Sebastian

Dim, reflected street lighting found its way into the alley, glimpsing features from the shadows:  a large half-opened refuse bin, stacked pallets by a steel-clad door, timber leaning on a wire frame.

The boy looked back.  Sebastian looked back.  “My front yard!  Urban Gothic is so alluring, don’t you think?”  

“No, I don’t.”   Nell had been watching Sebastian’s long torso swing easily with the rhythm of his stride; wide shoulders, slender waist.  “But I’m not a postcode snob,”  she said.

He stopped,  turning suddenly to meet her eyes, making the blood rush in her cheeks.  She knew, as did he, why she was here.  “It would be nice just to have a postcode!”  He waved to the high wall on her left:  “almost there!”

‘There’ was a doorway, steel-lined like a scattering of others punched into the sheer brick cliff-face of this minor chasm in the City’s heart.   Sebastian’s long fingers played over the numbers on the lock.  Strange, she thought, the determinants of attraction.  Even in the unlikely setting of the discotheque, her eyes had been drawn – she had been drawn – to those fingers.  A pianist herself, she knew there had to be a piano somewhere in this frail boy’s life.  But here?

A switch flooded a staircase with warm light.   “Only thirty-three,” he encouraged her;  “I count them every time I go up.  Helps fill in the time.”

“You’re lucky.  Not everyone can live over a concert hall.”

He tilted his head, bird-like – another mannerism she found irresistible.  “Over a garage, actually.  It wakes me every morning at half-eight, when they turn the compressors on.  Better than any alarm clock.  Otherwise I hear surprisingly little from it.”

On the stairs he didn’t race ahead as some men might, but matched her pace so she, following, could drink in the grace and sinew of him as he climbed.  Fitted shirt, tight flares, every ripple.  Cream walls, brass rail, bare concrete treads.  Thirty-three.  Footsteps echoing; thirty-one, thirty-two…

“Here we are.”

So this was it, the theatre of her deflowering.  Her birthday gift to herself.  She had planned no less, coolly setting out, short, short dress and chilly in the early evening air, to lose the virginity that had begun to weigh like a yoke.  Her twentieth birthday, still carrying the reluctant secret of her virtue on her shoulders.  Was she nervous?  Yes.  She was doing something she could never have contemplated before: a first time, a first date; a pick-up, frankly, her friend Rosanna would call it that.  But then, caution had only served to preserve the unwanted, and Rosanna was still at the discotheque, unlikely to be going home alone.

It was the scent that assailed her senses before all else, a subtle nuance to conjuring pictures of green fields and purple, heather-covered hills.   As Sebastian opened the door; as Sebastian switched on the light it was almost physical…

“Oh, my goodness!”

…yet the  hallway was small, a colourless vestibule only, and a metal spiral stair  Stairs that once again led upwards.

“A bit more climbing.”  He said.

Sebastian slipped his hand into hers.  She was being coaxed, gently.

There was no door atop these stairs.  There was an emerge – a rise from beneath through a floor reinforced thickly with steel beams into another world – from star-trap to stage – 

“Nell?”  He prompted her.  He was expecting a response.  Nell had been stunned into silence.

She found her tongue.  “I suppose it’s good to have a hobby.”  She said.

Foetid sweetness hung on air so thick it was hard to breathe at first, and humidity permeated her short, short dress so utterly its thin fabric clung to her skin.  All about her, above her, even around her feet, as Sebastian led her up the last few treads of the stairway, was growing and green; relentlessly green.  Sphagnum moss formed a carpet, softly yielding beneath her feet, weeping cherry made curtains they must brush aside to imbibe the heady glory of this place.  An umbrella pine shaded them like a hood, a wisteria clambered and tangled its way randomly about trellis-lined walls.  Planters, pots and containers were everywhere, large and small, brightly coloured or plain; each one abrim with leaf and growth, flower and life.  A decadently large butterfly settled on Nell’s wrist.

“Do you like her?  If you do she’ll be yours for a while.  They know if they are loved.”

“What kind is she?”

Sebastian shrugged;  “A white swallowtail, or something, I don’t know.  She’s beautiful, though, isn’t she?  How do you like my gaffe?”

“It’s amazing!  Are you actually living here?”

“Of course – where else?”

Nell cast about her, seeking the accoutrements of accomodation.  Certainly there were elements: withdrawing room furniture – a salon chair or two, a touch of Victoriana nestling between festoons of vine, a few small tables fashioned from stumps of hardwood, bookshelves extending high into the glazed roof, access to whose treasures could only be gained by a precarious set of library steps.  But a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom? And where was the piano?

Embarrassed by the way her short, short dress was misbehaving in the humidity, she asked: “Is there somewhere I can…”  and let the sentence rest.

“Freshen up?  I mean, not that you don’t look…”  His confidence also seemed to be ebbing a little.  He recovered himself,  “Through there.  The date palm and turn left.  I’ll fix us a drink – what would you like?”

“Oh, anything!   This lovely thing – is she coming with me?”  

“She’ll fly off.  Give her a bit of a nudge if you want.”  She did.  Nell’s graceful passenger winged away to find companionship with three or four of her kind that were performing a complex ballet around a pendulous cluster of mauve flowers.

“Sehra Bhale – it’s Indian”  Sebastian explained, noticing her rapturous expression,  “They love the flowers.  For the nectar, I guess.”

Only by traversing the floor did Nell get an idea of the true scale of this place. A full twenty yards away a date palm occupied a huge wooden barrel.  The tree was all but fully grown so its crown reached high into the roof.  From the same barrel sprang a screen of dense foliage, behind which she discovered the door to the bathroom and although she half expected the extraordinary here there was little more than a passing resemblance to a potting shed and aside from the presence of a stalwart iron garden tap, the necessary porcelain was white-ly normal.  If a certain amount of loam had left a tidemark in the hand-basin it seemed no more than she should have anticipated.  There was even a mirror…

“I fixed us these,”  Sebastian said when she returned to him;  “I hope you’ll like it.”

He cradled a stoneware chalice in each hand, one of which he offered to her.  She glanced at the contents suspiciously.  They were green.

“Swop you!”  She said, trying to keep her tone as light as possible.  Had it occurred to her he might lace her drink?  She wanted to remain in command of her situation.  

He just grinned.  “Of course.  They’re the same.  I wasn’t going to – you know – try anything.”

She hoped she was arching an eyebrow,  “I’m sure there are some things we could try.”  Flirting, she decided, was the only way to cover her nerves.  Her knees were about to give her away by shaking.  “This place is stellar!  Did you do all this yourself?  You must be very strong! I mean, do you have a gardener or something?”   As a line of conversation it was excruciatingly lame, but such was the gulf in her understanding she felt she must say something.  The room was unquestionably affecting her.  A first tentative sip at that green drink would deepen the affinity.

“On my gosh!  Whatever is this?”  Drinks can impress in many ways; by their alcoholic heat, a peppery sting on the tongue, or an intensity of flavor that can sometimes vanquish the most insensitive of palates.  Sebastian’s cocktail ( she would be obliged to call it that) performed each of those tricks at once, and left a trace of warmth behind for good measure.  

“Do you like it?”  He was smiling more broadly now.  “I make these myself, you know?  This is one of my favourites,”

“It’s a bit heady,”   was Nell’s verdict,  “Some serious alcohol.”

“Really not.  Only the natural sugars from the fruit I grow in here. Some more?”

Nell stared into her cup in disbelief.  How had she finished the drink so quickly?  Never mind; she enjoyed its taste.  “Yes, please.”

“Let’s sit down,”  Sebastian gestured towards a pair of salon chairs,  “Are you hungry?  Would you like something to eat?”

“No,”  She answered quickly; too quickly, perhaps, but all there seemed to be on offer was fruit.  The chair was a little too upright, a little too hard, for her mood.  She needed to relax.  “Them – the palm and that – there are real trees in here, yeah?  What made you do all this?”

“My jungle, you mean?”  He nodded,  “Fair question.  I like plants and stuff – will that do?”

Nell frowned.  Somehow, she had necked her second drink.  It was only moments since he had poured it, but after all, if it wasn’t alcoholic…  “Maybe just one more,”  she said, uninvited.

He poured.  There was a bottle.  It was half-empty.  “I wanted a garden,”  he told her,  “This place didn’t have one, but it was cheap and there was acres of space, so…”

“So this.  Okay.  Some of these guys, Sebastian, they’re seriously mature, aren’t they?  They couldn’t have been like that when they came through the door.  I mean, how many years…damn it, how old are you?”

He smiled angelically: a perfectly youthful, innocent smile.  “Does that matter?”

“To me?  I mean, no, I guess not.”   Nell blushed, as enthused now by his beauty as she had been when he first asked her to dance with him in that disco; so long ago she felt almost in danger of forgetting it – of forgetting what had drawn her here.  Her hand had reached for the bottle, she was topping up her drink without his assistance and he was smiling, and watching…

“You like me, don’t you?”  He wasn’t seeking reassurance, simply stating a fact.  “You want us to boogie, don’t you?”  Blatant, but another fact, the articulation of which should have made her feel acutely uncomfortable but didn’t, not at all, because it was true, and yes, that was why she had selected him – why she had accepted his invitation.  

“Can I call you Seb?”

“I’d like that.”

If a little courage had been missing, the mysterious green, rich drink emboldened her.  Rising from her chair, she crossed to his and, demurely at first, perched herself on his knee.

“That’s nicer, isn’t it? I enjoy being close, Seb.”

His answering smile feigned innocence:  “And I really feel close to you,”  he murmured, as if he was half afraid to speak.  “Are we -what do you call it – making out?”

She giggled,  “Maybe not yet.”  Stroking his arm, “Is there somewhere we can…”

“I don’t understand.”  He clearly looked as though he didn’t.

“Somewhere we could be more cosy?”

The intimacy, how did it happen?  When did they move from the chair and how were they suddenly entwined on a bed of soft, dry moss, and breathing together, almost as one?  How had she learned the words she was whispering – how could the caress of his fingers be so impossibly soft as to chase away any last clouds of maidenly guilt, or resistance?  Did ‘how’ matter?   In a necessary pause she glanced at her cup which was, once again, stubbornly empty.  She lamented it and he had the bottle ready in his hand. 

Which was when he did this curious thing.

Nell extended her arm, offering the chalice to be refilled, but Sebastian did not comply.  Instead, he tipped the bottle so all that remained within it cascaded over her.  Green verdance filled her eyes, her nose, her mouth, poured down her neck, between her breasts.  Diligently, remorselessly, the liquid probed and sought out each secret part of her, and it was clever, this balm.  It was intelligent.  It had no interest but in her flesh; it left the short, short dress unsullied in its quest yet it discovered all, absolutely all, that lay beneath.

She panicked at first.  She would.  She was outraged; though only for a second – as long as it took to feel the warm enclosure of her whole self, the gentle insidience of something that was rendering her limbs helpless to resist, her senses too benumbed to protest.   

Fiery heat rushed and retreated in waves through her veins, leaving tiny rivulets behind at every pass.   The blood in her body was changing, its flow was no longer the same.  Sebastian was there and Sebastian was watching, but how close he was, or how far away, whether or not she could touch him, did not seem to matter.  If her sight was fading, if everything was green, that was sufficient.  That was enough.  And in the end, the silence, too, would be enough.

In her altered state Nell could not see – would never ‘see’ again, but she could ‘feel’: her whole essence was of feeling, defined by twisting and climbing, but only Sebastian knew how that urge was driven by anger and aggression, for she could not talk, or shout out; so she had no way to express her pain.

#

Jarvis  Bowbeaker prided himself in being incapable of surprise.  After twenty-two years of steady progress in the plain-clothes division of his local police force he was fairly certain he had seen everything.  So when he ducked beneath the ‘Scene of Crime’ tape and passed through the steel-clad door in the dank old alley, when he climbed the spiral stair to that room he was immured from its severest effects by experience.  He merely dismissed the chaos into which he emerged as ‘disturbing’.

“You weren’t kiddin’ son, was yer?”  He nodded to the young DC who stood with an older, slightly too well-oiled man on a patch of floor that had been cleared.  It’s a feckin’ jungle!  Are those butterflies or bats?”

“They’re butterflies, Inspector.”  The oily man offered the explanation.  “Tropical varieties.  And the stench is down to a combination of ridiculously high humidity and rot.  I’m grateful to you for requesting my opinion – I would hate to have missed this one!”

Bowbeaker cocked an eyebrow at the young Detective Constable.  “Wilkinson, isn’t it? “What’s in it for us, son?  Suspicious death?”

“Hard to say, sir.  We’ll be waiting for SOCO’s report on that, I reckon.  Been dead for a lot of years, Sir.” 

“And you’re Professor Lombard, yes?  Our biologist?   What’s gone on ‘ere, then?”  Bowbeaker encompassed the tangled overgrowth expansively;  “All this?”

“Nothing.  Well, nothing in the way of husbandry, anyway.  This was tended and well ordered once, but not in the last forty or so years.  Whoever started it was quite a horticulturalist, managing to mix species from a number of different climatic zones and combine them so they effectively formed their own micro-climate. But it seems they abandoned it.”

“Did a runner, most likely,”  the DC opined;  “On account of the death, Sir.”

Bowbeaker sighed,  “Alright, son, lead the old horse to water.  Where’s the deceased?”

“Well, that’s it, you see…”  D.C. Wilkinson guided his superior and the Professor along a cleared path across the floor of the room.  “Watch where you tread, Sir.  This place is due for demolition.  It was the demolition lads who found it.  They  had to hack through here…”

“No snakes, are there?”  Bowbeaker thought he’d mention it.  After all, the place was in most other respects a jungle, its floor a mass of tangled roots, their way veiled by liana and festoons of creepers  of every kind.  Why wouldn’t there be snakes?   “Is that rain?”

“There’s hardly any roof.  It was a glass skylight at some time or other, before these larger trees pushed through.  Fortunately, you said, Professor, didn’t you?”

“Indeed!”  Professor Lombard acknowledged;  “Growth like this absorbs a lot of moisture.  Drought would certainly have inhibited it.”

“And here she is.”  The DC waved a hand aloft.

They had reached the far wall of the space, although that was hard to identify, clad as thoroughly as it was in greenery that clambered and tangled.  Swiping aside a suspicious-looking insect Bowbeaker followed his young assistant’s upward gesture.  Hanging almost directly above him and leaning forward as if ready to descend like an avenging angel, was a form that was unmistakably that of a corpse – or the remains of one.   

“‘She’?”  Bowbeaker questioned.  “How d’yer know our Doe’s a Jane, Constable?”

By way of reply, Wilkinson pointed downward at the wreckage of a series of tubs, one-time planters in a line along the wall.  The roots of their hungry tenants had long ago breached them and stretched out to claim their share of the mossy floor, but into each tub had been inserted a label, and on each label, faded but still distinguishable, was written a species name;  T/spermum Jasmine ‘Rebecca’, Bomarea Tropaeolum ‘Holly’, Ixora coccinea ‘Anna Lis’, ‘Rosa Macha ‘Joanne’, Lonicera ‘Angelina’, and finally, directly beneath the corpse, Epipremnum Devil’s Ivy  ‘Nell’.”

“Names for the species grown from each tub, Inspector,”  Lombard contributed.  “You’ll probably recognise most of them.  The Christian names underneath have nothing to do with a variety, and so we thought…”

Bowbeaker drew a breath, which he held for a very long time.

“I reckon that must be Nell, Sir.”  The DC said.  “Weird, Innit?  Sort of a marker for her, don’t you think?  Do those other names mean anything?”

Bowbeaker nodded, because they did.   “Rebecca Shelley, yes, I remember that one, and Angelina Scarcci.   Nell Wrekins, too.  All a bit before my time.  Girls in their twenties who were listed as missing.  I think the others will ring a few bells too, back at the office.”  He stared into the canopy of forestation above each planter, half-hoping to see more evidence that these poor tragedies had ended here.

“Take samples for analysis and ask the lads to get her down.  That’s hardly a dignified way to spend eternity.  Who owns this place, do we know?”

“Trying to trace that now, Sir.  It was a Council repossession  A garage business traded downstairs; it closed thirty years ago.  The owner died last March.  All dead ends, if you’ll pardon the pun.”

“Dead ends;  yes.”  Bowbeaker could not tear his eyes away from those human remains.  “Constable, get a step ladder in ‘ere, will yer?  I want to take a closer look at our Miss Nell.”

But he already knew, didn’t he?  No more than a skeleton after forty years, and only intact because the ivy that held it in its clutches would let nothing escape, nevertheless there were certain details his experienced eye could not miss; like the sized 12 shoe that hung upon one large foot, and the shirt that was not a blouse, because enough threads remained to see it plainly buttoned from the right.  Above (or beneath) all, the narrower pelvic bones that could belong only to a man.   He could not be certain, but if his memory served, young Nell Wrekin was the last of those disappearances, all those years ago.  Without knowing how, or why, he was quite sure she had something to do with whatever had happened here.

Bowbeaker silently watched as the body was freed at last from the grip of the vine, and it did not escape his notice the difficulty the SOCO’s people had in cutting away the stalwart wood that enclosed its throat.    He stayed a long time with the scene, so it was only after everyone had moved to leave that he crossed to the ivy’s woody trunk, placing a hand on the bark.

“Nell Wrekins, is it?”  He said, quietly, so none of the departing company should hear;  “Ye’re Devil’s Ivy, right enough.  Privately, I think yer did pretty well, back then, Miss Wrekin.  And even though it’s technically a crime, I can’t imagine how I’d go about charging a pretty plant like you with murder, can you?”

Feeling the touch, which was soft and insistent, he looked down to see that a root had wrapped itself around his foot.  He extricated himself gently.  “Don’t worry love, I’ll ‘ave a word with the Professor.  He’ll see ye’re taken care of.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Picture Credits:

Header image by Ambitious Creative from Unsplash;

Girl with butterflies by Victor Mendoza from Unsplash

The Grapes of Wrath

It’s been a busy few days, so this is another from the archives (one I rather like, actually).

It is never going to be the most promising of conversations.  I fact, it would not be  a conversation at all if I am not at a loose end, or if I had thought to dispose of the bowl of grapes on the windowsill of my office a day or so sooner.  Why am I in my office on a fine afternoon – perhaps the last fine afternoon of a dwindling summer?

I am taking refuge.

Downstairs, my significant other is preparing soup.  I stay with it as long as I can; I inhale the odours of nameless boiling things, the rancid steam, suffer the metaphorical Cheshire Cat grinning at me malevolently on top of the bread-maker and dog Honey sitting grinning equally mischievously in ‘food corner’- that place she always occupies at times of high risk, on the off chance of a dropped morsel.

I endure.  I choke.  I leave.  Make like a tree and…

In the blessed peace of my office, beside an open window wherewith to scent the first nip of autumn, I turn on my computer, settling down to write.

“Good stuff, this!”

Startled by the interruption, I turn.  “Sorry?”

The voice comes from that bowl of once edible grapes.  “See, what youze don’t unnerstand is, jus’ how bootiful this is…”

A pair of black antenna appear, waving somewhat aimlessly, from between two moldy and rather shriveled fruit.  A foot appears, dragging down one of the antenna.  “Neez a wash, man.  Neez a wash.”

Some might require more visible evidence, but experience comes to my aid.  This is indubitably a wasp.

“You’re drunk.”  I say, groping beneath my desk for the can of ‘Raid’.  Just because this wasp happens to be vocal, doesn’t mean I can’t spray it into oblivion.

“Drunk?  Me, drunk?  Tha’s against my religion, man!”  The antenna reappears, refreshed, and gropes its way over a penicillin-rich specimen that has clearly been its host for a good twenty minutes of gorging, before I appeared. A black and yellow face comes into view. “I never drink, me.”

“No.  You eat rotten fruit instead, and the sugars have turned to alcohol.  Ergo, you are drunk.”  I have found the ‘Raid’ and am ready to end this conversation in the way most of my encounters with wasps do.

“Oh!  Oh, tha’s right!”  He sees the canister, my finger on the aerosol button. “Tha’s it.  Do that.  Do what you do to all of my people.  Nuke us, man!  Kill us, jus’ ‘cos we’re black and yellow.  Don’t give us a chans to say nothing.  Don’ allow us a voice!”

“I’m not killing you because you’re black and yellow.  I’m killing you because if I don’t you’ll sting me!”

“Issat right?  Wha’ f you deserves to be stung?”

“I still wouldn’t want to be.  Anyway, why should I deserve to be stung?  What have I done, apart from provide you with those grapes?”

“You and your kind, destroyin’ all our nests, driving us away, generations of waspicide.  You oppress us, tha’s what you do, man.”

“Only because you’re so aggressive.  You can’t handle your drink…”

“I told you!  I said, I don’ drink!”

“Alright, you can’t handle your rotten fruit.  You’re stoned out of your mind, you’re loud and argumentative, and you turn violent. If I give you half a chance now you’ll sting me.  And why?  I can never understand why.”

“Why?  WHY?  Becoz…becoz it’s like he says…”

“Who says?”

“The Vespam, man.  ‘Is bloody ‘Oliness – he says – he says iz our duty to go out and sting the infiddle.  Yeah.  So I’ve got the courage to fly into the face of the sticky mist and thrust me sting into yez as many times as I can before I drop, see?  An’ then I gets virgins.”

“Virgin wasps?”  I sound incredulous.  I might be forgiven.

“Yeah, well summing like that.  Right tasty queens anyways.  So tha’s why I’m out here, man.  I’m goin’ ter get me own nest in Paradise, see?”

“What’s wrong with your nest here on earth?”

“You kiddin?  Thousands of us stuck in a li’l paper pall waitin’ for youze to come along and exterminate us? (he struggles over the word ‘exterminate’).  An’, an’! (he flicks an antenna for emphasis) soon as you gets rid of us you moves the bloody bees in.  Bloody bees!”

I look at him accusingly.  “You’ve built a nest in my loft again, haven’t you?”

He goes defensive:  “Not sayin’.”

“Yes you have.  And your Vespam’s turned you out of it because you’re an old male and ….

“Nah, nah!  You got it wrong, man!  Iz a holy war, see, an’ iz our priv’lege to sacrifice ourselves for the cause.  Until you stop building beehives all over our land we’re goin’ to keep comin’ at you and stinging you, see?”

At last the pieces come together in my mind.  A mile to the south of my house a landfill site has recently been closed:  the area has been turfed over with meadow grass and yes, several beehives have been installed there.

“You come from the old waste tip at Westbank, don’t you?”

“We was dispossessed, man.  We was driven out!  No sooner we gone, that the bees move in on our land.  The bloody bees!”

“I might prefer wild bees over you, but I’m not going to build a beehive in my loft!”

“Vespam says….”

“I don’t care what your ‘Vespam’ says. Bear in mind he’s sitting comfortably in the nest he’s turned you out of – at least until we destroy it.  You should get back up there – demand to be let in.”

For a moment I wonder if I might have carried the argument.  He shifts about on all six feet, rubbing his antennae over his big compound eyes, a pattern of movement I take to be consistent with thought.  But then…

“Nah!   ‘Is ‘oliness said it’d be like this.  Infiddles is very persuasive, ‘e says.  They’ll promise you all sorts, ‘e sez:  proper hives, reg’lar rubbish, lots of fruit.  Don’ believe ‘em.  They’ll ‘ave you workin’ yourself to death to feed a fat cow of a queen who pumps out kids at about two a minute; loadin’ your legs up wi’ pollen from pretty flowers so you nearly rupture your wings flying home to fat mummy?  Tha’s jus’ a typical human answer, isn’ it?  You think about it, though.  Whose goin’ to clear up your rubbish then?”  The wasp stabs at the fruit beneath his front legs, which have now emerged in pursuit of his antennae.  “Good, this.  Can you see those pink elephants?”

He begins to rotate his wings, letting me know the time for conversation is at an end.  The tail of his abdomen twitches eagerly and his head lowers for the effort of take-off.  He launches himself forward.

My hand points the spray, my finger presses the button.  He flies into the mist, and his cry of “Vespula is Great!” is all but lost as the gum binds his wings.

I watch dispassionately as he squirms and dies because he is angry and aggressive and I cannot love him.  Nevertheless I hope he finds his ‘virgins’.  He deserves that at least.

The clatter and crescendo from the kitchen tells me that soup has been achieved.  So, distracted from my original purpose, I take up the bowl of moldy grapes and prepare to descend.   On my way downstairs, I wonder, idly, whether it is possible to have a beehive in my loft?

 © Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

The God of the Rocks

They said of him that he would be watching.   They said that from his mountain throne he would see the last of them to their graves, and the world itself would spiral down into infinity, before his eyes could rest.  He brought to them seasons, sun and the rain, and he taught them dread.  Where he wept new waters sprang, and where he vented his fury he sent fire into the sky.  Only in their terror would they pray.  Only when faced with the evidence of his wrath had they reason to fear him.  

They said he was a god.

They worshipped him, beseeched him often, in their times of peril or of pain; sought in vain for his solace, begged fruitlessly before him that he might forgive their sins, even though they could not explain the meaning of sin.  And although they believed they heard his voice, he never answered their prayers.

From his great height among the frozen rocks, his immortal flesh scoured by wind and ice, he was king, at least, of all he surveyed:  his eyes ever open, his ears filled by the knowledge of man; unsleeping, watching the ages pass.   

In his time he was accused of many things, at once feared and admired for his indiscretions.   He took the innocence of a king’s beautiful daughter, they said; came to her disguised by the night in a cloak of swan-down to give her a son who  she would raise to be his intermediary with the people – but no-one saw, or had word of the child.  Time brought rumours of many sons, to whom were accorded the powers of minor gods, and daughters too.   He divided his responsibilities among them, his subjects claimed – for childbirth, for death, for fire and fertility – children unseen, with powers never proved.

Centuries passed and the people prospered.  Their numbers grew.  They lost their fear of their god, spurning the myths of his children and proclaiming their faith to the mountain less often, while they committed greater and greater crimes in his name, and had no understanding of their wrongs.

There were a few, still, who pretended knowledge of him.   They made effigies they insisted were true to his mortal form, they issued decrees they said he had written, and words they said he had spoken. 

Those bold feet that first ascended the high watchtower they believed was his found no trace of his presence among those merciless rocks; so they allowed themselves to laugh, perhaps a little nervously, at their primitive notions of his existence.  The final knell.  But he was watching, just as before.  

 Some claimed He lived within each one of them, others believed Him to rule from somewhere beyond the sky.  Few knew the truth; that his home was where it had always been, beneath their feet – that he was the ground whereon they walked.

Very few truly understood this relationship to man.   They sought his guidance when he had none; prayed for his favour when he could give none, but because they had shaped him into a loving and compassionate image in their own minds they were sure, despite all evidence, he must have an entity that was righteous and just.   

With time he grew tired of the imperfect mortals that moved about him. Their treatment of fauna and flora that served him, the barbs they plunged ever deeper in his flesh, their unnatural agriculture which used chemicals to burn his skin (for his skin was the land).  He recognised signs of diminution in himself; for though with a shrug of his shoulders he might still  send their dwellings tumbling, or charge the air with fire, or foment oceans to tempest, ice into rain,  no-one came to pray to him. 

He was forgotten.

One final card was yet to be played that would prove his power and send  these creatures who could never be true custodians of his world to their destruction.  Why did he withhold?. His impatience with them grew yet he shrugged his shoulders: he did not dispatch them.  They vexed, but they did not infuriate.  Why?   Well, there was still something in his aged world to give him hope.

He had known her presence as she walked by this river before, a girl with pale cheeks and features of untainted innocence; one whose dark blue eyes were filled by the mystery of the waters and whose soul was clear of mortal sin.   She walked with a man, another human, but this did not deter him, for no mortal could withstand the will of a god.   In this girl, his ancient wisdom made him believe, there was a better future for his world; but as  no-one now believed in him, and nor, at first, would she, he must show her the pathway back to truth; she must become mother to the family of a god which, this time, would make itself known.  By an old and tried device of the gods, he reasoned to himself, he might make her his.  He was unaware how his strength had ebbed – without belief a god has no power.  In too many ways as he appeared to this girl and her man who had never prayed, he was almost mortal.   

“I think,”  Nadja said, as she crouched on her heels by the riverbank, reaching to dabble her fingers in the water;  “You should leave the poor fish alone.”

“Do you?”  the young man laughed.  “So you would consign man’s most popularhobby to the dustbin of incorrectness at a stroke, would you?”  He had set himself upon a tussock of grass beside her, his rods and creel clasped between his knees as he baited his hook.

“No, Ben, but I don’t see the point.  You entice them to bite on those horrible barbed things of yours, terrify them by plucking them from their natural element, then rip their mouths apart before you toss them back.  Why?” 

“Fish can’t feel pain.”  Ben shaped to cast his line.

“Are you sure of that?”

“It’s been proven.”

“Not, I take it, by a fish.”  Nadja sighed, because Ben’s blindness to all that was beautiful in the world made her sad.  “Oh, look at the swan, isn’t it beautiful?”

“It’s a bird, a very big one, for a swan.”  The young man’s baited hook zipped over Nadja’s head on its way out into the current.  “If you don’t like fishing, why did you come?”

“I like the river, and I like you.  Is it me, or is he swimming towards us?”

“Maybe it thinks you’ve got some bread for it.  Give it a sandwich.”

“I’m sure you shouldn’t….”   Nadja’s voice faded into silence as she found herself gazing into the eyes of the swan, which were the most thoughtful and visionary eyes she had ever seen.  They were eyes  of intimate knowledge, bearing a message for her alone.   It was all she could do to refrain from walking out into the water to meet it, because the bird’s stare was mesmerising her.  It wanted her to join it, to nestle in the white down of its feathers, to ride upon its snowy back.  Reflected in shimmering perfection upon the water, the noble creature was drifting ever nearer.

“Oh, Ben!”  It was so close to Nadja now she might only stretch a little to touch its head.

“Careful!   It’s certainly hungry,” Ben warned.  “They can attack you for food sometimes.”

Yet Nadja saw no aggression in those eyes, only invitation.  Somehow it was no surprise to her that the swan should lower its noble head and  extend its neck to lie against the length of her thigh.  It breathed its contentment as, with nervous, uncertain hands she stroked feathers so close they were almost velvet.     Nor was she shocked when it raised itself, its wings arching slowly, very gently moving forward.  She rose to her feet, yielding to the persuasion that coaxed her into the warmth of that embrace.  For one moment it seemed she might be completely engulfed in the cloak of those powerful wings.

Only for a moment…

The great bird shuddered as Ben’s creel, swung with all the force he could muster, struck it upon its back.  It turned instantly, hissing anger as Nadja staggered aside.  It swept those wings with no hint of their former gentleness, scything into Ben’s ribs so hard the wind was knocked from his lungs.  Reared upon its grey legs, drawn to its full height the swan loomed over Ben like a white cloud  and eyes which just a moment before were blinded by love were twin orbs of lightning, afire with fury.   Injured and in pain, Ben almost fell as the swan, far from retreating to the river as he expected, advanced upon him.  Clear of the water its body was exposed and Ben, alarmed as he was by its aggression, was not done yet.     Stepping inside those flailing wings he delivered a blow to the creature’s body so fierce it was thrown backward into the water – so fierce as to sink deep into feathers and flesh and bone beneath.  With that single blow the god of the rocks discovered a dreadful truth:  that a god devoid of veneration is no god at all.   His transformation into this great bird had been his final miracle.  He was mortal.

In its panic at that discovery and with its dream of love reduced to a sad fantasy  the bird plunged back into the river, scrabbling through the shallows in search of deeper water, finding depth, swimming fast with no sense of direction.  In its distraction it ran its beak through the healing stream to deaden the hurt in its body.  A temptation, a mere scrap, skipped by on the current.  The swan took it in. 

“It’s taken my hook.”  Ben cried, regaining his balance.   “The bloody thing’s taken my hook!”

“Oh no!  No!  Do something!” Nadja rushed forward, plunging to her waist into the river to reach for the swan.   For a few dreadful seconds the bird churned the water as it discovered its plight and thrashed wildly against the line, then as suddenly as it had been taken it was gone.  Running on the surface on desperate feet it gained the air.   Graceful even when so wounded, its neck crooking as it tried to shake the metal hook free, it ascended,  and all Nadja could do was watch it depart.  She rounded on Ben.  “I could have got to it.  Why didn’t you wait?”

“I cut the line.   I couldn’t hold it, I’d have lost the rod and everything if I’d tried.”

“You let it go.”  Nadja wept bitterly, for she had seen in the space of a second everything the world had missed.  “You condemned it.”

Ben pleaded with her.  He’d had to do something, he told her – he was being attacked.  “It wasn’t my fault it took the line!”

“it was your fault the hook was in the water in the first place.  Your hobby!”  Nadja exclaimed scornfully,  “Don’t follow me!”

She turned from Ben to walk home alone.  As she walked the grass around her feet turned to brown, and young though the year might have been, leaves cascaded from the trees.  The wind grew stronger as a different darkness fell.

#

“Another one?”    Baldai asked.

“The third in this cycle.”  Procator affirmed, as they watched the screen.  “Most regrettable.  It seems this is the critical evolutionary phase.  Statistics for this galaxy are quite damning, I’m afraid.  We’re having some success, but almost entirely with aquatic solutions.  Land-based life forms are simply too fallible.  It’s almost as though the stock is corrupt.”

“That is possible, of course.”  Baldai admitted.  “However, there’s nothing to be done.  Is he recovering?”

“To a point, I suppose.  Avian disguises are particularly difficult to treat, and he had been entombed in river mud for three weeks before we could bring him up.  The physical recovery is good, but…”  Prokator made a gesture of futility;  “his psychological makeup has completely burned out.  He has expressed a wish to retire to his galaxy of origin and I think that is probably best.”

“And that?”  Baldai waved at the image on their screen of the bereft planet:  “What shall we do with that?”

“Oh, dispose of it.  There’s another eligible candidate closer to this sun-star, if you think we should have another try – but I would be inclined to emphasise the oceans, this time.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Photo credits: Swan, by Balog from Pixabay, Featured image:

Mountain, by David Mark from Pixabay