Authors: Stav Sherez
Tags: #Crime Fiction
Once again‚ for Jane
The first time you see a dead body it changes you for ever. You leave a little piece of yourself behind, but what they don’t tell you, what they never tell you, is that in return you carry something new and strange into the rest of your life.
We arrived yesterday. I’ve never been so glad to land anywhere as I was after that flight. Of course, I had the window seat and could see every flash of lightning that sparked and danced across the plane’s wing, the razor-tipped mountains so close below us that I felt as if I could reach out and scoop the snow from their peaks. He didn’t even seem to notice when we started plunging, the air squeezed out from our lungs, masks dangling uselessly, the crew buckled down and pale-faced and silent. Nor when we swerved and shook and rattled. He glanced past me out the window when the first engine failed but didn’t say a word. Of course, he’d been popping pills since Heathrow, God knows what and how much, and so I shouldn’t have been surprised at all.
The town is smaller than I expected. It is hot and dusty and ugly and not at all what I was led to believe. Chain stores and fast-food joints line the main street. Everything is in English. Everything is geared towards us, tourists, adventurers, white folk with money to burn. It makes me sick but he just laughs that cynical laugh of his, the one he thinks makes him out to be cleverer than he is, and gives me that knowing nod, each Starbucks and McDonald’s just further confirmation of what he’d believed all along. I never noticed it back in London but it only took one day in this hellhole for me to see him as he truly is. Maybe that’s why we travel. Maybe we don’t fly and drive and get boats to see new lands but only to see ourselves and our loved ones as they really are and not distorted by the mask and mesh of everyday life. On holiday all your crutches and supports are stripped away and there’s only you and him and the relentless dead heat of midday.
He likes it here, I can tell, and wants to stay. He likes the late-night dive bars and small hole-in-the-wall cafes full of strange alcohol and even stranger food. We argue about this the first night in town. We’re staying in a rundown hostel on the edge of what seems like the red-light district. The photo on the web looked nothing like this. This is the kind of house you cross the street to avoid walking past. The room is small and close so that we share each other’s breath as we pass, our sticky bodies clinging for a second and then sliding off. There is a fan but of course it doesn’t work. Cockroaches scuttle along the bed and floor. They are twice the size of any I’ve ever seen before and they make me constantly uneasy, the way they stop every now and then and seem to turn and face you, antennae twitching, before they decide to scamper off.
I tell him we didn’t come here to be in another city, to sit in bars with Europeans and drink cheap beer all night. He looks at me like I’m crazy, like what else would we be doing here. It was his choice, this holiday, he’d bought and booked it before he even consulted me. It was the first time he’d done something like this and I was surprised, sure, and a little excited that he would do such a thing. He said he’d come into some money and had been dying to travel here since he was a little boy.
And, of course, I believed him. You’re getting used to this, right? You think I should have known better?
At night we sit in the old quarter, under candlelight and mosquito buzz, in one of the identical bars that line the tourist area. He finds it easy to talk to people, to strike up conversations with total strangers and within five minutes they find they have something impossibly obscure in common. That’s what he’s like. It’s not at all what I’m like but I pretend, for him, I do. I laugh when someone says something resembling a joke. I stare wide-eyed and drop-jawed at their tedious tales of near-death experiences and remarkable survivals. I drink the strange clear alcohol as it’s poured into my glass and I get the round when it’s my turn.
But I hate them. I stare at their crooked teeth as they tell me about the time they climbed K2 and had to deal with a kidney stone at twenty-six thousand feet. I watch their eyes as they gush about the ranges in Patagonia or the starving children of Africa and how their lives were fulfilled when they gave their first mouthful of food to a ten-year-old on the verge of death in the upper Gabon.
I hate them because I know who they are. I hate them because I am one of them.
At night you’d see them in the rundown bars on the edge of town. Drunk Germans sitting over steins of beer bigger than their heads as they go through their equipment, item by item, for the fourth time, making sure everything’s packed for tomorrow’s trek. Dead-eyed boys with blond dreadlocks and less than an eighth of their brain matter left, selling pills and talking about how this used to be a great town before all the tourists came. The history freaks with their Thermoses and pinched expressions, clipped beards and rebel neckscarves. The way they look at us. The way they turn to each other and mutter comments and point and aren’t in the least bit ashamed of it.
I tell him I’m leaving town first thing in the morning. He can come with me or he can stay here. He throws a fit and hits the streets and comes back two hours later, apologetic, reeking of booze and easy women, saying he’s sorry and that tomorrow we can start properly.
By then I don’t care. By then fourteen cockroaches, or forty, or four hundred, have crawled across my legs and face as I lie back in bed and try to will sleep and then give up and ask him for some of his Valiums and chew them, the bitter chalky taste delicious, and chase it down with some tapwater which will probably make me sick but that’s all there is in this room and, anyway, by then, as I said, I’m past caring.
We catch a bus out of town and leave in a haze of dust and chickens, the gaudy streets quickly fading behind us as we begin to climb a steep escarpment carved into the mountainside. The bus is beyond hot and the windows are jammed and there are all kinds of animals – dogs and pigs and pigeons and God knows what else – and everyone is sitting on each other’s lap every time the driver hits a switchback and I am sick into my bag within ten minutes. He looks at me, pats my shoulder and goes back to his zoned-out state. I wish I could be like that but instead I’m the crying puking white woman who can’t even take a damn bus ride let alone what these people have to endure for every day of their lives in this place, and wasn’t that why I came here anyway?
The landscape rescues me. The blue steely peaks in the distance. The jagged precipices of black rock and broken teeth. This track, barely wide enough for the bus, curling and swirling around the side of the mountain like jewellery. Soon, there is nothing but rock and sky and thin wisps of straggly cloud. The temperature in the bus begins to cool and people are asleep, their heads rolling and nodding on their neighbours’ shoulders, and he too is asleep and I want to scream and shake him awake and tell him look what you’re missing! Look at how beautiful it all is! But I know that, even if I did, he would just take one brief perfunctory glance and mumble something and be back asleep within a couple of minutes.
So I look at the swooping landscape as it falls away beneath the wheels of the bus and it feels as if I’m the only passenger left, ascending into the sky, just me and the driver so far in front that I can’t tell what colour his hair is or even if he has any.
He wakes up and says
are we there yet?
It is night and all around is a rushing blackness lit only by the smear of stars and whirled galaxies above. Soon, I say, and do not know why I say this because I have no idea when we’ll get to the village, the village that he so wanted to go to in the first place, no idea when we’ll get there and no reason to placate him, yet I do, which is something I don’t understand at this moment and don’t care to.
Something in the air changes as we round the rim of the mountain and drive through a high desolate plateau. The smell comes first. Sulphurous and hot, instantly filling the bus, everyone coughing or tying handkerchiefs around their mouths and noses. I press my face to my sleeve and look out the window but there’s only the grudging slice of sky and the flat endless plain ahead. Eventually, the smell decreases, or maybe we’ve just got used to it, and the night lulls me into broken haunted sleep and the next thing I know he’s shaking me awake and grabbing my sleeve.
We get off at what I presume is the bus station but there is nothing to mark it as such. He tells me the village is fifteen minutes’ walk over the next ridge. There’s a wide animal track that winds through the rocky ground and we start walking, our rucksacks poking into kidneys and livers and backs, mouths cracked from too little water and the way this land can suck all the moisture from your body in two hours flat.
It’s more like forty minutes but we finally reach the top of the ridge and stop to get our breath back. The village lies below us at the bottom of a ravine. There are no lights on in the houses and no movement discernible from where we stand. I look at him but can’t tell if he’s disappointed or if this is what he expected. He takes a torch out of his backpack and I carefully follow him down the scree slope, just wanting to get into my sleeping bag now, not caring where, just tired and sick and hungry and pissed off.
We come to the entrance to the village, just a couple of splintered stakes plunged into the stony soil. He’s calling out in broken Spanish but there’s no reply, no sound at all apart from the wind susurrating through the peaks. I begin to laugh – his awful Spanish accent, the long hours and dehydration, this whole situation.
I see him go into one of the houses. He’s in there barely a minute and comes straight out and his body is folded in on itself like he’s trying to hide from the sky. There’s nothing there, he says, but a muscle twitch below his left eye gives him away. It’s the first time I’ve seen him show this kind of concern towards me and this scares me more than anything else.
He points to a far rise and says we can camp there, it’ll shield us from the weather at least, and I’m too tired to argue, don’t want to sleep here anyway, that eerie sound the wind makes, the crunch of our feet on the pebbled ground, the pale dead sky.
We round a small hill and that’s when we first see it.
Two dead trees, three hundred yards away, hidden in the shadow of a narrow defile. He’s standing next to me, breathing heavily, saying
shit shit shit
over and over again. I strain my eyes, all fuzz and sleep-dragged, and try to focus.
At first I don’t see anything wrong. At first I think it’s just a particularity of the tree or the light or the long bumpy hours rushing through my veins. But then I look at the other tree, a few feet away, and see that it is the same.
A slim black-haired woman is hanging from the branches of the first tree, her eyes staring down at the ground and she is spinning slowly in the breeze as if she were an unwilling participant in some lost childhood game. The second tree is smaller, its branches more slender, but they are barely bent at all by the weight of the child hanging from them.