By: john e.c.
After feeding him his beef or chicken for supper, she’d leave him at the TV and head for the river. It ran slow and deep past the bottom of the garden. Five weeks into her new passion and she’d already abandoned her cozzie and was dedicated to naked, wild-swimming. Diving from the high bank, the feel of the cold water hitting her skin sent shivers rippling through her exhilarated body. And with every downward stroke she felt the great strain of enforced, domestic confinement dissolve beneath her.
Freedom at last, the river all hers; until the evening when she took the meander and was somewhat surprised to discover two strangers wrapping their dark, elongated bodies around each other in the eddying flow. Fascinated, she watched from beside the reeds as the pair lunged, twisted and cork-screwed in their oily sleekness. She noticed the bigger one had its teeth sunk in the other’s neck, but this was no killing, only otters deep in their love-play.
She kept still and silent, so as not to disturb them, though they seemed oblivious in their frantic ecstasy. Minutes, seeming like hours, passed. Something about their untiring, rotating ritual began to hypnotise her; and as the cold fastened onto her frame and climbed up her spine, some electrical, animalistic current sparked inside her skull. The colours of dusk, refracting in the darkening channel, flashed luminous, spectral impulses into each widening iris.
In the weeks that followed she dyed out her blondeness, let the hairs under her armpits grow long and odorous and wore her black dresses. After feeding him fish or even eel for supper she refused him the TV and clawed him upstairs; and when he awoke in the mornings, he was constantly astounded to find bruises in the most unlikeliest of places.
They decided to paint all the walls and ceilings the same colour: magnolia. Magnolia was safe, they both agreed; it was bright but bland enough not to clash with any of the household furniture and trappings. They ordered online and, in the second week of being furloughed, were able to begin. Three weeks later the whole house was done. Perfect, they concurred, just perfect.
But then they began to think that everything was just a little too bland, even for their taste. So, after finding a half-empty tin of orange, they painted a thick border around each window, upstairs and downstairs. At first, they thought they’d been too radical but, hey, why not push the boat out a little? The world was changing fast, why shouldn’t they?
After assembling all the remnant paint from the attic and cellar, they set about transforming each room so that it represented their own unique personalities. He went for stars, squares and circles. She chose squiggles, spirals and zig-zags. When they ran out of paint, they hit the internet again and acquired an array of tins in a wide range of intense, vibrant colours. Expensive? Yes, but they wouldn’t be spending on the usual vacation this year, would they?
Together, they expressed themselves further with unrepressed abandon. The walls became less decoration and more a representation of their unleashed impulses. Freed at last from conformity, they stained, smeared and splattered the surfaces; until the house became a canvas on which to project, and from which projected, their uninhibited instincts.
Not content with this, they also began painting everything else: table, TV, toaster and teacups, even their naked selves.
See them now, emulsioned primitives, laughter-howling as they scurry from room to room, unable to discern any disjoin between themselves and their reconstructed, daubed abode.
The virus tore through God the Father’s Church of Latter-Day Patriarchs. The impossible idea that His special providence had been somehow compromised was sensed within the community. Gatherings were stopped. ‘Stay safe in your cells to study and pray’, came the elders’ edict. The flock obediently followed, except for the widow, who often turned a deaf ear to any such restrictive proclamations.
She began walking the estate. Not far at first, but then further each day, until she started to show less joy in the Word and more in the woods. The dawn chorus brought her rare rapture, as did the intoxicating fragrance emanating from flowers, ferns and all things fertile. Beams of fractured light, which cast her in green shadows, illuminated her soul more than any Bible passage had ever done. The forest was becoming her church; dew rose not as vapour but as incense.
Out one evening, star-gazing through the canopied host, the wind brought dark clouds. Rain came heavy, as if to wash away her transgression, like The Flood returning. Though the deluge transformed each contour of the shifting floor into a runnel or rill, she refused herself cover. Instead, she lay down in the liquid flow, letting the natural elements wash over, seemingly through, her. Soaked to her mineral core, the earth’s essence brought her, at last, to worship the very entity that surrounded and comprised all things: stones, plants, air, water, fire, creatures; even herself.
Three days later it was noticed she was missing. The Fathers’ search led to a clearing where they found a filthy, naked thing, drumming on one tree then another with an antlered skull; and chanting over and over again, something so disturbing it rooted their feet to the altered ground:
‘…soil, star, mother, claw, leaf, mother, seed, sky, mother…’
Except for the cat, she’s alone in her flat almost 24/7. The magnets on the fridge read ‘work, eat, sleep, repeat’. Isolation and anxiety reduce her ability to discriminate what her laptop is saying. The constant stream of news, fake news, conspiracy theories and counter-conspiracy theories all combine to heighten her fear and paranoia.
Only when she hears that injecting hydroxychloroquine might defend her against the virus does she feel less screwed-up. At last, she thinks, a chance to act, to re-take control from the plague.
Though she has no hydroxychloroquine and can’t order any online, she is not deterred and decides to make an alternative protectant. She collects ingredients from the cupboards and cabinets: bleach, detergents, antihistamines, rehydration salts, anti-diarrhoea tablets, flea powder and so on. With some experimentation she manages to mix up a thin, translucent potion and injects herself using a syringe left behind by her diabetic ex-boyfriend.
Instantaneously she begins to sweat, then gags, screams, shakes, fits, laughs, cries, hallucinates and, after a mind-numbing seizure, sleeps. When she awakes, the first thing she feels is the cat sitting on her face. By throwing it off everything suddenly becomes clear. ‘Cats,’ she hisses. ‘Cats.’
She remembers the PM has a moggy, and supposes there are cats in the Whitehouse and Kremlin too. She comes to the quick conclusion that the whiskery fiends are using their cunning, political influence to keep humans indoors so they can have the streets to their feline selves. Of course, she thinks, there is no COVID, only a world-wide conspiracy of cats.
To obtain a crucial confession, she rapidly develops a truth-serum and drugs the cat. The cat dies before it can admit any connivance, so she takes to the alley wielding another loaded syringe calling, ‘Here pussy-pussies, come and talk to mamma!’
First one, then another, until a small pile has been made in the middle of the garden. He thinks of his mother as a fallen leaf. And all the others in the home, they are fallen leaves too.
The dry husks ignite quickly and the smoke lifts with ease, up and over the trees. The fire is soon finished and all that is left is a dark, smouldering circle on the ground.
The conflagration has brought his hurt some comfort but he can’t think how or why. With painful inquisitiveness, he collects a bundle of twigs and lights them too. As the flames crackle and sputter, he is startled by the imagined presence of a spirit, freeing itself from the confines of earthly bondage, the imprisonment by matter.
But what spirit?
His sparked curiosity leads him to the shed. He drags the potting bench out, douses it with petroleum and sets it alight. Again, as the many fiery tongues angrily attack the chilled air, he feels the now unimagined spirit rising higher, not beside him, but from within.
By torching the shed he enables the spirit to grow stronger still. Ablaze on the inside, he stares deeply into the furnace. Entranced by the flaring, transfigured combustion, he hears his own raging divinity sing, ‘Eat fire! ‘Eat fire!’
Once more, he reaches for the paraffin. Taking a mouthful, he gargles and rolls it on his tongue, enjoying its refreshing presence in his parched mouth.
He decrees, ‘All things must burn!’
He turns towards the house and advances up the path. Through the window, his sister sees him approaching and senses some latent intent in his stride; is shocked when great, pluming flames spurt from his mouth.