Authors: Patrick Ness
—Oh, my God.
—Here goes nothing.
—Oh, my God.
Honey ran through her veins, and she was warm again.
While the others pushed past her, she stood and regarded her muddy footprint. This was it then, the final clue. It was too early for the grass to be bitter. It was too early for the air to smell so much of dust. It was too early for the eagles to have left their aeries for more verdant hunting grounds. And now, it was definitely too early for the water to have pulled back far enough for mudflats to emerge at the pond’s edge. Drought was coming, was already here in the smaller places, poking its nose at the corners of things. She had lived through a drought when she was a calf, but even with the help of the cubes of dried grass and small stone ponds of water that had seemed to appear from nowhere throughout the city, she had watched many of the older herdmembers and a good number of the younger ones grow weak and finally die. It was a horrible time, the days filled with endless droning sun, the nights filled with the bleats and moans of herdmembers mourning both their hunger and their dead. Lean times had come and gone since, but nothing like that terrible season. Nothing, that is, until what now hovered on the horizon, poised to reach in its hot, dusty fingers and snatch the last blade of grass from them.
She looked out at the herd, squinting to see as they lowered
their heads and drank, the water lapping at their toenails. Some of them, perhaps many of them, perhaps even herself along with them, would be dead by the end of the season. Hardship was natural, even drought was natural, yet still the burden on her was far from light, and deep in her crowded, instinctive brain, there was the unpleasant coldness of doubt. She walked slowly over to the water’s edge to join the other herdmembers in a drink. Stopping, she sniffed the air and turned to look behind her.
Something grabbed her horn.
She jolted herself back and wrenched her head up into the sky. She heard a short cry as one of the thin creatures fell down into the shallow water, away from where its grip had been on her nose. She gathered herself quickly and looked down into its eyes, staring back up at her. She was not afraid, only startled. The thin creatures had never been any danger to the herd and especially not one this tiny. She brought her massive head down for a closer sniff. The herd nearby stopped to watch, all eyes on her, straining against their collective myopia, as she took in the smells of the thing. It was mostly sweet with a faint sickly odor of food too ripe, of mother’s milk gone bad. It must be one of their calves, and a very, very young one by the smell and size of it.
(—Melanie! Melanie, you come away from there right now! Right now!)
Her ears rotated towards the sound of hoofbeats slapping on the mud. Another thin creature dashed towards them. She could smell fear on the second one as thick as sweat. It stopped short of where she stood and began squawking loudly in that gurgled way they had.
(—Shoo! Get away! Get out of here! Get away from her! Melanie, you come here right now!)
The first thin creature, the calf, reached its front hoof up
to her nose, holding it at a short distance. She didn’t smell fear in this smaller one and allowed it to touch her nose lightly, even accepting a little gentle scratching.
(—It’s friendly, Mrs Carlson. See?
—Get away from it, right now, Melanie! They’re dangerous.
—No, they’re not. My father says—
—I’m not telling you again!
— You’re going to scare them if you keep shouting like that.)
A third thin creature had come up behind the second one.
She began to feel uncomfortable. True, the thin creatures rarely involved themselves with the herd, but this proximity was too close, the sounds they were making too loud, and she could smell strongly that they were beginning to muddy the water. She inhaled deeply and brought her shoulders up, emitting two short snorts into the air. It was time to lead the herd away from this ruckus.
(—What’s it doing? Melanie, I’m going to count to three!
— You’re upsetting them, lady. They’re not going to hurt her.
—I’ll keep charge of my own students, Officer, thank you very much. Now, would you please be useful and help me get her?
—All she has to do is walk away. She’s not in any danger.
— You didn’t see it knock her down. Oh, for God’s sake, I’ll do it myself.)
The second of the thin creatures suddenly stomped over and grabbed the foreleg of the smaller one. The young calf yelped loudly. She swung her head back towards the thin creatures at the sound, accidentally brushing the flank of the taller one. It let out a startled cry and struck her on the side of her face. Defensively, she rumbled out of her chest, lowered her head, and gave a short hop forward on her front feet. It
was a scare tactic, and it worked. The taller thin creature cried out again and dragged the calf quickly past the third creature and away.
Enough was enough. She turned abruptly and set off for the far end of the pond. By the time the herd had followed her there, the thin creatures were forgotten. She drank, but her mind turned once again to the certainty of hard times ahead.
Peter took apart his motorcycle and separated the pieces – there were 183 distinct ones, so far – into rows on the stained red dropcloth. He cleaned each individual part with a blue rag and laid them out on an unconscious grid, placed randomly, he thought, but actually forming a neat criss-cross pattern. A tiny washer just here, a larger screw just there, a casing here, a foot pedal there, as if he were performing an especially thorough autopsy rather than just cleaning gritty motorcycle parts.
Four hours had passed this way, four hours since he had left Luther at the crack of dawn to return home. Luther pretended to be asleep, but Peter could tell by the patterns in his breathing that he wasn’t. After a soft kiss in the curve of Luther’s neck, Peter had gone straight home, where he had grabbed a banana shake for breakfast and set right to work on his cycle. He always did this when preoccupied which, given the lack of mental interaction offered by his waiter job and the necessity to block out mental interaction from his entertainment job, was rather more often than not.
The cycle was almost completely disassembled, save for the
battery cell-pack which he couldn’t have put back together anyway, and still Peter didn’t know what to do. He didn’t even have any thoughts that weren’t complete self-beration. The concept of his only chance vanishing fruitlessly swept across his mind every second or so, and he would push more furiously at the grease covering the bearings in the wheel wells, bearings which he would eventually have to spend a considerable amount of time regreasing later.
He paused while removing a handle grip. His face went tight. A smothering nothing of time passed.
He smacked his fist against the floor, hurting it, and returned intently to the removal of the handle grip. He was self-taught at cycle mechanics, as he was self-taught at nearly everything else. His father had vanished when he was a young boy, his sister had her own friends, and his mother worked almost round the clock to keep the family solvent. He had been a solitary child, but this was different from being a shy child, which he was not. He was popular or at least well known at school, did passably at his studies, and generally earned the respect, if not exactly the friendship, of children his own age. He was polite with adults, a regular at his mother’s church, and for one, brief, horrifying season, captain of his junior rounders team, a sport he finally realized he hated and promptly quit.
It was more a case of enjoying his own company than anything else. He was happiest with a book or word puzzle in the front window of his family’s apartment. Or pretending to be on a solo reconnaissance mission around the swampy part of the pond down in Restitution Park. Or going on an hours-long walk by himself through the woods above The Roots, his hometown. Even on group activities, he oftentimes found himself alone without quite knowing how. Once at a
church summer camp, he only realized at sundown that he had rowed his canoe what ended up being nearly six miles away from the other boaters on a trip across Loch Onnatonka. When he finally returned and was banished to his cabin for disappearing from the group, an occurrence he could barely remember happening (—I guess I just got distracted. —For seven hours?), he realized that after a week at camp, he still didn’t know the name of a single cabinmate. If his mother was in a good mood, she called this solitary streak self-reliance. If she was in a bad mood, she called it self-obsession. Either way, he was an easy child to raise: a few vague worries in exchange for a minimum of disciplinary headaches.
He left home with few ambitions when he graduated. His mother, naturally, had wanted him to be a doctor or lawyer or priest or, in her more bilious moments, all three. But then she had suddenly succumbed to a vicious and hitherto unknown tumor on a heart valve, and Peter, after his grief – and to be honest, after a few years of shiftlessly spending his small inheritance on books and hiking gear – had turned his sights northward, as many an unfocused Rumour lad had done before him. He applied for a work permit and surprisingly, given his almost complete lack of specific tangible skills, was granted one.
Serendipity had seen to it that at the same time Thomas Banyon was looking to replace a recently murdered Rumour waiter at Hennington Hills Golf Course and Resort, preferably this time one who didn’t ask so many bloody questions. Peter hadn’t paused when Thomas had asked him to disrobe at the interview, nor even when Thomas had grabbed Peter’s flaccid penis and said, —What I’m wondering here is if this does anything special.
A lack of investment was the problem. Peter had taken life as it had arisen, with very few questions and almost no
complaints as long as he got time to spend with himself. He didn’t care that Thomas treated him like a piece of meat because he figured that was what happened to immigrant workers generally in their first years, and besides that was just life, right? He had no real opinions on sex and sexuality, though he had dabbled with one or two forthright girls who found him attractive due to the fact that he was so oblivious to them. When Thomas asked to see what Peter’s member looked like when it stood on end, Peter obliged without thinking twice.
—What I’ve said doesn’t bother you?
—You understand what your place will be here?
It wasn’t that Thomas cared that Peter understood, it was just unusual to find someone who accepted it all with no apparent misgivings. Whatsoever.
—I’ll be having sex with people that you arrange for me.
—This doesn’t give you any pause?
—My permit says I work for you for three years. If that’s the job, then that’s the job. It’s what newcomers do, isn’t it?
—It’s what they do
yes. When they work for me.
—Let’s go over this one more time.
A year had passed since, uneventful except for the occasional oddity here and there with a clip. He had two years to go on the permit, and though he doubted Thomas would let him go without a fuss at the end of it, he would deal with that when the time came. He would be twenty-nine then, still time enough to do whatever. He looked forward, on those rare times when he did look forward, to the two years passing without anything remarkable happening.
happened. Something more than remarkable. Something that provided him with both investment and focus. Luther had happened, and now, for maybe the first time ever, Peter cared desperately about what would happen next. It couldn’t be random chance that they’d met and clicked so well over what should have been a simple business transaction. There had to be something to the fact that Luther asked him back again and again. At last, Peter had caught a glimpse of a wished-for future, and now his present circumstances, his present actions, his present needs
His relaxed attitude towards his own life was suddenly swallowed by the messy exhilaration and anguish of falling in love.
What do I do now? he thought. What do people do?
He set down a sparklingly clean coil on the red dropcloth, completing a perfect grid. Without realizing what he was doing, he picked the coil back up and began to put his cycle together again.
What does it all mean? thought Jarvis, turning over the dirt with a handrake. If it meant anything at all.
It was that second bit that nagged at him. Frankly, he would have liked to dismiss Mrs Bellingham’s dream out of hand. He was a rational man, or at least that was how he had always viewed himself. Being a parish priest and seeing the day to day banality and wonderment of trudging and ongoing life would have taken the mystery out of him anyway. The miraculous happened in the first breath of a baby born to a mother thought to be barren, or in the soft scent of an unexpected bloom of amaryllis in his garden or even just in
how the sunlight spoke its way in rows across the wooden floor of the older sanctuary. The glory and mystery of God expressed itself
he believed. One needn’t make it, meaning life and the world one lived in,
mysterious and miraculous by reading omens and prophecies in every ill-lit corner.
As for his parishioners, Jarvis had heard them talk of prophecies before, usually after the fact when hindsight performed its organizational magic and made everything seem as if it had all gone according to a pre-ordained plan. Premonitions were always so much more potent when remembered afterwards. Jarvis saw little harm in them, even approved of them because if all religion were in some part an attempt to explain the big mess of life, then this was just that function put to use at a basic level. If this was what some of his parishioners needed to explain God to themselves, well, then wonderful; most people never got an explanation of any sort. Prophecy also managed to fill the time of some of the more runaway control freaks in his congregation, those gray-eyed souls who liked to sail in on black clouds of foreboding offering ‘divine guidance’ on what the parish could do before its obvious and inevitable – and imminent – collapse; folks who seemed to want to do nothing more than place a reservation for an ‘I told you so’ later on. Theophilus Velingtham, of course, was grand champion.