Phoebe: MA Publishing Module
By Pete Strong
The track up to the cabin was cut up, jagged, its pointed dry shapes mirroring the mountains. Their grey and black peaks reaching into a similarly grey sky. It hadn’t rained in a week but when it had the torrent would have closed off the entire valley, making it impossible to cross. The heavy cloud suggested another flood was on the way. Kleef could see a solitary wooden wheel to the right of the single remaining gate post, submerged halfway into rock-solid muck. A few spokes were scattered on the red grass, tipped with frost. His hands, weathered and callused, but dextrous, twitched instinctively toward his weapon.
A sudden breeze sent ice through his core, and he snatched at his hat, yanking the string under his chin tighter even as he pulled his cloak closer, the worn leather of his boots creaking as he stamped his feet for warmth. Scratching at his greying long hair, ignoring the crawling feeling of lice, he moved forward through the cloud of his hot breath in the cold air, picking his way carefully over the hard earth, toward the cabin. He’d been walking for three days, since he’d lost his horse, and the thought of shelter from the needling wind was almost overwhelming. The fall had almost killed him, but by sheer luck, he’d grabbed hold of a tuft of long yellow grass and swung himself back up, dislocating his arm and smashing his head on the rock. All fine now, except he’d watched as Zephyr fell.
For most of that first day he had still been able to hear Zephyr screaming at the bottom of the gorge. Even as he left him behind, he could see his eyes everywhere he looked: bulging, red, terrified. Gasping for breath as the panicked light in them started to fade. His chestnut coat gleaming with sweat and panting hurriedly. His powder white legs spasming. The cries had eventually stopped, as the sun dipped down closer to the horizon. The dark had come, and beasts from the nearby treeline had found the poor creature where he lay.
He had loved that horse, picking him up at least a year or two ago, in a town on the other side of the plains, where people still tried to eke out normal lives in the ruins of what had come before.
A small crash distracted him. Rockfall above most probably. His hand crept toward the hilt in his belt, his eyes scanning the ridge, alert to everything once more.
The cabin appeared derelict, its windows boarded up, its roof crumbling. It was only the faint whiff of woodsmoke on the wind that betrayed whoever remained inside. Glancing behind him again, he took in the sheer emptiness of the vista below: the grey mountains, the green forests, the wide rivers, the blue lakes in the basin, he approached the door of the cabin. The air was calmer here, as if the wind could not get near it.
He could smell something else. Not smoke. Metallic, sickness, rot. To his left were the remains of the cart whose wheel lay submerged behind him. Gripping the hilt more tightly he raised his other fist, taking a deep breath, and rapped the door loudly and firmly, before scuttling backward, to the left, and behind the broken-down cart. As he did so he noticed the spatter of faded red on the wood. Blood. Horses were unlucky in these mountains.
“Hello?” The word escaped him in a rush. There was a pause before the door swung wide open and the barrel of a rifle slowly came out of the opening. Kleef didn’t respond immediately, he just waited, ducking down a bit behind the remains of the cart. The rifle kept coming, before eventually he could glimpse small hands, thin and delicate, round the corner of the doorway, clutching the stock of the rifle tightly.
“Who’s there?” A child’s voice. Perhaps female. Wavering, brittle and thin in the cold mountain air. Kleef pulled out his sword slowly and kept down head against the blood-spattered wood.
“Hello. I’m just a traveller. I’m passing through,” he waited for the child’s face to appear out of the doorway and turn toward his voice, but it didn’t. “I just need somewhere to sleep, is all. I’ve been walking for days. Horse died. Running out of food. Your parents about?” The rifle barrel was shaking like a feather now, the hands holding it becoming less taut. Kleef didn’t want to move suddenly, didn’t want to spook the kid, didn’t want a load of lead in his chest.
“Step out!” the voice said, “if you’ve a weapon then chuck it! I want to see it! And your hands!” Kleef sketched it out in his mind for an instant, his eyes scanning the rest of the cabin and the surrounding cliff. His fingers tapped the pommel of his sword. Tucked in the lining of his coat were a string of short daggers, ready to throw. His mind’s eye saw one pin the small hand to the doorframe, saw another pin the foot. Another burst from a delicate throat, red blossom like roses. When had he last seen a rose? He gulped and ran a hand over his beard. Not this. He couldn’t.
“I’m going to come out. I’ve got a sword; I’ll throw it over,” his voice was calm. Somewhere inside was fear, somewhere inside were nerves, somewhere else inside were cold, hunger, anger. Crippling fatigue. On the surface he was a still pool, with a calm, cold face peering up and out, like a block of ice in the bottom of a glass, or a sea nymph. The kid was whimpering but the rifle still pointed out, although its battered looking barrel had started to wander over toward where Kleef was crouched. Kleef pulled out the sword, the rasp of the blade exiting its scabbard echoing loudly around the yard, a strange trick of the curve of the crag.
“Go on then!’ the kid shouted again. Kleef threw the sword out to his left, in front of the house and slowly began to inch out from behind the cart, hovering into view. The kid stepped fully out of the doorway. Kleef caught a glimpse of her ash blonde hair, her blue work shirt, a pair of piercing blue eyes, and then!
A single loud caw! and a flock of birds burst out of the copse by the gatepost, the flutter of their collective wings like a thunderclap.
The sudden noise would have made most people jump but he was a still block of ice in a deep pond, his stillness baked deep. He barely twitched.
The kid though – the kid leapt a foot off the ground, adrenaline pushing her into the air like a trampoline, and the rifle cracked – a second peal of thunder even louder than the first. Kleef stepped quickly back to his left, as the wild shot sent dust and chalk into the air. A moment of stillness that seemed to last for an hour, the air moving slowly like honey poured from a pot. Then a flurry of movement again - he darted forward, arms up, and dived into the child, wrapping his large hands around her wrists. It took a mere thirty seconds.
She was screaming.
He almost felt as if he was screaming too, her voice reverberating around his skull; his eyes flickered out to the valley before switching back to the darkness of the cabin behind her back. He took both wrists in one hand and put the other over her mouth. “Hush,” he said, “hush now. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Silence then, as if the world had ended. Her eyes were wide, their blueness rimmed with tears. She was only about ten or twelve, he thought. He kept his hand on her mouth and twisted her around, feeling sick inside as he did so, and slowly inched toward the blackness of the doorway, the child between him and whoever or whatever might be inside. The rifle had dropped in the dust, and he kicked it away from the door.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone! Is anyone there?” More quietly to the kid “Your parents here?” No response. He kept going forward, the smell from earlier was a lot stronger here. A hint of smoke now, but mainly sweat, decay, old food. “Hello?” Nothing. The inside of the cabin became clearer as he reached the threshold, the stench increasing.
It was dark, crisscrossed with a smattering of tiny beams where daylight squeezed through the boarded-up windows. Broken furniture was scattered around the room, the remnants of a table to one side of the door, a chair on its side, a wide brimmed hat on its back. Pictures were hung on the walls: one of a train, wreathed in steam; one of a mushroom cloud, a crowd of onlookers watching; one of woman riding a chestnut-coloured horse, a broad smile on her face. Smashed pottery lay across the broken table.
In the centre of the room a small pot on a cold hearth and beside it, a pair of sleeping bags. One of which was full, and still. The smell was certainly some sort of decay. Nothing else, just debris.
Kleef relaxed slightly, and as they passed through the door, he let his hand fall from the kid’s mouth. She immediately let out a whimper but didn’t scream. He let her go and she darted forward, straight to the hearth, diving to the person he now realised was curled up beside it, in a sleeping bag, still.
“What do you want! What do you -” Her expression froze as she looked directly at his face for the first time. She went quiet and sat down quickly, slumping to the floor. She looked to the person on the floor. “I...”
Keef put his hands out and tried to smile but his heart wasn’t in it. He imagined his grin as it probably appeared to the kid: wide, leering, alien, unreal. “I just want some warmth. “
The kid was still now beside the body in its worn nylon bag. Kleef had that same sleeping bag once. The smell now he was inside, was incredibly powerful. Fighting the urge to gag, he slowly knelt, bringing himself to the kid’s level.
“Is anyone else here?” he asked quietly. A slight shake of the head. Her eyes were locked on the floor, her body flopped now like a discarded toy.
“How lo- Is that your Mam? Your Da?” He gestured to the full sleeping bag. She lifted her eyes and glanced at him before looking away suddenly, her eyes sliding from his face as if it were too bright to focus on. “Look,” he said, as another icy breeze blew in from the desolated valley below, rushing through the door of the ruined cabin and rattling its timbers like a drum, “I don’t want to hurt you. I’m just looking for somewhere warm to sleep. I’ve been outside for days and it’s getting harder and harder.” He stood and stepped forward slowly. She flinched. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he repeated. “Who is that? They aren’t…” He frowned. “Look they’re gone. I need you to let me see.” As he approached, she scrabbled backward away from him, her hand was on the sleeping bag, as if glued, eventually he got close enough that she let it go, an almost imperceptible grunt of anguish escaped her lips as she did so. She moved to the back of the room, her eyes still on the floor.
Kleef glanced back at the door again and reached down, using one hand to pull the top lip of the sleeping bag down, holding his breath as he did so. His right knee spasmed and shook beneath him.
He was hit by a gust of foul decay and death, forcing him to turn his face away momentarily. The body was turned away from him, he was staring at the back of its head: longish hair, greying, the skin underneath with a greenish pallor. He glanced over at the kid. She was staring directly at him now, with a strange look in her eyes. His eyes met hers, she looked away. Quickly, and with a grunt of impatience, Kleef hauled the corpse around, its broken body stiff with rigor mortis, and froze.
A frantic sucking in of air. A strangled cry of fear.
His deep still pool was disturbed, as if a giant boulder had been dropped in, directly into his core. He threw himself back from the body, toward the door.
“What?!” He couldn’t speak, his tongue felt too large for his mouth. He crawled frantically outside and went to grab the cast aside rifle. His entire body shook, a cold sweat bursting from every pore. That body. That face. It was his. His face! A strange feeling of horror rose in him, like vomit in his chest.
It had been a long time since he’d seen his own face properly, apart from in the odd pond or river. Mirrors were uncommon in the devastated world he moved through. Perhaps in the cities, but certainly not here in the deserted valleys and ruined mountains.
It was his face, gripped by death and decay, covered in sores. And on its right temple a dark blossom of blue, black and purple. How was that possible? Who was this? He was sat in the yard, the rifle in his hands. Looking up he saw the kid standing in the doorway, a strange expression on her face. He took her in properly for the first time. Her eyes still drew him in, their blue magnetic, but it was as if he could see her whole being for the first time. Her skin was an unhealthy white and seemed stretched, as if she had been wrapped too tightly in it. He assumed she was starving, had been locked inside for too long, afraid to come out.
His fingers found the rifle he had been scrabbling for in the dust. His breathing was calmer now, but his eyes kept drifting past her to the now almost invisible shape of the body inside.
“Who...is that in there?” he said, pulling the rifle around and resting it on a knee. He slowly attempted to get up. “Why does he look like me?”
Something felt wrong, the cold wind from the valley below had subsided but ice sat in his bones now. The ruined face kept flashing in mind. Shaking his head, he pulled himself up to his feet. “Tell me!” He pointed the rifle at the kid, who stood stock still, her eyes fixed on his blankly. Her ash blonde hair he now saw was thin, ragged, gone in clumps, and her entire body was shrunken.
Kleef shook his head. The sun was starting to dip, its pale orange shimmering from behind a thick grey cloud. Its edges flickered as if it were about to go out. He was about to stride forward and grab the kid, shake her, do something. She was only a little girl! He’d killed –
“Dad,” she said, “It’s Dad.” Her face quivered as if tears were about to come but she sniffed and stood up straighter. Kleef gulped and let the barrel hand down a little. His hands wanted to shake but he held them still. Retreating into his icy still pond as the horror crashed against his mind and washed over him.
“Why…why does he look like me?” he asked. She stepped forward, her hands outstretched, open-palmed, toward Kleef, as if begging.
He recoiled from those hands and shook his head. “How long?” She stopped. She looked at the sky. At that moment a cloud parted, and the full glare of the late afternoon’s flickering old sun hit her in the face. She seemed so faded in its light, he thought, as if she were almost rubbed out. She started to cry then, silent tears running down her cheeks as she squinted in the low orange light.
“Been days. Dad. Dad.”
“Why does he look like me?” he asked again for what felt like the hundredth time. He could feel sorrow for her mixing with the creeping sense of unease that had overtaken him as he approached the cabin. She pointed at him.
Kleef frowned and gestured emphatically. No! He was not!
“I am not your dad. He’s in there and he…just…happens to look like me.” The kid stepped toward him, he shifted his feet to move away, but didn’t.
“It is you, you came back,” she sobbed, and stretched her arms out to him. Without meaning to, he let her get a little closer. He couldn’t think straight.
“But I came from down there,” he stuck a thumb behind him, toward the valley below, “and before that, I came from.” He stopped, he wasn’t going to explain cities, he wasn’t going to explain the old life to someone who lived out here; and anyway he –
She was close now, and he froze. “I came from down…” His mind was blank. Where had he come from? “I’m not your dad!”
The valley below and behind was enormous, if you looked closely, you could see a whole world dotted out there: rivers, forests, villages in ruins, small lakes, green fields, all that was left of what came before. “I came from-” He looked up at the flickering sun, its edges wavering as if dissolving into the sky around it.
The kid was close now and as he said the word home, she flung her arms around his waist and sobbed into his belly. Kleef did not flinch. Somewhere inside he was terrified, but he pushed it down into the depths. He let the rifle swing down by his side. “I…it’s going to be ok.” He tried to move back toward the cabin, and she shuffled alongside him, still sniffling, her face still buried in his abdomen. His left hand slowly rose, and he found himself awkwardly patting her on the back. “There, there,” he whispered.
The sun was suddenly obscured by grey cloud again. He was so cold; his head was pounding. He needed to eat, needed to work out what was happening, get some rest, and move on tomorrow perhaps, try and reach the top of the mountain and get out.
He pushed her away from him slightly and looked at her. “What is your name, kid?”
They were approaching the doorway of the cabin, and she looked at him directly, her blue eyes boring into his own. He could feel the scent of decay and death beginning to fill the air again as they neared the interior. She took a breath.
“Dad.” She looked past him at the open vista as they passed through the doorway into her home. “My name is…” Kleef raised a finger to stop her, and finished her sentence.
She smiled at him as the door shut behind them.