About two in the morning Jesse abandoned the attempt to sleep. The voice in his head was quiescent, undoubtedly aware of the human need for nightly oblivion. There was no reason to think that Red would invade his dreams, yet whenever Jesse felt himself drifting away, a sly reddish tint dispersed across the glassy surface of his mind, a carmine shot through with gold, uncomfortably reminiscent of the lake at sunset. ‘Look, Jesse, the water’s burning again,’ Emmy used to say, and he would tease her, threaten to pick her up and dip her toes into the flames. ‘Noo . . . ’ she’d squeal, half terrified, half entranced; half believing. ‘They’d melt, wouldn’t they?’ And he, ‘Like toasted cheesy toes. Welsh rabbit toes,’ swinging her up, nibbling, tickling.
In the kitchen he drank a glass of milk while feeding Nubi a fistful of dog biscuits, then removed a block of cheddar from the fridge and weighed it in his hand, warily peeled back the wrapper; he hadn’t been able to eat cheese since the park. This time he got as far as bringing a morsel to his lips before a wave of nausea overtook him. With a sigh of exasperation he tossed it to Nubi and shoved the rest of the cheese back into the fridge.
In the entrance hall Nubi regarded Jesse expectantly as he slipped into his trainers. ‘Not tonight,’ Jesse said. ‘I need to do this on my own.’ He was astonished when Nubi growled low in his throat, so astonished in fact that he swung round to check the passage then opened the front door to peer out, fully expecting to find an intruder on the threshold. Nubi tore through the breach, and was away.
‘Bugger,’ Jesse muttered. After calling and whistling as loudly as he dared, all to no avail, he unhooked Nubi’s lead, stepped outside, and shut the door behind him. The blasted creature was sitting under the next streetlamp, an expression of doggy innocence on his face. But when Jesse snapped the lead to his collar and tried to drag Nubi back towards the house, it quickly became obvious who would win this particular argument. Together, if not altogether amiably, they headed in the direction of the park.
At the main gate Jesse tied Nubi to some iron scrollwork, which resulted in such a frenzy of barking that it wouldn’t be long before the police were notified, along with the RSPCA.
‘What’s got into you tonight?’
With bad grace Jesse released Nubi, who seized the moment of slackened grip to spring away. Trailing his lead, he disappeared into the depths of the park while Jesse stared after him, confounded and not a little perturbed.
Though it was a warm night the temperature seemed to drop as soon as Jesse passed the stone pillars. The lights from the city were obscured by high trees, which swayed and rustled and creaked in a rising wind. Jesse was surprised by how enormous the trunks seemed, how many fronting the gates. It felt as if he were facing a tribunal of tribal chieftains, wildhaired and bearded, come to settle a blood feud, deliver summary justice, negotiate an uneasy truce. Surely there had been more bushes and shrubs near the main entrance, the towering giants set further back? Any country boy knows that night does strange things to its landscapes, but an air of sentience pervaded this park, sentience and cunning. Jesse could imagine Yggdrasil growing here, and Loki scampering beneath its arms. Jesse hadn’t brought a torch; artificial light, he was certain, would not be welcome.
On the bottom step he halted to let his eyes adjust to starlight, then once again by the fountain to scrutinise the statue of the sphinx, which returned his regard with stony impassivity; as much as he could see of the inky surroundings. This time his mind conjured shapes coalescing amid the sentinel trees, voices surfacing from layers of ossified and compacted lives beneath his feet. But he was committed now; and impossible to abandon Nubi.
The cold was intensifying and it wasn’t enough to rub his hands over his arms, he needed to move. He circled the fountain and followed the main path, finally persuading himself to proclaim his intent upon drawing near a stand of ash.
‘Dad,’ he whispered, then cleared his throat. ‘Dad, are you here?’
The only answer was the windy breath of the trees; even Red remained silent.
‘Dad,’ he called loudly, repeatedly. Then, ‘Nubi!’
Again there was no reply. He resumed walking, faster than before, then soon broke into a jog. His footsteps thudded like the sound of a blunt axe on wood. It took an effort to breathe. The air resisted, as if the trees had thrown out whippy shoots and branches and foliage, groping and stubborn, a serried, tangled, jungled mass through which he was fighting and which only parted at the machete stroke of his will.
Something close to panic seized Jesse. He began to run, racing forwards, zigzagging, lurching from dark shadow to darker so that he lost all sense of direction and towards became away became any way he could flee, not listening for pursuit, not thinking until he tripped over a protruding root, careened into a tree trunk, and fell heavily to the ground. Winded, he lay still while his heartbeat gradually returned to normal. This was stupid. He wouldn’t find his father by haphazard blundering, by a rabbiting flight. He struggled to his feet.
One last time Jesse tried to shout for his dad, then for Nubi. The sound of his voice was muffled by the trees, and he doubted that it would carry more than a few metres, if that. Almost, the park seemed to be deliberately swallowing his words. He listened intently for a response but heard nothing except his own breathing and the thrumming of the blood in his ears. He shivered. The sense of isolation, of having left a word-schooled world for the place where language failed, or had yet to be mustered, was very strong. Where there were only soundings. He had to goad himself to move on.
After a few steps Jesse turned to look back the way he’d come, wondering if he ought to retrace, or attempt to retrace, some of his route. Uncertainly he backtracked several paces before coming to a standstill under a tall ash. Was that barking he heard?
Overhead the branches shifted in a silent gust of wind. He found himself looking nervously over his shoulder. There it was again—the sound of barking. Only later, when he went back in his memory to reconstruct the sequence of events, would he realise that whatever was deadening all other sound also deadened the sound of footfalls.
As Jesse swung round to listen, the blow caught him across the back of his head. The world tilted and went black.
Jesse groans and tries to lift his head. The ground pitches and heaves, and he twists just in time to avoid vomiting over his clothes. Once the spasm has ended, he wipes his mouth with the back of a hand and rolls away, desperately thirsty. After a few uneven breaths, he raises himself to all fours. The dizziness seems to have passed, but he kneels in place, careful to use his hands for support, and surveys his surroundings without rising.
The sun is low in the sky—deep orange, pendulous; bulging like an egg yolk about to break and run.
Directly in front of him a man hangs from an immense tree, his body naked and skeletal, much of his face hidden by lank hair and leaves, limbs bound by rope but a strand of barbed wire tethering his forehead to the trunk, a short wooden shaft piercing his left side. Dried blood cakes the wound, and flies cling to the lines of hardened excrement which streak his inner thighs. Jesse turns from the sight and vomits anew, this time only a thin sour fluid.
‘I’m not here. This isn’t real, is it?’ Jesse says under his breath.
The man in the tree moans, and his body convulses.
‘Oh god,’ Jesse cries. ‘He’s alive.’
He struggles to his feet, fighting a fresh wave of nausea, then gingerly probes the back of his head with his fingertips, which come away clean. Tender, but the skin hasn’t been broken.
‘Red,’ he says, ‘if you’re there, help me. Tell me what to do.’
From behind the tree steps a tall, naked figure. His body gleams, copper skin oiled with an iridescent and musky unguent, muscles rippling. But his head is black-furred and blade-toothed, sly, ferocious—a beast, a jackal. And yet familiar.
‘Nubi?’ Jesse whispers.
‘This is the ninth day he hangs here,’ Anubis says, his voice rough and pitted, gravelly like a heavy smoker’s. ‘But he cannot escape without help. He will ride this tree forever if not released. Dead but not dead.’
‘We’ve got to fetch him down,’ Jesse says.
‘Not without a sacrifice.’
‘What kind of sacrifice?’ Jesse clenches his fists at the curl of the creature’s lips, surely not a smile. ‘Mine? Haven’t I sacrificed enough?’
‘You still do not understand who you are.’
‘Then tell me!’
Jesse finds it taxing to hold Anubis’s face steady, as with a fata morgana or those ambiguous figures in an optical illusion which slip back and forth between different manifestations. Nor do Anubis’s jaws move as he speaks; the serrated voice, Jesse realises, is deep inside his own head.
‘You cannot know who you are until you chose who you are not. So it is with all true consciousness.’
‘At least tell me who he is.’
There is a glint of ember in Anubis’s dark eyes. Raising an arm, he flicks his wrist. A momentary flash, then an arc of light which Jesse follows with his eyes. The hilt of a knife quivers in the trunk of the tree, just below the first lateral branch.
‘Nubi,’ he says, turning to address his companion, ‘if that means I’m supposed to cut him free, I don’t have the strength to clim—’ He stops and swings round, looking wildly in all directions.
Jesse is alone.
Or alone with a dying man.
He looks up at the figure in the tree. It seems to shift a little, and Jesse thinks that he hears a sound—a moan, a swollen guttural breath. A plea.
The sound strikes flint. Deep within Jesse’s bowels a spark flares, then blazes into a howl of rage as old as the first word, ripping through guts and throat, through cell and will, and he raises his fists to the man, to the gallows, to the sun.
‘No!’ he screams. ‘No! No! NO!’
He drops his arms, lets his head fall to his chest.
He has no idea how long he stands there—a minute, an hour. Immeasurable, that hideous moment when he faces his solitude. There are no thoughts in his head . . . no voices . . . no whispers. Only a space without dimension: not even black, but blank.
The man makes another sound, this time closer to a hoarse whimper.
‘All right,’ Jesse says.
He closes his eyes to concentrate. It’s worth a try. And so he tries. And tries some more. But reach as he might—and hasn’t he already known this would happen?—he can summon nothing, not even a flicker of fire, to help him. He’ll have to do this the hard, the real way.
As Jesse stands on tiptoe to remove the knife, the dying man bucks once, forcefully enough to shake nearby branches, and the air whistles ominously through his windpipe. There’s no time to waste.
Without stopping to examine the knife for its authenticity, Jesse tests its edge. His knife or another—immaterial, so long as it doesn’t perform any disappearing acts. To do its job it will need to be very sharp, for he’ll be cutting through wire as well as rope. He hones the knife on a rock, the smell of pulverised stone acrid in his nostrils, then slips it into his belt.
Jesse grimaces at his yammering heart and takes a few breaths to calm himself, then pulls off his trainers and socks before eyeing the tree for the best place to start. With a grunt he hauls himself up to the first branch. Despite a vestige of light-headedness, he finds it an easy climb. The tree is very old, its thickened bark with deep diamond-patterned ridges offering good purchase; and there are many low-hanging branches which he can mount, almost as if the tree itself is offering a ladder. Only once does he nearly lose his footing, when a dying limb snaps under his weight, and he drops and slides and is forced to grab at a lower branch to break his fall. He clings to the trunk for a few minutes, drawing shaky breaths, relieved that he hasn’t slipped any further nor lost his knife.
The man’s lower legs are easy to cut free; likewise his thighs and waist, which have been bound only loosely. As Jesse slices through the ropes from behind, he hears a low rattle deep in the man’s chest.
‘Don’t you dare die on me now,’ Jesse mutters through clenched teeth while he climbs again.
The ropes aren’t slack on purpose. The man must have lost a lot of weight. Nine days, Nubi said. No one could survive nine days like this, wounded, without food, and especially without water. Nine days: 216 hours: 1296 minutes: 93312 heartbeats. Give or take a few. Time must be measured differently here. Maybe there are places along the spacetime manifold where it’s possible to access Hawking’s dimension of imaginary rather than ordinary—real—time. Or is time polydimensional? Or not quantised at all?
Or maybe place has nothing whatsoever to do with it . . .
For now hath time made me his numbering clock
My thoughts are minutes.
There are times when Jesse would like to be able to switch off certain functions in his head. Ruefully he drags his attention back to the present, or what appears to be the present. What now? He looks down from his perch in a fork just above the man’s head, studying the situation. Much higher than originally anticipated, and even with a rope there’s no way he could manage to lower the man to the ground by himself. And simply cutting the man loose would be fatal: not just the height, but the gouging and battering from the intervening branches. Shit. Is it likely his own perceptions are skewed? He leans his head against the rough bark, desperately turning over possibilities in his mind. There aren’t many. No, he’s fooling himself. There aren’t any.
‘Finish it,’ the man whispers.
Jesse snaps his head up.
‘Your knife. Kill me.’
The man’s voice is very faint, but the words are clear enough. Jesse can’t see the other’s face from this angle—and knows that the man can’t see his—but he shakes his head. No way. He isn’t going to take this man’s life.
‘Do it, Jesse,’ the man says. ‘Now. Crow time. No time—’
Jesse stares at the man’s head. The blond hair is dirty and ragged, and where the barbed wire cuts viciously into his scalp, matted with dried blood and pus. Sweat drips in front of Jesse’s eyes, and he cautiously loosens his grip to wipe his brow with a forearm. A feeling of dread is beginning to steal over him; inevitability. It’s the only thing he can do for this man. You put any animal out of its suffering if far enough gone. He learned that from his grandmother almost as soon as he could speak. But a man?
Jesse’s legs are cramped from holding his position overlong. He eases his left leg out from under and flexes it, then his right. Little by little he inches along the limb as far as he dares, until he hopes he’s close enough to do what the man is asking . . . what’s necessary. Maybe. He tries not to make any sudden movements. The branch sways and dips under his weight so that he feels very precarious. Slowly, hands unsteady, he reaches for his knife. What choice does he have?
Then it strikes him.
‘How do you know my name?’
No answer. Not a sound from the limp body.
A drop of sweat from Jesse’s forehead drops onto the crown of the man’s head. The man gives no sign of having noticed this strange form of intimacy. Jesse can’t make out if he’s still breathing. Has he spoken to Jesse at all? Or is this another elaborate trick, some Grandmaster’s slight-of-hand to outmanoeuvre him once again? Or his own mind conning him? How can he tell?
Jesse allows himself another downwards glance. In less than ten minutes he could be on the ground. If none of this were real, all he has to do is ignore the hanging figure; and if it were real—well, the man is dead, or as good as. No need to do anything, is there? Except worry about how to get back.
And face himself afterwards.
Jesse shuts his eyes. One face after another, each one his, each one different—not much different, perhaps not even noticeably different—but different enough to find brushing his teeth and combing his hair and meeting his own eyes in the mirror uncomfortable. And if he can’t hold his own look, how will he hold Sarah’s, or anyone else’s who matters to him?
With a small toss of his head to clear the sweaty hair from his eyes, Jesse begins to edge back towards the trunk. He’ll have to approach from another angle. That it’ll take longer can’t be helped. Jesse knows he can’t kill a man, even a dying man as an act of mercy, without looking into his face.
By the time Jesse has reached a new position, he’s worked out a plan. The quickest death would be a thrust into the base of the skull, just above the rise of the spinal column. Fast and sure, but difficult from the front, and all but impossible from here. It would have to be the heart. Gripping the knife in his right hand, Jesse pushes himself out a little further on the limb, not daring to move beyond the third set of opposing branches. If the wood cracked they would both die. The torso slumps just beyond him, the man’s face still partially obscured by leaves. Jesse wraps his legs tightly round the bough, transfers the knife carefully to his left hand, and pulls back the obstructing branch to get his first clear look at the man’s face, to offer him at least that mark of reverence while taking his life.
‘Forgive me,’ Jesse says as he raises his arm to strike. Only the shock of recognition, which paralyses him for a few seconds, keeps him from dropping the knife, or falling.
Jesse is looking into his own face.
The face is sunken, the skin sagging—worn thin like old cloth—but blackened rather than faded by the sun. There are deep fissures in the lips and at the corners of the mouth, and dried froth as well as blood streak the chin; at some point the tongue has been bitten till it bled. Greedy flies cluster at the corners of the eyes. And the nose has been broken from a blow, and it too has bled. It’s a death’s head with flesh and hair still intact, though just barely. Jesse would not have been surprised to find it hanging from some medieval pike, or outside a tribal shaman’s hut. But there is no mistaking the features. It is his face.
The man stirs and opens his eyes.
‘No time,’ he repeats, and his voice is thin and weak and distant, as insubstantial as early morning mist above the lake. It floats hesitantly towards Jesse, dissipating as it approaches. The end is not far off.
‘Who are you?’ Jesse asks, his voice sharp. However cruel it is to question someone in extremis, he’s unable to help himself.
The man—or youth, for all Jesse can tell—tenses, and his ravaged throat works as he tries to swallow, Adam’s apple nearly breaking through the skin. His legs, now dangling loose, kick a bit against the branches to which they’d been lashed, and even his penis, shrunk to a pre-adolescent bud, stirs. There is a last reserve of energy, or will, in him yet. He blinks once, and his eyes open into Jesse’s with all the empowerment and clarity that death bestows. Blue. They’re such a startling blue. Jesse shivers, and a voice—but whose?—comes to him across a vast distance . . . Jesse . . . The gaze becomes a tether: a tunnel: a truth into which Jesse is drawn inexorably, by the sole means a nature like his could be led.
. . . Jesse . . .
‘Use the knife.’
‘I can’t,’ Jesse whispers. ‘Not now.’
‘Now.’ The man shudders, then licks his lips with a swollen tongue. ‘Hurry.’ Beginning to gasp again. ‘Do it . . . accept . . . your . . . our . . . ’
Jesse raises the knife but the enormity of what he’s about to do rolls over him in a great wave of revulsion. To kill in cold blood, while the man still lives and speaks. A man with his own face. No. He can’t do it. He relaxes his hold on the knife, then tightens it again as the man’s breathing becomes rougher, his eyes more intense. They seize Jesse in the iron grip of a man drowning.
what you alone know is the most powerful knowledge of all
Jesse’s hand trembles as the thoughts chase round and round, and round again. Do it. Do it. The man’s eyes blaze with purpose. All the life left to him is concentrated in this one last effort. Death is very near. His pupils dilate. Jesse sees his own reflection, but only briefly, for the lens opens, the tunnel stretches before him, and he is spiralling towards the light.
‘No!’ Jesse sobs even as the blade flashes and pierces the man’s chest.
‘Yes!’ The exultant cry shakes the ash from root to crown.
Jesse falls from the tree.