Crow Of Thorns
The tent arches above me. I sit up, breath pounding into steam. Grey day leaks through the nylon flaps. I feel like crying. Perhaps my prayers were answered after all.
Thankfully morning has come. I am empty, shallow, hollow, fragile.
From within the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag I grab at my clothes, dress quickly and crawl out into the bright, grey day.
As usual, I’m one of the first to rise. I stretch, breathing in the cold air. All around me, the sea of tents stretches – canvas and nylon, of many colours and hues, billows and flexes with the thin breeze. From makeshift drying lines, left-out clothing hangs stiff, rimed with frost.
I shiver and stoop back inside, pull on a jumper and coat, find my wash things and head across the grass, avoiding guy lines. As I pass between the giant Victorian greenhouses on my way to the toilet block at the back of the Botanic Gardens, only the yap of Janice’s wee dog, protecting its owner and her stuff, breaks the silence.
I wash and shave in icy water, and brush my teeth. We’re lucky to have any kind of facilities at all, but just the same I long for a hot shower, to stand in there until my skin wrinkles, until I’ve washed the ache out of my joints, until I can feel the ends of my toes again.
The smell of espresso and the warmth of the café are adequate compensation. I slide into my usual seat just as Sindi appears to take my order.
“Howdy stranger.” Sindi runs her fingers down her pen, before flipping it over and starting again. “How you?” Her Northern Irish accent could dent metal, which might explain the piercings – shards of shrapnel.
“Not bad.” I look up at her pretty, disfigured face. “How’s work?”
“Things are picking up again. You’re here, for a change.”
I smile. “I’ve got some time, and some cash.”
“Sure, you look like you could do with a good feed. What can I get you?” Her pen is poised over the pad.
I wonder what I can afford. “I’ll have a bacon roll and mug of tea, please.”
“That’ll be a tenner.”
Fuck. “Really?” But my stomach groans.
“Sorry. New management policy. We’ve had too many runners.”
I find my phone and wave it in front of Sindi’s terminal.
“I’ll be right back now.” A few moments later scalding tea is banged down on the table along with a chipped plate holding a morning roll stacked with bacon – sunshine yellow oozing out of it like a cartoon gunshot wound. The breakfast of kings.
“Charlie was feeling generous,” she says. “Since you’re a regular.”
I smile wide and it infects Sindi, but she leaves as soon as some customers with real money come in. I wolf the roll, wash it down with the tea sugared until there are no packets left in the little ceramic pot. I glance at the time and run out of the café, wiping yolk from my face.
I check each server core. All the lights are blinking a comforting fluorescent green. I could stay in like everyone else, read my diagnostics or sit in a nearby pub or hotel and start a new set of simulations using a borrowed Wi-Fi link. But I prefer the comfort of routine, and the cooled server room is still warmer than outside.
I miss putting on my suit every day, tearing away the protective film from a freshly laundered shirt. It felt like being a superhero leaving behind a secret identity, showing my true face to the world. But I have nowhere to keep a suit now and no access to an iron. And anyway, wearing my civvies protects me too. Would people be as kind if they knew what I had done?
I used to dig out information, analyse the data, understand what was and predict what could be, and ended up inventing, purely as a side effect, new ways of assessing risks. Someone else packaged that risk, turned it into a product. It was too abstract for the salespeople who simply sold another way to make money out of other money. They didn’t know it could take just one guy defaulting on a payment for the whole house of cards to come crashing down.
I was one of the lucky ones. I got a new job, in a smaller firm, doing what I do best – even if it’s only for a third what I made before. And I live in a tent. It’s odd that the stains on the pavement outside the old offices never seem to wash away.
I gather data and make models. But that kind of work requires a number of powerful machines, dedicated iron, and with everyone else working from home someone needs to keep the systems running.
I sit down at the only desk the company owns, surrounded by black and grey, plastic and glass, the hum of hard drives and cooling fans, and enter a password – data might want to be free, but sometimes it needs help escaping its prison.
The view of the Clyde is always impressive. I get lost looking at the steel waters lapping against the walls. Dr Reynolds coughs to gain my attention.
“How are you getting on?”
These sessions have been an unexpected benefit of my severance package.
“I had the dream again.” The couch creaks beneath me. I avoid eye contact. “It was much worse this time.”
“Tell me about it.”
I try my best to explain. As I speak, Reynolds scribbles in her notebook. What is so important? I turn my head and she finds my eyes.
A hand moves across my chest, clammy and pale. Fingers curl around my ankle. A third hand grasps my thigh. I struggle but the hands tighten their grip. There are screams directed at me. I shout, and a fist is pushed into my mouth. I can’t move. Bound and powerless, mute, I’m pulled down into the earth, through dirt and bedrock, passing worms and stones, falling into caverns of fire.
I land on my back on a stone slab. Hands still hold me, arms slither over me. This is when I normally wake up. But something is different tonight.
Shadowed figures approach, their voices distinct above the chorus of hate.
- Can you see it?
- What about here?
My left arm is pulled behind my head. It feels like something wants to drag me from the stone slab, but the hands stop them. My shoulder pops as the bone is torn from its socket. My cry is stifled by the fist as tendons tear and muscles rip. An electric blue flash fills my mind obliterating all thoughts except one: I want to wake up.
But I am dead, and this is Hell, with no escape for sinners.
The severed arm is held over me, its warm blood dripping onto my chest. The skin is peeled, each muscle stripped away, and all is thrown into a bubbling pot until only the bones remain.
- Is it there?
They are looking for something. I pray to all the gods I know that they find it. Soon. What did I do to deserve this?
- Is it there?
I confess to every shameful moment.
The bones are tossed into the pot. A shaft of dark metal lances my right leg, sending more electric bursts into my brain. Hands pull at the edges of the wound, widening it. The skin is stripped back, exposed flesh sifted and separated. The lance is withdrawn, and the skeletal leg wrenched from its socket.
I confess to each unintended slight.
- Maybe there.
Lances pierce my torso, ringing when they hit the slab beneath. A butterfly pinned while fingers burrow, ribs snap, and the chest is exposed. I feel a terrible pity for my beating heart, my airless lungs. It drives me to one last desperate prayer, to confess the smallest, pettiest things. I empty myself.
Still they persist.
Each organ, each part, is lifted, examined, rejected, and thrown into the pot, until only the head remains – barely conscious.
- Is it there?
Fingers scoop out the eyes, yet I still see, my jaw removed, my tongue torn away, my skull cracked open and the brain squeezed out.
A hand finds something, something small, and holds it between thumb and forefinger.
- Is this it?
- Yes. Put it back.
Like a film in reverse, my body is put back together. Vessels, lymph nodes, nerves, tendons, veins, muscles, fat, skin, all gathered from the pot, clean. Dislocated limbs sewn back together, organs replaced. Last of all the small bone, glinting in the flames, is forced back into my head through my nose. A final agony, then nothing.
“What do you think accounts for the change?” she says.
“It’s been the same since I was a teenager. But never like this.”
“So, what then?” Her eyes focus on me. “What do you think it could be?”
“I was eviscerated last night.” I tear my eyes away. “It has fuck all to do with a guilty conscience.”
“Maybe you should think about that. I’m sorry this will be our last time, it looks like we were just starting to make some progress.”
I walk home. It’s already dark. Am I really torturing myself to make up for my past actions? Absurd, but I have to consider it. It’s weird thinking I don’t have to go back to see Dr Reynolds. It felt like a millstone, but it was also good to have someone to talk to.
A car horn blares, shocks me out of my stupor. I grin like an idiot and half-wave an apology, then watch as the Merc speeds off towards Park Circus. I used to have one just like it.
Along Woodlands Road, a grey squirrel, which probably ought to be hibernating, crosses the path in front of me, darts up a tree and then, clinging to the trunk, tries to pretend it isn’t there. The camouflage might work were it not for the nervous micro-movements of ear and eye.
A shadow swoops down, sending the squirrel scurrying higher into the tree, and a bloody great crow lands on the pavement in front of me. I step back, then feel like an idiot. It’s huge, it might be a raven. It’s looking right at me, its head tilted slightly, with a dark empty eye. I stare back. No bird is going to better me in a staring contest. Only when the bird shifts its feet, do I realise that I can see through it.
There’s a haze around the bird so that its outline is ill-defined. It appears to be made of thorns – tangled, twisted, barbed. A multitude of spines stick out from its body, making it look like an intricate statue made from coat hangers.
This isn’t possible. It’s a trick of the winter light.
It walks towards me. Fixes me again with its eye. “Hi. Nikolai Munro?”
Did it really speak? I try walking around it, but the bird blocks my path, causing me to stop and change direction. I want to kick it. “Get out of my way.”
The crow flaps its wings and moves out of leg reach. “Go on then, walk on by. I just wanna talk.”
I’ve not had alcohol or drugs in a long time, so it can’t be that. I’ve not eaten in a while, so maybe I’m hallucinating. I cross the road.
The crow, with an easy flap of its wings, glides over the road, and is soon alongside me. “Look, Niky - can I call you that? You think this is your imagination. I get that. But I’m not – well, technically I am. But whatever way you look at it, I’m here. I’m not going away, so you’d be better off accepting that.”
Its voice is rough, like it’s been smoking forty a day since it was a kid. A Noo Yoik accent. If my subconscious is talking to me, it’s chosen a weird way to express itself. It’s like being in a Disney cartoon. I don’t want to end up dancing with animated candlesticks, but I decide to play along. “If you’re my friend, then what’s your name?”
“Of course. Twa corbies sittin on a wa. So what do you want?”
The crow cocks its head to one side, like it can’t believe what it’s hearing. “I’m here to train you.”
“For what? The London Marathon?”
“Good one. Not bad. You were chosen. They found the shaman’s bone in you, man.”
The small metal thing is shoved back into my head. There is pain between my eyes. The fear of the nightmare returns in full force. I’m going to be sick.
I understand now that my mum was right – all my life I’ve been called. I don’t want her to be right.
I walk past the bird, aiming a kick that it easily avoids. “Piss off and leave me alone.”
For the first time in as long as I can remember the alarm wakes me up. Not just a signal to get out of bed. I slept right through the night. No dreams. Some sort of miracle. Yet I still feel shattered.
I get myself together and leave the tent. There’s a commotion a few rows over, near the road. Someone probably tripped on a guy line and woke people up. But it’s Albert’s tent they’re standing round and something wrong wafts its way towards me.
Out of all of us Albert shouldn’t be here – he’s seventy odd and should be enjoying retirement. Instead he’s putting in who knows how many hours at the local supermarket and still finds time to help people out.
The sweet foul stench grows as I get closer to his tent.