I'm not here of my own free will.
I always wanted to say this sentence aloud, and now I can. I expect it is my fault that there is nobody else around who would care to hear it.
The other thing that I wanted to clear up right at the start is that I'm not mad. I mean not stark, raving mad. I know what happened and I also know, at least up to a certain point, what will happen. My memories are clear and I have no visions about the future, it's simply a logical outcome based on the facts.
Let's face it, I'm not the type to read Tarot cards and tell your future or do anything even remotely exciting. I was always like that.
I grew up in an orphanage. The reason I don't like to talk about that is that people instantly expect drama. Most people never read Oliver Twist, were not even interested in any of the movie versions, but they have lots of ideas about the sufferings of orphans, and I'm terribly sorry, but I'm unable to provide any gruesome details.
The most unpleasant thing I can say about it all is that it was boring. I was a good girl so I had no problems, I don't remember my parents so that spared me all the heartache I could possibly have. Life at the orphanage was ordered like clockwork, dull as dishwater - which suited me perfectly. I always knew where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to do, the meals were always on time, and because the headmaster of my school was enthusiastic about sports and I'm stronger than I look, I spent my days on the athletic field and had no time to gaze into the dusk from an attic window. We didn't even have an attic at the orphanage, it was one of those buildings with a flat roof where we were never allowed to climb up to.
The only thing that you might find strange about me are my colours. I'm not beautiful as such, but my hair is a very strange shade of red, almost pink, and my eyes are very green. People often ask me if I'm dying my hair (no) or if I'm wearing coloured contact lenses (no again). I'm not really ugly, either. The reason I date less than other girls and don't have a serious boyfriend is rather simple - I'm afraid I'm not really interested in men. Women either.
I tried dating a few times, and had sex a few times, and I guess I don't really care for either of these activities. I've always been a solitary kind of person and I prefer sleeping in my own bed. Honestly, I'm not judging people like actresses who boast about their sex life in magazines, nothing like that. I'm just not that interested. It is like talking about fishing or race cars or Star Wars collectibles with people who are really into that thing, and you find yourself nodding politely whether it's rods and plugs or carburators or a a genuine piece of Chewbacca's pelt.
Timeskip. Nothing even remotely interesting ever happens to me, remember? So here I stand in a big city (I won't tell you which one), I have a job at a publishing house (I won't tell you if it's a big one or a small one) and my job is supposed to be assistant editor but I was hired only because of a special little skill I have – I have an eidetic memory and I need little sleep and read a lot, so I can tell you if a new author is trying to pass off an old idea as brand-new and more importantly – if the original idea is his own.
I'm sitting in a café near the block of flats where I live. I'm reading a book. I like to read but I like it even more that it about halves the number of the guys asking for a date, and even those who do ask anyway accept the refusal more easily when I say I'm not interested, I'm kind of busy right now.
So I'm completely lost in my book when an amused female voice asks, "Excuse me, is this seat taken?"
I look up to see the woman with that lovely voice – an exotic, deep growl, with a trace of an accent I'm unable to identify.
"No," I say curtly and look down again and turn the page.
She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Real beauty is commonplace in movies and magazines where people who are good at their jobs try to make the models look perfect to sell whatever they want to sell. But beauty in real life… oh, that is a rare thing to behold.
So I resent her intrusion into my thoughts even more. She is beautiful and I'm not interested and she still expects me to react in some way. She is blonde and her eyes are a misty mixture of dark blue and dark grey, and her face is perfection, and she's wearing furs that look very costly and very out of place here.
I won't even mention that the whole café is practically empty so she could sit anywhere.
She sits down next to me and I can smell her scent. It's not like perfume, rather like incense, with an undertone of something spicy and harsh.
She turns to me as if I were the most fascinating person in the world, the brightest star in her universe, the very air that she needs to breathe, something essential without which she would be lost. She can convey all this with a look of those eyes that seem grey-blue one moment, dark, dangerous, swamp-green the next. Eyes you could drown in.
"My name is Temari," she says, and her voice now does not resemble a growl but is rather like some kind of music, some ancient kind of music with strange little furtive rhythms and sudden changes between notes that are either amazingly sweet or frighteningly shrill. "Is your book any good?"
Now let's fast forward this a bit – it's boring, boring, boring. Like I am. Or was.
I'm now a bit more exciting because people sometimes see me with Temari. She made it clear from the start that she was, in a way, interested in me, but this was just a whim, a caprice on her part – she often says that I don't look like anybody else, I'm one of a kind, and she looks at my skin, my eyes, my hair, always in the same way, a detached, cool, almost resigned way. We talk about books and art, she tells me about her travels but she never shares anything even remotely personal with me, and I never ask questions. I usually don't. She's happy with the few meagre scraps of information that I'm willing to share, too – the orphanage, there's nothing secret or shameful about that, no relatives, no steady boyfriend, I have a few friends but none of them are very close. Things like that.
It's good to talk to someone like this. It is, in a way, impersonal, like the way she looks at me – I see her almost every week, sometimes several times a week, and once I have to invite her to my flat because it's raining outside and I feel I might have a cold so I want to go home, but she doesn't stay long, and the next day there is a bouquet of orchids hanging on my doorknob – I've never seen orchids like that, purple and pink and white and they smell like lilies but no lily could ever look like these.
Still, this episode is never again mentioned between us, and her cool, impersonal behaviour is like before. It's refreshing, this lack of interest, this lack of intrusion, this lack of questions and shared trivia that women just love, love so much – what kind of lipstick, which celebrity, which school, when, how, oh my dear imagine it's exactly the same with me isn't it funny?
Anyway, if we skip a few weeks, we find that I'm still sitting in the same café, reading a book (the book, of course, is not the same) and then Temari storms in like she usually does, and without a preamble says, "I've got a manuscript that you should see. Come on, my car's outside."
The two sentences do not seem to follow each other in a logical order, or there is some information missing.
I tell so to Temari.
She looks at me, stormy-sky blue eyes wide, eyebrows raised high, and then says with sarcastic slowness, "The manuscript is at home. I'd rather not bring it here. Come on, what are you waiting for? I already paid for your coffee."
I wonder for a second, but then I shrug and stand up. I could sit here for another hour or so, and then go home, from one box of concrete through wide slabs of concrete into another box of concrete, but I have a feeling – undefined, murky, a mixture of resentment and curiosity – that anything is better than that.
So I put on my raincoat and leave the café and get into her Mercedes. I'm not a very good accessory to her or her car, both of them glamorous – I'm wearing tweed pants and sensible shoes and a raincoat, and I left my handbag in my flat, I only wanted to have a cup of coffee. My keys are in my pants' pocket, but that's all. Well, what does it matter?
Gradually we leave the concrete prisons that people call houses here and then we leave the suburbs, too, and I haven't got the slightest idea where we are or where we are going but instead of being scared I'm thrilled. This is something else, something different, something amazing.
Then Temari stops the car and - her voice like the echo of a half forgotten song - says the words, "We're here."
I look around and now I'm scared.
The street is completely dark. It's not ugly-dark, not downtown-without-lamps dark when you start to look for a way out before the wolves smell the prey. The houses are big, the walls and fences are high. Like a rich suburb, the chalets and haciendas of movie stars looming in the dark around us. But these are dead movie stars, aren't they? Everything here is dark grey and black.
Only the moon hangs over us in the sky like a pale, not very efficient lamp that someone has forgotten to switch off.
This is a street where only ghosts would be able to live.
I look at Temari and in the pale moonlight her face seems different – sharper, full of angles, her eyes gleaming in the dark.
But then I look at her again and it is all stupid, stupid. A rich woman in a fur coat next to her brand-new Mercedes parked near her cottage where, for some reason, there are no street lamps.
I ask her this banal question and she laughs and says, "This is all private territory here."
Meaning, I guess, that if people here don't need street lamps, they won't buy any. I don't know.
She leads me on and on and then we arrive at a big wrought iron gate and a cobblestone yard behind it. She pushes a button in the wall and then impatiently pushes the gate, too. It opens like a shadow, weightless, soundless.
The door of the big house isn't locked. We go through an empty hall with doors opening on every side – one of them is open, behind it I can see a modern kitchen. Temari furrows her brow and closes the door as if it were something intimate, something private, and then opens another door and says, "make yourself comfortable."
The room is not as I have imagined it to be. It could have been anything, like old leather and dark wood, or French country furniture, lots of light wood with artistic china figurines of geese everywhere, or maybe designer chic, glass-and-iron-and-concrete, with modern artwork around – the kind you see in galleries and you wonder for the fraction of a second why the painters left their rags on a peculiar-looking object made of twisted and tortured metal, then you realize that that is the artwork itself and the next thing that could give you a real surprise is the price.
But this room is… it is something like… How shall I put it?
The first time I saw the sea I'd already read about a hundred books about it. I'm not joking. Life was dull in the orphanage, as I mentioned, and reading was encouraged, and by the time I was five I was already reading books. So except for the most common, most down-to-earth objects or activities, most of my first experiences, if you mean the tangible, physical reality, were the ink-on-paper kind. I ate icecream and baked beans and scraped my knees and saw a storm before I read about it, but as to undiluted, first-hand experiences, that was all. I read about everything else in books first – fireworks and sailing, bubble baths and wildflowers.
The first time I read about a rainbow I was four. The first time I saw an actual rainbow I was thirteen, and I have to add, the real thing didn't quite come up to expectations (I used to live in a big city, polluted air, narrow streets, whatever). The colours were not as bright as in my imagination. If you think it over, well, I'm sure you'll be surprised how much of your own experience is secondhand, so to speak – you've already heard about it or read about it or saw it on TV. Remember your first kiss? I'm willing to lay a bet that by the time you had that first kiss, you already knew a lot about kisses, you read romances or watched porn in secret or asked your friends – when it happened at last, you instantly started to compare it to the pictures in your head.
This room is… I have to find something to compare it to. Close your eyes and imagine a room straight out of the Thousand and One Nights. Opulence. Rich textures. Silk and velvet and spices.
Now imagine what things were really like in old Arabia – not very different from anywhere else a thousand years ago. Mud floors. Candles and fires and smoke. Unwashed bodies. Spices, yes, and fragrances, too, and beautiful things, silk and shining copper plates and fur rugs and wood, yes, but underneath that all there is something primal, something dark and frightening and exciting.
This room is a mixture of all these. It is something that couldn't exist anywhere else. Its reality is so strong it anchors you in the present without a question. The floorboards are dark, scratched wood and covered with a fine layer of dust or sand. There are oriental rugs everywhere, old and richly coloured and probably very valuable. There is no sofa, no TV, no shelves, no books or paintings or flowers or any of that bric-à-brac that rich people usually keep around – decoy ducks, Japanese vases, Venetian masks, not even photographs in silver frames. Only a few low armchairs and low tables, and glowing lamps that give a soft, mellow, yellowish light, and big, soft pillows on the floor. Everything is unbelievably dirty. Not greasy or disgustingly dirty, but terribly neglected, like in a commune of hippies where nobody ever even thinks of cleaning because that is such a petit bourgeois thing to do. Even the smell of incense reminds me of a place like that, but I can't smell reef. There is some kind of flower, maybe jessamine, mixed with the incense instead, and another smell, something animal, something deep and feral and frightening lurking under it.
"I'll bring us something to drink," Temari says and throws her coat carelessly on one of the armchairs.
I simply can't imagine how it is possible that she could live here – this woman with her cool elegance and sophisticated clothes.
There is a teapot on one of the small tables. I raise the lid. Cold mint tea, I can smell it.
There is a giant screen in the room, beautifully carved, like a grid covered with leaves and vines and flowers.
As I look up, I see something move behind the screen, and I glimpse something reddish through the grid and the carved leaves.
A cat. It must be a cat.
Then, for a second, I see a green eye peeking out through one of the holes in the wooden screen. It is just for a second and the hole is very near the floor.
I think about going around the screen to see what kind of animal it is but then decide not to.
Animals usually like me. I never had a pet and I look at them like I look at strange children – "I know nothing about you, so you are the one who has to decide if you want to come closer." Most of the time they seem to appreciate that I don't jump at them and declare everlasting love and attachment – I had elusive, unfriendly cats sitting on my coat or on my bag next to me at small parties while the hostess wondered aloud how that was even possible, and big, ferocious-looking dogs coming to lie next to my legs and demurely putting their chin on my shoes. I'm kind of used to it by now.
If this animal is too shy or too scared to come out, that's not my business. But it's strange.
"Hello, kitty," I say in a whisper. "Here, kitty. It's fine. Don't be frightened."
The eye appears, then disappears.
I feel strange. Not quite frightened, but uneasy. There is something wrong. Something very wrong.
Then Temari comes in with another teapot and cups. They are made of brass, probably, because they glimmer like gold in the light - they are beautiful, intricately decorated but I can't quite see the pattern.
The tea Temari pours into my cup is red. Red like wine. Red like blood.
She sees me furrow my brows.
"Hibiscus flower," she says with that little singing lilt in her voice that I always find nearly irresistible.
I take a sip. It is spicy and strong. The colour may be scarlet because of the hibiscus, but the taste is not like it at all. It is something sharp and tangy and there is some kind of alcohol in it. It is intoxicating.
I can't drink this. It is very good but I get drunk irritatingly fast and I have to go to work tomorrow. I have no idea when I'll get home.
I think of the empty street, the grey and black houses and I feel my skin getting goosebumps.
I want to ask about the manuscript that she wanted to show me, but for some reason I'm nervous.
There's a little noise behind the screen, a hiss, a scratch. Claws on the floorboards, maybe?
The dust suddenly spirals next to my chair. There must be a a door or a window open and the wind…
"What the hell," Temari says sharply.
She puts down her cup on the low table and stalks near the screen. I turn to see what's going on and I forget about the cup. It turns in my hand and I almost drop it. With a swift but really clumsy move I pull my leg back, fast, afraid that I will burn myself, and the tea spills on the floor. There is a cushion next to my chair and I watch, mesmerized, as the dark velvet absorbs the fluid. To mask my mistake I raise the cup to my lips and pretend to drink.
There is no way I would want to explain to this elegant, beautiful, sophisticated woman how clumsy I can be.
Then Temari is back in the other chair and says, "How do you like the… tea?"
"It's fine," I mumble. "It's just… it's really strong, isn't it? I'd better not have any more."
Her eyes glitter like sapphires in the warm glow of the lamps.
Another noise, so small that if we were talking I would probably miss it.
Temari's eyes are narrow slits. Her face is like one of those Egyptian statues of goddesses – timeless, beautiful… and cruel.
I feel a little dizzy. My lips are dry.
"Well," Temari says and looks at me.
I feel very peculiar. My senses are sharpened. Everything is happening for the first time. Taste. Smell. Sight.
I look around. I can smell the dust particles in the air. I can hear the almost complete silence in the house. The colours of the rugs, burgundy, mauve, jade, cornflower blue, seem to glow.
Temari picks up the teapot and walks out toward the kitchen, and I feel that strange, breathtaking presence behind me. Then it disappears.
I get up. I thought I'd be wobbly but instead I can see and feel everything very sharply. I go around the screen and there is an open door behind it.
Normally I would never go anywhere I'm not invited. I'm not nosy. But I feel like I'm on some kind of drug. Everything is very sharp and at the same time very distant.
I go through the door. Then another. The rooms are all dusty, neglected, and there is hardly any furniture in them. They are very different from that modern kitchen and the hall that we came through when we arrived. I try to remember what I saw outside – it wasn't one massive block, like a cottage, but an L-shaped building. I think I saw another building behind that, two floors at least, looming in the darkness. I thought it was the neighbouring house, but now I'm not sure.
I can feel that strange kind of smell getting stronger. It's fear and spices and something sweet and a terrible reek of something rotten combined.
There is no corridor running through the house. This house must have been built centuries ago and was never remodeled. The rooms open into each other, and there are halls where there is more than one door to choose from.
It doesn't take a lot of time to go through at least five rooms because I'm not looking for anything in particular.
Why am I here at all?
It was just a sudden idea to see what was behind the screen. Maybe I should go back.
I turn back and open another door.
It is not one of the rooms I came through. This is… different.
A concrete floor. I walk in and through another open door I can see strange little heaps on the floor.
Bones. They look like bones.
The window is open but the reek, the animal, sickly sweet reek of rotten meat is filling my nostrils. And under that there is that sweet jessamine smell…
"You were not supposed to come heeeere… heeeere…" a singsong voice is reverberating somewhere behind me. "You'll be punished…"
And then I look behind me and all through those open doors I see something, a white shape, something not human and not an animal, either, something white and big, running like an ape, not on all fours but not on two feet, either, and it is fast, and I can see those glittering eyes in the dark.
Too fast. It is coming toward me too fast, and it's impossible even to try to find my way back.
I turn again and I see Temari through another door. Her eyes are glittering, too, and she smiles and licks her lips.
The window. I run to the window and climb out… and almost fall down.
I'm on the second floor. Or is it the third? High. Very high. Above me there are turrets and chimneys and the roof and a full, grinning, white moon. I look down. Darkness under me, nothing else. A dark pit.
I have no idea how I got here. I was supposed to be on the ground floor. Were there stairs? Of course, we went up from the hall… No. Never mind.
I have to get back to the gate and get out.
I have no time to be careful. I pull myself up to the roof, and start running, the terror and the speed of my flight keeping me straight, not letting me stop or think or fall. I jump over to another part of the roof, then run two steps, then jump again.
I have no idea what must have been in that tea. Some kind of tranquilizer, probably. If I had drunk it all, I would have passed out, probably, but as things are, I just feel strangely calm.
There. The courtyard we came through. Like an acrobat, I grab a bunch of creepers on the wall and start to climb down, then almost fall, then I grab another bunch of creepers, and the strange, not-quite-hibiscus-tea-induced calm is still there, only a bit rippling at the edges.
How am I going to open the gate? Temari, that bitch opened it by pushing a button. Did she have some kind of key card? Will I be able to open the gate without it from the inside?
Oh, Temari. You were so clever. So, so clever. That carefully nurtured relationship between us. That "friendship" you cultivated. You were so damn smart. Asking me about my parents, my work, my boyfriend, making sure that nobody would miss me… How clever you were!
I'm almost at the gate when something jumps down in front of me and I can hardly avoid colliding with it. In a flash I turn around and I hope, hope… And then something hits the metal, the bars of the gate and I turn again.
It is a man. Not a man. A beast. No. A man.
He is tall and completely naked and even in this hardly-moonlit night he is all colours. Like me.
Very red hair, cropped short. Very green eyes. And white, unmarred, unblemished skin. Musky, harsh smell, raw meat and sweet jessamine.
He opens his mouth and hisses. His teeth are sharp, predator's teeth, as if they were filed sharp on purpose and I think of the bones in that room, that rotting meat. His nails are so long they are almost claws.
I know these green eyes.
He watched me from behind the screen.
He watches me now, his eyes wild, feral, and I have no idea what he is waiting for, but he is so beautiful.
Time has no relevance. Something like this never happened to me.
I want to touch him.
He could strike me down and then he could just kill me. Those teeth are deadly. But I still want to touch him.
I slowly raise my hand toward him. He hisses at me and he sniffs me… and his body reacts.
He purrs, the sound is deep and deadly and beautiful. His body is a man's body and I touch him, I place my fingers, my hand on him and slowly touch him and I feel his animal heat and look into those eyes.
Until now sex was always something not very important, the thousandth rerun of a not very interesting movie, but this not-human, not-animal beast with that perfect unmarred alabaster skin and the deadly sharp pointed teeth, the dizzying peaks of fear and lust…
Skin, pearly white, beautiful like moonlight.
There is only one spot on his face that either makes his beauty unbearably perfect or destroys it completely – I'm unable to decide. It is some kind of mark, etched into his skin, spidery lines of red on his forehead.
Skin and mark and claws and teeth and green, green eyes, like my own.
Then there's a shriek from the other side of the backyard and I hear the words but I can't understand them. It's Temari's voice, speaking in a guttural, barbarian language I have never heard before.
And then she appears. She has a silvery, wicked-looking whip in her hand and she smiles, a wide, crazy smile, then she says something again. It's an order, that much is clear from the voice. Maim. Kill. Eat.
She hisses and raises the whip.
I instinctively step closer to the beast. I'm more afraid of Temari, this mad priestess of blood and bones than of this being that is not quite human.
I look at him and his face is frozen in concentration.
Then my voice unexpectedly says with the same sweet lilt as Temari used to speak with – "Why me? Why not her?"
We watch each other and he lashes out toward me. I don't even have time to close my eyes but his claws don't touch me, they touch something under the creepers. The gate opens, just a few inches, just a bit, but I can squeeze through the gap and then I hold my hand out to him.
He pushes the gate closed from the other side and I hear the little click of the lock and the unhuman, unearthly shriek on the other side at the same time. I stumble backwards. I can't see them but I can hear everything. A hiss. A crack of the whip. Then a growl. A scream.
The crunch of bones.
The terror of it all falls on me all at once, buries me under its weight, like in a dream. Labyrinth. Dark. Blood.
I start to run, I have no idea where I am and I have no idea where I'm going. Then I see the car.
I walk toward it slowly, carefully, like a frightened animal. Maybe there is a lion inside, or a rug of live snakes on the floor. But there is nothing like that, and the key is in the ignition.
I look around but the dark and gray and black street seems to be gently rising and falling around me like waves, and the gray has small black pinpoints in it like a badly printed black-and-white photograph.
No. I can't faint. I can't.
I get in the car.
By the time I got home it was almost morning. I have no idea how much time I spent in that house but I very distinctly remember hopelessly driving around unknown places for a long time, looking for some street sign or anything familiar I could recognize. I never even thought of going to the police or asking for help. What could I say? All I knew was that I never wanted to see that house again.
I parked the Mercedes in a car park near my flat, then I went home and wrote a letter of resignation to my boss, packed my things, emptied my bank account, paid everything that had to be paid and left the city.
I never even considered getting a job at a publishing firm again. No. Too conspicuous. I clean offices and serve breakfast at diners and sell tickets in cinemas. That kind of thing. And I move often from one city to another to another to another... and so on.
But I'm only telling you this because all this is going to change soon.
I can see the signs. No, they are not signs like the prophecies talk about, neither are they the kind The National Enquirer loves so much – no, there is not a flying saucer in sight, except when I drop one, and I never met Elvis.
I told you – I'm not crazy.
And I'm not here of my free will, in this city, in this flat. Not quite. There is something both leading me and pushing me away, a force unknown by me, a power I can't even start to figure out.
It started with the dreams.
At first it was just a whiff of something strange and magical. I was walking in a forest that was so beautiful that my heart almost burst with joy and full of such strange creatures that I was scared to death.
Then I started to feel a presence around me. There is no other word for it. That feeling of being watched, always, all the time...
The feeling did not stop when I woke up.
Then came the gifts. The first one was a small circle like a crown, made of long, long leaves of grass. The leaves were all kinds of colours – several shades of green, brown, yellow and silver.
Then a stone. Then one perfect little blue flower. Then a feather, a white, long feather with one black spot on it like Chinese ink.
All of these things happened in different cities, but it takes less and less time for them to find me. Whoever they are.
The last gift was a bunch of fruit left on my windowsill. Dark purple wild grapes, covered with hoarfrost, and some red berries that looked sweet but were bitter and still tasty.
I ate them all with a hunger that scared me and thrilled me.
What's so special about this?
It is summer now. When I opened my window the hoarfrost was still there on the fruit. Never even started to melt.
And, as I mentioned, this little gift was left on my windowsill. On the outside.
I live on the eighth floor, and, believe me, there is no fire escape under my window.
I'm sure it's him. I'm sure.
I left all my belief in any kind of God or religion behind when I left that house. But there is still one thing that makes me wonder when I lie on my bed and can't sleep.
Let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.
Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead...
What is it exactly that is coming for me?
I don't care anymore.
Now when I dream, I dream not only of the forest but of him. Every morning I look in the mirror, I scrutinize my face closely. Is my skin still white? Is there a sign?
I tried to run but sincerely, it is dull. This life is dull. The only moments when I could say I was alive, really alive, were the ones that I spent in that room and in those dark halls and in that front yard.
So I think of him, the Beast, my secret brother, my lover, my other half.
I see him in my dreams and I'm afraid and I'm thrilled and I'm waiting.
That skin. Those eyes. Those teeth.