This is one of the first stories I ever had published, in Kimota Issue 16, which was some time in the early 2000s. It’s been rewritten since, simply because, every few years, I’ve come back to it and kept trying. With hindsight, the ideas were probably there from the start, the rest is window-dressing, and so it’s time to stop tinkering and just plant the thing and move on. It’s Fantasy, I suppose, but with borders. Hope you like it.
I was on the way to my father’s funeral when I found the dead cat by the side of the road.
It was about halfway between the shining city behind me and the tiny terracotta village waiting in the mountains ahead. As I drove, the Astico raged away to my right: a tumbling froth of water that empties and fills with the seasons, cascading down from the distant hills and then curling away through the city to the sea. On my left, there was a soft, green pasture sloping up to the first trees of the forest. I saw the cat there, nailed to one of the trunks.
I pulled in a little way past.
There was no other traffic and no other people. As I walked cautiously up through the grass, the only noise was the rush of the river behind, which was mirrored by a similar hush of silence in my ears. When I reached the tree, I crouched down and unhooked my sunglasses. Closer to, I could hear the nasal buzz of the carrion flies circling.
The cat had been dead for a while: hot days and nights had been wiping their feet on its fur. Its head was cracked and flattened, and its eyes were shut. The body was like a deflated bag. Most of it had spilled down the tree, and was now either congealed in the bark or lost in the humming undergrowth at my feet.
“Poor thing,” I said.
The nails were probably about five or six inches long. I counted over fifty of them before I gave up, put my sunglasses on and walked back to the car.
I didn’t stop again until I reached the village. It would be safe there, at least; there were men – old and solid – who would have made sure of that. But between here and there, I was alone with the clicking undergrowth and trees, and whatever else might be here, running amongst them.
Because it begins with the cats.
It always has.
When I was growing up, the people in our village called my father il mago: the magician.
As a child, I thought it was literally true. He worked leather in his shop. Whenever I watched him, there was an incomprehensible ease to the way his stained fingers moved effortlessly over the fabric. It seemed to respond to his touch. As an adult, I understood that was simply familiarity – the relationship that develops over a lifetime spent dealing with something difficult. The skill. Perhaps that’s all magic really is.
I remember that people from the local villages would bring all manner of goods to him: bags, shoes, overalls, old straps. He’d fix them all, and afterwards, people would say you’d never know they’d ever been broken. The shelves in the shop were a potpourri of scents, textures and shapes. Even now, in Alden, the occasional dirty-spice smell of worked leather is always enough to point my thoughts home, my memories inwards.
I left the village when I was eighteen. At that age, it had seemed too small, too insular, and I’d never felt like I belonged. The bigger city had called to me. Unlike the village, it was a place where you could be nothing and nobody would notice. These days, I’m in insurance. It’s a decent job, and I have an office on the ninth floor of one of those glass skyscrapers that gleam in the sunlight and reflect the clouds. I have my own set of skills: I read the paperwork that crosses my desk; I understand the financial costs of the terrible experiences suffered by people I’ll never meet; I know how to calculate the rates of profit and loss. My fingers move easily over the papers, and the calculations are second nature. Just like my father, I kiss my wife when I get home. I kiss my children. My life’s work comes easily to me.
Working leather is only what my father did. It is not what he was. Beyond what he did for a living, my father was a woodsman.
And on that level, what am I? I don’t know. There is my job, my wife, my children. I take my wage, I buy my things. At the end of the day, I close the door and lock it, so I can’t hear the outside world. When something terrible happens, I watch it passively on the television, and I mute it or change the channel if it’s too upsetting. I tell myself it’s somebody else’s responsibility – and that’s true, simply because it always can be. When something awful crosses my desk, I authorise the financial reparation necessary to correct it from that sunny ninth floor office.
That’s what I do. That’s what I am.
I drove up the snaking road of the hill that led to Pontemondo, with the mountains rising to either side of me. Behind and below, the Astico tumbled onwards. Thoughts and memories of my childhood arrived to meet me there, like children running out of the small houses to greet a visitor. I pulled the car to a halt in the square.
Somewhere up ahead, in the small church, the bells were ringing.
And suddenly, I was twelve years old again.
As we got ready, lacing our boots in the thin, cool mist, I listened to the tolling from the church and imagined distant ancestors laying down their scythes and ploughs and returning to the village. In my mind, they were indistinct figures, moving purposefully through the mist. There is something wrong, the bells said. Come back. Prepare to do your duty.
That day, the six of us present barely spoke. I was only a child, and it was my first time in the woods. But even then, I understood the importance of it: the solemn weight of continuity; the fact that, when we set out, the ghosts of our ancestors would be walking with us. Over hundreds of years, a baton of responsibility has been passed backwards in Pontemondo. The task is sacred; it’s a physical thing, something you can feel.
I was the last to be ready. The others – all grown men, one of them my father – waited patiently, saying nothing. They knew the day ahead would not be easy for me, but they had all faced their own first days in their time, and knew they couldn’t help. Becoming a man doesn’t work like that.
After my boots were laced correctly and safely, the six of us picked up our six-foot felling axes and headed for the woods.
As we walked, I allowed my fingertips to move gently over the carvings in the shaft. Without them, the weapon would have been too heavy for me to lift. My skin tingled. I recognised a couple of the symbols as belonging to the Fitting, by which a tool or weapon was made appropriate to the handler. I wasn’t sure what most of the others were, but could guess. Protection. Swiftness. And certainly Cohesion – the axe had passed through generations and was beaten and weathered, as though about to fall apart at any second, and yet I knew from the heft that it never would, not if wielded by its Fit. By me.
Leaving the village, heading into the early-morning, green-grey hues of the fields and forests, we made our way under a stone arch: twenty metres of relative darkness. Halfway through, we passed Paolo, in his cage. It was obvious he was awake and watching us, cross-legged in his prison.
I knew him. He was two years younger than me. Both the sudden proximity and the visceral moral stink of him made me uncomfortable. His gaze followed us as we moved past the cage, and he chattered at us. It was a violent, inhuman noise. The sound a cat makes when it sees a bird it can’t reach.
Nobody acknowledged him.
Paolo had been in the wooden cage beneath the arch for three nights, and would probably still be there the following evening. It was difficult to predict. Eventually, the cold of the nights, the dew of shivery mornings and the heat of the days would remove the chattering from him, and then he would be free to play with us again. But nobody could ever tell exactly how long it would take.
It had begun the previous week. A couple of the neighbourhood cats had gone missing. Then one of the older women, washing clothes by the Astico, had found a tabby halfway up a tree, nailed and split. And so it had been brought to the attention of the men of the village – the woodsmen – that something had gone wrong inside one of the children.
It took several days to identify the culprit. In that time, a number of other animals were found blinded and crippled, or dead. And then Laora, who lived opposite my family and was as frail as an old woman can be, had returned home to find her grandson, Paolo, sitting on the blood-soaked wooden floor of her front room, with their dog dead in front of him. The boy had chattered his teeth mindlessly as he twisted off the last of its legs, while she screamed and ran from the house.
Walking past the cage, I knew that Paolo would have done the same to me if he could. It starts in small ways, but it never stays small.
A minute later, the sound of our boots on the cobbles dissolved into the wet crush of sodden, morning grass. Out in the fields, I could smell the mist. The undergrowth clicked and snapped as we made our heavy progress. The ground was steaming. For the five minutes it took to get high enough to escape them, horseflies flitted around us, tickling our necks and hair, and whining suddenly behind our ears. I slapped them towards me, as I’d been taught.
One of the men hawked and spat on a broken down stone wall beside us.
“How far is it now?”
“Not far,” my father said.
The damp ground squelched beneath my boots. As we arrived at the field, I was as terrified as I’d ever been.
My father’s funeral was not a closed casket affair.
Back in the city, it would have been. But that had never been the way here; tradition demanded that people did not look away. So while the priest delivered her words, and we murmured our formal, echoing consent, my father lay naked at the front of the dusty chapel, the remains of his face pointing sightlessly at the rafters.
Halloran had done a good job of repairing and hiding what damage he could. My father’s head had been painstakingly restored: the surviving pieces glued together with resin, and the missing sections recreated with clay. He looked peaceful. My grip on the language had loosened to the extent that I couldn’t understand all the words of the service, but I remembered enough to say the right things in the right places.
In between, my attention drifted.
As a child, I had come to school in this small chapel. There were wooden desks and chairs stored in a side room, and during the week they were lined up in place of the pews. I could remember the way my desk had smelled – meaty and salty – just as I could remember the swipe of grass on my shins during the trips we’d take into the safe parts of the mountains, and the rush of the streams we ate our pack-lunches by, and the froth of cuckoo-spit, collected on lolly sticks. A lot of my friends from back then were in the church now. They had become men: thick in the body and beard. They looked more like my father than I did.
At the end of the service, the coffin was closed and words were spoken over it, and then we carried it out. There were six of us, and it was simultaneously both heavier and lighter than I’d been expecting. Outside, the day had grown hot. As we hefted the casket to the graveyard, our feet chitted on the parched stone ground. The Astico rumbled past below us and the mountains beyond were so still that they might have been painted on the sky in earthy swirls.
My father’s coffin was lowered into the ground, and then buried by hand. That is the way things are done around here: one fistful of soil at a time, the villagers standing in a circle around the six of us, watching.
It took four hours. When we had finished, my cheeks and arms were sunburnt, and the church bells in the tower above had rung out another nine times.
“Careful,” my father said, as we all clambered over the stone wall into the field.
The early-morning sky above was lightening, but the unkempt grass still looked grey, and the spaces between the trees in the surrounding wood remained closed off by curtains of shadow. Dotted over the field ahead, trees emerged from cairns of grass, as twisted, brown and gnarled as upturned hands. Mist hung at waist-height over the ground.
To begin with, as we walked, all of the trees looked like trees to me.
And then I saw it.
In the far corner. One of the men crossed himself at the same time. Another spat. My father said nothing. I shifted my grip on the axe, reassured by the weight of it, telling myself that the thing in the corner of the field couldn’t hurt me if I didn’t touch it, even if it felt like it could.
My father led the way across. I hesitated – but then fell in step with the others. I wasn’t sure what kept me moving: whether it was the potential shame of embarrassing my father, or simply the fear of turning my back on the thing in the corner of the field.
At first glance, it looked like a tree in the shape of a monster. It was short and thick in the trunk, but long, twisted and jittery in the countless thin branches. The main body of it finished in a grotesque bisected bulb of bark and sap, like a head that had been cleaved with an axe and continued to grow as best it could. As we approached across the uneven ground, I saw the branches twitching, even though there was no breeze. It knew we were there. And I realised that it wasn’t a tree in the shape of a monster at all. It was the exact opposite.
This is what happens in Pontemondo: sometimes, in the forests around the village, a tree goes wrong. Nobody understands why. Most of them are fine, and it’s good for the children to play on them: climbing amongst their branches; swinging and exploring. But occasionally one goes bad, and the children that play in that tree go bad along with it. When that happens, it’s the duty of a woodsman to remove the chattering from the child, and to find the tree and end it.
I approached with the men – but ten metres away from the thing, my steps faltered. The waft of moral cold coming off the thing froze me in place. And as I came to a stop, I felt it turn its attention to me, and that it knew how terrified I was of it. How helpless and powerless I felt.
My father had stopped and turned. The other men were looking at me.
I stared back at my father.
There was no need for him to ask the question itself, or to have it answered. And I have known from that moment on that the colour of shame is the palest of shades: that it’s as chilled as early-morning mist.
I shook my head.
Perhaps it made it worse that my father looked sympathetic. As though he understood and didn’t blame me. As though, in fact, he loved me very much indeed.
But all of the men turned away and went to work.
I watched. They chopped it down. Somehow – despite the smell of the thick, off-white sap that oozed from the wedges they cut; despite the sounds it made, chattering and wittering – they hacked the thing out of the ground. Despite the fact that they knew it would ultimately be in vain, because the land here is full of poison, and it will always emerge somewhere, always touch somebody.
Despite all that, they did it anyway.
And I did not help.
When they were done, I felt sick and weak. Amongst the men present, there were no words of congratulations, no sense of accomplishment. They looked gaunt and spent. It was all I could do to stumble back down the mountainside behind them, trailing an axe that would need no cleaning.
As we reached the village and the horseflies came for me again – ugly, whining and stinging – this time I let them feast.
As dusk settled, I walked around the village.
There was only one main street, but a web of alleys and paths led around the houses, finishing in small fields and fountains, or gardens pungent with herbs. At the edge of a small copse, I came to the tree on which my father had been found. The ground had been washed, and all the nails removed, but you could still tell where some of them had been embedded.
I spent some time looking at it, feeling colder now.
Afterwards, I walked up to the dark archway that led into the fields, and from there, the forests and the mountains. I moved through. The wooden cage was resting on the ground to my right, empty and open. Nobody had been caught for my father’s murder, and they would not be caged here when they were, as it would have taken an adult to overpower il mago. The chattering could be lifted from children, given time and effort, but from an adult – or a group of adults – it was impossible.
I walked to the end and looked out across the blue fields, scanning the dark mountains beyond. Night was already beginning to wrap tightly around them. Birds were whistling warnings to each other, and the only movement was the growing breeze.
Somewhere out there was a tree. More than one, perhaps, nattering to themselves in the growing dark. And running and squatting amongst them would be men or women who could do nothing now but chatter and bang nails into things.
And somewhere behind me, in the village – in a case, in a cupboard – there was an axe that would fit my hand.
Things had been carved on that axe. It had been told to stay together, and so it would; it had been ordered to suit me, and so its weight would be easy for me to heft and swing. But all of that had been inscribed before I was even born. My father was a woodsman; I was not. I’m no magician, and I don’t want to be.
Nothing I saw on the way back to Alden made me think any differently. Not when I passed the dead cat. And not when I saw, on a tree further past, a shape that looked like a little girl. Because nothing moving through the fields could keep up with me for long. And yet, despite the heat of the evening, until I had left the sound of them well behind, I kept the car windows closed.