Chapter Forty

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Pitched echoes descant above the sound of water. Zach follows the flight of two—no, three—small silvery bats, wondering how the course of history would have differed if humans had been able to comprehend the language of animals. Less bloodshed or more? Sapiens have always preferred to rid themselves of inconvenient voices.

He studies the cave at length, then moves towards the pool. The light reminds him of l’heure bleue just before nightfall, a favourite of photographers and filmmakers. In summer it’s the time when flowers release their heaviest opiate, but it’s also an hour of uncertain visibility, particularly for simus whose aconal photoreceptors and subsidiary optic nerve play havoc with, temporarily, their superb eyesight; the hour in fact of his only motorbike accident, when he skidded to miss a girl on a bicycle, narrowly, dislocating a shoulder and breaking his collarbone. No one would have cared that her lights weren’t working, himself least of all.

Even with blindsight he would sense if Laura were here, which doesn’t stop him from peering behind the toadstools for a discarded towel, a pair of jeans, her trainers or socks. The yellow rubber ducky with motorcycle helmet she’d given him for a razz only proves that his memory is still intact. He picks it up, squeezes it, recalls how she laughed at the expression on his face at the awful squawk: ‘An authentic biker’s mating call, they swore at the shop. Or my money back.’ The cave is warm, and he removes his mitts and cap and then his parka. When he reaches for her pendant, hunger swells within him, within and against and despite, its pressure compelling. Why does he always have to tremble?

After the funeral he bought himself a small handbuilt raku pot, misshapen and costly, whose torn mouth gives it the appearance of having been pounced on and chewed by a dog at the leather-hard stage. Most people would dismiss the pot as worthless, unable to see that its fragile beauty rests in its very imperfection, not least the contrast between the lustrous metallic blues and the crazing lines typical of raku firing, which is so unpredictable that pieces may explode from thermal stress.

His skin feels hot underneath the chain, on the verge of crackling. And still he is shivering, always shivering: shivering when her fingers played over the touchpad of his tattoo, as if entering a code to unlock his innermost self; shivering when she kissed his back, shivering when she brushed his hair, brushed and plaited it. In those moments he heard nothing, not even the gun which his neurons fire whenever there is silence. Semen is the body’s own morphine for the disease of time.

On impulse he digs out his pocket knife, tests its edge, and whets it on the nearest rock, then loosens his hair from its leather tie. He lops off the plait of white and black hairs, and twists it round the seal, then drops the whole back over his head. It may be that Fulgur is arrogating his memory to its incomprehensible, and probably reprehensible, ends. It may be that Lev is merely some fancy bit of programming, determined from the very outset of the run. It may be that quantum entanglement of mind is an illusion, and Laura will no more hear him than the god to which her grandfather prays. Zach shuts his eyes and hugs his ribs; his shivering is getting worse.

‘Laura,’ he whispers, ‘just this once, that’s all I ask.’

Who is he fooling?

To fail now might well mean to fail forever. He passes his gaze one last time over the interior of the cave, over the objects he’s furnished it with, as if to fix their thingness in his mind, then closes his eyes, brings his hands into position, licks his lips, and draws upon tactile memory. If every formation and every candle and every detail is perfect, why not this? Don’t speak, he tells himself, afraid of the incantatory power of words themselves, which make and unmake in equal measure. Not in some primitive magical sense, but as interface between the amorphous white stuff out there and stellar dendrites or capped columns or needles, the beautiful yet impossibly fragile snow crystals of science, called forth only to melt away at the touch of your tongue.

No, don’t speak, Zach. And above all, don’t look. It may be that, like Eurydice, Laura belongs to the dark.

His embouchure forms automatically, his right thumb tenses to support the clarinet’s weight, his other fingers flex above the keys, the reed welcomes his lower lip. Into his mind comes the memory of their second visit to the cave—his last, he’d sworn not to go back and transform it into a shrine to perfect happiness, perfect harmony, to that one perfect glissando, as fluid as the milky flowlight from candle and wall and pool which drips from Laura’s skin when she clambers out and comes to him and lays her fingers on his wrist so that he stops playing but not the Gershwin which plays on and on her lips and will forever play in the cave of memory.

which

‘Laura.’

darkens as if

‘I’ve dreamt of you.’ She lifts his hands one by one and kisses them gently. ‘Angatkuqpak. Shaman of shamans.’

the candles are guttering

Unerringly she finds his tattoo, then her tongue meets his, and her forefinger strums the thickened vein in his cock.

in a chill draught

A low moan, and he opens his eyes to drag himself back from that cyanic precipice, that rhapsody in blue which is lethal to his concentration. At once the music is gone, above the sound of his harsh breathing there’s only the keening of the wind, the crack and grate of the distempered ice. Lev is wrong, Zach can’t do it on his own. Better the silence of the deaf than this strident lament: he blocks his ears but the tinnitus of his renegade blood merely amplifies his agitation. Time is an echo chamber with walls of bone. Which tone in a piece of music—which chord, which rest—is now? His mind is haemorrhaging ambient dread, is there internal bleeding oh god breathe there’s so much noise just breathe just

With a cry Zach snatches up his parka. Shuddering with cold, he yanks it over his head. ‘I told you to stay put,’ he rages, jamming his arms into the sleeves. ‘You bloody idiot. Why the fuck couldn’t you listen?’ He seizes the discarded knife and grabs a fistful of hair, wrenches it taut enough for his eyes to water, and hacks it off; another hank, then another. ‘Damn you!’ Slashing faster, he nicks a finger and howls. Moments later, he cuts himself again. Without bothering to staunch the blood he drops to his knees, letting the knife fall from his fingers, and begins to sob, a sound as raw as dying.

Except that death is inaudible, its diapason beyond even the cognoscens range.