The balustrade made no complaint at his scaling of its carven framework. Climbing onto the heavy handrail where it turned into the second flight with the pistol between his teeth, he jumped at the floor overhead, easing himself over and letting himself down onto the boards without a sound. With eyes and ears he scanned the darkness of the hall in both directions, discovering fat little circles of soupy red forming a trail along the floor, resisted by the tight, stout weave of the rugs where it had wandered over them.
"Christabel..." he called, discreetly. The blood led him into his own rooms, impressed in narrow footprints around his piled clothes and a red smear across the chest at the end of the tester frame. He followed it to the bathroom door where it was painted liberally around the handle. The shapes blurred, overlaid by all the other portals to that sight he knew awaited him, one hundred other disallowed companions, bloodless, beaten, strung or disarticulated according to the inexorable will that trailed him, the wailing of their kin rising all around. For a moment William stood without being able to command his hand, the curing blood like some dire, debarring seal until he raised an arm and pushed once at the door. It swung inward and halted halfway from the wall.
Susan's body had gathered loosely behind her knees between the white tiled wall and the end of the deep footed tub. Her eyes were closed and a plum-coloured bruise marked her forehead. The shape under his foot became the cord of the brass lamp at her feet, its base half-caved and spattered darkly. The pathos of her lonely refuge dispatched his faltering impetus and for a moment he could only stare at the arm she had swathed with black cloth; without a sound, she opened her eyes and slid the limb behind her back.
Her sentience gave him a moment of thoughtless joy, before whispering such terrible suggestions that his gaze darkened with dread and he murmured against them, setting the pistol on the sink. She watched him sink to his knees and cried out as he reached for her ankles, extricating her from beside the tub with grim perfunction.
"Susan... Christabel... this is important... were you were bitten? It doesn't matter where, just tell me now..." In twisting away from him she found she could summon no meaningful resistance, sitting spiritless while he pressed a hand to her neck as though it required his last degree of courage. Her skin replied on her behalf, as luminously warm as he remembered, well-served by the pulse that thudded against the heel of his palm. Unable to accept such simple certainty he made a survey of her arms and legs, pulling back her nightdress and feeling along her back and over her sides and stomach, his fingers finding unbroken skin instead of sliding into sticky wounds or meeting buried, jagged shapes. One of his T-shirts wrapped her arm, hastily and ineffectually, and he took the limb in both hands. "Is this everything?" he urged. Looking down at it, Susan nodded, eyes flooding thickly as she mashed her face into his shoulder, loosing a rough, spluttering sob. “Ishah i’sidati...” he whispered, lifting an elated smile toward the ceiling and embracing her in his inapposite delight, mouthing gratitude to his presiding deities. “Don’t cry, cloudcheeks." He sagged as she wiped her face and grimaced at the deposit her streaming nose had left on his sleeve. "Putain de fucking merde de bordel... don't do that to me, Christabel. Now I need a fucking paramedic."
"I'm sorry... there's... I put snot on you..." she confessed.
"Never mind." William sighed, embracing her again, then lifting her elbow and examining her arm. Her bloodied fingers seemed like those of a severed hand in their listless curl; he touched his own to their tips. "Please tell me you can feel that."
"I can, just... don't... don't touch it."
The objection seemed senseless, and she relented, at first looking away while he worked the blood-soaked shirt loose, then down at the fuzzy lines and clotted red of the lacerations. They ran in slack, skewed concert from the inside of her elbow to where they had torn free over her wrist, leaving the skin cut away from the flesh beneath and lying in half-translucent ripples. Another solitary gash had dragged through the upper surface of her forearm before veering toward the others. They had crossed a series of consequential veins, and three still bled profusely. Though they gave William little joy they were not the poisoned, blackening ulcers of his worst fears and he plucked a small triangle of broken glass from the largest.
“Put your finger there, and press hard. No, hard." he insisted when the digit slid off across her skin.
"What's the time?" she murmured, drawing his frown to the bruise on her head and the diffuse nature of her gaze. With shreds torn from a length of towel he contrived a peculiar braided dressing, winding it onto her limb like maypole ribbon.
"Are you thirsty? Feel sick?" he inquired. She shook her head while he examined her eyes intently. "No flashing lights? Can you hear okay?" Her skull seemed free of the pulpy depressions and slashes of blackened red that he sought so assiduously, stroking back her hair, but he leant in toward her ears and mouth to discount the faint, varnish-like scent of leaking fluids.
"I'm alright." Susan sighed, eyes closed.
“Clench your fist.” he instructed, adjusting the tightness of the final knot. "Okay... what happened?"
She spoke between involuntary breaths, leaning forward onto her left arm.
“My room... I was in my room, and I thought I heard... I went to close the window, and they were coming up the wall...”
“You're three floors up.”
“No, I mean... they tried to.” The little exposition defeated her. "Then... something... I think the window broke, and they fell.”
Again he allowed his attention to extend outward through the empty rooms.
“Stay here. I'll have a look.” he told her. Susan used the edge of the basin to haul herself to her feet, the white tiles bowing violently toward her when she followed him, forcing her to stagger sideways with her arms out. He turned back in time to make a lurching save at which she shrieked and seized a handful of his hair. “If you were a baby monkey that would be cute.” he exclaimed, head dragged sideways in her grasp.
"You'll drop me!"
"I won't drop you." She held on grimly as he attempted to unload her on to the bed, a dark stain creeping across her bandage and forcing him to bear her into the hall, her grip on his hair loosening only as he purveyed her to the stairs beneath her apartment. Susan sat slowly on the lower treads, and he ascended on his own.
An atmosphere of brief, thwarted brutality and the glass scattered across the bedclothes remained to illustrate her story. The casement hung out over the drop at a strange, defeated angle, the upper hinge ripped free of the wood and the lower rail broken from the stile. Blood lay in fluted smears across the sill, in dark, soaked rounds upon the quilt and spatters on the floor; glass crunched under his boots when he pulled the bed from the wall and leant out to examine the scene below. A series of gouges tracked their way up the plaster from the confusion of thorny, flattened roses at its foot. On the stairs Susan hunched at the sound of him forcing the frame back into shape; he met her in the doorway when she climbed toward him and glanced back over his shoulder at the window.
"There's nothing down there, honestly. Tell me what they looked like, while it's fresh.”
She shook her head.
“I don't know... I hit my head, and after that... there's really nothing. I can't see them.” she admitted gravely. In her need to fashion something coherent she found it easier to keep her eyes from him. "That night in the laundry, when there was someone outside... it was... like that, but, it’s... there’s something...” She stared at the moonlit window. "It's mad. Why would you do this?" Like chimes troubled in a distant room, aspects of her discourse struck him, tugging at the cords binding a great black prodigy; it relished her description as a demon dotes upon the final syllables of an invocation. “I know this sounds mental, but they didn't look like a person... I mean, a normal person.” Susan shook her head against her hand and wrestled again with images that fragmented under the force she brought to bear. "I had the lamp... I hit them hard... they had hold of my arm and the window broke, then... she fell...” In grappling with the events in sequence she stumbled on a homologue and looked up, opening her good hand toward him. “My grandmother had this old book, one of those... an almanac. On one page there were good fairies, the nice ones... then she'd turn over to the evil ones, with teeth and horrible faces. That's what I see.”
“White, black, in between?”
“White... very white."
"Female?" he suggested. She nodded, frowning. “Big, small?” She shrugged, then looked up at him.
“I... big. Like you. But I can't see any more than that. It's just... a stupid blur.” Standing in the darkness with his back to the cold glow of the window, William seemed to become aware of his own unsettling aspect and glanced out through the frame.
“You need to get dressed so I can take you into town.” Susan looked down at the ragged stains on the front of her gown and shook her head again emphatically.
"No doctors. Just get me something out of there." she sighed, nodding at the dresser.
"Christabel, don't be a mental case. I'm taking you to an ER."
"No... I'm not going to a bloody hospital..." Her stare followed his own, even as he closed his eyes to evade its imploring petition. "Could you not just clean it up for me or something?"
"Kali ni'ah... poupée..." He gazed up at the ceiling and let his head fall to one side. "I could stitch it, but it'd be a long time, not a good time, and I don't know if I can... your little face would be looking right at me." She looked away, despondent. "Alright..." he groaned. "I'll try."
“What about the guard?” she asked wearily as he assisted her down the stairs.
“If he’s dead, he’ll keep, and if he’s alive, he’s fucking fired. Come on... I’ve got the shit in my room.”
She held his hand along the corridor. Words came to her from an almost wave-ridden distance, her own name, then the slitting, suede-like noises she recognized as the sounds of her own flesh opening, a tearing snarl leaping up at her and falling away. Susan stopped and tried to look down at the remembered face.
“You've got a gun.” she whispered. "Why?"
“Get in here and sit your arse down.” he replied.
With her improving perception she noticed that his suite was as hopelessly disordered in reality as it had been in her confusion, defiant of her increasingly token interventions. Leading her around the bed, he sat her down and took a pillow from those tumbled against the headboard. They both looked down at the blood soaking the front of her nightdress; she was gripped by the urge to be rid of it, loathing the press of it against her stomach, and he helped her up, walking her to the anteroom. In the darkness she attempted to drag the flannelette over her head and found she could not, the pain in her arm bringing tears once more to her eyes. Behind her, he bent down and took the gown in both hands, drawing it over her shoulders and easing the sleeve along the bandage, his presence beside her bare skin striking her at first as fraught and hotly awkward; she lifted her hands to her breasts but the gesture seemed so graceless that she gave it up. He lowered the new nightdress slowly over her head, the fabric brushing her lids and the short curve of her chin and settling around her. While he fastened the button at her nape the small movements of his hands fell through her like cooling embers, closing her eyes while he slid the tie from his hair and gathered hers to the base of her neck.
With her once more seated William began rifling the stacks of boxes, muttering all the while to himself in the patois best suited to the expression of annoyance. He departed in his distraction, returning with a small coffer bearing grimacing primate features in the timber of its lid.
“I hate monkeys.” she sighed. He placed the little chest on the mattress and sat beside her.
“I am fucked in the head for doing this. You need a doctor. What've you got against our selfless health professionals?”
“Nothing... I just... hate hospitals and doctors. And I've got no insurance.”
"If it's the money, I'll..."
"I'm an overstayer." she complained. "They'll deport me."
"Oh yeah, ça va... so am I, come to think of it.”
"Illegal aliens. I don't even own a passport."
"What... your brother too?"
"He's totally fucking alien. That's why he trucks with Opal. He has to keep everything on the low or they'll haul him off to dick dungeon for all his miscellaneous evildoing."
“Greasy, yeah, I know.” He shrugged, fatalistic. “So here we are, all free and brave and whatnot til you get mad at me and dime us out to Immigration." William leant over his knees, pressing his knuckles to his forehead. "Susan... is there nothing I can say to get you to an ER? Please just let me drive you in..."
"Stop asking me. If you don't want to do it, I'll have a go myself." she promised, unable to ascribe the strange taste of his reluctance.
"Alright..." he sighed. "So... how's the pain? It's bad, isn't it?" He reached back into the bedside drawer, lit a joint and handed it to her. Susan drew hard and spluttered.
"Where do you get this stuff?"
"Cay, and Sticky Gerald. Take the edge off?"
She nodded emphatically and frowned down at the contents of the box. A bizarre pharmacopeia was revealed beneath the thick lid; bundles of dry vegetable matter, small brown paper bags labeled with black ink symbols, tiny jars of liquid and doubtful-looking suspensions and crisp, dark wizened things that looked like desiccated fungi or sea creatures crackled as he delved amongst them. He took out a small white taproot, waxen and glabrous like the skin of an elver, and set it aside on the bed; she eyed it warily, shuddering at its plump little midriff and tapering bifurcations. William also selected one of the paper bags, two of the diminutive jars, one full of oily matter and the other clouded as though with dust, a crepe bandage, a curved needle and some glossy black thread. From the bedside table he took a hunting knife, from which she jerked her arm toward herself.
“I thought I’d just take it off at the elbow... we can get you a pirate hook, or you know... one of those clip-on fans.” he smiled, taking her wrist and easing her hand open; she closed her eyes and let her shoulders sag, allowing his voice to do its work. “You don't even have to trust me, Christabel... this is one of my few tiny little domaines d'expertise."
"I don't trust anyone." she admitted.
"If you fell out of a combine harvester in five hundred pieces, I could stitch you back together and you'd end up just as beautiful as you are now. Or almost. To my eyes.” He eased the knife under the dressing as he spoke, slitting it open before she could object again, the pain in her arm expanding with the release of its binding. Watching her eyes close, he got up and brought the copper tub lying under the hole in the ceiling to her feet in time to catch the contents of her stomach. She sat dejectedly, spitting a slug of bollchu into the tub at William's insistence, its potency stripping out the sour taste.
He threaded the needle with a discerning squint, pausing to press the curious little taproot into her hand, closing her fingers around it and smiling as her face betrayed disgust. The small paper bag contained a quantity of something resembling brittle, sun-dried insects and he emptied them into his mouth, chewing for a moment before spitting them as a smooth black paste onto his palm. Susan made strenuous objections while he added the contents of both jars to the masticated mixture but he caught her delinquent limb and brought it back onto the pillow.
“Don’t be so fancy. Spit makes the world go round.” he promised.
“No it's not. Try going out and buying someone else’s spit.”
“I’m trying not to think about that." she sighed while he used two fingers to paint the salve over her wounds, attending to each in turn so that it covered the raw flesh entirely and began a peppery chemical burn where it had sat longest. She sucked in a breath until pins and needles signaled the onset of a comprehensive insensitivity. Though he had tended a thousand such wounds in the midst of violence, screams and suppurating filth, the thought of pushing a needle into her flesh forced him to sit back and reach for the joint himself in an attempt to ease the torque of apprehension.
“These can move around a lot as they heal and you get abscesses, so..." He blew a long, tight breath. "I’m going to have to go deep with the first few. And I have the worst fucking performance anxiety ever... if you keep looking at me I’ll end up sewing my hand to your knee.”
“I have to look."
"Nothing’s worse than not knowing.”
He made a doubtful face and used his free hand to encircle her arm and push the wounds together, arranging them to his satisfaction before testing the needle against a laceration.
"Why do you have a gun?”
William fumbled, sitting back in exasperation.
“You have to stop asking questions. I’m down to my last three answers, and believe me, you won’t like them.” Her silence did not excuse him. “That gun is perfect for home defence.” Susan crept her sound hand toward his and held it until he sighed again and glanced at her, explicitly grateful.
"Go on... I can't feel a thing." she urged. She watched him lace the narrow rows of webbed black stitching that defined and unified each wound until her arm looked like a Georgian sampler, the work so fine and even that she smiled in admiration of its grisly elegance.
“Knowing isn’t everything.” he murmured as he worked. “You're burdened with it... you can’t be blissfully informed." He leant forward and bit through the end of one line. She could feel his breath on her arm as the anaesthetic began to wane; he wound the crepe around his handiwork to keep the sight of it from troubling her. “Once that stuff gets into your system it’ll make you want to sleep, so I’ll leave you here.”
Without knowing if it was the loss of blood or his solicitude, or something in the occult compounds he had administered, Susan was struck by regret at his impending departure. She lay her hand on his wrist, where it served as emissary, her stare entreating his own. He blinked in the slowly lateral and strangely communicative manner that no longer disturbed her.
"Stay..." she said quietly, setting her arm across his midst as though to keep him. William touched his face to the side of her head, groaning softly into her hair.
"Christabel... you have to sleep this off, and I have to get out of here... there are parts of me that don’t care if either of us respect them in the morning.” He placed the joint on the bedside table. "For the heaves." Pulling back the bedclothes, he put her feet under the covers and waited patiently for her to give up his hand, which she did reluctantly, without opening her eyes.
Outside the wind slid through brass chimes, striking the bells with idle fingers but Susan opened her eyes to the certainty she had been roused by something more, lying on her back and wondering if her own snoring had disturbed her. Flame-like pain licked along the arm beneath her bandage and she looked down at where it rested on the palampore quilt; the birds and lotus-hearted palmettes, hand-drawn in indigo and warm vermeil, lay as they had been, their mellow beauty apparent even in the shade of the tester frame. Closing her eyes did not dismiss the perception of disturbance. As she lay arguing against it the quilt began to crease, then slide slowly across her lap. Her fist closed on it to no avail and her gaze followed the taut fabric to the edge of the mattress where the livid, half-stoved face of her attacker gaped at her, greedy fists snatching once more at her torn arm.
The pain beneath her bandage redoubled as she lifted her head and found it clutched under her chin against her dream assailant. Susan cursed the encounter, knowing it had destroyed all prospect of repose, kicking back the quilt and rolling off the bed onto her feet. The faint glow of the night sky through the drapes drew everything beneath the tester frame in crowded silhouette when she leant down to peer into the void. Finding nothing living, she looked around William's possessions until her gaze settled on the stand beside the bed.
Its drawer came to her quietly and she drew the lamp closer to illuminate its contents; a book of matches emblazoned with the livery of a club she had been warned about, a keyring laden with a heathen figure fashioned from black wood and so imbued with menace that her delving fingers avoided contact with it and plastic identity cards shuffled by the action of the drawer. She chose a few, appalled and intrigued to find they carried a range of names and guises. The largest object was an exotic weapon she did not recognize as a katar, a punch dagger wrought with black niello work and scored with an Arabic maxim. Reaching into the back of the drawer, her fingers closed on something smooth, a polished disc from which the light flashed brightly, its edges exceeding by a modest degree the palm of her upturned hand. A kind of stone, she guessed, cloud-white and crowded with fingers of dense, pine-needle green, as smooth as if it had been water-worn for centuries and suggesting so formidable an antiquity that it might have opened in her hands and spoken with a voice as cold as snow.
In turning from the bedside table her feet brushed a large, squared object beneath the frame that she dragged out and settled on the mattress, sweeping its attendant dust from the palampore. It was a volume bound in thick green hide embossed with sinuous vegetation, its leaves of heavy yellow card all scuffed and stubbed at their corners. Polaroids tumbled from them onto her nightdress as she sat down with it.
Some were smudged and all smelled faintly of wine and cigarettes, badly framed and exposed. Someone had photographed William while he slept in an unfamiliar bed, face down in a dim room with windows draped in black cloth. Susan made out a blonde figure reflected in the glass and decided it was Lilian; she had recorded him unconscious and semi-naked, then scowling at her from behind sunglasses starred by the flash in a bathtub, a shower cap containing his scarlet hair, an inflatable dinosaur preserving a nominal modesty.
The foxed leaves held a collection of elderly, large-format photographs mounted in some esoteric order. From William's evasion of the topic she guessed the vistas belonged somewhere in montaine Asia, but could glean little else from them. Their aged monochrome held views of stony slopes and flights of countless, snow-dressed peaks so pale they barely registered against the paper, white-flecked rivers grinding down through gnathic gorges and scouring their foothills. She leant over each in her search for some visible focus, finding endless, scriptless pages of confluent landscape that slowly revealed itself to be the sole object of memorial, the sequence fusing into a knowledge of its distant whole.
In her patient foray she found two lone human figures, the first a young man; beside him on a waist-wide path stood a pony blurred by movement, its profuse mane almost concealing the sack tied to its back. The figure sat on a rock in modest native dress, black hair tied in an unseen tail. Upon examination he bore a marked, if not inerrant, resemblance to William and she lifted the album with her good hand, poring over the image in an attempt to fault the likeness. If she had finally located some erstwhile ancestor, the workings of biology posed more questions than it satisfied; frowning, she turned the page and was confronted with something infinitely more disturbing.
A single battered photograph clung at a slight angle to the middle of the leaf, its two figures standing by the stony footing of a Hindu shrine, its murtis thickly-dressed with wreaths of pale flowers. Both subjects were fair, dark haired and shirtless as though preparing for some ritual obeisance; one faced the camera with hands on his hips while the other stood with his back to it, face in profile. The sun had shone brightly on that scene, delineating features so like William’s that she could not convince herself otherwise, and the same light played on the second figure, painting the black, shamanic complexities of the pattern covering his back in clear-cut contrast. His unmistakable reserve, the look of fathomless consideration in his profile threw a choking coil around her as she discerned the small degree to which the characters on his back differed from his brother’s, since it was Edward who stood with such definitive indifference to the lens. At the bottom of the page someone had pencilled a brief remark.
'darshan, Neelkanth Parbat'
Susan shoved the album from her lap and was rewarded with a ripping pain in her arm that forced her to cradle it and breathe through bared teeth. Another picture had fallen from the pages and lay beyond the foot that she had drawn up with her knees. Its stippled Kodacolor degraded toward the corners, but William glowed in its midst like something freshly painted, standing on a lawn in a printed shirt and dark, cropped hair before the green drape of a weeping elm. His arm encircled the skull of a less statuesque companion, pale hand clasping the stranger’s broad forehead in an attitude of provocative familiarity that required no introduction. The man was dark-eyed and well-made, surely the proud indigéne of some Mediterranean state with his high-collared suit, obedient, sun-streaked coif and Riviera tan. Together they seemed a demonstration of opposing principles, though their ease betokened intimate acquaintance. The print would have brought a smile to her face had its colour shift not rendered it in the pastels of a summer so long perished.
Susan pushed the album quickly beneath the quilt as the door preceded William.
"Ça va?" he asked, seeking something in the chest at the end of the bed. She stared past it at the little she could see of him.
"When's your birthday?" she inquired. His posture changed behind the intervening furnishings.
"I... scorpio. Whatever month that is."
“How old are you?”
The quiet stood between them as he slid the drawer closed. Susan watched him formulate an answer, the time elapsing between her inquiry and his reply ringing with an elemental truth.
“I forget, all the time.” he admitted. “Ed won’t be back tonight and Frost's working, so I’ll stay in his rooms, but if you need me...”
“I’m alright here.” she told him.
When he had gone, Susan plucked the captioned image from its backing and kicked the album under the bed. Its enigmatic subjects refused to be remanded or dismissed by any defensive exegesis of her own devising, and she looked around herself, surveying again the great heterogeneous hoard crowded about her. Amongst it there was nothing able to tell of its own fortune, nothing valued beyond utility or trade, and the pieces spoke to her in unison as though finally granted leave to do so. They were no studied compilation but the record of a lifetime as convoluted and unaccountable as its appurtenance. The pain in her arm became a metronomic rhythm and she sank backward, the canopy looming overhead like the great black footing of a thundercloud.
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
© céili o'keefe
Enjoying it? BUY THE BOOK $3.99