An Alternative Explanation

Entry by: Finnbar

16th March 2017
Fumes in the little minds.

They stood on the bank in their school shorts, nervously eyeing one another as Damo waved the entrails around on the end of his stick.
The evening was growing dark now, and this wasn’t that funny anymore. Anthony had begun to think they must have done something wrong. They hadn’t gone into the swamp, where Baba said only bad boys went, and they hadn’t been playing with fireworks or matches this time, and they hadn’t hurt anyone –the woman was far beyond being able to be hurt- so strictly he was sure they hadn’t broken any of the rules.
Still though, now that the fumes from the Steema’ bottle had worn off, and the manic giggling that had shaken their bodies to the point of nausea had faded, now Anthony started to feel a shaking deep in his spine, a rising horror at Damo’s disfigurement of the corpse that lay between them.
“This is fey. Fey. Shouldn’t be playing with her shiny guts like that.” His voice was still hoarse and gasping from the fumes, and the words hadn’t come back fully, but still. He’d said it. Now Damo drew the machete from the cardboard-and-duct tape sheath on his belt and danced forward, eyes wide and staring. He always took the biggest hoofs from their dirty glass bottle, and so he got the Staries and the Snarlies even as the rest were still shaking and trying to hold down vomit. “No one tells me how to play with shiny guts!”
“It’s fey. Fey. Not to do it at all. Baba said she’ll…” the word took a few moments to come, as Damo wavered uncertainly, the shiny red point of the blade wavering inches from Anthony’s face “…defenestrate us if we’re fey again.”
But that wasn’t the reason for his horror. He didn’t think Baba would ever really throw him from the high window into the burial mounds, not really, though she often threatened to and smacked him around the head with her heavy wooden spoon until his vision blurred. But late that night, as he swung gently in his hammock playing gently with his nuts, the woman kept appearing in his vision, making him lose his little stiffness.
The face was pale, the eyes just like someone who’d had too much of the fumes; shot through with red streaks, irises nearly invisibly dark around the enormous pupils, bags underneath dark as a rotting plum. Her clothes were strange too, all fancy like she was at a party in the Snake House. Her dress was blue, and barely had a spatter of mud despite the fact that her bare feet were filthy from the swamp. And now, of course, her shiny guts were spread out around her, intestines draped in the near circle Damo had left them in before the boys all ran home and left her there, alone by the river. The image of her burned into him.
He gave up his playing and turned sideways, thankful for the taughtening he’d done to the hammock strings that let him stretch out.
He wanted sleep, but the coughing and farting of the bodies in his sleep room, combined with the restlessness he got after the fumes, meant that he lay there awake for a long time.
Who had the woman been? How had she died? Surely some concubine in the Snake House, who’d never had the Steema before and had hoofed too deeply so that she went all the way past the Staries and forgot what her Baba had called her, and how to keep the deep part inside. Then she’d watched herself from above as the body wandered out of the Snake House, over the pretty lawns and past the delicate ironwork lamps, losing her fancy shoes as she went. Over the little stone wall that the boys had hidden behind to watch the Snake House before, and down the banks the path that led through the swamp.
Maybe it was too cold for the bony crocs that night. Maybe they were all asleep. Either way she’d watched again as her body without a name splashed through the stagnant pools and crushed down soggy marsh grass. Then it had climbed up the bank, lain down gently, and died with no name and no deep part inside. And the deep part floated around, until it saw the boys arrive, and Anthony laugh the shaky helpless laugh of the fumes at this dead thing here on the river bank, and watched as Damo lifted up the bottom of the dress to have a look, and then slice through the stomach and start pulling out the shiny guts. That was what happened, for sure.
Anthony had never been passed the wall, or seen what lay beyond the Snake House, but surely that was why the woman had died. There could be no alternative explanation.
He finally drifted off to sleep, the woman’s face still burning behind his eyes.
Maria, Child of the Third Summer, Mother of the Fated One, thought of everything she should have done differently. Perhaps if she’d spoken then, in that moment in the throne room that smelled of wildflowers, perhaps if she’d said enough to appease him then he wouldn’t have struck her.
Her handsome prince, face flushed and distorted from the wine.
And she wouldn’t have fallen, and she wouldn’t have lost the baby. And then their son, the Fated One, would have changed the world, and saved the lost, and broken all those who seek to break others out of spite.
But she’d said nothing, trembling and powerless from him, her handsome monster.
And then in his shame, he’d sent her far away. To the last lord in his last house, on the borders with the wilderness to the West.
And each day she went up and down, up and down.
She was alive, life was beautiful, the grass was soft and good.
Her son, who should have saved the world, was dead. She was a broken vessel. She was a cage for her own mind, made of writhing meat. The world was putrid and dark and the heavens were empty from one end to another. Life was a monotony, lacking even the sharp reality of pain.
She hated the Snake Lord. And when he went hunting in the swamps she would go into the nurseries. And when she was on a crest, she would rock the babies gently, and croon to them, and sing them the stories of her youth. And other times she would pinch them viciously and curse their living flesh. But she could never bring herself to smother them all and poison the Snake Lord’s food, the way she promised she would each night.
And then his ladies threw a party, and bought her a pretty dress, and high heels. She no longer even had her own money.
And there was a table at the party, and a serving girl with a charcoal stand that smelled strange. And she said “only a little, my lady” to Maria.
But then she saw Maria’s eyes, and looked away as Maria drew and drew on the heady scent, and slowly the pain faded, and she walked out into the swamp that had always looked so alluring at night, with its pockets of shadow.
Maria bent to wash in the fountain. The busy Lisbon street had faded as noon approached and tourists and locals sought refuge in little cafes or their own beds. David sat on a bench with his head bent, shading his phone with one hand and scrolling with his other thumb.
She felt slight disgust for him that she couldn’t fully identify “Hey, I might go up that observation town, the one the Indian couple told us about, remember?”
He curled his lip, took a deep swig from a bottle of coke. “I don’t really-”
“-You don’t have to come. It’s fine, go relax at the hotel or get a drink or whatever. I’ll come find you later.”
He tried to kiss her lips as she left, and she turned her cheek away so that he brushed beside her ear.
The streets seemed livelier five minutes out of his company, her muscles weren’t so tired, the sweat beneath her hat was less uncomfortable.
The lift going up the tower was broken, and she nearly turned around, daunted by the three hundred steps. But instead she took a bottle of water from the honesty fridge, dropped a two euro coin in the box above and started up. Her legs were shaking by the time she reached the top, but at least there was a welcome breeze that stirred the folds of her blue dress. Too much, as it turned out, when it took her hat and spun it away, leaving her grasping at thin air, hanging over the low wall of the tower. There was a dizzying moment of vertigo, but she was in no real danger and was soon perched on the ledge, slipping of her sandals to massage her aching soles.
Her eyes must be adjusting quickly; it was far darker than when she’d stepped out of the stairwell only a minute or so before. Too dark, surely. Hadn’t she been wishing for sun glasses only half an hour ago?
She looked up. The sky was iron grey and growing darker.
Back down. The building opposite was simply not there. Shrouded in murky haze. Moments later she couldn’t see the ground beneath her, then nothing, not even a hand in front of her face.
Maria panicked, breathing hard. There must be something wrong with her eyes. She tried to put a feel her way back over the ledge and onto the tower platform, but somehow lost her purchase.
She was falling, suddenly, screaming in blind terror.
The impact came impossibly soon, and instead of cobbles there was soft mud beneath her hands. Where the fuck was she?
Moment by moment she realised she could see once again. It was still dark, but not impenetrable. She was surrounded by twisted trees and creeping vines.
There was a pool off to one side.
Her mouth was very dry and still in a panic she looked around for the water bottle. It wasn’t there. She walked to the pool, sinking into the soggy mud with each step, and craned over to look down at the water, wondering if it was okay to drink.
She had no idea how to tell. There was no inflow or outflow from it, did that mean it was gone bad?
She bent to have a closer look and a huge bubble erupted out of the pool and burst. She screamed and jumped back, gasping.
Gasping. Whatever gas had been trapped in the pool flooded her lungs. Staggered backwards, her vision blurring as she struggled through pools and over tree roots until she reached a bank and climbed it, up out of the swamp.
None of this was real. It couldn’t be. That feeling intensified and morphed until she was sure that she wasn’t real, but that a stranger who looked like her was lying there on the bank, dying. Her last feeling was one if mild sadness. The woman was pretty, and her dress was very blue.
Anthony awoke in the darkness. Those were strange dreams. He didn’t know if it was true-see or just Steema’ dreams, a good thing or fey, but it felt more real than anything he’d even known.
He got up, swinging down from his hammock to land softly on the paving slabs, and slipped out into the night.
Maria was still by the river. Something, a bony croc maybe, had torn away a big section of her guts. He tucked the rest back in as best he could, whispering his apologies to her as he went.
He walked home slowly, wondering if he should set fire to the Snake House.