Stained cotton clouds drifted casually across the jet-torn sky, pink giving to grey on the far reaches of the horizon. The wind of the previous night was gone, leaving the trees in shocked stillness and the ground littered with their shed foliage. The dark waters of the canals reflected green negatives of shapes above, and gave away nothing. Carl dangled his legs off the dock, feeling vaguely courageous, defiant in the face of the coming night. He watched ripples form by the far bank. As they came closer he drew his feet up, out of reach, a small chill radiating through his backbone. The thin waves spent themselves on the legs of the dock, leaving darker-shaded wet patches behind. Carl scrambled up abruptly, away from the expressionless water, and didn’t quite run as he made for the house. He shut the door behind him firmly, and drew the curtains across the front window. It was dark enough now, and memories stirred in his chest. He had no desire to watch the shadows deepen, or breathe the memories they gave birth to.
He ate a toasted ham and cheese sandwich on the sofa, pulling the charred crusts off and dropping them on his plate. The cat dozed among the newspapers on the coffee table.
“You’re not allowed there, Fred,” he scolded gently. “Should know that by now.” The cat opened a lazy orange eye then went back to his dreams. Carl sighed, and turned up the TV, draining his beer. He kept one eye on the news as he fetched another.
With the sound came the thick scent of blood. Carl twisted, clutching a cushion closer to him. The sound again, a breath or a whisper, swiping at the corner of his consciousness. He whimpered, face twisting. His leg caught a beer bottle, sending it clattering into its fellows, and he gasped, bolting upright, the smell of blood strong as rust in his nostrils, then gone.
“Who’s there?” He demanded, voice weaker than he intended. “Anyone there?” He stood, hesitating for a moment as the room swung around him, then walked to the door, rattling the knob. The sound didn’t come again. The door was still locked. He stepped to a window, his breath suddenly unwilling to move through his lungs. His fingers tangled themselves into the flimsy material of the curtains, and he closed his eyes, tremors running across the breadth of his shoulders as he tried to find the strength to move. After a moment, he jerked his hand from the curtain and stepped away, walking instead into the kitchen, tasting bile in the back of his throat. He found the bottle above the sink, and glugged bourbon into a half-washed glass. He leaned against the table as he took his first gulp, a new shudder passing over him and leaving warmth in its wake, washing away half-formed memories.
“Fred?” He called out, after the glass was mostly gone. “Fred? Where are you, cat?” He stepped towards the back door, but the floor betrayed him and he stumbled, clutched at the back of a chair that creaked warningly. “Bloody creature.” He weaved his way through unseen obstacles to the bedroom, and passed out on top of the crumpled sheets.
In the morning, the smell of blood still underpinned the sticky scent of old beer in the living room. Carl shoved the bottles into a bin bag, hangover forming a loose, familiar shroud over his shoulders. He jerked the front door open, and the violent, scarlet stench hit him full force. He cried out, lifting an arm to cover his face, staggering away from bright sunlight and the twisted body of the cat, thumping energetically against the door in the movement of the handle. Carl dropped the bag and vomited simultaneously, his body heaving with alcohol and revulsion. The retches echoed through the empty house, and fought with the silence. He didn’t stop for a while.
Sitting outside, at the table under the mildewed umbrella, Carl regarded the mound of fresh dirt on the lawn morosely. His head thumped rhythmically, but it was beginning to ease with the shade and the bourbon he clutched in front of him. The cat’s empty eye sockets still gazed pleadingly at him from the shadow of his mind, and he could feel the tensely liquid swell of its belly, where bones should have been. He shook his head, disgust rubbing in his throat. Who did such things? Who impaled cats on door handles, for god’s sake? Sick bastards. He drained the glass and poured another, rubbing absently at the scratches on his hands – from burying Fred, he supposed. They had bled and scabbed, and now itched insistently. He looked out at the reflecting canal and closed his eyes. He could still smell blood like the aftertaste of a fight.
A whisper in unknown syllables. His eyes flew open. Dark swathed him, holding him still and helpless, the warm night that should have been rife with mosquitoes and cars silent and heavy. Oh, god – he was still at the table. His clutching hands discovered the empty bottle, his overturned glass. He clutched the bottle like a life preserver or a weapon, his eyes ranging the silent night. There must have been a power cut. There were no lights around. It was dark. He scrambled up and lunged for the house, but the ground gave before him, fleshy and unsupportive, and he sprawled lengthwise, his hands vanishing into the earth as if through quicksand. He threw himself backwards, a howl tearing itself from his throat, and he was aware of blood on his lips – he must have bitten himself, and he choked on the taste of old pennies. He seized a leg of the table where it reared out of the treacherous ground, and dragged himself to it, whimpering. He wrapped his arms around it as the earth undulated beneath him, and closed his eyes, closed out the dark. Blood coated his senses.
The sun slid under his gummy eyelids and sliced through to the back of his head. He groaned, throwing himself onto his back, lifting a heavy hand to his face.
“Oh, christ.” He levered himself onto an elbow and tried to part his lips. They felt stiff and stuck, and he flopped back onto the tangled sheets. “Urgh.” He coughed a little and risked opening his eyes again. Light assaulted his senses and he moaned. His body felt heavy with filth, as though – he stopped moving, mind washed clear in the stark terror of memory. The earth swallowing him, drawing him in like some perverse burial. The taste of blood. The feel of it, the noise, the words – he shook his head, mindless of the pain, and rolled himself onto the floor. He didn’t remember coming inside. It wouldn’t be the first time. He’d forgotten more than this before. On hands and knees, he dragged himself into the bathroom, body complaining with every move. His head felt the weight and size of a cannonball. He retched, swallowed it, and levered himself up on the toilet, sinking into the open bowl. The face watching him from the mirror was unrecognisable. He cried out, bewildered by what he saw, lifting hands to his face, hands that were bloodied and mangled. He whimpered, touching the caked matter on his cheeks. It could be dirt perhaps – from the ravenous lawn – rusty flakes peeled beneath his fingers, and he closed his eyes. No memories, he assured himself. I don’t remember.
The steam billowing from the shower eased the pain in his shoulders, and the water ran dark red around his feet. The blood came off easily, and underneath his face and body were unmarked. It was as if the earth itself had bled as he fell into it. He shook his head slightly, feeling shadows of creeping madness in his thoughts. Shadows of the treacherous canal, full of half-understood whispers and threats. Shadows of vaulted halls and a dark king, whose hands bore rings of bone. Hands – he opened his eyes. Where there had been scratches yesterday wounds gaped, crossing his palms and running up to his elbows like wrappings of festive ribbon. They throbbed in time with his overwrought skull, and he had to hold them over his head like some tribal warrior to stop the seeping blood. He tried not to look in the mirror.
His hands were heavy and clumsy as he made coffee. He’d had to fashion bandages from an old shirt, although he’d managed to find a wrinkled tube of antiseptic cream in the back of a bathroom drawer. June had taken all those sort of things – he’d never really thought to replace them. Blood spotted the pale cloth as he wobbled around the house – his equilibrium was off and the ibuprofen only touched the surface of his hangover. He poured bourbon into the bottom of his coffee mug, then topped it with the hot liquid. The milk was off – he was going to have to go shopping. He stared suspiciously at the bland lawn and felt a shudder walk up his spine. The canal hid in shadows under the trees, and he tasted blood. He spat coffee into the sink and looked away, glad his hands were so well wrapped he couldn’t see them shake. He snatched the car keys from the hook on the wall and headed for the front door.
Backing too fast down the drive, he almost hit the woman by the side of the road.
“Sorry,” he called from the window, pausing as he slipped into gear.
“Have you seen a dog?” She replied, her eyes distraught. She was still wearing a pyjama top, he noticed, her breasts loose under the sharp angle of her collarbones. “Just a little one? Black and white? A mongrel, really?” Her words tipped up at the ends, in questions or tears.
“Ah – no.” He tapped his bandaged hands on the wheel and avoided her watery gaze. “No, I haven’t.”
“Are you sure? He just wanders off sometimes? He might have gone into your garden? Or chased your cat?”
Carl frowned. “My cat’s dead. Someone killed him night before last.”
“Oh!” Her hands flew to her mouth, and her eyes overflowed. “Oh – do you think?”
“I don’t know.” His words were rougher than he intended, and he pulled his hands out of sight. “I’ll let you know if I see him.” He hit the accelerator with a heavy foot, and ignored the stop sign at the end of the street. His hands kept shaking no matter how hard he pushed them against the wheel.
The neat mounds of bare earth scowled at him from the end of the garden. He messed around the whaler, scooping some stray leaves from under the cover and polishing the stainless rails with a cloth. He thought he might go out tomorrow, do a bit of fishing. Not tonight – dusk drew her skirts too close for comfort already, and little uncertain whispers ran on cat’s paws across the limply innocuous surface of the water, full of dim threats. Cats paws. He glanced at the burial mounds and shivered. Mounds. He looked back, eyes widening in disbelief. There should be one. Just one. One for a little cat. He walked over, legs stiff and unresponsive, fingers half-crushing his beer can while behind him the waters of the canal abruptly shifted and heaved with mischievous interest. The second mound was bigger. Fat and uncompromising, it lay like a perfect impossibility before him.
“Two,” he whispered, and glanced around desperately, as if there should be a marker explaining the secret. The ground was bare and dark, the grass nearby crushed. Carl stepped backwards carefully, then turned away. The canal subsided at the edge of his vision, and the world twisted while whispers edged past his ears. He went to get another beer.
He remembered neither falling asleep, nor waking. He peeled himself off the pilled sheets carefully, cradling his over-sized head in his hands. His mouth tasted – not clean, no – but bloodless. He struggled up suddenly, steeling himself against the revolt of his belly and the sudden thud of his injured mind. He groped for the bottle of ibuprofen by the bed, shaking four into his hand and dry swallowing them, gagging at the taste. He didn’t wait for them to take effect before he staggered to the bathroom, searching his reflection with pink-swirled eyes. His face was clean, his hands still raggedly bandaged. He smiled, subsiding onto the toilet seat, his lips cracking at the corners.
“Ok,” he whispered. “It’s all ok.” He dropped his painful head to his hands and let a small sob of relief escape him. The house stood silent witness around him.
He dropped the ice chest unceremoniously into the whaler, which bobbed in acknowledgement. The canal waited, without movement. He scowled. The second grave mocked him still from the corner of the garden – he’d half hoped it would have vanished in the night. He lurched uneasily into the little boat, sending a fishing rod clattering to the bottom. He jerked the motor into rough life and cast off, trying not to look at the water as he opened the throttle. It seemed to be watching him as he moved away. Behind him, the water absorbed the lines of his wake like cotton wool, and unseen things murmured on the edge of sound.
Late afternoon light turned marker buoys to beacons and bridges to tunnels of shadow. Carl watched the end of his fishing rod incuriously, his mind awash in the green waters. Liquid whispers breathed through his ears, half-understood syllables of forgotten languages. Dimly seen and vaguely familiar forms drew pictures across the surface of the water, underwater terraces and castles as dark as tombs. Carl leant closer to the surface of the water, dream-clad and tempted, reaching out with shaking hands for something intangible. The boat tipped dangerously under him, and a wave sent from some unknown source reared suddenly from the still waters, slapping him casually and sending him gasping to the bottom of the boat.
Time, someone said, words deep and echoing. Time to pay your dues. He blinked, looking around with the confusion of a man woken from fever. Dusk breathed across the water as he gasped in sudden panic, flinging the fishing rod to the hungry river as he scrambled to start the engine.
Time, he thought.
Carl ran the boat too fast in the twilight. He was sweating, an unpleasant sobriety seeping in around the edges of his mind, bringing with it confused memories and uneasy thoughts. The canal, as he swept around the bend, was motionless, waiting. He tied the boat off clumsily, and struggled ashore, his breath rasping at the base of his throat. He thought he could smell blood, and his mind still echoed with that uncertain word, Time. The canal whispered suddenly against the hull of the whaler, and his gorge rose in fright. His mouth tasted of rust, and he cried out, staggered on the edge of the dock. The waters heaved with life, and for an instant he could see unclean forms with hard-edged hands cleaving their way under the surface.
“Oh, jesus,” he whispered, “Jesus.” He wrenched himself away from the sight and vomited onto the grass, trying not to see the twin mounds of earth in the corner of the garden. The last of the light began to fade, and he ran for the house, still retching. Blood filled his mouth and his nose, as if he were drowning in a crimson sea. He thought he could hear the mocking, gurgling laughter of distant creatures, half familiar and half unknown. He hit the deadbolt of the door and reached for the bourbon in the same uneven movement.
He woke in foetal position in the bottom of the shower, lingering pools of water cold against his skin. He struggled up far enough to reach the taps, the night before confused in his mind. He remembered running, running from the boat to the house. Remembered the soothing burn of alcohol in his throat. Remembered jerking curtains shut against the ever-moving, unforgiving night. Remembered the taste of blood surrounding him. Remembered sounds (outside?) that he tried not to hear. He spat into the shower pan, swirls of crimson running gently towards the drain. He coughed, his shoulders convulsing helplessly. The hammer of hot water drowned the awkward morning.
The bandages on his hands were so sodden he had to strip them off, revealing still-raw flesh underneath. He waved them ineffectually, wondering if he was meant to dry them or just cover them again. He’d never been any good at that sort of thing. Eventually he wrapped them again, too frightened of the convulsive pain that would accompany their impact against anything. He pattered naked through to the kitchen, flinching from the creeping sunlight, and put the coffeemaker on. Sitting, disconsolate, he played with his cup, wondering what had happened in the lost night. He must dress and see, he supposed. Lift the whaler out of the water. Clean her. He thought of the half-seen aquatic shapes and closed his eyes. He was drinking too much. Seeing things that couldn’t (shouldn’t?) be. The swirled redness behind his eyes was gently soporific, and he began to nod off.
The phone cut through the humid peace of the house like a chainsaw, and Carl had it in his hand before he even had time to waken properly.
“Carl? Carl? Answer me, dammit.” It was June, her voice hard-edged and angry, and in his wakening confusion he thought she stood next to him, shaking him out of sleep. “Carl!”
“Yeah. Yeah. What?” Weariness made him abrupt.
“You were meant to call as soon as Bryan arrived last night.”
“Bryan.” The blood washed from his face in a tidal wave, leaving him breathless.
“Yes. Bryan. Your son. Have you been drinking?”
“No, no, I – “
“You bastard. You utter bastard. You know you’re not meant to drink when he’s there! I’ll take him away from you completely, I swear –“
“June. He’s in the pool. We’re fine. I have to go swim with him.” He couldn’t feel the phone in his hand, and he wasn’t sure if it was because of the bandages or because of the fear worming through him.
“What?” She sounded suddenly lost, and his gut twisted with horror. “Oh. I’m sorry. Carl – “
“I have to go.” He put the handset down, moving carefully to the window, staring across the lawn. He wondered how much he could remember, if he tried. The canal, windless, moved and rippled. Carl opened the door and walked across to stand before the three mounds of naked earth. He stood for a long time, while the canal twisted itself into mocking shapes that vanished when he tried to catch them. Eventually he walked to the dock and stared down into the deceptive green water. Gold light spread richly among the growing shadows of the trees, and after a time, the movement began again, a teasing peepshow of terrifying, beguiling creatures peering at him from beneath the surface, their whispered language filling his ears with the thick fluidity of water. The dark drew in, pulling memory with it. Memories of sunken cities and fallen gods, of underwater totems and deals made for the sake of money, and talent, and power, for the sake of being worshipped from afar. He sat on the edge of the dock and listened to the whispers of the lost people, thinking, Time.