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Category — Short Stories

Ma James

T

his night is calm and black. Thorned shadows loop through the silhouette of railings; birds cry in the first touch of dawn; and Ma James hobbles along, head tilted, trying to see where the tarmac ends and the grassy verge begins.

Right now, she’s just some other shapeless, old blackbird wandering the hedgerows.

These are her yellow fingers.

She rummages about in a pendulous handbag – one of those big, black, Italian jobs, that hangs like a stallion’s scrotum on huge, looping handles – and pulls out a crumpled cigarette pack.

Moments later, she’s lighting another crooked cigarette.

With its broken, old body, that coffin nail is taking a little while to fire up – Jus’ like the rest of us – but she soon drops the skull-emblazoned zippo back in ‘The Swamp’.

The bag’s fastener snaps once more, like bolt-cutters on the gates of Hell.

Smoke curls.

Ah, yes, satisfaction –

For what, three, whole seconds, maybe?

There is a small, dismal pop: a snail shell imploding – the sensation somewhere between grit and gristle – under her heel. She grimaces, and sighs, and carries on.

An honest-to-God hit-and-run.

Swerve outta the way next time. 

A little grey ash drifts onto her eyelash. She gestures it away with the back of her cigarette-dangling hand.

But keeps lumbering on.

Cool air washes her face. Hellish tobacco – filter free – mixes up the herbal smell of damp dew soaking the long grasses; a long, cool, warming sensation, all at the same time: Gramma’s Old-country Menthol, as she likes to consider it.

It’s not long before her wooden shoes clatter onto concrete steps, past a cherry-red bin overflowing with tied-off carriers of dog shit – brown mounds looming inside their bags of many nations – and then she can just about make out the looping whorls of graffiti on the bridge foundations, demarking clan territory, calling out love: THE ZOPH MAN CLAYMES THES STARES – BE-ATCHES!

Tough, she huffs. Besides, who owns a bridge?

For a moment, the zip from her coat trails along the metal spars of the hand rail, with a clear metallic ‘tang’, ‘tang’, ‘tang’ until she folds the material in with a press of a gnarled hand; too startling at this – the God-awful morning – time-of-day.

Mood broken.

And now she’s looming on the overpass.  This is a metal bridge over an electrified chasm of concrete. Ruled lines lead up into the sky. She clanks along, squinting at the watery sodium lights on the motorway below, into the halo of electric light that bathes the block-like buildings beyond, into the faint lights of early-morning people in their concrete picture frames, and there – nature’s own dream – the diffuse light of the moon, like smooth paper beneath the watery shadows.

Then comes a smell of rotten lilies, sickly and fermented.

She pauses and tut-tuts.

Amassed grief has grown up here like ivy on kitchen ties. Attached to the bridge-railings are bunches of flowers, gnarled and collapsing, dark-brown and dead. Within a bouquet, something glistens like wet liquorice: a slug slipping through an enfolded world, the transparent plastic sagging, green with algae – a rose outwith the roses. Cards are pulped black marker, running with Indian ink. And amongst the rotting menagerie, a teddybear, size of a fist, blue and bloated, its woollen ears warped.

Ma considers the pink heart on the bear’s stomach. Wonders why a boy’d want a girl’s toy. Somethin a girl’d give a girl.

And this was a boy, by all accounts.

As she continues over the narrow span, she hears the occasional strip-strip-strip of a car racing by beneath the balustrade. A tour bus hollers under. She gives a little shiver, eyes alert; unsure as to chill of the morning and chill of the ‘other’.

And now she twists up the handles of her bag, bringing it close and tight to her fist.

Not fear.

Weapon.

A kid – late teens, probably – stands at the crest of the bridge, hooded top up, hands in pouched pockets, arms tucked in.

Kid’s looking away at the traffic tearing past.

Seems intent – wistful, maybe – so much so, doesn’t turn.

She clatters closer, wondering when –

Kid turns.

There’s a moment… a moment where the black hole in that hood regards her like a manhole into Hell, the body tense as picture wire. Then –

Oh Gawd. The little shit!

Kid is running for her – feet ringing metal through the thin crust of tarmac – and yet, strangely, he seems to flicker in and out of solidity in the striped bridge shadows; one step flowing into another, winding up faster and faster. His half-picked chicken carcass darts and lunges. The overall effect is a freaky Harryhausen stop-motion – a scheme-raised skeleton sprung from a suicidal dragon tooth.

Ma appraises him, eyes narrowed. He’s halved the distance between them, and the broken angles of his hands are holding knives. Rust spatters the blades like black frost. No way to avoid him now. Flickering metal is welded into a raging scream. The cigarette in her mouth flares bright orange in the foul wind that howls ahead of him.

Ma steps into the centre of the bridgeway.

The patch-work boy has both knives raised, seeking slices of flesh. Ash and sparks whirl, Ma spits out the cigarette and abruptly grunts, “Hold it.”

One gnarled hand up, knuckles arthritic… but it still says stop your ass right there!

The teen terror is motionless three inches away, no discernable braking or slowing down. Just is. Arms out to the sides, like a child holding skipping ropes, knives poised.

Nose to hood.

Kid looks down, slow and gnarly, shoulders hunched. Now she can see right up the throat of that hood: black and stained; encrusted.

Face falling off in strips. Eyes burn white, teeth hang snagged. The faint traces of a teen moustache on a lip curled back. Kid reeks of cheap aftershave and foul rot.

Ma finds her eyes watering, coughs at the stench, but she’s always, always, polite.

“Get the fuck-out-o-it,” snarls this shambolic job-lot of a kid. That top jaw smiling. “Shoo. Scatt, man. Fuck off.”

“That you Finlay? Your momma teach you talk like that?”

“What?” Kid peers forward. “That you, uh… Missa James? That you?”

A hand, gleaming white, knuckles up into the hood. There’s a slippery sucking sound. “This eye ain’t working so well.” Shakes his head. “Not well at all. Man, sorry, no offence, man.”

“S’okay, Finlay. No offence.”

“Jus wait a minute, I’ll put on my happy face.”

More slurping sounds, fingers wet. Whatever that face is, it can’t help but smile…

Ma’s lips compress. No point whacking about the bone yard. ‘Sides, kid owes me a cigarette…   

“Finlay, son, I got a wee bone to pick with you, in…ah, manner of speaking, that is.” Wind sags and bows in that hooded top, and the shape of it is all wrong.

“You has?”

“Yup.”

“Ah.”

Ma lets him jig around a little. Then she says, “Kicking and screaming at the people on the estate – it’s not right, Finlay. You’ve got to give it a rest.”

Finlay breathes out, heavy – even kicks the railing with a blood-stained Nike.

“I’d like to Ma, I’d like to. It’s just, well, I guess you’re the first person to come speak to me proper. The rest of ‘em, well, they just start screamin’ and I can’t help myself.” There’s that friendly smile all fixed and everything. “They’re all assholes.”

The aspirated ‘ho’ in ‘assholes’ exhales as putrid rot. Ma blinks.

“You just take a bit of getting used to, is all.”

“I guess that’s the truth of it.” A slippery chuckle bubbles up between them.

Ma considers the dark shadow within the hood that hints at exposed bone, and thin, paper flesh. Finlay waits like a skeleton bird, hands in pocket, arms wings. He even experimentally bounces a couple of times on his trainers, bone and sinew squeaking.

After a bit, Ma says, “There’s always something, ain’t that true, Finlay?”

“As what keeps us?”

“You know it.”

“I knows it.” He creaks into thoughtful. “I guess most on-accounts are clear. I got stuff to serve, stuff to suffer, stuff to feel good about, too, I guess. Places to go. Hell, maybe. But…” his hood twitches. “I… took summit.”

“What?”

“… Car.”

“Uh, hu.”

“Fuss sake. Don’ look like that Ma. I ain’t proud of it, at least not now. Car’s gotta go back. Figure that’s the whole failure for takeoff. No the pissin’ about, no the…” – he mimed a hand snaking a jump over the high railing, accompanied by a merry little whistle – “but, s’ cold iron. Steel, whatever. Sweet wheels, plenty of fibre trim, yellow as a milkshake, but… but, cold iron… where it counts.”

“Thought as much.”

“Always was clever, Ma.”

Was clever, be back n’ ma bed…  

She looks him right in the… shredded cornea. “Them’s the rules. Live or die.”

“Maybe. Maybe.” Finlay nodded thoughtfully. Turning, he pointed towards the black tower blocks, all the world a gnarled scarecrow in a tracksuit, with tyre-prints that splash the black, gun-metal material. “Leave it outside Moto’s – I mean Liam Chang’s – up the back of the estate. Know the block? Bannockburn, I think. Anyway, I did… I did wrong and it needs sorted.”

Ma nodded. “I will.”

“You’ll look pretty sweet ‘ahind that wheel, ma.”

More wet laughter.

There is a rattle of keys, for a moment echoey and distant, and a change in the wind that smells of all the dead everywhere. Icy metal is tossed into her hand, with an abrupt, teeth catching clink.

The car keys are bathed in a slippery corpse-sweat.

Finlay nods. “That done, I guess I have two other things.”

“You do?”

“One, tell Matty that he ain’t gonna get far takin’ the piss with what he’s doin, right now. He’s goin’ the long way down, you know what I’m sayin’? And I knows as much as anyone, have’n… well, thrown ma junk offa bridge.”

Ma made a face, but nodded. “Okay, I’ll tell him, though ain’t sure he’ll believe who from.”

“Sure, you’ll find a way.”

A few words in the right quarter, perhaps: Mathew’s mama, some black bun, and a cup of really sweet tea.  

“And the other thing?”

“Well, that’s for you,” and, touching her shoulder, he whispers frigid words through sticky, phlegm-encrusted bone.

Then the cold lets go.

Ma is pretty shook up, but stoic, standing there in the rising, golden light that stains the world all orange. When she looks back at him – caught between ire and thankfulness – he ain’t there anymore.

 

***

 

So here’s the thing, Ma got that car returned. She didn’t get behind the wheel of no drag car, and she didn’t go get it out of that old lockup on Beech St., but she got it sorted and back, just the same: some kids good with locks; Panda an’ her girl-racers doin’ the driving.

An’ then she got right down to livin’ up to the day Findlay said she aught’a die.

‘Course, he said it was no doubt at all, but Ma being Ma thought of it more as a general ‘guideline’ than a ‘must-have-happen’, but took plenty enjoyment out of knowing the exact time and place. If she was ever formidable before, she was even worse knowing what everyone else was only dreading: that she weren’t about to let go any time soon.

Findlay, well, once that cold iron he stole was parked back outside the tall tower at Bannockburn Court – still half wrecked after his police chase across the fields – he never did come back. Some folks still avoid the bridge, though – even jump the barrier on the motorway and get chased by the cops.

Matty, thankfully, he got hisself a job and did straighten out a few kinks – guess he kinda knew things might take a sinister turn – though Liam didn’t live too long past getting his wheels back.

Them’s the breaks, I guess.

August 4, 2011   11 Comments

Glaistig

“D

anielle can you help with the coo?”

“I dunno.”

“Sure you can. It’s just a big beastie. ‘Sides, she’s had her calf.”

“A calf?” There’s that frown, but it’s massaged with a twitch of intrigue.

“Aye, teeny, and wee, and brown. An’ it can already lick oot its ane ear and stick a tongue up its ane nose.”

She laughs. “Really?” Then, “Suppose.”

The calf smells of new days, and her mother – Mrs Browne (with an ‘E’) – stumps through the moist, byre straw, with big plumes of nostril steam, and still wants to lick the head of the brown, living, glowing calf, whose eyes are as big as baubles, and as brown as peat water, and whose eyelashes are as thick and long as any girl could wish for. It stands at the top of a tottering A-frame of wonky legs, and bleats like a goat.

It’s true – it does have a long tongue.

It butts her leg.

It also has a cowlick like Elvis.

Cowvis? Moovis? Nah, shut up.   

This is the city-farm unplugged. Danielle could have been picking the tomatoes – loves that smell of garden centre and hot salad under glass – loves the fruity, acidic pop of them in a cheek, as the warm seeds flood into her mouth. Maybe, too, spending that last hour before school at the little farm shop, selling home-churned butter, or little duck mugs. But the calf’s okay.

Pushing and heaving the coo – the mam – out the byre is going to be tricky, though. That’s one pooey backside with a swaying windscreen wiper – that tail – flicking around.

OMG.

No clear haunch you’d want to put a shoulder to.

But Danielle gives a hefty pull on the bridle, the corded rope prickling her fingers. Tug, tug. “Cummon. Uch. Stupid muppet!”

Draaaaaag.

Cow’s got all four paws – no, that’s not right now is it? But whatever they are – braced. They’re all spread out. Silly, auld coo. Ha. Ha. It rolls the whites of it eyes and twists its head to the side, lowing once, so low and long it rattles Danielle’s boots, but out it comes – at last – bell clanking, and the little calf follows.

The stump, stump of hooves.

Mam’s got full udders, dripping milk, and that calf sticks his head under and bats around, until a long teat – like a finger of a rubber glove – is clamped in its wet mouth, and it’s tugging away. Slurping.

Yuck. Sounds like a drain bein’ suctioned oot.

Milk and saliva hangs in cords from the calf’s chin.

Danielle – wary of ‘flickage’ –  retreats back into the low-doored byre to confront the reason cows make really bad pets: poo, and lots of it. In the almost-words of that guy in that stupid shark film, which is still worthy of nightmares: “Houston, we’re gonna need a bigger wheelbarrow…”

Oh, ho, it’s the boss-man.

Calvin strides in, all proud in his bright, red wellies. They’ve even got flowers on.

Danielle’s eyes roll to the ceiling in despair. “You’ve still got them girly wellies?”

“Aye, well, at least I hav’ny got a wee…. whatever that is.”  (She’s got a Moshi Monster on her T). “An’ this barn’s no getting any cleaner. So…” He points at the long, pole-handled thing leaning on the wall.

“Wha’dya think that’s fur?”

“Err, raking?”

“It’s a fork.”

“Forking?”

“Good lass. I’ll be down the shop wi a cup of tea.”

Well, that sucks.

Danielle stares at the coo poo through slitted eyes, breathing through her mouth. Man, what a (cough) stinky – uch (retch) …

Calvin laughs his deep, booming laugh and stumps back outside, straw caked to his boot-sides. “Gid luck tae ya, missus”.

 

Let’s just say that clearin’ out some o’ that poo is like panhandling soup wi a fork.

 

When she’s done, face flushed, dusty cough, the fresh straw is spread out like a prickly ocean of gold. Little scratchy bits are still stuck in her sleeves. Calvin whuttocks on over. He’s been checking the bees (which are presumably still ‘bee-like’, ‘bee-shaped’, whatever). “Good lass. Ya can dump the barra oot back.”

“Cool.”

But they’re both kind of caught. It’s sunny, and Springy, and there’s new life wandering.

Calvin leans on the warm fork-handle. “Y’know, we may be a city farm, but we’ve still got a little bit of the auld-country here.”

They watch the calf suckling for a while.

“Is the milk in wee sections?” asks Danielle, “A bottle to every one o’ them teaty things?”

“Naw. Think it’s all joined up.”

“Ah.”

“Maybe.”

A fly buzzes past.

The calf’s nose punch-bagging again, until another teat presents itself.

“That things gan ta pop.”

“Aye,” says Danielle. “If it does it in the next twa minutes, let me know. Otherwise, I’m aff tae school.”

“Sure thing.”

Danielle sniffs. “It is totally cute. Innit?”

Calvin nods thoughtfully and abruptly straightens up. “But look, misses, come back tonight. See if yer mum’ll let you stay over in the vet’s barny.”

“How?”

“‘Cause we got more of the auld-country than” – he nods at the slathery thing – “Wee Eck.”

“Wee Eck?”

“Aye, name just came tae me.”

There is a pause.

“Dinnie look like that. ‘Eck’ is a perfectly gud name for a coo.”

 

***

 

It’s nine o’clock at night. Danielle’s watching Toy Story (thirty-second viewing and accelerating) on the battered, old telly the hands have stashed in the rail wagon. There’s a couple of bunks, and a Formica table, a couple of plastic chairs, and a microwave. This is where the hands (sometimes the vet) wait for cows, sheep, horses, maybe even the rabbits – who knows what – to go give birth and drop a slippery bag of new-born shluck, that kicks and struggles and looks generally beset. But later – after a good lick-blow-dry – it’s fluffy, and so cute it’s probably illegal.

Danielle’s seen the whole birth thing – the miracle – many times, right in the centre of town. Not bad for a lass from the schemes. It was horrible – ya widny believe it – and amazing, and definitely ick. Is that blood? Or just some purply-slimey-alieny thing? Like liver n’ bacon? Is it skin stuff? Yuch.

But mostly amazing.

Like seeing Lady Gaga at the castle: Was that meat? Plastic? Leather? Is she hermaphrodite? Well, whatever. You can just shut yer face – she’s awesome!

Twelve o’clock and it’s kind of spooky out there in the yard. Pitch black. Street-light sodium only reaches the edges of the farm. Downhill, somewhere, the buses rumble – past the duck pond and the little stretch of wild wood, and the nature garden, where the schools collect frog spawn and pick some of the wild plants. Between the farm-world and the real-world there is a ten foot, wire fence.

Calvin’s in the hut, and he smells faintly of chicken poo – a strange, sweaty-sock kind of smell. Danielle probably smells the same way, as they’ve been muckin’ out the chookery for hours. Feels like, anyway. “Well, if we’re hangin’ around,” Calvin had suggested, “may as well get useful.”

Anyway, now they’re eating Chinese noodles straight out of the foil cartons – mam hates that – and they’ve got ‘the forks of failure’, despite an enthusiastic (and literal) stab-in-the-dark with chopsticks, earlier.

One am-ish, Danielle awakes from a strange dream about zombies and a cow on a bike.

The cow was awesome at bunny-hops (cow hops?).

Don’t ask about the zombies.

Calvin’s shaking her shoulder. “Come on, sleepyhead. Out back. You’ll like this. Hat on.  Stop yawnin, you’ll catch a moth. Keep low and keep quiet.”

“It’s dark. Gawd.”

“Middle o’ the night, missus.”

“What are we lookin’ fur? Foxes?”

“Naw. Dinnie trip over everything will ya?”

Clunk! Clank! Kadunk!

“Blimey, it’s like the Tin Man oot o’ the Wizard of Oz, in a tin factory, collectin’ tin cans on – uh – tin can Tuesday. Shush! Watch oot fur that trough.”

And so on; in the dark. Until her eyes adjust a bit and she can see the broad outlines of the byres and sties, the paths about the place, and the wire fences with the animal names, facts, and faces, on laminated cards.

Calvin gives her waterproof a tug. “Naw, dinnie stand oot there, misses. Here. ‘Ahind that bin. Quiet.”

They’re near the cow byre, standing at the shed with the aquariums. A rabbit flops along in the run beside them: a stencil eating silhouette carrots and veg.

“Now, look over there. Tell me what you see.”

She looks. “Uh, shadows?”

“Anythin’ else?”

A bit more staring. Her eyes are playing funny buggers. “Still shadows?”

“Ach, it’s right in front of ya.” He points. “Just there. That.” Whispers, “See it?” And – just like one of those puzzles where you see a candlestick for ages and ages, and then, suddenly, two faces – she does see it: a tall figure, a woman, who walks strangely in a long green dress, with odd, jerking movements – all hip and sway – that none-the less, are elegant in a tumbling, pigeon sort of way. Her hair is long and so are those fingers, intent, as she is, on slipping the cord on the barn door where the cow and calf are secured for the night. That hair is probably a grey, coppery crayon, if you look at the other colours in the moonlight.

The dull ‘dump’ of the door closing can be heard across the paddock.

“Cummon, says Calvin.” His warm hand grips hers, rough as old sacking, and they make it – more or less intact – up to a barn window.

“I’ll give ya a boost. Now wha’dya see?”

Apart from spider webs outside – old, with husks of flies and daddy long legs dangling in them – and the wire lattice of the ‘school glass’ with its corroded wooden frame… nothing.

“Nothin’” is what she reports back, whispering all hoarse.

“Ach, look where the light comes in through the other window. Maybe o’er near the calf. An’ what’s this on yer wellies? You find all the shite o’ the day, or what?”

She giggles.

“And it looks up into that diamond of sodium, street-light yellow. A face of stone. A statue. Its skin blooms with that flowery stuff that grows on trees and boulders. Y’know, lickin. Lichen. Whatever. And eyes, as green as duck-pond water. This woman, has a wildcat look on her, lids narrowed, suspicious as hell, and that dress falls like a flood from that pale, grey, weathered stone of her, that none-the-less is achingly beautiful. Like that boy in sixth year, with the lips, or Danielle’s mother’s long, chestnut hair, when it’s really brushed, or the snow that time up at the big park, falling soft and silent, with the whole world wrapped away. It was wilderness, she thinks – something you could give yourself over to, though it’d like as eat you. This woman is wilderness. Her lips are slightly open, hinting at sharp canines, though nothing is seen; a wolfish prickle at the edges. Danielle has never caught sight of something wilder, more enchanting and more strange. Of course she kin see me, but she’s nae that bothered, is she? Or at least, there’s a pause as all things are considered.

She widney eat me…

Whid she?

“What can you see?” Says Calvin. “I’ve got cramp in ma fingers and shite runnin’ down ma sleeve. Can you –“

And there’s a thud of pinewood as the byre door clumps shut.

Lost it. 

The green dress flickers past the compost bins, and down the back of the greenhouses, then past the back wall, with the billowing ivy and the old door, until Danielle loses sight of the figure amongst the raspberry canes and apple trees.

“She’s quick.”

“Aye.”

Scraping down the wood boarding, Danielle splots back into the mud.

“Have we scared it off? Away, I mean?”

Calvin pushes out his bottom lip and shakes his head. “Naw. She’ll be back.”

“Where’s she live?”

“The auld oak, maybe? I planted a couple of new uns to make a wee grove. Could be the auld wall. So, whatdya’ think o’ that, eh missus?”

“Amazin’. I thought she was wearin’ a costume.”

“Aye, it’s what ah thought. A mask. Looks like a statue, dunn’it? Wearin’ a dress.” He shakes his head with a reminiscent look. “Lovely. Wild. Had to go ask ma ma, though, what it was; thought it was some ‘high-society’ lass breakin’ in the first night. But naw, she’s here for the coo.”

“What doin?”

“What they’ve always done. It’s a Glaistig.”

“A what?”

“Glaistig. Means, ah… one of them.” And he waves a hand in the direction of the trees. “Gaelic, probably. She should be oot in the wilds, but she’s come here tae keep the calf frae drinkin’.”

“That’s a bit…”

“Naughty? Naw. It gets plenty. But in the auld days, wi a herd an’ all, she’d make sure you got milk fur the big house. Stopped the calves gettin’ it all. And in return, you gie her some milk.”

“Really?”

“Aye.  So here.” And he hands Danielle a jam jar.

Even in the moonlight she can tell it’s full of milk.

“Pour it on that stane over there and we’ll call it a night.

“‘Kay.”

The lid comes off with a pop and tinny clatter, and she floods the top of the boulder. The sandstone’s slightly hollow so the offering forms a shallow, snow-white pool.

“Where’d you think she comes from?”

“Naw idea. Maybe like them city foxes in the bins: comin’ in closer to the city where they can, these days. An’ of course, we’ve got a coo (important) and Wee Eck.”

Calvin snorts at the returned look on her.

“It is so a brilliant name for a coo! Now back in that hut, or your maw will have strips off me, an’ you’ll be a grumpy wee shite in yer classes tomorrow.”

They stump back towards the beached wagon.

“Mornin’, though, I guarantee twa things: one, that milk’ll be done and gone wi, an’ it’ll naw be hedgehogs or cats. An’ twa, there’ll be goat prints everywhere.”

“Goat prints?”

Calvin laughed and batted the brim of her cap. “Christ, aye, wha’dya think a Glaistig walks on? Feet?”

July 18, 2011   9 Comments

Mei-Yin

“Y

our father’s up to no good, Tiff.”

Up above, the black clouds have gone all scribbly.

Tiffany, who is only six, stares at the cat, who is white and bleached, and is tied together like a bundle of chopsticks, without the tying up bits. No wool. No pipe cleaners. The cat used to be – probably still is – called Mei-Yin.

The little girl frowns. “A bad thing?”

“Yes,” says the cat, rubbing against her leg, tweaking her calf with its rough edges. Tiffany shifts her foot, but reaches down and the cat jumps into her arms. Somewhere inside its architecture – empty as a biscuit tin – a faint purr rattles.

Back that ways a bit, past the fences and dumpsters that look like huge cans of cat food, is the family compound. That’s where Tiff stays and it’s very, very naughty to be out – especially at night. This is what Papa would say: Bla, bla, bla… Tiffany, Bla, bla, bla – if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a millions times!

A ‘millions times’ seems a bit unlikely. But still.

Up that way – the way she’s headed, as soon as stuperific Mei-Yin stops clawing all those little loops out of her jumper – are dark buildings, more like cliffs in the absence of moonlight.

This is what Papa would say about that (you can draw on your own moustache and wag a finger if it helps with the maginings): You are not to go to where Papa works, okay! Play out back. Play with your medical kit. Dress up like a lawyer. Learn to be a heart surgeon or something – for your mother.

By all the levels of Diyu and all it’s insufferable horrors! Look, I got you this, okay?

Another thing crouched in a bamboo cage from the Yangshuo market, bright eyes shining with fear.

Be a good girl.

Tiffany yawns. The truth is, she doesn’t like those sorts of pets any more. They always die.

At least, they always used to.

The cat softly tweaks her hand with a sharp, broken tooth. “Keep it together, sleepy head. Watch your feet on that glass.”

It’s really, really windy.

The pair are soon surrounded by two wings of the Shimao Central Palace Apartment Buildings, rubble everywhere. It hasn’t been lived-in for twenty years. Papa says it was the bad qi – says it with a smile. Makes her want to cry without knowing why. Strips of cloth flutter on brown glass at a window, thorny plants grow from walls and the surprisingly grey rubble, the windows and doorways are empty faces. The gathering winds tousle Tiffany’s hair, and the spaces sigh in a rising and falling susserance.

The cat nods. “Follow the bird.”

Somebody has forgotten to stick the feathers on it. Unable to fly, the nightingale hops along, skittering through the dust devils. Tiffany puts her head down and barges through the gusts, intent on following. Her jacket crackles like a plastic bag.

The cat presses with a claw. “Don’t let them see you.”

The bad men. She sneaks past the black cars – like they’re Mr Wolf coming to get you, ready or not – the glass-polish filmed with dust; and then past the archaeological frames and diggers and mounds of excavated rubble. Jinhai Construction is written in English under Chinese characters woven through themselves like balls of wool.

The grey stone and plaster of demolition, is replaced by spoil-heaps of reasonably fresh earth bearing the odd memento of the building’s construction – corroded, pale yellow plastic; an old coke bottle – to a sudden stain of red sandstone and the huge blocks, that appeared two days ago, hauled out by a really cool, Meccano crane. These stones are so huge, so perfectly finished, they look like alphabet blocks.

Lights twinkle.

The bird vanishes through a hole in the bottom of a building where a window has been pushed through.  A string of bulbs rattle and clank together here like bottles on a line; ten green lanterns hanging on a wall.

A dull cat’s growl, calling for hush. “They’re down below. You know about ladder’s, right?”

“I think so.”

“It’s easy. One paw after another.”

The faint chug of a generator rises up from the guts of the building.

The cat drops down so she can descend. “Take that hat.”

She takes the white dome from the rusted metal rack. If she tips her head one way and then the other it bing-bongs on her ears.

“It’s big-big, silly billy.”

“Don’t worry. Safety first.” There is a faint whispering of cat laughter. “You do look like a shiitake, though”.

Hand-over hand, deep in concentration, she touches down with a splat. Down here it smells of mud and concrete, oil and stale water. Waiting by the ladder are the papa and mama mices, baby mices, two other kittys – once strays – Mr Parrot, the nightingale, Ken Fredric Chicken, the snake. They look like toys made out of teeth, bits of eggshell, and no glitter.

“We’re quite the little army,” says Mei-Yin. “Very well. This way.”

The clatter and whispering click of tiny bones rattles down the excavated passageway, on a ramp of compacted earth.

“Down we go. Hoppity hop. Tiff, don’t stand on anyone…”

It’s only now, toddling along in the darkness, that Tiffany wonders how bones might actually walk. For instance, where does the cat food go?

That morning, Mei-Yin had returned from the great pet shop in the sky. Six months ago, she had been tears and tissue paper, and a red plastic shovel.

Papa, do cats go to heaven?

Definitely not! (Pause) Ah… well, that is to say, certain Asiatic cultures… Certain postulations… (Pause) Okay, yes. Yes. (Some makings) There: a Christianic cross out of barbecue sticks. Now let me press on with translating. They said these pictograms were almost entirely tenebrous, but they’re Yangshao – 4800BCE. Very, very old.

(Sighs) Err, no… that’s much older than Papa…

Now be a good girl.

Privately, Tiff thought she could do much better with a snappy old crayon: looked like pictures of men messed up with wolves.

Anyways, today’s morning, Papa was away digging, as always and always.

Then there was something scratchy and funny and wise standing right there in the hut. Something that probably shouldn’t be.

Don’t frighten it! Don’t pull it’s tail!

So, standing protectively behind an old trainer, she’d crouched and whispered close to where she assumed an ear would be, “Where did kitty come from?”

The cat’s tail twitched. It whispered back, “Sugar and spice and all things nice. What makes your graveyard grow? Why the pyramid, of course.”

Tiffany was somewhat indignant.

The cat sniffed. “Bad kitty yourself! You can so get pyramids. Egypt’s not the only – Look, it’s down there. Buried. Under.” It patted the metal floor with its paw. Tang-Tang-Tang. “Can’t you feel it? Getting stronger?”

No matter. Every dead thing she’d planted at the back of that portacabin had come back, in one way or another, hauling itself out of the mud like a little white robot, smelling of bad milk.

The cat’s jaw creaked. “And why are we whispering?”

Now the earth underfoot gave way to stone, as they passed through a hole torn in a wall.

“This is the apex. Ah, the ‘top bit’. Of the pyramid; the pointy bit – Meow! Don’t look at those. Keep going.”

Tiffany’s eyes drift past black slabs of slate mounted in the red stone. Bones, horrible eyes, knives. The carvings look shiny in the electric light.

The cat whisks down the steps. “Really, there isn’t much time.”

These steps are so big it makes her legs go funny. Her hips ache. Can legs fall off?

The stairwell descends rapidly. It is a lot of stepping down, but there’s only one set of lungs to register the exercise. Fresh cables twist around the sides like strawberry laces.

Eventually, a dark space opens up. There are statues here, on either side, that have bodies like big fat ladies and their heads are like octopuses; like the ones sliding over themselves in the market tanks. In one hand, a brass lantern, intricately fretted like lace, in the other, a skull – this time a peoples’ skull.

“Okay, quiet as a kitty cat. That means you, Tiff. Mice, birds, spread out.”

The huge chamber, beyond, is filled with bony figures as far as the eye can see – warriors arrayed under great brass, tarnished gongs, the metal jade-green with verdigris. Armour is half sloughed from necrotic bone. Amongst this endless army, are great beasts, twisted with silver-turned-black wire – shapes that should never have been – in the yokes, chains and traces of huge war machines, and carved artillery, more demonic than dragon.

There is one arc-light in the distance, at a central circular set of steps. Her Papa working. Trying, it seems, even this far away, to fit a final piece. Tiffany likes puzzles, but this one reeks of mania. Chinese men in suits. Chinese men lounging with guns.

The dead pets scurry, hop and run through the armed ranks, flitting through the long shadows – minnows dodging the shark’s teeth and corrosive faces – heading towards the gathering of men.

One of the kittys – Little Qing, perhaps – is gnawing and gnawing at a thick trunking cable.

Just like him; if it is him.

Mei-Yin nudges Tiffany’s leg. “Stay off the crunchy bits. If you make a noise, you’ll be dead too. I have to go.”

“Don’t leave me!”

“Don’t worry,” says the empty face. “You know I always come back.”

The cat scampers away, with a creak of ligaments and the tottering tick-tack of upright paws.

Tiffany crouches, bug-eyed in the shadows.

Qing is arring and gnarring. Ages later, there’s a yowl followed by a bug-zap of a spark, that illumes the inside of the little cat, and then the lights go out. There’s a horrible smell of scorched bone.

Shouts of, “Wù sè!”

Screams.

An explosive gun shot. Automatic weapon fire clatters, followed by hollow-pottery explosions, and the rain-maker sound of bone fragments.

A hurricane of dust is blowing down the stairs; the wind wailing in the throat of the pyramid. Grit in her eye. “Mama!”

Something buts her leg.

By feel, she finds a smooth skull, then something metal and glass in the cat’s jaws. There is a rattle of teeth on chain as the links run through her fingers. At the touch of the metal, a chill runs through her – her nails and bones buzzing like an electric toothbrush.

“I got stuff in my eyes!”

A nip to her fingers. “Break it! Break it!”

“Why?”

“If you don’t, then, well… bad things! Bad things!”

“Zàn zhù zài fù jìn!” shouts an accented voice. “Shoot! Shoot!” cries another.

“The bad men,” gasps the cat. “Now or never, Tiff. Now or never. On the ground. Step on it, step on it!”

By feel she presses the metal under her shoe, almost falling over, almost stepping on her own fingers. Then she balances and fumbles upwards in the darkness. Hanging from a lantern chain, swinging like a monkey, she presses to her tip-toe.

Nothing happens.

Other foot on top. A little jump.

“Who’s there?” cries an ugly voice. A bullet burns through a brass belly, close by. The metal rings like a prayer bowl.

Then a big, big, bouncy, pointy jump.

There is a pop of crushed crystal and a blue flash outline of her sole. Her toes tingle.

“Well done,” says the cat with a strangled sigh.

The wind abruptly dies, to be replaced with the gathering roar of bone collapsing in the darkness, like a flood in a butcher’s yard.

“Kitty? Kitty?” But the cat’s voice is nowhere.

 

June 10, 2011   10 Comments