Dead Chao

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Sonic Adventure 2 Battle (Sega, 2001/2002)

(Short story, written sometime in February).

The first time we met, he was already talking about hallucinogens. This isn’t to overemphasise their significance within our relationship, but to give it context, enlightenment. I got a friend request two days later and I knew that maybe he wanted to follow up on our 4am conversation, fueled by chewing tobacco and copious refills of Bombay Sapphire. He had a laugh you could hear in the next room, but he wasn’t by any means American. I liked that about him though, the sitcom quality. He was sort of shivering at the edges, always anticipating the applause. I seemed to find a way to dwell in the beat with indecision, and I suppose he liked that about me. We talked about the deep sagacity of blue glass and later exchanged blue messages. We sent each other trippy, nicotine music over Messenger and then slipped out of each other’s lives awhile.

It was August, the brink of autumn, the next time he messaged.

Now, it might be the prerogative of my story to give details here. Oh I don’t know, things like: what happened in the intervening months, what happened afterwards, what were his intentions–what indeed, were yours or mine? I was listening to this cute track by Teebs called ‘Double Fifths’ and watching the dust scroll through the empty space of my room. I’d cleared everything out to obtain a sense of minimalist realism. I hadn’t cleaned. I’d left stacks and stacks of junk in the street, for the council to pick up–you just had to phone them to arrange a time. At 11.45 on a Friday, I watched from the window as a truck scooped away the residue of my life. What was left: a laptop with crackling speakers, a few clothing items, two types of eyeliner, a book of Tom Raworth poems with pages missing. This was to remind myself that there are other types of logic. Recently, all my words come out riddled with typos, I don’t know why.

I wasn’t to know that you can fall through cleaves where the sky is not quite finished. I can now recall a glitch in Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, a single or multiplayer GameCube game which occupied much of my childhood. There was a special limbo location called the ‘Normal Garden’ where you could raise teardrop-like critters called ‘Chao’. The garden, essentially, was a floating island. If you selected a precise point where sky met cliff edge on the raised mountain I don’t believe you could climb, and you double-dashed real hard into the blue–you could literally fly out the garden, beyond screen, beyond the brown and green. Your sprite would double as it swung out in each overlay of sky and sea (or was it all just sky?), invoking a genuine sense of terrestrial and existential vertigo. A glitch, by its very name, enacts a rupture in the game’s organising logic. Sometimes you can see the little Chao prowling around, half-submerged in the ground. Every arrangement of object and space gets just slightly, temporarily distorted. I didn’t do the glitch often enough to find out if prolonged abuse would damage the code of my game, triggering all sorts of other glitches. Sometimes though, that serenity of repetitive steel-band lullaby leaks into my dreams. I can hear the muted moans of the Chao themselves, the blend of animal cub and human baby that was so unsettling, electronically warped by my television’s poor sound quality. I am always pacing around, jumping up and down, looking for fruit. I fear all the Chao will die before I wake up.

This happens over and over. There is a dark sweet part of me that longs for the Chao to die. The abuse could go on forever. The seasons in the garden do not alter; you cannot align your emotions to fading pastures, solstice awakenings or imminent harvests. Chao abuse is different from crashing cars into innocents, shooting shop owners or beating up on a passing prostitute–the kind of reprobate behaviour you can indulge in via GTA or the like. This felt more perverse. I was but a child and already fantasising over violence, albeit the delicate torture of hurling a Chao at the wall, tackling it into the water. I told myself it was all experiment. The more you hit the Chao, the shorter its life. A simple mortal formula. On the brink of death, the critter goes into a cocoon: grey is the colour of failed reincarnation, pink indicates it will leave an egg behind. A new egg in lieu of a grave. There are numerous ways you can cheat this death, namely by exiting the garden without saving and returning to pick up your Chao before the internal clock does its doing. You can place it in a water location; Chao cannot die when swimming. You cannot, I suppose, drown a Chao; although I seem to remember Sonic himself was supposed to be a terrible swimmer. Some noughties cartoon where he falls through the sky and helplessly into water. There’s an Eley Williams story that ends with all these hedgehogs floating in a twilit pool, ‘right in the very centre, sitting like asterisks, like parodies of stars’. That really stung me; the sense of nobody really knowing what to do.

Once upon a time, my father rescued a hedgehog he’d found in the garden, curled in my collie dog’s empty water bowl. It was covered in frost and shivering profusely, so we knew it probably wouldn’t make it through the night. I wanted to stroke it, express my primal sympathies, but my father reminded me of the needles. Everything sweet will prick eventually, he might’ve said.

Was there something sick inside of me, that made me want to harm the Chao? I wanted to break them, shorten their lives; albeit often only to go back and comfort them. I wanted to be their protector, but to do that I had to instate a threat. Through this, I learned the psychology of the abuser. It was the taste of bile, a question of power: I literally held the balance and duration of life in my tiny, pixelated paws. For every smash against the wall, there could be a caring caress. Binge and purge. I could leap to the heights of a palm and drop back down with fruit, an apple to hand to my tiny darlings.  

As I said, the music got into my head. I hadn’t played the bloody game in over ten years but the tropical, jewellery box lullaby was lodged inside of me. There were palms and psalms in my dreams for weeks. At first, we only cooked a measly, careful, handful of shrooms; they were not as abundant as my new friend said. Well, we were going to cook them but actually I think we had them raw, in a sort of brew. If memory serves. He rubbed off the dirt while I tried to find blankets, because it was cold in his flat–too cold for August. His flatmate was milling around, doing the dishes, watching. I think he knew exactly what we were up to.

There have been times since. I thought I was made out of sugar, my whole flesh a trembling of visible particles, and I knew this meant I would die soon. We were at a party on the other side of town where you have to cross a river in a car or train and I was kissing all my friends, all these people I didn’t know, simply because I knew I was going to die. There was no control anymore. I was going to be this heap of sugar, and I thought I would die there alone and my body would fade to grey like a Chao cocoon. I think this was because an old guy at my work once said, ‘Sugar is cancer’s best friend’. He was loading sachets of aspartame sweetener into his tea at the time, while I was devouring a bar of Cadbury because I’d been on my feet for hours and was starving. We enjoyed our mutual poisons, dragging it out. I could not reply with my mouthful of caramel. Now when I look at cakes and sweets in the supermarket, I only think of my own body, its bubbling of blood and skin, a confectionary of molecules. I have lost two stone in the months since; my family at Christmas barely recognised my toothy, skeletal smile. Something about their candour, their concern, really thrilled me. I could tell they were hurt by my behaviour, which they were judging before understanding. They were fools from another dimension. How could they possibly grasp the cannibalistic implications of consuming sugar? I started to dash and leap around them, looking for fruit I could gift to heal the effects of my cruelty. It was exhausting.

My mother laughs out loud to the radio still, and for that I love her–even though she leaves pieces of fruit to brown in her handbag. There is such a thing as too much ripening. How ever could she know the fatal expense of every tangerine or banana? There is less to be said about apples, potent of juice and shining.

On New Year’s Eve, I read ‘Errory’ and finally fully understood. He was messaging me the whole while, his reflections and concerns. Very little about the year to come; everything honed in on the past. Still, I believe he is to become an engineer of sorts. His job is to fit things together, even memory. Mine: to take all apart, quite deliciously, like an intricate honeycomb melting. You have to enact a hovering, to see between beats and worlds and feelings. This is especially visible in Raworth’s line, ‘silhouettes of participants / dangle in their own data’. You see there are stages to everything, and damned if I was to remain purely neutral, Normal. One time, I saw my future as a singular, golden halo, stretching and stretching outwards like one of Saturn’s rings: it became so huge I couldn’t see the edges. It was beautiful. But then all these other halos started to spill from the invisible centre, just gurgling up hundreds of golden rings like from the spout of a fountain and they were spilling outwards and filling all that holy, haloed space. There were too many rings to count. Altogether a gorge of purity. They started to melt into a pool of liquid gold, and suddenly I felt ashamed. This was the time, I think, when I woke up a day later and found him licking my eyes when I thought he was gone. He murmured something about wanting to eat my soul, in a good way. His tongue stung a little and I slipped it into my mouth instead, mulling over our secret. I thought this boy perhaps was the devil. And could I build something with him; what good would I do?

At home, afterwards, I took a long bath and cried and cried. My tears were hot and perfectly formed. I could not stop crying. The salt, I hoped, would neutralise the sugar. Chao cannot die in water.

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Undercurrents

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Short story I wrote this morning in dedication to January, something about blues and time, memory, the struggle to piece yourself together…

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It is a nightmare to wallow in all this time. She professes inwardly, however, a sense of relief at the expense it affords, all the things she might do or watch or read. I might pick up a book at random, take it to a café and just blitz it, you know? She uses the lighthearted, daytime tv voice in her head—semi-ironically. When she bumps into someone she knows, her eyes swim with gratitude. This is something she must stop.

It is January and no-one is doing anything really, just working. She is working too, except she gets minimal shifts. So really she is treading water.

It would be better, perhaps, to change the scenery. The man at work that paints the stage sets for the plays, he recently had a baby. That baby will grow up, she thinks, surrounded by boards of painted landscapes: haunted houses, verdant meadows, pastoral castles, seashores and fairytale forests. There will always be another reality, overlaid with this. She recalls being very small and trying to wrap herself into a book, almost physically. She would read in the shadowing confines of the wardrobe doors, read dramatic fantasy stories with grownup imagery and worlds the size of universes. In each book she nurtured a personal metamorphosis; maybe the worlds mattered less than the characters. There was this longing she didn’t understand, like nausea. The boys in these books always had eyes described as gemstones, like He looked at her with his hard and sapphire eyes. As a result, she finds herself mostly drawn to men for the colour of their irises. She especially likes the rarity of green, but two-tone eyes are nice as well. She knows a couple of people with heterochromia, and this is a word she relishes, its gorgeous vowels and subtle moans. The O sound.

It is stupid to describe people with eyes like gemstones. It is so obvious. More often, perhaps, they are like television sets, endlessly flickering, reflecting. Melanin, melanin. She turns it over, listening for it like the jingle of her many secrets.

There is just this expanse of time. She walks through the park again, where everything is bare and swept back and any remnant of leaf is like weetabix mushed in dark chocolate, fudge. There is nothing to kick away, nothing to admire. It is all such luxurious waste. This is the bench they sat in, kissing under her black umbrella, the day before things fell apart. That was two years ago now, so she hardly remembers the thaw in her chest when it happened, the way it spilled out like rain. This is the bench where she sat with her pal, six years ago now, and her pal was eating a panini from Gregg’s and it wasn’t vegetarian because she wasn’t, then, and they were watching the belligerent squirrels and it was all so wholesome. Then.

Climbing the hill raises heart rate. When she reaches the top there is such a release.

She wishes she was the type of girl to have a favourite café. Like, Oh this is where I go to relax or study. She sees these girls everywhere, shiny-haired and always smiling with MacBooks and frappuccinos in university brochures. They are so glossy, these girls, they are like anemones. They stick. Boys love them, clubs love them, gym memberships love them. They will glow and smother at will, with their gelatinous, rosy lips. As for her, she is more like a stickleback: swept in and out by mysterious tides, inhaling small quantities of plankton and other fragments of life. When this thought occurs to her, she googles the species: spinachia spinachia; sea stickleback. In Latin, it sounds like some Italian dish, but ah, the brutality of Wikipedia: ‘It is of no interest as a commercial fish.’

The shape of her career dissolves as in ink; she laughs at it, frequently, in bars with friends. Faces the details later, in sleep, where they rise to the surface, inexorably.

She picks up her pace, trying to escape the park where the children are being released from school and are swirling in gregarious shoals around her, screaming at the swings. I am not a commercial fish, she recites, over and over, twisting a smile. Sometimes it is good to get mixed up in these currents, wishing she was small enough to join in, or at least perfect the evolutionary acts of disguise and disappearance. Children communing their wisdom, every howl a perfect hour. For an hour is so much to children. An hour is so much to her; but not right now.

The alarm clock makes her scales ache daily. There is no reason to keep it on, but then again no reason to turn it off. The singular guarantee of diurnal rhythm. Her body is always late, so each time the blood is a dark surprise. She sees it spreading through the week, flowering outwards, like an idle fantasy of slitting one’s wrists in the bath. It is in my nature. Once, high at a party, she studied the arabesques of wallpaper, thought of the blood and tried to describe it when no-one was listening.

Daily she scratches at the elastic canvas of her skin, wishing sometimes she could shrug the whole thing off. She pictures the underneath as this diaphanous mass of sadness. You could only catch it in a blink, like a plastic bag snagged in a tree. A soul without skin gets caught on things.

The days are like videotapes. She takes the same one off the shelf and rewinds it daily. Out of the same, the red blue green, she will eventually find the perfect day, the perfect tape. The girl unwound inside of it. For now, all the good things are just pieces and snatches and moments, like broken-up Snapchat stories she can’t get back. Every replay betrays the truth of the memory. The boy that used to send pictures from abroad, shots of skies and doorways, what did they mean?

Late afternoon, and still nothing. She knew people that walked dogs in their spare time, cash in hand. People that did internet surveys for easy PayPal transfers. People that chanced a few on low-level gambling, even though they weren’t remotely into sports. She recalls a singular night at the casino, five in the morning, gingerly sipping pints of Tennents while he put coin after coin on the slots. It was Christmas and the tips were good; they came in fat bags of new pounds with the edges you could bump twelve times with your thumb in rotation. Metallic tastes, a key of Mandy. Pop songs and the sound of the rush itself, the beginning which kept on beginning. She supposes that’s what love is, for a while.

Nobody she knows is in the park, it is disappointing. Finnieston is where the sun goes down, so the streets are dusky and violet, save for the neon allure of sushi bars, chip shops. Everyone crowded inside so the glass grew steamy. She walks on the long road, chasing the vague direction of town, evading the afternoon. She is walking, pointedly, to acquire a sense of hunger. There are days when she is always hungry, days when the numbness swallows her appetite. Sometimes she can’t decide. She remembers a time when all people did was tell her to eat. That was a while ago—she deserved it then.

Now she sits at the window, night after night, cracking slabs of discount chocolate. This is something she must stop.

Feels good to say a cold one. He calls her at three in the morning but language is too raw at this point, so she keeps her phone on silent. The light in the window opposite is flashing on and off, like a signal. The world is always on the brink of breakdown, or disco.

It is a nightmare to just wallow, wallow, wallow. To turn the connections, to retrace each tread. Satellites above tracking her every location. Then a text message, the gaze of a stranger, vibrations. It is enough sometimes to just be acknowledged.

One day she will polish her gossamer scales, she will shimmer to the lights and dance in a prism of beautiful irises. Her great disappearance—captured on videotape, spinning away.

 

 

Vegetarian Weather

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Short story written over the past three days in a bout of illness, in-between working Christmas shifts that veered between the hectic and dead, drinking quantities of whisky and waking up to sunlight and ice-beams.

The waves here are not like other waves, on other shores. They seem to billow backwards, suck lines of bright froth back into themselves. This town is bordered by a self-consuming ocean, so there’s no other way to go. A bulimic rhythm of prolonged fulfilment; nourishment interrupted. You try to look out but the horizon devours what darkness might lie beyond as within. Everything is overcast. Even in summer, people lick pastel ice-creams to a backdrop of failed, VHS-flicker grey. The sky shivers and glitches with rain. I was on a train once and a drunk man had slept through the changeover and there were no more trains to the city till morning. He asked how to get back from the port, what time the last bus was, was there still time to get a cab from my town, and I said there was no time here. No time at all.

People have been stringing up lights for weeks, but now we are used to the change it’s as if they’ve been here forever. Blue and red, mostly, like sirens; like morse code blinking in darkness. When I was a kid, I used to lean against the harbour wall and watch the lights, spotting a pattern that made sense. I’d write out words with sticks in the sand, trying to parse the lights. Now I see the decorations, the decorative function, and it’s more or less fully tasteless. I have seen how the city looks at this time of year, the city where silver and gold are everywhere. Then there is the town, the red and blue; the spent fire and the melancholy.

Mother washes dishes until her skin blisters. I have bought her gloves for Christmas, year after year, but she refuses to use them. She enjoys some sort of searing, primitive contact with soap and water. They say she is the best kitchen porter the hotel has ever known, and even when there was a corporate takeover, they let her keep her job. She sings festive carols to piss off the chefs, who love her so much they say nothing. Every year, a bottle of ginger wine for a bonus. She hates ginger wine, but accepts graciously. I’ll admit, I inherited little from my mother.

I am guilty of staring at the sign on the church: CHRIST DIED FOR YOUR SINS. One time the minister caught me and he tried to hold my wrist and look up with me, like we were having A Moment of Glory. I remember his stories from school, trite morality tales about betrayal and friendship. Blood trumps all. My mother once had him for tea, and I mean this pretty much literally. She ate him up with her eyes while my father supped lentil soup in silence. She wanted him to say, I suppose, you are all good people. But the minister merely thanked her, politely, letting breadcrumbs sift through his fingers into the soup, like this was a perfectly normal thing to do. I don’t suppose it’s right to crave forgiveness or bliss from a minister. At least my sins are pure, like the sharp silver of restaurant cutlery.

When people pass each other on the street, they nod. Sometimes, a thrusting remark about the weather, a painful stab at some petulant vegetable. The chat doesn’t stick. But still in its smallness I polish it.

The grocery store is selling handmade Christmas wreaths, which smell of true pine. I don’t know what truck brought them in from the forest, came west with the logs and the spindling needles, the twigs of fir and gauze of twine. It’s maybe a job I’d want when I’m older. The driven coastline, the smell of the pine. For now, I gather up trash from the beach, all the stuff people forget about. I glue it together, leave sculptures in the community arts centre for the children to prise apart with sticky fingers. Father once mumbled something about college but never mentioned it again. Sometimes I can sell them, in tourist season. You lay down a blanket and drunk people will come talk to you, like you’re some sort of guru. I imagine my tacky statuettes in homes across the district, mournful little symbols of emotional debris. Luke used to walk along with me, picking up odd bits. We shared a vision, which is more than you can say about most brothers and sisters. I hope people smash them, my sculptures, in the middle of arguments; I hope they instate a sort of catharsis.

Sin. Waves. Sky. Signs. I used to work in a café serving Battenberg cake to gossiping pensioners, whose tongues would loll out like soft bits of dough, even when they were catatonic and staring at the lashing waves, crumbling onto their laps the pink and yellow. The town devours itself, sloshed and watered by endless tea. Scandal is rare and thin, mostly a case of mystery fire, a missing dog or crooked insurers. Once, two men moved in together as lovers but that was diffused by the presence of their pekinese, who used to come snuffling into the café so even the old folks were won over, nursing their social phobias for other occasions. All these dogs kept coming from nowhere.

I feel the presence of others as generally tepid, unwanted. I went to school a couple towns away, got that bus every morning or walked out before it had even reached my door. I’ve never needed eduction to remind me of a world beyond. I only had to look in the weathered face of my father as he returned each time from fishing, the crinkles in his eyes like a tiny clam had nestled in each pupil and was sucking the skin in for energy. Anemone. The way he plodded in the door with such reluctance, trailing sand and silt in his wake, interrupting my mother’s ordered domesticity with the thick, ineluctable lore of the sea.

“Heavy waves out west,” he’d say mysteriously, chewing a lump of bread as if in each crusted pore was the bloom of an oracle. Mother would shuffle a deck of cards, clink the dishes. Oh baby don’t make me cry. She attended bridge nights on Wednesdays at the Schooner, she kept herself busy. Our tiny bungalow was always polished to a sparkle, as if she was afraid the deceased grandparents could tell whether there was tarnish to the silverware. Father doesn’t talk much, doesn’t touch our lives. He helped assemble the tree with usual obligatory gruffness, then retired to his almanack and chewing tobacco. When Luke died, he didn’t say a word for months. He disappeared on trips that got longer and longer, as if trying to make his reckoning with the sea. If I drain you, will revenge be complete? Do fishermen respect the sea? Great shivering nets of metallic shoals looped in and deported up north, a great operation exchanged between strangers with a fetish for the slivery, salty heaps of lamé. He used to keep a logbook of all the good stuff he’d caught, would bring home glistering samples of mussels and carp for tea, but now he throws it all back, unless it’s for work. Does the minimum necessary, but still brushes with death. Don’t we all…

I sometimes think, god if I went away would I miss this place? I picture myself stepping off the train with the arrogant smile of the rest that leave for places east, for the city. Coming home in summer wearing neat tight suits and smart-person glasses. How small the town would seem, a dolls house of trivial troubles compared to the vast expanse of the city, where I’d make my fortune studying law or medicine or working in some department store where all the women wear Chanel and talk as if talk were merely unfettering. The delicate unravelling of a silken scarf, the spritz of expensive everything. In contrast to such gauzy dreams, the town, I fear, is inscribed with too much of me; I need to keep an eye on it. The sedimentary deposits of my human existence, time made language. All the rocks with my name scratched deep by shards of flint and granite. If I came back, this would all seem impossibly empty. The cave where I gave my first handjob, to a boy who smelt of liquor and mint. I still remember how slowly his breath synchronised with the rhythmic lisp of the sea, quickening with the gulls that squawked and circled ever closer, concealing each blood-warming grunt.

I stopped eating meat after Luke died. The smell of fish near enough killed me, so I slept in deliberately each day to avoid the hour when the men came onto the docks with their morning haul. I burned so much incense in my room that Mother was concerned I was having a religious awakening. I grew what they call lithe and thin; I honed my time to a solitary point. Luke used to run along the beach at dusk, but he’d always bang the sand out of his trainers before stepping in the house. He shared Mother’s sense of boundaries, territory. He used to talk about the nesting patterns of gulls. Recursion, he said, was the order of birds. They knew to come home, and when. There was something magnetic, a tiny program inside their skulls.

We still don’t have his body. It never washed up; the sea hasn’t returned it, the police packed in the case a year ago now. The other boys talk solemnly and seriously about moving away: getting out of it all, the mess and the memories. I’ve drank with them down the Schooner many a time, matching them pint for pint as we flick peanuts across the table and wish we were children again, reminiscing our games on the lips of the bay. When Adam kissed me in the freezing sea mist of six in the morning, clutching me like a piece of driftwood that had wound up on his porch, I felt as though I were pressing into the deepest history, its secret flesh. I felt that final capsize, that upsurge of tide. I was glimpsing what I had missed, the darkest moment of shock and extinction. He pinned back my hair, deftly, when I vomited onto his mother’s petunias. He said ‘good girl’ after we slept together, and I was a waif in his tangle of sheets, hardly the siren I supposed myself to be. He said ‘good girl’ but he was only two years older. It was like none of us knew what to do anymore. When I asked him what the last thing Luke said was, Adam couldn’t tell me. He said they were quiet, they were fishing—that was all. They didn’t talk much at sea, like that was unlucky. The focus was always upon the catch. I stopped visiting that house on the border of town, stopped going anywhere beyond my room. I was folding myself inward, like the waves that brushed the skin of the shore. I pictured twenty black pills like black bits of bladderwrack and swallowing my mother’s precious tonic. Every day felt like a new kind of bruising. I’m not there yet. 

I still remember my first lobster. How I had slipped apart the lock of the cage, the lobster pot, to see this gangrenous thing with terrible black eyes that twitched erratically from side to side. Mother used to tell me the chef at her work would go around clacking lobster pincers near all the waitresses’ bums, until one day a woman called Meggie, the old restaurant manager, thumped him in the face and he had to finish service with his nose bleeding into the sauce. “Be more like Meggie,” she’d say sometimes, scrubbing a wine stain out of Father’s trousers, like that was lust itself. You have to twist off the legs, the claws, break at the joints, scoop out the meat from each fat claw. Iron-rich. I watched the blood-red thing die a death in boiling water, could hear a sharp hiss that sounded like more than steam. What else you had to scoop out: the long dark intestinal tract, its tangled, bedraggled remains of a life. An Escheresque recursion, a spiralling fold into self. I wonder what lobster hunger feels like, the in-suck of clams and asterisk starfish. How it feels to enter that deep, freezer sleep, among the ice cubes and packets of plastic-wrapped, soldered meat? Father clapped me on the back when I held out the shell; when later, tactfully, I stuck my fork in, needling around for the richest flesh. My body knew appetite, knew what to look for. It tasted good and strong. Now I see those orange buoys and I wonder what starving thing is perishing underneath, ready for consumption. I reset my computer because the internet never works. We are out at sea here, lost in our mutual devouring. Nobody comes to fix the signal. Nobody questions my diet at all.

My breath still sours on the windowpanes of strangers. There is no time in this town, not even at Christmas where the hours bleed together like the masses of plastic that gather along the shore. I pass the minister, who quips about the weather. Overcast as the darkness that meets us all. He doesn’t understand the patterns, the names of the clouds.

Sometimes I still see Adam. He stripped me till I was thin as cirrus, in smoky entrails of evening light. Boxing Day and I looked out with the blankets scratching my shoulders, the horizon grey and wasted. I could see Father’s boat trailing in at the dock, the shape of his cap against the grey. My skin looked grey. Something a teacher explained once, glassels: those stones that look shiny and lovely under the water, but dry a dull, disappointing matte on land. I was back in the house on the border of town. I left a little ornament, a piece with old speakers, all copper wires twanged into ersatz smiles. It’s the creepiest thing I ever made, maybe. Luke would’ve hated it; would’ve snapped it apart, made food for the waves. Sometimes we go backwards, return to the place. I think of him most when splitting vegetables, drinking Mother’s ginger wine, scrolling through Facebook on delayed connections. It’s different, now that you’re not around. I grow fragile with anaemia, spend time trying to name your fate. There’s a toast to be made to the absent, a manner of feedback; but all of that pain was already in the weather. You just had to notice.



 

Short Story: Selkie

(A short story I wrote back in March, knee-deep in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, handfuls of Romanticism and longing for the sea. It’s about an oil spill, a young boy’s strange obsessions and his very indulgent Daedalian poetry)

Selkie

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He’s become obsessed with making lists of optical properties. Qualities of light quantified on a complex scale he devised at midnight, drunk on a month of insomnia.

His father is very concerned. He comes home and pours amber from the bottle, watching his son pore over homework. Sometimes a storm shatters the sky through the window and they are both oblivious; the father is a terrible farmer. He keeps just a small herd of cows. A local girl comes to do the milking because he is incapable sometimes, and he won lots of money on the races which pays for her wages. He’s grown sick of the jelly-pink udders.

The boy draws lines, draws a series of overlapping ellipses. This is his expression of despair in the face of algebraic equations. He has grown quite fond of receiving those sweet red Fs.

The community is idyllic as any island could be. The school is offshore, on the main island. Every morning, he gets the ferry with the rest of them. They move as one great shoal of fish. Sometimes he watches it happen from afar, the torrent of school uniforms dissolving through the mouth of the big white ship. On such mornings he turns away and walks further inland, hoping to find comfort in the hills.

He never does. It is only the sea he loves.

[…]

Once, the milking girl tried to make a move on him. She used to wear her hair in braids stitched together across her skull, but that day she came in with it long and loose and wavy.

“Will ye not get it in the muck?” the father asked, secretly admiring her golden tresses. She smiled at him. She waited for the boy to come down from his room, eking out time with every pull of the milk. He saw her bent over like that, the hair dripping over her shoulders. He was holding a tattered textbook.

“I love that you read,” she murmured, to no one. The sound was drowned by the cow’s impatient grunt.

“Easy girl,” she said, thwacking its flanks. The boy stood there watching and she mistook that for desire. She turned to look him in the eye, letting the left strap of her top slip down her arm. That one white breast would haunt him forever, like an immature moon. He averted his gaze.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. He sat in the straw, slumped to the floor, and wept. She had never seen someone so pathetic.

He would stand in the shallows of the sea and feel this ache that was deeper than any pain he had ever experienced. It wasn’t pain exactly, but it was a thing that gnawed at his chest, so much sometimes he could hardly breathe. The grey green waters would shlock around his ankles. In the distance they darkened to purple, to wine. His soul was scorched by sunsets. He picked up shells and held them to his ear, listening for the ocean’s distant, groaning radio.

The old woman in the village store told him she sensed his misaligned chakras. She had a bracelet for that, studded with seven power gems.

“You should wear it day and night,” she warned him.

“I have no money.” He studied the trinket with interest. The citrine and carnelian were pretty, but it was the clear quartz and amethyst he liked best. The tiny crackles inside reminded him of waves, preserved in time.

He hung it back up on the stand, alongside the crystal pendants and the celtic knots they sold to tourists.

“I’ll have a postcard instead.”

“A postcard? Who on earth do you have to write to?”

He sat on one of the picnic benches by the shore. The wind kept threatening to blow everything away so he had to pin the card down as he wrote. It was a picture of some white boats against a flaming sundown. Utterly cliché.

Dear mother, he began. What else was there to say?

Sometimes he would walk for an hour right round to the other side of the island. There was a cleft in the rocks you could find for safety at high tide; it was sufficiently above ground to protect one from the flailing salty waters. He would nestle in that cleft and compose lines:

The vitreous lustre of the sea turning starboard
in tidal cycles, an errant moon
throwing zephyrs across the still bright sound. 

Oh mariner, how you have travelled
so deep in the blood of the world! I miss
the sense of your stories, sharp as whisky

in bars where the girls did sing: how lovely
is the newborn day! There are precious
few elements as vast as you, I should

dream only of your strange motifs,
a darkening glass against turquoise air.
In the morning I plot 

my passage to the mainland, sullied
with the effluvia of island living,
drunk on the salt and the still bright rain. 

He would never show his words to a soul. He rolled the thick pages, torn from his father’s ledger, and stuffed them in the empty tubes that once held his teenage posters. The woman in the café served him strong black coffee, and never once asked him why he wasn’t at school. He left her a £1 tip, excess change gleaned from not eating lunch.

Sometimes he would stand on the edge of some cliff and let the wind buffet his body so hard it was perfectly possible that he’d be torn from his mount and hurled to the sea below, stirred up and strangled in its milky swirls.

A week after the milk girl quit, there was a terrible oil spill. Nobody was quite sure who was to blame. People skipped school and work to go down the shore and watch the slow undulations of the oil on the water. It reminded the boy of something oozing in his dreams, a black thick sweat that covered everything. He wrapped his father’s jacket tight around his shoulders. Flecks spattered the silt and shingle the way ink sprayed from a burst pen. They were waiting for experts to arrive.

Some of the islanders wore oilskins or workmen’s gear and went down the next morning to help clean up. The boy had spent half the night on the safety of his favourite rock, watching the oil thicken and coagulate in the shallows. A few birds washed up, unidentifiable. They looked like lumps of hematite, shining in the new full moon. Sometimes the sight of that black shining oil was so much that the boy could hardly breathe.

It was a job that went on for weeks. The oil just kept coming and coming. People from the news arrived with fancy cameras and started interviewing the locals. They said it was one of the worst offshore spillages in a generation. Old folks tutted and blamed the greed of the mainland.

“They might as well have fountains in shopping centres, spraying this stuff around, for all they abuse it.”

The boy kept a diary of the oil. He tried to write about it purely aesthetically. He wanted a thousand words for black, thick, inky, viscous.

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The words brought temporary distraction but deep down they sickened him. He longed to put his bare feet in the sea again. His father scorned him for not helping with the clean-up. He had to do double-shifts with the cows, now that the milk girl had quit.

“You lost your chance there my son.”

The boy started stealing his father whisky. He knew where the weak point was in the distillery warehouse. His father left him alone after that, asked no questions.

The boy noticed that the light on the island had changed with the coming of the oil. Before, it was all stained glass, watercolour: bright and airy. Greens and blues refracted through each other, sparkling. Now the oil cast strange shadows; there were colours on the beach that the boy could not name. He tried to make sense of them with numerical scales to measure the gradients and shades. He kept his notes in a new journal, whose edges were already curled with dried rain, spattered with sea oil.

The sea reveals its fleshly skin of jade,
the green that makes flickers of the water
shiver among those darkling fish, to fade
inexorably among its daughters,

the girls of the dawn with their wet sea fur.
Five generations have known such deep love
as to carve loud bones from the ocean’s whir,
still spinning the buoys at their broken hulls. 

We wait on the rocks for the siren’s call,
laying our bodies to waste on the sound
while the immature moon makes fools of all
who believe in the beautiful, who drowned

Easy as sailors on a summer’s day,
Bloated with salt, time’s lustful decay.

Sometimes his language was so cloying he literally fell violently ill. It was as if he were at sea on a ship, rocked back and forth by a bullying tide. His father found him curled over the toilet.

“Have you been at the whisky my boy?”

“No father. I’m sick at heart.”

“You’re in love?”

“No. It’s the oil.”

He could not eat. He could not sleep. Night melted into day, the hours sat atop one another with the stagnant sense of that oil on the water.

Once, walking along the shore at night, he fancied he saw the milk girl. She walked naked across the sand, her body waxen white, as if carved from the moon. He felt so dreadfully solid in her company. The gooseflesh prickled his neck. She was singing an old song they had learned at school.

From the old things to the new
Keep me traveling along with you

He’d once hated the song, finding it a trite and gooey hymn, but the way she sang it made his heart sting. He realised then that he was no longer a child, that he’d no longer have the innocent luxury of hating something the way he used to hate that song. He thought of the days when he played in the sea until the sun sank behind it, spilling its fiery peach light across the water. How he used to come home with jellyfish stings, salt in his pores, sunburn from the hottest June afternoons.

There was the flaking, turquoise paint on the hulls of abandoned ships. The colour of rust, the old iron chains that oxidised fast in the saline air. The abandoned, unravelled feel of the old yard where the dead ships waited to be repaired. The salt sped everything up, made objects fade eons before they should.

The sea howled. Storms came in quicker than they usually did at this time of year. There was a brief shortage of food as the boats struggled to get offshore, beyond the oil. People were irritable and the cows yielded badly. The boy found a beautiful starfish washed up in a cove. It was jet black, encrusted with oil. It looked like some kind of exotic ornament, worn by a rich lady in a Bond film. He kept it on his windowsill, admired it as the minutes ticked long and slow on the clock.

When the seals started washing up, choked and black and dead as bin-bags, things got serious. Their mouths were bloodied and dry and choked, splayed open as if caught in a final howl. Did seals howl? Could they?

Specialists from the mainland arrived in helicopters to help with the cleanup. There was talk of the island receiving huge subsidies and pay-offs from the petrol company responsible for the spill. Teenagers snapped pictures on their phones and posted them online, tagging them with things like: #shocking #awful #evil #gross #capitalism #darkaesthetic.

The boy realised his peers were wiser than he thought. But they did not know the real damage, the agony he felt sloshing in his chest every time he lay down. There was the sea. It was always there, but once it had been a brilliant cerulean, mottled with orange and heather, grey and jade. Everything smelled of dull and stinking petrol. He wrote in his journal:

It is our world’s first beautiful disturbance. All disasters must entice the eye. 

He thought of 9/11, watching the replays on the television screen while his father drank steadily on the sofa beside him.

“There’s evil out there, my boy.”

“But what about the evil in here?” The boy pointed to his own chest. His father laughed.

“I don’t think you’re going to take down buildings any time soon.” Clumsily, he helped his son with his tie. “Now get yourself to school.”

That isn’t what I meant; it isn’t what I meant at all. 

Sometimes on the rocky plateaus the remnants of oil ghosted the overflow of water, left swirling patterns of rainbows. He checked the internet and saw that people at school were posting lots of photos again. A girl in his class said she was doing her art project on the oil spill. He wanted to tell her to stop, to tell her she knew nothing about the changing colours and the way time was caught in the turgid undulations.

“Father, when will you tell me about mother?”

“What is there to tell? She left when you were still a babe.”

“But—”

“There’s things you won’t understand til you’re older. Now go and play.”

He had not played for five years. He was old now, he was wiser than anyone thought.

He lugged empty bottles across the road to the dumpsters. He now knew the clinking was conspicuous; he could feel the eyes on his back as he smashed each one through the hole.

Once, he dreamt of the milk girl, lying on one of the hillside fields inland, her hair plaited with cowslips. She was humming a tune because it was his birthday. She drank from a bottle of cherryade, the miniature Barr ones you got from the island store. He saw how her tongue was staining red. He woke up feeling very ashamed.

The raven-dark sea made a fool of me,
those tides of black crashing waves in the night
against the harbour wall. I miss the green
abstracted aqua light, playing so bright

amid those blues, those waters clear as glass
who sheltered the glossy ribbons of fish
to swim in the shimmers, burnished with brass
by an old sun that loves life like a wish. 

And now, if I were but a lonesome child
making his way to the soar of the sound
would my young mind find soon such passions wild
inside lagoons, whirlpools, tide patterns bound?

Son to the slippy, cerulean sea,
I rise forward in time to what will be.

When he saw the oil-stained peat of the rocks, the blackened beach, he kept thinking of those towers collapsing. It was like someone had the bright idea of symbolising how everything was falling apart with one fell swoop of a global, terroristic stunt. He asked his teacher if the sea could go on fire, now that it was coated with oil.

“Some folks say that’s the best way to deal with it,” she told him.

“So why haven’t they?”

“I’m sure they have their reasons.” But the boy was sick of not having answers. There were so many creatures out there, wailing with pain beneath the surface, and no one was listening. The ships went out but all they seemed to do was swirl the oil round and round, gathering it thicker. Nothing disappeared. Nothing. 

One day, he came home from school to find his father rifling through his papers. While his files were normally organised, shut tight in a drawer, now they were scattered all over his bedroom floor. His father had let a glass of wine spill on the carpet and now a horrid red stain accompanied the places where cigarettes had been stubbed, where coffee had seeped into a forest of fibres.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“This stuff, son, what does it all mean?” his father looked at him with tears in his eyes, a sight which struck fear in the boy’s heart. His father only wept on Sabbath days, and even then, only in the early morning when he thought the boy was still asleep. But of course the boy heard him through the walls.

“It means nothing,” the boy said, furious, “absolutely nothing.” He swept up all the papers and slammed the door in his father’s face. That night he would burn the lot, then take a bath in the masses of ashes.

Dear mother, he wrote. He was in the island café and his tea had gone cold. It was three o’clock—the dead time—and the waitress hummed a lonesome song as she swept clean all the tables. He was writing on the back of another postcard. It showed the standing stones, the ones in the centre of the island. He’d only been there a few times.

I don’t know where you are or what happened to you. How many times is it now that I’ve written to you? I wonder if somehow your spirit catches these words from the ether, even as your body is absent from their possibility. I hate myself, I hate my words. 

He scribbled out the last line.

I want to get back to you. Father is worse. He drinks like a fish, a seasick sailor. I think he misses the sea more than I do. I think maybe he hates being a farmer, hates the land. Its demands. The sea demands nothing. It doesn’t need fed. But now we’ve fucked up so bad. We’ve poisoned the sea. And maybe you’re out there somewhere watching all of this on TV. The birds are so sticky with oil they lie down without flight and never get up. Some drown. Imagine that, drowning in the black black oil? The feel of it choking in your throat, sickly as molasses. I can’t help feeling it’s somehow my fault. My blood feels poisoned as the sea. Everything is slow and sluggish and heavy. I hardly want to get out of bed. I can hardly breathe. 

His handwriting grew increasingly minuscule, so that a passing glance would reveal more a black block of tiny, pressing shapes than actual words. There was something satisfying about seeing all that ink crushed together; it was a bit like the oil itself, taking over the whiteness of the page.

The boy left the café just as it was closing, as the dusk was settling into the sky over the sea. He took the winding path down to the beach, stones crunching beneath his feet. He took a detour to pass by the recycling bins at the end of the street. The café stood alone, its lonesome sign buffeted in high winds and often hurled across the beach, but it wasn’t far from houses. Each one painted a different shade of pastel, to hide the despair of the residents within. The bottle bank, as always, was overflowing. The boy chose a slender, clear bottle, labelled for gin. He picked up a lid from among the street rubble and luckily it fit. Down by the shoreline, he rolled his postcard tight into a tube and posted it through the bottle’s neck. Screwed the cap. Hurled it far out into the waves, where it bobbed for a moment, before the gathering night tides stole it from sight, swirling into darkness, distance.

Her milk-sweet cheeks…

He scratched that one.

 The open lungs of the still-breathing sea…

Trackings of light from west to east:
Time co-ordinates; forgotten detritus
Blended mermaid’s purses, lemoning
pale and lovely skeins of flesh
in the gloaming, a moon’s first milk
making cream of an evening,
the curdled settlements of a westerly tide. 

My mother, my mother.
Your presence vectoring the harsher
veins of the waves in clearer photons
which press their coastal scars on the canvased
skin of a virtual reality, electromagnetic
stirring of the heart. 

There is a scattering, a donut-shaped diagram
shedding the chintz of its skull off
in dullish flakes, blueish as fish food. 

(…What are you writing son?
Nothing.
It does pains to lie; come on, show me.
I can’t.
You’re always so far away when you write.
Like mother.
Yes, I suppose…)

I ask father, could the sea go on fire? Like,
if you struck a match to the black black oil?
He said the water was alcoholic, sloshing
with secret poisons, a formula
for ending its own incantatory eloquence
that spreads in the waves such messages
as to embrocate the flow of blood
diseased in the world’s great spleen.

He said nothing of the sort; he was cold
and mean. The tumorous lumps
puffed at the pores of his torso, unfurling
like chanterelles, yellowing the gorse
and scrub of a forest. I knew then
that his pain was utterly edible.

A molten pot of onyx, a knot
shaped like a pretzel, the twisted
wire that snarls in the dark
of his heart. Father,
he was a sailor once,
a man of the deep
black waves.

He remembered the milk girl used to sing to the cows. She cooed at them, sickly sweet, then struck up some old folk melody he recognised from the songs they sang in primary school. Songs about the changing seasons, the inevitable cycles of nature. She knew how to keep the animals still, to tame them to her softening will.

Once, he made eye contact with a seal. He was sitting on a rock on the island’s easterly side, hoping for shelter from the autumn wind. The black shape had rose, dark and smooth, from the choppy grey waves. Its eyes had flashed back at him, uncannily human, green as his own. Green as the sea in the sweetest shallows, made greener still by heaps of seaweed. His fingers brushed the briny rubber, popping the sacs of air. Is it time yet?

In the café again, he was listening to the old waitress as she stood by his table, hands beating powdery flour on her apron. Her accent had thickened over the years, congealing into the island’s broad dialect like salt crystals fattening in the cracks of a cliff.

“They say half the men on this island lost their hearts to the beasts of the sea. I could tell you many stories.”

“My father?”

“Torn asunder, you could say.”

“By whom? A childhood sweetheart?”

(and if the candied dawn brings tastes luxurious…)

“Yer mother, stupid.”

“He still loves her.”

“She found her skin elsewhere. A better fit.”

“Liquid.”

“Yes.” She rolled up her sleeve. He saw how her arms were covered with an elaborate craquelure of scars and burns and etched-in scratches, as if the flesh were readying itself for sloughing off, the mottled pattern of a snakeskin.

Of all the animals in the marble menagerie
I choose you, silvery moon wisps of limestone
streaking the fault-lines
of my sparkling heart, its sacred burial
beneath the midnight billows. Funereal,
sweetening the crumbling aura,
you see underwater, sharp as a seal’s
dilated vision. 

The love notes meant nothing, were for no one. Sometimes, he forgot the original purpose of everything. He kept quantitive records of the weather, the changing seasonal light, the pathways of the lighthouse beam as it cut across the bay, endlessly searching. He missed the special quality of innocence that the place had lost after the oil spill. Even with the cleanup, traces of the disaster remained. The sea birds had quit the agonised sea and even the crabs were shrivelled carcasses, washed up on litter-streaked beaches. The council had all but given up, now that corporate control was hardening its narratives of the wreckage.

What if the gin bottle remained, bobbing in one place, the current thickening around it, enriched by the stasis of oil?

the shadowy slosh of gelatinous babble /
like molasses i stretch long and sweet in your mouth /
i imagine the darkness inside you, a sable
annihilating the spill of me /
your gluey skin sticks to me with the tarry promise
of future absence / a terrible,
sickening lubricant

Sometimes, he wrote what he considered to be filthy, erotic poetry, forgetting to dot his i’s.

Everything he wrote brought him closer to the water. He felt his words surrounding him like cloying blots of oil, swimming in his sleep and spreading out through daily reality. His grades plummeted and his soul found solace only at twilight, bearing cold feet to the dusky waters.

He knew the milk girl came out sometimes to watch him. He saw her emanations from across the bay.

The cows were milking very badly. They grunted with inhuman fury whenever the boy’s father tried to draw from those shrunken teats. The boy ate very little and the father even less, chomping his way through stub after stub of cheap cigarettes.

“My gums are sore,” the boy complained.

“Lack of nutrition,” his father replied. He asked for a slice of lemon in his tea at the café. The waitress said fruit was scarce; she’d have to knock on 50p to his bill.

“That’s okay.”

A few nights later, he woke up to a pillow covered in crusted blood. His mouth was the same, darkened with black clots. A gap in his gums. The lost tooth reappeared beneath the sheets, a little white stump of ivory, knotted at its roots with a tangle of red, seaweed sinew.

“Goodness son,” the father said when he saw what had happened. “That’s one of your molars.”

Terrified he would lose the rest of his teeth, the boy ate only liquids, or else the slippery fish they served sometimes as specials at the café, depending on what the men could bring back from the boats, delicate in silver lamé. Sometimes the fish tasted of petrol, but nobody voiced this opinion.

The boy placed his tooth in an old spice jar and hurled it out to sea, an offering. Sometimes he felt the wind whistle through the gap it had left in his mouth.

The rock pools were finally back to a greener colour. Good healthy emerald sea lettuce, the tawny rust of cystaphora, tangles of Neptune’s necklace. Salt crusts formed round the edges. The boy dipped his fingers in to feel the warming water. Was spring coming?

There was the milk girl, ghostly in a tangle of cowslips.

“How are you, it’s been so long?”

I love the seals and the way their skin
is a rippling film of oil, the wrinkles
like sexy black outfits on tv
stretching and spreading for the flesh
of human hungriness. 

“These diagrams,” he told her, “chart the changing luminescence of the dying ocean. Tide patterns spread the moon to buttery swirls in different directions. See where this ellipsis meets the horizon’s curve?” But she had no interest in his geometries, his Venn, his equations. She wanted to talk about the people at school, the films you could see on the mainland cinema, the new dress she had made from an old white silk.

“Do you believe in mermaids?” she asked.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Women are not so callous.”

“If you come to the field I can show you my skin.”

“The strawberries will be out soon, a bed-sheet studded with dewdrops of blood.”

“My skin is white. I am white as the moon.”

“I believe sometimes people breathe underwater.”

“You’re so mysterious. You speak like somebody much older. I had an uncle once…”

“I’m not sure I love you.”

“That’s okay.”

He might have gone with her, might have watched as she shed the magnificent white dress, cast it into a crumple like the cape of an angel. He followed the trajectories of her limbs, watching the shadows move in rhythmic repetition against the pale grass, felt vaguely the rubbing of skin like the way it feels to walk barefoot through fresh, juicy mounds of seaweed.

“Do you miss her?”

“Well enough. I know she’s out there somewhere.”

“Is that really enough?”

“Sometimes it’s all there is.”

The island was gifted a grant as compensation for the oil spill. The village was cleaned up and the shopfronts repainted. The rusting boats in the old dock were going to be towed away to make room for new ones.

The boy and the milk girl started playing a game. They would jump off the harbour wall, hand in hand, utterly naked at the darkest point in the night. In the cold black water they would scrabble down as far as they could, holding their breath, waiting for the exhilaration to rush through their blood. They tried to prolong the time before resurfacing, scrabbling for weeds and stones to tug them downwards. Soon, however, the tide buoyed them upwards and they were gasping for air in the midst of pure darkness. A single light from someone’s cottage spilled gold on the water’s surface. The girl’s hair was blonde and the light was gold; everything else was blackness.

Our bodies slippery as bladderwrack
beating the tide in the stillborn black,
a bolt of cold struck deep in the veins
where poisons gather their listless death. 

Everything he wrote was awful now. Soured by the thing that had come between him and the milk girl. He slept all day, wrote by twilight, cast his notes to the wind on his least favourite side of the island. The place with the graves, the place where the air was warmly rich with spirits. It unsettled him.

“You’re missing a tooth,” she said once, poking her fingers round his mouth, where the gums were soft and rubbery.

“Yes.” He clamped down hard on her fingers and she yelped, playfully, like a pup. They went back up to the farm and helped out with the milking, so that it was done in triple time and the three of them could have a meal together, big cups of cider and a shared loaf of bread. She sung into the twilight and the men listened in silence.

The boy took down all his diagrams because the milk girl told him they were freaking her out. He wanted her to sleep in his bed but every night she insisted on going down to the harbour. What with the daytime milking and the nighttime swimming, the boy was growing very exhausted.

“What are we trying to prove?” he asked, folding her shining body to his in the moonlight.

“I want to know, I mean, I need to know.”

“Know what?”

“Can we be creatures of the sea?” He thought then of the seal who had stared at him long and hard, like it had known him forever. He shivered.

“Maybe it’s better not to. Then we can just pretend.”

“You miss her, don’t you?”

“Who?”

“Your mother.”

There are different types of orphans. Some are split irrevocably from their origins, by death or neglect. Others are tied to this primal region of their life by a gossamer thread of dreams. The milk girl seemed to have hatched from the sky, on a pure and cloudless night.

One time, they were night-diving down by the harbour and she disappeared. One minute, they were together, tangled in the gruesome depths of the harbour; the next, he could not feel her body at all. All was rock and weed and jellyfish. The tide was high, it had come sloshing up the walls and with it all manner of ocean debris. As the elders always said, the sea hurls back what gets hurled into it.

After swimming around in the churning currents, trying to make out a slender white shape, the boy gave up. He climbed the rusted ladder and promptly vomited onto the concrete, mouthfuls of seawater and silt and evening coffee. Shaking a little, he stood on the edge of the wall, looking for the gold-blonde head of his little seal. Maybe she just swam away from him, following some milky highway of moonlight back to her nebulous origins. But he could not help but think of how she had just vanished, torn away by some invisible current, her body ensnared by terrible kelp.

She never returned, and he realised that nobody noticed that she was gone. When he asked his father about the milk girl’s parents, he said something vaguely ominous and strange about how she was an outsider, “an immigrant to the island’s soil, born from luminous loins.”

Enough of the hoary midnight mist
that tricks me into feeling.
I am old as the sand, a grain
of the past, and I
am willing to die for that.

He found the dead starfish in his room, still crusted black with oil, as if it were a strange piece of jet or coral. He took it down to the beach one evening, when his bones were aching from all the walking he had done lately, scouring the cliffs for signs of the girl. The starfish looked so vulnerable, but in its black outfit seemed completely strange, a being from another world, resplendent in PVC. He returned it to the dark waters, slipping it under the shallow waves, waiting for it to be pulled asunder. He realised then what a fool he had been, to think he could take something from the deep of the sea, even to hold it and love it. The oil had gone and so had the sea’s suspension, now released into a churning, awful hunger, the cycling time and crazy waves that kept the boy awake—night after night, day after day.

The Bog Girl’s Dark Ecology

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Red Desert ~ Source

My body was braille

for the creeping influences:

Seamus Heaney, ‘The Bog Queen’ (1975)

In Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 film Red Desert, loosely inspired by Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking ecological text, Silent Spring (1962), one of the characters complains that he was at a restaurant and the ‘eel tasted of petroleum’. This is a film landscaped by oil rigs, the persistent murmur of a dull grey dying sea, industrial structures whirring with eerie electricity. While there is a distinct sense of disconnection between characters, between humans and their environment, one connection that persists is between excess, waste and the body. While nowadays fish change genders due to oestrogen from the Pill being excreted and pumped from sewage into rivers, in Antonioni’s film, haunted by the apocalyptic backdrop of the Cold War, the characters worry about their food getting cloaked in some essence of what gets dumped and yet is also extracted from the sea. A perverse cycle of waste, energy, wasted energy.

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The mariner shoots the albatross, plate by Gustave Doré

 

This early expression of ecological disaster as embedded in a fear of contamination, of sliminess mixing with toxic sliminess, has its roots even further back, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). After shooting the albatross and overcoming a terrible, supernatural (super as in extra nature, nature made unnatural by being its full strong self) storm, the mariner finds himself suspended in the aftermath, ‘as idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean’ (Coleridge 2015). This sense of time frozen, of the environment refusing to yield to human command, is uncanny, a reminder that the land isn’t just something we can divide and conquer. The image of idleness and a ‘painted ocean’ recalls the experience of a crashed computer screen, hung or ‘frozen’ as the mariner is in the sheets of ice ‘green as emerald’ (Coleridge 2015). Think of a typical glitch, that which overlaps colour, blends unrelated materials together in a random, patchwork image. The ice is the colour of grass, yet still we are in the ocean. This is an environment without location, an ‘anywhere’ of strange displacement. This is the place of the ecological glitch.

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glitched landscape ~ Source

Rosa Menkman describes a glitch as ‘a (actual and/or simulated) break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning within (digital) communication systems that results in a perceived accident (2011: 9). While we are dealing in poems like Coleridge’s with a ‘natural’ system as opposed to a digital one, the strange effect of ‘accident’ persists. ‘Nature’ is never as it seems, never ‘natural’ but always unexpected, strange. Systems follow patterns which glitch; the patterns themselves, like evolution, proceed often by a logic of chance, randomness. The weather in The Ancient Mariner is not just climate, a conventional flow of data to be charted and forecasted; but it is positively weird. Weird in the etymological sense identified by Timothy Morton as ‘a turn or twist or loop, a turn of events’, the ‘flickers [of] a dark pathway between causality and the aesthetic dimension, between doing and appearing’ (2016: 5). We question whether the crime of shooting the albatross instigates this ecological horror, which culminates in the monstrous appearance of ‘a million million slimy things’ which the mariner sees surrounding the ship. Like Antonioni’s petroleum eels, these slimy things are stuck with the human character, they have by proximity or digestion become enmeshed, to borrow another term from Morton, the idea that ‘nothing exists by itself, and so nothing is fully “itself”’ (2010: 15). The mariner realises his own surprising mortality, just as the slimy things ‘liv’d on – so did I’. His attempt to lump the slimy things as one gelatinous mass of gross matter leaves him realising that he can’t distance himself from the ugly parts of nature, because he himself is part of the mass, that mesh of beings.

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We might now describe Coleridge’s flirtation with the supernatural as a kind of magical realism, and the trend of using such weird elements to render ecological themes continues in a short story written by Karen Russell and published in the New Yorker in 2016. ‘The Bog Girl’ tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy, Cillian, who works as a turf-cutter in the peatlands of some ambiguous ‘green island off the coast of northern Europe’, inflected with hints of Heaney’s hardy Irish pastoralism. Cillian falls in love with a young girl pulled from the bog; she is ‘whole and intact, cocooned in peat, curled like a sleeping child’ with ‘lustrous hair’ dyed ‘wild red-orange’ by the ‘bog acids’ (Russell 2016a). Crucially, there is a noose round her neck. She is young in appearance but probably 2000 years old; her flame-haired  and gaunt appearance recalls Celtic/Pictish origins as well as a ragged Pre-Raphaelitism, which hints at Cillian’s weird fetishisation of her beauty. The story that unfolds can be read as a love story, a tale of caution against projecting your ideal fantasies onto ‘the mask of another person’s face’ (Russell 2016b); but here I will read it as a tale of ecological horror that warns of the dangers of industry and celebrates the sensuous mysteries of the peatlands as something that deserves preserving.

Our current era, the Anthropocene, is one of distorted scale, where constantly we deposit chemicals into the atmosphere and earth whose afterlife beyond our own we can barely even gauge as mortal humans. Russell’s story explores this (im)possible meeting of temporalities through an encounter with strangeness which allows us to mull upon our relationship with the earth, to realise our absolute enmeshment with the environment. No matter the narratives we construct through history and science, all human theory is at best the ‘most speculative fiction’; while improvements in science (‘radiocarbon dating, DNA testing’) allow us to trace the ‘material fragments’ as ‘clues’ about our ancestors’ experience, ‘their inner lives remain true blanks’ (Russell 2016b). At one point, Cillian decides it’s time he met the Bog Girl’s family, so he takes a ferry from the island to a museum. He scans the museum’s labels, which attempt to give context to the ‘pickled bodies from the Iron Age’, but is unsatisfied by these attempts to ‘surmise’ details about the ancestors’ lives based on material detail alone (Russell 2016:a). Their bodies are ‘fetally scrolled’ (Russell 2016a), suggesting that screeds more of history are inscribed on their skin like ink upon scrolls, a literal blending of flesh and text. The inadequacy of the museum labels allows Cillian to continue his fantasy that the Bog Girl appeared for him alone, that she ‘was an alien from a planet that nobody alive could visit—the planet Earth, in the first century A.D.’ (Russell 2016a); none of the other ancestors stir the same emotion as the Bog Girl. Love becomes a token, a talisman of magical power: ‘He told no one his theory but polished it inside his mind like an amulet: it was his love that was protecting her’ (Russell 2016a).

Russell’s narrative sustains this fantasy, resisting the natural outcome which would be the Bog Girl’s rapid decomposition upon exposure to air. This commitment to a magical realist effect allows her to explore problems of intimacy and otherness, which relate deeply to ecological issues. Take the bog itself. Russell describes it as a primitive hole, the ‘watery mires where the earth yawns open’, a place where time is suspended by a ‘spell of chemical protection’ which prevents the decomposition of matter: ‘Growth is impossible, and death cannot complete her lean work’ (2016a). Her rendering of the bog is crucial to the story for its associations with the suspended temporality embodied in the Bog Girl. We are told that much of the peat is cut away to turf, a key energy source still used by the islanders, and ‘nobody gives much thought to the fuel’s mortuary origins’ (Russell 2016a). Death, a haunting presence seemingly without telos, lingers in the earth, in the home; the Bog Girl weirdly embodies our paradoxical relationship to natural fuel sources: we consume them to produce energy, but our consuming instigates the loop of destruction—de-energising the earth—pumping poisons and coagulating into new forms of deadly matter. The peat bogs are a kind of charnel ground, already containing the detritus of bodies and time in a ‘disturbing intimacy […] that exists beyond being and non-being’ (Morton 2009: 76). The bogs are both ‘shit’ and ‘fuel’ (Russell 2016a), embodying the waste we must expel to maintain presence and order; but also refusing this separation, stickily gluing us through interdependence (the islanders need it for fuel) just like those slimy things reminding the mariner of mortality.

Moreover, the introduction to the bog includes the narrator’s address to the reader, the only such address in the story. The narrator remarks of the island, ‘it’s unlikely that you’ve ever visited. It’s not really on the circuit’. This seemingly throwaway comment interpellates  (in Althusser’s sense of the word as a ‘hailing’ of subjectivity within ideology) the reader as a global consumer, whose ‘circuit’ references a sort of capitalist freeway (the places we drift through for pleasure) as much as it slyly hints at the cycles of life/death which are interrupted in the text. From the start, we are made to feel as outsiders in this community, which is self-consciously established as a wasteland of sorts, off the circuit, the beaten track; a charnel ground for exploring the mystical possibilities of strangeness and ecological intimacy.

What’s more, her association with primitivism and death links the Bog Girl to the past in a way that is queer, that disrupts the reproductive logic of heteronormative capitalism, a disruption that Cillian welcomes. Cillian ‘imagined, with a strange joy, the narrow life’ he and the Bog Girl ‘would lead. No children, no sex, no messy nights vomiting outside bars, no unintended pregnancies […] no promises’ (Russell 2016a). Note again that word, ‘strange’. The Bog Girl’s body is bounded; she will never consume nor produce waste, will never reproduce to bring more consumers upon the earth; with her, Cillian shrugs off the lusty masculinity of the ‘mouth-breathers’ (Russell 2016a) who help dig up the Bog Girl, he deviates from the established gender norms. Indeed, Cillian’s docility, his placid detachment from the rugged rural manliness of those who surround him (personified most perfectly in his uncle, who refers to the Bog Girl as a ‘cougar’ and has ‘a thousand beers’ laid out for himself at dinner) renders Cillian a queer figure, ‘so kind, so intelligent, so unusual, so sensitive—such an outlier in the Eddowis family that his aunts had paid him the modern compliment of assuming that he was gay’ (Russell 2016a).

Yet while the Bog Girl embodies a queer backwardness, more specifically she offers an openness of temporality, a strange oscillation between past and future rather than an obsessional projection towards the future. Derrida (1994) explains the promise as bound up in the logic of messianism, the guarantee of the future to-come of some saving force that would sweep up history. Remember the religious breathlessness which narrates Cillian’s discovery of the Bog Girl: ‘The bog had confessed her’ (Russell 2016a), as if she were a message passed on from a Neolithic age. Yet Cillian is oblivious to the fact that his love is itself the promise of an (unspeakable) secret, a promise of a present without future, a seamless overlapping of present and a past that can never again be as time demands its rupture, the Event of her eventual, unexpected awakening. The silence between them, the Bog Girl’s inability to speak, indicates his sense that love can be their pre-linguistic communication, an avowal without trace; but this originary language is impossible:

Invented for the genealogy of what has not happened and the event of which will have been absent, leaving only negative traces of itself in what makes history, such a pre-originary language does not exist. It is not even a preface, a foreword, a lost language of origin. It can only be a language of arrival or rather of the future (une langue d’arrivée ou plutôt d’avenir), a promised sentence, a language of the other, again, but entirely other than the language of the other as language of master or coloniser [and now I emphasise], although the two of them can sometimes announce between them, keeping them in secret or holding them in reserve, so many troubling resemblances.

(Derrida 1998: 61)

This ‘language of the other’ breaks down the classically patriarchal imposition of telos and closure upon the Bog Girl: she will be his forever faithful silent Angel in the House; that is, until she starts speaking. Cillian’s aphasia, ‘a stutter that had been corrected at the state’s expense’ (Russell 2016a), hints at his own problematised presence in the text, since commonly we associate speech with presence. He lacks the authoritative Word, is himself described as a queerish glitch in (human) nature, a ‘thin, strange boy’, ‘once a bug-eyed toddler’, whose grownup, ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a) bely an inherent connection to both land and water—there’s a suggestion of his slightness, his precarious and translucent appearance in the world. The mutuality of recognised love he comprehends with the Bog Girl is this ‘secret’ which excludes his mother and friends, which makes others jealous; and yet it is also a source of troubling disruption, the threat that emerges in the master/servant dynamic symbolised by the noose round the Bog Girl’s neck, which Cillian tightens as his ‘fantasy life’ grows deeper (Russell 2016a). And what is ‘the language of arrival’? It is the Bog Girl’s coming-to-life, her messianic resurrection into present existence.

The irony of the story is that Cillian and indeed all the human characters in the story failed to predict this resurrection. The Bog Girl is adored or feared precisely because she skims with death; the body-conscious girls at Cillian’s school are ‘jealous of how little she ate’, the vice-principal sees her as shedding ‘an exciting new perspective on our modern life’ through her contrasting connection to the past (at this moment, the Bog Girl ‘had slumped into his aloe planter’), the fear among Cillian’s mother and aunts is that she will drag him away from the safety net of respectable surveillance: ‘“I’m afraid,”’ Gillian, the mother, confesses, ‘“if I put her out of the house, he’ll leave with her”’ (Russell 2016a). There is no suggestion of the Bog Girl’s autonomy here; rather, she is seen as embodying a terrifying strangeness that might contaminate ‘innocent’ Cillian. But then she wakes up. Her ‘radish-red’ lashes are vegetable (in the sense of passivity and organic matter) companions to Cillian’s ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a); she too is an earthling, bound to the bog in an inexplicably deep, mournful way. Her awakening is erotic, marked by ‘a blush of primal satisfaction’; it is only at this point that their relationship emerges fully into what Donna Haraway calls that of companion species, whose interdependence is based on mutuality, in ‘forbidden conversation’ (Haraway 2008: 16). Haraway says of her relationship to her canine friend:

I’m sure our genomes are more alike than they should be. Some molecular record of our touch in the codes of living will surely leave traces in the world, no matter that we are each reproductively silenced females, one by age and choice, one by surgery without consultation. […] We have had forbidden conversation; we have had oral intercourse; we are bound in telling story on story with nothing but the facts. We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand. We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love. This love is a historical aberration and a naturalcultural legacy

(Haraway 2008: 16).

It is only when the Bog Girl awakens that the relationship becomes properly ‘in the flesh’; she has learned the communion of erotic love, is ‘tugging at his boxers’, but at this point Cillian is tipped into the abyss of signifying rupture: ‘something truly terrifying had happened: she loved him back’ (Russell 2016a). The nasty developmental infection called love’ rips apart his perfect communion of static silence. The Bog Girl’s language ‘was no longer spoken anywhere on earth’, it is a primitive cry from the depths of the peatlands, which Cillian cannot answer because he is indifferent to the Other as anything more than his own anthropocentric projection: ‘The past, with its monstrous depth and span, reached toward him, demanding an understanding that he simply could not give’ (Russell 2016a). We might think of the title from Jonathan Bate’s crucial ecological polemic, The Song of the Earth (2000), or a strange, aberrant passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), where a vagrant woman whose ‘rude’ mouth is a ‘rusty pump’ (signifying, perhaps, the decay of industry, its material crudeness) singing a song of ‘love which has lasted a million years’ (Woolf 2004: 70-71). The idea of song suggests an ambient music that stretches onwards without climax and fall, echoing past and future in its rasping cry. The eerie, anthropomorphic crackles, growls, roars and howls that come from the ice in The Ancient Mariner. What would the earth sound like, speaking back? Surely it would be our own cry, endlessly deferred; the echolalia of life forms caught in this experience together, entangled in the rendering of a dark and dying world.

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Source

In many ways, the Bog Girl is animal, Other; she is not quite human. Better then to think of her as someone who embodies the terrifying intimacy of all life-forms, which brush up against one another, bearing their various sensations and temporalities. While the mariner comes to admire those gross ‘slimy things’, noting their ‘rich attire’ and blessing them with a whiff of Romantic kitsch as ‘happy living things!’ (Coleridge 2015), Cillian finds himself caught between the Bog Girl’s world and his own, ‘struggling to pay attention to his droning contemporaries in the cramped classroom’ (Russell 2016a). Referring to his classmates as ‘contemporaries’ reinforces their association with the present; juxtaposing with Cillian’s mournful retracing of steps, back ‘to the lip of the bog’ (Russell 2016a), the word ‘lip’ suggesting both spatial liminality and the erotic possibility of the temporal and primordial lacuna that lies within. We can think of the Bog Girl as what Morton (2010: 41) calls the ‘strange stranger’, a word for all life-forms which encapsulates the way that even those closest to us are inherently weird, because they remind us that we are not wholly ourselves, that we too are composites of life-forms, viral code, enmeshments of DNA.

Although the Bog Girl always seems close—we get vivid details of her ‘rhinestone barettes’, her ‘face which was void of all judgement’ (Russell 2016a))—indeed she becomes a vital component of Cillian’s life, ultimately he is forced to realise her absolute strangeness. Unlike the mariner he is unable to overcome that gap of Otherness and make peace with the uncanny experience of the ecological mesh. He goes down, enticed by the ‘lip’ of the bog, listening for the ‘primitive eloquence’ of ‘the air-galloping insects continu[ing] to speak the million syllables of [the Bog Girl’s] name’ (Russell 2016a). At the end, the narrative becomes ambient, with a distortion of inside/outside, self/other:

“Ma! Ma! Ma!” That night, Cillian came roaring out of the dark, pistoning his knees as he ran for the light, for his home at the edge of the boglands. “Who was that?”

(Russell 2016a)

My immediate assumption here is that Cillian is calling “Ma!” for his mother, a riff on the Irish references of the piece which are probably a nod to Seamus Heaney’s Bog Poems (1975). However, it’s not clear; elsewhere she is usually referred to with the Americanism, “Mom”. Cillian himself has adopted a primitive roar, which rips through the resonant chorus of insects as if refusing their incantations of the Bog Girl’s presence. The call for the mother seems vaguely directed, a generalised cry for help rising from pure terror as he runs for the light. ‘“Who was that?”’, embedded in the same line, seems to come from Cillian, but equally it could come from his mother back home, or even the boglands themselves, watching this skinny boy run off from the darkness. A mutual sharing of strangeness. This is an affective, fleshly and sensuous experience of horror that the written texts, the museum labels, cannot document. There is always a possible slippage, which Russell literalises in the Bog Girls’ figure. Nature has betrayed its accident, the glitched intrusion of the prehistoric past upon a modern present. While Red Desert more overtly projects the ecological breakdown of the external world through the increasingly disordered mind of its female protagonist, ‘The Bog Girl’ leaves us with an unsettling vision of lingering presence: the insects singing the elegy of her name, a name which tremors, sends nightmares to Cillian, which resonates with the bog, itself a microcosm of a wasting, gurgling, plundered world. Is this a haunted logic for future coexistence? We’ll have to take the plunge to find out…it’s going to be dark, sticky and maybe dangerous…

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I looked upon the rotting sea, and drew my eyes away ~ Gustave Doré.

Bibliography

Bennington, Geoffrey, 2004. Other Analyses: Reading Philosophy (Bennington Books).

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 2015. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Available at: <http://www.bartleby.com/101/549.html> [Accessed 1/3/17].

Derrida, Jacques, 1994. Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, trans. by Peggy Kamuf, (London: Routledge).

Derrida, Jacques, 1996. Le monolinguisme de l’autre ou le prothèse d’origine (Paris: Galilée). [The translations I use from this text are Geoffrey Bennington, cited in Bennington, 2004.

Haraway, Donna J., 2008. When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Menkman, Rosa, 2011. The Glitch Moment(um) (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures).

Morton, Timothy, 2010. The Ecological Thought (London: Harvard University Press).

Morton, Timothy, 2013. ‘Thinking the Charnel Ground (The Charnel Ground Thinking): Auto-Commentary and Death in Esoteric Buddhism’, Glossator, Vol. 7, pp. 73-94.

Morton, Timothy, 2016. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press).

Red Desert, 1963. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni [Film] (Milan: Rizzoli).

Russell, Karen, 2016a. ‘The Bog Girl, The New Yorker. Available at: <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/20/bog-girl-by-karen-russell> [Accessed 1/3/17].

Russell, Karen, 2016b. ‘This Week in Fiction: Karen Russell on Balancing Humour and Horror’, Interview by Willing Davidson in The New Yorker. Available at: <http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/fiction-this-week-karen-russell-2016-06-20> [Accessed 1/3/17].

Woolf, Virginia, 2004. Mrs Dalloway (London: Vintage).

Siamese

[…This is a story that has undergone many drafts in the past 6 years. It originated as the first piece I wrote (after not writing anything creative for over two years) for my Advanced Higher English Creative Writing Portfolio, which was (to the great frustration of my English teacher), altered about 500 times and in the end we decided it wasn’t quite suitable for submitting. So yeah, it was left alone on some dusty corner of an old harddrive until 2013 when I tried on a whim to redraft it again. What started as a gothic, emo-inflected horror story about the loathing of one’s body was fleshed out with some more character development, an unnecessary amount of diegesis and detail. When the opportunity came to submit a ghost story for GUCW’s Halloween Short Story Competition, I decided to revisit this strange tale again. This time, I didn’t just add or cut, I wrote the whole thing out from scratch. In a way it’s completely different, but the plot is mostly the same, and it takes place over the course of one day. I like when stories do that, because time is quite a stressful thing. Let me know what you think…]

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Siamese

Every morning, the sunrise grew stranger; sometimes it was difficult to tell it apart from sunset, the distinction between day and night dissolving altogether. Recently, whole hours had been disappearing, afternoons and mornings lost like cells melting in the bloodstream heat of a vein under pressure. Before getting dressed for school, Maya got up very early and stood at her bedroom window to watch the sunrise. There was something about the queer, flesh-like light, pink clouds streaked with red, which made her skin tingle weirdly. While she watched the colours change, the clouds pull apart as if exposing a wound, she sometimes forgot that she inhabited a body at all.

Often she wondered if she was actually alive; if there wasn’t some other reason for her walking across the cold tile floor at six in the morning, looking over her shoulder, pulling the scratchy woollen socks above her knees, flipping open the lid of her laptop to check her emails. Such a pointless task, the checking of one’s emails, and yet…

There it was again. The email from herself. MAYA. No surname given. At first, she had found one in the depths of her Spam folder, but now it had bounced back to her inbox. She had received one of these emails every day for the past week. It was foolish to open such a message, which she knew could be nothing but some cheap, automatised attempt at tricking her into activating a virus…And yet. The house was still dark, her mother asleep. Only flickers of yellow gold from the sunrise oozed on the floor of the kitchen where Maya sat with her laptop, the shiny varnished floor which seemed to guzzle the light, crave it. It wouldn’t bounce back its heat. Shivering, she opened the email.

***

At school, the people who were and were not her friends called her Mad Maya. Mad Maya, Mad Maya. Leaving her house, she took the familiar route through the ancient copse of fir trees and across the village green, every morning rehearsing the childish chorus, rucksack thumping heavy against her back. Sometimes she heard her classmates’ whispers in the rustlings of the trees, as if the world itself regarded her with equal harshness. Today, the voices were louder than ever. It was impossible to draw sense from that chaos of lashing language. There was a familiar tone beneath the rasping exterior, a familiar tone that jarred unpleasantly with Maya’s attempts to forget the words that swirled up around her in flurry after violent flurry. By the time she had pushed open the school gates, bumped cigarettes off Dodgy John with her lunch money and followed the ring of the school bell, she was physically shaking.

In science class, the teacher was trying to explain how blood gets pumped around the body. The girl sat beside Maya was mindlessly scribbling love hearts all over her jotter. The teacher mouthed the words at them, but no sound seemed to come out; everything had slowed down, as if underwater. Words materialised on the board: atrium, Vena cava, tricuspid, ventricle, pulmonary artery, semilunar, aorta…Lush, intangible, otherworldly words. Every time Maya tried to write them down, her hands shook uncontrollably and the pencil fell from her fingers, clattering conspicuously on the floor. The more she learned about human biology, the more foreign she felt in her own body, as if she were discovering some hideous secret from all those diagrams and lists of words.

If she lifted her book off the desk at the end—which she must have done, because somehow she got out that class with her things—she would have seen the graffiti underneath, a kind of ancient inscription in jagged letters: M A D  M A Y A. She did not recognise the handwriting, but it sent a jolt through her. It was possible that she had seen this before.

***

She found herself home early. The house was silent and her mother was still out at work. There was no car in the drive, not a single dish piled in the sink. Sometimes Maya worried that her mother would disappear. How little she ate! Then there were the useless prayers she still eked out before bed, kneeling by the living room window, where on clear winter nights you could see the moon, flooding the carpet with silvery light.

O, wash me, cleanse me from this guilt. Let me be pure again…Restore to me the joy of your salvation.  

Sometimes, the susurrations and mutters of her mother’s prayers haunted Maya’s dreams. There was a time when she stayed out later and later, wandering the streets, just to avoid them. If only she knew what single guilty thing her pious mother had done in her life; that central act of transgression that seemed to define her, irrevocably, as this fragile, selfless being. Often the act pressed itself so heavily on Maya’s mind, massive and burning like some elaborate tapestry set fire to by Satan, that she could almost unpick its outline and form. But it was possible that she would never discover the truth as to why her father left soon after she was born, why on a daily basis her mother clutched God’s cross so tight around her neck.

She tried to sit down and do her maths homework, focusing slowly on the sums, as if each one were a special code she needed to disentangle, to find the kernel of meaning, the way they did with poems in English, scanning words on a page and picking at them, as if each one was a stitch. The problem was, each time she held a few figures in her head, they were snatched away—it literally seemed as if some force were wrenching the numbers and crushing them into some dark part of her unconscious. Some day in the future, perhaps, she would again encounter those fractions, sets of ones and twos, sixes and sevens, come to divide and splice her mind. The lines and figures appeared shakily on the page. Suddenly, the phone rang.

“H-hello?”

“Yes dear, it’s me!”

“Oh, Gran. Hi.”

“I’m just checking up on you dearie, it’s been so long.”

“Yes.”

“Are you busy just now, fancy a chat?”

“Doing my homework.” It was such an effort to talk at all; the words felt garbled in Maya’s mouth, like hieroglyphs.

“Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry—I didn’t mean to disturb you. I’ll let you get on then, I—”

“It’s fine.”

“You sound sad my child. You go and get yourself a wee biscuit or something. The sugar will help. I hope it’s not too difficult, what you’re doing, I—”

“Bye, Gran.” Maya clicked off the phone before her grandmother could finish speaking. She did not replace it properly on its hook and the cord dangled obscenely from the wall.

With mechanical obedience, she opened the cupboard and pulled out a packet of digestives, holding them in her hand as if they were some foreign food and she did not know what to do with them. Her hands were shaking again. Slowly she took out a biscuit, and tentatively bit it. She could not hold it in her mouth, and she ran to the sink, gagging. Some alien sensation seized her and she knew she could not eat, though something like hunger ached vaguely in her stomach, spreading up to her chest, settling in the centre as some unwelcome glow of pain.

Perhaps it was heartburn. She poured herself a glass of milk from the fridge, remembering an old trick of her mother’s to cure it. She lifted the glass to her lips but suddenly stopped. On the surface of the milk was a thin, quivering skin. Bile rose in Maya’s throat. She thought of jellylike scabs, wobbling with pus and blood underneath. The smell was gross yet oddly familiar, primordial somehow, like the smell of a womb. The glass dropped from her hand and shattered on the tiles, the milk bursting everywhere, sour and white, spraying itself on Maya’s clothes and skin, where it clung like some viral, viscous substance.

She slumped to the floor, momentarily paralysed. The sound of the phone off the hook resounded throughout the house, a pulsing, crackling sound that came from somewhere else: please check and try again.

***

As usual, she had met him at lunch, by the neck of the woods where the sycamores draped over the river, the river that wound round the whole village like an elaborate, snaking artery. Every Wednesday and Friday they would skive class together and nobody had ever noticed. He was two years older. They walked into the woods together, not clasping hands until they were shrouded in darkness, and even then, it was not clear how it happened, who made the first move. At this time of year, the mid-afternoon light was very white, shining down in strange beams through the thick canopy of trees. They would find their secret place. Each time it felt new to Maya, though she suspected that the boy hardly cared. If she came here alone, she would never be able to find the place.

Gently, he unravelled her from her school clothes, her hair coming loose in his fingers, her tights scrunched to a ball on the forest floor, crumpled like a shed skin. Her body was lily-white in the cool forest light, her shoulders exposed to the shivers of the trees and the tear-like glimmers that clung to the needles. Each time, he would run his hand automatically up her stomach; he would trace the long scar that ran up her left side. He would trace it slowly, lovingly, as if he were following the seam of a secret. The mark of ruined flesh. They never spoke of it, but each time he would reach down to trace it, to read it like braille, even as they kissed. Once, the sensation had given her delicious shivers, but now it meant nothing at all. Before, it had even been slightly painful, the scar so tender under his touch. Now, she could hardly feel it at all.

“I had a transplant,” she told him, the first time he asked. That was all she knew. She had never bothered to learn more of her own body; the boy had taught her all she wanted to know.

His flesh was pale and silver, a latticework of pulsing, blueish veins, but even as he pulled her over his body, she could not feel him. He was light as air and her body was not her body.

It was as if she were watching herself from afar, a child crouching behind a tree, stricken with terror and curiosity. She felt sick afterwards, and in fact even retched a little. He passed her a cigarette. She could hear the trees whispering again, and this time it sounded as if they were calling her name. Mad Maya, Mad Maya.

***

Possibly it was nightfall, sunset, the house so quiet, her mother asleep. The email lay open on the screen, its contents splayed out and glaring their strange incandescence across Maya’s bedroom. A chorus of acid colours spilled liltingly, tauntingly through the window. The ache had deepened in her chest, so deep it felt like her own veins were strangling her heart. It was difficult to breathe, with the dust of the room and the air that filled her lungs like spider webs mushed to molasses.

There was the collage of her entire life: comically vicious stick-figure drawings from her primary school jotters, school reports, doctor reports, notes to friends, reams and reams of texts, the carefully-typed emails she had sent to the nurse, impassioned diary entries scrawled in that distinct thirteen-year-old hand. Traces of the white powder devoured at weekends, the imprints of the boy’s kisses on her shoulders and neck, captured uncannily, impossibly, as polaroid photos, the bruises glowing through the skin like ghosts. Nothing felt real anymore. Maya hitched the laptop closer on her lap and peered at the pictures. Each one was a palimpsest, layered below streams of lurid red typewritten print: Mad Maya; parasite; murderer; the wrong child; sinner and sinner and sinful and sin. She shivered and gasped. She felt the screen start to shimmer, the pixels elasticating, blurring, the LCD surface beginning to compress and open, like a portal.

For a moment, the power cut off. A reflection appeared in the darkness of the screen: there were two Mayas, conjoined at the waist and the chest, struggling for breath. As the light flickered back on, the bodies flashed negative as if under x-ray, and in that second it was possible to glimpse the single aorta, throbbing like a terrible eel, tangled between the two bodies.

The laptop’s screen had cracked, but it didn’t matter. A silver moon beamed its single slice of light, guillotine thin, upon the glass.

***

How beautiful the world is! In the mirror the girl ran her hands through her hair, she felt the lovely inky glossiness of it, the way her skin was so soft and milky. A finger ran up the length of the scar on the right side of her body; in its crosslinks of knotted collagen she could read a virginal history. She picked up a notebook from the bed and felt its pages skim beneath her fingertips, delicate and full of possibility. A whole life to be written on those lines. The girl found herself at the window, yanking open the glass with fresh young limbs. The night air was cool and ambrosial; the air smelled of wild pines and the coming snow. The heat around her heart started to liquefy, spreading a pleasant warmth through her blood. Yes.

On the desk, a phone buzzed with a text: Where are you, why can’t I reach you?