The morphine fog gave way to a dream that came on cat’s paws. Soft, and so eerily quiet was its coming, leaving only ghost-prints across the surface of Christopher’s soul, that he never heard or felt it till it pounced. When he slid out of his hospital bed, stood up and wasn’t attached to a drip stand there was a moment of confusion, but it passed rapidly. There was something that he had to do, something so full of hot urgency that reason itself evaporated.
Christopher got down on both knees and pulled an empty box out from under his hospital bed. Gods … there’s metal everywhere. How am I going to get rid of it all? In a hospital so full of instruments, metallic beds and machines with an iron content, his mission barely seemed possible. Despite this fact the thought of giving up never occurred to Christopher. This is our war against heaven, he told himself, as he frantically boxed up everything made of metal he could lay his hands on. These are our champion deeds done beneath the sea … There were scalpels. There was a drip stand that Christopher somehow managed to take apart and pack away into the box.
When everything in the room was hidden in the box, Christopher pushed the bed itself away towards a large cupboard at the side of his room. He began to stow everything metal in that cupboard, which, like the box, seemed to be bigger on the inside than the outside. Even while he did this Christopher couldn’t understand the mania he felt to get rid of it all. True, recovery had turned out to be so much less romantic than injury. But the modern world that he had so consciously rejected, this sterile world with all of its metal and plastic, had put Christopher back together, replaced and removed his fluids and prevented his infections. For a time its machines had breathed for him; its intravenous drips had replaced his lost blood, hydrated and fed him. Why this sudden new vendetta against it? Not knowing the reason didn’t prevent what happened next.
Christopher frowned as he felt the strange rumbling sensation in the floor. The door was blown open by a feral wind that rushed into the room as if it were in a hurry to claim him as its own. Taking a few cautious steps toward the open door, Christopher peered through into the exposed hallway. There were no moving nurses, no visitors talking and moving, only the eerie whistling of the wind in the corridor. Then Christopher spotted something moving along the walls, something green and spreading. It wasn’t until it got closer that he saw it was moss. Moss that was growing along the walls at impossible speed, ivy that was claiming the walls and invading the masonry.
The invasion of the green was subtle at first but then trees were tearing up the floor as well and the hospital corridor itself was being swallowed by a forest on the march. When the tangled green parasites and invasive grass reached Christopher’s feet he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He knew this feeling … He had no words for it, no way to wrap his logic around it, yet he recognised this feeling in every pore of his skin. When something moved and peeked out its head from behind one of the ancient oaks that had ripped through the tiled floor, Christopher’s breath caught in his throat.
“Eugene,” he whispered.
He could only see half of Eugene’s face, only one of his strange eyes that regarded Christopher from behind the oak with one of his expressions that Christopher could never fathom. A deep sense of Otherness prickled its way across Christopher’s skin but his heart was beating too hard with excitement for it to become a cold sweat of fear. Eugene didn’t reply or even smile but his eyes remained locked with Christopher’s. Very slowly, he raised one hand with his index finger extended and made the gesture of silence across his lips.
As soon as Eugene had made this signal he disappeared, and Christopher made a quiet sound of protest and sorrow. The frustration almost woke him. But just as he became aware for a moment of his physical body tossing and turning on the hospital bed something heavier seemed to enter his awareness, rooting him deeply into the dream.
On and on throughout the half-trance of blood-loss and morphine, Seth had been a constant presence throughout Christopher’s recovery. Of course Seth was here now; it seemed only natural. It was, after all, one of those friendships that felt like it had always been there. It was impossible to measure in months the time they’d spent together, two orphans of civilisation, two vagabonds of modernity, huddled together in a threatened patch of wilderness, trying to find a space of quiet quiet enough. Trying to find a patch of darkness dark enough, deep enough, that they could fall into it and stumble onto something real …
“I owe you an apology,” Seth’s deep, gravelly voice intruded on the eerie green world around Christopher with a new sense of shadow and mass that hadn’t been part of the vision until then. “I told you that magic would break your heart. I told you that hearts break like the waves of the sea, again and again in endless motion. Maybe I lied. Maybe the birth of the witch inside is a deathblow no one ever really recovers from. Because once you’ve seen what’s out there, over the hedge and out into the wilderness beyond, the world inside its borders and boxes will never satisfy you again. You’re stuck in between now. You don’t belong in the ordinary world and yet I haven’t made a full witch of you yet.”
“It never satisfied me anyway, the ordinary,” Christopher replied. “From the moment my eyes made contact with Eugene’s in the classroom that day the extraordinary had a hold on me. It wasn’t your fault.”
He wanted to ask where Eugene had gone but somehow he sensed that even Seth couldn’t bring Eugene back unless Eugene chose to appear.
“It’s more than that. I’ve failed you as a teacher. Sometimes I feel like you’re teaching me as much as I’m teaching you … There’s other stuff I should have told you but I didn’t. I’m not proud of myself.”
Here there was one of those pauses that Seth would so often make, of the sort that Christopher associated with the indrawing, holding and releasing of smoke from his cigarettes. Christopher watched Seth leaning casually against the ghost oak that Eugene had only so recently peeked out from behind. There was an earnestness in Seth’s pitchy eyes that disturbed Christopher.
“But here it is, anyway, the bastard truth in all its rags of finery. I wanted you. I wanted your light like a drowning man wants the log he’s holding onto. I offered you the Art to bring you to me. Eugene was right about me. I brought you into my darkness and made you a part of my nightmare. Then I let you turn a light on inside me that I’m still dazed by and reeling. I even let that little beast at you and brought all of our disasters roaring into focus.”
“Eugene isn’t a little beast,” Christopher replied quietly. This topic had always been an ongoing dispute between them.
Even though Christopher’s voice sounded quiet to him, Seth seemed to have no trouble hearing it. “Still harbouring illusions about your kid-guardian-angel-from-Hell? Even after he drained you almost to death?”
“They’re not illusions,” Christopher said, and then after a while he smiled. It was only a brief smile, and sadness lingered around its edges. “You taught me that I need to trust what I know in my guts and bones, and this is what my bones know to be true. When I was standing between here and there and Sophia was trying to bring me back, Eugene let her take me back to my body.”
“Even after he took you to the land beyond the mist you still don’t know what he is, do you?” Seth demanded, his arms folded and his eyebrows raised.
“I know what he is.”
“Tell me then?”
“I don’t have words for it. But I know in the pit of my stomach … he’s not like other people. I’ve always known that. I know what he is.”
“Well, people have words for it,” Seth muttered. “We just try not to use them in case it encourages Them to show up.”
“He saved my life. Sophia admits that. She says it was his power not hers that got me back in my body, and that he did it because he loves me.”
Seth grunted softly in acknowledgment.
“Hmm, the boy-succubus has feelings huh? I can’t say as I can tell; all their expressions look the same to me. I’ll have to take your word for it. Well, a good teacher can admit when he’s wrong … But I’m not a very good teacher and I’m probably not wrong, so fuck that. Everything I know about Them tells me they are dangerous as all Hell, unfathomable in their motives and not to be trusted.”
“I trust him with my life,” Christopher murmured, his eyes lingering over the place where the green-clothed apparition of Eugene had appeared.
Seth snorted with something between amusement and disgust. “Yeah we all saw that, mate. Have I told you lately you’re a pain in the arse? Anyway,” Seth said, holding up his hands. “This was meant to be me apologising to you for how much I suck, so here goes. I was wrong. I knew what you wanted the Art for, that you were driven, that something was eating you up, gnawing at your guts from the inside. As your mentor, as your friend even, I shouldn’t have encouraged it. But I saw my own obsession mirrored in yours. And my obsession sung with new power in the light of yours. I should have been trying to save you, but I brought you into all of this to save me.”
“And how’s that working out for you?” Christopher asked sarcastically. If he’d been able, the faint smile on his lips would have been laughter. But for some reason he didn’t feel like his face was able to move enough to laugh.
Seth did laugh. “Oh, look, I don’t know. It’s been something, all right. Whether it’s salvation or not I don’t know; not sure if I’d know what salvation looked like if it bit me on the arse. But it’s been real. And Hell, that’s good enough for me right now. Nothing has felt real since Lucrece died, so I can only thank you. Plus there’s still time, ‘time for you and time for me before the taking of a toast and tea’.’”
“Feeling like disturbing the universe?” Christopher enquired.
“I think I’m fast losing that arrogance, my friend, to believe this great and terrible mystery with all its black holes and supernovas is disturbed by anything I do. But I think I still have to make it up to you for everything I did and didn’t do. Not sure what the going rate for opening your sister’s jugular vein is but I’ll do my darnedest. Then maybe afterward you can save me?”
“I don’t know if I’m in the position to save much of anything right now.” Christopher had to admit, there was something about experiencing your own physical vulnerablity, mortality and helplessness that really pushed along the growing up process.
“What? Have you got somewhere you need to be? I don’t think you’ll be keeping many appointments while you’re still taking a piss in a plastic bag. You just lie there and respirate.”
As soon as Seth said the words ‘lie there and respirate’ Christopher became aware of his body and his breathing. He became aware of the drip he was attached to and wanted to point out Seth’s factual error in that he no longer had a catheter, but he couldn’t speak. It was like sleep paralysis. He could hear everything Seth said but he couldn’t move.
“When I told you I learned the Craft from my father that was a half-truth. I learned a lot of folk practices and superstitions from him but that wasn’t really where it started. See, this is the problem when you try to tell a story; the story tells you and the real place you need to start is never the beginning. It’s usually somewhere around the end.”
“Then start at the end. Tell me everything and anything that really matters and nothing that doesn’t, like always.” Christopher was fascinated to hear words in the air that came from his own mind, when he hadn’t even moved his physical mouth.
“I never told you anything real about how I found the Craft, or how it found me, because mystery is half of magic. Or maybe that’s bullshit I told myself. I wanted to create a kind of magic for you that would be what you were searching for. You weren’t looking for origins or lineages when we met. You were looking for a dead boy, for fallout fragments of your broken heart. You were looking for a human explosion that would set your comfortable little world on fire. Well, you got that. Between Sophia and I we’ve emolliated every bit of predictability, comfort or normality in your life. -Don’t say I never get you anything.
“Now I wonder, if I’d given you my origin story right from the start, would you have found what I had to offer greater or lesser? You knew full well that the real Art wasn’t for sale in the crystal shops. You knew I was the real oldschool deal. But it wasn’t like the 17th century coughed me up whole into modern day Salisbury. I watched TV as a kid like you did. It was my dad who first realised I was different. But it wasn’t some quaint woodsman’s intuition that tipped him off to what was going on. He’d seen it before. Seen others like me. When he worked it out he made some phone calls. That was when my mentor came along.”
“I really want to hear all of this, Seth. But why feel bad about not telling me?” Christopher asked. “Maybe it was me that should have asked more questions. I was so naïve and wide-eyed when we met … I think I did feel like the 17th century coughed you out whole into my world.”
Seth laughed but when he stopped laughing his voice came out sounding slightly grim. “I’m telling you this now for a very good reason, because you are right on the verge, and the witch that you are is probably about to explode into your life in a way you aren’t prepared for. Some people go through an illness or emotional trauma when their initiation hits. They dream of being dismembered and taken apart by spirits and something, some familiar spirit or god, puts them back together again, stronger than before. They wake up a witch. They wake up already one of the dead, someone who has died before they die and glimpsed what lies beyond. You just did yours in a bit more style than most people and got yourself shot.”
“So what I just felt, that sense that I’d never breathed before, all that giving up and giving over and then deciding on life again … that was my initiation?”
“Uh huh. Shit is about to get real, my friend.”
Christopher wanted to laugh again. If shit hadn’t been ‘real’ before he knew he should probably be terrified to see what it getting real was going to look like.
“Okay … Well, could you tell me whatever you think I need to know to be prepared?”
“Yeah,” Seth muttered. “Of course, it’s my job as your teacher.” But Christopher could sense the reluctance in Seth’s voice. “My mentor was a man with a vision for people like us. He had a vision that I’ve never really stepped outside the long shadow of. I’m not sure I want to. It haunts me. I know there’s unfinished business for me at Winthrope. I’ve known that for a long time but I guess I didn’t want to poke it too much, didn’t really want to know. I also know I need a lot more time with you. The key to our going forward lies in Vincent’s vision. But the thing is, my friend …” Seth’s voice trailed away for a moment then, as though he were not really sure he wanted to continue. “I’m afraid of his vision, truly afraid, as I’m not of many things. I’m not ashamed to say it. I’m afraid of what it will do to us when you know of it. You may yet drive me out of the hedged and fenced places with a stake in your hand and a flaming brand. But knowing that as I do, valuing your friendship above all living things, and even knowing how close we already came to this blowing up in our faces, I can no longer excuse keeping silent.”
Sophia stopped walking quite suddenly. The styrofoam cup in her hand steamed and her sudden halt caused her to spill some coffee on her hand. She didn’t flinch much. The figure standing outside the door to Christopher’s room concerned her far more than the minor burn. As was always the case with Sophia’s second sight, she thought at first that a living man was standing by the door to Christopher ward. But then she’d realised he was naked, which made it far less likely that he was alive.
She held her breath. This was why she hated hospitals. Few places had so many revenants as hospitals. But the fact was, it wasn’t what he was so much as who he was that sent cold chills running all the way to her extremities. Even after being able to see ghosts all her life, Sophia had never really worked out what it was about her that caught their attention. Could they tell somehow that she could see them? Was it because she was staring and everyone else was looking right on past them? Or did they somehow sense her fear? She had a cold sort of sensation that it was probably the latter.
The shade turned to her. Sophia hadn’t needed to see the gruesome neck wound to know it was Josh. The insidious truth was that she recognised his naked body from the days when they were intimate. His deathly appearance made that fact seem somehow macarbe in retrospect. With an effort of will she tried to stop her breath coming faster. If any nurses or patients walk past they’re going to think I’m balmy! Sophia jumped when her new mobile phone started going off. Immediately Josh’s revenant began backing away from the noise.
“And Seth wonders why I love phones and gadgets and lights so much,” she muttered to herself as she took out her phone. Like so many other confused spirits that had died violently or suddenly, Josh would just be another one that she would walk away from when she left the hospital, she told herself. She watched him shamble away down the corridor out of sight. And yet, even as she told herself that that was his fate, something in her felt this was incomplete. Surely that isn’t all I have to do? Let Christopher and Seth kill him for me and then pretend I can’t see him? Let the problem wander away down the hall because someone’s on the phone …
For a moment she almost didn’t want to answer the call. As though answering it was tacitly saying that she rejected the witch she was becoming in favour of distractions. But then she saw it was her father.
“Hey, Dad,” she said, wedging her phone between her ear and her shoulder so she could talk to him and drink her coffee at the same time.
“Just checking up on you, Pumpkin. Even though that bastard’s gone now you must know how much you scared your mother and I?”
Sophia smiled with reluctant affection for her father, but then had to bite back a sarcastic remark about how her mother had a funny way of showing it. Today she didn’t let it annoy her that her father always said ‘you scared your mother and I’ whenever something bad happened to her, as though it was her fault rather than her stalker ex-boyfriend’s.
“I’m fine, Baba.”
Sophia smiled again. She had never known her parents to like any of her boyfriends so much as they seemed to like this one. Maybe it had something to do with Christopher having saved her life and not being a sleaze or a thug, she thought.
“He’s fine too. Well … he’s coming along okay. It’s going to take time but the doctors are happy with his progress. Look, I’ve got to go. I’ll call you back. Love you.”
Sophia ended the call and put the phone in her handbag as she headed into Christopher’s ward. When she noticed Seth she didn’t jump at all. His presence was no surprise to Sophia. He had been at Christopher’s side almost as often as she had.
She closed her eyes because she didn’t want to see Seth so much as feel him. Her sleeping and waking hours were haunted by the shapes and sounds of dead men. Her mind was a place that straddled worlds, however much she’d tried to deny this fact all her life. It was only now that she was trying to refine how she used this extra sense, trying to work out if there was a difference between this spectral image of Seth and the visitations of the dead. She also wanted to know words for why the apparition of Eugene looked different again to Josh’s shade. There were so many questions …
As she sat beside Christopher’s bed it seemed that normality was something she no longer cared to cling onto. The fear that had driven that urge had mostly fallen away. Ever since Christopher had first taken tight hold of her and told her, ‘everything is going to be alright,’ the dreams where she was slamming and locking doors had stopped. She had felt his strength, not just the man’s strength in his body and hands, but something that came from belief, from conviction. Maybe it was a form of insanity to be as certain as Christopher was of some things ... Sophia had never felt certain about much of anything; she only knew that he had chased away those dreams when nothing else ever had.
Sophia remembered the dreams. She had spent her whole life running, both in her mind and with her body. Always closing doors and bolting them, slamming gates, or frantically patching up holes in walls or hedges by stuffing them with handfuls of grass. There were always too many holes, though; the wind would blow through, covering the lawn with the debris of the forest. The dead would poke their pale, clammy hands through those holes like so many dead leaves and grab at her ankles as she ran. The dead were a pervasive rising damp.
Christopher and Seth had come with their own ghosts. But they, at least, had understood. Christopher looked upon what happened to her, this thing that she could do, or was, as a thing of wonder rather than terror. She could never forget how he’d looked at her when Seth first revealed that she had the Sight. It was like I was something wonderful rather than just some crazy bitch.
There had been a terrible fate waiting for her. She could never decide exactly how it played out. Had it been Josh with his gun, coming for her as he had that day, and perhaps killing her if Christopher hadn’t intervened? Christopher seemed to have this power to change the course of bullets that had been marked for her long ago, to attract them to his own body and to close up the wound of fate’s gaping maw, leaving things changed and rearranged. He seemed to disrupt things, to throw a wild-card of chaos into the fateful weave of things.
Or was the true doom that had awaited her at her own hand? She pondered. Sometimes in the past, she had pictured herself at the end of a long pursuit, fleeing from her own shadow. She was alone, wet, cold, teetering on a rocky outcrop near the coast, swaying, waiting, and trying to find the resolution to jump. Afraid of falling and yet more afraid of leaving the sanctuary offered to her by the dizzy drop below. To let go was unimaginable in its intensity and finality, but to step away … to allow the pursuit to continue, that was unthinkable. Sometimes that image was so clear it was like a memory, as though it had really happened to her. In her imagination she actually felt the crumbling rocks under her fingernails as she held onto the sheer cliff-face and wavered.
“You saved me, one way or another,” she muttered aloud.
It seemed certain that if Christopher hadn’t come, and Seth too, that she wouldn’t be there to stand by this strange young man’s bedside as he dreamed fitfully. Even Seth, who at first had made her feel as if spiders were crawling on her skin, him too she felt a kinship with. Sophia knew they were exiles together. Creatures of the other-side of the crumbling stone walls, the hedges, and the bolted doors…
If the darkness inside Seth that yawned and came out roaring, seeking to be fed at times, beyond the confines of the frontal lobe and all social rules, if that darkness chilled her inside, still she couldn’t help but recognise herself in him. So, knowing that he was there in the room, speaking with Christopher, she didn’t need to suppress a scream as once she would have. Making a conscious effort not to eavesdrop on their conversation, she occupied herself with a magazine until Seth’s ghostly voice fell silent. When she couldn’t hear him but could still feel him, Sophia got up and went straight to where she felt him in the room. She pressed herself deep into that cold patch in the room as though she meant to embrace him.
“Seth, what do I do now?”
“Tell Christopher he can’t help me yet. It’s not time. Get him well; get him out of this place.”
His words felt like a movement of chill draft on her neck.
“Are you going to die?” she whispered.
“Don’t know if I’m going to get that lucky. Let’s wait and see, huh?
“Okay.” At that she felt his presence begin to fade out. “Seth!”
“I trust you. Despite everything … I trust you still. I need you to know that.”
Seth merely inclined his head in a shallow bow and was gone. Sophia was left with a strong feeling of relief. There was something partial, something more like the shade of a dreamer or a witch in flight about Seth’s ghost. It didn’t feel as potent as she’d have expected Seth to feel as a dead man. Maybe he will still wake up. Sophia formed a wordless sort of prayer to the old gods of Artyn and Catrin’s people, for Seth to come back to them. Without him Christopher and I are magical orphans. Without him I have no idea what comes next, and no words to give to the shadows that follow me.
© 2014 -Lee Morgan
© 2014 -Lee Morgan