I padded on the cold, red tiles of the lower floor, leaving scared, wet footprints behind me. He was in the kitchen; I could hear the burn of boiling water on the stove and the clink of plates and cutlery. He was humming too, a noise as obnoxious as the birds outside, as if he was purposefully showing the world just how content he was. I hung by the wood-worm bitten door frame and waited for him to invite me in. He glanced up.
“You look tired.” He said, looking away the instant he saw me. He leaned down to get two cups out of the low cupboard and dropped them down on opposite sides of the dining-table in the middle of the room. Calling it a dining-table might be too kind, the thing was covered in books and papers with only a tiny section of wood exposed, just big enough for the two chairs on either side and the cups and plates he had placed there.
“Want a drink?” He busied himself mixing the green cast iron pot on the stove with his back still turned to me. The pot made thick bubbling noises and a warm nutty smell permeated the still air.
I had planned to be combative with him from the get go but I couldn’t even concentrate on his questions long enough to formulate a reply. I was hungry, so hungry my fight was fading just at the thought of eating. I hadn’t even realised that I never ate last night. Maybe the confronting would have to wait for now. I heard a vague sound that I supposed was him talking through the steam. It went quiet. He was waiting. Had he asked something about the drink?
“Yes.” I ventured, voice considerably quieter than the ones shouting the same words in my head. The voices, I’d almost forgot about them since they hadn’t talked in so long. They were hungry too, it seemed, and were pouring out their feelings incessantly. The waves of emotions were making my legs feel weak and shaky, I wanted to push them back, but I wasn’t strong enough like this.
You can’t just ignore us. They were right by my right shoulder. They purred.
Where have you been?
Last night? Their languid voices reached up at the end. Your fear pushed us out completely. We couldn’t see a thing.
A single shiver touched my spine with wet fingers. We hadn’t been dreaming then. They would have seen it too, if we had been. That had been real.
You shouldn’t push us away. We should share this fear, figure out what to do about it. The voices far behind me called softly.
They were right. Their voices were already comforting the shaking animal inside me. It whimpered, but the eyes that looked up at them were trusting as a babe’s were when looking upon its mother.
That’s right. Trust us. We are the same as you. The voices called from somewhere on my right. I could feel their hands gripping my shoulders, digging in with clawed fingers. Now answer the doctor, he asked a question.
“Okay.” I said, without thinking. The doctor nodded, I didn’t even know what I had said yes to.
“Do you want to sit down while you’re waiting?” He waved me towards the table. I chose the stool closest to the door and sat, feet swinging without touching the ground. The tiles were painted red and black like a chess board but some of the black had been scuffed away, leaving only irritating smudges. I tried to touch my toes to two diagonal black tiles, but the only complete ones were on the other side of the room, so I had to give up and try not to look at how mismatched the ones beneath my feet where. Instead I propped my feet up on the bar of the chair and gripped it with my toes like a monkey.
What had I done last night? If it was not a dream, then that girl had really come into my room. And what about the marks on my body? I traced a finger down my arm, but found none of the ridges that were there just moments ago. They were gone? While he was turned I examined my legs, my hands, my feet, but all were without marks. Strange. Stranger still: bits of debris still tangled my hair. I pulled one piece out and inspected it, sure enough it was a small tendril of fern, like those I had seen sprouting in bunches on the edge of the woods. Had I gone out in the night? The window had been opened after all. But, surely, I would remember something more than just that strange dream, or whatever it was, of that girl, if that were the case? I shook that thought out my head, even thinking about the possibility that such a thing had really happened awakened the hysteria that tried to claw up my throat, constricting it so I couldn’t even gulp. Worse still, if I had gone outside in the night, why didn’t I remember that just as vividly? And why had the signs of my excursion almost completely disappeared in a matter of minutes, as if my body were trying to assure me that it couldn’t have happened at all, but had failed to cover up the minute details. I felt deceived, and by my own self at that. Whatever happened, I needed to leave this place, before it sent me completely mad.
You are not mad. Everything you have seen and felt is true. The voices told me lazily. But these things stalk you. Demons, you must rid yourself of them, don’t listen to a word they say. We can help you cast them out, if you wish.
Everything was true, they said. Could it be? I could believe it, but the feeling of yearning behind their dismissive tone set me on edge. Why did they want to help so much? Why did they not want me to listen, if everything I had felt was true? They wanted me to be one with them, I could feel it, feel their sticky desperation. But I would not be fooled. I would choose for myself who was wrong and who was right: right now, these voices, to me, were just as likely those of demons as the soft voice of the harpy girl right before it turned to venom on her tongue.
We will lead you on the right path. The whispers sounded suddenly strong, like they hung all around me, ghosts in the room. Blood drained from my face as my fear fell in destructive waves. She will lead you to destruction. Follow her, and there will be no redemption. But even as their voices echoed upon the walls, I knew that I had never been so sure of anything as I was now. I didn’t want any part of what they offered. Threaten me, and I will only come around to bite you.
We can hear you. They crooned, six voices in harmony, and then silence fell in my head.
I set my jaw, resolving myself back into the body that felt miles from where they had all floated, surrounding me with their dulcet tones. I know you can hear me, I thought, but you can’t control me. My fear had pushed them away last night, and it pushed them away now. It wasn’t like normal fear, it was no shrinking thing, it growled within, all to ready to lash out at all who approached. They were forced back, until they were nothing but the soft sound of rain fall on the corrugated-tin canopy outside.
But they still knew I was scared, almost as well as I knew it myself.
“There, warm milk.” He had ladled it into my cup while I was thinking. It was eggshell yellow and, like cream, clung thick to the sides where it splashed. A heavy froth of foam steamed up from its depths and cradled my cheeks with moisture. The mug was warm in my hands but, as I lifted it up, I caught a whiff of a clean scent with a bit of sour clinging to its edges, and I knew I couldn’t drink it. The indescribable stink of sick and babies emanated from the unassuming liquid and made my stomach turn in disgust. I curled my lip as I placed it back on the solid wood and looked back up to his back.
His shoulder blades moved beneath his shirt, a blue linen piece that had so many fine wrinkles that it looked like it had been crushed regularly and persistently for some time. It was dyed though, so it must have been high-quality once, and the brown corduroy of his trousers was unmarked. His shoes were fine black leather and he wore a warm vest made of sheep’s wool. It was a pretty fine outfit for someone living in such a modest cottage. Then again, he was a doctor, so it’s not like his clothes would get worn out. And the doctors were from Mallogal, a job you could only do if you were from a family rich enough that you didn’t need to work for the five years it took to train. He was probably from a rich family then. That just threw up as many questions as it answered though, for if he was, why was he working here in this little village in the middle of the forest. Surely, they cannot pay him much, what with the bare smatterings of straggly sheep in the fields that seemed to make up the majority this villages livestock. Strange. Still, I can see signs that he had grown up in a well-off household, his shirt hadn’t been folded properly and his collar was sticking up, not to mention he wore expensive woollen socks but one was dark blue and one near black. It was calming me down just to focus on such insignificant things as this. But he seemed to feel me staring, and stiffened.
“And…I think it’s done!” He said, chipper voice trying to drown out his awkwardness, and turned back to the table to pick up the two plates, avoiding my studious gaze. It was like he had been reanimated after standing so silently and only moving the spoon backwards and forwards in the pot with mechanical stiffness. He emptied something into each plate with a definite plop and clattered the plates back down onto the table, one before me and one in front of the chair opposite. He sat down and began eating disinterestedly, picking through a paper that he took from the pile beside him. I looked down, at the lump in the centre of the plate. It was still in a vague spoon shape from where he had shovelled it out and was now glacially spreading out onto the rest of the plate. Porridge. His glasses were slipping down his nose on their small frames as he stared resolutely down at his paper. I was sure they would soon drop from his face, but he pushed them back just before they could, finally looking up at me as he did.
“Is this meant to be food?” I asked. I had meant for it to come out scathing, but I was almost laughing. Maybe it was just the aching hunger starting to bubble up, but the situation just seemed so ridiculous to me.
“Yes, it was. It appears I haven’t gotten the hang of cooking quite yet.” He looked a little embarrassed. I would too. I don’t know how someone could mess up something so simple. It had formed great lumps, surprising after all the effort he seemed to be putting into stirring it, it looked like he had burnt the bottom and then tried to disguise it by scraping only the oats from the top. He couldn’t cook, yet another sign he was from a rich family.
“Clearly.” It definitely did not look good. But, I suppose, taste is more important that looks anyway. I took a less lumpy looking bit with my spoon and chewed. It was salty. So salty it made me cringe.
He was watching and laughed at my reaction. “Salty isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” I coughed, but I was hungry now, so I took some more and gulped it down so that I didn’t have to taste it.
“Sorry. Bit heavy handed there. You don’t have to eat it.”
But I did. I felt like I hadn’t slept in days, like I was running on nothing and had been for a quite a while now. Now I’d started I couldn’t stop, I would probably even drink the milk, despite its ghastly smell.
“Believe me, you can stop. I’m only able to manage it because I’ve had to live with my bad cooking for some years now.” He was still ploughing through his bowl, eating from the cool outside edges in.
Didn’t his wife ever cook for him? But I hadn’t seen evidence of a woman in this house, no self-respecting woman would leave the house in such a mess. Maybe he wasn’t married at all. Though it would be highly unusual. I wondered why he would choose to live alone like this, surely, he could take a wife from the village if he wanted, or at least a cook. He had no reason to live alone like this, without even good food to keep him company. Not that I hated that kind of life, but I would need something good to keep me in a place like this. No way I could last years, like he said he had.
He got up suddenly, I must have not answered again. He walked over and opened the doors of a little, light-blue cupboard that sat upon the other table in the room, a working one pushed up against the back wall and next to the green range oven. He couldn’t open one of them further than a few inches because of a pile of papers before it so he just reached inside and shuffled through. He pulled out a small glass jar and handed it to me, sitting down with a sigh. “Some honey might make it a bit better.”
I looked down. Orange, sticky, flowing thick as sunlight through glass. Little golden bubbles like the ones you get in amber. I poured it onto the stodgy mass in a slow dribble and watched it spill into a flat, oily layer under which the paleness of the lumpy porridge sat like rocks. Now each spoonful was a sticky, stinging kind of sweet but I ate it anyway, because I was hungry. Though it seemed to do nothing to satiate my hunger.
When we were both finished, the only sound that remained was the crinkle of the thin paper pages as he turned them with his thumb, occasionally flipping back to read something again, his eyes scanning the line repeatedly before he understood and carried on. His breathing was a quiet sign, slow as the metallic patter of the rain on the outside awning. Drumming like little hands on the tin.
The birds must have stopped as soon as the rain begun to fall, flittering back to the forest’s dense canopy of leafless branches as dark clouds began to gather, as if they heard the whisper of it in the wind. They would be standing on the thin branches, bending with the weight of all the tiny bodies, shifting from one stick like leg to another and fluffing their wings around them with a shiver. I liked them better this way. When I didn’t have to hear their irritating contentment verbalised in whistles and warbling calls like a thousand foreign voices chattering in the sky. Now they were quiet I could pretend they weren’t there at all.
I turned to look out the window and into the darkness, it looked as if it was night again though it must be well before noon. There was a leak in the awning outside so the water streamed down and battered against the distorted window-panes, slipping down it in a fat stream and splattering onto the brick paving outside. I padded over to the glass, leaning over the deep, ceramic sinks rounded edge and peering out. The forest was hung with dusty grey, like thin gauze stretched between its branches and bundled among its roots. Cocooned among its silken folds were squat bushes with shiny, lemon-and-line leaves, coniferous branches sticking like fans from the silver sweep of snow, dark trunks that looked naked and mottled without their bright leaves, and among them something reflective, almost glowing. Two yellow eyes. My heart beat once, slowly, audibly in my chest. It was back. I had stumbled out the room and started unbolting the wooden door before he’d even turned around. I wasn’t going to lose it again. The frozen air reached out from the great gap between the bottom of the door and the stone step below it, I curled in my bare toes and started yanking the iron bolt with more ferocity than before. As soon as I had slid it just far enough across I pulled the door hard and it swung in easily, with little resistance and a helping push from the wind. It scraped across the tops of my feet with a stinging scratch, but I didn’t have time to even wince, already my feet were crunching through the old snow towards the trees that looked a lot taller now I was out here with them.
But I was already underneath them, the snow under my feet had turned from grey to almost black, and I could feel the roughness of the frozen soil and sticks beneath. I thought it would have run but it was waiting there, just a little of from where it had been. It eyes glowed towards me from the shadows.
“What are you? Why are you here.”
It just watched me without blinking, hate in its yellow stare.
“You have something to do with this. I know you do.” Of course, nothing. Then it eyes were gone. And I was left among the bird-laden trees, alone once more.
He was standing in the door way, calling me, harsh and sharp as the crows cackling above. The rain was plummeting through the branches now, with no leaves to soften its aching fall. I looked up at the clouds to see just how high they were, but I couldn’t tell, only that the raindrops that fell on my face and in my eyes were travelling fast as bullets and quickly turned to stone.
“It’s hailing.” He called. “Come back in.” But I liked the feeling of the numbing droplets running down my face, streaming through my hair and dripping from my chin like tears. They burned behind my eyes as I watched them emerge from the cloudy greyness just before they reached me, little scribbles in the sky. But soon they turned salty on my lips and stung like needles when they hit so I turned my face down to the ground. I had lost it again. Whatever this beast was it seemed to connect to something. Every time I saw it, it pulled on my mind, just a tug, as if it knew me, as if I knew it. And the way it stared…there was more in that stare than an animal. Something like me. A bit like looking in the mirror had felt.
I was in my room again, hair dripping into the pillow and drying into frizzy locks that crunched in my hands, underneath me a musty pelt scratched the back of my neck, but I still refused to move. I lay still as bone, each limb fixed in place like it was nailed there. Even my eyes just stared, glassy, to the ceiling, watching the limping shadows wander across it and flicker occasionally like stars as the dusk clouds outside meandered over unexpected patches of sunlight.
I had been sick so violently out the window that my throat still held the tang of bile all these hours later. The tapping of the hail’s frozen knuckles upon the window had stopped by this time. The first twittering bird had started again, loud, insistent, catching the attention of its peers. Soon the whole of the forest sounded alive: with the flitter of little birds instead of the organic rustling of leaves. I tightened my fists, nails bit hard into my palms. What was I doing here? Wasting my time, avoiding the reality. Clearly, I had lost my mind. Trying far too hard despite myself to ignore the fact that I am alone, but never alone enough. That I have nothing but worries in my head: some mine, some belonging to others I knew not. Every thought of mine was pervaded with the overwhelming paranoia that this was not how it was supposed to be. Making me wish I would just blissfully switch off, like anyone else who has lost their mind would do, but I hadn’t, my sanity was not gone, I was still in here. Stuck in this mad mind whilst still completely awake. Stuck, wallowing, dying, trying to tell my own voice from the voice of others, even as they grew closer and closer until I could hardly tell who was thinking these thoughts: me or them. Still, there was something in here, me, saying that this wasn’t right, that this isn’t where I am supposed to be. That I had something far more important to do. At least I hoped it was me. For if it was not, I was already too far gone to recover myself from this place.
And then there was that animal. That beast with the yellow eyes. It was the first thing that I felt I truly recognised since I had first woken up, the first thing that had made me feel anything other than despair. I had thought that maybe it was the key to fixing this mess I had ended up in. Like it might be connected somehow.
But it was hopeless. I had wanted it to be something more than it was, so much that I had told myself I saw more than just the animal in its eyes. But it was just an animal, alone in the forest, just trying to survive. Venturing just too close to the village in the hopes that it could catch something substantial from one of the fields.
Then again, was it me who thought this? Is each word of these thoughts my own? Or was something else in here telling me that I was just mistaken? A crude impression of my voice becoming more and more like the real thing? There was nothing consistent for me to hang on to, I was drowning in doubt and worry, looking for a peaceful island in this uncertainty. I couldn’t even close my eyes for fear that I would sleep. So, I stayed in my room, eyes wide, until the shadows dyed the whole ceiling dark and all I could hear was wind and the solemn toll of a single owl calling into the night air outside my window.
Sleep now. I couldn’t tell whose voice had said it. We all seemed to chant the words at once. But, whoever it was didn’t matter: I didn’t listen, I couldn’t listen. My mind was simply empty, echoing back these words as I thought of them, letting them fall like cannon-balls and drown into the faded nothingness of the dark water below. Sleep. For soon there will be war.