Title: The Ritual.
Author: Adam Nevill.
Genre: Fiction, horror, survival fiction.
Publication Date: 2011.
Summary: When four old university friends set off into the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle, they aim to briefly escape the problems of their lives and reconnect with one another. But when Luke, the only man still single and living a precarious existence, finds he has little left in common with his well-heeled friends, tensions rise. With limited experience between them, a shortcut meant to ease their hike turns into a nightmare scenario that could cost them their lives. Lost, hungry, and surrounded by forest untouched for millennia, Luke figures things couldn't possibly get any worse. But then they stumble across a derelict building. Ancient artifacts decorate the walls and there are bones scattered upon the dry floors. The residue of old rites and pagan sacrifice for something that still exists in the forest. Something responsible for the bestial presence that follows their every step. As the four friends stagger in the direction of salvation, they learn that death doesn't come easy among these ancient trees...
My rating: 7.5/10.
♥ Phil laughed. Luke smiled. Dom felt obliged to join in, but in seconds his laughter was genuine. And then they were all laughing. At themselves, at their fear, at the thing up in the tree. Now they were away from it laughter was good. It felt necessary.
♥ Everyone's judgement was impaired. Nothing said or done now could be trusted. But somehow it wouldn't be forgotten or forgiven.
♥ Uncovered by yellow torchlight, that struggled to reach far into the cramped hovel, the first thing Luke noticed were the skulls. And then the crucifixes.
From small birds to what could have been squirrels and stoats, small mottled heads had been fixed with rusted nails to the timber walls of the large room on the ground floor. Larger skulls of lynx and deer and elk had mostly fallen from the walls and cracked against the floorboards. One or two still grinned from near the low ceiling, where their porous bones managed to hang on.
Between the skulls still mounted upon the walls were at least a dozen crosses. By the look of them, though no one looked for too long, they had been handcrafted from bundles of twigs tied with twine, and were mostly tilting now, or even hanging upside down. From the ceiling beams that brushed the tops of their uncovered heads, two empty and corroded oil lamps creaked irritably on their hooks if touched,
Under the floor, mice scampered. In this place they sounded angry at being disturbed, though something far too confident and unafraid was also suggested in their rustlings.
♥ He tried to shake the terrible feeling from himself. It jostled with his fear. This was never a place for a man to be, ever. He felt that instinctively. You got mixed up with the kind of madness that nailed skulls to walls. Even the cold black air seemed to move about them and though them with a sense of its own purpose. It was stupid, irrational to think so, but his imagination suspected the house was inhabited with something he didn't need eyes to see. They were small and fragile here. They were defenceless. They were not welcome.
♥ It rose from shadow and became shadow again.
At the far end of the attic the silhouette sat upright and completely still between the two sides of the angled roof. Crowded and lightless, the place it occupied pooled with darkness above and below the moving torch beams, which seemed frail in here, powdery at their furthest reach but strong enough to pick out the dust and silvery webs on an old black hide. In the patches of hair moistened by drops of rain from the roof beams, it glistened.
One beam of torchlight dropped to the area from which the figure emerged. A small wooden casket the size of an infant's cradle revealed itself in the dusty yellow underwater light. A coffin possibly, built from wood and dark with age, or painted black.
The other torch - Luke's - lit up the horns that rose from above two dark eye sockets. Brownish bone, long and thick.
Two thin rear legs, ending in hooves, jutted out from the body then bent at the bony knee joints. The hooves looked as if they were poised upon the sides of the casket in readiness of the horned thing rising out of its box.
Black lips were pulled back above long yellow teeth; a grimace to last for all time beneath nostrils that still appeared curiously wet. Up and down the chest, small pink teats parted the fur. This was the most unpleasant thing of all, worse than the ivory mouth which Luke imagined was about to open and the snap shut with a clacking sound.
The thin black forelegs, or arms, were raised to shoulder height and bent at the elbow. Blackened hands were upturned, the palms facing the ceiling, as if it were commanding all before it to rise, or as if the figure had once been holding objects that were now long gone.
Luke could not speak. Did not know how to react or what to think. He just existed before it and within the terrible presence that filled the cramped space of the attic.
Hutch only spoke after he began picking out the pale objects on the floor with his torch beam. "Bones."
♥ "We become detached from the familiar and our ancestral imagination tries to work shit out. Isolation. Long winter darkness. That's what did this." He looked at the ceiling. "Someone lost their mind for sure out here."
"Think I would too. This place has put an end to my long-held fantasy about living alone, in a cabin in the woods."
♥ Sticks. Spiking trees. Looking for eyes. Piking the throat. Sticks. Bristling phalanxes needling from branches and erupting from the ground. Sticks everywhere.
Into the dark. Throwing your weight forward. Head down to protect your face. Arms flung out, fingers grasping for purchase, to seize handfuls of the sharp sticks and tug them aside. But down sleeves, inside your collar, and into your socks to catch like barbs, go the sticks and they bring you to a thrashing suspension, your feet never finding the ground. Because you cannot feel the earth, the dark clay from which all of it springs. Down through cracking bracken, sharp brown thorns and crunching dead wood, your feet plunge. Buried to the knee in small crevasses from which you cannot haul slow spent legs.
And there you hang. Gulping at the air like a man drowning. Dizzy with exhaustion, weary like the dying, you hang between the bindings of vine and the scaffolding of sticks. And wait. Wait for it.
Loping through complete darkness that begins a foot from your eyes, its stride covers thickets you could not even crawl through. Sweat cools from your neck down to your waist and turns to shivers.
Will it be quick? The end?
You haven't even seen it, but the darkness transmits images at you, composites from a thing you have seen elsewhere, at another time. So maybe the horns will go through you. A puncturing thrust to the dense meat of torso before a furious shaking. Before the teeth get busy. Sharp yellow teeth. Old ivory snapping shut with a woody sound. Some teeth long for ripping, gleaming wet from black dog gums.
So keep your eyes closed at the end. You don't want to see such a mouth up close. Before the bite, before its oblivion in the goring of your soft parts, the speckled lips will curl back in a whinny of excitement. You just know it.
It comes. You can hear it. The bellow of a bullock slowing to a nasal whine. A puff of air, shot through wet nostrils. A doggish grumble, and you can almost see the jaws part before the growl soars through the octaves to become the devilish yip yip yip that has circled you for hours. In the solitary hunt, driven wild by the salty mineral of your fear hanging in the cold air, and the expectation of gouting blood - the hot rush to bathe a black snout - you sense it tensing into a final stalk.
Now you scream. Into the darkness. Above, behind, forward and below. Scream until your throat rubs to rust. Scream at the futility because there is no one to hear.
The air about you stills, or even disappears into a vacuum of anticipation. In your imagination, behind closed eyes, its flanks and haunches are hardening to muscle, tough as ship's rope. Forward comes the long neck, through the dark, through your mind. Out go two mottled spears of bone. Black horn. Stained and flaking from the last kill.
A final rasp of foetid air, bestial and hot with spoilt meat, engulfs you from behind. Air that comes from a shape so long and powerful, the terrible unseen presence sets fire to every one of your nerves in limb and spine, one more time. To fuel your last thrashing plunge into the sticks. The skewers. Arrows of wood. Hard as bone. Sticks everywhere.
♥ On your knees you weep. Sobs wrack your chest and your eyes are cried dry. Parched heaving comes out of your raw throat and sounds strange to your own ears. You cry because this is the end. Your life closes this way, in this dark and stinking place that makes no sense. There is no justice in this and no way to escape. But your anguish does not penetrate it at all. Sitting there on its haunches, on that wretched wooden throne, the long horns rising majestically to the ceiling like some crown, as it watches you, without mercy, empowered by your disgrace on these dirty planks. Its arms are flung to the ceiling in hideous triumph.
♥ "This is one of the last parts of the Boreal coniferous belt. Goes all the way from Norway to Russia. It's what grew after the Ice Age. This. It's been around for that long. A Norwegian spruce can even live for five hundred years. A Scots pine for six. Can you imagine it? It shrunk by ninety per cent in the last century. All cut down and cleared. But they left parts like this, in the national parks, so fungi and lichen can grow in all this shit we can't get through. To preserve the habitats. For birds and insects. Wildlife. This whole place is chock-full of rare species. All of that forest we saw from the train on the way up is managed. Probably no more than a hundred years old. They don't let forests get this old any more."
♥ A remote part of Luke remained conscious of what the other bigger part of himself was now doing on instinct. It was the rage he brought back to them from the trees; the endless wet trees that would never let them go. And it demanded an eruption from him.
♥ He would do this for these men he had once loved like brothers, even if they weren't his friends any more.
♥ He was too uncomfortable with Dom's presence somewhere behind him; it glared against his back, all molten with rage and salted by grief.
♥ "People must have been tiny. Like children."
His own observation unnerved him in the faint but perceptible way the interiors of historical buildings always did when he ducked through tiny doorways and saw the little beds and chairs that once serviced the long-dead. Perhaps it was this sudden and unwelcome reminder of his own mortality that made him feel, so acutely, a sense of a frightening loss that was like vertigo. That all things must pass. That anyone who had lived there and used the furniture before it became antique was now dust. The dank oppressive atmosphere of the enclosed and rotten space he was inside added a sense of desolation. Despite the rain, he was glad it had no roof. Even the dull mackerel light was welcome. He felt suddenly grateful for the company of others. "The last thing this place is holy."
♥ "Human remains and animal remains mixed together. Bloody weird. They're not all old either. I mean, they've all been here ages, but some have been here longer than others." He was talking to himself now, oblivious to Luke's tense presence, as if by speaking out loud he would arrive at a satisfactory explanation for what felt so wrong. They were both now shivering inside their wet-weather gear; shivering from more than just the effects of the cold air and the rain.
Luke could not swallow. And what shocked him more than anything he had experienced since they had become lost, was the evidence in this place that the boundary between men and beasts had been scored out.
"Children's bones are in here."
♥ And the full gravity of the last few years came pressing upon him again, even here, in this place, in these circumstances, after all he'd been through he still wasn't free of himself; whenever he stopped and rested, when the external distractions abated, he always felt worn out, so tired by his life; was forced to acknowledge that he had achieved nothing for his pains, his transience, his changes of direction, or lack of direction, his misfires and mistakes. And he admitted to himself that he had always coveted his friends' families, homes, careers, their seemingly contented lives. Without such, it came to dawn on him a few years ago, you could not even begin to hope to be accepted. Not really; not in this world when you were well past thirty. But he'd always hated himself too, for craving what Hutch, Phil and Dom had; those impenetrable worlds that so many took for granted; he loathed himself for desiring acceptance, when he also knew how thwarted every job and relationship made him feel. But still, he craved it all. It was at the heart of his unhappiness, his despair. He would probably die incomplete, undecided, and disappointed.
♥ The moon, large and so bright. Is it possible for it to be so near the earth? To arc across the night sky from one end of the horizon to the other?
Silver light frosts the treetops that stretch away forever. Near the ground, the air is bluish-white and gassy as moonlight mingles with the cold. And the wood looks like the bristling surface of an army, with lances, standards and great armoured backs rising out of a dark mass, once seething forward and now frozen as if a terrible march or retreat has been suspended. But it parts around this place. Avoids it. Thick trunks of ancient trees and whipping walls of bracken pull back from the edge of the paddock, from where they uneasily circle the loose, faded and stained tents. Nothing but long weeds and grass dare to mill about the campsite.
And what is that hanging from the treeline? Stretched between the black fringe of the wood like washing blown from a line and caught in the high tiers of forlorn branch and limb, something flutters. They could be shirts, holed and ragged. Discarded things with torn sleeves. Three of them, matched with three sets of frayed leggings, thin as long johns arranged below. And all stained with rust.
Skins. Stripped from dead things. Peeled off and flung upward to hang like pennants, about the place you sought refuge in.
And now something is moving out there, through the vague and dark spaces behind the treeline. Wood cracks and splinters as it moves, just out of sight.
Pacing the weed-fringed clearing it begins to announce itself more readily with a yipping sound that occasionally breaks into a bark, and soars up to the icy clarity of indigo-black sky. A cry this place has known for a long time before you stood here, shivering and alone.
It's trying to tell you something.
It is letting you know that you can wait for it here and watch it come fast from the trees, or you can try to run on slow and strengthless legs. Flee out there, through the spikes and snares of ungroomed woodland. Into the heaving army that will not let you pass easily through its rows and ranks.
It must be tall, because the branches so far from the ground begin to move straight ahead of you. Some are bent aside and allowed to whip back into place, where they settle and shudder. And through the silvery leaves come the deep guttural grunts. Almost a voice, but not something you can understand. Thick with doggish whines, bull coughs and jackal cries. Its breath turns to fog among the leaves and now you can see no more than the suggestion of something long and black moving swiftly between bush and trunk.
Sinking lower to the ground, it makes ready to appear.
♥ "Come on. Come on and find me," he said in a low voice, every word tighter than the last, speaking to the solemn trees and wet verdure, the dead wood and foot-deep leaf mulch, the fungus and thorns, the shadowy air and distant mist atop the green tinted rocks, to all that hid this terrible and unnatural thing. Because only now, like this, could he face whatever it was that could do such things to a man. And at no other time. So this is a place he told himself he must return to; must save some deep part of himself for when the time came to die out here. And it would not be easy for their hunter. He would not go quickly and quietly. He swore this to the oldest forest in Europe.
♥ Phil raised his face to look at a portion of sky visible through the canopy. "They hung them. Strung them up for it. I think it was younger then. But it's still here. They're gone. The old people I saw in my dream. Who... fed it. But it is still here."
♥ Nothing would follow him out there; it didn't like to be seen, he told himself It crept about the ruins and relics of a former time.
♥ It wasn't possible. Any of this. Perhaps if he wasn't so tired, with every muscle hurting under his damp skin, and his mind thick and dizzy with fatigue, he would go mad. Three days in this place had blunted his edges. His personality was disappearing, paring itself down to instinct and fear. How a rabbit must think. You didn't need to be sentient out here, just afraid all the time and quick to act when the world suddenly felt wrong around you; toll still, too easy. That's when you died out here.
♥ But Luke could not calm down. It was like inhaling that massive bong back at uni. He'd never been as frightened until that point; terrified of losing control and not being able to find his old self again, as his memory rewound quickly and seemed to erase itself, as he vomited ans suffocated and gasped over the toilet. And now he was swamped by that same icy panic and fear all over again and was consumed with a terror that he would never feel any different again. Heart hammering up inside his throat, sweat popped from his scalp and poured into his woollen hat.
It was natural, he told himself. Go with it again. Let it burn out. Find its own end.
♥ He remembered the surprise, the shock, the fear, the hurt. Like a child's face. When we're frightened and hurt are we ever anything else?
♥ "And we've always been fascinated by what you were getting up to. At least you had a go. Did things a bit differently. Wanted something else."
"It came to nothing. That's all I know."
Dom shrugged, sighed. "We were all fairly monogamous guys. Got into relationships and stayed in them. Then kids. At least you got to throw the hump a few times."
"And we all went back to our home towns after uni. Stayed put. It made life easier, Luke. Things were cheaper when we all graduated. We got houses. Kept the same jobs, until recently. I've never done anything else but play it safe. And Phil. At least you and Hutch had a go at something else. That;s got to count for something? And nothing is really safe. Is it? None of us knew what life would throw at us. Everyone is fucked up, Luke. Damaged. We're all messed up, underneath. Doesn't matter what kind of house you live in."
...after what he'd done to Dom, after what he had said, here was his friend, injured, cold and scared, but still trying to reassure him about his car-wreck of a life. If this wasn't friendship, he didn't know what was.
♥ "I can't." His voice sounded pitiful, tiny, in the cold watery air, before the rock and wood that would not be defied in its almighty and far-reaching indifference, its immensity of permanence.
♥ Within the pit of his belly he tried to find the heat of anger; the rage that made him go to meet it face-to-face when they found poor Hutch, disembowelled and splashing his innards down his legs and onto the black bark of the hanging trees. But there was nothing inside him but a chaotic space with no room for anything beside the kind of terror that could disengage a mind from anything bit imbecilic musings.
And then again, to their left, so suddenly at their side, the bellow opened up the damp and boggy forest that remembered prehistory within its depths of peaty soil and in every single stone. Bestial grunting gave way to a devilish yipping in which words could almost be understood.
From the very core of each of them, their ancestors seemed to cry out in inarticulate voices. Right then they screamed in alarm from times before symbols and language could depict such things that hunted and meant murder. Luke believed they were returned, in this cold and in this dark, to a place and into the presence of something from earth's dawn. Or another, even older place than that. It dominated the land. The boughs and leaves of its territory shuddered, marshy surfaces quivered, and the dank and dripping vales held their breath before its arrival.
Luke walked towards the sound, to the eastern edge of the hill on which they were about to make their final stand.
♥ On the lonely and dreary place where they were supposed to have met their end, remained the final clues of what befell their hiking trip. Evidence of four friends who took a short cut.
♥ He knew nothing about first aid. Or survival, or how to find water and nutrition if the supermarkets were closed. Or what the direction of the wind could tell him, or what information was held in the colour of the sky. He just reacted to shit that had already happened. He was hopeless and broken and deserved to perish. I am of the generation of arse, he mouthed and then laughed silently. We couldn't find water in a reservoir. When we walk in a forest we all die. We are but baby birds fallen from nests to an unforgiving earth.
♥ To what end? Why destroy such complicated and sophisticated creations as his friends? Why demolish all those memories and feelings and thoughts that made them? His mates.
Tears stung Luke's eyes. He shivered.
They had come together when young. Were drawn to each other as curious attractions formed permanent bonds amongst all of those people at university, at a time and in a way that can never happen again. They listened to music together and talked for days without pause. They woke in the morning to see each other. They occupied each other's physical space ad head space, and wanted each other's approval and needed to make each other smile. They had been good together until life and women and work and urges for new places pulled them apart. But there was enough of that connection remaining to bring them back together. Out here. Fifteen years later. To find each other all over again.
His friends had been destroyed for no reason he could think of. They had been destroyed like most people were destroyed. By just being in the wrong place. After all of that development and growing and cultivating and caution and survivable self-destruction and failure and regeneration and struggling and coping, they had just walked through the wrong bunch of bloody trees. And that was that.
Come on you bastard.
♥ The dawn was red. Or was that his vision? The sunrise blazed through the trees to his left, to the east. He turned his head to see it with the only eye he could keep open. And beyond the scattering of trees down there in the rocky soil he could detect a great whitish space widening out forever, where great black trunks and boughs did not suffocate the red light. He squinted his good eye at the ocean of space and scarlet light beyond the trees. And he wondered if this was the end of the terrible forest, or the beginning of hell, or just the end of his mind. It mattered little because he would not move again. Could not. There was not one more shuffle or dragging lurch left inside him. There was nothing left inside him but the dimming of his parts and the quietening of his wordless thoughts.
♥ A black miniature house that made him afraid; it looked like the disused buildings they had found in the forest. This one was also very old. As was the room, and no doubt the house. Everything around here was morbidly aged and neglected. The very smells of the place were alien to him. The house smelled of the forest. Of the dark dripping heart of the terrible wood, that reared up black and still and impenetrable around the grassy paddock.
♥ "It is not some fucking devil! Some Christian shit! It is older Gods who speak to us."
♥ The fight made him feel better. Stupidly so, because he had made things much worse for himself. Security would be tightened, grudges had formed, faces would have to be saved, revenge needed to be taken. Inevitable, predictable, childish; the consequences of being human. It was the way of things. The ground rules were just being established between him and them. Every new grouping of people formed a hierarchy. And he was at the bottom of this one; a disempowered witness to their moronic sadism. That was his role.
♥ He thought of Fred and Rose West's house in Gloucester, of the entombed captives suffocated in the walls. Recalled bits of what he knew about the degradation of the victims of degenerate killers. Dharma, Manson, the Green River Killer, Brady, Nielsen, the Night Prowler, and all of the stranglers and slashers with their hall of fame on cable television. He thought of their victims kept captive, toyed with, dispatched, even fucked, often eaten. These thoughts made him feel so weak, he thought he should sit down.
Then he clenched his fists, ground his teeth. Wanted to bellow at the impossibility, the absurdity, the unfairness of it. There was simply no preparation in life for the determined madness of others.
♥ "This is the most remote place in Scandinavia, Luke." It was Loki speaking to him now. "Where the oldest things can still be found, my friend. Here there are different rules. Different energies, you know." Luke continued to stare at the house.
Then Fenris was talking again, quickly, near where Luke lay in the grass in his dirty underwear, wrists bound with a plastic loop from a DIY store. "They kept it alive here. Kept it real."
When he spoke next in his deep, softened voice, it was as if Loki was mollifying a confused child. "Something is pushing to the surface of the world, Luke. And in us too. Something terrible. Destructive. I sense it in you also. It pulled you in, eh? And all of your friends. Us too. But, I am sorry to say, that sometimes the innocent are sacrificed."
Fenris was babbling, breathless with glee. "How do you think they have lived here? Lived for so long? No one fucks with them. They live as they please. It is the oldest forest in Europe. It is protected. That is why all this is still here."
Loki's voice remained passive, unshocked, unaffected by the ruin of a father, a husband, a friend, a man, up in that tree. "This is the land of our ancestors. Here Odin still rides. And you have to wake up and accept the wishes... the demands of something older and greater than you, Luke. That is all."
♥ "Real magic, you know? That's why I come. I decide to show the others what real magic is. I brought only the fittest with me, you know? Who have proven themselves to me. Proved they were evil enough. That they were... uncompromising. A word I like when I learn it. They prove they could kill and burn. They who are of blood and soil."
♥ Luke started to laugh. He had to do something; it helped with the fear. Being afraid wasn't helping him. Hadn't done so for a long while. There was no time for fear now. Fear was useless to him; a repetitive survival instinct when survival was no longer a possibility. It was time for something else altogether.
♥ They wanted to be feared, and revered, as all morbid adolescents do.
♥ "These are the original settlers. The first people. But there were other things here before them. And the settlers paid a tax to the original occupants to remain here. To hunt, trade skins, live in the forest. Long ago. Give the God food and drink and they prosper. Give it animals to rip apart and the forest grows and protects. It is the way of the Old Ones. They have been pushed to the little places, Luke. To the corners. By Christians, and immigrants and social democrats." Loki shakes his head, in bitter despair, then looks up. "They call it by many names out here. In my family when I was a boy, they call it the Black Yule Goat. But that is not such a good name, I think. But in these woods is a God. A very real God. You can be sure of that. Christians call it a demon. But it is a God. Just not their God."
..."It's no God, Loki. You are wrong. The Christians were probably closer to the truth. Everything you have done has been for nothing. It's been pointless. Senseless. I've seen the temple. It's in ruins, mate. The old stones? Overgrown. No one to tend the cemetery. This is all forgotten, Loki. It's over. Died out. There's only that old woman left. And she can't have long, mate. And you're too bored and stupid to hang around here for long. So it's over. No more worshipping of some old wild, mad beast, or whatever it is. No more sacrifice. No more murder. This thing you call a God has no future."
♥ They lived.
"These are the ancient ones," Loki muttered.
Momentarily Luke's thoughts moved from rout to clarity. Their own dead and slowly dying were precious. The lives of strangers were meaningless; they were to be hunted and slaughtered like deer in the forest, then dumped in a rubbish-filled crypt of an abandoned church, while these brittle remains were stored here with reverence.
"The past and the present are the same thing here," Loki whispered.
Fenris removed his hand from Luke's mouth. Luke shuddered and made a sound like he was stepping into cold water. And suddenly he grasped that the old woman of the woods was defined by this closeness to her dead. They existed continuously. She lived with the dead. Kept alive a bond with the dreadful things of another time. The church and cemetery was a place of sacrifice, while the old servants of an old religion reposed here.
♥ The wind buffeted his little window and the clouds stifled the weak white sunlight. As the air dimmed about him, his thoughts lowered their own lights. And he wept for himself, and for his friends, and his heart's pouring seemed to flow into the great sadness that ran through the world and through all who were in it.
Maybe for short periods of time it seemed to him, inside that stinking bed, that some people were exempt from tragedy and pain, but these respites were short; in the scheme of things and in the length of eternity, respites were nothing but anomalies in a relentless flow of despair and pain and sadness and horror that surely would eventually sweep everyone away.
♥ Evil was, he decided, inevitable, relentless and predictable. Imaginative, he'd give it that much, but soulless.
♥ This is how things were now. The thought settled heavily upon him, but at least acceptance brought the relief that comes with the final acknowledgment of a painful, decisive truth. When aspirations and pretension and effort can finally be set aside as the wastes of mental effort they usually are. No more yearnings or cravings or anxieties. It would all be over soon enough.
He had just been caught up in the way of the world; on one of its lunatic fringes perhaps, but had still been swept away by the true and deeper undertow of tragedy nonetheless. What happened to you eventually was just more extreme out here; that was the only difference to being ground down by increments in the other world he had failed at and had now departed for good. The possibilities for destruction here were not so different in any other place; they just took different forms. Nor was the intent for violence any different here; that was everywhere he had ever lived. Or the self-absorption, the pathological ambition, the spite and delight in the downfall of others - all of that was back home too. It led here eventually. It was building everywhere. It was in the blood. A few natural disasters, or the wrong people take charge, or a war gets out of hand and changes the colour of the sky, or the earth becomes irreparably poisoned and water and food run short... and skulls would be smashed, again. Over and over again. Ragnarok.
♥ "I wanted it to stop out here. Just for a bit. To be with my friends for a few fays. That was all," Luke said out loud to God, to the things in the attic, to anyone who might be listening. He's just wanted a break from the world he didn't get along with: his job, the dismal flat, the same nullifying disappointment every day, the getting older and the growing into it all. He had wanted a change and he had got one.
He smiled and then he sniggered. A bubble of blood popped on his lips. He suddenly felt mad, and wild, and free of the burden of himself.
♥ Her eyes were little obsidian flints set so deeply in that impossibly wrinkled hide of a face, and they were smiling all the time she worked about his body, trussed upon that reeking bed. But there was warmth inside her eyes too. It was genuine, he felt. But perhaps no more lasting than the affection shown to a favourite hen, or lamb, or piglet. He mattered as much as livestock. He was important, he was valued, but only for the sustenance of other older appetites.
Good times, old times she remembered. She was washing a corpse. Perhaps her own family had once been bathed and dressed too, but in readiness for the eternity of that loft, by other old women with gentle hands. She lived with the dead. Perhaps she had learned this ritual from those still-twitching ancestors upstairs, made from parchment and dust. And maybe she had prepared other poor wretches too, for that mighty and unnatural presence that governed these black woods. To be given. Given.
♥ But he welcomed her bosom and he sobbed into it.
The bones of men and beasts, the skeletons of forsaken homes, the forgotten places of worship, now bound them each to the other. He had come here living and warm but now must become of it. There was no other place for him in this world. Not any more.
Close to the upright stones, whose meanings and messages were mostly lost, and in the very soil of this lightless place, something was pursuing a purpose older than any living memory. He had sensed it, had tried to run from it, but was now overcome by it. The very idea of it caught the breath in his throat and slowed the blood cold in his veins.
..The terrible will of this place demanded the renewal of old rites. Such things still existed up here. Here. Called by the oldest names, they came back to life. Tonight, for him. His life in the distant world, and even the distant world, meant nothing here. Nothing at all.
..This was a true wilderness and people went missing in it all the time. They died to celebrate what long lay hidden here, in its eternal retreat. It had come to the surface of the world early this year; broken its ancient slumber for the monotony of ritual and blood. They had woken it. It had slaughtered his friends, and enjoyed the hunt, the wild ride, but now it just wanted a gift; the provision of something wriggling, tied down. As it had once been surfeited by that ramshackle community above his head, it wanted to be remembered, and honoured. As all Gods do.
..The old woman kept things going; she was part of a long line. She was in place, always; for the things that must be given, and taken away out there, into the eternal forest, into the darkness.
..He thought of all those brown bones in the crypt of that broken church: there was no escape. There were no deals to be made. And the very sense of the age of the place, and its size and its indifference to him, nearly extinguished him right there and then in that little bed. He wished it would, rather than making him just comprehend it.
..It was like the rare flora and fauna, exempt from scrutiny and trespass, and nurtured by only those who understood.
♥ And then he was staring at the ceiling and all of him felt as though it were rising from his very body. And in his awe and steadily growing comprehension at what existed out here, at this miraculous and dreadful thing, he suspected it was not long for this world either. But its rule was over; it was endangered. An isolated God; all but forgotten and long demented. Branded a false God by the sign of the cross, its idolatry rotted in forgotten attics now, and about it false prophets and ragged messiahs gathered.
♥ Hearts torn out for the sun God in Mexico. Wretches ritually strangled and buried with their masters in ancient Britain. Simple people accused of witchcraft, pressed under stones and set alight in pyres of dry kindling. Commuters gassed in the Tokyo subway. Passengers flown through the side of buildings in jets full of fuel. If only we could all stand up. All of us who have died unjustly for the Gods of the insane. There would be so many of us.
♥ Behind the cart, a ragged procession follows; in the places where the silvery light turns back the darkness, he sees the hunched, the loping, and the skipping thin figures in rags older than the crusades. They prance and caper alongside the cart, out to a place so old even the chorus in the attic tell him they have forgotten its true age. Perhaps this is the last of all the old places.
When the time comes will he call with them into the sky? they ask. Will he say the old names with them? When he hears the name he is to speak with them, he cannot breathe.
And from that cart, the figure in the white robe, wearing a crown of dead spring flowers upon its head, is taken down. The figure that is so suddenly him, and now he is amongst the stones. And upon the largest stones around him, his dead friends grimace silently in death. Naked and devoured down to their blood-blackened bones, they are tied to stones carved with forgotten poems. And upon a stone he too is mounted, between his friends, and what was once given will be given again.
From the trees he is watched by small, indistinct figures. They talk and make sounds that remind him of laughter. Their whispering voices fill hid eyes and ears like flies.
He sees another place. And in it he can smell tallow and smoke and the reek of soiled straw. He is inside a dark barn, or a simple church; a plain structure of old timber that flickers with the reddish light of a fire.
In here, somewhere in the darkness, a woman groans in the agonies of childbirth. And he cannot prevent his legs from rushing across to where she lies even though his mind is screaming at him to run away.
Her cries are soon accompanied by the sound of newborn livestock. And he is standing amongst a group of small figures, about the shadowy straw-filled manger. And here is a thing, wet and mewling, that he cannot quite see, both of man and of another place, drawn out by its rear hooves from between pale lifeless thighs. It is brought out of the steaming, devastated womb of the dead mother and is clutched by the long fingers of those who witness a miracle.
♥ He could not remember ever feeling the same way before. There seemed to be no limit now to where his mind could reach or to where his limbs could carry him. He was strength. He was unbound.
And unsure he had ever been fully awake before right now, right here; naked and dirty and scarred and so reduced in this moment-by-moment existence. And he understood that he had given up long before this time. Had been drifting. Baffled. Inactive. Futile. His old self was flimsy, insubstantial. His old world grey. There had been hesitation at critical moments; so much self-doubt. He had languished, demoralized, for so long, forever. He understood this. The realizations came all at once and very quickly. His whole life until this moment was preposterous; and himself in that life absurd.
But now he wanted to live.
If he survived the next few minutes, every moment of his life would sing. Each word spoken would have meaning, every meal eaten and drink taken would be a gift: his salvation would be the living of life.
..He mattered again to himself. Watching his own end come closer and closer, while in constant fear, was abhorrent to him. He had arms and legs he could still move; senses that received and experienced the utter wonder of existence, moment by moment. He laughed, quietly, through his tears.
They thought they could take life away from him.
..It was simply a world where one will dominated another. It was an uncompromising era. Insistent wills eroded him, dominated him, they always had done. Some even greater will, guiding all of the others who had tormented him in his life, had led him here for the final reckoning of himself; in a part of the world made by the damaged for the damaged, in the great age of the pathological. If he survived the morning, he swore he would fight it, them, whatever, forever.
♥ The little old woman stood by the site of the second fire, just beyond the radius of scorched grass. A tiny figure dressed in black to her neck, facing the trees, indifferent to the motionless body of Fenris on her lawn. For such a small person, her voice carried. The wailing that came out of her was almost Arabic in intonation, but then Luke thought of North American Indians too. And whatever she sang lilted up and down in the singsong cadences of Swedish. She clapped out a beat with her little hands. What she sang was simple, repetitive, like a nursery rhyme. The same few lines, going up and down, over and over. He began to recognize one word. "Moder."
She called it out again, and again, at the end of the third line of the three-line verse: "Moder."
"No," he said to himself. "Please no."
♥ The wet sky, the aged trunks of sleeping trees, the cold unfeeling earth, functioned as an acoustic chamber, and within that space the oldest and most poignant sound of anguish pierced him, and every living thing within earshot, to the marrow. A mother's cry.
♥ Fear and big white eyes inside a suit of dirty skin: that's all he was now.
♥ He thought it was an impossibly tall man. For a moment. Or an ape, a large scrawny one, poised to pounce like a great cat. But then of it, and about it, as it lowered down upon great muscled haunches, and before it fled right at him, were the briefest features of other things that made Luke suffocate on a tongue he was sure he had swallowed in his terror.
A thick-haired face, black, with a wet bovine muzzle, made itself temporarily available for scrutiny. Eyes curiously sentient. Eyes revealing a hideous intent. To merely see them made him whimper. But in the visible moments of its swift charge it seemed mostly goatish, that shape of a head upon the bullock neck; though the yellow teeth should have been in the mouth of something else, long extinct. And extending from all of this, were the greatest of horns, from another place altogether. And it was coming at him. And he was going at it.
♥ But in the repetitive, tedious delirium, in the tramp tramp tramping of his numb feet, in some incongruous moment of clarity, he decided that earning £863 a month after tax at the age of thirty-six did not matter any more. Nor did owing NatWest Bank twenty-five grand in a loan for a business that had failed so long ago. It was irrelevant. The fact he disliked his job, and hated two of his colleagues, and was as poor as the poorest migrants around him at home in Finsbury Park, and that he dreaded Christmas because there were fewer and fewer places for him to go, and that he only owned three pairs of shoes, did not matter. And all of this fell from him. His eyes now looked at something that was beyond the horizon and so deeply inside himself at the same time. And he knew that what he now felt could never be truly revisited again. But that also did not matter. Enough of it would survive inside him, and live. And he knew the things that held him in place, and reflected an image of who he had once been back to himself, and that marshalled everyone else around him, and that those things a man should strive for and achieve in the old world were all now unimportant.
♥ Nothing mattered at all but being here. Himself. There was still some life in him. His heart beat. Air passed in and out of his lungs. One foot followed another. Knowing how quickly and suddenly and unexpectedly life could end, how irrelevant life was anyway to this universe of earth and sky and age, how indifferent it was to all of the people still in it, those who would come to it and those who had already left it, he felt freed. Alone, but free. Freed of it all. Free of them, free of everything. At least for a while. And that's all anyone really had, he decided, a little while.