By Patrick Bayele
The girl was shaken out of her slumber by a piercing, intrusive shiver. Her swollen eyes were raked with fatigue, and opening her eyelids was as an endeavour of immeasurable difficulty. Whilst trying to harness her strength to rise her head from her bag, which had become a makeshift, yet incredibly uncomfortable pillow, a flicker of the past glinted in her mind. She remembered the afternoon hikes with her father to grab firewood from Acensia forest; the crown of a glimmering lake, brimming with tadpoles and rare, pink-and-yellow lyra fish, which they would spend weeks trying to catch. On one occasion, she and her father danced around a fire in the moonlight, with rain pattering on the leaves, singing songs that her mother wrote in her sketchbook. This was passed down to her, along with a radio that she built during the Year of the Blackout, in an ill-fated attempt to piece the stray fragments of her community together. It would play songs of the past which she would sing with her loved ones — songs of a gleaming, immortal future. It was the only device that contained any sort of life during that crestfallen year, and was rumoured to have worked without batteries. The girl had only heard the word ‘bliss’ in fairy tales, or from her father’s stories of the early-day sanctuary; that small prism of time in the forest was the only experience she could possibly attach to that starving word. Her spine would curve in on itself during those trips back down the hillsides, heaving logs of wood, drenched with sticky tree sap, which they would burn to heat up the furnace for the courtyard canteen. These hikes took place around two years before The Seige, when the Sanctuary was on the fringe of insurrection, whereas now, it is engulfed in merciless bloodshed. How difficult those trips were; how incomparable they are to the might required to lift these heavy, worrisome eyelids of hers.
‘The brother or the sister?’ he exclaimed. With a single hand, he nonchalantly referred from one to the other without so much as a wobble in his words. He stood atop the stage, strapped tightly in a washed out grey coat, thickened with beige fur, and combat trousers which jangled with bullet casings. The crowd was humming in despondent reluctance — scruffing their overgrown beards and carving their sooty nails with their teeth, as they ruminated over who they were prepared to watch die. He was growing impatient; his silent smile twisting into a carnal snarl; and started to wrestle their non-compliance into submission. ‘To me, their sins have equal weight. You will decide who pays for them.’ The girl swam through the muscular pillars of legs, clutched herself onto a handrail and thrusted herself forward, so she could rest her flabby chin on the railing. She was concealed within the bodies of two faceless men. Two tendons jutted out of her neck, as she peered at the two individuals. It felt as if her head was arrested, and she noticed that her necklace, an amulet of a wooden clock, was caught in the trouser latch of the man stood to her right. Ever so delicately, she removed her necklace from the latch; he cranked his head, his neck grinding and popping with each gradual twist, and looked down towards the disturbance. When he acknowledged the girl, he grunted, and perched over the handrail. He seemed as if he was cutting up his words in his head. The man on her left had their arms crossed with their mouth ajar, yet, they appeared to not be breathing.
‘We’ll take the brother!’ a man yelled.
‘Take anyone but the girl!’ a woman cried, her words disappearing into themselves, as if she lamented herself for assembling them.
‘Let him swing and that’ll be the end of it’ said the man on the right — each word feeling like a blade of rotten ice drilling into the girl’s temple.
She suddenly wrenched her eye lids apart. She knew that he was coming. Every settlement within the 40 mile stretch between the Sanctuary in the Western Embankment and Morveya’s peak had been set alight; reduced to hacked and battered bones under his wrath. The faint ringing of gunfire had now become a hideous cacophony of dying words being belted out for clemency. The rising pillars of smoke which designated the sites of his massacres were no longer lingering miles beyond, but now within running distance. These menacing plumes would stare at her furiously wherever she went. She once had a nightmare of one of these plumes, with glowing red eyes, pointing out her location whilst screeching her name. With a flick, the plume struck her with a bolt of merciless lightning, and without a breath to beg for mercy, she was brutally blown to pieces. She cried for hours when she awoke from this. The fear of this nightmare rendered her incapable of movement for two days; compromised by her own terror.
She felt an intense strain along her neck, and the throbbing pang jolted her brain. Using her hand to support herself, she cautiously sat up, and squealed with a yawn. She rolled herself over onto all fours, and felt each vertebrae in her spine mush and bend as she stood upright. She turned her gaze to the entrance of the mouth of Mt. Klefton, and stumbled towards it as snowflakes flew in and rested on the freezing ground, upon which she stood bare foot. She began to pick away at the flaky skin which was beginning to crust on her thumb. She lodged her thumb in her mouth, chewed away at its rocky skin, and swallowed the small, expired chunks. She glared out, leaning her hand on the smooth obsidian surface of the mouth of Mt. Klefton, into the depths of the Second Winter. The landscape was incomprehensible, awash with a ferocious blizzard; it seemed as as if the horizon had folded itself upward and cancelled itself out. The mouth of Mt. Klefton was the last habitable safe haven beyond the skirtlands of Morveya’s peak. Yonder way was the Red Road — notorious for leading to The Nowhere. There have been rumours of wistful adventurers plummeting off the edges of the earth, and their screams being encapsulated in cursèd fossils, called Orange Shards, which can only be located in the depths of The Nowhere. Rogue bandits sell these for a hefty fee within The Metropilata, to members of the State-class who wish to boast of their worldliness to other socialites, so they can enshrine themselves and set themselves apart from the members of Contra-Cell, who dwell within the Voids of The Metropilata. Whether these Orange Shards were real or not was unknowable. What was certain, however, was that between here and The Nowhere, there was no where else to hide.
From afar, all you could see was the man’s chest puff, as he coughed out a petulant laugh. He conjured a tortured glob of mossy phlegm from his nose and launched it out of his mouth like an errant meteoroid, causing it to crash and streak along the stage. He sauntered over to the brother, with the wind wheezing, swirling around the crowd, their bones chattering endlessly, their breath merging into a foggy cloud of remorse. He gripped his chin within his thumb and index finger — two pincers coated in leather — and spun his chin around within his grasp. ’Do you think power is selfish?’ he muttered on to him, with flecks of saliva drizzling over the brother’s eyelids. ‘Or the birthright of a chosen few?’ The brother remained mute, unswayed by his rhetoric. Enraptured with contempt, the man asserted ’If I take your life, what do I gain?’ He began to crush and dislocate the brother’s jaw within his hand like a vise, expectant of a plea for mercy. The brother winced as he felt the vessels in his gum puncture, with blood bubbling up and dribbling over his lips. ‘You can take what you want’ the brother responded — the words clawing themselves out of his dirty, gritted teeth — ‘but you will be given what you deserve.’
She once had a nightmare of one of these plumes, with glowing red eyes, pointing out her location whilst screeching her name.
The girl pondered for a while. To embark into the Second Winter and venture along the Red Road, where death was prolonged; or to stay within the mouth of Mt. Klefton, in which death was inbound. She took one step into the snow, digging her teeth into her lips to withstand the biting cold. And then she remembered. Years back — not long before The Siege — a young girl, a writer, would read her stories which she had written; stories of inquisitors who would stop at nothing to find their paradise. Her tales were marvellous; simmering with danger, fantastical yet utterly plausible, and always wrapped up in a ribbon of benevolence. There was one story which she wrote, of a girl who lived in a wooden house within a metal world. The writer had written an edition of it especially for her, and gifted it to the girl for her seventh birthday. Not long after that, the writer departed the Sanctuary, and headed off along the Red Road, never to be seen again. The girl wondered if she had become an Orange Shard; or if she had found herself embroiled in a new war; or if she had found her paradise. She closed her eyes, and her mind became a kaleidoscopic haze of dreams; fields of tall, golden grass; trees which bore moons for fruit; animals which spoke a thousand languages. The only paradise she could think of was an echo of the past. Of her dad’s voice. The voice which murmured in her heart, and guided her thus far. His last embrace. His promise. Perhaps, paradise was here. In a flurry of idealism, she ran back into the mouth of Mt. Klefton, and began to rummage through the contents of her bag.
‘Where’s your blood?!’ said the sister on the other side of the stage. The man released his grip and swivelled around, losing his balance, dumbstruck by her infringement. The brother gave a raspy exhale as his head dropped — a gulp’s worth of blood spattered in front of his knees. The man looked out into the crowd, as if an onlooker would provide the answer to her provocation. ‘And what if I kill you?’ he delivered to the onlookers — taunting them. He had a sudden surge of spiky- skinned charisma, as he savoured the metallic flavour of his words and basked in the fear of their beloved. ‘This is not our end. This is merely where we begin’ the brother whispered, stealing the opportunity for the sister to defend herself, with the nook of a smile forming in his dimples. The man’s face drooped. The clouds were motionless, as if they themselves could not comprehend what had just been declared. The man returned atop the stage, glaring into the eyes of those watching.
‘I watched Roebuck starve to death at the height of the premiership.’
‘I caught sight of a group of Crassers slurping the marrow out of the bones of their own children.’
‘But never in all my years, have I witnessed something as hideous, as the man you have become.’
The brother regained composure. He raised his head defiantly, refusing to contend any longer in the man’s game of animosity. The man took two steps towards him — the floorboards moaning under the weight of his boots. He nodded. Without taking his eyes off the brother, the man gently placed his hand on a lever; his leather gloves stretched and squeaked as he delicately wrapped his fingers around it. ‘He wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me!’ the sister yelped. Her words scattered, failing to ensnare the man in even the most loose net of empathy.
With a sniff of his clogged nose, he murmured ‘Full circle’.
He violently yanked the lever, and the brother was hoisted up from his knees by the rope around his neck, causing him to hurtle upward. His feet began to scramble with the frenetic speed of imminent death. The sister howled, compelling a family of starlings to anxiously flee the refuge of a willow tree in the distance.
The only paradise she could think of was an echo of the past.
The mouth of Mt. Klefton had become aglow with the peachy flames of the fire, which she sparked with a broken match and a few scratchy twigs she picked up along the way. She dipped her hand back into her bag, hastily feeling out for the final segment of her crude radio; some copper wires which she stole from a disused car. She grabbed them and hovered the wires above the flame, and the copper began to melt, becoming rich, creamy-toxic solder. She pinched her nose to avoid inhaling the inky fumes, and glazed the tape recording device with the thin streams of liquid metal. She chuckled at the absurdity of her creation, but her heart started to race as she doubted its efficacy. Her tongue peeked out of the side of her mouth, as she inserted the tape recording device into the radio; it rested snugly within its frame, and when she closed the flap, it snapped firmly back into place. She almost began to dance, until it immediately became apparent that there was no way to play the cassette that had now become the radio’s heart, desperate for a beat. With two hands, she held the radio in front of her eyes, and noted a small hole where one of the radio’s screws was meant to be. Through the gap, the switch mechanism which turned the radio on and off could be reached. Her look of stifling confusion became a sigh of relief; the crunch of footsteps in the snow could be heard outside. Her head spun towards the source of the noise, triggering the shooting pains in her tense neck, making her right eye bulge and twitch. She blew out the fire immediately, and a moment of silence followed, which was curtly severed by the turbulent sniff of thick, chewy sputum.
‘Bring her back alive. I’ve got plans for her skin!’ a grizzly voice announced.
A shiny, beige canister happily bounced and skipped along the ground, whistling gleefully as it nestled itself comfortably in front of the fire. The canister bursted out laughing, before exploding into a cloud of smoke which swallowed her whole.
The brother was dead. His body dangled from side to side, and his silky face had become cold with blue, his facial expression inside out with fading agony. A burly group of masked soldiers, with the letters ’N.U.D.A’ stitched clumsily onto their bulletproof vests, came to retrieve the floating cadaver. One of these soldiers, with an automatic rifle holstered around his shoulder, raised a rusty pair of garden shears; struggling at first to pry the rusty blades apart; and began to tear away at the rope tightened around the brother’s neck. He shred the rope apart, causing the brother’s limp body to plummet on to the ground, and with an unceremonious cluster of thuds, the body collected itself into a twisted pile of limbs. The girl slumped down the handrail, her fingers clinging onto barbed grid fencing. The steel strings lacerated her hands as her sanity melted and trickled off her cheeks. The man on her right, who demanded the brother to be executed, made a concerted effort to avoid looking down at the girl beneath him. He awkwardly waddled around her and bumped into the man on her left, causing him to release his hot breath and gasp for frozen air. The crowd resonated with a discordant drone. Many of them tried to lighten the mood by reciting hollow aphorisms which negated their collective sense of guilt; some just stood there, rubbing crumbs of exhaustion out of their eyes, their blood simmering with regret. It started to snow. The sister was slowly shrinking into a vegetative state, and snowflakes began to blanket her body in a sheet of grief. The guard let the rusty shears fall from his hands, and they clanged next to the brother’s body; the brother’s strands of hair, adorned in soggy sequins, danced in the wind on his crispy scalp.
The guard shrugged his shoulder to adjust his rifle, and with two fingers, he prodded the man’s shoulder and uttered, ‘She’s still out there.’
‘I want you, Norman and Margossian. On me. Restless activity.’
‘And the sister?’
They both craned their necks to observe her. She had become a wonky shell coated in milky fur.
They whipped their heads back towards each other, and with a prepubescent grin, the man commanded the guard to ‘Get the boys’, yet within the space of a blink, his face reconfigured itself into a stare of venomous indignation. The man robotically raised a pointed finger, and let it linger within gouging distance of the guard’s eye.
With his voice the colour of cruelty, he whispered ‘And no Cipher. Do you understand me?’
‘You have my word.’
‘I’ve had it before and it wasn’t much use.’
The guard, having unfastened himself from eye contact, responded: ’Well it is now.’
As the crowd began to leak back into the streets, the girl, with her arms trembling, reached into her bag, and pulled out a crinkled book. The book cover became smeared in light red blood that was seeping out of stinging, thinly sliced wounds. Discarding any notion of foresight, she flung the book onto the stage. The man was alarmed; uncharacteristically so. He darted towards the book, and swung his arm across the stage to collect it before the guard could discern its title. The man wiped the book clean with his thumb, and scanned the illustration. His grip on the book loosened ever so slightly, and he gazed out into the crowd. The guard, perplexed and somewhat amused, could not help but think that, for ever so brief a moment, the man seemed threatened. Yet, he watched the man throttle the book down onto the stage, the tremor of which caused the sister to quake, her shell cracking open. The sister squinted her eye through the crack to identify the cause of the outrage, and she managed to interpret the spine of the book. The guard watched the man storm towards him, making him swell with terror, only to be promptly disarmed and shoved to one side, tumbling back, with the heel of his boot squashing the brother’s hand. The man firmly positioned the rifle between his arms and hip, and with the squeeze of a resistant trigger, the rifle began to bark with bullets. His entire body rumbled violently as he dispelled a full magazine of ammunition; the complicit onlookers, one misstep away from becoming a stampede, fled the courtyard, their screams peeling their throats. No one was hurt. The girl was nowhere to be seen.
He dashed the firearm to the wayside, and at the behest of the beast who lived inside him, he roared: ‘Find the girl!’
She could not breathe. Sputtering poisoned saliva, the girl stood amidst the blizzard, hunched over, clutching the radio with her fractured right hand. The mouth of Mt. Klefton was groaning, crumbling into itself, ablaze with ferocious heat and exhaling putrid smoke. She felt a carving sensation in the pit of her stomach; looking downward, she examined a bullet wound in her abdomen, oozing tainted crimson down her waist. She shook her head, and felt a liberating urge to give up. Upon this temptation of resignation, she could hear the sound of iron scraping against black stone. She collapsed into the snow, unable to muster the strength to maintain her composure. She sobbed woefully, as the deep crunch of footsteps in the snow rapidly increased in speed and volume. She rolled onto her back, raised the radio above her face and began to tinker with it. The man had now become visible in the blizzard; he growled as he lumbered towards her, refusing to blink, his eyes dilated with vengeance. The girl was, remarkably, too frightened to feel pain, yet in too much pain to feel frightened. She struggled to fathom the depth of his hatred, and it was only by gazing at his skewered countenance, did the solution reveal itself. With her left hand, she grasped the amulet of her necklace, and started to tug the amulet off her neck; it took her four wilful attempts to succeed. She placed the tip of the amulet; a little protrusion of wood that resembled a tree branch; and slowly slotted it into the gap. She began to cough dreadfully, hindering her steadiness, forcing her to start again. She re-inserted the little tree branch, and rotated the amulet, causing the tarnishing oak to croak. The man was within pouncing distance when she felt a gentle click. Her eyes widened with joy; within the bitterness of the Second Winter, her heart became warm with the moonlight of Acensia.
Reality was towering over her; his presence dismembered her nostalgia. She thrusted the radio within his reach, cowering in despair as they both became enveloped in dusted frost.
’20 years’ he said.
With a demonic grace, he swooped the blade. The radio dropped, wedging itself into the snow.
He unclasped his hand; the blade softly sinking into the carpet of ice; and fell to his knees. He closed his eyes, momentarily immersed in the eternal black.
And the radio murmured his name.
His eyes flittered open, and his body gravitated towards the device. With two hands, he lifted it from the snow and held it within a breath of his face. It continued to speak.
‘Hello? Are you there? Remember these? I never thought I’d make another one of these silly recordings. I’ve never been good at keeping my word. I can see you finished Molitor's opus. I’m glad you figured out the code.’
The voice in the radio cleared its throat.
'This is In Memoriam to the man I once knew. The friend I never made. It’s all about legacy, isn’t it? What the past unearths, and what the future tries to hide. All wrapped up in the continuum of time. A neat little ribbon. People do change. Yet, I think they try their hardest to stay the same. If you are listening to this, this means that my daughter's life is in your hands. Or worse still, she has already taken her last breath. She can’t speak. She was born that way.’
‘You know what drives me mad? I never took her to Mt. Klefton. She used to draw pictures of that mountain, tirelessly. In that sketchbook. She was mortified when she lost it. I don’t think she ever forgave herself for that. The poor girl. How could a girl so young, be so burdened? Funny. All those thoughts she kept to herself. And what she created. Just like her mother. If only she’d let me in. If only she would come out.’
The man held the radio tighter in his hands. He started to cry.
‘I don’t know what I regret more. You not dying, or me trying to kill you in the first place. To what ends, do these means bring us to? I deserve to burn. For what I've done to you. But please. For the love of God. Whatever 'God' is. Please. Don't kill my daughter. I am begging you. What would I be without her? What would she be without me?’
'Do you think you could take her home? What is home, anyway? I suppose home is the place you find solace in, not necessarily the place you run away to. I’m a hurtin’ man. What I did. What I’ve done. What I didn’t do. The pages didn’t heal me. They won’t heal you either. At the end of the chapter, it’s the spirit that counts. Take her home. Please. Take her home.'
The radio stopped speaking. The man could feel himself freezing to death, and the colour had escaped the girl’s skin. He dwelt there for a moment, sinking into the dread of the past, his immutable future strewn across the snow, which had drank the girl dry. He sniffed. He noticed the radio’s antenna, and extended it gently. Out of unwarranted hope, he pressed a button which operated the radio. A crackle of static was followed by the ringing of a classic paean, and the device began to jitter in his palms. He lifted the radio, staggered with awe, and opened up a plastic flap to check if it was running on batteries. There were none.
‘Dip my toes in nostalgia, why don’t I?’ he whispered to himself, with the wind gnawing away at his skin.
He stepped forth once more into the eternal black, and his feint smile froze into a scar across his face.
‘Here I am’, said the man in the cold.