IN THE HILLS, THE CITIES
IT WASN’T UNTIL the first week of the Yugoslavian trip that Mick discovered what a political bigot he’d chosen as a lover. Certainly, he’d been warned. One of the queens at the Baths had told him Judd was to the Right of Attila the Hun, but the man had been one of Judd’s ex-affairs, and Mick had presumed there was more spite than perception in the character assassination.
If only he’d listened. Then he wouldn’t be driving along an interminable road in a Volkswagen that suddenly seemed the size of a coffin, listening to Judd’s views on Soviet expansionism. Jesus, he was so boring. He didn’t converse, he lectured, and endlessly. In Italy the sermon had been on the way the Communists had exploited the peasant vote. Now, in Yugoslavia, Judd had really warmed to his theme, and Mick was just about ready to take a hammer to his self-opinionated head.
It wasn’t that he disagreed with everything Judd said. Some of the arguments (the ones Mick understood) seemed quite sensible. But then, what did he know? He was a dance teacher. Judd was a journalist, a professional pundit. He felt, like most journalists Mick had encountered, that he was obliged to have an opinion on everything under the sun. Especially politics; that was the best trough to wallow in. You could get your snout, eyes, head and front hooves in that mess of muck and have a fine old time splashing around. It was an inexhaustible subject to devour, a swill with a little of everything in it, because everything, according to Judd, was political. The arts were political. Sex was political. Religion, commerce, gardening, eating, drinking and farting — all political.
Jesus, it was mind-blowingly boring; killingly, love -deadeningly boring.
Worse still, Judd didn’t seem to notice how bored Mick had become, or if he noticed, he didn’t care. He just rambled on, his arguments getting windier and windier, his sentences lengthening with every mile they drove.
Judd, Mick had decided, was a selfish bastard, and as soon as their honeymoon was over he’d part with the guy.
It was not until their trip, that endless, motiveless caravan through the graveyards of mid-European culture, that Judd realized what a political lightweight he had in Mick. The guy showed precious little interest in the economics or the politics of the countries they passed through. He registered indifference to the full facts behind the Italian situation, and yawned, yes, yawned when he tried (and failed) to debate the Russian threat to world peace. He had to face the bitter truth: Mick was a queen; there was no other word for him. All right, perhaps he didn’t mince or wear jewellery to excess, but he was a queen nevertheless, happy to wallow in a dream-world of early Renaissance frescoes and Yugoslavian icons. The complexities, the contradictions, even the agonies that made those cultures blossom and wither were just tiresome to him. His mind was no deeper than his looks; he was a well-groomed nobody.
The road south from Belgrade to Novi Pazar was, by Yugoslavian standards, a good one. There were fewer pot-holes than on many of the roads they’d travelled, and it was relatively straight. The town of Novi Pazar lay in the valley of the River Raska, south of the city named after the river. It wasn’t an area particularly popular with the tourists. Despite the good road it was still inaccessible, and lacked sophisticated amenities; but Mick was determined to see the monastery at Sopocani, to the west of the town and after some bitter argument, he’d won.
The journey had proved uninspiring. On either side of the road the cultivated fields looked parched and dusty. The summer had been unusually hot, and droughts were affecting many of the villages. Crops had failed, and livestock had been prematurely slaughtered to prevent them dying of malnutrition. There was a defeated look about the few faces they glimpsed at the roadside. Even the children had dour expressions; brows as heavy as the stale heat that hung over the valley.
Now, with the cards on the table after a row at Belgrade, they drove in silence most of the time; but the straight road, like most straight roads, invited dispute. When the driving was easy, the mind rooted for something to keep it engaged. What better than a fight?
‘Why the hell do you want to see this damn monastery?’ Judd demanded.
It was an unmistakable invitation.
‘We’ve come all this way ...‘ Mick tried to keep the tone conversational. He wasn’t in the mood for an argument.
‘More fucking Virgins, is it?’ Keeping his voice as even as he could, Mick picked up the Guide and read aloud from it… ‘there, some of the greatest works of Serbian painting can still be seen and enjoyed, including what many commentators agree to be the enduring masterpiece of the Raska school: “The Dormition of the Virgin.”’
Then Judd: ‘I’m up to here with churches.’
‘It’s a masterpiece.’
‘They’re all masterpieces according to that bloody book.’
Mick felt his control slipping.
‘Two and a half hours at most —, ‘I told you, I don’t want to see another church; the smell of the places makes me sick. Stale incense, old sweat and lies...’
‘It’s a short detour; then we can get back on to the road and you can give me another lecture on farming subsidies in the Sandzak.’
‘I’m just trying to get some decent conversation going instead of this endless tripe about Serbian fucking mas-terpieces —,
‘Stop the car!’
‘Stop the car!’
Judd pulled the Volkswagen into the side of the road. Mick got out.
The road was hot, but there was a slight breeze. He took a deep breath, and wandered into the middle of the road. Empty of traffic and of pedestrians in both directions. In every direction, empty. The hills shimmered in the heat off the fields. There were wild poppies growing in the ditches. Mick crossed the road, squatted on his haunches and picked one.
Behind him he heard the VW’s door slam. ‘What did you stop us for?’ Judd said. His voice was edgy, still hoping for that argument, begging for it.
Mick stood up, playing with the poppy. It was close to seeding, late in the season. The petals fell from the receptacle as soon as he touched them, little splashes of red fluttering down on to the grey tarmac.
‘I asked you a question,’ Judd said again.
Mick looked round. Judd was standing the far side of the car, his brows a knitted line of burgeoning anger. But handsome; oh yes; a face that made women weep with frustration that he was gay. A heavy black moustache (perfectly trimmed) and eyes you could watch forever, and never see the same light in them twice. Why in God’s name, thought Mick, does a man as fine as that have to be such an insensitive little shit?
Judd returned the look of contemptuous appraisal, staring at the pouting pretty boy across the road. It made him want to puke, seeing the little act Mick was performing for his benefit. It might just have been plausible in a sixteen-year-old virgin. In a twenty-five-year-old, it lacked credibility.
Mick dropped the flower, and untucked his T-shirt from his jeans. A tight stomach, then a slim, smooth chest were revealed as he pulled it off. His hair was ruffled when his head re-appeared, and his face wore a broad grin. Judd looked at the torso. Neat, not too muscular. An appendix scar peering over his faded jeans. A gold chain, small but catching the sun, dipped in the hollow of his throat. Without meaning to, he returned Mick’s grin, and a kind of peace was made between them.
Mick was unbuckling his belt.
‘Want to fuck?’ he said, the grin not faltering.
‘It’s no use,’ came an answer, though not to that question.
‘What isn’t?’ ‘We’re not compatible.’
‘Want a bet?’
Now he was unzipped, and turning away towards the wheat-field that bordered the road.
Judd watched as Mick cut a swathe through the swaying sea, his back the colour of the grain, so that he was almost camouflaged by it. It was a dangerous game, screwing in the open air — this wasn’t San Francisco, or even Hampstead Heath. Nervously, Judd glanced along the road. Still empty in both directions. And Mick was turning, deep in the field, turning and smiling and waving like a swimmer buoyed up in a golden surf. What the hell there was nobody to see, nobody to know. Just the hills, liquid in the heat-haze, their forested backs bent to the business of the earth, and a lost dog, sitting at the edge of the road, waiting for some lost master.
Judd followed Mick’s path through the wheat, unbut-toning his shirt as he walked. Field-mice ran ahead of him, scurrying through the stalks as the giant came their way, his feet like thunder. Judd saw their panic, and smiled. He meant no harm to them, but then how were they to know that? Maybe he’d put out a hundred lives, mice, beetles, worms, before he reached the spot where Mick was lying, stark bollock naked, on a bed of trampled grain, still grinning.
It was good love they made, good, strong love, equal in pleasure for both; there was a precision to their passion, sensing the moment when effortless delight became urgent, when desire became necessity. They locked together, limb around limb, tongue around tongue, in a knot only orgasm could untie, their backs alternately scorched and scratched as they rolled around exchanging blows and kisses. In the thick of it, creaming together, they heard the phut-phut-phut of a tractor passing by; but they were past caring. They made their way back to the Volkswagen with body-threshed wheat in their hair and their ears, in their socks and between their toes. Their grins had been replaced with easy smiles: the truce, if not permanent, would last a few hours at least.
The car was baking hot, and they had to open all the windows and doors to let the breeze cool it before they started towards Novi Pazar. It was four o’clock, and there was still an hour’s driving ahead.
As they got into the car Mick said, ‘We’ll forget the monastery, eh?’ Judd gaped. ‘I thought —, ‘I couldn’t bear another fucking Virgin —‘
They laughed lightly together, then kissed, tasting each other and themselves, a mingling of saliva, and the aftertaste of salt semen.
The following day was bright, but not particularly warm. No blue skies: just an even layer of white cloud. The morning air was sharp in the lining of the nostrils, like ether, or peppermint.
Vaslav Jelovsek watched the pigeons in the main square of Popolac courting death as they skipped and fluttered ahead of the vehicles that were buzzing around. Some about military business, some civilian. An air of sober intention barely suppressed the excitement he felt on this day, an excitement he knew was shared by every man, woman and child in Popolac. Shared by the pigeons too for all he knew. Maybe that was why they played under the wheels with such dexterity, knowing that on this day of days no harm could come to them.
He scanned the sky again, that same white sky he’d been peering at since dawn. The cloud-layer was low; not ideal for the celebrations. A phrase passed through his mind, an English phrase he’d heard from a friend, ‘to have your head in the clouds’. It meant, he gathered, to be lost in a reverie, in a white, sightless dream. That, he thought wryly, was all the West knew about clouds, that they stood for dreams. It took a vision they lacked to make a truth out of that casual turn of phrase. Here, in these secret hills, wouldn’t they create a spectacular reality from those idle words? A living proverb.
A head in the clouds.
Already the first contingent was assembling in the square. There were one or two absentees owing to illness, but the auxiliaries were ready and waiting to take their places. Such eagerness! Such wide smiles when an auxiliary heard his or her name and number called and was taken out of line to join the limb that was already taking shape. On every side, miracles of organization. Everyone with a job to do and a place to go. There was no shouting or pushing: indeed, voices were scarcely raised above an eager whisper. He watched in admiration as the work of positioning and buckling and roping went on.
It was going to be a long and arduous day. Vaslav had been in the square since an hour before dawn, drinking coffee from imported plastic cups, discussing the half-hourly meteorological reports coming in from Pristina and Mitrovica, and watching the starless sky as the grey light of morning crept across it. Now he was drinking his sixth coffee of the day, and it was still barely seven o’clock. Across the square Metzinger looked as tired and as anxious as Vaslav felt.
They’d watched the dawn seep out of the east together, Metzinger and he. But now they had separated, forgetting previous companionship, and would not speak until the contest was over. After all Metzinger was from Podujevo. He had his own city to support in the coming battle. Tomorrow they’d exchange tales of their adventures, but for today they must behave as if they didn’t know each other, not even to exchange a smile. For today they had to be utterly partisan, caring only for the victory of their own city over the opposition.
Now the first leg of Popolac was erected, to the mutual satisfaction of Metzinger and Vaslav. All the safety checks had been meticulously made, and the leg left the square, its shadow falling hugely across the face of the Town Hall.
Vaslav sipped his sweet, sweet coffee and allowed himself a little grunt of satisfaction. Such days, such days. Days filled with glory, with snapping flags and high, stomach-turning sights, enough to last a man a lifetime. It was a golden foretaste of Heaven.
Let America have its simple pleasures, its cartoon mice, its candy-coated castles, its cults and its technologies, he wanted none of it. The greatest wonder of the world was here, hidden in the hills.
Ah, such days.
In the main square of Podujevo the scene was no less animated, and no less inspiring. Perhaps there was a muted sense of sadness underlying this year’s celebration, but that was understandable. Nita Obrenovic, Podujevo’s loved and respected organizer, was no longer living. The previous winter had claimed her at the age of ninety-four, leaving the city bereft of her fierce opinions and her fiercer proportions. For sixty years Nita had worked with the citizens of Podujevo, always planning for the next contest and improving on the designs, her energies spent on making the next creation more ambitious and more life-like than the last.
Now she was dead, and sorely missed. There was no disorganization in the streets without her, the people were far too disciplined for that, but they were already falling behind schedule, and it was almost seven-twenty-five. Nita’s daughter had taken over in her mother’s stead, but she lacked Nita’s power to galvanize the people into action. She was, in a word, too gentle for the job in hand. It required a leader who was part prophet and part ringmaster, to coax and bully and inspire the citizens into their places. Maybe, after two or three decades, and with a few more contests under her belt, Nita Obrenovic’s daughter would make the grade. But for today Podujevo was behindhand; safety-checks were being overlooked; nervous looks replaced the confidence of earlier years.
Nevertheless, at six minutes before eight the first limb of Podujevo made its way out of the city to the assembly point, to wait for its fellow.
By that time the flanks were already lashed together in Popolac, and armed contingents were awaiting orders in the Town Square.
Mick woke promptly at seven, though there was no alarm clock in their simply furnished room at the Hotel Beograd. He lay in his bed and listened to Judd’s regular breathing from the twin bed across the room. A dull morning light whimpered through the thin curtains, not encouraging an early departure. After a few minutes’ staring at the cracked paintwork on the ceiling, and a while longer at the crudely carved crucifix on the opposite wall, Mick got up and went to the window. It was a dull day, as he had guessed. The sky was overcast, and the roofs of Novi Pazar were grey and featureless in the flat morning light. But beyond the roofs, to the east, he could see the hills. There was sun there. He could see shafts of light catching the blue-green of the forest, inviting a visit to their slopes.
Today maybe they would go south to Kosovska Mitrovica. There was a market there, wasn’t there, and a museum? And they could drive down the valley of the Ibar, following the road beside the river, where the hills rose wild and shining on either side. The hills, yes; today he decided they would see the hills.
It was eight-fifteen.
By nine the main bodies of Popolac and Podujevo were substantially assembled. In their allotted districts the limbs of both cities were ready and waiting to join their expectant torsos.
Vaslav Jelovsek capped his gloved hands over his eyes and surveyed the sky. The cloud-base had risen in the last hour, no doubt of it, and there were breaks in the clouds to the west; even, on occasion, a few glimpses of the sun. It wouldn’t be a perfect day for the contest perhaps, but certainly adequate.
Mick and Judd breakfasted late on hemendeks — roughly translated as ham and eggs — and several cups of good black coffee. It was brightening up, even in Novi Pazar, and their ambitions were set high. Kosovska Mitrovica by lunchtime, and maybe a visit to the hill-castle of Zvecan in the afternoon.
About nine-thirty they motored out of Novi Pazar and took the Srbovac road south to the Ibar valley. Not a good road, but the bumps and pot-holes couldn’t spoil the new day. The road was empty, except for the occasional pedes-trian; and in place of the maize and corn fields they’d passed on the previous day the road was flanked by undulating hills, whose sides were thickly and darkly forested. Apart from a few birds, they saw no wildlife. Even their infrequent travelling companions petered out altogether after a few miles, and the occasional farmhouse they drove by appeared locked and shuttered up. Black pigs ran unattended in the yard, with no child to feed them. Washing snapped and billowed on a sagging line, with no washerwoman in sight.
At first this solitary journey through the hills was refreshing in its lack of human contact, but as the morning drew on, an uneasiness grew on them. ‘Shouldn’t we have seen a signpost to Mitrovica, Mick?’
He peered at the map.
‘— we’ve taken the wrong road.’
‘If there’d been a sign, I’d have seen it. I think we should try and get off this road, bear south a bit more — meet the valley closer to Mitrovica than we’d planned.’
‘How do we get off this bloody road?’ ‘There’ve been a couple of turnings...‘ ‘Dirt-tracks.’
‘Well it’s either that or going on the way we are.’ Judd pursed his lips.
‘Cigarette?’ he asked.
‘Finished them miles back.’
In front of them, the hills formed an impenetrable line. There was no sign of life ahead; no frail wisp of chimney smoke, no sound of voice or vehicle.
‘All right,’ said Judd, ‘we take the next turning. Any-thing’s better than this.’
They drove on. The road was deteriorating rapidly, the pot-holes becoming craters, the hummocks feeling like bodies beneath the wheels.
A turning: a palpable turning. Not a major road, certainly. In fact barely the dirt-track Judd had described the other roads as being, but it was an escape from the endless perspective of the road they were trapped on.
‘This is becoming a bloody safari,’ said Judd as the VW be-gan to bump and grind its way along the doleful little track. ‘Where’s your sense of adventure?’
‘I forgot to pack it.’
They were beginning to climb now, as the track wound its way up into the hills. The forest closed over them, blotting out the sky, so a shifting patchwork of light and shadow scooted over the bonnet as they drove. There was birdsong suddenly, vacuous and optimistic, and a smell of new pine and undug earth. A fox crossed the track, up ahead, and watched a long moment as the car grumbled up towards it. Then, with the leisurely stride of a fearless prince, it sauntered away into the trees.
Wherever they were going, Mick thought, this was better than the road they’d left. Soon maybe they’d stop, and walk a while, to find a promontory from which they could see the valley, even Novi Pazar, nestled behind them.
The two men were still an hour’s drive from Popolac when the head of the contingent at last marched out of the Town Square and took up its position with the main body.
This last exit left the city completely deserted. Not even the sick or the old were neglected on this day; no-one was to be denied the spectacle and the triumph of the contest. Every single citizen, however young or infirm, the blind, the crippled, babes in arms, pregnant women — all made their way up from their proud city to the stamping ground. It was the law that they should attend: but it needed no enforcing. No citizen of either city would have missed the chance to see that sight — to experience the thrill of that contest.
The confrontation had to be total, city against city. This was the way it had always been.
So the cities went up into the hills. By noon they were gathered, the citizens of Popolac and Podujevo, in the secret well of the hills, hidden from civilized eyes, to do ancient and ceremonial battle. Tens of thousands of hearts beat faster. Tens of thou-sands of bodies stretched and strained and sweated as the twin cities took their positions. The shadows of the bodies darkened tracts of land the size of small towns; the weight of their feet trampled the grass to a green milk; their movement killed animals, crushed bushes and threw down trees. The earth literally reverberated with their passage, the hills echoing with the booming din of their steps.
In the towering body of Podujevo, a few technical hitches were becoming apparent. A slight flaw in the knitting of the left flank had resulted in a weakness there: and there were consequent problems in the swivelling mechanism of the hips. It was stiffer than it should be, and the movements were not smooth. As a result there was considerable strain being put upon that region of the city. It was being dealt with bravely; after all, the contest was intended to press the contestants to their limits. But breaking point was closer than anyone would have dared to admit. The citizens were not as resilient as they had been in previous contests. A bad decade for crops had produced bodies less well-nourished, spines less supple, wills less resolute. The badly knitted flank might not have caused an accident in itself, but further weakened by the frailty of the competitors it set a scene for death on an unprecedented scale.
They stopped the car.
Mick shook his head. His hearing hadn’t been good since he was an adolescent. Too many rock shows had blown his eardrums to hell.
Judd got out of the car.
The birds were quieter now. The noise he’d heard as they drove came again. It wasn’t simply a noise: it was almost a motion in the earth, a roar that seemed seated in the substance of the hills.
Thunder, was it?
No, too rhythmical. It came again, through the soles of the feet —Boom.
Mick heard it this time. He leaned out of the car window.
‘It’s up ahead somewhere. I hear it now.’ Judd nodded.
The earth-thunder sounded again. ‘What the hell is it?’ said Mick. ‘Whatever it is, I want to see it —, Judd got back into the Volkswagen, smiling.
‘Sounds almost like guns,’ he said, starting the car. ‘Big guns.’
Through his Russian-made binoculars Vaslav Jelovsek watched the starting-official raise his pistol. He saw the feather of white smoke rise from the barrel, and a second later heard the sound of the shot across the valley.
The contest had begun.
He looked up at twin towers of Popolac and Podujevo. Heads in the clouds — well almost. They practically stretched to touch the sky. It was an awesome sight, a breath-stopping, sleep-stabbing sight. Two cities swaying and writhing and preparing to take their first steps towards each other in this ritual battle.
Of the two, Podujevo seemed the less stable. There was a slight hesitation as the city raised its left leg to begin its march. Nothing serious, just a little difficulty in co-ordinating hip and thigh muscles. A couple of steps and the city would find its rhythm; a couple more and its inhabitants would be moving as one creature, one perfect giant set to match its grace and power against its mirror-image.
The gunshot had sent flurries of birds up from the trees that banked the hidden valley. They rose up in celebration of the great contest, chattering their excitement as they swooped over the stamping-ground.
‘Did you hear a shot?’ asked Judd.
‘Military exercises ...?‘ Judd’s smile had broadened. He could see the headlines already — exclusive reports of secret manoeuvres in the depths of the Yugoslavian countryside. Russian tanks perhaps, tactical exercises being held out of the West’s prying sight. With luck, he would be the carrier of this news.
There were birds in the air. The thunder was louder now.
It did sound like guns.
‘It’s over the next ridge ...‘ said Judd.
‘I don’t think we should go any further.’
‘I have to see.’
‘I don’t. We’re not supposed to be here.’
‘I don’t see any signs.’
‘They’ll cart us away; deport us - I don’t know - I just think -, Boom.
‘I’ve got to see.’
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when the screaming started.
Podujevo was screaming: a death-cry. Someone buried in the weak flank had died of the strain, and had begun a chain of decay in the system. One man loosed his neighbour and that neighbour loosed his, spreading a cancer of chaos through the body of the city. The coherence of the towering structure deteriorated with terrifying rapidity as the failure of one part of the anatomy put unendurable pressure on the other.
The masterpiece that the good citizens of Podujevo had constructed of their own flesh and blood tottered and then
—a dynamited skyscraper, it began to fall.
The broken flank spewed citizens like a slashed artery spitting blood. Then, with a graceful sloth that made the agonies of the citizens all the more horrible, it bowed towards the earth, all its limbs dissembling as it fell.
The huge head, that had brushed the clouds so recently, was flung back on its thick neck. Ten thousand mouths spoke a single scream for its vast mouth, a wordless, infinitely pitiable appeal to the sky. A howl of loss, a howl of anticipation, a howl of puzzlement. How, that scream demanded, could the day of days end like this, in a welter of falling bodies?
‘Did you hear that?’
It was unmistakably human, though almost deafeningly loud. Judd’s stomach convulsed. He looked across at Mick, who was as white as a sheet.
Judd stopped the car.
‘No,’ said Mick.
‘Listen — for Christ’s sake —, The din of dying moans, appeals and imprecations flooded the air. It was very close.
‘We’ve got to go on now,’ Mick implored.
Judd shook his head. He was prepared for some military spectacle — all the Russian army massed over the next hill
— but that noise in his ears was the noise of human flesh
— too human for words. It reminded him of his childhood
imaginings of Hell; the endless, unspeakable torments his mother had threatened him with if he failed to embrace Christ. It was a terror he’d forgotten for twenty years. But suddenly, here it was again, fresh-faced. Maybe the pit itself gaped just over the next horizon, with his mother standing at its lip, inviting him to taste its punishments.
‘If you won’t drive, I will.’
Mick got out of the car and crossed in front of it, glancing up the track as he did so. There was a moment’s hesitation, no more than a moment’s, when his eyes flickered with disbelief, before he turned towards the windscreen, his face even paler than it had been previously and said:
‘Jesus Christ...‘ in a voice that was thick with suppressed nausea.
His lover was still sitting behind the wheel, his head in his hands, trying to blot out memories.
Judd looked up, slowly. Mick was staring at him like a wildman, his face shining with a sudden, icy sweat. Judd looked past him. A few metres ahead the track had mysteriously darkened, as a tide edged towards the car, a thick, deep tide of blood. Judd’s reason twisted and turned to make any other sense of the sight than that inevitable conclusion. But there was no saner explanation. It was blood, in unendurable abundance, blood without end —And now, in the breeze, there was the flavour of freshly - opened carcasses: the smell out of the depths of the human body, part sweet, part savoury.
Mick stumbled back to the passenger’s side of the VW and fumbled weakly at the handle. The door opened suddenly and he lurched inside, his eyes glazed.
‘Back up,’ he said.
Judd reached for the ignition. The tide of blood was already sloshing against the front wheels. Ahead, the world had been painted red.
‘Drive, for fuck’s sake, drive!’ Judd was making no attempt to start the car.
‘We must look,’ he said, without conviction, ‘we have to.’
‘We don’t have to do anything,’ said Mick, ‘but get the hell out of here. It’s not our business ...‘
‘Plane-crash —, ‘There’s no smoke.’ ‘Those are human voices.’
Mick’s instinct was to leave well alone. He could read about the tragedy in a newspaper — he could see the pictures tomorrow when they were grey and grainy. Today it was too fresh, too unpredictable —Anything could be at the end of that track, bleeding —‘We must —‘
Judd started the car, while beside him Mick began to moan quietly. The VW began to edge forward, nosing through the river of blood, its wheels spinning in the queasy, foaming tide.
‘No,’ said Mick, very quietly, ‘please, no . . ‘We must,’ was Judd’s reply. ‘We must. We must.’
Only a few yards away the surviving city of Popolac was recovering from its first convulsions. It stared, with a thousand eyes, at the ruins of its ritual enemy, now spread in a tangle of rope and bodies over the impacted ground, shattered forever. Popolac staggered back from the sight, its vast legs flattening the forest that bounded the stamping-ground, its arms flailing the air. But it kept its balance, even as a common insanity, woken by the horror at its feet, surged through its sinews and curdled its brain. The order went out: the body thrashed and twisted and turned from the grisly carpet of Podujevo, and fled into the hills.
As it headed into oblivion, its towering form passed between the car and the sun, throwing its cold shadow over the bloody road. Mick saw nothing through his tears, and Judd, his eyes narrowed against the sight he feared seeing around the next bend, only dimly registered that something had blotted the light for a minute. A cloud, perhaps. A flock of birds.
Had he looked up at that moment, just stolen a glance out towards the north-east, he would have seen Popolac’s head, the vast, swarming head of a maddened city, disappearing below his line of vision, as it marched into the hills. He would have known that this territory was beyond his comprehension; and that there was no healing to be done in this corner of Hell. But he didn’t see the city, and he and Mick’s last turning-point had passed. From now on, like Popolac and its dead twin, they were lost to sanity, and to all hope of life.
They rounded the bend, and the ruins of Podujevo came into sight. Their domesticated imaginations had never conceived of a sight so unspeakably brutal.
Perhaps in the battlefields of Europe as many corpses had been heaped together: but had so many of them been women and children, locked together with the corpses of men? There had been piles of dead as high, but ever so many so recently abundant with life? There had been cities laid waste as quickly, but ever an entire city lost to the simple dictate of gravity?
It was a sight beyond sickness. In the face of it the mind slowed to a snail’s pace, the forces of reason picked over the evidence with meticulous hands, searching for a flaw in it, a place where it could say:
This is not happening. This is a dream of death, not death itself.
But reason could find no weakness in the wall. This was true. It was death indeed. Podujevo had fallen.
Thirty-eight thousand, seven hundred and sixty-five citizens were spread on the ground, or rather flung in ungainly, seeping piles. Those who had not died of the fall, or of suffocation, were dying. There would be no survivors from that city except that bundle of onlookers that had traipsed out of their homes to watch the contest. Those few Podujevians, the crippled, the sick, the ancient few, were now staring, like Mick and Judd, at the carnage, trying not to believe.
Judd was first out of the car. The ground beneath his suedes was sticky with coagulating gore. He surveyed the carnage. There was no wreckage: no sign of a plane crash, no fire, no smell of fuel. Just tens of thousands of fresh bodies, all either naked or dressed in an identical grey serge, men, women and children alike. Some of them, he could see, wore leather harnesses, tightly buckled around their upper chests, and snaking out from these contraptions were lengths of rope, miles and miles of it. The closer he looked, the more he saw of the extraordinary system of knots and lashings that still held the bodies together. For some reason these people had been tied together, side by side. Some were yoked on their neighbours’ shoulders, straddling them like boys playing at horse back riding. Others were locked arm in arm, knitted together with threads of rope in a wall of muscle and bone. Yet others were trussed in a ball, with their heads tucked between their knees. All were in some way connected up with their fellows, tied together as though in some insane collective bondage game.
Mick looked up.
Across the field a solitary man, dressed in a drab overcoat, was walking amongst the bodies with a revolver, dispatching the dying. It was a pitifully inadequate act of mercy, but he went on nevertheless, choosing the suffering children first. Emptying the revolver, filling it again, emptying it, filling it, emptying it —Mick let go.
He yelled at the top of his voice over the moans of the injured.
‘What is this?’
The man looked up from his appalling duty, his face as dead-grey as his coat.
‘Uh?’ he grunted, frowning at the two interlopers through his thick spectacles.
‘What’s happened here?’ Mick shouted across at him. It felt good to shout, it felt good to sound angry at the man. Maybe he was to blame. It would be a fine thing, just to have someone to blame.
‘Tell us —‘ Mick said. He could hear the tears throbbing in his voice. ‘Tell us, for God’s sake. Explain.’
Grey-coat shook his head. He didn’t understand a word this young idiot was saying. It was English he spoke, but that’s all he knew. Mick began to walk towards him, feeling all the time the eyes of the dead on him. Eyes like black, shining gems set in broken faces: eyes looking at him upside down, on heads severed from their seating. Eyes in heads that had solid howls for voices. Eyes in heads beyond howls, beyond breath. Thousands of eyes.
He reached Grey-coat, whose gun was almost empty. He had taken off his spectacles and thrown them aside. He too was weeping, little jerks ran through his big, ungainly body.
At Mick’s feet, somebody was reaching for him. He didn’t want to look, but the hand touched his shoe and he had no choice but to see its owner. A young man, lying like a flesh swastika, every joint smashed. A child lay under him, her bloody legs poking out like two pink sticks. He wanted the man’s revolver, to stop the hand from touching him. Better still he wanted a machine-gun, a flame-thrower, anything to wipe the agony away.
As he looked up from the broken body, Mick saw Grey-coat raise the revolver.
‘Judd —‘ he said, but as the word left his lips the muzzle of the revolver was slipped into Grey-coat’s mouth and the trigger was pulled.
Grey-coat had saved the last bullet for himself. The back of his head opened like a dropped egg, the shell of his skull flying off. His body went limp and sank to the ground, the revolver still between his lips.
‘We must —, began Mick, saying the words to nobody. ‘We must ...‘
What was the imperative? In this situation, what must they do?
‘We must —‘Judd was behind him. ‘Help —‘ he said to Mick.
‘Yes. We must get help. We must —, ‘Go.’
Go! That was what they must do. On any pretext, for any fragile, cowardly reason, they must go. Get out of the battlefield, get out of the reach of a dying hand with a wound in place of a body.
‘We have to tell the authorities. Find a town. Get help —‘
‘Priests,’ said Mick. ‘They need priests.’
It was absurd, to think of giving the Last Rites to so many people. It would take an army of priests, a water cannon filled with holy water, a loudspeaker to pronounce the benedictions.
They turned away, together, from the horror, and wrapped their arms around each other, then picked their way through the carnage to the car. It was occupied.
Vaslav Jelovsek was sitting behind the wheel, and trying to start the Volkswagen. He turned the ignition key once. Twice. Third time the engine caught and the wheels span in the crimson mud as he put her into reverse and backed down the track. Vaslav saw the Englishmen running towards the car, cursing him. There was no help for it
— he didn’t want to steal the vehicle, but he had work to do. He had been a referee, he had been responsible for the contest, and the safety of the contestants. One of the heroic cities had already fallen. He must do everything in his power to prevent Popolac from following its twin. He must chase Popolac, and reason with it. Talk it down out of its terrors with quiet words and promises. If he failed there would be another disaster the equal of the one in front of him, and his conscience was already broken enough.
Mick was still chasing the VW, shouting at Jelovsek. The thief took no notice, concentrating on manoeuvring the car back down the narrow, slippery track. Mick was losing the chase rapidly. The car had begun to pick up speed. Furious, but without the breath to speak his fury, Mick stood in the road, hands on his knees, heaving and sobbing.
‘Bastard!’ said Judd.
Mick looked down the track. Their car had already disappeared.
‘Fucker couldn’t even drive properly.’
‘We have ... we have ... to catch ... up ...‘ said Mick through gulps of breath.
‘We haven’t even got a map ... it’s in the car.’
‘Jesus ... Christ ... Almighty.’
They walked down the track together, away from the field. After a few metres the tide of blood began to peter out. Just a few congealing rivulets dribbled on towards the main road. Mick and Judd followed the bloody tyre marks to the junction. The Srbovac road was empty in both directions. The tyre marks showed a left turn. ‘He’s gone deeper into the hills,’ said Judd, staring along the lonely road towards the blue-green distance.
‘He’s out of his mind!’
‘Do we go back the way we came?’
‘It’ll take us all night on foot.’
‘We’ll hop a lift.’
Judd shook his head: his face was slack and his look lost.
‘Don’t you see, Mick, they all knew this was happening. The people in the farms — they got the hell out while those people went crazy up there. There’ll be no cars along this road, I’ll lay you anything — except maybe a couple of shit-dumb tourists like us — and no tourist would stop for the likes of us.’
He was right. They looked like butchers — splattered with blood. Their faces were shining with grease, their eyes maddened.
‘We’ll have to walk,’ said Judd, ‘the way he went.’
He pointed along the road. The hills were darker now; the sun had suddenly gone out on their slopes.
Mick shrugged. Either way he could see they had a night on the road ahead of them. But he wanted to walk somewhere — anywhere — as long as he put distance between him and the dead.
In Popolac a kind of peace reigned. Instead of a frenzy of panic there was a numbness, a sheep-like acceptance of the world as it was. Locked in their positions, strapped, roped and harnessed to each other in a living system that allowed for no single voice to be louder than any other, nor any back to labour less than its neighbour’s, they let an insane consensus replace the tranquil voice of reason. They were convulsed into one mind, one thought, one ambition. They became, in the space of a few moments, the single-minded giant whose image they had so brilliantly re-created. The illusion of petty individuality was swept away in an irresistible tide of collective feeling — not a mob’s passion, but a telepathic surge that dissolved the voices of thousands into one irresistible command.
And the voice said: Go!
The voice said: take this horrible sight away, where I need never see it again.
Popolac turned away into the hills, its legs taking strides half a mile long. Each man, woman and child in that seething tower was sightless. They saw only through the eyes of the city. They were thoughtless, but to think the city’s thoughts. And they believed themselves deathless, in their lumbering, relentless strength. Vast and mad and deathless.
Two miles along the road Mick and Judd smelt petrol in the air, and a little further along they came upon the VW. It had overturned in the reed-clogged drainage ditch at the side of the road. It had not caught fire.
The driver’s door was open, and the body of Vaslav Jelovsek had tumbled out. His face was calm in uncons-ciousness. There seemed to be no sign of injury, except for a small cut or two on his sober face. They gently pulled the thief out of the wreckage and up out of the filth of the ditch on to the road. He moaned a little as they fussed about him, rolling Mick’s sweater up to pillow his head and removing the man’s jacket and tie.
Quite suddenly, he opened his eyes.
He stared at them both.
‘Are you all right?’ Mick asked. The man said nothing for a moment. He seemed not to understand.
‘English?’ he said. His accent was thick, but the question was quite clear.
‘I heard your voices. English.’
He frowned and winced.
‘Are you in pain?’ said Judd.
The man seemed to find this amusing.
‘Am I in pain?’ he repeated, his face screwed up in a mixture of agony and delight.
‘I shall die,’ he said, through gritted teeth.
‘No,’ said Mick, ‘you’re all right —‘
The man shook his head, his authority absolute. ‘I shall die,’ he said again, the voice full of determination, ‘I want to die.’
Judd crouched closer to him. His voice was weaker by the moment.
‘Tell us what to do,’ he said. The man had closed his eyes. Judd shook him awake, roughly.
‘Tell us,’ he said again, his show of compassion rapidly disappearing. ‘Tell us what this is all about.’
‘About?’ said the man, his eyes still closed. ‘It was a fall, that’s all. Just a fall . .
‘The city. Podujevo. My city.’
‘What did it fall from?’
‘Itself, of course.’
The man was explaining nothing; just answering one riddle with another.
‘Where were you going?’ Mick inquired, trying to sound as unagressive as possible. ‘After Popolac,’ said the man. ‘Popolac?’ said Judd. Mick began to see some sense in the story. ‘Popolac is another city. Like Podujevo. Twin cities. They’re on the map —‘ ‘Where’s the city now?’ said Judd.
Vaslav Jelovsek seemed to choose to tell the truth. There was a moment when he hovered between dying with a riddle on his lips, and living long enough to unburden his story. What did it matter if the tale was told now? There could never be another contest: all that was over.
‘They came to fight,’ he said, his voice now very soft, ‘Popolac and Podujevo. They come every ten years —‘
‘Fight?’ said Judd. ‘You mean all those people were slaughtered?’
Vaslav shook his head.
‘No, no. They fell. I told you.’
‘Well, how do they fight?’ Mick said.
‘Go into the hills,’ was the only reply.
Vaslav opened his eyes a little. The faces that loomed over him were exhausted and sick. They had suffered, these innocents. They deserved some explanation.
‘As giants,’ he said. ‘They fought as giants. They made a body out of their bodies, do you understand? The frame, the muscles, the bone, the eyes, nose, teeth all made of men and women.’
‘He’s delirious,’ said Judd.
‘You go into the hills,’ the man repeated. ‘See for yourselves how true it is.’
‘Even supposing —‘ Mick began.
Vaslav interrupted him, eager to be finished. ‘They were good at the game of giants. It took many centuries of practice: every ten years making the figure larger and larger. One always ambitious to be larger than the other. Ropes to tie them all together, flawlessly. Sinews . . ligaments ... There was food in its belly ... there were pipes from the loins, to take away the waste. The best-sighted sat in the eye-sockets, the best voiced in the mouth and throat. You wouldn’t believe the engineering of it.’
‘I don’t,’ said Judd, and stood up.
‘It is the body of the state,’ said Vaslav, so softly his voice was barely above a whisper, ‘it is the shape of our lives.’
There was a silence. Small clouds passed over the road, soundlessly shedding their mass to the air.
‘It was a miracle,’ he said. It was as if he realized the true enormity of the fact for the first time. ‘It was a miracle.’
It was enough. Yes. It was quite enough.
His mouth closed, the words said, and he died.
Mick felt this death more acutely than the thousands they had fled from; or rather this death was the key to unlock the anguish he felt for them all.
Whether the man had chosen to tell a fantastic lie as he died, or whether this story was in some way true, Mick felt useless in the face of it. His imagination was too narrow to encompass the idea. His brain ached with the thought of it, and his compassion cracked under the weight of misery he felt.
They stood on the road, while the clouds scudded by, their vague, grey shadows passing over them towards the enigmatic hills.
It was twilight.
Popolac could stride no further. It felt exhaustion in every muscle. Here and there in its huge anatomy deaths had occurred; but there was no grieving in the city for its deceased cells. If the dead were in the interior, the corpses were allowed to hang from their harnesses. If they formed the skin of the city they were unbuckled from their positions and released, to plunge into the forest below.
The giant was not capable of pity. It had no ambition but to continue until it ceased. As the sun slunk out of sight Popolac rested, sitting on a small hillock, nursing its huge head in its huge hands.
The stars were coming out, with their familiar caution. Night was approaching, mercifully bandaging up the wounds of the day, blinding eyes that had seen too much.
Popolac rose to its feet again, and began to move, step by booming step. It would not be long surely, before fatigue overcame it: before it could lie down in the tomb of some lost valley and die.
But for a space yet it must walk on, each step more agonizingly slow than the last, while the night bloomed black around its head.
Mick wanted to bury the car-thief, somewhere on the edge of the forest. Judd, however, pointed out that burying a body might seem, in tomorrow’s saner light, a little suspicious. And besides, wasn’t it absurd to concern themselves with one corpse when there were literally thousands of them lying a few miles from where they stood?
The body was left to lie, therefore, and the car to sink deeper into the ditch.
They began to walk again.
It was cold, and colder by the moment, and they were hungry. But the few houses they passed were all deserted, locked and shuttered, every one.
‘What did he mean?’ said Mick, as they stood looking at another locked door.
‘He was talking metaphor —, ‘All that stuff about giants?’
‘It was some Trotskyist tripe —‘ Judd insisted.
‘I don’t think so.’
‘I know so. It was his deathbed speech, he’d probably been preparing for years.’
‘I don’t think so,’ Mick said again, and began walking back towards the road.
‘Oh, how’s that?’ Judd was at his back.
‘He wasn’t toeing some party line.’
‘Are you saying you think there’s some giant around here someplace? For God’s sake!’ Mick turned to Judd. His face was difficult to see the twilight. But his voice was sober with belief.
‘Yes. I think he was telling the truth.’
‘That’s absurd. That’s ridiculous. No.’
Judd hated Mick that moment. Hated his naiveté, his passion to believe any half-witted story if it had a whiff of romance about it. And this? This was the worst, the most preposterous .
‘No,’ he said again. ‘No. No. No.’
The sky was porcelain smooth, and the outline of the hills black as pitch.
‘I’m fucking freezing,’ said Mick out of the ink. ‘Are you staying here or walking with me?’
Judd shouted: ‘We’re not going to find anything this way.’
‘Well it’s a long way back.’
‘We’re just going deeper into the hills.’
‘Do what you like — I’m walking.’
His footsteps receded: the dark encased him. After a minute, Judd followed.
The night was cloudless and bitter. They walked on, their collars up against the chill, their feet swollen in their shoes. Above them the whole sky had become a parade of stars. A triumph of spilled light, from which the eye could make as many patterns as it had patience for. After a while, they slung their tired arms around each other, for comfort and warmth.
About eleven o’clock, they saw the glow of a window in the distance. The woman at the door of the stone cottage didn’t smile, but she understood their condition, and let them in. There seemed to be no purpose in trying to explain to either the woman or her crippled husband what they had seen. The cottage had no telephone, and there was no sign of a vehicle, so even had they found some way to express themselves, nothing could be done.
With mimes and face-pullings they explained that they were hungry and exhausted. They tried further to explain they were lost, cursing themselves for leaving their phrase-book in the VW. She didn’t seem to understand very much of what they said, but sat them down beside a blazing fire and put a pan of food on the stove to heat.
They ate thick unsalted pea soup and eggs, and occasion-ally smiled their thanks at the woman. Her husband sat beside the fire, making no attempt to talk, or even look at the visitors.
The food was good. It buoyed their spirits.
They would sleep until morning and then begin the long trek back. By dawn the bodies in the field would be being quantified, identified, parcelled up and dispatched to their families. The air would be full of reassuring noises, cancelling out the moans that still rang in their ears. There would be helicopters, lorry loads of men organizing the clearing-up operations. All the rites and paraphernalia of a civilized disaster.
And in a while, it would be palatable. It would become part of their history: a tragedy, of course, but one they could explain, classify and learn to live with. All would be well, yes, all would be well. Come morning.
The sleep of sheer fatigue came on them suddenly. They lay where they had fallen, still sitting at the table, their heads on their crossed arms. A litter of empty bowls and bread crusts surrounded them.
They knew nothing. Dreamt nothing. Felt nothing. Then the thunder began.
In the earth, in the deep earth, a rhythmical tread, as of a titan, that came, by degrees, closer and closer.
The woman woke her husband. She blew out the lamp and went to the door. The night sky was luminous with stars: the hills black on every side.
The thunder still sounded: a full half minute between every boom, but louder now. And louder with every new step.
They stood at the door together, husband and wife, and listened to the night-hills echo back and forth with the sound. There was no lightning to accompany the thunder.
Just the boom — Boom — Boom — It made the ground shake: it threw dust down from the door-lintel, and rattled the window-latches.
Boom — Boom — They didn’t know what approached, but whatever shape it took, and whatever it intended, there seemed no sense in running from it. Where they stood, in the pitiful shelter of their cottage, was as safe as any nook of the forest. How could they choose, out of a hundred thousand trees, which would be standing when the thunder had passed? Better to wait: and watch.
The wife’s eyes were not good, and she doubted what she saw when the blackness of the hill changed shape and reared up to block the stars. But her husband had seen it too: the unimaginably huge head, vaster in the deceiving darkness, looming up and up, dwarfing the hills themselves with its ambition.
He fell to his knees, babbling a prayer, his arthritic legs twisted beneath him. His wife screamed: no words she knew could keep this monster at bay — no prayer, no plea, had power over it.
In the cottage, Mick woke and his outstretched arm, twitching with a sudden cramp, wiped the plate and the lamp off the table.
The screaming outside had stopped. The woman had disappeared from the doorway into the forest. Any tree, any tree at all, was better than this sight. Her husband still let a string of prayers dribble from his slack mouth, as the great leg of the giant rose to take another step —Boom —The cottage shook. Plates danced and smashed off the dresser. A clay pipe rolled from the mantelpiece and shattered in the ashes of the hearth.
The lovers knew the noise that sounded in their sub-stance: that earth-thunder.
Mick reached for Judd, and took him by the shoulder.
‘You see,’ he said, his teeth blue-grey in the darkness of the cottage. ‘See? See?’
There was a kind of hysteria bubbling behind his words. He ran to the door, stumbling over a chair in the dark. Cursing and bruised he staggered out into the night —Boom —The thunder was deafening. This time it broke all the windows in the cottage. In the bedroom one of the roof-joists cracked and flung debris downstairs.
Judd joined his lover at the door. The old man was now face down on the ground, his sick and swollen fingers curled, his begging lips pressed to the damp soil.
Mick was looking up, towards the sky. Judd followed his gaze.
There was a place that showed no stars. It was a darkness in the shape of a man, a vast, broad human frame, a colossus that soared up to meet heaven. It was not quite a perfect giant. Its outline was not tidy; it seethed and swarmed.
He seemed broader too, this giant, than any real man. His legs were abnormally thick and stumpy, and his arms were not long. The hands, as they clenched and unclenched, seemed oddly-jointed and over-delicate for its torso.
Then it raised one huge, flat foot and placed it on the earth, taking a stride towards them.
Boom —The step brought the roof collapsing in on the cottage.
Everything that the car-thief had said was true. Popolac was a city and a giant; and it had gone into the hills.
Now their eyes were becoming accustomed to the night light.
They could see in ever more horrible detail the way this monster was constructed. It was a masterpiece of human engineering: a man made entirely of men. Or rather, a sexless giant, made of men and women and children. All the citizens of Popolac writhed and strained in the body of this flesh-knitted giant, their muscles stretched to breaking point, their bones close to snapping.
They could see how the architects of Popolac had subtly altered the proportions of the human body; how the thing had been made squatter to lower its centre of gravity; how its legs had been made elephantine to bear the weight of the torso; how the head was sunk low on to the wide shoulders, so that the problems of a weak neck had been minimized. Despite these malformations, it was horribly life-like. The bodies that were bound together to make its surface were naked but for their harnesses, so that its surface glistened in the starlight, like one vast human torso. Even the muscles were well copied, though simplified. They could see the way the roped bodies pushed and pulled against each other in solid cords of flesh and bone. They could see the intertwined people that made up the body: the backs like turtles packed together to offer the sweep of the pectorals; the lashed and knotted acrobats at the joints of the arms and the legs alike, rolling and unwinding to articulate the city.
But surely the most amazing sight of all was the face.
Cheeks of bodies; cavernous eye-sockets in which heads stared, five bound together for each eyeball; a broad, flat nose and a mouth that opened and closed, as the muscles of the jaw bunched and hollowed rhythmically. And from that mouth, lined with teeth of bald children, the voice of the giant, now only a weak copy of its former powers, spoke a single note of idiot music.
Popolac walked and Popolac sang.
Was there ever a sight in Europe the equal of it?
They watched, Mick and Judd, as it took another step towards them.
The old man had wet his pants. Blubbering and begging, he dragged himself away from the ruined cottage into the surrounding trees, dragging his dead legs after him.
The Englishmen remained where they stood, watching the spectacle as it approached. Neither dread nor horror touched them now, just an awe that rooted them to the spot. They knew this was a sight they could never hope to see again; this was the apex — after this there was only common experience. Better to stay then, though every step brought death nearer, better to stay and see the sight while it was still there to be seen. And if it killed them, this monster, then at least they would have glimpsed a miracle, known this terrible majesty for a brief moment. It seemed a fair exchange.
Popolac was within two steps of the cottage. They could see the complexities of its structure quite clearly. The faces of the citizens were becoming detailed: white, sweat-wet, and content in their weariness. Some hung dead from their harnesses, their legs swinging back and forth like the hanged. Others, children particularly, had ceased to obey their training, and had relaxed their positions, so that the form of the body was degenerating, beginning to seethe with the boils of rebellious cells.
Yet it still walked, each step an incalculable effort of coordination and strength.
Boom —The step that trod the cottage came sooner than they thought.
Mick saw the leg raised; saw the faces of the people in the shin and ankle and foot — they were as big as he was now — all huge men chosen to take the full weight of this great creation.
Many were dead. The bottom of the foot, he could see, was a jigsaw of crushed and bloody bodies, pressed to death under the weight of their fellow citizens.
The foot descended with a roar.
In a matter of seconds the cottage was reduced to splinters and dust.
Popolac blotted the sky utterly. It was, for a moment, the whole world, heaven and earth, its presence filled the senses to overflowing. At this proximity one look could not encompass it, the eye had to range backwards and forwards over its mass to take it all in, and even then the mind refused to accept the whole truth.
A whirling fragment of stone, flung off from the cottage as it collapsed, struck Judd full in the face. In his head he heard the killing stroke like a ball hitting a wall: a play-yard death. No pain: no remorse. Out like a light, a tiny, insignificant light; his death-cry lost in the pandemonium, his body hidden in the smoke and darkness. Mick neither saw nor heard Judd die.
He was too busy staring at the foot as it settled for a moment in the ruins of the cottage, while the other leg mustered the will to move. Mick took his chance. Howling like a banshee, he ran towards the leg, longing to embrace the monster. He stumbled in the wreckage, and stood again, bloodied, to reach for the foot before it was lifted and he was left behind. There was a clamour of agonized breath as the message came to the foot that it must move; Mick saw the muscles of the shin bunch and marry as the leg began to lift. He made one last lunge at the limb as it began to leave the ground, snatching a harness or a rope, or human hair, or flesh itself — anything to catch this passing miracle and be part of it. Better to go with it wherever it was going, serve it in its purpose, whatever that might be; better to die with it than live without it.
He caught the foot, and found a safe purchase on its ankle. Screaming his sheer ecstasy at his success he felt the great leg raised, and glanced down through the swirling dust to the spot where he had stood, already receding as the limb climbed.
The earth was gone from beneath him. He was a hitchhiker with a god: the mere life he had left was nothing to him now, or ever. He would live with this thing, yes, he would live with it — seeing it and seeing it and eating it with his eyes until he died of sheer gluttony.
He screamed and howled and swung on the ropes, drinking up his triumph. Below, far below, he glimpsed Judd’s body, curled up pale on the dark ground, irre-trievable. Love and life and sanity were gone, gone like the memory of his name, or his sex, or his ambition.
It all meant nothing. Nothing at all.
Boom —Boom —Popolac walked, the noise of its steps receding to the east. Popolac walked, the hum of its voice lost in the night. After a day, birds came, foxes came, flies, butterflies, wasps came. Judd moved, Judd shifted, Judd gave birth. In his belly maggots warmed themselves, in a vixen’s den the good flesh of his thigh was fought over. After that, it was quick. The bones yellowing, the bones crumbling: soon, an empty space which he had once filled with breath and opinions.
Darkness, light, darkness, light. He interrupted neither with his name.