Conrad Williams is the author of seven novels (Head Injuries, London Revenant, The Unblemished, One, Decay Inevitable, Blonde on a Stick and Loss of Separation), four novellas (Nearly People, Game, The Scalding Rooms and Rain) and two collections of short stories (Use Once Then Destroy, Born With Teeth). He has previously won the August Derleth Award for Best Novel, the International Horror Guild Award for Best Novel, and British Fantasy Awards for Best Newcomer and Best Novella. In 2009 he was Guest of Honor at the World Horror Convention. You can find more from the author on his personal website. The follow story, “Slitten Gorge,” is reprinted from Born With Teeth (PS Publishing, 2012) by permission of the author. – The Editors
Artwork © 2004 John Picacio
Ellis dreamt that night of the forest. He was treading through it in darkness, subtly aware of the conifers and the heather. His feet knew this territory well and he moved quickly, ignoring the sounds of the wildlife: the nightjar, the siskins, the snipes. He was trying to find something, or someone, but no matter how close he felt he was to capturing his quarry, some caprice of the dream would send it far away again. It made a creaking sound, this subject he tracked. Like old leather being twisted against itself, or of floorboards under continual stress. Now and again he thought he caught a glimpse of part of it through the crenellations of the ferns, or the splintered bole of a tree felled by lightning. But before his mind could apply itself to finishing off the picture, the scenery had moved and he was as blind as before.
He woke up, hungry, frustrated and afraid. It was that soft, uncertain time of morning when night and day argue over their own borders. Pale light hung in the sky like something too damp to ignite properly. Although it was late June, summer had failed to establish itself. The days were often a wash out, the nights cold enough for woollens. He sat trembling on the edge of his bed, blankets curled around his shoulders. The shower awaited him like torture. There had been no hot water in his flat for six days. At least after a cold wash his clothes felt so much warmer on his body. The colder you got, the less you felt it. The dead don’t shiver.
Through a window looking out on to the communal garden, he watched as a female blackbird chirped incessantly, playing a wild hopscotch upon the cracked flagstones of the porch, pausing a moment to shit what looked like the kind of electric white found only on artists’ palettes. He had never felt easy around birds since he read about how closely related they were to dinosaurs. He felt uncomfortable about their lack of weight, their thin, hollow bones. He disliked the way they moved so nervously, so spastically. How cold and alien their eyes. They seemed propelled by nothing more than instinct, and that vexed him, in a vague way that made him feel queasy.
His unease followed him to the kitchen where, despite his hunger, he was unable to eat one spoonful of the cereal he prepared for himself. Barely a sip of coffee made it past his lips without causing him to retch. He couldn’t remember the last meal he had consumed, yet he must have eaten within the last few days. Had he not, he wouldn’t have had the strength to turn the taps in the bathroom. He dressed without thinking, grateful for a job that didn’t demand a suit and tie. Then he went out, trying to avoid the bookcases lining the walls as he approached the door. But, as always, he had to look. The narrow space between them forced him to leave his flat sideways. The spines demanded his attention.
Birds of the Welsh Coast, The Red Kite in Wales, The Raptors of Europe and the Middle East, Birding in Snohomish County, Skuas and Jaegers, Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers.
There were so many books. He felt ill thinking how many he had, how much money he had spent on them. On the drive to work he wondered again if he might not be mad. That was the thing about insanity. You didn’t notice it yourself, only the people closest to you grew aware. But there was nobody who shared his life from day to day. What did being mad mean? Storing your own faeces? Posting letters to people long dead? Collecting books about birds when they scared you to the core? But you had to know about them, you had to have the knowledge. Keep your friends close, your enemies closer.
At the gas works, he checked in with Reynolds, the site foreman, and Hinchcliff, the independent chemist who was to be attached to the demolition crew for as long as it took for the defunct purifying tanks to be dismantled. Ellis pulled on his overalls and checked the air line on his breathing apparatus. It was hot work, and while he was standing in the reinforced concrete tanks removing the spent iron oxide, he was grateful that summer was in abeyance. Hinchcliff had explained at the outset that six thousand tonnes of toxic waste had once filled these tanks – now transported to a secret, secure landfill site in north Wales – and the residue they were cleaning away might contain upwards of eight per cent cyanide.
At times within his mask, his breath amplified and alien to him, he imagined pulling off his protective headgear and sucking in a single, pure lungful of death.
—Death is painless, she said.
—Don’t talk wet, I said. —I seen them pictures of German tanks on fire, and the driver trying to get out, but his foot was stuck, or shot off or melted into the metal or whatever. He wasn’t whistling when he went, I can tell you.
—Well, I think it’s painless. The actual moment of it. Maybe not the lead up, but the moment you bow out? The body sheds all of its endorphins. Massive headrush. Absolute pleasure.
I laughed. She had this way of talking sometimes that was like poetry. Funny poetry. She had a killer line, Karen. It didn’t work with everyone, but she hit my spot and that was all I was bothered about.
She said —You never see birds dead, do you?
—Tell my mum that, next time she nips into the village for a chicken.
She rolled her eyes, thumped me. She was trying to get the ringpull off a can of cider but it was rusted or something, and wouldn’t budge. —I don’t mean like that. I mean you never see birds lying about on the road, dead.
—I suppose you’re right, I said. I was getting bored of this talk. I wanted some of that cider in me before I had to get back home for tea. The gorge rose up around us like a big green throat. I loved it down here. It was only just behind the row of shops on the main street in Lymm village, but it could have been some Amazonian ravine. It had everything, this place. Cool shadows. A heron that came to fish in the weir. Secrecy. You never had any grown-ups come down this way, either because it was quicker to take the village path, or they were scared of us yoofs, or they didn’t even know it was here, I don’t know. I snatched the can off her and used my penknife to ease the ringpull off. I had a big drink and passed it back, offering her a huge belch to accompany the ceremony. Karen drank too, tilting her head way back. Her shape changed. I found myself staring at her.
She said — Can you smell me? I’m bleeding.
Ellis did not join the others for a drink after the shift was completed. He drove through the centre of Warrington, trying to avoid the construction crews that were tearing through the heart of the town, slotting new department stores into the gaps left by failed developments. It all seemed like an affront to the faces of the old shops that clung jealously to the main streets. There was always a new generation of town planner, no doubt living far away from the place being redesigned, eager to leave a mark in history. Ellis was happy to leave it behind, but even though he pushed the Jeep hard until the soulless urban spread became rural patchwork, he did not find himself relaxing. So much green was a shock to him, even though he made this journey every weekend. It was as pervasive, as smothering as the threat of poison gas. But he could not understand how staying at home in his cloying flat could be any better for him. He turned on some loud music, but nothing could reclaim him from the slow panic filling his chest. It became so bad he had to pull over shortly after he passed the Ruthin signpost on the A494. His breath seemed to fail in his chest; he could not expel it properly. He felt as though he were recycling something old and stale, that any hope he had for a fresh start was stillborn.
Crumpled in his pocket, the letter from Pippa postmarked a few days previously helped him to refocus. Cav reckons he saw a lynx coming down across the scarp near the caravan late last night. He’d had a few though. Ha ha. The only lynx he’s seen lately is in the can he sprays his armpits with.
There had been several lynx sightings reported in the Clocaenog forest over the years. It was also one of the last bastions of the red squirrel. There were other animals too that benefited from the area, forty square miles or so of natural, native woodland. Deer, black grouse, pine martins, Welsh mountain ponies, polecats. Others that he could not bring himself to think about. But having begun a list that he daren’t finish drew the fear from the shadows into the real meat of him. It lay against his skin like sweat. He put the letter back in his pocket and felt his hunger deepen. He crutinized his eyes in the rear view mirror while his hands played against the corrugation of his ribs. His breathing steadied. The sky over Wales was bruising, as if siphoning the resentment from the earth and describing its colour. A flurry of birds blurred the edge of his vision and were gone before he’d had chance to identify them. He started the engine and got back on the road. His hunger was so keen it wouldn’t allow him to envisage any kind of meal that might assuage it.
The caravan was empty when he arrived, just under half an hour later. Pippa and Cavan must have gone to the local pub, a mile or so further along the main road. He felt slighted, as if his arrival was nothing for them to get worked up about. Maybe it wasn’t. But they were the nearest he had to friends and it pricked him that they hadn’t waited; they could all be sinking pints now. What did they want to talk about that was so important it couldn’t wait? He thought about catching them up, but he didn’t want to be seen behaving like an eager puppy. He could give as good as he got, they’d see.
Quickly, he unpacked – he hadn’t brought much, just a change of clothes and a couple of books, his old Nikon, a long lens and some fast film, a pair of binoculars – and checked the small cupboards, but every tin he picked up made his stomach roll. He drank some water and paused, bent over the sink, waiting for it to come back with interest, but this time it didn’t. He washed his face, and tried to swab the angry red nubs on his shoulder blades with cotton balls soaked in witch hazel; he would have to have a word with Reynolds about the ill-fitting protective gear they were issued with. He switched on the radio and settled down with one of the guide books from his holdall.
Ellis saw straight away, from the uneven blocking of its pages, that the book had been damaged. He turned to the section that had been torn out, a few pages between the Orioles and the Corvidae. It was not immediately clear from the contents list which birds had been removed; only a general heading – Family and Species Descriptions – was provided. He had to trawl through the weighty index before he spotted the relevant page numbers. And then he closed the book carefully, almost reverentially, and placed it back in his bag, deep enough so that he could not see its cover.
Someone was trying to tell him something. He thought about who might have had access to his bag, his books, but nobody ever visited him at his flat. He had ignored the opportunities to stop at service stations along the way; he shied away from hitchhikers. He stared at the bag as if it alone was responsible for the vandalism. He would mention it to Cavan and Pip when he saw them; they were the only ones who knew of his passion, and his fear. Yet even as he gave credence to his suspicion, he was questioning it. They respected his love of books, and shared it to some extent. He had seen them handling volumes in the secondhand bookshops they occasionally visited, and approved of the care they displayed. Cavan had even warmed up a brand new hardback by gently opening the book at various points to prevent the kind of immediate stresses that can damage the spine.
Ellis tried to read about the grasshopper warbler but hunger worked on the words, sucking them back into the cream paper. Music was of some comfort now as he lay back on his bunk, but he found before too long that it distracted him as he strained for the sound of his friends returning. He turned the radio down to a level where there was really no point in leaving it on, but it meant the illusion of company remained. Wildlife inched around the caravan, its sound as natural as weather: the miniature crash of mammals in bushes, things taking flight, or coming home to roost. Something cried out, as he trembled at sleep’s door. He tried to identify it but it was beyond him. For a dreadful second before he sank, he thought its author must be human. The screams went with him, lifting out of the confusion to find a clarity in the night of his own mind. Fear puddled out of Ellis. He was weak. The caravan had melted away and he was in a clearing with trees rearing up before him as if startled. He felt light, weightless. The pain in his shoulder blades was gone, he felt free and easy there, somehow disburdened; his hunger had been sated. The screams were coming from his own throat, a dry, desperate sound that seemed to make the uppermost leaves shiver. Something lay ahead of him, beyond that line of trees. Something waited.
Ellis showered, wincing as he knocked his sore back against the walls of the tiny plastic cubicle. He wondered if his anger at not being woken by his friends when they had returned from the pub was misplaced. Was it fair that he should react to them for what, on their part, must have been an act of charity? God knew he needed his sleep. But he craved some company too. Already the weekend seemed chewed away. Tomorrow he would have to return to Warrington and the skeleton of the gas works. Nevertheless, pride would not allow him to go to them now. He crashed around the kitchen preparing a phantom breakfast, and noisily exited. He wondered if Pippa and Cavan were fucking, and why it didn’t bother him if they were. Hunger prevented him from remembering if he and Pip had ever been involved – he dimly recalled a long embrace, hair in his face, a heartbeat within her warm breast filling his hands – but it might have been several lifetimes ago. A different woman, even.
Good luck to them, he thought, glancing once at the curtained window of the bedroom. This weekend was about fauna, not fornication. He laughed bitterly, a blast of air through gritted teeth, and plunged into the forest.
The light changed down here. It became green. I couldn’t back that kind of claim up in the physics lab at school, but I swear that was how it looked to me. It was dappled light, and it lay around your feet like coins furred with verdigris. The air was different too. It stuck in your chest, but in a good way. It was as if it were heavier air, cleaner, and your lungs didn’t want to give it up. The spaces beneath the trees seemed to fizz with darkness; you could see it moving around, and I was sure that if the trees were to suddenly leap away, exposing it all to hard sunshine, it would remain, squat and earthy, like the ghost of a giant toad.
The red in the green, the red against the milky square of Karen’s exposed thigh, was some contrast.
— Fucking hell, I said. — Doesn’t it hurt?
— No, she replied. — Some people get period pains but I’ve had none of that.
— What does it feel like? Is it like having a nose bleed? Do you feel it trickling out of you?
— Don’t be a mentoid. There’s hardly any flow. Enough for a dessertspoon, my mum says.
— Mmm, yum. Raspberry Angel Delight. So there’s no danger you’ll bleed to death?
— The worst case scenario is that I’ll leave a tammy up there, forget it and die from TSS.
— Toxic Shock Syndrome. Not a nice way to go.
— Well no, but, as you said, death’s a top pastime.
— I didn’t say that. I don’t have a death wish.
— Me and you, suicide pact? What do you say?
— I say have some Angel Delight.
And so on. We spent all summer like this, every summer I can remember, ribbing and teasing and flirting, although we didn’t know it, couldn’t have put that word to it at the time. But that day was different. Suddenly I was aware of Karen as being someone with an inside as well as an outside. She was a girl-shaped blood bag, barely contained. Walking home for tea after that weird, green-red evening, I couldn’t pass anybody by without thinking of them as taut balloons, ready to explode. Something had turned, maybe just the world, maybe some switch in my mind that had never been touched before, but things were irrevocably new now, and I couldn’t understand why.
That night, I thought of Karen, the way she had filled out as she stretched, her body dipping and curving. I thought too of that slick of blood on her thigh, her fingers smearing it to show me how dense it was, and the way her knickers were eased to one side, the material tight against her bottom. I ejaculated in my sleep – my first wet dream – and I woke to feel my own thighs sticky and warm, and things, I felt, were set now. My life had been propelled in one direction. One only. There was to be no divergence. No turning back.
He lost all sense of who he was after a while. He kept thinking about his name, Ryan Ellis, how ridiculous it sounded the more he repeated it to himself. The sun’s intensity was lost beneath the tightly meshed canopy. It might have started raining; it would be hours before any of the water broke through. He felt protected. He felt utterly at home. In this bubble he slowly became more than he believed he was, an incremental adding or improvement. Doing physical activity in such raw surroundings pumped you full of hormones. It created a sense of the self as immortal. He felt he could achieve anything. It was seductive to deem this euphoria a result of the fresh air, or the overload of natural green, or the plain, animal sounds concerned with territory or sex. He felt a part of it, his reptilian brain itching with lost or distant connections. He was a member of that natural order, one of billions of everyday miracles. The knowledge that his existence was a fluke, the odds stacked heavily against him, was an inspiring and exhilarating epiphany. He mattered, in his own small way, and what he brought to the proceedings was as relevant as that from anybody else. He was real, and his name was something like rya nellis.
The trees seemed to solidify ahead, yet whenever he reached a point where they must crowd him out, there was the same strange sense of space. A visual anomaly, he thought, but once he’d witnessed it, it was difficult to shake off quite so easily. The ground underfoot was becoming more spongy. He guessed there must be some kind of stream, or that the water table passed close to the surface here. Beyond that thick mesh of shrubs and branches, Ellis thought he saw movement. It was desperate, trapped movement, the spasm of something that knows death might be the only release it will see. He wondered if a deer had been caught in a poacher’s trap, perhaps, or a person, shocked to silence by the pain and the outrage. He fought through the weave but the clearing beyond it moved only with occasional ferns or tall grasses. Dizziness piled through his head, as if someone were bending his mind. He saw a spiral of patterns: the trees, the star-shaped tunnel of sky above them, the ground as it met him coming the other way. He tried to get up but the vertigo relocated itself each time. After three attempts he gave up and let himself be cradled by the earth. The cool, cushioning moss and the comfort of a deep blue sky fringed with cloud helped to right his thoughts. He thought of the hide at Foel Frech where he had observed birds in the past. He had seen an owl take a grasshopper warbler in mid-air there last December. He remembered the sudden release of the smaller bird’s cloaca as the talons raked through its body. Blood was a black rip in the silver sky. It had dropped like something solid, and he had exited the hide, convinced the blood had frozen as it fell to the ground. He had failed to find the blood, but had searched for it until the light diminished and the other birdwatchers had gone home. He found something else that night, though. He was about to give up, feeling foolish at his mad conviction, and had turned at just the moment that the moon eased out from behind a bank of high cloud.
Something had gleamed.
He closed his eyes now, and remembered the fragility, the lightness of the skull. It was like holding folded paper, like holding nothing at all. Every shred of flesh had been picked clean from the boss, the orbits, the maxilla: the bird grinned at him, the shadows of its ghost eyes so black it was if the memory of blood and the method of killing was still fresh within it. The beak, the sharpness of it, the colour of ash, emerging from the bone like a creeping stain. It was its own whetstone. The shredding of bodies, the atrocities it had committed. How many? So much blood had gushed through those calcium chambers that the bone itself was tinged mahogany.
He still had it, that skull, secreted away in a little wooden box at the back of a drawer. Sometimes at night, when loneliness curled itself around his shoulders, he took it out of its box and inhaled whatever breath lingered in the fossae of its nasal cavities. He had never believed that something so dead could smell so alive.
He caught sight of his eyes in the mirror when he returned. He wasn’t sure what time it was, but it was late, it was dark all over the sky, no pallid edges to suggest that the evening had just left or that dawn was close. For a moment he believed his eyes contained some inner luminescence, as if the humours of his eye had ignited like paraffin. They reflected orange; he resembled something startled, something unnatural. An image came to him, of his body pushed into clothes and then into a metal box. Keys turning, an engine leaping into life. At the end of that routine was another called work. Another set of clothes. Another metal box. The sweat and steam and stink of decayed tanks. Chemical salt extruding through concrete. The heat of it through his protective suit. It all seemed a dream, an illusion. He looked down at his naked body, bathed in a diffuse glow from the moon. His life was so many layers of the same thing but at this moment, his blood up, he couldn’t ecognize who he was or what he did. There didn’t seem to be any room for ritual. Instinct crowded him like a smell you couldn’t escape from. All he wanted to do was run through the tall grass and feel the cold mud suck at his feet. He sensed the warm bodies in the undergrowth frozen at his approach, watching him go by with perfectly round eyes, perfectly black. Heartbeats filled the air like rain.
He slept hard and deep and wakened to a light drizzle. He moved through it to the Jeep, feeling it misting his skin. He sat in the driver’s seat waiting for knowledge. Eventually it came to him and he turned the key, pushed the gearstick to D.
He didn’t remember the journey back. Too often his eyes strayed to the rearview mirror; the forest filled it all the way home.
In the gorge. She showed me how dark the blood was as she poured it from the warm body.
— Venal blood, she said. It’s almost the colour of chocolate.
The wood pigeon had been trapped in the crook of a tree, its mangled foot – injured in some previous accident – stuck fast in the fork of a branch. The harder the bird fought to get away, the more it twisted its leg into the crevice. By the time we got to it, following the sounds of flapping, the strangled sob that sounded almost human, it had broken the leg so badly that it was close to wrenching it off completely. A nictitating membrane was a momentary film of milk across the brilliant black bead of its eye. Nothing could be read in that speck. It looked the same alive as it would dead. Black, bleak code filing through the lens one way or the other.
Karen gently pulled the bird free and, holding it upside down, threaded its thin neck through her fingers, pulled and twisted it away from her body. The sound of bones powdering drew my skin into pimples. She coughed and spat, wiped her lips, the dead bird hanging limp from her fingers like a thin bag. Her eyes were bright, filled with a fluke light that had snaked its way through the green and sat fatly in her eyes.
I slept that night and the wood pigeon came back to life, spreading its wings. The pattern of Karen’s irises was woven into the soft grey span. The bird, stretching out against the sky, was more like Karen than its own species. It opened its beak to sing and blood drizzled from it, freezing in the air like a necklace of rubies that has been snapped.
I found myself back on New Road and I couldn’t remember how I had got there. Karen had kissed me. Her tongue had moved against my own, her eyes open, locked with mine. We didn’t hold each other. The bird hung between us, emptying itself on to my shoes. My hands were similarly useless, growing cold as she moved her face into me. I tasted blood in her mouth. I felt the dark at the very centre of her eyes seeping out to join with the shadows of the gorge.
I remember walking home, having to look back every few steps because I was sure the depths of the gorge were somehow rising, plateauing, sweeping into the streets to pursue me. When I got back I avoided the tea that had been laid out for me and went straight up to the bathroom. I vomited about a gallon of what looked like mulligatawny soup into the toilet. The smell and taste of copper was all over the place. She was in my mouth, she was in the crevices of my fingerprints though I couldn’t remember touching her. The flutter of her heart in her breast. The fragility of her bones. She unfolded like a flower, like a chick fighting against the membrane of an egg.
The colours around me were dull, despite the sunshine. Life existed in the shadows. Everything you needed was there. True meaning was in the word undergrowth. It was no coincidence.
Her finger in the bird’s crop. The elegance of something without life to prop it up.
The heat was so great that small puddles of sweat were forming at the base of his goggles. He had not eaten for so long he felt he was in danger of forgetting how to. His hands held the tools that scraped at the walls of the redundant gas chambers and he could almost believe that the work would never be done, that his hands would never be turned to any other task. His landscapes were filled with tars, nitrates, sludges and phenolics. He lived in toxicity. An hour later and he was pulled away from the face by Hinchcliff, who wanted to give him a spot check. He traipsed back through the rubble, the ceramic retort fragments, the clinker and scurf, broken bricks and ash. Hinchcliff tested his blood and his breathing. They talked about his diet and his exercise regime. Ellis lied steadily. At the end of the shift he bundled his clothes into the sealed laundry skip and took a hot shower. Hinchcliff waved a sensor over him in the changing rooms and he was given a green pass. The day was over. Ellis felt as though he were wearing contact lenses fashioned from lead. He drifted home and the colours of his work followed him down into sleep. Lampblack. The glitter of ash. Spent lime was known as blue billy. Cyanide trembled in the waste as Prussian blue.
The green of Slitten Gorge moved like scarves of weed caught in deep current. Sometimes its colour grew so concentrated that it was indivisible from black. You could survive a nuclear winter down here, she said. This is a place forgotten by time. The mapmakers keep missing it. Die here and your body would turn to dust before you were ever found.
Her thighs in his hands had shivered as he lowered his face to her cunt. She blooded him. Her hands fluttered at the apex of his shoulder blades, the bird turning in her fingers; he felt its dead weight flop against his back. He thought she was losing control, but she was performing magic.
Faces grew out of those forbidden colours. Hard-bitten profiles of his grandfather. He unbuttoned his shirt and swept it open; his skin came away with it. His lungs glowed in the pit of his chest, the pleural cavity thickened by plaques. His grandfather had contracted misothelioma, a rare, insidious cancer, the result of a decade of unprotected demolition. Ellis had seen photographs of him dismantling a factory during a blizzard, but the snow had been black asbestos.
Wanna bang on this? his grandfather had asked him, lying in his hospital bed, pulling off his oxygen mask and offering it to him. The mask had been stippled with bloody sputum. His breath came and went in staggered clouts, like an assault.
He had not seen her again after the end of that sultry, fractious day. He remembered a storm had climbed the sky that night as he lay in bed with his metallic flavours and erased the heat from the land. He didn’t know where she lived, but even if he had he wouldn’t have gone knocking. He understood that there were reasons, there were patterns. The storm might well have swept her away too. He had nothing tangible of hers to fasten her to reality. As the years went by, he started to question his reading of those events, and of the gorge itself.
An instinctive twitch of the steering wheel. He sent the Jeep on to Kingsway. At the swing bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal he turned left and followed the road into Thelwall. Memory scraped at the walls of his mind, trying to make itself known. He remembered these streets, although he hadn’t set foot on them for the best part of two decades. They had cadged drinks off the locals in Grappenhall village. They fished for perch in the Bridgewater canal. They sucked and blew on mouthfuls of hot, greasy chips from the fish bar by the Dog and Dart. Summer nights when the gorge waited for him and the sky contained a pale, soft grain that prevented complete darkness. The sodium lamps bleached the street of colour. Her lips were grey when he kissed her. It’s all right, because so are mine. She tasted of red and green. He dreamed of flight after she left his life.
He parked the Jeep outside the stationer’s at the point where the road sweeps left into Lymm village. Behind the rank of shops – the butcher’s, the greengrocer’s, a hair salon, an estate agent – the land forgot how to be level and plunged into black. People had been hurt here over the years. The sound of the weir was a subdued roar. Ellis gathered himself at the rails. He felt his hair move although there was no breeze. It felt as though the gorge was sucking his flavour into its depths, tasting him, remembering him after so long away.
He thought of Clocaenog, and the way its trees seemed compressed. Running through them, he had never tripped or jarred a shoulder against a trunk. He seemed to know their patterns, he understood the physicality of the forest. What he couldn’t work out was why he was running, or what he was running from. He felt the same paradox here; he knew Slitten Gorge as intimately as he knew himself yet he had not been as close as this in twenty years. He had loved this place, but associated it with decay, and an end to things.
He knew he would slip through the gateway and descend those treacherous stone steps furred with moss and moisture, as if they were sweating at their proximity to the place. He gripped the rails more tightly, looking down into the area where he had once observed a heron frozen as it waited for something to swim past. And then he was sinking into the strata of greys and blues and greens, his hands still clenched as if in an attempt to fool himself into thinking he was still at street level.
Someone else had appropriated this sacred space. Beer bottles and polystyrene cartons littered the floor; graffiti referred to Helen smoking cocks, and doing anybody who happened to be here next Monday night. Ellis looked around for something that might bolt him to a sultry evening in 1987, but only the colours remained. He felt the cool air move in his chest and wondered if his grandfather might have benefited from some time down here.
There was a shock of movement in one of the trees. Ellis turned to see a hand snatched up, or snatch itself up, into the higher branches; the leaves in its wake glistened with a colour darker than the shadows within which they shivered. He watched the tree, his heart beating hard, unsure of what he had just witnessed. Kids larking about. Some bruised fibre of memory. He didn’t know. He called out, but nothing responded.
He walked deeper, until the shadow of the slitting mill rose out of the darkness. The sun struggled to illuminate it, the dark ivy and moss growing on its stone absorbing the light. Nails had been produced here, and then the cutting of steel bands for the cooperage in Thelwall during Victorian times. The windows were scarred with dust that no amount of polishing could now hope to remove.
Hunks of Wilmslow sandstone peeked out from the greenery. Ellis pressed himself back against some; it was cold against his palms. She had led him into that place and scratched the end of a nail, a six-inch piece of iron perhaps as old as the village itself, into the hard curves of his shoulder blades.
If you had wings, she said, this is where they’d be.
She withdrew his prick and he felt it both trying to shrivel in the cold and thicken in her tight grasp. He felt his own blood trace lines across his back.
I want to show you blood that isn’t dark. I want to show you blood so bright that it lights up a room.
She had leaned close to him, her thighs bracketing his own. The nail in her fist traced a line along his throat. Fear had him at the point of vomiting, but before he could protest, she slid his penis inside her. Her eyes seemed to reduce somehow, as if she had a contrast button that had been turned right down. She fucked him hard and fast, hard enough that he thought she was going to damage him if he slipped out. Her movements were so violent that he missed the winding up of his orgasm. He was climaxing almost without realising. He cried out and she yelled his name.
Spread your wings, she said, and buried the nail into the side of her own neck.
Time jagged around like vicious pieces of broken glass. It was too dangerous to stop and try to pick them up. Ellis was in the Jeep. He might or might not have tried to call Pip and Cavan on his mobile phone. He might or might not have charged the battery before leaving work. He might or might not even own one.
He said, ‘As Ralph Hoffmann suggested, in Birds of the Pacific States, from 1927, “One cannot have too many good bird books.”’ He said it once, maybe one hundred times. By the time the eastern shoulder of the forest was muscling up against his car, it was dark. Breathing was becoming difficult. He thought of himself tearing pages from his books, trying not to focus on the photographs of Lanius excubitor. Death was easy around him. People dropped as if they were born to it. He wished he had been able to help his grandfather to spread his wings.
He found Pip and Cavan an hour later, once the forest had settled coolly in his thoughts. His hunger was something animal in him, turning his pupils black, filling his mouth with juices. Other animals had visited this place, this shrike’s larder, but had been put off by the stink of their survival. He stood before them and flexed his shoulder muscles. Shadows leapt away from them, into the shocked heights of the trees. They were trying to reason with him, clinging on to hope. Ancient nails rammed through their wrists and ankles had become encrusted with blood and sap. Their lips were white and cracked. Ripe tongues swelled in their mouths.
I fly, he might have said. Karen’s blood was orange behind his eyes. He could smell her, like something forged in a foundry.
He reached out and tore off some wet strips of meat for his belly, even though the bodies providing it begged him, haltingly through welling throats, not to. The screaming was so close to that of his own voice, and so loud, that he was not aware until much later of what had arrived, and was amassing on the branches.