of the stream to negotiate a sunken snag; she bent low and pressed her face into his hair. "I think I would have flown all this way just to smell you."
"And that's perfectly healthy and normal. But we have to get to Pet’s without giving Chucky an excuse to take a run at the gristle-munchers." he advised discreetly. "He’d chew through fucking lead to start shit with someone. If we do bump into dog, we front for our sweet fucking lives... if they poke us with their sweaty trouser wood, we let them, sha bai?"
"I can't wait. Oh fuck...” she cried as his last packet of cigarettes floated free of his inundated breast pocket. He lurched sideways, threatening to tip her into the river and caught them, setting them on his head for the remainder of their crossing.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce
Courtesy of the Lovely R.
We haven't posted much recently because we've been both in the midst of building, and nursing Felix, who has a very debilitating neck injury and needs round the clock care. We're hoping it's a pinched nerve and not anything malignant, but the level of supervision required to stop him doing injurious stuff is pretty draining, so I just don't feel like writing.
I'll try to post a new excerpt tomorrow. Thanks for your patience.
Our garden is home to a small, slightly battered looking but incredibly conscientious and very tame blackbird cock called Daddy. He nests around the house with his baby mother and keep us company while we're in the garden, so much so that we practically have to shoo him out from under our feet. A weird wind emptied their last brood onto the ground a couple of weeks back and I managed to save one before the local (unbelled and totally unconstrained) cats found it; we raised it successfully on kitten food, conditioning mix and meal worms and now Chicky resides in the aviary, probably awaiting release since he/she seems to have decent feeding instincts.
I know they're not native but we were please to be able to help out.
The violence of the sound that hacked into her placid dream accompanied a pair of hands that tore the zip down beneath her chin. Susan choked, struggling inside the sleeping bag until a blank set of features swung into focus, glowing as coldly as the constellations in the blackness overhead. One of the hands sealed her mouth, forcing her to expend her cry against its palm; that it was Edward who accosted her was a notion barren of relief as he hoisted her out of the enfolding quilt with the kind of impatience that she might have reserved for a toppled piece of furniture. The sky was still wholly innocent of diurnal influence as she stood blinking at her assailant, who glanced back at her as though she were proof of something bitterly suspected. He snatched up her tote bag and tipped its contents onto the ground, sorting them with so unfailing a sense of purpose that she could think of no coherent rebuke. William hissed at him as he leapt down from the slope overhead, pulling her back from the edge of the adjacent incline in her witless disorientation. Edward threw her soap, cigarettes, sunscreen and caramel toffee down the hillside before applying the same unbidden scrutiny to her pack, prompting her to snatch it from his grasp.
“Will you stop doing that?” she cried. He wrenched it back from her hand, turning his yellow stare on his brother as the latter yanked the pack away from him.
"Thi'ii sai'inae ra'ana." the intruder sneered with scathing emphasis, lifting the hood of his sweatshirt. “Nai’il a’ si hahdri. Ae ishah esai sai’inae il’avani sha siith la’anith’le si alujha liis’ala nya.” He strode away into the darkness from which he had arrived.
Still mazed, Susan stooped to gather up what she could find of her scattered belongings.
"Fucking hell... what was that?"
"You can smell that stuff a long way out..." William admitted reluctantly, holding out her bag as she replaced its inventory.
"Mardy bastard. He didn't think I'd show up, did he?" she insisted, glancing at him, and then in the direction the offender had taken. He shook his head while she straightened out and huffed a weary sigh.
At the bottom of the ridge another rise marked an abrupt shift in vegetation, leaving behind the gentler deciduous character of the lower hills. A nameless conifer stood in infinite swathes of barely-varied repetition, its thin craquelure bark rendered in bruised cyan by both the hour and the vapor laced about them, lower limbs atrophied by shade into barbed and naked quills. She followed William carefully, ducking the jutting tinder while he turned from a game trail to cut across the slope.
“How do you know where we’re going?” She projected the whisper over the sound of her own shuffling footfalls.
"We're following two hundred and seventy-five pounds of bad attitude and it’s not exactly hiding its light under a schnitzel.” he advised. Narrowing her eyes, she stared hard over the incline in a vain attempt to mark the evidence to which he referred. William nodded down at the ground beside his bare feet; she took out her torch, passing it over the dead needles, a series of faint, slurred scuffs in the litter coming together in almost magical association at his suggestion.
The hill rose to the north in a lopsided fashion, exposing a cliff like a diadem of rifted black stone that stared away over their heads toward the south. A tangle of fingerling rivulets rushed down through fissures underfoot, the clay refusing the trees' questing roots and forcing them on broad, veining forays. Their branches gathered the mist and released it as fickle precipitation, dropping on her head and into the collar of her parka and she put the pen light between her teeth, freeing her hands to negotiate the treacherous going. In William's silence she became aware of her own toiling progress and halted, embarrassed, only to shriek aloud at the whooshing shape of a bird, its undercarriage ghosting suddenly from the darkness as it grasped a neighbouring branch. Its pupils shrank in their gilded orange grounds when her light struck its face.
“Eye od, iss ah ow.” she cried, torch still clutched between her teeth. The great bird clapped its beak and regarded them with skepticism beneath two wildly-feathered tufts, like the upswept, autonomous brows of some aged academic. William uttered a clicking, onomatopoeic version of its remarks and was rewarded with a flare of densely-barred wings, their intricate, striated beauty couched in bisque and dusty brown. Susan's smile was answered by his own, his eyes closing against the light she swung into his face. She chuckled, though her grin fell to a frown as the beam pushed past him through mist that had drawn back in floating shreds from the way ahead; she set off after the glimpsed impression, catching each trunk in turn to keep her footing.
The feeble beam jumped over the deer trail, then a pair of filthy, mud-streaked jeans and she started backward, slowing her scrambling retreat when the figure remained in its curious association with the trunk of a wayside pine. With the torch aimed at the ground she discovered army boots pasted with clay where their toes had been dragged, the ploughing trail concluding behind them and confused by a scurried blurring of the mud to either side. Susan drew a girding breath and passed light over the shape cosseted inside a makeshift suite of winter garments. Alive, the stranger had been dark-haired and strongly-built; an army-issue anorak swathed the body beneath the point where it hung from the stump of a branch, unseen face crushed against the trunk. The splintered wood thrust through the left eye protruded wetly from the rear of the skull, parting hair like some inverted facial feature. She looked away, and then leant over, awaiting any reaction her stomach might have reserved.
“Kala'amātya's not that fancy.” William promised. Though her eyes would have seemed black to her own gaze, he could find no shelter from their stern indigo detail, and leant back on a tree, the pack squeaking against the bark. “It’s... old school.” he offered.
“I can see that.”
“Have a gun...” He handed her the pistol from the back of his trousers.
"I don't think it helped him." Susan murmured, staring with a new intent through the transient brume, the naked boles surrounding them like the pillars of some endless concourse. The ground was clammy and unwelcome underneath her as she sat down in a hunch. "You said there wouldn't be anyone out here."
"There wasn't, last time." he sighed. In studying the lifeless figure she found little to deter her from the details of its misfortune despite the chill settling around them, soaked through with the lean grey smell of ashes in the encircling darkness, as though the trees dreamed of their own deaths. She held up a hand, William helping her to her feet and following the lead that she assumed.
A half-mile through the pines brought them to the end of their unnerving exclusivity, at a place where the cliff allowed room for another of the broad, sloughed hollows where a huge scale of clay had once slid clear. At its far corner stood a structure hewn out of raw wood, its sagging silvered walls and low, round beams studded with branch stubs so that it seemed some sinister contrivance by the trees themselves. Water struck its bark and sod roof from the limbs overhead. William handed her the pack, knowing its weight would slow her and used the delay to inspect the hovel on his own.
Another male corpse lay crumpled in camouflage drab beneath the dripping eaves. The figure's symmetry had been ruined by a beating that had snapped its longest bones and caved the ribs on either side of its spine, leaving the bloodsoaked parka to settle in the novel hollows. The stranger's looped and serpentine innards had been ripped through a wound in his left flank; by the debris that they had gathered in their glistening swags, William guessed the man had trailed them for some time over rough ground. He shook his head gravely at Susan's approach, nodding toward the corner of the hut as an alternative.
To her surprise a tiny fire, little more than a half-dozen burning cones, hissed against a ring of damp stones in the lee of the hovel, a can of red beans simmering on the flames, its sooted label emblazoned with cyrillic characters. In her intent upon the hearth she was startled again by a broken moan from the foot of the wall, where another stranger sat before the stones, blond and many days unshaven, wearing the lower half of his army fatigues beneath a plagiarized football shirt of bloodstained red and dirty white. A golden saint gleamed on a chain around his neck, over blurry tattoos of mingled sharks and pudgy birds. The dry timber used to batter his companion had been split and driven through his thighs into the ground beneath, pinning him irrevocably. Very little blood had issued from the pinched and bulging wounds, packed so tightly with torn fabric and intruding wood that they offered no hope of palliative haemorrhage, though the smell leaking into the underlying clay answered streaks of septic colour inside his trousers. She walked to the furthest edge of the firelight while William questioned him in careful Russian, at which the man spat, replying in his own tongue.
“He's Ukranian, the others were locals... running deserter candy down from Lviv.” he told Susan, lifting the beans off the fire and setting them down beside her. She squatted with her back to the smuggler, too oppressed to pertain much more to his condition. Hunger overcame disgust and dug the spoon from her pack, the beans warm and saline in her mouth as she shoveled them in.
“Is that old school?” she muttered.
"It's dujju nahat... the coward’s death. He must have tried to run.”
"From who?" William looked out into the trees; the silence confirmed her worst suspicions, stilling her spoon in the can.
Her stare flew to Edward as the latter walked into the feeble glow, a box of ammunition beneath his arm. He set his burden down, took the can from her hands and walked around the hearth toward the smuggler, stooping to wave the smell toward the hungry man; the prospect roused him and he reached for them, careless of the pain incurred. Edward questioned him bluntly and repaid his grunting denial by removing the beans and dropping them once more beside Susan, where they tipped sideways.
"If this is alujha, can you not... talk to them or something?" she proposed. William shook his head, gazing around them.
"They're not like Caleb and Annick... they're jihādī crews, from all over. If you're not on a lunar cycle, siith el'la ai'ev si se'lae." He brought his hands together then waved them apart in an expression of the fatal, absolutist sentiment he described. "Alujha live and breathe their hahdris, their naján... if they lose them, they're fucked, and that's what's happening. Everyone's losing their land. The cartels won't help them, so... they either end up eating a ten gauge in a squat somewhere or fighting for whatever's left... places like this. Only the psychos survive."
Susan spoke despairingly to herself, letting her head fall into her arms.
“Who gets the branch through the face and who gets the sticks through the legs?”
"I can take you back into town..."
“You saw those oiks on the plane... that place is as bad as out here.” The sun had begun to thin the failing mist and granted sequined lustre to every drop of water gathered by the trees, though its doubtful beauty did not engage her.
"What is he doing?" she demanded, of Edward's silence. William glanced at him.
"Running the numbers. A dozen of them, two of us, one of you... three days before the full...”
Susan studied their subject in the light of the unwelcome logistics, the shift in his aspect impressing her deeply. The fire had eaten away the twigs and cones and had settled into a pile of pulsing red brands, the colour painted on the surface of his gaze, and she scoured his heedless countenance while the brutal mechanics of expediency absorbed him. He had shed the skin she barely knew, emerging raw and altered from the violence of that secret process, his scattered landmarks, mapped at such great cost, riven and abolished. He startled her again by skirting the fire and stooping to haul the smuggler upright by his collar, opening with an oblique motion of his left hand the man’s unguarded throat, cutting easily through the soft complex of veins and tendons. Blood fled the cursive wound in a silky-looking mass as his victim pitched sideways, eyes dimmed, waxy scalp glowing through his dirty hair. She tucked her head against her shoulder, drawing up her knees.
"Shoot him or something...”
“It’s too loud.” William assured her. “And you never have to do that twice.”
Edward exchanged his rifle for the dead man's superior Russian model and threw the latter’s side arms away into the trees where he had hidden the scrambled elements of the other smuggled ordinance. Susan glowered up at him as he stood examining the action of his stolen weapon.
"You might as well have stayed in Commoriom Drive and gotten paid to fucking murder people." she told him. His eyes pulled focus at her remark; he reached over the fire to seize her, dragging her though her boots ploughed through the sparking hearth, sweeping coals onto the foot of her pack. He marched her swiftly past the shack to the body of the beaten smuggler despite the ferocity of her objections and bent down to tear the coat from the corpse, substantially uncovering its stiffly mottled form. With his fist grasping her collar he made sure she had gained her fill of all that it had suffered before and after death, that the invidious details had found a home behind the gaze she shuttered tightly.
"You are female... you can only dream of ending up like this if these alujha find you." he told her, disuse lending his voice the clarity of new glass. Susan shoved back at him, pulling free and almost tripping over the body's broken legs as William came at his brother, having beaten the embers from her pack. Edward took an uncontested blow, shouldered him aside and quit them, pausing to reclaim the few items he had left by the fire on his way east.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce
We picked three kg of gooseberries and got a shittonne of jam from that, then R decided to go crazy and pick the other currants, which we usually leave for the birds because laziness. The hot month before xmas has turned them into something worth bothering about so we rounded up every remaining Ribes for committal to jars.
Thought you might like to see them since they are so beautiful.
Hope you're having a break. We know not everyone is so lucky, but try to take some time to fucking relax over the new year. This is the lovely native Rata (Metrosideros umbellata) in the front yard of our section next door. It is flowering profusely for the first time, being only about 2m tall and previously shaded by the enormous thuggish Ngaio tree that overhangs the house. Rata are the finest Metrosideros, being more graceful as a whole and in their parts than its skankier, more obvious cousin, the Pohutukawa. Myrtle Rust, a pathogen deadly to this family, has arrived in NZ and threatens to wipe out some of the rarer members, which is fucking horrible. Hopefully the temps this far south will keep it at bay.
I stood barefoot on a hunk of dry blackberry thorns to get this shot. You're welcome.
For me personally, 2017 has been pretty fucking horrible and I know that's something many of you will empathise with. It's also the year I decided, once and for all, that Homo sapiens can fuck all the way off over twenty Ks of rusty nails. For real. I'm mid-forties now and have seen enough, quite frankly. People do definitively suck, that hasn't changed over my lifetime and I don't think it ever will in any fundamental sense.
So- what can we do to at least feel like we're not an integral part of the worst thing to ever happen to this planet? We're devoting our resources exclusively to supporting environmental and (other)animal charities from now on. Which is a relief, actually.
Whatever you're doing to reorganise your priorities next year, good luck. Thanks for sticking with the blog and we hope you're still enjoying it. We're intending to continue as long as the loss of net neutrality doesn't make it completely pointless. On a positive note, Felix is still happy and healthy. Our guest house is finally lurching into something resembling reality and the garden has really come together, so all that's something to look forward to. 2018 better smarten the fuck up.
K, R & Foofie.
R was trimming the weedy vines coming through the ivy in the front yard, and an hour or so later noticed this fucking monstrous stick insect hanging from one of my tree aloes. Stick insect doesn't really cut it- it's more of a log beast. It's the biggest one we've seen and after consulting the literature, about as big as these things actually get. They are utterly harmless, but life in the tropics has left me with a lasting reluctance to tangle with anything larger than my hand possessing more than four legs.
It's a lady Argosarchus, because the males are far less impressive and, in some populations, entirely absent; parthenogenesis renders them obsolete. Lady Argosarchus have it sorted- if a male tried any shit with this big bitch, she'd just stamp him into a paste and go back to munching leaves. Sounds awesome, doesn't it?
The detail and accuracy of their mimicry is astonishing. This is just one of the rewards of going spray-free, so please consider it in your own horticultural practise. We returned her to the remaining vines, and found another species wandering the yard a wee while later, so perhaps we should all be a bit more circumspect when we're hacking away at something.
Two hours after nightfall, Susan called a halt to their progress along the game tracks that followed the spine of the ridge, the baffling darkness reducing her pace to a crawl amid the rocks and rain-worn hollows despite William’s guidance. Blood dried black between her shins and the fabric of her jeans; when she sat down on a stone he was relieved she had conceded where his own objections could not prevail.
“This alright?” she murmured as he set their gear down, refusing the chocolate that he slid from his pocket. “God no, I can’t face anything.”
“If you don’t eat and drink you’ll feel like hell tomorrow, and if you think Ed’s going to stop to rub the cramps out of your legs every two clicks, I have bad news.” he replied. “Eat it. Eat it... eat, you little baggage.” She turned her smirk from the foil he pressed to the corner of her mouth, relenting and biting small pieces from the block.
The prevailing wind had blown thick drifts of dead leaves and needles into the aeolian curves of the stone underfoot; he kicked a mound of them into one of the sculpted shelters and Susan drew the sleeping bag up over her legs and dropped onto his lap, sliding her hands down into the quilted cover while she leant into the curve of his arm. She looked out for the first time from their hard-won elevation; the valley below lay as a dim, distant impression, a deepening of the darkness to her weary gaze, its bounding hills at one with the trees standing about them, their black shapes masking the hushed violet and blue of the stars thrown over their heads by the turn of the earth.
“One day and I’m shattered. I've got to give up smoking.”
“You’re not tapped out, you’re just uncomfortable.” he replied. Her weary dubiety prompted him to elaborate. “When you’re at the last water before the Taklimakan, you have to be able to look over two hundred people and three hundred pack animals and know who's tapped out. If you can’t, you get to explain to Kala'amātya why half the slaves he paid good fucking money for are feeding crows instead of tricking out his bottom line.” He lit two cigarettes and handed her one.
The orange flame atop his lighter illumed a low recess beside them, waist high and hollowed into the rock as though by the tireless working of some animal. Susan bent down to peer into its depths, which had been scoured for a surprising distance into the the cliff; something gleamed against the low curvature of its furthest wall and she frowned, leaning on her hands to make it out. It was an Orthodox crucifix, crudely fashioned in silver or plate, the colour flashing fitfully through the tarnish where it had been affixed to the rock.
“A cross, in a hole, in the middle of nowhere.”
"Atáthik... for vampyres, when they’re caught out on the road.” he said quietly. “Church used to bless them, hoping it would keep the bloodsuckers out, but Jesus isn’t their guy.”
“I cannot think where they come from.” Susan admitted, watching him ponder the query while he flipped the lighter through his fingers.
“It’s like trying to find out who started herpes. If you’re in Ulan Bator, vampyres come from Shanghai... Paris, and it was those Italian bastards. It’s the oldest bargain, to be ridden by something that needs flesh... to strike that kind of deal and get the shit end of the stick. It could have happened anywhere."
"It felt so disgusting, to be bitten. Sort of..." She felt his arms and legs tighten beneath her and smiled to herself faintly. "There’s nothing strange about it in a spooky way... it's just... not being able to stop it, I think. That's the worst part... that and the teeth." Susan curtailed the account in deference to his empathic discomfort, glancing up at him. "When did you first see one?”
“Not for a long time. There’s nothing for them in the mountains... they're city slickers. Kala'amātya was set up in town a long time before I was... he had a place in Samarkand, when it was still Paršvãb, which is a fuck of a long time ago. He was dealing with vampyres before I even knew how to eat off a plate.”
Like the dust that blew in from the neighbouring wastes, the presence of a significant stranger in the most affluent quarter of Paršvãb was a taste in the mouth of the vampyre, a colour other than those of parched summer stone and cracked mud. That the house beyond the gate across the empty way was the town's most luxurious private residence was universally acknowledged; that a foreigner had purchased it was also widely bruited, given the train of slaves and beasts and retainers that had filed in through the north gates like an oasis town afoot. So populous and laden had it been that some thought it a harbinger of catastrophe and taken fright.
There was no sign of this mighty entourage as the vampyre brushed the dust of diurnal repose from his best robe, heavy velvet arbr stained with jade and pomegranate dyes. Splendid though it was, the garment, like his fortunes, had suffered the indignities of the grave, the creature exhorting himself with his old assurance before striding on across the road, passing between the untended gate posts, each thicker than four men stood back to back, their pargeting deeply carved with lion masks.
He found a walled garden planted with arching apricots and roses, beneath which lay benches of skin-smooth marble, their pallor undimmed by the hour. A red horse, bell stilled by its suspicious stance, regarded the intruder from beneath one of the fruit trees while their carefully-tended branches were barked by a pair of desert goats. The vampyre frowned and entered the house, blown sand grating underfoot upon the turquoise tiles.
Grandeur surpassing his most hopeful estimation awaited in the first hall. He smiled at the frescos executed by Hellenic and Egyptian artists, their staring nymphs and rigid bestiaries forming the last word in taste and luxury. The great anteroom lay bare of furnishing but this did not perturb him as much as the flickering of a naked flame, reflected dimly down a passage lined with gleaming green stone. It opened to the star-littered sky beyond the pillars of a peristyle; they were coloured drowsy gold and roseate by a small fire, as might have warmed a desert camp, two figures seated at the blaze. Beside an empty water skin sat a male figure dressed in sombre homespun, black hair tied in a tail, contrasting both his austere features and his wide-set stare. In antithesis, a smoke-skinned crone in a chapan of thick blue felt sat on the far side of the hearth, her white hair knotted in a high wisp. The pendant sleeves of her coat almost concealed the wrinkled stump of her right wrist. The vampyre could discern her origin amongst the clans of the eastern steppe but it was by her great age, tattooed chin and infamous manual deficit that he recognized her personally. She seemed no less appraised, clucking harshly as she lifted a branch from the flames and waved it in the intruder's direction with a scowl that bared her blackened teeth. She railed at length to her companion before dashing her glowing wand back into the fire. With that, the sagacious crone returned to stripping dried meat from a length of antelope bone, gumming it with one slitted eye still on the vampyre.
“I am come to meet the master of this house. Where might he be?” the visitor inquired loudly, using the few words of bandit dialect he had acquired. The pair tried his patience further with their silence until he prepared another botched address.
“I speak the Sogdian tongue.” the male figure muttered, demonstrably.
“Then permit me to remind you that this house is the foremost in Paršvãb, and you are boiling soup bones on its floor like karavansarai rats.” His execration seemed to puzzle them, and the vampyre drew on the dignity he had worn in life as a well-born son of the city. “I am Arimnat, of Paršvãb, its oldest citizen and most learned advisor...”
“I am Kala'amātya, of nowhere, and this woman is I’Tiang-na, of...” Kala'amātya glanced at the crone’s interruption, and amended his remarks. “I’Tiang-na, lately of Paršvãb.”
Arimnat's distaste revealed his knowledge of the ancient reaver’s reputation, lapsing somewhat with the passing of her ruthless crew of feminine fugitives, which she had survived in defiance of those dispatched to subdue her inveterate rapine.
“Another, lately of Paršvãb, is the great man who has brought, to the edification of this fine city, his entire household to dwell with us, having made purchase of this very house... if you are among his retainers, be good enough to tell him that Arimnat has come to make offer of himself for the position of Master of the Gate.”
The nomad pair entered into conference halfway through his declaration, Kala'amātya standing suddenly and advancing on the visitant, seizing his arm and stripping off his mantle in the first act of a thorough and determined physical exam. With his hands he satisfied himself of the creature's inelastic skin, of the sluggish plasticity of his flesh, grasping his head and peeling back his lips to view the remaining teeth and sniffing at them unwillingly. Content with his conclusions, he walked back to the fire, speaking over his shoulder.
“It was I who took this house for I’Tiang-na, who could not contract for it on account of her sex. She will die before the end of winter, and it is a small thing for me to aid her in this. She says that you are a revenant abomination, and I myself can see that you are no living thing. What business can we have with one another?”
“Well said by the worst of all the Tiger Women. You have killed more men between you than I could ever hope.” Arimnat assured them, the pitch of the response conforming to the trajectory of his pique.
“Perhaps, but I am not a man, and do not prey upon my own kind, and as a woman, I’Tiang-na has far more cause than you.”
“It was you, who came with as many slaves as a town could feed?”
“I came thus, but I have sold them. There is nowhere for them in this little place.” said Kala'amātya, glancing around at their confines.
“This is the largest house in Paršvãb, and you might have procured all the stabling and barracks you needed if you had not robbed yourself of half their price in Kokand.”
“You would have lost half your slaves in a week, with this devil’s help.” remarked the crone.
“For once in her evil life, she is correct.” Arimnat announced. “The governor would have taken your finest women for himself, because you did not know he had come for his bribe, and that he must be paid in silver, and not the local gold, which is so poor as to be worthless outside the desert... I could have argued down his price for you. If you had sold your train in Merv, your black camels and your Khotan girls would have made twice what they did in Kokand, where they prefer the toothless brats from the Korezhem... all of which I might have arranged. And living here with my aid, you will know which of the cartmen relieves himself in the water he delivers, which oven girls steal dough, which whores are worth paying and which tax collectors are not, where to buy clothes fit for yourself and your house, so that you will not be laughed at as either savage or simpleton. You m…”
Kala'amātya drew a hand across his forehead in a gesture of impatience. I'Tiang-na expressed a curse and heaved herself from the camel-hair mat, pausing to straighten up before shuffling off along the hall on her saddle-bowed legs.
“Your price?” sighed Kala'amātya. The vampyre began a hedging preamble. “She has gone for her bow... speak frankly before she returns.”
“For my service I require nothing but the dignity and protection of this house, from which the governor may not expel me merely for the habits of my nature.”
"Perhaps a small libation, on festive days... nothing to trouble you. But, I must ask… how does a woman with only one hand wield a bow?” the vampyre inquired. Kala'amātya pushed a slide of embers back into the flames.
“It is better seen than described.” he said.
“I’Tiang-na retired his first vampyre concierge three weeks into the arrangement, and he’s had a strictly no domestic bloodsack policy ever since. I never met I’Tiang-na, and part of me is thankful for that, but I do owe her a toot, since ten solid years of nagging by an octogenarian Qing battle axe was the only thing that could have strong-armed Kala'amātya into property.” William admitted. "Bloodsucker mascots were a thing for a long time... it’s like having your own cat. Less trouble to feed one than put up with all the others.”
“What is this place we’re going to?” she yawned.
“A monastery... an er, ex-monastery”
“All the way out here?”
“Yeah, well... the further away from temptation, the holier you get.”
“God it sounds boring.”
“Ask Pet. She was their surioarã, little sister... whenever she ran out of money or things got too hairy on the outside, she’d come back and sit it out, eat their bedwetters, troublemakers, anything embarrassing dropped off at the door in the middle of the night…"
"Ask Pet? This isn't her place, is it?"
"Er... yeah." His whisper was uniquely insubstantial, shorn cleanly from the grounded, masculine elements of his voice and decaying swiftly.
"She's not there now, though, is she?" He scratched at the side of his neck and murmured some half-comprehensible prevarication. “Oh god... as long as it’s not made of polyester, I’m past caring at this point."
"Well... if you were hoping for heated towel rails, just be thankful there's nowhere to have a bath anyway."
"Where's your brother?" she muttered, closing her eyes.
“Sitting in the middle of fucking nowhere, realizing he should have gone after Frost instead of haterating all the way to eastern fucking Europe and hissing at daylight and whatnot.”
“He's bad, isn't he?”
"Uh huh. Beaucoup horreur.”
"On a scale of one to ten?"
William blew a rueful sigh.
"Eight point five... no, nine. He's down to one language, looks like he has acid for blood... I wouldn't tell any blonde jokes or make too many sudden movements. I’ll say one thing for Frost... she knew how to keep a bad trick in a pretty fucking tidy endorphin haze, and that’s something you don’t miss till it’s gone." He gazed down into the slope below them. “He’s idrana á kata mehtra, Christabel, walking the black mile. Respect the cordon." She twisted, shaking out a stiffening leg. “If it comes down to it and you really are that tired, I ca…”
“As long as I’m conscious I will never let you carry me anywhere for longer than sixty seconds. I mean it.”
“That’s the most evil thing about Ed.” he observed. “He can freezer burn you, be a toxic premium bastard but it doesn’t matter... you still care what he thinks of you.”
“I don’t care what he thinks of me.”
"I care what he thinks, and he’s spent the last two thousand years alienating me like it’s a fucking olympic event.” Her annoyance slowly gave way to toleration of the concept, her breathing slowing into a steady, somnolent rhythm.
“I can’t let you help me.” she murmured. “What if he sees that I can’t do this on my own?” Closing her eyes, she settled her weight and tucked her feet behind his own, too tired to insist on any amendment.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce
I personally burn to crayfish red in about five minutes in this kind of UV, so Felix gets the best of it.
R's not really a beach guy. He won't take his shoes off, which I find both pitiable and disturbing.
Brilliant silver Mullet, like shards of lustre glass, surf the glossy little breakers about 5m from shore.
The dunes manage to both erode and stubbornly persist, but no one knows for how much longer, realistically.
They are clothed in spiky grass and feral flowers.
Millions of snails gave their lives for this pointless tableau. The fine sand buffs the pastel crust from their outer whorls, revealing their flayed, roseate nacre. I could shoot them all day.
This sort of stuff is xmas for us down here. Northern tourists seem to forget the season and slide back into summer sloth, which must be nice. Cooking a full roast on a day that might have fallen out of Satan's arsecrack, complete with fully-operational blowflies and beer bloat isn't my idea of festive. Lots of people just chuck formality and get pissed at the beach with some ham and salad.
On one of the new pieces I've scattered around the lower garden.
This is our most prolific clematis as far as producing vegetable material is concerned. Warsaw Nike has morphed into a protean lateral monster despite the numerous unceremonious moves I've subjected it to. In fact, dragging its arse around the garden has seen it boil outward at the base to provide a shit tonne of splittable pieces; since these plants retail at around fifty fucking dollars, I'm not complaining. The new, thinned starts produce longer, more adventurous vines while the mother plant sits stubbornly at about 1.5m, generating root cuttings like it has nothing better to do.
W Nike is a really beautiful, non-bouffant variety for the kind of nastily hot situations that would crisp the shit out of other dark flowers. I've never seen it suffer clematis wilt and that dreaded fuckery can be a problem here with our hot summers, funky soil and high humidity. This pic is pretty accurate on my monitor if you've been baffled by the mad-looking blown-out shots floating around the internet. The interior stripe is a deep cardinal red and the margins of the petals graduate to velvety red-violet. Overall, the impression is quite a bit more red than purple. I have a Clematis Etoile Violette on the same fence and that's a true deep purple; the contrast is quite marked.
Very plush and luxe and no hint of frou.
The cool gloom against her face was damp and clean and perfumed by both the brand new fabric of her tent and the spruce needles pressed flat beneath her sleeping bag. Her breathing sounded loudly in the close confines; Susan yawned and crawled through the narrow flap to stand on the gentle slope amid the trees, gazing down upon a deer trail barely wider than her hand. One of its creators had lain down and died in the hollow and left an elegant skull to the elements, its antlers pitched sideways, pearled tines half-buried in the clay, and she was more than pleased to share its pellucid grave in the bell-like silence. William had left no sign of himself nor indication of his intentions and she looked both ways along the curving track. The sun might have climbed over the horizon behind the modest stand of intervening mountains, but the sky lay dormant behind drifts of cloud.
White feet descended from the branch overhead, their long toes venturing into her tangled hair, and she hunched and grimaced as they found the warm edges of her ears. A bar of Swiss chocolate wrapped in gilded paper fell from the tree and bounced at her feet.
“If this was Gévaudan, that would be a full English, with chorizos and mushrooms and fried tomatoes and basil and relish, and amazing coffee. And croissants.” Susan remarked, turning to see him sitting on a narrow limb with his rifle beside him. "Aren't you going to say anything about sausages? Sausages in the morning?" The black hood of his sweatshirt framed his smile but he demurred. She sat on a thick mat of needles and bit a corner from the chocolate while he slid down to stand with his back to the sky; a pale volley of bleating fowl beat heavily out of the north and passed behind his look of dubious inquiry.
“So... how much do you hate this already?”
“I don’t hate it. It’s nice and quiet.”
“This is peaceful quiet. At Gideon's there were more looks and unexplained black eyes than on the bloody bus at four in the morning." She wrapped up the chocolate and threw it back to him. “Hide that or I'll eat it all. If I didn’t want to be here I wouldn’t have gotten on that vintage death bucket in the first place, but I've found out that I will travel for cock, alright? Now I even sound like you.” Susan walked with him to the tent and watched him let down its spidery framework. “I was wrong about that thing... it’s not like sleeping in a jiffy bag, it’s like sleeping between two picnic plates taped together.”
“Sexy.” he laughed.
“Claustrophobic.” she assured him, stooping to gather her sleeping bag. “And there’d better be water around here somewhere because I feel like... god, like a sweaty bumcrack.”
A careful hour negotiating the side of the scarp brought them to the valley floor, home to the stony course of a quiescent stream, seasonal fluctuations marked in greenish algal dust upon its boulders. The sheltered aspect harboured summer’s moribund remains, holding enough heat to raise a sweat under her fisherman’s hat. Stands of giant, aromatic herbs spread their starry seed heads two feet over Susan’s own on fluted stems streaked with crimson and purple. The oily scent of aniseed arose from the monstrous plants like a spoken protest as she walked through them, the boulders rocking and cracking together under her boots. Dragonflies and ragged-looking moths, their wings like slubbed linen, fled the umbels swaying in her wake. William's shirt hung from her pack, its green cloth trailing him faithfully, collecting burs and thistledown while the polished brightness of his shoulders prompted her to again consider his body in the light that had coloured so much since her arrival. As he walked his fingers wandered through a private scale, the rhythm running from the smallest digit inward and taken up by the opposing thumb. The urge to seize his hands and push them under her clothing threatened to articulate itself, and she blew a hot breath, attempting to dispel the compulsion. He paused, turned back and pushed aside the herbage between them.
“Smell.” he advised suddenly, and she did so, frowning. “Dirt, wet leaves... still water. Don't waste time looking for this if you're thirsty... you want something moving. It smells of stone and air, or ice... like clouds and broken rocks."
Susan took off her hat, pressing it to her shiny forehead.
"Hate to think what I smell like at the moment."
He closed his eyes.
“Girl... summer girl, rosemary leaves, new clothes, tent, salt, lavender... and rahat loukoum.” he decided, frowning slightly. “You’re sweating Turkish delight.”
She bared her small teeth in a grin while a moth circled her face.
“I ate a whole box in Frankfurt. I'm surprised you can smell anything over the five tonnes of garlic I downed in the last three weeks... that must be fantastic.” They began to walk on through the towering weeds.
“I’ll take you however I can get you, avai’sahdi.”
Susan clucked at the endearment, waving the breeze toward herself.
“Think Lilian’s alright?"
“I don't know, and there's nothing we can do if she isn't. I've lost count of the times I’ve tried to kick sense into someone who’s sat down and stuck their fingers in their ears... sai a' sai'inae ith'ya simayun... she is her own creature."
The stream bed led them in a leisurely undulation, past the face of the forest stretching back over the tall ridge to the east, inset at intervals with secreted, umbrageous couloir that opened out like overgrown gates before walled gardens. Where the river had, at its spring peak, bitten a low curve into the hem of the hill, William turned and offered his hand to her, pointing out a rill spilling over the edge of the bank onto the stones. He pulled her up the grade alongside it.
“That's a bit mad.” Susan observed, standing before a row of flat river cobbles that appeared to have been matched and leveled in the ground, their deliberate line washed over by the stream, though still alluding directly to the cleft-like valley from which it issued. He devoted a moment to the strange construct, his gaze rising from the antique path to consider the oaks beyond, before glancing down at the plain silver ring on her hand, unshouldering her pack and carrying it toward the trees.
A flash of white was whispered to her by the chuckling water when she bent low beneath a sweep of fleur-de-lys leaves at the edge of the grove, dumping her tote and sinking to one knee in order to reach the strange foiled shape, the water breaking around her fingers. Their immersion was arrested by her companion's grasp; he lifted her hand slowly and retrieved the shining object himself. It proved a thin strip of beaten silver the size of her finger, pounded flat and still wearing the curving shapes struck by the mallet. He shook his head.
“Don’t pick them up.” he confided to her surprise. “It could be taken the wrong way.”
Her questing gaze followed the shaded stream and picked out more of the eccentric treasure in the water, banked in silver shoals around the stones and half-buried in the doe-brown silt. William ducked under the recumbent boughs that formed the skirts of a giant doyenne oak, its half-barked bole twisted down into a knotted, pachydermic mass under the vast weight of its canopy, roots arching from the mounds of bloomy moss like vast protean arms. It had sprouted immemorially from a fissure in the hillside, sharing this obscure nascence with the stream, the water sliding, glasslike, between its buttresses in making its way from the glade. The silver tokens gleamed untarnished on the lowest branches, some half-eaten by the swelling bark since their dedication, others having fallen, or been thrown, into the spring, where they lay undisturbed as though coalesced from the water’s own silky, argent qualities. Daylight filtered through the weary leaves; she closed her eyes against its random fulmination, too conscious of the volume of her voice beneath the branches to question him. He had sat down in the leaves and pushed an arm into her pack, producing a little bar of hotel soap and flipping it toward her.
“I can’t.” Susan whispered. “I feel... like someone’s watching.”
"We are." he sighed, lying down with an arm beneath his head. When she stood unmoving, he sighed again and rose, kicking off his trousers and walking past her into the waist-deep spring at the foot of the tree. She began to unlace her boots.
“When do you think people stopped coming here?”
“Can't tell... old ways die hard.”
"Trees don’t like gold.”
She pulled her T-shirt over her head and gazed down at the pendant that lay almost forgotten around her neck, holding it up to him with a smile that he returned, laying his head on a stone at the edge of the pool and regarding her from under somnolent lids, eyes borrowing the colours of the fallen leaves beside him.
"What would happen if we didn't have any silver?"
"Something terrible." he replied. His attention slowed her hands on her underwear, the warm thoughts it confided conspiring with those that were already so insistent, the subtle, thaumaturgical persuasion recalling the earth against her back and his tireless flesh inside her own.
"Has no one ever tried to burn you at the stake?” she chuckled, the pool swaying as he made room for her. She dropped into the water like a stone; its cold knocked the breath from her lungs, chasing her out, and she stood, clutching arms to her chest while it ran from her into the moss underfoot. His gaze stroked her like the back of a hand and she looked down over her shoulder at him, hair dripping as she lowered herself onto her hands and knees at the edge of the spring. She found the winter-blue flavour of the water in the cool depths of his mouth, leaning over the pool in an invitation that drew him from it, then throwing him onto the ground, smoothing her face over his skin in an avid and ravenous transport. On her back, the sinuous weight of his body devolved to her own and spread through her bones like sunlight soaking into stone. At first his ardour required nothing more from her than the perfect abandon of receipt, and she lay with her arms thrown to the ground in wordless, irradiant delight, while he spoke in the floating words of his own tongue and sucked pink circles to the damp skin of her neck and breasts. She closed an arm around him and pushed him onto his side, where he drew her thigh over himself, slowing in accordance with the indolent details of her kiss. She spoke in the small, rose-red space between them, her eyes closed.
“Getting off the plane I thought... I’m in this strange place, with no money, nothing... but all I could think about was dragging you into the bushes and fucking you stupidly. I’m turning into a knickerless sex addict.”
"Admitting you have a problem is the first step."
She laughed, her hand sliding over his eyes so that he could not see where she employed the other; he consented in deference to her relict modesty, though all such reticence proved temporary and he moved to satisfy her whispered urging, turning onto his back and exclaiming at the slow roll of her hips. Their soft, cushioned width welcomed his hands and he rose with their slide from her waist to her breasts, their velvet skin scattered with tea-coloured freckles where the sun had strayed through the fabric of her summer dresses. She closed an arm around him, legs shuddering beneath her as she dropped into silent freefall, her breath as warm as afternoon upon his neck as her chin settled on his shoulder.
He lay back with her amid the roots of the oak, her slow return immeasurably sweetened by the hand he stroked over her spine, sensation looping outward through her buried, glowing courses and circling inside her chest. When he moved again in her the pleasure had suffused and shifted deeper, like imbued opiates, his love of her flesh recounted on his face like an offering in kind.
The tiny loaf of honeysuckle soap was such a rude intruder into the harmonies of scent and hue beneath the trees that Susan almost returned it to her pack, reluctant to apply its bland, industrialized smell to her skin. William caught her hand at the edge of the spring and sucked the ring from her finger, flipping it into the water on her behalf before climbing into his trousers.
“Am I the only one who has to tip?” she complained, eyeing him suspiciously. “Because there’s something about this place that makes me feel as though you know the manager.”
"I'm a hillbilly, not a treehumper."
“Well, they’ve gotten their money’s worth.” While she spoke the youngest branches overhead began to move as though with a shift in the breeze, the disturbance expressed in the shimmer of their ornamenting silver. Looking up at them, she shook her head and began a cursory ablution while he backed out of the grove and studied the open sky. “How many girls in three weeks?" she called. "And don't say none.”
“There’s not a Susan Christabel in Baku who can walk straight.”
"Gideon said you were a crap liar."
"Slut kryptonite, poupée. I couldn't pass it around now, even if I wanted to. How many times did you think about Heathrow?”
“Never.” she laughed. "I told you, I've got cock on the brain. Aren't we supposed to be meeting your brother somewhere?"
He grimaced and clapped his teeth together as he stepped back under the tree.
“Alas, the er, booty call of the wild seems to have erm... taken precedence..."
“How far uphill is this place, because at the moment I just want a cup of tea and a lie down.”
“Christabel... you’re practically jailbait. Where’s your l'exubérance de la jeunesse?" She draped the length of her lime-green tramping towel over her head and lit the cigarette dangling from her lip as she scowled at him, squinting with one eye.
“I have an old soul. It's dragging its arse on the ground."
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce