There’s a hole in the sky

There’s a hole in the sky and it seems to be shaped like you.

Someone has punched you out or punched you through,

Or maybe, wielding special sky-cutting shears,

More carefully excised you.

  

There’s a hole in the sky and it seems to be shaped like you.

I spy you through your shape, dank midnight blue;

And scuttling there, the Thing you saw so clear

That was always at your back, always hurrying near.

 

Any day now the sun will snuff itself out,

All days will be dust

And the stars will come streaming through.

 

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Soldiering on when you’ve lost the plot

So there I was, having written part one of what I thought was going to be a two-, or at the very most a three-blog-post story. But just like those science fiction double episodes that you don’t immediately realise are going to be double episodes, things didn’t seem to be coming to any sort of conclusion. Rather, the plot seemed to be expanding. Dangerously.

Oh no, I’m thinking, could I have accidentally started writing a novel inside a blog? Could it be that in three years time I’ll still be posting some equivalent of War and Peace in bite-size chunks? People will long since have stopped reading by then. Why didn’t I plot the thing out in detail for heaven’s sake?

This is how I felt:

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I really don’t like the look of the man. Presumably it is a man?

The reason was because I was too lazy and also because I knew if I got bogged down in plotting it I’d never actually get round to writing it. I have boxes of detailed, well-thought-out plots for stories I have never written. Boxes full of files full of other files, full of A4 dividers and paper clips full of forgotten and unwritten plans for things. An aeon, an ocean of boxes.

One thing at a time, I thought. What is today’s problem? Today’s problem, me told myself, is that you/she have/has bravely/foolishly published part one of a short story having no clue as to what happens in part two, let alone the rest.

So what shall I do? me asked me.

Start asking questions, me replied.

So here are the first three of a list of questions I asked myself about The Obedience of Brother Odhran going forward, and the answers that arrived from somewhere or other – out of the ether. I spent an hour or so doing this, by the end of which I had more or less uncovered the whole plot, although the characters will keep butting in at inconvenient moments with refinements and fol-de-rols:

Where did the manuscript come from?

Italy, the Siege of Florence – and thence into the hands of a Roman ancestor of the new Abbot. The book was thrown from the battlements by an unknown hand, and he caught it. It was in some unreadable script. He was taking part in the siege and brought it back to Rome.

Why has the new Abbot been appointed – with what ulterior motive?

By the Pope himself, to root out dissolution weakness in the monastery. He has heard Henry VII means them harm (1536) And may even be thinking of destroying the monasteries. The Pope requires the monasteries to be strong and above reproach, should this happen. The new Abbot is therefore a cross between a spy and a sergeant major.

What happened to the old Abbot?

He was said to have died of a mysterious illness on a visit to a sister monastery, but there is no proof. He was got rid of.

There were many more questions and answers on my list. I’ll keep them to myself for now  so as not to give away the ending of The Obedience of Brother Odhran for anyone currently reading it. You will see, by the way, if you read the story itself, that not all of the answers were slavishly followed. Things change and rearrange themselves as you go along, sometimes quite drastically. That’s all right.

I think the thing is – a kind of practical confidence that comes from years and years of constructing stories of one sort or another. It’s really odd since I have very little confidence about anything else. It’s not conceit: it’s not believing you can write a good story, only that you’re going be able to write some sort of story. You have the bones of  this monster in your head. You will to be able to build the Creature, stitch all those charnel bits and pieces together and breathe life into, even if it’s not exactly pretty. The thing is you can perform as much cosmetic surgery as you like on It/Him/Her later (or not, in my case, since I’m posting as I go along). The only important thing is to finish what you started.

O Tink, did you drink it to save me?

Why is it that some things creep you out and others don’t?

Poison’s always done it for me. I have heard that people are sometimes haunted in this life by violent, dire and dreadful things that happened to them in past lives: a person who died of thirst might drink too much; a person who was imprisoned in a dungeon for long, long years might be claustrophobic in their present life. So, perhaps I was poisoned. Alternatively, perhaps I was one of the Borgias and poisoned everyone else – in which case this lifetime’s faint fear is an echo of long-ago guilt.

Whyever it is, scenes – even talk – of poisoning have always haunted me. As a child, I walked round Nan’s garden with her. When we came to the foxgloves she explained – firstly how those beautiful, long purple spotted flowers might make gloves for foxes and secondly how the seeds were the basis for the a poison called digitalis, and that it was with this poison that Socrates, the Greek philosopher, had been commanded to poison himself.

In this I believe she may have been wrong, since Socrates poisoned himself with hemlock, an innocuous looking white plant, whereas foxglove makes digitalis – but the effect on me was the same – fright. The world was not a safe place.

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I later – accidentally – read the account of a similar ‘state execution at a distance’ in the form of Tacitus’ account of the death of Seneca. No Stephen King novel could match this for sheer creepy nastiness.

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We were due to go to a carol service at the Methodist. I was seven or so and waiting in the living room of a schoolfriend’s house for her to finish getting ready and come downstairs. The TV was on – a tiny, flickering, black and white box in those days. It was a cowboy film and there, in the middle of a clearing, languished a cowboy who had been bitten by a deadly snake. Engrossed, unable to look away I watched him struggling against the effects of the poison. After that, snakes got added to my list of things to be terrified of, although I retained an idiosyncratic fondness for anacondas. There was an wonderful colour plate of an anaconda in my Odham’s Encyclopaedia (the magical ‘ae’ was sill around in those days) – luxuriously dangled around a tree. Anacondas only crushed their victims to death by wrapping their coils around them and squeezing, and then swallowing them whole (they can unhinge their jaws). This results in a victim-sized lump that moves slowly down the snake as the days pass. Nothing scary about anacondas at all, as far as I’m concerned.

And at some point – oh joy – I was taken to see Peter Pan in London, and when it got to the bit where Tinker Bell – inexplicably played in this production not by a proper fairy actress but by a torch beam and a bell from off stage – sacrificed herself by drinking the poison intended for Peter, how unexpected and terrifying that was. The torch beam/bell combination entered into the glass of “medicine” to which had been added by the vile Captain Hook – according to the book – “a yellow liquid quite unknown to science, which was probably the most virulent poison in existence”. How I hated Captain Hook, and how I worried for Tinker Bell/the offstage torch-beam as she faded, faded, fluttered, fluttered… and all in defence of the bumptious Pan. Any boy less worth drinking imaginary virulent yellow poison for would be hard to imagine.

And then of course we were all forced to clap to show we believed in fairies because children believing in fairies is what keeps them alive. Even then, there was a whiff of circular logic about this claim, something deeply suspect… but how could you not clap? Just in case the torch-beam/bell was really a fairy?

What were you most creeped out by as a child?

Grimdusk

Dusk, the dreaded dusk. Already affected by it, labourers staggered home from stone-picking in winter fields, their eyelids heavy despite the stinging cold; children, quarrelling over their toys, abandoned them, abandoned each other and sat dully by the fireside, fighting sleep to the last. Goodwives fought it, determined to finish the sweeping, or that bit of sewing, but it was useless. Dusk seeped into them, overcame them all. They dreaded it, for they knew what to expect: in the morning, blood on the snow. Another family – sometimes two families – vanished. Sometimes a finger, sometimes a tooth or a severed hand, but mostly – only blood.

Once more the Feeders.

Sleep crept up on Gimli too, and as always he noted it’s slow progress with meticulous care. It seemed to start from the feet and work up, he noted. Pins and needles, then a general lassitude. No matter how you fought it, as you jerked awake next morning you would have forgotten – where, how, the exact moment you lost consciousness. Gimli suspected the body might continue on until it reached it’s destination. There seemed always to be a gap in time. However tardy you were in returning, in that eerie gap, your body sleepwalked to the kin-hall.

Except tonight. He and Edil Wisewife had been experimenting with herbs from one of the far valleys. She had noted the effect of her herb concoction on larbils. Administering the drug to the creature as dusk fell, she slept, but in the morning examined its cage. The sand in the bottom was churned up. She had designed a clever exercise wheel to record the number of rotations it made as the little creature ran inside it. In the morning, the larbil was exhausted and wheel showed evidence of vigorous use.

Now it was Gimli’s turn. Swiftly, before it was too late, he drew the green glass vial from his pocket and drank the bitter liquid therein.

It worked. He hid in bushes on the outskirts of the village and watched sister moons Menem and Fley, rising in tandem, bright disks in the night sky. It was beautiful – and something he had never expected to witness. It worked! Now, at last, he would see what the Feeders looked like, what monsters they were.

He had hidden his father’s broadsword under the straw. It was within arm’s reach. If the worst came to the worst and they discovered his hiding place, he would fight them. The sword was heavy, but he knew that he could lift it. His arms itched and burned for a fight. Rage coursed in his veins as he thought of his countrymen – all the lost kin. The blood on the snow every morning. Hot rage churned in his guts. He felt… strange. He felt… he was frightened of how he felt. He seemed to be growing both in height and width, splitting and breaking, growing a bony carapace. Looking down at his hands, Gimli drew a shuddering breath as he saw them elongating, changing colour, growing an extra set of finger joints and long, scimitar claws…

Overnight the snows melted. Spring was in the air, but blood was smeared on wet grass, and daubed on the door of Gimli’s kin-hall. All five of them had been taken – the father, the mother, the little sister and the baby, and of course Gimli himself, a well-liked, intrepid boy. A wooden talisman – the one Gimli had carved for his sister – was discovered cast aside at the foot of the door, it’s ties broken and bloody with shreds of flesh attached. The ties were made of leather, and cut wide to resist loss or breakage. Creature or creatures must have ripped it from her neck.

“In a way, it’s a mercy,” said the goodwives as they clustered around the wash-trough. “If he’d been spared the boy would have been in torment. How could he have lived on alone?”

Had the snow remained they might would have seen footsteps leading away from the village, footsteps which changed as they ran – from long, clawed and bony to those of a young man, barefooted.

Had the snow remained they might have tracked those footsteps all the way to the sea, and to the cliff’s edge, and they might have looked over and seen, already bleaching clean in the cold light of Spring, a young man’s splintered bones.

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George and the Imaginary Dragon

George was a bully, no doubt about that. Looking back I can see it quite clearly but at the time… At the time Georgina was much admired, by many. After Lights Out she held forth on many subjects, albeit in whispers, and nobody contradicted her.  A hefty girl, with early-sprouting breasts, she assigned tasks and issued orders to the rest of us, her dorm-mate foot-soldiers, with the confidence of a Napoleon or a Nelson.

She didn’t like new girls, George, and she didn’t like small people. Unfortunately Arabella was both. She came from a background several notches above George’s – you could tell by her accent. She had a pony, in a paddock, at home. His name was Randolph. Foolishly, she mentioned this in George’s hearing. George – as we all knew – had neither paddock nor pony. George’s parents came from Eastbourne and had made their money from a bed and breakfast establishment.

Arabella was easily spooked. If you crept up behind her she would inevitably jump or scream. This made George laugh. Arabella was a sensitive and imaginative child. On all these counts she was grist to George’s mill: the perfect victim.

It started with the stories. After lights out,  George began to refer, casually, to the dragon that lived in the box room. The box room was at the end of our corridor. It was used to store suitcases, and the wooden sea-chests belonging to girls whose parents had packed them off “home” from overseas – from the Empire, as we said in those days.

George did not address her dragon tales to Arabella, but made sure she would overhear them. It was not a Loud Roaring dragon, she explained, but one of the Silent Types which are so much worse. Its scales were sometimes blue and sometimes green – iridescent, like mother-of-pearl. It was not a terribly big dragon, she said – but quite big enough to swallow a small child. Whole – she said – a child of, say, Arabella’s size – in one gulp.

Anaconda-like, for at least a week after feeding the Silent dragon would have a bump in the middle, said George. That, of course, was the child, still alive and in the process of being digested by its stomach juices. If you were foolish enough to creep up and lay your head on that dragon’s belly, said George, you would hear it gurgling disgustingly. Those were its juices at work. You might even hear a faint gasp or scream if what was left of the trapped child were to sense you there.

Then she started on the dares. She dared any one of us to go, at midnight, along the corridor to the box room. We could take a torch, she conceded. “Any one of you,” she said “can confirm that I am telling the truth. Who will be brave enough?” Nobody volunteered. This charade went on for several nights until George decided enough was enough – someone jolly well had to verify her story and she would select a volunteer. “Arabella,” she said, in a brisk, condescending tone. Off you go. You’d be about the right size to fit inside a dragon.”

She handed Arabella the torch. We couldn’t see the poor child’s face in the darkness but could guess ‘the colour had drained out of it’ as they say, in ghost stories. Then, twisting the handle silently, she opened the dormitory door and tiptoed out.

I don’t think George had really expected her to go. I suspect the idea was for Arabella to refuse, in terror, giving George a chance to mock, or maybe punish her. George could be inventive, when it came to punishments. We waited, in silence, for a minute or two.

“She must have reached the box room by now,” said George. “Unless she’s run away. Silly little squirt.”

“Maybe you should check, George,” I said. “As our leader.”

There may have been a smidgeon of malice behind this suggestion. I didn’t like George.

Arabella returned a little later, with Matron. She had gone straight to Matron’s quarters and spun her some tale… or maybe just told the truth. At any rate, she had snitched on George. Snitching was entirely infra dig, of course, but for some reason Arabella’s popularity was increased rather than decreased by this particular transgression.

But of George, no trace. She went to the box room. She did not come back. A search was made of the school, and of course of the room itself. There was nothing to be seen in there of anything but sea-chests and suitcases.

The excitement of the night before had rather upset my digestion. Rising from my bed in the cold morning light I tied my dressing-gown tightly around me and shuffled to the bathroom. The door of the box-room was ajar, and there, on the threshold was something rather large, blue and iridescent. I bent to pick it up.  It appeared to be a scale, even tapering to a point. Part of some tessellated pattern. I tested it with my finger. It was needle-sharp. I secreted it in my dressing-gown pocket and when the hols came round I took it home with me for safe-keeping. I collect… interesting objects. Have done so all my life.

And yes, my dear, here it is in my cabinet. Strange, is it not – how the glow has never dimmed…?

Short Story: First Person Singular

My name is Maurice Smith and until recently I spent most of my days up here, in the fourth floor day-room. It’s not popular with the other patients. Difficult to get to, you see; several sets of swing doors to negotiate, then the lift. But I preferred to be alone in those days. The sight of others depressed me.

It used to annoy the hell out of Matron, me being up here. She’d keep coming up to check on me. “I do wish we wouldn’t wheel ourselves quite so close to the glass, Mr Smith,” she’d say. “It’s a safety hazard.” What she meant was that people might look up from the street – and they might not like what they saw.

I don’t give a toss about the squeamishness and sensitivities of the general public, but I like to watch it all the same – imagine where it’s coming from in such a hurry. Where it’s going to. What it’s got in its shopping basket. And other things, like what it feels like to wave to someone you know on the other side of the street and have them smile back at you, look you straight in the eye, not over your head.

I first noticed the girl one afternoon in May. She was pushing a child in a pushchair and she’d stopped at the crossing, waiting for the lights to change. The wind was whipping her hair about. A strand of it got caught in the corner of her mouth and she shook her head to free it. She was wearing a short skirt and a long leather jacket, the two hems almost coinciding. The almond trees were showing the whites of their leaves that day, their blossom-heavy branches jerking about in the wind.

The lights changed at last. I didn’t so much as hear her high heels tap-tap-tapping across the road as feel their rhythm in my body. They synchronised themselves with my heartbeat. After she had gone I spent hours trying to define the colour of her hair, which was neither red nor blonde but a strange peppery buttercup. I decided her name was Emmeline.

I saw her most days after that. As the weeks went by she discarded her leather jacket, exposing her bare arms; they were white, with freckles, gradually turning brown as the summer moved on. I could have counted the freckles individually, just as I could have recited car number-plates a mile or so off, for I have unnaturally sharp vision. I suppose it’s a kind of compensation.

I invented backgrounds for her. It helped to pass the time. She’d been a nurse, I decided. She’d fallen in love and married very young but the husband was no good and had run off, leaving her pregnant. Soon now, though, the child would be old enough to start school. She was planning to return to nursing. And what more convenient place to come than here? I imagined that red-blonde hair pinned up underneath a white cap. Her uniform would be starched so that it rustled. Ah, that wonderful rustle…

Maybe she would be the one to plump my pillows…

It was about this point that reality always crept in to sabotage my fantasies. If Emmeline was to be my nurse she would also have to take me to the toilet, bath me. She would see me lying there crumpled and twitching and her face would take on that familiar, set expression. She would start addressing me in the plural, like Matron did. “Can we manage to turn over on our own this time, Mr Smith?” “Are we ready to get our socks on?”

The day the accident happened I had wheeled myself right up to the fourth floor window as usual. I was idly watching the workmen building the new Law Courts across the road as I waited for her. They swung about like monkeys, shouting to one another – jokes, mild obscenities. They take it all for granted, I thought: the sun on their backs, the jokes, the possession of muscles that work, muscles that can lift a hod and hold a woman tightly to them…

And then everything went out of my mind. Emmeline had just turned the corner at the end of the road. In a minute she would be here, passing underneath my window and as close to me as she was ever likely to get.

She was wearing a white cotton dress. It looked good on her with her small waist and her long hair – romantic and fresh. The child wasn’t with her this time. She was about to push the button for the pelican crossing when one of the workmen spotted her and shouted something. She looked up and grinned and he blew her a shameless, suntanned kiss like Errol Flynn playing a pirate in one of those old movies. My mind was awash with pain. Try as I might I couldn’t shut it out, the picture of this man with my Emmeline, naked, laughing; doing all those thing with her that I had never done, and never could.

I believe I was the first to see the lorry coming down the hill towards her. Of course I realised at once that it was going to fast – out of control, in fact. The driver’s face flashed into my mind quite clearly. He was screaming, his mouth making a great cartoon ‘O’.

People were beginning to turn round and look now, pointing, gasping. It seemed that everyone had noticed the lorry apart from Emmeline, who was still making eyes at Errol Flynn. I don’t know why I did what I did; pure inspiration, I suppose. With my one good arm I seized the nearest object to me – a large metallic ashtray – leaned forward in my wheelchair and hammered as hard as I could on the window of the fourth floor day-room. She couldn’t fail to hear. She whirled round and looked up at me, her face registering first surprise and then…

Was it disgust? I prefer not to think so. After all, she’s in no position to feel disgusted now. The accident hasn’t touched her face, and that glorious red-gold hair is the same as ever, but her body is twisted and paralysed out of all recognition and she can’t speak. Brain damage, you see. Couldn’t have worked out better if I’d planned it.

At my request they often park Emmeline next to me in the fourth floor day-room and I have tried to help her come to terms with what happened to her. After all, who could be better qualified than a man who has spent his whole life in a home? They approve of our friendship. I overheard Matron telling a visiting social worker recently how nice it was that Mr Smith was becoming socially adapted at last, and how fortunate it was that the new lady so enjoyed his company.

I have told Emmeline that she is still beautiful. We are all beautiful really, I tell her. Our minds – what’s in our minds, that’s all that matters. She stares back at me with those big green eyes of hers, and sometimes they fill with tears. This distresses me.

I would hate to think that the girl of my dreams was unhappy.

EDEN (1)

I SAW it before it saw me, or at least so I thought at the time.

Daleth is the cycle in which the sun first begins to feel warm on one’s back and the birds start building their nests, and it was early one morning in Daleth that the Angel first appeared to us. Gideon had lost his favourite ewe and, he being sightless now, Sharma and I were accompanying him on the search.

Gideon, my father, The Elder, a shepherd, a shaman.

Sharma, a girl of sixteen summers, his brother’s child.

And myself, Marthe.

At first it was no more than a white speck moving a hundred cubits below, weaving a complicated path between the trees. I noticed, even from far above, that its long naked feet made no impression on the turf, as if they were out of sequence, the turf existing in one reality and it in another. As it came closer it resolved itself into exactly what you might imagine an angel to be, a flame-haired being, winged and robed. Ah, those wings! I felt such tenderness for those wings that tears started from my eyes and coursed down my cheeks. Glancing over at Sharma to see if she was similarly moved, I caught an expression I had not expected. For a moment I was sure I recognised it, but then, what could I know of such things? I told myself I was mistaken, for it had looked like lust.

Gideon stopped dead, scenting the air like a hind.

‘What is it, Marthe, what do you see?’

‘I believe it to be an Angel,’ I replied. Even to my own ears my voice sounding oddly prosaic, as if I was remarking upon an unusual moth or butterfly.

The Angel stopped and looked up, inspecting us with care. I could scarcely breathe. I felt engulfed by its attention, as by a wave of the sea. I swear that for a moment I sensed its eyes resting not only upon my face but in my blood, in my bones. Then it unfurled its wings and in a moment had risen up the sheer face of The Edge and was hovering. So close was it that I fancied I caught the hiss of air through feathers. All nature seeming to pulse to the beat of those glorious wings.

THE ANGEL returned with us to our village, home of the Seventh Tribe, where Gideon caused the horn to be blown in the age-old pattern, calling upon the people to prepare in haste a feast. One by one they began to appear in the doorways of their dwellings. When they caught sight of the Angel behind us, there was a moment of shocked silence as they tried to understand what they were seeing. Then they scattered, each to his own allotted task.

Before long every last member of the Seventh was gathered in the centre of the village. An ox was slaughtered and a bonfire built to roast it upon, and our children ran about in a storm of cinders and ash. The Old Ones set up a drumming, to call the Sixth from over the hill. Soon, by ones and twos, our cousins began to straggle in, anxious to catch a glimpse of, maybe even touch, the first Angel to visit us on Eden. Meanwhile the Angel sat by the fire, its eyes fixed on the flames, absorbing the heat as though long since starved of such.

The sun hung red and dying on the horizon as the moons began to rise. First Krista, the golden; then the twins Marta and Alph followed by indigo Shem and violet Shan. Finally, after an infinitesimal hanging-back during which you could not somehow help but to hold your breath, rose Menem the green, the smallest of them all. The first few rays of Menem’s light are of such poisonous intensity that they kill the unborn children, in any female child.

I, MARTHE, am thus accursed. Four and thirty summers ago, my mother having delayed too long in the fields that evening, Menem rose in the sky and I was born unsheltered into Eden. Ever since have paid the price for my mother’s carelessness, but the price she paid was greater. She gave birth alone in her hut, with none of the women to assist her. As soon as she was fit to walk she was given a small bundle of food and belongings and sent off in exile to the Ninth, the untouchables, those who have been cast out for their crimes, never to be invited to Feasts or communicated with in any way again. I think of her sometimes and wonder if she survived, and whether she would find another man to look after her. Maybe I have brothers and sisters.

Gideon’s father was the Elder then. Heartbroken at the loss of his young wife Gideon broke with tradition and begged to be permitted to follow her into exile. His father would not allow it.

OUR FEASTINGS last three days. The first day is to greet, the second is for the sharing of visions and the third is for saying farewell. On the second day Gideon and I set out for the Forest to pluck Fruit from the Tree. He had gone alone in the past but there was no question of that now. He needed my eyes, and my arm to steady him on the path and my body to make the descent of The Edge, which would be certain death to a blind man.

A descent of The Edge is always perilous. There are step-spirals hacked into the chalk with handholds only as nature happens to provide: an overhanging tree if you are lucky, or a tuft of grass. More than once I slipped and thought it would be the end of me, but although my shins were scraped raw and bloody I managed to save myself. Hastily I tore strips from my underskirt and bound up my wounds, covering all with my robe.

The foot of The Edge is a dark, dark place; it took all my courage to face those legions of trees stretching away, rank and file, as far as the eye could see. ‘In that place,’ Gideon had forewarned me, ‘the traveller has no choice but to sing. He must sing the Forest Song so that the Forest may know him. He trusts that, knowing him, the Forest will make him a path.’

It might not; and I was not a shaman. No woman could be.

My legs were weak from the strain of the long descent, still stinging from the vicious scrapes the path had inflicted; but worse, I found that my mind had become as white as a lamb’s back and I could no longer recall the words of the Forest Song that Gideon had taught me.

I cast around ever more desperately for any sort of path. The Edge stood at my back and no matter how I craned my neck, the top was invisible, lost in distance and clouds. And then, quite suddenly, a memory arose in me, of Gideon’s deep voice crooning lullabies as we returned from our long days on the hillside with the sheep. As I bumped along in the sling on his back in the summer twilight, my arms clasped around his neck, his words would drift back to me through a haze of sleep:

  • Three things are known to me,
  • Three things to compass by:
  • Menem the Green will rise
  • Sixth in a starry sky;
  • A shepherd will find his sheep
  • No matter how far he must fare,
  • And the forest will make a path
  • For a pure soul wandering there.

So I sang this, and without any awareness of having moved or travelled I found the Tree before me, so tall it reached right to Heaven, the trunk seeming to broaden even as I watched until all the Forest appeared to have melded into this one, single tree, whose leaves multiplied and multiplied again, a deeper and glossier green. As my song came to an end I stood trembling, with cupped hands, as the Tree itself reached down and dropped a great green globe into them. The Fruit rested heavy in my hand, warming, becoming part of me, then all of me, or I all of it.

Time to return to Gideon, and for both of us to return to the Tribe.

AS WE approached the settlement I saw Sharma coming towards us from the direction of the Angel’s hut. Gideon heard her greeting and stared ahead, smiling vaguely in welcome, but I had cause to give thanks that he could not see what I saw. We paused while she caught up to us; she looked, I thought, flushed and foolish.

‘He has been teaching me,’ she mumbled, the memory flittering across her face like a bat in the dusk, then a tiny, fearful, lascivious smile. ‘That is, the Angel has been teaching me, of the nature of the universe, and of Oneness.’ Sharma seemed scarcely to care whether I believed her or not, so lost was she in the throbbing afterglow of whatever had just taken place between herself and our visitor.

I thought of my Oneness with the Fruit, mirroring the Tree’s Oneness with the Forest. Seeing Sharma’s disordered clothing and inability to meet my eyes, I could not help suspecting that the Oneness Sharma spoke of was of another species. Gideon was now carrying the Fruit. Instinctively, without explanation, I reached across and placed my hand upon it.

This time it was different. It was as if I was being burnt, not so much in my flesh as in my soul. Sharma remained before me, but darkened and transformed. It was as if I was now dreaming her rather than seeing her. Her face was wreathed in cloud, infinitely high, and I saw that her feet were disappearing into the earth, as if taking root there. But what I saw coiled in her belly. O Menem! O Krista! Something writhing. No, no, many things, snakelike and bony and black, growing apace, clamouring to be born!