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
Which is tragic, and also why we can never, ever consent to lose them.
First, we tooled around the glass house with its tropical collections. Sticky. Vivid. Enlivening.
This beautiful Red Tailed Black Cockatoo hen is always down for a grevillea flower destruction opportunity or a closer look at your jewellery.
The divine Himalayan Poppy, Laburnum and Allium flowers.
When you meet onions that are more worthy and far better looking than you, you've learnt your true place in the universe.
Here in Dunedin, NZ, we exploit our local fauna via tourism and development but up until now there's been next to no provision for their welfare, apart from a few dedicated personal efforts with limited resources. The polytech + Wildlife Hospital Trust need our help to get a vital wildlife hospital facility up and operating STAT: donate via their Givealittle page. It's painless.
Do it because you think animals are cute or dumb shit like that.
Do it because it would piss your inlaws off.
Do it because you refuse to be a selfish arsehat this xmas.
the penguins are judging us.
Yes, I know we haven't posted much recently- we've been super-busy trying to get shit sorted in the garden and developing new areas before building of the new studio finally gets underway for real. That, and houseguests have kept us from blogular greatness but we have a lot of images to share and that will be happening some time this week.
Personally, I'm wishing this year would jump into a tyre fire and spare us all the xmas horror.
Someone had long ago dumped white paint over the boulder marking the end of the airstrip in one of the few measures ever taken to improve its safety, the great stone having rolled down from the steep, spruce-clothed hill behind it of its own accord. A dozen winters had diminished that limited utility and the Ilyushin aircraft jogged to a halt with a few short metres to spare, its vodka-numbed pilots throwing off the freight webbing that secured them and lurching down the cluttered aisle in their determination to precede their passengers from the vehicle. Susan leant back in her seat and clutched her bag to her stomach in her relief, despite the crowd of migrant workers and furloughed mercenaries that jostled her, the former encumbered with tightly-strapped shopping bags full of children’s gifts, cartons of cigarettes and other dutiful remittance, the latter entirely unconcerned with her opinion of their spatial entitlement, stinking of Black Sea devushkas and counterfeit cologne. She waited for them to struggle to their feet while two youths in oversized fatigues pushed a painting ladder wired to a mechanic’s dolly from the shipping container that served as both cargo bay and terminal. They begged cigarettes from the pilots; when the plane had emptied, she dragged her pack from the floor and braved the ladder on her own, tossing her bags down onto the dirt and refusing the boys who offered themselves as bearers. Her voice attracted the frowning notice of the contractors still within earshot, and they questioned each other tersely in regard to her as they walked away.
Beyond the shipping container sat a group of small lorries and utilities daubed with house paint, waiting in phlegmatic silence for the inbound men, representing the human presence absent from the view through her dirty window during their descent. She discerned at a glance that none of the vehicles were intended for her; several of her fellow passengers looked back at her solitary presence on the runway, even more suspicious of her in retrospect. Susan turned from their scowls and sat down on her pack, contenting herself with a view of the hills.
The wind in her ears began to replace the ghosting sound of the propellors that had laboured alongside her, sweeping the smell of mist and unfamiliar trees along the ground, the two elements crowding the walls of the valley around her and the sky overhead. Her water bottle tasted stale and clunked as she squeezed it idly, loathe to empty it onto the gravel for fear of the local alternative. A glance toward the mare-grey sun informed her that it was already midway through the afternoon. From her mirrored tote she took some care to extract a fresh fig, angelica-green and rose-blushed, still immured in its fluted skirt of cellophane; it had suffered a degree of lateral compression but remained the voluptuous Parisian speciality that had attracted her forty eight hours before. The smell of Gideon’s laundry puffed up from her collar as she zipped her parka closed, the austere, masculine elements of lavendin evoking a regret that surprised her. By the time her gaze had wandered back toward the container, the trucks had pulled away and disappeared into the trees that seemed bent on reclaiming the airstrip, rendering her its sole occupant. Though she could not have imagined William standing patiently amid the rustic vehicles, his absence was difficult to rationalize, given the painstaking detail of her itinerary. She tapped her toes inside her boots and leant over, scuffing a hole into the quartzite gravel until her shadow stretched out along the ground at some exotic behest, replacing her shape with another. Its owner looked down on her with a smile.
“How many fingers am I holding up?” he asked.
“Twelve.” Susan replied, her own smile opening into an astonished peal of laughter as William walked around her. He stood in a narrow, long-sleeved shirt of stiff, featureless khaki, buttoned to the throat and tucked into the high waist of his army-issue trousers, hair reduced to a neat black crop by a recent and complete depilation; he took a plastic comb from his pocket, smoothed it conscientiously and performed a short robot break. The sight of him so dismayed her for a moment that she could frame no meaningful response as she accepted his embrace. “My god, what do you look like?” she exclaimed. Half-forgotten in her grasp, the gift she had so carefully husbanded crinkled in its wrapping beneath his ear, and she slid down with it, shaking her head.
“Christabel... you give a fig.” he laughed.
“That’s all the way from Paris on flying shitboxes, so don’t... eat it all at once...” she sighed, to no effect. He stuffed the cellophane into his pocket.
"Sorry about the ride... now you can say you survived not just any dodgy old Crate, but one that should have been parted out ten years ago... come on, that’s rock and roll.”
“It was five hours of sausage-breath and wet farts. What happened to you?”
“I’m in disguise. This is eastern Europe, baby...” he said, patting his waist. “Belts aren’t just for knocking the attitude out of your childbride, and midnite madder is for ladies."
“Undo the top button before I fucking choke to death.” Susan complained. He exhaled heavily, sagging from his affected posture and dragging his shirt from the waist of his pants, forcing them down on his hips and stooping to pick up her backpack. “Those horrible XYY dicks on the plane have been looking at me the wrong way since Odessa. I nearly had a bloody heart attack when we landed there... I could have come straight from Frankfurt, you know.” They walked together past the container and into a dirt-paved clearing that served as a car park amid the scuffed trunks. “Is this really Romania?”
“This bit still is. Think those army guys were onto you?”
“I wouldn't really know.” They stood enjoying the sight of each other, his smile reinstating her own and she seized him again, grasping his rump and sighing against his chest. "My god I missed you. You have no idea."
"I've got plenty fucking idea. If I could have made Kala'amātya put on a dress and nag me at gunpoint, I would have." A filthy green dirt bike stood against a tree in the dead grass at the edge of the clearing and he led her to it, her pack dangling from his arm. “We’re going through town, so you should probably change, and keep that on...” he advised, nodding at the helmet on the back of the bike. She stared, lips moving slowly as they formed unspoken words, her gaze making several involved passes over his person, at which William smiled again, half-uncertainly, and set down her bag.
“I'd almost forgotten." Susan admitted, addressing her own preoccupation obliquely. "I should... have a wee.” She carried her distraction into the trees while he sat down on the bike.
“How was Gideon?”
“Fantastic. Great cook... knows the filthiest jokes... taught me how to bone a pheasant...”
“You’re lucky. All I got at Chateau Aubergine was alcoholic poisoning. And a few pearl necklaces.”
"Thanks for that." she groaned. "To tell you the truth I was quite surprised by his gigantic penis, but then you never really know what you’re going to get, do you? And Étienne... I think I could watch somebody spraying him with a hose all day.” she confessed as she emerged.
“So that was an I fucked a French guy fig...”
“He only asked three times, and he was just being polite." The breeze swept the sweetly green scent of his skin back to her beneath the powdery smell of his virgin army surplus, making her reluctant to pull the helmet over her head. Climbing onto the seat behind him she shuffled forward, setting her bag in her lap and granting her hands the freedom they so desired, reaching up to stroke his head with both. His shoulders flexed in appreciation of the gesture, and she spoke softly. "Now I can see your neck... I’ll be at you all the time.”
"And all I had to do was go away and get a haircut."
"Why did you take so long to send for me?”
“I wanted to give you a chance to go home... then I was too scared to find out if you had." William stood up to kick start the bike and she passed her arms under his own.
The tree-lined trail had been so deeply rutted by trucks that he was forced to pilot them along its narrow verge, the shadows flicking past her eyes while she held on to his belt. The view through the shade of her helmet scarcely exaggerated the tea-stained patina of the trees crowding tightly around the hovels set back from their route, half of them derelict, looking like the basis for some baleful nursery tale with their steep roofs and tiny, heavy-browed windows, stacked to their chins with stove wood. Christmas red and green had curled and flaked from their weathered flourishes; women bowed by age and heavy labour sat on the steps of their porches slicing the product of their gardens into bowls of cold well water, slim wheaten dogs lying beside them in a shared appreciation of what little warmth the afternoon could spare. They came to a lean vein of village, the houses butting the stricken tarmac like boats about a wharf. Two bunker-like concrete structures formed depressing nuclei, one selling the various staples of rural life alongside bales of smuggled and traded luxuries, the other staffed by the region’s disgraced daughters, making desultory offer of the local liquors and their indifferent persons. Masculine idlers clustered outside, the gazes shaded by felt hats following the bike as it wove between sluggish clots of local vehicles. The faces blurred as their figures receded; William slowed as they cleared the edge of the town and she pushed back her visor, raising her voice over his shoulder.
“Everyone looks pissed off.”
“Communism, now capitalism, run by cannibals." he called.
“Where are we going?” He nodded toward the forest that rose over the northern edge of the village on the shoulder of a foothill, its conifers enlivened by the rusted and golden heads of beech and alder.
At the end of the bike’s ability to negotiate the goat tracks winding up into the wood, William killed the motor and put out both feet to steady them on the uncomfortable slope. She slid down into a fern-swathed hollow and stood watching while he lifted the machine from the track and dumped it against the hillside, climbing a little way then returning with a rifle on his shoulder and a shopping bag, from which he shook out a square of green tarpaulin.
“It’ll grow back.” he promised, conscious of her attention to his head. She watched him cover the bike with the plastic and set dead branches over its narrow shape, looking as though he had absconded from the ranks of some eldritch militia. William held up two flat packets bearing pictures of slightly differing single-berth tents, one camouflage print, the other plain green. “Ladies’ choice.”
“I hate those things. They’re like sitting in a bloody jiffy bag.” Susan complained. “Camo, I suppose, and do not joke about pitching one in any way.” Disappointed, he hid the rejected item beneath the tarpaulin, handing her the firearm. Taking the slope at a run, he swung up into one of the alders and climbed to a vantage that offered a view of the valley below toward the distant airstrip.
“It’s loaded and I took the safety out so don’t... you know... floss with it.” he told her in regard to the weapon, swinging down when he was satisfied they were not followed.
“How far are we going?” The sight of his gaze wending away prompted her to shake her head. “Don’t give me a gun and then decide to be vague. Where's your brother?”
“Around here somewhere...” William sat down in the bracken and unlaced his boots, blessing their removal before hoisting her pack once more on his shoulders. “Today there’s just this hill to get over, and maybe an hour up another valley. We won’t see anyone so it should be cool. What?” She said nothing; he lit a cigarette and threw the packet back to her, shrugging. “Three weeks with werewolves would make me cranky too.” he conceded.
"Ferme ta... C'est des... was it... conneries?" Susan sighed. "Merde. I learnt so much swearing and now it's gone." She swung the rifle around toward him and lowered her eye to its sight. "Never mind."
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce
At least Felix is still with us. He's back to being a 24 hour party person, so that's positive for now.
This lovely ginger felid didn't like our selection of dog, but is otherwise one of those largely smoochie but slightly conflicted creatures who likes to miaow at you to join it underneath the hedge.
Frost settled on the Paint Horse Trailer Park and its environs, lacing sagging awnings and the flat roofs of immobile mobile homes at the death of twilight. Dogs sheltered in shuffling huddles at the feet of faded tin walls while pregnant women chainsmoked in doorways, their sour, shiny faces limned by light thrown down from lamp posts. Trent’s narrow trailer had been his home for the decade that had passed since his surrender of the marital house to his former wife and her store clerk boyfriend. Its low structure was a powdery, flaking white without and paneled with bowed faux wood within; the sink was buried in dishes grown pungent with neglect, but a tall pile of khaki tottered on the olive velour bench beside the TV table, folded conscientiously. The glare from the street outside invaded through small barred apertures like stripes of poisoned vapour. A clicking fan unit circulated overheated air; Trent lay slumped before the television, a dying joint hanging from his parched lip, ash sifting onto his chequered shirt.
The park was quiet save for sporadic canine yapping and the canned laughter accompanying the shifting glow of stolen cable programming. The insects inhabiting the grass alongside the asphalt no longer sang, quieted by the premature cold. To Trent, their silence was a deep relief, their shrilling recalling such kindred songs from distant lands as he did not care to remember. Despite their abeyance he had drifted into sleep amid visions of purpuric equatorial sunsets, in which the heads of forest palms thrashed in the draft of a descending helicopter as he leant out over its skids, staring downward into rippling, lukewarm darkness.
The water he was dropped into rose waist-high, thick with coffee-hued silt and jungle leaves, hemmed by rafts of water hyacinth. He lifted his rifle clear of the river and began to wade against the sluggish current, surrounded by the burps and growls of invisible amphibians. His captain was dropped into point upstream; he waited for him to turn and beckon before falling in at the designated distance. The monsoon had poured the river out over its banks into the forest beyond, creating a vast, serpentine marsh plumed with the twining dragon shapes of rattan, moonlight fractured on their drooping fronds. Long after dark the heat lay febrile over the water, heavy with the ferrous stink of living mud and fermenting leaves and choked with mosquitoes, whining in both his ears and blundering into every orifice. He shook them from his head and waded onward, ducking branches, marking the shaggy garland of foliage that decked his leader’s helmet.
Trent ran screeds of aerial photography through his head, dismayed to find no convincing correlations in his viscid surrounds; cutting across an oxbow in his haste, he stepped into a sinkhole, the water rising suddenly past his chin. The log spanning the channel offered no assistance, dead bark coming away in his hands like rotted flesh as he grasped it, seeking elusive purchase underfoot.
“Sounds like you’re giving it to a fucking buffalo back here.” his leader hissed, teeth gleaming in his darkly-greased face as he dragged Trent from the hollow.
“This’s bullshit... we got the wrong fuckin ditch.” the latter murmured, climbing up onto the spongy bank. “Nothin round here makes sense... we bug out now and go back d...”
“The intel’s the size of your mom's dick... sustained activity, one click north.”
“Who gives a fuck if someone’s bagging up old gook shit out there?”
“One click north, so find your balls and fall in, asshole.”
Allowing his leader to drift too far ahead seemed like a tiny, crippled victory while he shoved through a guard of olive bamboo. Looking back, he glimpsed an ordered shape amid the undergrowth, lifting the canes to reveal a carved stone block stained black by the water. The curling feet of some clawed, half-avian figure confirmed their entry into the decrepit temple precinct that had inspired the speculative deviation from their martial purpose; he shook his head again, spat on the toppled block and turned upstream.
A lone night heron voiced its croaking discontent. The loss of contact with his captain perturbed him until he discovered the latter’s garlanded silhouette poised on a fallen teak spanning the channel. He paused, awaiting instruction, and was rewarded with a manual direction; a ripple curved around his waist as he complied, moving further out into the river, his captain beckoning him toward himself and directly into another unseen hole. Trent gasped and thrust his rifle over his head as he went under, sleighed out into the depths by sucking, sloping mud. Through flooded eyes he saw his companion as a black blur upon the teak, overlaid again by shifting clouds of insects, relinquishing his rifle and coughing out a half-drowned call for help. Upon the distant tree the figure looked down into the water, inclining its head in a moment that slowed Trent’s struggle until only the sound of his own laboured breathing scored its fluid descent from the bole; it was eaten wholly by the river, garlanded helmet drifting slowly downstream toward him.
The river flattened out like silk, welling against his legs and torso while he wrenched his boots free and was swept under, only to rise again some distance from the immuring hole. He gasped, shadows lying heavy in his eyes, the river shaping his clothes against his body. His breath rattled in his chest as he rolled and stroked downstream, glancing over his shoulder; something brushed against his thigh and he cried out, whirling backward into the fallen log that had impeded him before. Bracing against it, his feet finding the bottom, he stood wide-eyed while in the silence the mosquitoes settled, blanketing the open stretch before him. The heron boomed again; he ran his hand down over his belt and service pistol but had not worked it free before his legs were seized and his head sucked down under the log.
He passed out of consciousness briefly, the water closing over his face and his skull struck by a branch stub on the underside of the decaying tree. The blow worked with the burning eternity of submersion to enfeeble him, so that he barely knew he had been dragged free of the river and thrown onto mud like a carp flung from a net. He groaned, and was dealt a blow that left him senseless.
Water lapped at his boots when he stirred, finding himself lying beside his commander’s body in time to watch white hands grasping its collar. They turned the blade of a hunting knife in a circumnavigation of its neck, a gesture of almost magical swiftness that robbed the corpse of its head and left it so diminished that it seemed smaller by half to Trent’s deranged perception. The stump slopped blood into the silt, trimmed with a thin stripe of nape and wet hair. Gleaming red, the curving blade returned, sliding low past Trent’s eyes while a creature slit the corpse's sleeveless khakis and stroked a hand down over them, fingers tuned to the shapes hidden in the sodden garments, glowing so coldly in the moonlight that Trent attributed their number to the damage he could feel at the back of his skull. His head lolled as his own body was treated in the same manner, every utile item stripped and pitched into the river. He lay waiting for the hands to find his collar, croaking as they did, gravity drawing bloodied bubbles from the corner of his mouth into his ear. The knife bit into his neck so easily that he lay still even as the blade was halted on his stiff thews.
He looked up at its face, at its slick black mane and the long, golden eyes that stared, not at him, but away to the south. Dropping him to the mud, it rose, taller than seemed possible, like something stepped down from the stones of the forgotten temple, symmetry surviving the hallucinatory embellishments imposed by his panic and loathing. Turned down river from the narrow bank, the creature stood as though it had been called from that direction. Trent screwed his eyes closed against the sight of the black shapes on its back; they moved, and yet did not, writhing like flames in negative with the water in his eyes. It gave a looping whistle that echoed across the river, then stepped back into the water, leaving the bodies where they had fallen. Trent lay with his blood oozing in a warm pool about his shoulders for twenty minutes before a murky noise, becoming percussive, then a slash of blinding light that jumped the river restlessly aroused him, thudding downdraft sweeping the floating vegetation against the shore and whipping at the palms.
The worst part of the dream, aside from its historical reality, was that it revolved instead of resolving in a cycle of unblinking renewal. Sweat soaked the back of Trent’s shirt while he saw the dusk once more, and the heads of the tall palms thrashed wildly as he gazed down from the skids of a helicopter until his plunge into the river was derailed by the sharp sound of a fist upon a door. With his dry tongue clicking against his mouth his hand came down on an attenuated shotgun, duct-taped to the wall beside his chair, and he rolled onto his feet.
Josephine glanced at the movement darkening the glass beside the trailer door and tipped back her trucker cap. She wore a coverall, her hair tucked into its collar; Trent scowled, glanced over his shoulder and swore to himself before admitting her.
She stood back from the doorway once inside, allowing him to press it closed behind her, sealing off the sound of barking dogs and cussing drunks. The dry stink of the trailer hit her hard but she put the blunt snout of her handgun to the back of his balding skull before he could read the silence. The shots flashed white and dropped him onto a stripe of plastic carpet protector.
Stepping over his trembling body, she held his lighter flame to the edge of the velour squab and turned the fan upon the hungry little ember, watching it eat busily into the foam. His skin was softer than she had imagined as she felt for a pulse beside the crescent scar on the side of his neck, scraped by some blunt razor and smelling faintly of laundry soap. His heart still throbbed chaotically; she stepped back and put another round between his shoulder blades.
In the bitter darkness outside she jerked her weight against the door handle, testing the lock, and stooped to pitch the pistol beneath the trailer.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce