ohans Montefiore, scribe to Louis IX of France, monastic scholar, warrior of the most holy church, and, of late, a London taxi driver, cannot remember a day without the curse burning into his flesh. It is a harsh and twisting thing, that bends his body and blurs his wits. It sends him staggering into the late hours, drunkenly distorted, until he regards the night as a thing that has crept upon him.
With a tremulous hand, he holds a razor to his throat and rasps away his whiskers. The tremor and the stiffness in his fingers make the manipulation feel distant, as if the razor’s handle were held, perhaps, in a farrier’s clenching tongs. So much so, that he fears cutting himself, and lays the blade in the sink with a clatter, and stares into the mirror. His hands are jointed automata, his eyes are red-rimmed, his stubble hangs in shreds.
Around his neck, at his wrists and palms, black script curls from under his shirt like calligraphic ivy, as if in overflow from the borders of a hefty and unreadable Gothic bible. And that is partially true, though the heavy serifs illuminate an unyielding fate that is slowly consuming him; a fate cast up in words in 1241, and a slashing gesture in Echelob’s Garden, where the only flowers to grow were those of a drawn-out death.
It is not a death of honour. Not a death to be proud of. It stinks, it suppurates, it sneaks over the hills and sunken crevasses of his skin, bone and muscle, like a winged shadow. It trips him maliciously in the gutters, reacts badly with food or wine, or even just a happy thought, or some imagined ease, that quickly flits to dis-ease. At times like this, his heart flutters like a wounded bird.
Truly there is no worse curse than being consumed by the word of God.
While the television whines in the flat next door, he thrusts his head through the necklace of charms and talismans, and feels the assorted leather thongs and silver chains clench the skin like a wreath. Then a scarf, wrapped around his old man’s neck like a bandage.
The paper in his hand is folded neatly and placed in his breast pocket. It is a road map to the church; a map he found on the Internet. That printed parchment is to be admired as a miracle, remembering the pains he had once taken to achieve something even half its worth, with goose-quill and mineral ink. His bag of tools – the old gun, shinied through use, the coarse salt, the relics – he leaves on his bedside cabinet. Then out into his last night as a hunter, unless he walks hand-in-hand with a deed so dire, he fears not only for his own immortal soul, but all souls; all after-lives.
The darkness is colder than the fingers of Hell, and the pattern writhes upon him, as if finding new ways to fit him more snugly, like a key in a lock. Let it try, he thinks. This door is not for opening.
A short walk away, a builder’s skip is filled with bathroom trash and the lolling tongue of a double mattress. Next to it, dusted with debris, is Johans’ black cab. He has driven one cab or another for seventeen years, though this one is beginning to reek of oil and diesel. Taxis get you places, though, and there are black tarps and shovels in the boot.
He drives to the church, hauling up in a narrow road a block away. He drags himself out of the driver’s seat and lurches past Georgian façades and iron railings, glimpsing the street sign at the next junction. He reads the word Hope, but doesn’t catch the other words. Hope Road, Road to Hope, Hopeless Road? It could be any of them.
And now, to the Church of St. John, shaking his head, inserting a crowbar into the varnished wood of a small, heavy door leading down to the crypt, while lights flicker in the windows above, and the dull murmur of the Sephaelites comes through the stained and faceted glass, praising the Gods of Equinox, the Sisters of Abbon – the old-fingered maids who wrote their demonic poetry through the substance of things; through the fate of men.
And now on the spiral stair surfacing to the yellow glow of candles, and now a creak upon the balcony stairs, nodding to those other parishioners – children, families – so modern, listening to the litanies that swirl around as for any other religion, but whose ways are written into lost fragments of humanity.
The words are echoes of tragedies, from long ago. In his own time, it had been the blessing of Her Lady, in the garden of black roses, run to seed, while the yeomen had come with pike and swords, and Marguerite Von Helenset had smiled sweetly, hand on his breast, and cut with the first gesture.
Death would have been better, as time itself swirled like soup.
The child next to him plays on a little machine instead of listening to the priestess, below. Good for you, he thinks.
Then another parishioner arrives. Sits beside him. A young girl. Pale skinned. Johans smiles in relief.
“What is it Johans? Why come here of all places?” The same sort of writing crawls at her neck, the black passage growing, the word of the Sephaelites ready to crowd her out. Ahh, Lydia, he thinks. Why did you have to be the last living relation of Von Helenset?
“You promised,” she adds with a trace of irritation.
Johans doesn’t answer. He is trying not to stare at the writing on her hand, which flexes as her tendons flex. One touch, and their stories would, in all probability, merge, scribbling from finger to palm – whipping around like razor wire – to what ungodly part of the scripture, what written fate, he could only guess, perhaps all that would be left was flesh ready to be culled for the living book. But if she were to die… why then, this passage would unwind…
He speaks softly. “I cannot understand this world or the people in it. I thought once, that I had been sent to Hell. A hell, where cars and complexity win, where iron birds fly, where men toil on in ignorance of the Sephaelites. And you and I are bound.”
Lydia nods. His words are well understood. “Sometimes, I wonder if we are merely observing the story or have already been written into it.”
“One follows the other. Chapter and verse.” Johans glances once more at that spiral of words on her wrist. Doubt floods in. Perhaps they would both be killed in a flash of revelation. A cruel fate for a man who had come to kill a witch, so long ago. She had been too clever; he too ignorant of what she intended and what it would mean.
He speaks gently. “These words are too big, too heavy for flesh to bear. We carry a cruel sentence you and I.”
She laughs miserably at his multiplicity of meaning. “You wish to return?”
“Yes, to my own time.”
“At any cost.”
She flinches. “Why?”
“Because,” he says, mindful of the darkness crawling on his back, like a spider with a thousand cursive legs, “I have read how this story ends.”
Lydia stares at him, dumbstruck. “You have?”
“How? By the goddess… what… what does it say?”
Johans utters a hollow laugh. “Fate was never my friend and now it rides me like a thoroughbred.” He pats his own back. “I have it here. Broke a black mirror and read what I could with a shard. Cut my hands to ribbons. I couldn’t understand, initially, what I was looking at. But now I do. I was too close. It was only one word, covering the whole of my back. 15,000 characters or more.”
“I’ve never heard of that. Ever.”
Bitterly, he crumples a handful of his own shirt cotton. “Believe this: read it, or touch it, and you’d be a handful of ash. It’s the last word; the Ohmata.”
Down below, the catechism stumbles; the priestess halts her reading and scowls at the sparse congregation. Johans notes the woman’s orbs flash white; corneal cataracts uselessly flitting around the room. Blind, then – a great blessing for the faithful – the inevitable fate of those who read the words of the Nameless God writ large; a true priestess of the Sephaelites.
After a long and pregnant pause, the woman clears her throat, squats, and once more leans forward. Her fingers reach reverentially for the skin-and-bone-scripture of the man who is naked and dying in front of her; each ‘book’ may only be opened once. She gropes for understanding, reading as the blind must read, while on the balcony, the word at the end of the world awaits, inscribed on an old and stubborn man. So close, she could almost touch it. Unseeing, her voice drones on in the candlelight.
Johans lets out a breath he didn’t even know he was holding.
Lydia looks down at the pew in front of her and mumbles, “We’re all going to Hell.”
April 1, 2011 12 Comments
want a real fairy!” says Jess, stamping her foot. A small piece of Lego pings away.
Her father, Jonathan, is not at all keen on this tone of voice. It is what – as far as he is concerned – leads to a ‘stramash.’
“Claire, you deal with her,” he says. “I’m off to the club.”
“Great,” says Claire.
An hour later, and Jess is sneaking along behind the sofa. She has prepared a Little Miss Sparkle Barbie outfit stuffed on a dolly made of sticks, and to this she has attached a noose with a long, trailing string. The ‘decoy fairy’ is now looking disconsolate at the top of the family Christmas tree – one of those expensive ones, from Fortnums.
In a plump hand, Jess has the string end. She is ready to pull this really, really, really, fast. Fast like a silly kitty when you pull its tail and you laugh a lot! That’s how fast!
“Come on, noo-noo,” she mutters, gap-teeth whistling – the ‘terrible twos’ and the elusive tooth fairy have not been kind.
Five minutes of patient waiting later – which is about five hundred years as far as Jess is concerned – and nothing has stuck its head in the tempting noose, even though the dolly has a smile drawn on it in red crayon, and clearly wants to be friends.
“Dickilus, noo-noo. Dickilus!” She stomps off and returns to add a tiara. This requires an interesting trick, balancing on an antique steamer trunk, a box of toys, and the flatscreen TV. Dickilus! – how many sparkles does she have to add? Stupid noo-noo!
This is much harder than last year.
Finally, there is a flutter of wings; a rustle in amongst the chocolate, tree-decorations (followed by a disgraceful tinkle of foil slipping from branch to branch); and then a snarling fury at the very top of the tree.
Whatever is up there is clearly territorial, and isn’t about to allow some other ‘Jumped up be-atch troll queen spend another second at the top of her tree, thank you very much’.
When the fairy dust is really flying, there is a tempting tug on the string.
Too soon. Jess has made this mistake before and only ended up with a tiny nut-shoe and a smear of butterfly dust.
Now! Jess gives the string a vicious pull. Yoink! There is a puff of fake snow at the top of the tree and then the snarling begins.
The other end of the string clatters through the fairy lights, blunders around the lampshade, dislodges cobwebs, patters – yowling – along the tops of the curtains, but now Jess is reeling it in; her musical fishing rod playing ‘half a pound of tuppeny rice,’ plink by plonk.
Time to fire up the plastic stove and find Mr Bear.
Jess has the noo-noo sellotaped to a Cindy chair, next to the disappointingly crunchy remains of last year’s noo-noo. She is ecstatic.
“Noo-noo want coffee or tea? Noo-noo is Jessica’s best friend! Silly Noo-noo. Okay, mummy will pour.”
The ‘noo-noo’ says nothing – it’s too busy trying to gnaw its way out of a sarcophagus of sellotape. There is only terror in its eyes.
December 17, 2010 13 Comments
started a myth today. I told my friend Elwood about the old house you can find if you walk up the hill and out of our town and keep walking for a few miles, where, on the right-hand side, along a line of trees, you’ll see an old house next to an overgrown orchard. If you walk there, you find a lake amongst the trees, with a sluice that is nothing but corroded machinery, and the house itself which has empty windows, and doors, and is full of tumbled plaster; and the orchard, where damsons grow, yellow and sweet, if you care to harvest them as summer turns to autumn.
I drew the house – it was similar to one I discovered next to my own home village – and I gave Elwood the picture.
He asked, “Who is the old woman in the window?”
I pretended to be surprised, and said, “Eh? What woman?”
Of course, he pointed, and we both looked together – both, it would seem to him, for the first time.
There is a definite old woman in the far window. She is a blue smear, but she is there.
Elwood is thrilled by this ghost in the picture, and shivers. “That’s amazing! That old woman just appeared in your picture! We should give it to a museum or call Ghost Busters or something.”
I downplay this, a little, saying that there is a curse attached to the old place, and maybe that applies to the picture. “You aren’t supposed to go there, and you’re not supposed to take photographs.”
“But your picture is drawn in crayons,” points out Elwood.
“Yes, but, the old woman is there, isn’t she – in the picture.”
This circular logic is self evident and Elwood agrees to keep the mysterious apparition quiet; just between us. We don’t want to annoy the old lady; make her curse us. That would be really, really bad, we decide.
The next day, Laura asks me about the picture. Her best friend, Clara, was talking to Rachel, who got it from Neil, that Elwood said I had a haunted picture.
I sigh dramatically, and say I cannot show her the picture on account of the curse.
“Curse?” she says, eyes wide, nervously – but excitedly – turning the ball in her hands.
I tell her what I say Elwood told me. “At first, I didn’t believe it either.”
“Oh,” she says, looking around nervously, head bobbing, as if the old lady will come to school right there and then and take her away.
I am intrigued by this idea, so I tell her this happened at another school with a similar picture of the house: that a kid who looked at it – just like her – got kidnapped by the old lady.
Laura is too scared now to look at the picture. Faced with my theatrical fumbling at my satchel to find it, she screams and runs away.
She comes back five minutes later.
“Who drew it?” she asks, her head touching mine, as she examines the picture I have reluctantly produced – having had it ready all morning, waiting impatiently for someone to ask.
“I don’t know. Some boy I think; from another school.”
“The one who disappeared? The one who got taken by the old woman?”
“Maybe. That’s probably right.” I shake my head and bite my lip. “It would make sense.”
There is a picture, which, if you look at it, an old woman will come and take you away. The fruit in her garden is children’s heads – those are in the picture too.
My yellow damsons look a little like heads, I guess. Because that is what Laura tells Clara.
Some bigger boys come to ask me about the picture in the afternoon break, saying they think I made it all up; that stupid, magic pictures with ghosts in them don’t really exist. But they are furtive and keen to look.
I realize these older boys won’t believe the story if they see the picture. It is not powerful enough.
I tell them that the picture has vanished. I mean that I lost it. This is greeted with derision. One of them wants to search my bag, another to punch my face in, so I offer to tell them the story instead; of the old woman, as it was told to me by another boy. Not me.
This is met with immediate interest. I tell them they can’t tell anyone. They have to promise. They solemnly swear this, crossing hearts and hoping to die.
There is a woman who lives in an old house, on the outside of town, who has a garden of children’s heads and whenever one is ripe, she plucks it and eats it. And that same day, a boy or girl will be taken from school – kidnapped – but not one of the younger kids; one of the older ones, if they are naughty or punch faces.
“Kids just like you have already vanished,” I say. “Nobody knows where. She’s a cannibal…”
A boy one year down from me left to go to another school, but some kids think it was the old woman.
There is no picture now; she doesn’t need a picture.
Five kids came up to me today and said, they heard this story which is totally true about this old woman who comes to schools and takes children away and has a garden with kid’s heads in it, and she eats them! “We even found her house!”
When a new girl – Trinny – starts the same afternoon, she confirms this, saying that it totally happened at her old school, and two kids have already gone missing. “All they found were wet footprints – from the lake.”
December 3, 2010 20 Comments