Here’s a slice of fiction about a seductive stranger, a black forest, and a crew on an existential heist. If you get lost in the woods leave a breadcrumb trail. It might save your life.
Written in pieces over a long time with some help from a vodka poster, a Russian documentary, and a mention of Eastern Bloc sci-fi in a magazine. Finished a few years back.
Rated MATURE for drug use and some disturbing imagery. Well, it disturbed me.
Normal non-fiction service resumed soon.
‘Did you march in the snow?’
‘Even when it was very cold. The snow was up to here’. She showed him how high with her hand.
‘Did you have a winter uniform?’
‘We had trousers. The snow soaked right through them’.
He opened a cardboard document folder. ‘Are the girls wearing winter uniform in this photograph?’
‘No. That’s not a Youth Movement uniform. That’s a Harvest Group uniform. In the countryside in the east’.
‘Really?’ He looked closely at the photograph. ‘What colour was their uniform?’
‘Brown. Chocolate brown’.
‘Really? I didn’t know that.’ He smiled at her. ‘You’ve told me something I didn’t know before’.
‘I’m boring you’.
‘No. But it was a long time ago when I was in the Youth Movement’.
‘Not that long’.
‘Yes it was! Why are you interested in the past? That’s all gone now. Puff! Disappeared’.
‘I like that kind of thing. I want to show people the pictures and history and I want to make sure it’s right’.
‘Is that all you think of? No-one here wants to hear about it. It’s the past. Old things. Old like me.’
‘You’re not old.’ He brushed his fringe away from his eyes. ‘You look very young’.
‘I’m old enough to be your mother.’
‘Where is your mother tonight?’
‘You have come a long way.’ She turned off the recorder.
‘Time for vodka,’ she said.
‘I have never seen this brand’. She turned the bottle round. On the label was a colour photograph of a blonde girl in a white crew neck t-shirt saluting with a smile.
‘It’s from the airport.’
‘Rocket vodka. Look at this girl on the side here’.
‘She looks like you.’
‘Too young! Too young. Maybe twenty years ago I looked like her.’
‘You look young’.
‘In some ways. Do you think these are a teenager’s?’ She cupped her left breast.
‘Better’. He drank more vodka, looked at her.
‘I did a lot of athletics in the Youth. And after’. After the Youth Movement she spent too long trying to keep a husband who drank too much and who left.
She patted his knee. ‘Kind. At least I haven’t put on weight, like some. I could probably still fit into that uniform’.
‘No! I’m sure I can’t’.
‘I want to see you in the uniform’.
The lights flickered, dimmed, and returned.
‘They do that a lot,’ she said. ‘Every evening. They might go out altogether and leave us in the dark’.
‘Better put your uniform on now then. So I can see’.
She put her glass down, put her hand on his shoulder as she got up from the table. ‘You’ll be sorry’.
She appeared in the doorway wearing the uniform. It was very tight and she could not do up most of the buttons. She had a short red skirt, white blouse, a faded red cotton scarf tied around her neck. She had smooth, tightly muscled legs. She saluted like the girl on the vodka bottle.
‘Section leader Monika. For the glory of the ever lasting National State’.
He brushed his fringe away from his eyes. She had bare feet.
‘Hello,’ he said.
‘You must be a foreign diplomat’.
‘Would you like to inspect my section?’
‘Give me some more vodka’.
He handed her a glass. She took it and drank.
‘I feel silly. This doesn’t fit. I’m too fat’. She smoothed down the skirt.
‘You look good. Just like a Youth Movement section leader’.
‘All in the past. I was happy then, though’.
‘Be happy now’.
‘You’re young, Easter. Mr Easter’.
‘I’m not that young’. He reached out and touched the metal badge on her blouse.
‘Will you sleep with me tonight?’ she asked.
Easter woke on the right side of the single bed. Monika was asleep, snoring loudly, arm over his chest. In the small room were an old wardrobe, a bedside table with an electric alarm clock and two empty glasses, a metal rack on wheels with clothes hanging from it and, on the wall, a print of young girls playing in a yellow grass field.
The bottle of Rocket vodka lay on its side on the floor. It was empty.
Easter got out of bed without waking her. In the bathroom he could hear the factories in the nearby industrial park starting up. A broken joint under the sink dripped onto the linoleum.
He gargled with green liquid from a state dentist prescription.
‘I made you coffee,’ he said.
‘More vodka,’ she said into the pillow.
‘Coffee from the airport. Wake up.’
She was self-conscious about her body and wrapped the blanket around her when she sat up to drink.
‘You’re dressed already,’ she said.
‘I don’t sleep much’.
‘I didn’t either, last night’.
‘Monika, do you have the last yearbook for the Youth Movement?’
‘The last? I didn’t keep much. This is lovely coffee. I wish I could afford such nice things. Natasha Krulik ..’
‘She doesn’t. She said you had it’.
‘You’ve spoken to Natasha?’
‘It’s the last yearbook. She said you had it’.
‘I might do’.
‘Drink your coffee and we can look for it’.
She sipped from the mug. ‘Why do you want this book?’
‘It has some photographs in it. Of uniforms’.
‘Do you like photographs or do you like girls?’
‘Where shall we look first?’
The Terrain and the Territory
The yearbook was in the lid pocket of a suitcase in the bottom of the wardrobe. The cover was red with gold lettering and a gold Youth Movement emblem: a pitchfork crossed over a rifle.
Easter looked through it as Monika picked up the yellow paper condom wrappers from the carpet and took them to the kitchen in her cupped hands. The blanket was wrapped tightly around her.
‘You have to be tidy,’ she said. ‘In such a small flat you have to be tidy or it is unbearable’.
She dressed in the bathroom while he studied a map of a camping ground that folded out into three pages.
‘I’ll bring it back,’ he said when she came into the bedroom.
A loud radio started next door.
‘There is a lot of unemployment here,’ she said. ‘People have nothing to do. Once there was full employment.’ She pinned the museum guard name tag to her uniform. ‘I have to go to work now. We will ride the bus together’.
The engine of the car that carried the three men and one woman died as it reached the perimeter of the UFO landing site. The car stopped at the end of dirt track bleeding off an unfinished highway. Beyond the track was a field of knee high yellow grass and beyond the field was a black forest.
The Greek colonel disguised in civilian clothes leaned forward from the back seat and passed Easter half a gram of cocaine wrapped in a small piece of newspaper.
‘We must press on regardless,’ said the Greek.
‘Of course that’s what we are doing, you stupid man,’ said Klaire. Blood dripped from her nose through her slight black moustache. She rubbed her left index finger around her mouth like a toothbrush. She removed it with a sucking noise. ‘We’re going to press on. All this time and we’re nearly there. The pilot’s heart … .’
Easter had the map open on his lap. He tipped lumpy cocaine out onto the dashboard and chopped it into four lines with a pen knife.
‘I don’t know about this,’ said Peter. ‘My heart …’
‘We won’t get through the field without it,’ said Easter. ‘It could end us’. He snorted two lines sequentially through a paper straw. Scoured nostrils, sharpened buzz, that fucking evil taste. That distant low hum of a refrigerator late at night when everything else is quiet.
‘Do it’. He passed Peter the straw.
Borders and Forests
The men’s mouths flooded with saliva moving through the grass field and they spat into the grass every few metres. Klaire was unaffected and talked about her mother, her daughter, the importance of what they were doing, her mother. They reached the forest unharmed.
Peter had a leather knapsack on his back. Easter carried a mechanical compass and the yearbook. He had the wrap of cocaine in his pocket. The Greek was unhappy leaving his gun in the car. He knew it would not work in the forest but felt unsafe without it.
It was early afternoon. The light was dim. The trees were deformed, with wooden tentacle roots sprouting back out of the ground and wrapping round other trunks. They had to go back and forth looking for ways through. Every tree, branch, leaf, and plant was black. The floor was a mass of dead brown leaves.
‘I want some more coke’, said Klaire.
‘We may still need it,’ said Easter.
‘Do you have any Peter?’
‘Do you have any, Captain?’
No life in the forest. Nothing walked or crippled, crawled.
‘I have told you this before Miss Klaire, I have no more left,’ said the Greek. ‘Look for yourself’. He gave her a folded piece of paper.
‘There’s some here,’ she said.
‘No woman. It is empty’.
‘Look. There’s loads of the stuff’. She snorted something off her finger.
Easter looked at the map. ‘Head in this direction,’ he said. ‘There’s a clearing’.
‘This isn’t coke,’ said Klaire, yellow mucus streaming from her nose. ‘What is that? It’s horrific’.
‘It was empty,’ said the Greek.
‘Have it back. My God, that’s foul. I feel ill’.
‘I told you it was empty’.
They found the remains of those who had gone before in a clearing. Two skeletons in rotten clothing lay in shadows at opposite ends. Both had their skulls smashed in with a stone.
‘Unbelievable,’ said Klaire.
‘We must maintain discipline,’ said the Greek.
Easter opened a calfskin backpack by the first skeleton. It was full of bank notes. He turned away from the others and pulled out a handful. The notes were smudged red and green, Cyrillic and Georgian script, worthless currency from non-existent places. Their reverse sides were blank. He shoved them back into the pack and dropped it on the forest floor.
‘Look at this,’ said the Greek. Easter turned and the Greek aimed a small pistol at him. The Greek pulled the trigger. The pistol made a popping noise.
‘It’s a toy,’ said the Greek and dropped it. ‘They brought a toy with them’.
‘I can’t believe he did that to you,’ said Klaire into Easter’s right ear as they walked through the forest. The Greek walked ahead of them on a rough path made by something heavy being dragged here a long time ago.
Peter lagged behind, distracted by something deep in the forest.
‘I mean I really can’t. It’s absolutely shocking. He didn’t know it wasn’t loaded. You could have been hurt’.
Easter watched the compass needle spin. ‘It’s this way,’ he said.
In a smaller clearing they found a barn marked on the map as Assembly Point B. A low humming came from the building and the compass needle spun in its dish as they approached.
‘Is it safe?’ asked the Greek. ‘My teeth … .’
‘It’s safe,’ said Peter. ‘I think I know what’s in there’.
He marched ahead and walked around the back of the barn. Easter, Klaire and the Greek watched for two minutes.
‘Fool,’ said the Greek. ‘He won’t be coming back’.
‘Come on,’ said Easter. ‘We have to go through here’.
The other two moved forward.
‘Jesus,’ said Klaire.
‘What?’ said the Greek. ‘What is that?’
‘Come on,’ said Easter. ‘We have to go through here.’
The pair started forward.
At the back of the barn was a doorway. The humming noise was louder. Easter waved the Greek and Klaire in ahead of him. The inside walls were plated with irregular pieces of aluminum and someone had spray-painted the word ‘Uwaga’ in black on one wall. In the centre of the barn growing from the damp black soil was a tree like a frozen fountain of gold. Fruits hung from its branches: all orange, green, and black like the carapace of a scarab beetle. Klaire stood in front of the tree.
‘Tasty fruit,’ she said quietly.
‘No,’ said the Greek. ‘Do not do that’.
‘It won’t hurt her,’ said Peter. He stepped out from behind the tree, one arm guiding a naked figure whose body and head were covered with glistening vaginal and anal orifices. The figure’s eyes were milky white and it could see very little.
‘This is my wife,’ Peter said.
‘Jesus Christ,’ said the Greek. ‘Jesus Christ’.
‘What happened Peter?’ asked Easter. ‘What have you done?’
‘This is my wife’.
‘What happened Peter?’
‘She was waiting here for me. It was meant to be.’
Klaire plucked a fruit and bit into it.
‘This was waiting in the barn? Does it speak?’ asked Easter. ‘Does it know where the pilot’s heart is?’
‘It is a she,’ said Peter. ‘This is my wife.’
Easter brushed his fringe away from his eyes. ‘I understand Peter. I understand. She’s your wife. But does she know where the pilot’s heart is?’
Klaire gave a low moan. Her back was to them.
‘Miss Klaire?’ said the Greek.
She turned round. Her skin had melted and her face had collapsed like a mudslide. She was in ecstasy.
The Golden Key
Assembly Point C was a stagnant pond. The five stood by its edge. Easter lead Klaire by the arm. Peter held his wife’s hand.
‘There,’ said Easter.
A hole had been dug in the ground at the base of a black tree whose branches overhung the pond. The Greek looked down into it. A heavy iron grate had been forced in just below the surface and hammered down.
‘We must move it,’ said Easter.
‘I feel strong now,’ said the Greek. ‘Very strong. You?’
The Greek pulled the grate out of the hole and threw it far into the trees. Branches smashed.
‘Peter,’ said Easter. ‘Peter.’
Peter was running his hands over his wife’s head, dipping his fingers into the orifices.
‘We need the torch,’ said Easter.
‘She cannot come with us,’ said the Greek.
Klaire face had almost completely collapsed. She could not see.
‘My wife,’ said Peter.
‘Such degeneracy,’ said the Greek. ‘Such complete degeneracy.’
They tied Klaire to a tree by a leash and left Peter’s wife with her. Easter put the compass and yearbook on top of Peter’s knapsack. The tunnel was a metre in diameter. It dropped down for a long time at a hard angle then levelled out straight beneath the pond. They climbed then crawled. Under the stagnant pond the tunnel entered a circular mud cave shoulder-high, forty metres in diameter. Phosphorescent green algae glowed on the ceiling. It was very cold. They crouched on the floor.
‘This is the pilot,’ said Easter. ‘We must dig’.
Peter looked back up at the tunnel. ‘My wife,’ he thought.
‘Forget about your wife,’ said Easter.
‘Let them dig,’ thought the Greek.
‘We must all dig,’ said Easter.
The Greek squatted on the far side of the cave in darkness.
‘We must dig,’ said Easter. He waved his arm. The Greek moved. Easter waved his arm again. The Greek moved forward. All three dug with collapsible entrenching tools.
The floor was soft. They found the pilot’s heart a metre down. It was a clear cube, eighteen centimetres tall with a small black seed at the centre. It weighed an incredible amount when the three men manoeuvred it up.
‘Five years,’ the Greek said.
Peter stroked the top of the cube. ‘Can we take it back?’ he said. ‘Will it be more powerful?’
‘Who is there to stop us?’ said the Greek.
They were covered in black mud when they got the cube to the surface. They lay on the ground panting.
‘Still strong?’ said Easter.
‘No,’ said the Greek. ‘We are inside the radius.’
‘I hurt my arm,’ said Peter. His wife stumbled towards him and clumsily embraced him.
‘Where is Klaire?’ said the Greek.
Peter’s wife whispered into her husband’s ear.
‘She is gone,’ said Peter. ‘She wanted to explore the forest.’
‘You fool,’ said the Greek. He hit Peter’s wife until she fell over. Easter held Peter back. Peter began to cry and Easter let him go. Peter knelt beside his wife, wiping away the blood.
‘We must find her,’ said the Greek.
‘We need to get to the car,’ said Easter. ‘We cannot spend long here.’
‘We must find her,’ said the Greek. ‘We leave none of us behind.’
‘What about the pilot’s heart?’ said Easter. He brushed his fringe away from his eyes. ‘Can we carry it that far?’
‘We leave nothing behind,’ said the Greek. He pushed Peter over and knelt by Peter’s wife. He put his hands around her neck. Peter’s wife made a gurgling sound.
Easter picked up the pilot’s heart, hugged it to his chest, the straight edges cutting his palms. He ran into the forest. He heard Peter scream behind him.
Easter stopped among the black trees at the edge of the yellow grass field. His hands were bleeding. He dropped the pilot’s heart on the black forest floor and it sank hard into the earth. He took the paper wrap of cocaine from his pocket. Most of it spilt as he opened the wrap. His hands were shaking. He snorted the cocaine straight from the paper and dropped the wrap on the ground.
He was trying to pull the pilot’s heart from the earth when he was hit. The Greek had made a spear from a long shard of black wood. It went into Easter’s left lower back.
He crouched down then stood and ran into the field, the spear bobbing out of him. He could not run in a straight line. When the spear fell out of the wound he dropped and lay on his back with the yellow grass around him and the sky blue above. Easter lay there for a long time.
The Greek appeared standing over him. He had picked up the spear. Dark green and red mucus flowed from his nostrils. His teeth were cracked to shards.
‘Why?’ he said. ‘Why would we do this?’
He stepped back. Easter saw him walk in a circle, talking to himself, then come back to Easter and raise the spear with both hands. Then he fell over and twitched for several minutes and stopped. Easter lay in the grass.
By late afternoon Easter had crawled through the yellow grass field. He got to his feet by holding a fence post where the barbed wire had been cut. He was at the end of Odessa Road, near the brick wall overlooking Forest Gate train station.
Two Nigerian men in black uniforms with silver embroidery walked over to him.
‘Papers,’ said one.
Easter pushed between them.
‘Papers,’ said the other.
A black SUV stopped as it turned into Odessa Road. The passenger door opened. Easter got in and slid down in the seat. The door closed and the vehicle moved on.
‘Did you find what you wanted?’ asked Monika from the driver’s seat.
‘Yes,’ said Easter.
Monika reached over and brushed his fringe away from his eyes.
‘Is it what you thought?’ she said.
Easter closed his eyes.
‘I think I’m dying,’ he said.
‘You think too much,’ said Monika. ‘I will take you home.’
They drove down Odessa Road until the morning came.
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