And wakes to a world in flames.
Jesse hisses and narrows his eyes to slits, and the fire shrinks to a blowtorch sun, just rising over the horizon. His head is pounding, his spit tastes coppery. Shutting his eyes again, he travels swiftly through his body. Aside from a certain ache in his right shoulder, which has probably taken the brunt of his fall, he can find no real damage. He licks some caked blood from his lips. The sand is dry, fine, and surprisingly cool beneath his cheek. He needs to pee and, worse, he needs a drink. Cautiously he lifts his head for a better look.
The golden light of a new day before the clock takes hold. The sun drapes a gently undulating ribbon, rose and orange and bronze, across the glossy swell of water stretching endlessly before him. A thin grey line, smudged like charcoal, shows him where sailing ships once dropped off the rim of the world. Jesse realises that the pounding he heard is not in his head at all, but waves breaking against a beach. It’s loud, much louder than imagined. He can smell the salt on the freshening breeze which nuzzles his face. Seabirds swoop and screech and dive the entire length of the shoreline, fishing for breakfast, and a few stand on their stalky cartoon legs in the shallows and eye him with undisguised disdain, or just curiosity. He eyes them back. Rubbery tangles of what first seemed to be a mess of plastic dumped by some tanker or container ship glisten green and dark red and grey and inky blueblack: seaweed. Bleached driftwood lies scattered like clean-picked bones among shells so various and plentiful that Jesse can only draw one conclusion: no human foot has ever stomped or oystered here. Untouched, he thinks with pleasure – new. So this is the sea.
About ten metres behind him a solitary ash tree towers over the dunes – his ash, he supposes. He has a suspicion that ash trees don’t normally thrive at the coast.There is no figure hanging in the tree nor lying anywhere in sight, only a jagged dead bough not far from the trunk.
And a sphinx crouching atop a slope covered in thick tufts of grass and profuse yellow-flowering, spiky shrubs.
The sphinx stares at him without moving, without blinking. She’s waiting for him. There is no doubt whatsoever in his mind about this; he knows it instinctively, in that same part of his being which gives him fire. He rises and stretches, testing his shoulder, which twinges in response but will do. Then treading cautiously among the shells, he walks to the water’s edge to relieve himself. He marvels at how good it feels to stand with his bare feet in the icy water – it’s shockingly cold – and pee. He’s a bit surprised that the sea isn’t warmer, for the air is mild and summery despite the teasing gusts of wind. It’ll be hotter, certainly, when the sun rises high overhead. At last the sea: he’s tempted to swim, but zips his jeans instead and turns to survey the dunes. He’s desperately thirsty. Finding water takes precedence over any other actions.
There are a number of tidepools and even a stretch of saltmarsh fringed by tall reeds but nothing which tokens a freshwater source. He studies the sphinx, who seems prepared to wait indefinitely. She must drink; perhaps she knows of a stream or pond nearby. He digs in his jeans to see what he has about him: the top, a crumpled cigarette packet and his lighter, keys, a folded note, a condom in its foil packet (he grins a little, remembering the boy scout motto: even in Paradise he’d be prepared). Not much to facilitate survival, though he’s very pleased by the presence of the top and the cigarettes; the lighter too, since he can’t take alternative means of starting a fire for granted. But where is his knife? Hunger is already beginning to pluck at his belly. Once he finds water, he’ll need to eat. He has no idea how long he’ll have to spend here. Or even if time flows in the same way with which he’s familiar.
Jesse has been shying from the events which have brought him to this place. If it even were a place, he reminds himself wryly. But now the thought of his knife releases attendant memories: the park, Nubi, the hanging man, the sacrifice. Sacrifice – a harsh word, yes, some would say archaic. But even in this age of superstars and gigabytes, there is still sacrifice. Only who has been victim, who priest?
And then he thinks of Sarah. He smiles, and for a moment it’s as if he’s drinking at a swift silver-sprung mountain stream, fed by glacial waters. He drinks and drinks again: a wild sweet cold that eases his thirst but rises with a sharp stabbing ache into his head; and soon is angry at himself for the wetness on his cheeks. There’s no room for self-pity, not if he wants to see her again.
He approaches the foot of the ash and circles it slowly to reassure himself that no body lies concealed behind the massive trunk or a sheltering root. He needn’t have worried. All he discovers are his trainers, socks stuffed inside, which he pounces on gladly. They’re proof that this indeed is his tree and that a crossing has been effected, though what kind (and where to) he can only guess: the tree is an axis, or perhaps a focus not unlike his little top. Which, come to think of it, spins on its own axis – and is also carved from ash.
He sits down on a projecting hump of root and puts on his socks and shoes. There’s another, perfectly sound reason to appreciate the footgear. His feet are already scraped by the rough bark of the tree. Who knows what other terrain he’ll have to cross?
Behind the root, half hidden by a large stone and a clump of bright purple coneflowers, he spies a length of severed rope. Further diligent combing of the area turns up more rope; and then the twist of barbed wire, almost buried like a treasure, a royal circlet in the sand. Finally, he sees another glint of metal and with a cry of delight falls upon his knife like the old friend that it is. Naturally it will come in handy. But it means far more to him than a simple tool, and he examines it keenly – there’s the nick like a teardrop in the bone handle, and there, his grandfather’s initials, worn almost to illegibility. As he tucks the knife into his belt he can hear again his grandmother’s voice: use it well, Jesse. This time he answers aloud, his words as much a bridge to the past as a pledge: ‘I will, Gran, I will.’ He pictures her nod of satisfaction, the quick gleam of pride she always took such pains to disguise.
Now for water. Jesse sets off towards the sphinx, who is not far distant. The going is hard, for there’s no path and he has to clamber uphill through the sand dunes, where the ground under him shifts and slides away unexpectedly, and then up a steeper bank, whose exposed slope is cut away in large raw bites, as if a prehistoric earthmover had feasted here, and which is slowly eroding under the force of the winds blowing off the sea. Once or twice he loses his balance and scratches and cuts the palms of his hands on the thorny bushes he grabs to keep from falling, or on the grasses whose leaves prove surprisingly sharp, like paper. When he finally reaches the crest of the hill, he looks back. Already out of breath, he gasps, feels his throat and lungs expand with sudden dizzying speed, in order to inhale the poetry of it all, the dazzle and bewilderment and sheer glory. The curve of the coastline lies spread like a nude before him. No photograph, no film could do justice to the beauty and power of the canvas; no words to the exhilaration he feels at seeing it for the first time. But like all things human – and whatever else he might become, he is and will always be a man – his ecstasy is short-lived, or carries the seed of its own destruction – his imperfection – since he is saddened too, that he’s seeing this in solitude, without anyone to share the moment, hideously alone, without Sarah.
For the sphinx, despite her human features, does not derive from the same genetic pool. Strangely, he’s not afraid of her, but he feels more solitary in her presence than if he were utterly alone. Which in essence he is.
It’s beautiful here, but it is not his reality.
Jesse addresses the sphinx. ‘I’m thirsty,’ he says. ‘I need freshwater. Do you know where to find some?’
The sphinx regards him with what on a human face would have been a smile, albeit ironic, but says nothing.
‘Do you understand me? Can you speak?’
‘You hung from the tree. You sacrificed yourself.’ Her voice is lilting, musical. ‘The water is there, wherever you are. You only need access it.’
Jesse waves dismissively with a hand. ‘See for yourself. There’s no freshwater here.’
‘You must choose to own it,’ she says.
Jesse looks first at the sphinx, whose face has reverted to inscrutability, then down at his feet. The sandy ground seems to have nothing to reveal. Water, he thinks, clear fresh delicious water. Spring water. Mountain water running with salmon. Cold. Sweet. Plunging into a shallow basin before flowing onwards towards the sea. A light breeze ruffles his hair. In the distance, the sound of the surf. As he kneels, the sun dusts the nape of his neck with pollen’s velvety warmth, and the pool reflects a wavering image of his face. He cups his hands, dips them below the surface, and lifts them quickly to his mouth. The first draught tastes wonderful, and he pauses to savour its progress, not quite believing that the water will actually quench his thirst. He can feel it drop into his stomach and unfurl its crystal-beaded petals. Then he scoops mouthful after greedy mouthful, unable to stop before his belly is bloated. He groans in pleasure. It’s just like skateboarding, he marvels. Easy when you know how.
Jesse removes his T-shirt and splashes his face, his neck, and his chest. The water runs in rivulets off his skin, which itches from dried sweat and something else, something very like the sensations a snake might experience while shedding its old skin: an abrasive rejection of the old and dead and useless, the hypersensitivity of the new and as yet untested. He briefly yearns for a bar of soap but then realises no ecological irritant belongs in this world. Without waiting for his skin to dry he pulls his shirt back over his head. Finally he rises and again faces the sphinx.
‘Where are we?’ he asks. ‘What is this place?’
She blinks slowly and gives no answer.
‘What do you want with me? From me?’
Again no answer.
‘Then at least tell me how to get back,’ he says, somewhat impatiently.
‘To close the unknot, first bury your dead.’
The words chill him as the cold spring water has not. Is the sphinx toying with him like the cat she resembles? He shivers and rubs his hands vigorously along his arms, as much to feel any human touch, even his own, as to smooth away the gooseflesh. It occurs to him that he may never learn her purpose and would probably not understand it if he did. She is simply too different a being. Too alien. A further intimation that there are realities beyond the reach of human imagination.
And then he wonders just how human he still is.
Jesse and the sphinx continue to stare at each other for a long while. In the end, she yields, and Jesse feels triumphant, as though he has forced an irrational number to behave rationally – or a cold and implacable universe to beat with a human heart.
‘Here.’ She moves aside to reveal a body lying behind her on the ground. When Jesse steps forward and bends to examine it, he is confronted, not with the man who hung from the tree, but with a far more unnerving sight: the father of his earliest memories, stretched out as if in sleep but lifeless as an effigy. Tentatively Jesse reaches out a hand.
‘Mind,’ warns the sphinx. ‘Touch him only if you wish him to wake.’
Jesse jerks back. ‘But he’s not breathing.’
‘That too is uncertain.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘The web of dark threads is superposed and entangled in time.’
‘Red?’ he whispers.
The sphinx opens her wings to full span and flicks them as if to rid herself of an annoying fly or other minor nuisance. Or to demonstrate her power, for even the smallest movement sets the air in motion. It eddies in gentle ripples outwards from her shoulders, and a rainbow of colours shimmers around her. For a moment Jesse sees another image transposed over her original appearance, but before his mind has time to register properly what he’s seeing, it’s gone. He can’t help wondering if she’s shown him this other manifestation deliberately, or whether he has been an inadvertent witness to a deeper truth. Or perhaps he’s even learning to see ... He studies her carefully, but her expression is neutral, and her body, entirely solid if far from ordinary.
Jesse stares down at his father. The sphinx waits while he considers, while he struggles with his fiery demons, while he rises to his feet and hugs himself, slowly shaking his head.
‘No,’ he says. ‘Tell me how to bury him.’
She throws back her head with a scream of laughter. Then she gathers the limp body of Jesse’s father in her jaws, a cat collecting its mouse, and with a clench and thrust of her hindquarters, springs into the air, spreads the cabled strength of her wings, circles once overhead, and is gone.
‘I’m sorry,’ Jesse says, his eyes blurring with tears. ‘Dad, I–’ If he can’t trust his memory, what about his feelings? Certain connections in the basic-emotion command systems are supposed to be indelible, even if the way you act upon this affective circuitry is not: the frontal lobes are terribly powerful. He’s done the reading (hasn’t he tried desperately to understand the source of his fire?). But some very odd things are wired into his brain – hardwired? soft? or …?
Dispirited, he makes his way back to the edge of the sea. He removes one of the cigarettes from his packet, straightens it as best he can, and lights it with the solid comfort of his – Finn’s – Zippo. He smokes the way a shaken survivor smokes, needing every drag he takes, inhaling deeply, drawing the smoke down into the least used cul-de-sacs of his lungs, his muscles liquefying with relief.
The sea rolls seductively before his feet, and though he knows he should soon make the attempt to return to his world, the temptation is simply too great to resist; or his need too great. When he has finished smoking, he pinches out the butt and drops it into a pocket, unaccountably loathe to leave any earthly objects behind, though he supposes his own urine, the moisture evaporating from his pores, the atoms touched by his skin or breath will also taint this world.
Jesse strips and wades into the waves. Cold, but not as icy as before, or his body is adjusting better. He splashes a little water on his torso and back, then with a small cry dives beneath the surface and opens his eyes. The water is clear but salty; he’s never swum in any but freshwater before and is surprised at how quickly his eyes begin to sting. He swims underwater against the current, which, though strong, isn’t more than he can handle. There seem to be no fish; he must have frightened off the seabirds’ meal in his vicinity. He breaks surface to breathe and then continues to dolphin in playful lazy circles not far from shore. He has no desire to encounter a shark or whichever creatures this ocean might conceal; no desire to find out if he might be edible fare.
He’s about to dive underwater again when he feels something brush against his chest. Startled, he recoils, rolls onto his side, and swallows a gulp of seawater, then sputters and flails a little in the waves. He’s in no real danger of going under but needs a few minutes to recover from his momentary panic. He treads water, not even trying to re-establish the easy rhythm of his stroke, and looks all round nervously. There’s no sign of a fish or other sea dweller on the surface. Still, better to be sure. Surprises are always unwelcome in the water. He takes a deep breath and plunges below the swell. A small figure, blurred and shadowy, slips past him. Impossible … how could a naked infant – a little girl – be swimming here? For a moment he thinks of Ariel, the magical sprite who can fly and swim and even plunge into fire, who sometimes takes the form of a water nymph, who sings of a sea change, Into something rich and strange. Quickly he strikes out after the child and glimpses her again, fleetingly, her hand waving in a friendly gesture, but straightaway she’s gone, and his lungs are soon asking for, then demanding air. He rises to the surface. Though he tries diving and searching a few more times, he sees nothing other than the vast silent roam of dark green water saturating to black.
When his muscles begin to tire, he heads back to shore, clears a space free of shells, and flops down on the sand, but finds that he’s shivering despite the sun. The birds have grown accustomed to him, and a few come close till he gets up again and jogs in place. He rubs his arms and legs, and dresses as soon as he’s no longer dripping wet. He can’t seem to keep still. His thoughts are as unruly as his body, returning again and again to that light, almost ghostly touch and to the sighting of the little underwater swimmer. There’s something he’s missing, something his mind is trying to tell him. Finally he gives up. It’s like a word on the tip of your tongue, refusing to surface no matter how much you tug at the mooring chain. Maybe if he leaves it alone for a while, stops worrying it. The tide washes up untold treasure.
Jesse lights another cigarette. The swim has made him even hungrier, but rather than try to deal with the problem of food, he decides it’s time to face the real issue, the one he’s been avoiding; dreading.
After his smoke, he makes his way to the ash tree. The dead branch is large and unwieldy, but he needs something he can use without doing too much damage. A rock would be risky. Besides, a piece of the tree is more likely to cross with him; there must be something to all those fantasy tropes, the same way myths contain vestiges of primal experience. Using his knife, he half cuts and half snaps off a stout length and removes all the smaller branches and twigs, smoothing the ends and surface as much as possible. Now he has a good-sized club. He tucks it under his right arm, then takes out his top.
Jesse holds the little toy in the palm of his left hand and stares at it, trying to quieten his monkeyhouse mind. It isn’t easy, for he’s genuinely frightened by what he hopes to do; and even more frightened by the possibility of failure. It has to work, he tells himself. What other choice does he have?
He finds it difficult to focus. First he closes his eyes, but images strobe in bright distracting flashes; he opens his eyes – words tumble and bound and cartwheel; he closes them – flames flicker, rage into life, then die back again; he opens them – the notes of a saxophone, loud and brash; he closes them – wild reckless feelings ...
… Jesse …
His mind twists and turns like a beast caged, desperate to escape; it throws itself against the bars again and again – bruising itself, howling in pain, then scrabbling, gibbering, into a corner before launching itself yet again against the iron – screeching, retreating, clutching its genitals, then running full tilt at the unyielding bars beyond which lay his world –
– no world …
With a cry Jesse flings the top away. The makeshift bludgeon drops to the ground, unheeded. He spins round and gazes out to sea. For a moment he considers going down to the water again – cold, clean, pure. You could swim forever in its icy black ink.
… Jesse ...
He covers his face with his hands but the voicings jutter on. What am I going to do? Stranded here alone, with only memories for company, and words and words to speak – bleak black words with no one to hear. He could conjure water, food too, probably … but a living creature … a dog … a companion …
Nubi’s rabbit-crazy bark sounds behind him, twice on a rising note. Jesse shudders and blocks the sound from his consciousness with an anguished exclamation. The bark doesn’t come again. No! Not that. Never that. He imagines what it would mean to summon a person. There are worse things than loneliness: like never knowing whether he’s holding Sarah, or a clone or a golem …
… Jesse ...
He has to find a way back.
Once more he hears the sphinx’s laugh, a hot lance in his head. A taunt? Or a challenge? The way back is knotted forward to back to forward to
… Jesse ...
He lifts his head to listen. Faintly at first, but then louder – Sarah’s voice spiralling lissom and sinuous and slender as fluted quicksilver towards him through the harsh cacophony in his head.
Jesse, where are you?
Of course. He’s hung from the tree. He’ll return not because he has to, but because he chooses to, because it’s his world, and hers, and it has chosen him too. Even if he could survive in this herenow, he’ll not live out his life in solitude, in a place without dance. One by one the other voices fall away.
‘Jesse,’ Sarah calls, ‘where are you? down in the kitchen?’
He bends, retrieves the cudgel, securing it again beneath his arm, and the top, which he holds out before him on the flat of his hand. It rises in the air and begins to spin, slowly at first, then fast and faster until he can only see a blur, a flare of light, a flame.
Jesse hefts the length of ash. It won’t be long now. His back to the tree, he’s wedged between the moment of arrival and that of departure, the moment when he’ll complete the circle ordained by his birth – or his conception, or his great-grandfather’s decision to ride to market on that particular rainy Saturday in June, for who knows wherewhen anything begins or ends. ‘Nubi,’ he hears his earlier self call out. Footsteps approach, then stop. He takes a deep breath, grips the cudgel tightly, and rushes forward. His aim is good despite the darkness. At the moment of impact, both his alter ego and the piece of wood disappear. There are no fireworks, no heavenly choirs, no mushroom cloud. Jesse – the other Jesse – simply winks out. He closes his eyes with a sigh of relief. It’s done.
He opened them again when Nubi nudged his hand with his wet nose. The dog sat down at his feet and regarded Jesse with the expression which all dogs reserve for their owners – devoted, puzzled, a little wistful (after all, a dog biscuit was not that much to ask for, a bone). There was only the faintest glint of red in the depths of Nubi’s eyes, so vague and indistinct that Jesse thought he must have imagined it, for when the dog yawned it was gone. Gone too, the tenderness at the back of Jesse’s head; the twinge in his shoulder, the abrasions on his palms and the soles of his feet.