BY PETER O’CONNOR
Copyright is held by the author.
HER NOSE took the impact, it canted left and snapped perfectly at the bridge. Her mascaraed eyes watered until her vision became a myopic smudge. She staggered, tripping on the raised step between lounge and diner. (A design feature she always hated but he insisted on.) “It will define the individual spaces,” he had said. Another blow staggered her. She remembered her Interior Design professor screaming “NEVER BREAK THE FUCKING SPACE,’” as he came in, on, or often just around her slut of a best-friend flatmate. That exalted mantra had stuck, her friendship hadn’t. Her fingers skittered along the edge of the kitchen top, too cold, too polished, nothing to cling to, to hold, to grasp. Her father’s words came to her, “you can’t trust stainless steel — unnatural stuff. Use wood. Wood has an inherent trust, copper an earned one, but stone? Who the hell uses stone nowadays?” He always chuckled at himself when he said that. He also warned her. “Look for the comfortable, the homely, ‘hygge,’ as the Dutch say. No cold marble, no hard granite, no slippery steel and definitely no injection-moulded impervious shiny plastic. An interior, my gorgeous girl, is a mirror of soul.”
She should have listened. Should have read the signs, but at 19 she knew everything. Now, in her kitchen, the slope was gentle but slippery. Once her feet were planted she could not step off. It was her own fault. No!
“I loathe this fucking house,” she screamed “it’s a god damn fucking abortion. My father would have hated it.”
The hand came again, hard wrapped in a softness long gone from the marriage. Her wrist snapped. The scream caught in her throat, overpowered by the flood of pain. Her voice was normal when she spoke again.
“Happy?” The question was not for him.
The pain drove consciousness into a darkened enclave of her mind from where it spied out on the scene untethered from her body. Her mind saw the clenched fists, the sharp raised knees, the kicking feet. But all she could recall was the smell of ink, the scent of paper and the machine clack, clack, clack, as she watched the other man turn the rollers.
The printer loved her from the first. She listened to his dream. She trusted in him. Two black eyes the first time. No sunglasses, like she was proud of them — a badge of honour. Her eyes were different though that last time. Her eyes looked hard, resolved, steely. They suited her.
That last time they met, he made her a cup of tea. He sipped a beer and they sat on his back porch in the waning autumn sunshine looking at the graffitied back wall of his neighbour’s house. “Fuck the Man” it said. His wife had tried to clean the “Fuck” off, but had really only highlighted it. “Kids,” he said to other woman. “’The Man’ isn’t me,” he went on to clarify. “Well I don’t think it is.” He stopped.
“Sorry,” he said, “I get nervous around you.”
“Don’t,” she said.
He took another dredge of beer. “What I’m going to tell you,” he said, “you’ve got to keep to yourself. Nobody is in on this. I’m at ground zero as they say — the first.”
“OK,” she said, “mum’s the word.”
He didn’t make her cross her heart and hope to die, that would have made him seem childish. He took a breath. He’d never told anybody this, apart from his wife, but he didn’t think she had been listening because her sister Tammy was whining at the back door about how Carmichael had left her.
“I want to be a healer.”
She didn’t laugh. His wife hadn’t laughed either, not really, just a small snort of breakfast cereal through the nose. But that bitch Tammy had almost wet herself.
“That’s a nice dream.”
“No, it’s real — a fact. I’ve verified it. It’s a 100 percent dead cert. The seeds of the Amarchu tree.”
He took the handful he’d received in the post and shook them out of their waxed packet onto his palm. He looked into her eyes. They stared back with a steely interest. He ran his finger through the seeds making small ploughed furrows. A faint tang of dampened earth eddied into the air.
“It’s little known in the West. An Amazonian tribe discovered them.”
“I’d love to go to the Amazon.”
He almost offered then but no, she would have to make the decision for herself. He didn’t want her to see him as just a means to an end.
“The agent talks of real miracles, none of this fake weight loss bullshit or hair regeneration, but bonafide healing of the terminally ill, raising of the dead miracles. The numbers could be enormous.”
She sounded impressed, not like his own wife, a born skeptic, love her, but no support. South America is not dangerous and how the hell would Tammy-been-no-fucking-where know anyway?
“I just need some stake money, you know, to get the ball rolling. We’ll need to trek far into the forest.”
“Jungle,” she said, “largest on the planet.“
They planned. He got as far as a false passport. Carmichael, Tammy’s ex, may have been a useless twat of a husband but he knew all the, in this instance, right people. The printer was on the phone booking the flights when the news came. It almost broke him — almost.
It was a big case, filled the news for six months. The death of a prominent designer and the macabre desecration of her grave helping to fuel the media frenzy. The city was clutched for two months as the court case ran its torturous course.
The jury took two days to find him not guilty and put a damning stain on her memory. Tammy said. “She had it coming — stuck up fucking poncy interior designer. Who the hell needs interior designers? It’s just arranging furniture and stuff.” He strangled the life out of Tammy then.
The future he hoped for was snatched from him. No, ripped from him, by that fuck of a murdering bastard. His rage would not abate. It swirled and screamed around his head. It drove him back into the arms of his wife. She accepted him with a love that had never diminished, carried as always just out of view but now she could bring it back into the light. She comforted him as best she could. It was hard, she did not know what their relationship had been, but she could see that it had been strong and honest. She would be there for him as she had always been. She would be the rock around which her husband now crashed and cannoned. His anchor until he came back to her from the sea of his grief.
They sold the business, the house, the cars, there were insurance and savings bonds to cash in, there was Carmichael and his ravings about Tammy to deal with, (how the hell would they know where that psychotic bitch was?), flights had to be arranged, passports applied for, visas too, customs clearance to sort, bribes to pay, favours to call in, a guide to find and employ, carriers, tents, food, medical supplies and questions from a certain tenacious NYPD detective to field.
His wife was fantastic, without her he didn’t think he would have made it to the jungle. He hated that he didn’t love her anymore. Hated having to lie to her, but he had a dream and a promise to keep. Luckily, she was taken 23 days into the trek — a jaguar the guide thought, though he didn’t seem to be that interested. “It’s my best guess,” he’d said, not a lot else out there could carry off a full grown human. The printer, though not religious, said a silent prayer. God, he thought, was a strange and wonderful creature.
They had caught a flight to Manaus, a taxi to the camp just inside the forest — “Jungle,” the guide corrected him when they first met.
“What’s the difference?”
“About 1400 different ways to die.”
He hadn’t mentioned jaguars as one of those at that point. He would also fail to mention poison dart frogs, wandering spiders and electric eels. Luckily, the printer had gathered around him a large well-armed group.
The guide estimated a two-week trek due north. They were delayed a week when there was a problem with import restrictions on frozen produce. They got held up at customs for another four days, plus, in total, they had to pay out another six grand in erroneous bribes. The dry ice was procured from a local hospital. He was assured, as far as he could be in the middle of a jungle in a language he didn’t really understand, by someone who’d learnt their American from a ’60s black-and-white TV, that the hospital had “very, very many lots and would not miss this very, very few less.”
They set off in earnest on the 14th day, things started well: thundering waterfalls were passed; immense rivers crossed; valleys so steep no light touched their vine encrusted floors were climbed. The 16th day a troupe of howler monkeys lazing in the canopy hooted and snorted at them. On the 19th day, the guide told them they were making good progress and showed them a map. The group was in good spirits. He made love to his wife for the last time on the evening of the 22nd day, it was quick and aggressive and urgent. She yelled out just the once. She was taken early on the 23rd day, before dawn, a damp fog swirling around the clearing. All the evidence pointed to the attack being quick and aggressive and urgent. She had yelled only the once, her voice drifting to the camp from some distant, dark dell, deep in the jungle.
On the 28th day they finally located the tree. The printer was a little disappointed. He tried not to show it. His dream prepared him for something mighty and majestic but the tree had a stunted and twisted look to it — evil almost, cursed. He questioned the guide, who assured him it was the right tree. The printer pointed to more noble and elegant specimens but the guide was adamant. This was the tree of legend— the tree the local tribe called “Amotou”, the Tree of life. The printer took photos of the other trees they would look so much better in the sales brochure.
The printer dreamt that night:
In the clearing was the tree, its crooked and creeping canopy smothering everything. He was prone, staring at the clear night sky. Stars unknown glinted long decayed light down to him. He received it with awe. The jungle was silent. No wind rustled its canopy. No animal shuffled its undergrowth. The sound that came to the printer’s ears were the tree’s roots as they scuttered from the earth and wrapped his legs. Its branches bent and held his arms. The seeds it bore were shaken into his open mouth. They tumbled and tipped, more and more fell until they filled his constricted throat and overflowed down his crying cheeks. He choked and gagged. His body heaved and bucked, but the tree held him taut to the ground. “Worship me,” the tree said.
The next day the group discover the bloated bodies of the indigenous tribe — all dead. Men, women, children, babies, chickens, three small boar and nine dogs. The guide reckoned bad water, the printer was not reassured, bad water did not really explain the condition of the bodies. Guards were posted that night.
While the guards patrol the parameter, the printer sat opposite the guide. They looked at each other over the open fire while the flames cast deep, disturbing shadows out into the jungle. The jungle chattered, squawked, howled, whooped and rustled.
“What now?’ The guide asked.
The printer didn’t t know. He hoped to meet a local tribesman and learn about the tree and the seeds and the prescribed technique for raising the dead. He’d found an ancient book but it was no use because out here there is no one fluent in the language the ancient book was written in.
“The gas will run out tomorrow.”
The guide poked the fire and sent sparks scuttling into the air.
“I know,” said the printer. “I know.”
“Is she worth it, all this?”
“I Love her.”
“I had a dog once,” the guide said, “a little spaniel.”
“I loved it.”
“You cannot compare your love for a mongrel with my love for her.”
“Are you saying my love is less because it was for an animal?”
“Because . . . because it was a dog for fucks sake! She is a human.”
“Was a human. She is now a year-old frozen corpse. Do you love her corpse?”
“Of course not, I love her.”
“Her is no more. Her is gone.”
“No, no she is not. When I resurrect her she will be the same.”
“They have a word. It is an old word, an ancient word — Necromancer.”
“You want to raise the dead.”
“Yes, but she didn’t deserve to die.”
“Nor did my dog. I do not want to raise my dog.”
“Stop talking about your stupid dog, it has no relevance.”
“Tell that to my daughter.”
The printer strode into the jungle.
“Don’t go far. Remember your wife.”
The guide stoked the fire and lit a small foul-smelling cigar. It kept the mosquitoes away while he waited.
The printer returned to the tree. He railed at it, screamed at it, blamed it for everything. He punched its dark bark until his knuckles were raw. He tore at its roots, ripping nails from his fingers. But he was human. His efforts were futile against the ancient hardened entity. He begged. He prayed. He cried. Then he returned to the camp and slept next to his frigid love.
That night he dreamed again:
A dark man, in nothing but a flowing cloak, laid the seeds into a hollowed out stone. The stone was placed into a roaring fire. The dead suspended above. The seeds popped and burned, releasing a heavy black smoke that curled and crept around the body. The body twitched and shuddered, animated but with no conscious co-ordination. The man swallowed a great lungful of the thick coiling smoke, opened the corpse’s mouth and breathed deep into its lungs. The corpse awakened.
In morning, he talked to the guide about this dream. The guide laughed at him. He talked to some of the carriers, who didn’t understand him and thought he was a raving fucking lunatic. “Loco,” they said and crossed themselves when he came near.
The next night the gas ran out as the printer slept. The precious preserving vapour dissipated. Water dripped. The body thawed. He woke with no choice. He must save her. He must carry out the ritual. He must. What choice did he have?
Her body was naked and opaque white. It reminded him of a disfigured bone china doll his mother had loved, translucent, cracked, lifeless. He hauls her slippery and fish-soft body from the crate. Her heels dragged, spreading her limpid legs, flaccid muscles drooped. The carriers crossed themselves and mutter, “Malvado.”
“I need to tie her above the fire.” He mimed the actions of binding and hauling. The guide barked orders “átala sobre el fuego.” They strung her up like a gutted deer, back supported, neck and head tipped backwards, eyes fallen slightly open. Red lipstick, applied after her death, turned livid plum, smeared her cheek like a gash. Hair grown long and shineless hung dripping. Water dropped from cold cavities, hissing on the open fire.
In the hazing heat and dust he carried out the ritual as the dream portended.
The pain was immense. It assembled upon itself in a slow gradation; an itch, a discomfort, an ache, a throb, a jolt, a searing, a shock, a gasp, a shout, a scream, an agony, a torture, a trauma, an excruciation, a birth. The light shattered her vision and ruptured it into a haze of shape. Her mind could not grasp the images, could not photograph them into sense. They danced and shimmied and would not settle. Sound was a vacuum filled with a need, but no recognition came. It was alien. It was distorted. It was void. She screamed in her mind.
Smoke entwined her spine. It was absorbed. It became her. She was smoke, acrid and fluid. Movement evolved in her limbs, twitched spasmodic movement, not controlled, primal. Her spine bent at impossible angles, double jointed arms flailed and contorted legs trod impossible steps.
“Please, hold her I need to breathe it into her lungs. Por favor, please. Tree, help me.”
“Loco,” the guide shouted. “Devil man, she is an abomination. El diablo, God will curse you both.”
A shot was felt. A succession of waves shattered through her. Warm blood touched her lips. A memory? Smoke exploded into her lungs. It explored through every part of her. It drew who she was from the memories of her cells, her atoms, her spaces between the meta and physical. Memory formed like a shadowed shadow, smell was enticed, sound learnt. A clack, a clack, drums revolved. Feeling returned to dead. Nerves electrified — a charge that brought a scream up through her essence. It erupted in a yowling of raw agony. She was restored. Re-animated. Re-built. Re-lived. Returned.
Another shot was felt.
Pete lives by the coast in South Devon, U. K. He has been writing for many years, only now, getting enough of his life in order to be able to send his stories out into the world.