People milled about. Bustling, meandering, tumbling, they passed this way then that. Backwards and forwards. Up and down. Fat and thin. Young and old. A baby would cry. A man would swear. A car would express its rage in the piercing honk of a horn. Shopkeepers would gaze out of windows hoping for shoppers, shoppers would gaze into windows hoping for money. What would a boy sitting on a bench; hands in pockets, feet together, mean to the bees and their honey? They would buzz along in their endless cycles of life, death and birth. Spend, receive and sell. Love, hate and laugh. And the boy would sit on the bench, a single tiny pawn amongst the crowded, wonky buildings and their shops and their insects.
He gazed between the trees. Trees that were intersected all along the paving to which the bench called home. They tried to grow as strong and mighty as they could in the urban confinements they had been forced to live in. It made the boy sad. Someone cried out a name nearby, a single syllable.
Across a road, running perpendicular from the direction he faced, his eyes were drawn to a scar in a fence that lined the gardens of houses just beyond. A mouth of twisted metal and splintered wood that awaited yet another meal. Bouquets of solemn flowers wreathed the gaping maw, a picture the boy couldn’t make out stood half hidden amongst them. Again the voice called out, unsurely now. He couldn’t understand why he had come here. Why he looked at the little memorial with such intensity. He wanted to look away but couldn’t. It was like being shown an obscene picture, it disgusted him but something compelled him to keep his eyes on it.
The voice called out again, closer, more sure.
“Seth!” the voice said. Who was Seth the boy – a wave of realisation, like a sudden heat wafting down his skin, caused the boy to turn to the source of the outcry. That was his name. Names are more than just labels, they carry an unrealized power, and his name was more a part of who he was than any clothes he wore or any bed he slept in. It symbolised perception and identity, to hear his name was like all his memories and all the emotions he had ever felt cascading on him like an unexpected waterfall. He was suddenly sweating as the concerned face of a girl, similar to his own age, jogged towards him. The boy’s drained eyes flickered around looking for the hole in the illusion.
“It is you,” she said. Straight, light blond hair, long elegant face, blue eyes all conveyed her concern like a cloying oil, oozing out through the air onto his skin. “I...” she hesitated “I didn’t expect to see you. You’ve been gone for – How are you?” Her voice was nervous, apprehensive.
The boy just stood, eyes wide, mouth open. The cliché of the rabbit frozen in the head lights. His pulse rose. This person knew him. A vague memory began to formulate in his mind but it was drowned out by the sudden urge to get away and hide. He didn't want someone he barely remembered doting and fussing over him. He didn't want to be cared for.“I...” He began, and he turned on his heel and ran. He stretched his legs far, pumped his arms fast. Air whispered through his hair, joyously bouncing and tugging it. He swerved out onto the road, a car screeched to a stop half a metre in front of him. He barely even noticed. Down a hill on the other side he turned, looking behind whilst still running, she was following him, confusion and distress reaching off her like tendrils. He turned back accelerating and ran head first into a lamp post. To the people sitting at cafes, drinking, chatting nearby the boy’s little accident would probably have been quite comical. Through the sharp impact, the razor pain, the falling, the boy didn’t even consider the slapstick humour. Instead he scrambled back to his feet and raced on, blood dribbling over his eye, adrenaline-softened pain slowly escalating in his left brow. He lost himself in cobbled streets, between old houses, up busy allies. Running hard until his rasping breathes scraped at his lungs and already tired knees all but buckled.
He sat, hidden in the cover of some shrubs. Arms wrapped knees pulled up to his still sore chest. Evening had come and bands of purple and orange streaked across the fading sky. He had been resting, huddled in the cold, his chattering breath reaching out into the frigid air. A soft, gentle voice called to him.
“Seth, poppet.” It said. He stiffened. “Sweetie, it’s me.” The voice slipped through the veil of detachment and echoed through his mind. An old, maternal voice, it swam with the serenity of fish and reverberated with the stability of earth. It called and he responded.
“Mama Twayblade?” His voice reached out like a scared child to its mother.
“Oh, just look at you, you dear thing!” The old lady, dressed in a golden green cardigan and white dress, leant down and helped the boy up. “Come on, poppet. Let’s go and get you cleaned up shall we?” It wasn’t far, her house. A small ivy enshrouded bungalow, hidden between quaint houses on a flat, cobbled street. She opened the front door, the smell of wicker baskets, thyme and orchids rushed into the boy’s nose. He stopped before the door.
It was like something was playing tug and war in his mind. He didn't want someone to care for him, didn't want people judging him and making assumptions and he didn't want to experince their false niceties. They all just wanted something from him, it was always about personal gain. What did he have to give anyway? And yet, now, he desperately wanted the consoling, honest voice of Mama Thwayblade to whisper reassurances in his ear. For him to be able to sit before her, like a child learning about things for the first time, filled with the optimism and the ambiguity that the future induced.
“May I come in?” He croaked.
He had been invited into the house before and Mama Twayblade’s grey eyebrows knitted at the request. “Oh, you know you don’t have to ask me that again, poppet. Once is quite enough.”
She walked with surprising vigour for someone her age. Bouncing almost like a little girl. Her pale skin, however, was withered and her once springy auburn hair was now a dark grey; frizzy and thin. The boy had known her for as long as he could remember, and never had she seemed to age any further. Nor did her house seem to change; always he was brought into the homely kitchen, straight from the pale green front door. It looked and smelt of someone who loved to bake and cook. The wooden cabinets were well used and herbs and spices, pots and pans hung everywhere. This room was the only he had ever seen in her house and always was lit with hundreds of little candles; any space not being used for cooking or these candles was covered in old, unusable cooking pots filled with soil, where little orchids sprouted like happy faces. The air seemed clear and warm and snug.
When she wasn’t shopping for food, Mama Twayblade was cooking food and as soon as she had sat the boy down she began to heat a saucepan of water on a large black aga. As the water heated she bounced over to a little cabinet and brought out role of white material, dipping it in the warm water and handed it to the boy. “There you go, sweetling.”She turned back to her pot and he began to dab the blood across his face with the cloth. “Now,” she said “what has happened to you? Tell Mama Twayblade and she’ll get you back and smiling.” She turned to him from where she was sprinkling various herbs and spices and smiled whimsically.
He sat for a while, dabbing his face, absent minded. He couldn’t think what to say and his eyes just drifted through a window into the back garden. A blackbird fluttered onto the apple tree. A breath of wind slid over neatly arranged flower beds. “I feel dead.” He said at last.
She said nothing and he sensed her waiting for him to continue. He didn’t want to and sickness rose in his stomach just thinking about it. “Like all the, I don’t know... Inspiration has been drained from the word. No. Wait, more like everything, everyone is dissatisfied with me, that I’ve done something terrible.” He paused. The bird flapped away. Flowers stopped swaying. He looked down at the blood stained cloth. “I don’t understand why.” And as he spoke his dead voice broke, real desperation now cracking from his mouth. Not tiredness and hollowness, desperation. For a moment he was taken back and he heard the screeching of tyres and the escalating drum beat of a pulse.
“Doubt and shame live in us all, poppet.” Mama Twayblade sighed. “Humanity is fragile, always has been always will be. One day you wake up and you feel like you’re not good enough, the next you experience something, something happy and heart warming and even a bit beautiful and you realise your troubles aren’t so important.” Something stirred behind the boy’s eyes at her words but he couldn’t identify what. “And you learn how there are bigger and more wonderful things out there, in the earth, in the sky. All around you!” She said with the expansiveness of mountains in her voice, chopping herbs with deadly, practised, precision.
The boy felt a surge of hate in him, it came from no where like the sudden striking of a viper “But you’re not even human, how would you know how fragile– “
She laughed, warm, melodious and a little wheezy. “Oh, that may be quite true, but, yet look at me now. In a human house, preparing human food. What is inhuman about me? I too love and laugh and cry, dear.”
“Then, what is wrong with me?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Ever since I met you, you’ve been optimistic, imaginative perhaps shy... “ She laughed, recalling memories of a little boy bringing injured animals to her home. Too shy to speak, he would hold them up to her, like offering a relative you didn’t see often a present.Then he’d watch, awe in his happy face, as she weaved her fae magic on their broken bones and torn flesh. “Yes, definitely shy too... And none of that has changed.” She paused, scraping her chopped herbs into the pan. “No matter where a river flows,” She began “whether it be through open canyons or dense forests it is still the same flowing water that tumbled high from a top the mountains. Remember that.”
He looked down at his pale hands, shaking slightly. The cloth in one, dried blood on the other. They were his, always his. His head throbbed and he felt like he was about to pass out, the world slightly swimming, slightly bending around him. A sweet, thick slightly spicy aroma had peeled across the aga to where he sat. He suddenly realised how thirsty he was.
“Now,” she said, pouring the liquid that she had been so delicately crafting into a mug. “Drink this, sweety. It will make you feel worlds better.” She passed the steaming mug across the table where he sat. For a moment as the scalding mug was pressed into his hand their fingers touched. Old and young. Human and non-human.
The liquid spilled over the table top as the mug slipped from her fingertips. And with no other warning all light abandoned the room. The boy looked around wildly. Had there been a power-cut? No. As the scent of candle smoke wafted into his nose he remembered there were no light bulbs. Only candles. Hundreds of flames that, with not a single stirring of air, had all simultaneously gone out. The room suddenly felt degrees colder.
A voice, icy as a glacier, prickling like a thistle with barely contained anger, spoke. “You would bring that malignancy into my home.” Mama Twayblades voice sent arctic fingers down his flesh. “You,” She paused, and the silence that she left pressed down on him like an ocean. “Are a monster.”
And once again he was back with wheels screeching, and the heartbeat that he could hear from where he was, and the fear of what he was being driven towards.
And the face of the child that he was being driven towards.
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