R A H A T L O U K O U M
“Sure this is the one? Looks empty.”
The cab driver hooked an arm around the seat beside him and peered down the winding cobbled drive toward the neglected address of her description. The girl sitting in the back of his car checked the ballpoint inscription on her hand.
“Two three one Commoriom Drive... can you see a number?” she asked, scanning the ivy. The driver frowned, her accent dampening his already deficient interest, but the sun dropped a ray over the unmown field beyond the vine-choked palisade, glowing lime-green in the fresh grass and illuming three brass numerals beside the gates.
“There you go, two three one. That’ll be fifty bucks.”
Her mouth dropped open at the price of the fare and she sat for a moment, almost prompted to challenge it before shaking her head to herself, counting out a crumpled ball of notes and dragging her suitcase from the malodorous trunk. One side of the gates swung inward when she shoved hard at the rusted curlicue, voicing a low, drawn-out complaint. The sinuous drive presented signs of habitation; the rubbish bins stood choked with bottles ready for removal and an elderly motor scooter lay on its side in the lawn at the place where the last gasp of air had escaped the front tyre. A pair of black boots crouched in the half-timbered porch, split up the back with some sort of blade, thorny twigs entangled in their laces. Raising her hand to quash a sneeze, she looked around again and depressed the doorbell firmly. A fat green spider lowered itself slowly, paying out a thread of sticky gossamer, ocelli gleaming as the breeze turned it in a circle.
Sparrows declaimed noisily behind her while she waited. Leaving the porch, she peered vainly through dust-dimmed banks of windows to the east; several were cracked in their frames of blackened oak, the wood exuding streaks of copper brown over the lower course of plaster. Back at the door she rang the bell again and hitched up the strap of her bag, its embroidered mirrorwork catching the sun and throwing reflections across the panels surrounding her. Shaking her head, she puffed a sigh and set off across the garden, abandoning her suitcase.
Crushed underfoot, the lawn loosed drifts of sportive moths and gave up a dewy vetiver, the quiet, smoky smell of the sun in its depths cooled by notes of moss and stone exhaled by the trees, their influence like that of blue buried in green. They formed an arboretum to the rear of the colossal pile, crowded with exotic fin-de-siécle beauties purveyed by peripatetic botanists alongside those classic species treasured for their nobility; though untended, it had rejoiced in that very desuetude, forming a trackless and bewilderingly exuberant folly that ran as far as she could see toward the south. Chinese elms threw roan-blue shade across the house, their leaves like rounds cut from the gilt skin of an idol, feathery aruncus and tardy feral tulips clustered underneath, still losing crimson petals to the breeze.
Beyond them she discovered the corner of a relict orchard, valiant, bisque-white blossom still studding the boughs of the decurving pears. She was surprised again by the outline of a parterre in the neighbouring sward, a pool set in its midst and trimmed with blocks of sesame sandstone; it held a foot of rainwater and the leaves of the previous autumn. The sun and the cicadas' seamless chanting pushed her hand into her bag in search of her hat, passerine habitués scolding her intrusion from both sides of the clearing.
Indecision sat her on the low wall at the foot of the parterre and had closed her eyes in the shade of her brim by the time sound began to drift from the orchard toward her. Brushing off her skirt, she walked along the pool and into the fruit trees, pursuing the noises encrypted by the breeze. One overgrown aisle turned into another, crossed with fallen branches and draped with swags of morning glory. The voice came to her again, morphing from softly-mitigated babel into words with a slow rhythm and the suggestion of purpose. She bent down with her hands on her knees and peered beneath the rows, espying two bare feet, their calves and a tattered hem of hand-worked cloth in sober blue and ivory. Their owner stood beneath a pear, murmuring a recitative.
“a’ma, shali, a’nii s’ae kala ae s’ae siithra,
s’ae silya rani ae s’ae jiiani imaanae...
il bai’issan avai’ia e’shii assil nai’iim.”
She squinted through the boughs as she rounded the last tree and beheld the stranger in his entirety. He reached toward a dark shape in the leaves that shifted and thrummed, a delinquent swam of honey bees, which he coaxed onto the piece of branch he held aloft for them. Their warm, gold-soaked drone expressed their conciliatory mood and they came together, persuaded to descend. Lowering the swarm toward himself, he looked to her with wide sloe eyes full of irradiant, dissimilar green, their disparity redoubled by the shadow-dappled sunlight striking them unequally. Something in his face spoke of moderate surprise, which she reflected tenfold.
“Are you... Mr Lamb?” she began uncertainly. “Is this not... a very good time?”
“They’re much happier than they were.” he assured her, referring to the bees. Around his feet a trio of parti-coloured birds pecked busily at the insects that had fallen into the grass, their legs forming a fulcrum between their elaborate tails and pursy bodies. He wedged the branch into a crook.
“I’m sorry...” she murmured. “I must have... are you... Edward Lamb?” She stepped sideways in the midst of her inquiry to avoid the drowsy passage of an insect. Nothing could have persuaded her that he answered to that name.
“No, I’m William. William Lamb.” he smiled, holding out a hand. She stared up, first at the violent sanguine of his hair, then his face, its ice-white, almost specular brilliance agreeing with the coolness of his grasp, like the shade that she had left beneath the elms.
“Susan Christabel.” the girl replied. His features obeyed a severe, disturbing symmetry, their oblique arrangement forming an uneasy accord with the droll set of his mouth. He was as tall as any scion of the Masai or Rendille, though taken together, his conflicting attributes defeated the cartography applied by her subconscious, her uncertainty compounded by his garb and the language that had drifted through the trees. With her hand still in his grasp her gaze followed the breadth of his naked shoulder and descended to the ikat cloth rolled loosely about his hips, frowning again at the insecurity of its careless configuration. Susan reached down into her bag, withdrawing a letter of referral.
William attempted to peruse the document conscientiously though his eyes drifted from the page toward the visitor with a frequency of which he was not entirely conscious. She was of relatively unimpressive stature, but the black pinafore that pinched her at the waist did nothing to disguise her softly-fleshed proportions, nor the watermelon pink flushed over her cheeks by the hot sun. When the breeze drifted toward him it conveyed the scent of her afternoon skin, sandalwood soap and the raspberry croissant that she had eaten in the car. Small silver hoops trimmed her ears and she had removed one from her nose; the hair beneath her fisherman's hat, streaked mottled tortoiseshell by a brush with peroxide, would have lain upon her shoulders if it had not been pinned behind her ears. The document informed him that Opal La Rue had arranged her appointment and he frowned, then smiled remedially, revealing exemplary teeth.
“You’re English?” he inquired. She nodded.
“Oh... no.” Suspicion lifted her dark owl eyes, a sable, spotless blue, and he smiled again, referring to her unresolved inquiry. “Burmese.” The word floated, briefly orphaned, until she ascertained that he was referring to himself. "Or Tibetan. I'm not sure. If I'd known you were coming, I would have put on a tie." William returned the letter. The visitor remained unsmiling. “Want to see the house?”
She stared past his shoulder.
“Will they be alright there?”
He stepped back against the trees to let her past.
Susan trudged behind her host toward the house, her eyes on the lawn as she weighed her distance from the city, the taxi fare and the possibility of charging it to her agency, and a dozen other practicalities that clamoured for attention. Behind them, the pheasants began to crow in an absent fashion, their efforts to recall him losing out to their preoccupation with their meal. When he spoke again she looked up, and was confronted for the first time by a great expanse of blackline figures sprawling from two points low down on his hips and devouring the surface of his back and shoulders. It was composed of wild, interfluent zoomorphisms in an arrangement more insistent than disorder but less immediately gratifying than any elegant literal schematic, elements merging and yet retaining independence. Dotted points of the same dark colour followed their outlines like diacritic glyphs, the whole composition raised and uniformly scarified. Two answering forms, transfigured beast’s heads garlanded with spirals, spilled down the backs of his arms and reached halfway to his elbows. She closed her mouth to prevent the escape of any exclamation.
“Pool.” William told her as they passed it. “Don’t worry, I’m working on it. House... it's, er... vintage...” He led her up to a pair of French doors in the rear wall, densely swagged with overgrown clematis, its simple musk-pink buds opening almost shyly. "Are you superstitious?" She shook her head, then nodded; he reached up into the vine and tapped the lintel buried beneath, uttering three words in the language that had drawn her to the orchard. Susan stepped inside at the behest of his smile.
They climbed up into a cavernously dark and previously formal drawing room centred on a hearth tiled with satiny, striated malachite. The boards creaked under an elderly Kurdish palace carpet soaked in the precious jannah colours of a weaver's fondest dreams, and this single item had been deemed sufficient ornamentation. Its walls retained their sombre Jacobean panelling, but as they continued into the hall beyond the deep green paper over the wainscoting sagged with the failure of the underlying plaster and the ceiling began to litter the floor intermittently, revealing the roof’s decay. Rugs lay rolled against the skirtings alongside massive gilt and gesso frames. They detoured into a kitchen tucked behind the front door, originally some capacious form of cloak room; William smiled with perverse pride at the red pearlescent formica and blanc et noir linoleum of its conversion.
“People say that on that dark night in fifty-three, thirteen psychotic stenographers took their lives after redecorating.” Her frown turned too quickly toward him. “That’s not actually true... I just... like to think it. The wiring’s completely fu... there’s no electricity in here yet, but I’ll run a cable from the garage.”
“Are you qualified to do that?”
William was not sure how to reply and pressed on into the passage once more. She retrieved her suitcase from the front door but he took it from her, the weight that twisted the handle making no impression on his arm. It was the sweep of staircase at the far end of the entrance hall and its lavish vinous carving that relieved her frown, her hand following the quartersawn balustrade as they ascended. They were confronted on the upper landing by the heroically-mounted head and shoulders of some giant caprine beast, crowned with horns that turned in spirals thicker than her calves. The same deep velvety green darkened the windowless ways leading away in either direction at the head of the stairs. He nodded toward the east.
“That end’s mine, Ed’s that way, and that’s technically a room, but the floor drops when you walk on it and I think there might be bees in that wall too...”
She glanced into the chamber he discussed as they passed by; footprints had entered and retreated, a portion of the floor lying undisturbed beneath a carpet of dust and windblown leaves. Toward the far wall the structures overhead admitted a view of the scilla-blue sky.
“It'll be nice when it’s finished.” she observed. The remark was received in a spirit of polite, if slightly blank, inquiry. "When you’ve done it up. Remodeled... isn't that what they call it here?" She laughed uncertainly. "The rain comes in back there... you'll have to do something." Susan lifted a hand to the strap of her bag. "This is your house, isn't it? You're not... squatting, or anything?"
"My brother paid cash money for it, croyez-le ou pas."
At the end of the central corridor a row of picture windows permitted a broad view of the garden and lit a narrow course of stairs into a gable. He allowed her to precede him into a petite garret apartment, its leaded panes casting storiated blocks of sunlight onto the oak bed. They were repeated in the dusty kitchenette, where a pine rack held a set of homely blue and white. She peered into the bathroom and found it half-filled with the belly of a footed tub; returning to the bedchamber, Susan lay her bag down on the mattress and turned toward her guide again. He had to stoop slightly with the angle of the ceiling; his size, framed in such vicinity, made her uneasy, and she looked down into the grounds. The verdant prospect moved her to a sigh that loosed the tension in her shoulders.
“That is such a lovely garden..." He smiled again in unreserved agreement as she reached out to tug a light cord. “Does this have electricity?” To his eye she projected strongly contradictory qualities, youth and sagacity, a self-containment that confused his initial assessment of her age and made him realise how inured he had become to its surgical effacement. His thoughts wandered, unbidden, along a tendril-shaded trail into more private speculation and he sank down in the Morris chair behind him, long white fingers spilling over the edge of its arms. Susan's uniform dug into her flesh along its side seams, loose hair curling on her collar in the heat cast by the window. “Accommodation’s included in my wages so I don’t pay rent, or any electric." she informed him gravely, relieved by his complaisant shrug. “Food is... it's meant to be negotiable..."
He shrugged again.
"You talked me into it."
"We can go over my duties if you like. Where should I start?” William gazed back at her dumbly. “Well then... what would you like me to call you?”
“Are you sure? It’s just that... most people find a formal title m... it would be more... professional...” she informed him, losing track of her spiel as his head tipped back against the wall, watching her lips move with a tranquil, almost somnolent gaze. She squeezed her own closed and began again. “I wouldn’t be offended, in fact I would prefer...”
“I would be offended.” he murmured. She shook her head.
“Mr Lamb, I...”
“Well... if there’s nothing in particular you’d like me to be getting on with, I’ll just start tidying up in here... are you sure there’s nothing else?”
“You seem sure there is.” he replied.
“I've been over here a while, and everyone seems to know exactly what everyone else should be doing.” she muttered, the observation renewing his smile.
“There probably is something, but... I do have a house guest...” he offered. “He’s gone off somewhere but he’ll be back, sometime... so don’t worry too much about... you know... peculiar strangers. I’ll let my brother know you're here. He will absolutely tell you what to do.” Easing himself out of the chair, he offered his hand again in confirmation of her engagement. “You won’t have to cook, we’re... what’s it called? Macrobiotic.”
“I’m not paid to, anyway. And I don’t do mouse traps or take out the rubbish. It’s in the contract.”
He received the news with the equanimity he had accorded the rest of her pronouncements, leading her to wish she had devised more.
“Do you think you'll be okay out here?” he asked. “It’s a long way from anywhere.”
“I'll be alright. I’m sort of sick of people.” Susan confessed. He shrugged, and turned toward the door.
“If you need anything, demandez juste. Je vis pour servir seulement. Er... parlez-vous français?" William added, gently hopeful.
"Oh well... with my roadkill anglais deal you must. If you need anything, just call down."
His bare feet made no sound as he departed, stooping once more at the doorframe and leaving a room that seemed much larger in his absence. She sat on the bed, reaching out to beat a puff of dust into the air around her, and fell to staring at the chair that he’d vacated.
While he could still feel his blackening hands, the Bon shaman reached out stiffly through the cold for the glittering furs wrapped around his general’s shoulders, shaking the man awake. The wind slapped away any words spoken at a distance, so he leant over the mounded rime between them and directed the soldier’s thin, ice-crusted gaze toward the end of the shallow white valley. Daylight had already fallen to the storm that had rolled up over the high pass and pressed the exhausted detachment to the ground; though they huddled in a desperate throng, the shrieking gale ripped the warmth from their flesh and froze their legs and feet to the black rock beneath them. While the bodies of the dead had stiffened under their felts and hides the general had heaped rueful imprecations on the head of the Qijia prince who had ordered them into the mountains, on the fatal creatures he was to have subdued, and onto the shaman he had paid to locate them. The latter stared, wide-eyed, and shook him again, urging him to throw back the bear hide from his head and behold the black shape that came toward them through the snow.
New agonies stabbed up through his legs as he rose, scuffing ice from his face and warning the babbling magician to be quiet. Black homespun wreathed the approaching creature like the shrouds enrobing the dead of the general’s own tribe, filling him with a pious dread that almost overcame him. From his tattered cloak of felt the shaman drew a bird-bone rattle and began to shake it at the visitant with a hand browned by a forgotten sun. Without preamble or introduction, it ceased its advance and addressed them, speaking in the magician's own tongue, the narrow stripe of skin between the windings of its veil so kindred to the snow that its gaze appeared to float amid the storm itself. The shaman stuttered an imperfect version of the creature’s address.
“This shaitan will lead us over the pass. For this kindness, it will accept all of the gold that your chieftain has given you to...” He turned to his companion, clutching his rattle. At last beholding a member of the race he had been commissioned to destroy, the general took a measure of its form, from where its feet stood bare upon the snow to its golden eyes, seeing nothing he could recognize, not honour nor loathing, compassion or impelling greed.
“I did not march from the Blue Lake to be murdered like an old woman.” he muttered. The creature received the news phlegmatically and gave a swift reply.
“The shaitan says that it will go back onto the mountain, and wait... wait... until we are all dead, then it will take the gold!” the shaman cried. Behind them those soldiers still sensible began to struggle to their feet, clutching their blankets and crying out in support of the shaman. Their leader pulled his hide about him and lowered his short frame to the ground.
“Look at this beast for yourselves and ask what use it has for gold. It does not come down from the Tien Shan to hunt coins. I am old, the snow will take my legs, and I will not waste my last breath haggling with demons. This shaitan will have nothing from me.” The figure in question recognized the unblenching finality of the general’s judgement and turned from their party, heading back toward the west.
At the urging of the shaman the detachment surged after it, stumbling into each other in their desperation, the blown snow flying from their heaving shoulders as they toiled through the drifts. The stranger led them down a slow incline and onto the floor of the valley lying between two ice-collared peaks of fractured stone where the snow thinned, blown to the sides of the cirque by the gale, and where the footing became firmer, allowing the men to coalesce. Their squinting gasps became rigid grins as they began to credit their good fortune, turning to each other behind their guide. It was in the midst of their hysterical acclaim that some saw the black-garbed creature disappear before their streaming eyes, swallowed as if by some drape of snow; they shuffled forward, discovering a shallow hole piercing the ground on which they stood, no wider than a swan's wing. Black water slopped from its jagged margins.
A sound like cracking stone and tearing flesh flew with the faults that opened across the frozen lake in three directions, its surface tilting with their weight. Beneath them, the solitary creature waited in waters thrumming with the supple groaning of the ice then glutted with their hapless bodies, plunging and thrashing as they were dashed into the lake, their flooded garments and leather cloaks binding their limbs like sheets of lead. The ice righted itself, clashing and merging on the surface and crushing their clawing limbs, sealing them under the floes while their screams belched silver and they drowned, struggles fitfully degrading, their hair and clothing rising as though blown behind their sinking forms.
Their guide stroked back slowly through the drifting bodies in a blue haze returned once more to silence. At the eastern shore of the lake he stood his feet on the silty bed and cracked the frozen surface with his shoulders, stepping out onto snow that had already overwritten the ploughed tracks of his victims.
It gave the general no joy to see he had been proven wiser than the rest, and he fell ponderously sideways in his effort to meet his end with a modicum of dignity, struggling up onto his frozen knees. Despite the twinned blades sheathed on his back, the creature raised a hand only to stroke the water from his face as he walked on past without a glance toward him, heading north into the snow.
Susan leant through the kitchen door into darkness, turning her head in search of the ringtone rendition of Ave Maria's opening chords that had exhausted her patience while she sorted laundry in the adjacent garage. The blinking flourescence overhead revealed three paper bags stuffed with groceries on the formica table, her own name blocked in black felt pen on top of each; the bottom of one had darkened with some internal mishap and she pushed through the manga-branded pot noodles and pillowy bags of marshmallows until her fingers found a carton of gourmet ice cream from which the contents had escaped. It had drowned a clutch of croissants and begun to leak onto the table. Employing both arms, she made a careful attempt to shift the sack toward the sink, exclaiming loudly as it gave way and dumped melted dairy down her legs into her mary janes. The forgotten telephone began flashing brightly on the bench as it replayed the offending jingle.
William responded neither to his name nor title in any portion of the ground floor. Clutching the telephone in her determination to visit it upon him, she sighted movement through the drawing room doors; the damp grass swept the icecream from her shoes as she marched out through the cricket song and darkness toward the pool, where a figure swam laps in the fresh charge of water. He alternated between its surface and the unlit depths, undulant motion rippling the motifs on his back amid his unremitting toil. Susan stood on the tiles and frowned for a moment before leaning over with the telephone chiming in her hand.
"Mr Lamb... Mr Lamb... I think this is yours. You might want to answer it." she called.
The swimmer abandoned his trajectory, stroking through the water until he broke the surface almost at her feet. Grasping the stone with both hands, he hauled out swiftly, the element he departed sliding back over his shoulders, falling from the black shorts at his waist and the long white arms he lifted and shook out in a gesture of startling, whiplash violence. Astonished, Susan stepped backward as he took the phone from her hand.
"This is private property." he told her, his stare like a fist to her face.
"I'm sorry..." she offered; he arrested her retreat, his white hand cold on her wrist while he examined the appliance. She exclaimed and tried to pull free, which he did not allow until William stepped down through the French doors and waved to catch his attention. She looked between them, startled by the resemblance that had inspired her mistake, imperfect though it proved in actuality.
"Hey, Edward Lamb, meet Susan Christabel, la déesse du foyer." his brother called, though his intervention was rendered redundant, Susan hurrying back toward the house without acknowledging him.
* Read the next Chapter *