stand up

I am going to see the mountain. My hands are calm on the wheel of the old car, my hair tied back in the wind from the open window, my face towards where I want to go. The mountain is warm on my cheek so I know when to turn.

The roads are mostly empty, stretching through the brown and rust of the scrubby, flat terrain. The hills are odd shapes, flat-topped, marked with ripples of rock. The sky fits precisely over them, beaten blue. I pass small towns, a few weathered houses, loose boards flapping in the wind with a sound like drums. If I see people, they turn away. I am going to the mountain. They know.

There’s no mistaking it. Against the afternoon sky the mountain looms, curved and placid, its back bent like a bow. Its feet are rooted tree-like in the harsh ground.

I stop the car. Beneath my feet I feel it, the slow, subterranean beat. I bend over and place my hands on the stony soil, where the pulse comes up through them with the rhythm of blood.

I wait. The sun sets. Slowly, in its own good time, the mountain uncurls its giant, sleep-pursed fists. Rocks slither, and a flight of crows startles, cawing, towards the distant trees. A palm levers against the ground. Massively slow, the back unbends and straightens against the stars, titanic blind head lifting to scent the air. The mountain stands up.

I wait. Now, we shall see.

Gatekeepers

“Morning, Lance. Sorry, I know it’s early, but it’s … no, not an emergency really, the cats are fine, promise. No, they are. Yes, I’m not just saying that. They’re lovely, and we’re getting on really well. They really like salmon. Um, oops, yes, I do remember now, but honestly, the kibble must be so boring. We’re really good friends now.

“Yes, well, bad luck, that’s what you get if you drag in family members to house-sit for you at the last minute and brief them in five minutes flat.

“No, well, it’s no trouble really, your house is very comfortable, although I have to say some of your art is really weird. Does Aunt June know you’re into this esoteric stuff? She’ll have kittens.

“Anyway, Lance, I’m calling because your cats are strange. Have you been training them or something? They won’t let me out of bed this morning, I’m just lucky my cell was in reach. All three of them are sitting here looking at me, and if I try to move they climb on me. Grimoire bit me when I tried to move her. Honestly, Lance, that’s not normal, she’s perfectly sweet usually.

“I meant to ask you if you have earthquakes here, I swear…  Holy shit, Lance, their eyes are glowing! You have vampire cats with glowing eyes! What the hell’s going on?

“You’re making no sense, of course this shouldn’t be happening, but what do astrological conjunctions have to do with anything? I don’t care if they’re not right. Your cats are doing something weird and … Lance! Shit! This bed is moving! How can the bed be moving?

“Oh, God, Lance, where’s the bedroom? I’m floating! Me and the cats on the bed like a boat, and we’re floating down a river. It’s a purple river and the bed is floating on it. The trees are singing. What the hell do you put in your water, LSD?

“Lance? Lance? Are you there?

“Shit.”

Household God

I was eight, had a silver sixpence for my birthday. Hid in the cellar from my no-good cousins and my hands felt the hole in the wall. A slot, like my piggy bank. Thing is, it seemed to want somethin’. I didn’t even think, slipped my sixpence into it. The boys were on the stairs, clumpin’, but they lost interest, went off to annoy the dogs.

I plumb forgot about the hole. That bad winter was when I was twelve, we was out of food. Was in the cellar, hopin’ for a last jar of pickled beets. The hole was bigger, ’bout the size of my fist, and still wantin’. I thought ’bout it, went off and found my Aunt Aggie’s silver that she left us. Four forks, two knives, all the spoons, seemed to do it. I poked them in and they went away. Them beets was under my hand all the time.

I was in the cellar when that tornado came over, proper scared. Hole was bigger, so was the wantin’. I lay there and thought promises at it; when the wind was gone, went and found the big silver teapot. Pushed it in, it went away. When my folks was back, told them the storm took it.

I don’t want to talk ’bout when I was twenty-five. The hole was bigger, the wantin’ was bigger, but it shut right up when I gave it the ring. I dunno how it figures these things. Maybe it liked the diamond.  That boy was always no good, anyways.

Few years later my ma’s sickness was real bad. Pain wouldn’t stop. I gave the hole my ma’s wedding things – the sugar tongs, the cake stand. We never used them. It was real big now, ’bout a foot across, and needed more – took the silver from the thermometer to shut it up. Anyways, my ma died quiet soon after.

Now I’m sixty-two, sittin’ here in my rocker, and can feel the need clear through the house. Few months more, my hair will be all silver, and I figure the hole will be ’bout big enough for me. I’m lookin’ forward to it.

Silver

He bends over me as I lie on the bed, gasping for breath: a dark-haired youth, thin and intense, but even through my panic I feel his shy charm, like one of the rarer gazelles. His hands on my throat are healer’s hands, long-fingered, gentle, fiercely precise. My breathing eases; the detached compassion of his gaze relaxes into a smile, but his face is drawn.

When we stand before the village for our handfasting it is only a year after our meeting, but there are white threads in his dark hair. He looks at me fondly, the pain of others already lining his eyes. He is difficult to love, but I have loved him from the first. I’m not sure he reciprocates, not in the way I feel: it isn’t in him. I don’t expect it.

Two winters later there is the fever in the village. He goes from house to house, his hands cooling and stilling the hectic blood of the sufferers. When it’s all over and most are saved, there are silver wings over his ears. He looks distinguished.

I am still a young woman when our daughter is born. As he holds her, his face alight, his hair has lost most of its dark. When the mayor’s son was dreadfully trampled by a horse he put him patiently back together, but he staggered from the room silver-haired and spent.

Now our daughter lies in the darkened room, five years old, fading fast. My love will go in to her, a white-haired old man. I will wait outside. She will come out to me, cured, and we will go on together, mother and child, without him.

All gifts have their price. He is happy to pay, but I find it hard.

Heat

The mountains are an arid rampart to the east of the kingdom’s peaceful green valleys. Beyond the range is the desert, a titanic, sandy bowl which cradles the heat with ferocious intent. Even from here, on the easternmost peak, the stony ground ripples with heatwaves like distant hallucinations.

She is not interested in the ground. She has climbed for two weeks in order to reach this specific confluence of desert and height. As she leans out from her rocky perch into the blue void she is circled by thermals: empty air swirls around her, flame-hot on her skin. The sultry breeze lifts her hair from her shoulders, and she laughs.

Because she’s looking for it, she catches the momentary half-seen shimmer on the edge of her vision. It’s not a heatwave. There’s a trick to this; she unfocuses her gaze, squints into the glare. She looks beyond and along, and the sky is momentarily filled with the immeasurable wing-span, transparent and flickering against the sky. The bird-body is curved like a dagger, the eye, glittering and amused, surveying her for a visible instant, flame wisping around the diamond iris. Then it’s gone.

She launches herself from the ledge in an arcing swallow dive as though into a lover’s arms. The maelstrom of heat which embraces her strips the flesh instantly from her bones, unravelling mind and spirit. Ash drifts on the scorching sky.

Disembodied, she floats on the wind, a fierce intelligence re-knitting her tenderly into its airy, insubstantial, tensile net. She circles the air currents borne on the gyr’s invisible breast, feeling the imperceptible wings stretch to the horizon, a flame at her heart.

Impundulu

The night has a sultry pressure and the sharp, clear smell of rain: lightning flickers on the swollen clouds. The street outside the nightclub is dark outside the garish pools of pink neon. He leans against the bricks, dragging on his cigarette, and eyes the women as they pick their way, high-heeled, down the pavement. They are gaggled by colour, pale-skinned blondes or elegant black girls, all short skirts and curving breasts under scant fabric, flanked by possessive, matching men whose presence disrupts the glances the girls throw him. He runs his tongue around the fang which has started, reflexively, to lengthen in his mouth, and waits.

The rain-drenched breeze cuts the hot highveld air like wings against his cheek. She drifts featherlight out of the dark doorway, the light catching bronze cheekbones and the high, proud line of her throat and close-cropped skull. Tattoos writhe across her scalp, pale lines on the dark skin. Her body in the tight leather is bird-thin, spiky, an atavistic warrior, enchanting and sexless. The laughing, colourful crowd, teeth white in dark faces, part around her, suddenly and mutely cowed, but he sees only that she is alone.

She stalks down the pavement towards him like the embodiment of a fever dream: her glance invites and transfixes him. Wordlessly, he follows her into the alley.

Her mouth is cold, metallic, alien; shockingly, he is no longer the predator here. He cannot distinguish the thunder from the blood pounding in his ears, the lightning from the colours behind his eyelids. The storm breaks in a cacophony of noise and light as he curls on the filthy tarmac in a puddle of his own blood, hearing through the downpour the cry of some enormous bird, and the beating of wings.

Eye

It’s in the grimy corner down by the railway, boldly painted on the sooty bricks: an eye, vivid amid the tag marks and obscenities. Giant, the pupil larger than my head, the iris yellow-brown. the eyelashes exaggerated, but far from feminine. I can’t shake the feeling that it’s watching me, leering.

Later, from the bus, I spot half a head on the corner of a parking garage. Large ear, short dark hair, an unpleasant smile, stylised; the scale is identical. Still watching me. Two blocks later, a torso and a muscular, manly arm and shoulder, enormous, in the gap between the door and window of a fish-and-chip shop. Black vest, light brown skin, a spidery, tag-like tattoo. Distributed graffiti. Odd, amusing, rather strange.

The foot seems to be following me to work the next day, a huge, hairy, muscled leg in a red running shoe, walking along a factory façade. Fragmented giant, twenty metres tall.  I feel small, and very female.

The arm is on the side of the corner shop near my flat, a clenched fist wearing a lumpy gold ring. Not as funny now, but threatening – a stylised gangster. Around the corner, on the wall of a school, there’s a whole lower torso and thighs in red running shorts, enormously endowed. It’s badly out of place against the shrieks of the children playing behind the wall. I walk faster, wish I wasn’t wearing heels.

Across the road from my flat last night, the other half of the head on a corner, yellow eye still fixed on me. I’m afraid to go out. But huddling inside will do no good. As I sit here now it’s gone. But inexorably, a millimetre at a time, the giant, two-dimensional hand is sliding spider-like around the window frame and into my room.

White Cat

She was raised by fairies, of course she’s every inch the princess – the long gold hair, perfectly curled, the blue eyes, the tiny ankle. The grace, courtesy, wit, learning; even the playfulness which I so enjoyed when first we met. Our subjects adore her. Even Hans likes her, and he’s been in my service since we were teenagers, and can be a mite possessive.

And I owe her so much – the kingdom, the quest, meeting my father’s ridiculous requirements. We still have the dear little spaniel, he’s quite a favourite of mine – he doesn’t fit into a walnut any more, but an egg cup holds him comfortably. She used the impossibly fine silk cloth as a wedding veil.

She’s really very sweet, and still curls up in my lap so affectionately. Given that tradition dictates I marry some lovely lady, I could have done a lot worse.

But then there are … the eccentricities. The balls of string. The milk: she laps very daintily, but it’s still not quite polite. And the mice are a real problem. So far she’s only done it in front of me and Hans and he’s very discreet, but I have no idea how we’ll hush it up if she pounces in the middle of a diplomatic function. And the crunching noises are so distressing.

And, of course, her … other proclivities. I do my duty as manfully as I’m able, but I’m not really the biting type, and the yowling is becoming embarrassing. Fortunately Hans has a really good salve for the scratch marks.

It’s not that I wish she wasn’t a woman – I mean, obviously I do, but we all know that’s doomed. I just miss my white cat, and it hurts to be reminded of those simpler days.

Outsider

She stands out in the crowd of teenagers under the late summer sun, her demure cotton dresses and hesitant gentleness odd against their casual obscenities and tight jeans. The books clutched to her chest press her crucifix painfully into her skin. In those initial weeks she retreats often into the oak-panelled solace of her room, its medieval stone walls muffling the loud beats of their music.

At first she was startled by the looming shadow outside her window, but after her first fright she leans out to examine the statue more closely, to lay a hand against the ugly not-quite-dog face which twists around to look in through the glass. Its eagle claws and monstrous bat-wings cannot entirely undermine its air of homely, canine protectiveness.

The stone face watches while over the weeks her nun-like solitude is slowly invaded: quiet young men and women study Bibles or class notes with her, linger to chat. Someone gives her chrysanthemums in a blaze of autumn bronze.

This particular young man has a more assured charm, and her responses to him are glowing and fluttered. They return to her room together on an evening when the gargoyle’s head is capped with a comical covering of snow.  Their low-voiced conversation gives way to tentative embraces, a drawn-out kiss.  When his hand moves, however, in a practiced motion down to her breast, she struggles free of his insistent mouth with a muffled protest. Their argument is brief and bitter; he bangs the door angrily behind him, leaving her in tears.

When his battered body is found in the snow, scored with great raking slashes, the medieval monster on its high perch has bloodied claws. It will never be suspected. But it will wear forever its slow, stone bewilderment as she weeps on her bed in exclusion and loss.