Ship of Fools
Gusts. Clipping rain. The wet drone of the new bypass. A line of hardy, cute craft, magnetic beads strung along the towpath.
Detective Tesla shouts at the crusty onlookers.
He’s late and concerned.
Sallow, with a halo of swirling blue hair, Nick Tesla shoos away the familiar faces huddled along the taped-off perimeter.
His eyes take in the gash of concrete slicing over the pretty limestone hills denuded of woods and he’s reminded of how distasteful enforcing the law could be: years ago, desperate to make way for the bypass, they had forcibly removed the cranks from the trees. No, the protestors couldn’t be gagged or bought. Thorny, hard to silence, having relocated to the Victorian coal canal, they continued to rise up.
Nick Tesla drops his head, shame in that memory, and stares at his feet just above the mud, resting inertly on the paddles of his wheelchair.
The crop of shaggy bystanders looks on with a mixture of anxiety and chutzpah. It’s an opportunity to greet the enemy meddling in their sovereign strip of anarchy and freedom along the canal.
Behind him, the cordon snaps in the wind. The odor is like Ecover, cannabis, birth control, ecstasy and yeast.
Forensic teams comb the wet, sighing perimeter.
A photographer’s camera makes an irritating digital beep before the flash, a preliminary to a Tesla migraine.
“Get that bitch to stop,” Tesla says to Beales, his plump minder, his hog-like eyes a soft lavender, a warm hint of his quirky past in his gaze. Yes, Beales, once minder to the Maharishi of Rishikesh, insists. “Miss, do have a cuppa.”
Beales nods at the gruff Dalek in the wheelchair as the photographer withers away with a dirty look.
Training, they say.
More like a demotion, son.
No one wants the Lear of the crime unit.
Nick Tesla’s mind clatters with a timeline as he takes in the bleak denouement and grace.
Dashed in the mud, the torso and limbs are neatly arranged next to a canal boat tied at its mooring, metal pegs malleted into the turf.
She’s a very unlikely queen, with legs for arms and arms for legs.
The swollen head has separated around the cranial plates. Her face is as blue as ink, contorted and agape with terror, and the neck is marked by a series of large contused depressions. The larynx and windpipe are gone. The chest cavity has erupted, as if from within. Entrails bubble and murmur in the gassy register of the dead. Sponges of lung are scattered in the mud. But the liver is separate, like a brown blister on deck. And angrily placed around: womb, kidneys and body fat.
“Fuck,” says Tesla, reminded of his own evisceration and dismemberment.
“Mess, sir,” adds Beales, feeling profoundly uncomfortable.
Tesla grunts at the cranks, too cheap or poor to buy houses, bewildered outcasts here on the canal. Queued up, forlorn, the lot of them looks guilty.
Beales fiddles with his belt and his belly, nodding at the mobile phone mast on the opposite hill. The cameras on the bypass might be a help.
Anger and sadness bring determination to Tesla’s mind. “I want to know everything about her.”
“Quite a puzzle, sir.” Beales just manages to keep his composure around the revolting corpse.
“Do you think she’s beautiful, Beales?”
“I don’t rightly know, sir,” he says.
Nothing bothers the detective, not wet, not fatigue, not violence, not death. Nothing turns Tesla’s guts. Anyway, energy is his manna, not meat.
“What a shame, what a waste,” he says, his mouth turning as the wind steals away the words. “Someone loved that girl. And they ripped her to bits.” He wasn’t prone to empathy but this was too sick, too human.
It’s excruciating for Beales. He can’t turn his eyes away.
“Once you lose what’s on the inside, there’s no going back, Beales.” Tesla taps his what’s left of his vitals, a hollow drum, capped by an acute and ornery brain sustained on a diet of electricity and sugar water atop a body of antique scraps sequestered in a wheelchair for now. His new legs were still in the unit’s workshop.
“There was a statement from the fellow who found her this morning. Claimed he was collecting wood for a brew up.” He swallows half of what he says in the deep rustic burr of his voice, wavering now, that of a soft vegetarian appalled by violence.
“How many early birds ran by this morning?” Tesla studies the mash of prints, then looks up at his corpulent assistant.
“Desolate stretch, sir. I wouldn’t come here at night, not alone, not with that lot.”
“Beales, do you move when you’re off duty?”
“I’m not what I once was, sir, it’s true.”
“I can fix that, Beales.”
“But before I fashion you a new heart, you find me hers.”
Brambles toss in the wind. From the towpath scored with footprints a few well-worn trails descend to the Avon. The wide smudge of a wheelbarrow slithering down the embankment seems peculiar. Tesla wonders if she was subdued elsewhere?
“What kind of name is this?” asks Beales, wheezing as he bends, his guts emptying his face of color.
Something’s burned under the lettering. A decapitated I, a tailless, sad E, a broken A, the F forlorn, its head hanging low, another A as broken as the first. The name’s obscured, the painted letters truncated, hastily scratched out, obliterated letters that have become blanks, the splinters making kebabs of Beales’ puffy fingers.
“Fifteen letters across,” he says, “But I can’t really make them out.”
Beales shudders at the vision of the girl chipping away the letters in the struggle. Until she had no nails at all.
The neighboring boats are untouched, apparently up to code, paid up with the water authority, but for the breaches of public order, tubs of cannabis recklessly disguised among the gardens growing on their roofs. They’ll be cautioned for that.
Tesla shrugs, his shoulders clanking together. Probabilities tumble in his copper mind.
“Get forensics on her nails, Beales. There’s nothing in the grass or the water.” No more evidence had been disturbed from what is already extraordinary.
Beales turns from the wind and radios in his requests. His earpiece starts to rattle with code.
Tesla studies the boat again.
“Anyone go aboard?”
“That’s why I collected you, sir.”
Yes, that would explain: he’s hacked off at being disturbed from a very high home charge. “Well, give me my sticks then.”
Helped by the strong, rotund constable, Tesla goes aboard, avoiding the liver wobbling on deck.
It’s a very interesting narrowboat with a giant spoon for a rudder and a wineskin is tossed over the gunwales, cooling in the canal.
The scene’s quite tranquil, songbirds battling in the hedges and the chiming of sheep bells. Beales jots in his square black notebook.
“Did you read the mooring permit posted in the window, Beales?” asks Tesla.
“Expired three years, sir. So much for our policy of license or lose it.”
“I called it in, sir. Stultifera Navis is the name of our boat. Bequeathed to Master Moon, as it appears in the records of British Waterways at Gloucester.”
“Any idea what that means, Beales?”
“It’s a ship. A ship of fools.”
Beales doesn’t expect a compliment from his boss, rumored to be a robot, and stands clumsily on his feet, his pudgy ankles squeezed in his socks.
“Don’t diddle, boy. Take the initiative with the crusties. The lad too.”
Beales’ kit slaps against his vest as he slips along the towpath, swearing. It’s a stretch to the car and a thermos of tea.
Master Moon is wanted yet none of the misfits knows quite who Moon is.
Katarina’s swift, beautiful, irresistible and she’s fed up with the cranks on Pig Island.
Her oar dribbles over the black water. She can hear the bedlam of the camp roaring in the stillness, grabbing at the sky, guarding its wet patch of squatted land. The few who dare embrace the liquid logic of the fens find at their center Pig Island.
There’s no wire or watchtowers, just the threat of its remoteness.
Blooms of brown water swirl under the planks of her raft, overburdened with nervous cargo. Huddled together, the piglets anxiously watch the shore, their damaged, sore ears folded over their eyes, their livestock chips torn out and secure in Kat’s pocket.
Like her captives, she’s overly sensitive to noise, abrasions and manhandling. She’s difficult, too, oscillating between anger and impudence, rarely stopping to be sweet except when her erratic, shuttling temper is quelled by fatigue, hangover or sickness. That’s when people dare to love dear Kat.
“Don’t worry, kids,” she assures them. “Pig rescue’s my idea. Risked my life saving you lot. You’re lucky because we’re good-natured out here.”
Pig Island’s a quiet kind of civilization, as quiet as the electric breath of its windmills in theory. A home for abundant beans, squash and grains, tubers like gorgeous continents, orchards like paradise, fruit and vegetable scratched, waxy, rubbed, crisp and direct from the source. Delightful squeals echo around the barn and at a permissible distance, Pig Island’s stroke of genius, the belching methane collector.
She’s near now and a boy in a white smock strokes a one-stringed harp along the bank, another accompanies on a tambourine, and more clap.
Elegant but absurd, she thinks, like Brazilians doing polka.
Further down, a star-like array of people are passing Frisbee to one another. She pauses and watches the white airborne puck as smooth and assured as the sun.
How come they aren’t working?
She nods, acknowledging her responsibilities and theirs, nods to the areas of the camp beyond a motley ring of white diesel vans and living quarters.
Kat’s dry voice, put-out and dissatisfied, cuts through the humid air.
A boy, no shirt, no body hair, clad only in cut-offs, a knit vest and a tam scurries forth, his scabby feet biting at the dock. Marcus gracefully draws her in with a boat hook, greeting her.
“Hi Kat! We’ve a visitor.”
He’s shifty, some strange glossiness occupying his eyes, but she does like him as she takes his hand and leaps onto the rocking dock. After all, Marcus keeps the camp wired.
Then she realizes. She’s miscalculated.
There it is.
Almost ten meters. White on the whole. Stained with red Saharan dust. Camouflaged with bales of sisal and taffeta. An Ikarus bus airbrushed with a rainbow and clouds.
Momma Earth’s tour bus.
The ruts are on the beach.
The turtle has returned.
Katarina quibbles. What to say to Momma?
Her head brims with naughty thoughts. Momma probably lost the commune’s charter anyway, lost in her own pocket among the psychedelic spores, dogs’ teeth and dried heads of lizards, lost like the sickly joint sizzling in her scarf. Oh, Momma’s a walking dispensary of power and knowledge — or just plain delusion. Full of temerity and wit, her eyes sparkle toward the water.
She acknowledges that her untamed output is her main fault but that’s not really enough. Yes, it’s her, Kat, violent when unstitched, the very source of her own worry or pain, who sharply cuffs Marcus on the neck, her cruelty as permeable as her compassion.
She hisses. ”Shit, Marcus, why didn’t you call me?”
“Momma’s here and she’s wanting to see you,” he says, prepared to dodge another blow.
Kat releases the catch on the hurdles. The dock wobbles as the piglets charge for the camp, free from their stalls for the first time in their lives, trailing the scent of their comrades happily rooting about Pig Island.
She follows in their trail, triumphant energy in her step, unprepared to be shamed.
Ungainly, Momma Earth steps from the gate of her tour bus. She’s condensed, intense, short. Momma’s returned from her mission and her hair is shorn and dashed with gray. Her teeth jut oddly from her cracked lips. She tucks her copper hands stained with henna into the pockets of her fleece. Momma’s an implausible solid made of energy, gravity and light.
“Kaaaat!” she bellows, her voice booming over the marsh, waterfowl rising in the distance as the broad shockwave flattens the reeds.
Obstreperous, obdurate, as indestructible and replenishing as mud and straw, a goddess to be knocked down and built again and again, Momma beats her chest and stamps her staff around her feet, then squats on a golden stool.
“O, Momma!” Katarina dashes up the bank, gives Momma a hug, recoils at the acrid smell of sweat, open sewers and cooking fires, but continues anyway. Her final act is to bow deeply, kissing Momma’s grubby feet.
“How was Mali?” Katarina’s steadfast, unafraid to look into the woman’s sick, jaundiced eyes.
“Horrible,” Momma says. “Gut ache.” She burps.
“Sorry,” Katarina mumbles before she defers. “We’ve made Pig Island as you so wished.”
“Yes, I read the agitprop.” Momma taps the masthead of Pig Island Rescue poking from her cummerbund. She tosses her head. “Got rid of them beastly pigs?” She scratches her breasts hanging over her batik skirt. Her hemp tunic is greasy and curdled. Momma’s grotesque.
“Why no, Momma. We’ve more than ever before.”
“Good,” says Momma. “Your pigs have got to go. They’re pests! Fraud, Deception, Indolence. Sloth. Disdain. Gossip. Arrogance. Contempt. Pride. What kind of names are those, Kat? They’re the death of the fens! You’re taking them to Katowice tomorrow. I’m going to use the cash from those hogs and have myself a nice roast.” Momma slurs as she finishes, oscillating between tranquility and belligerence.
Katarina protests. “But I love those pigs and it’s a popular cause. Donations have been flooding to our blog.”
Momma’s eyes snap open. “Kat, I’m famished and I just might make a tasty sausage out of you if those pigs don’t float off.”
“Yes ma’am,” Katarina replies, looking into the frowning, leathery face of authority. She sweeps her arms across the threshold of the camp. “Ready for your chat?”
“Naturally,” says Momma. “I love to pep people up.”
| | | |
Kat strikes the bell at the community house and the campers gather at the long impromptu affair made of mattresses and timber. It’s lashed to a pontoon of garish oil drums and the camp’s flag unfurls above the rafters and plastic sheeting.
Inside, sitting neatly in rows, the kids are amused.
What the fuck’s food sovereignty?
Katarina hands Momma the microphone and their hands brush. She feels the deep surge of faithfully serving her mistress. Katarina pushes up the volume on the soundboard so the others can too.
The applause subsides.
The projector humming beside her, her thighs cocked, Momma stares at the crowd, of which there is a new tally of unfamiliar faces. She blocks out the grunts of the chefs in the kitchen wrestling with a cauldron of millet stew. Using her indispensable advice, Kat’s built quite a house. She’s chuffed.
The boom of a bittern breaks from the reeds before fading into the ribbits of the peepers. Then the silence grows more profound.
Momma steadies herself, pushes her free hand on her aching stomach. She’s seemingly unaware there are other guests in a crescent around her. She’s the muse of the revolution and indigestion is a reasonable price. Her smile is as radiant and refreshing as standing on the moon.
“Hello, my name is Momma Earth and today my message is one of inspiration so you can do what I did so long ago.”
Katarina cues the slide show.
“The Alps. Imagine them in the 1960s, before skiing was an industry. Cold. Snowy. Isolated. Backwards. Empty. Why?
“Well, we went there to find out, students and workers tired of the cities. We wanted land and we wanted to farm. So we squatted the empty places. We fixed them. Got some sheep. Then bees. After that, we traded milk and honey for what we needed.
“We helped one another. And soon we had far too many sheep. So we drove them to Vienna and sold them in the Naschmarkt. This was widely covered in the press.
“Traditions in Austria? Transhumance? In a modern state? Surely not. Then guess what? We were so popular with the government that it decided we didn’t have to pay tax.”
Katarina gasps along with the crowd. Poland didn’t work that way. No one was spared. Neither tax, ideology nor religion.
”This is what we’re going to do tomorrow. Not drive sheep, but pigs, Katarina’s pigs, our pigs. But what does that have to do with what I want to talk about today?”
“I went to Mali to discuss food and social justice, how local communities can control their resources. It’s a human right. You see, Africa can feed itself. We did and will continue to, too.”
Momma’s on a roll.
Katarina’s intrigued but an unexpected sense of bile and churlishness, rivalry really at the trump of Momma’s feel-good sermon, leads her to curtsy, smile sharply and excuse herself.
Outside on the deck is a broken fridge, a jar for contributions, beer and plastic demi-johns of red wine inside and on the door a notice: “Wash your own glass!”
Katarina unclips her nickel cup from her belt. She settles onto a beanbag on the veranda pleased by the fluttering semaphore of Pig Island: a hog, a barge, the planet and three stars.
It’s with a sense of anxiousness that she drifts asleep, her mind churning with a stew of questions and chores, her body lulled by the lulling motion and resonating approvals emanating from the community house. And the delicious sound of her grazing pigs.
If Africa can feed itself, what about Poland?
Yes, Poland’s stuck on a ladder and Katarina’s holding her up.
O Momma Earth
Sweating, digging, stomping in a musical sauerkraut of polka and fandango, Marcus chants an inarticulate mash of words, neither Spanish nor Polish but possibly Basque. His djembe carries a deep liquid pulse and the camp band’s cooking. Less assured drummers surround Marcus, keeping time, time that means far less than the cacophony that mutates into a hiccupping percussive blur. Fiddles, guitars and a hillbilly bass contribute to the jam without key or measure. Sometimes it works and they’re lifted from their feet, drunk on boza, a primitive Balkan mead of salty fermented wheat, dancing to the chorus of Hit Me One More Time.
“Come, Kat,” Momma says.
The girl’s groggy.
Momma dons a translucent gown woven from ribbons of plastic pouches of milk and tobacco. She dashes her neckerchief with a vial of rosemary oil, tucks a sickle into her tunic, then wedges a black inner tube round her belly. As a last touch, she tucks a vanity mirror in her headband. She takes in her charge, breathing nervously.
She binds Kat’s hands, pulls down her suspenders and yanks down her top, exposing her hard, banana-like breasts to the onlookers who have come, expectant and feverish, knowing and wanting whatever will be asked.
Together, they wade into the water, crisp, cold.
“Don’t be too ashamed or proud,” whispers Momma, “to confess.”
Katarina’s grateful. She’s too slack to be overly devoted. As alpha as she is, she needs to be led part of the time.
Conjuring the mumbo-jumbo of creation, Momma challenges the black waters, lifting her arms high. The band and dancers have migrated to the safety of the beach. They’re somber, baptismal, chanting. The tempo slows down to a light, echoing, expectant pulse.
What’s sustainable and efficient.
What’s good for Momma Earth.
Momma steps deeper, nearly aloft in her rubber ring, and the oily black water boils with eels.
What’s right and proper.
What’s good for Momma.
Katarina tremors as she grips Momma’s hand and mimes. It’s wonderful having no choice, just hunger.
“Right and proper,” she says.
“Momma,” she says.
She joins the litany, some people gathering in the water, speaking now with neither rhythm nor guide, the butter of confession spreading onto their tongues given momentousness.
Child of Momma Earth.
Bug-eyed, her face leaden with panic, Kat kneels deeper into the water lapping around her groin. She’s bobbing in Momma’s hands, then she’s dunked below, into her regrets.
She only joined Pig Island on a lark. Well, she permits, with a promise to keep her fortune and reputation intact and in the past. So what if she became the boss, it suits her. Yes, she’s lean and solid, built of soldiers and rapine and booty, with a bold braless chest, a sex as black and evasive as a skunk and muscles of ship’s steel sewn over with velvet. She’s a catch and, unfortunately, she knows it. That’s what Kat fears. That’s why she’s excessive. Because anything that touches her may damage her, including the cold black water wicking into her, her modesty compromised, her convenient remedy of anger not in reach.
Carp boldly emerge from the reeds to tickle and kiss her legs, the garbage collectors who keep the water sweet.
Enchanted, her mind glows with the realization that enlightenment is inexplicability and immediateness.
Can she shed the burden of being Katarina Sobieska, her ancestors bunched up in her shoulders and living in her hips? The same Katarina who arrived in the camp? Who sold her horse, Jan for a pocketful of zloty to a Ruthenian with a shock of white hair, and only now, underwater, does she feel any remorse. The very Katarina who torched her own Landrover and trailer in a fit of acute global rage.
“O Jan, my dear, help!” she cries, her lungs filling with water, minnows and twigs. “I’m making glue and I want my new moniker to stick!”
Malarkey, she concludes, it’s simply too much to accomplish in a lifetime. Sheer delirium.
Katarina dreams of sixes, carbons hanging in chains from her waists, a skirt of snogging shapes, smooching sausages, canoodling croissants, loving Cs, sixes. The carp curl against her legs engulfed in algae and mud. Utterly confident, even as her limbs tauten, she’s too rash to notice the error of her rush to power. Katarina hasn’t quite mastered the trick to bypass the barriers that might not necessarily be there. A misfit, she’s made of turmoil, not peace, even at this baptism.
Pried to the surface of the water smelling strongly of gin, recognized yet unrecognizable, bearded, dreaded, smothered in duckweed, Katarina’s tongued by Momma Earth. Pushed into one of Momma’s white veiny breasts, she obediently suckles the gigantic bristled nipple shoved into her mouth. It’s black and tastes like buttermilk and bran.
Hooded, Momma beckons, grimaces, pleased to feed her latest lieutenant and the followers of her newest Rome.
Pig Island is dressed in a golden light. The woods sigh in melancholy breaths.
Her feet planted in the soft cool earth, Katarina hums to the ancient humors as the sun slides through the canopy. It’s bittersweet. Momma’s gone. The pigs are dead. The drums look blue. The tools are dull. Even the wind has abandoned its erratic energy making. She shrugs. Katarina misses the petulant troll, and left without instructions, she’s well and truly in charge.
Oh, she’s their beacon of light and everyone basks in the fecundity of her attitude. They want a leader and the quorum: let Katarina rule.
She winces but she’s secretly exhilarated.
What a promotion. From swineherd to head butcher!
She’s got the knack whether they like it or not. With a quiver of notebooks filling her tarp bag sewn from a Nestle hoarding, regarded with secret and special pleasure, learning on the fly, she thrives, effortlessly hijacking the permaculture workshop into a talk about human rights and human wrongs.
“If you give everybody rights, then no one has rights,” Kat declares. It’s anathema, yet it resonates superbly with the workshoppers. She’s their chief nabob and her job is to state the obvious. Sprocketheads like Marcus will figure out what she needs when they’re not smoking salvia extract or on a Freegan expedition to Katowice for more network routers.
They egg her on and she doesn’t hesitate: it’s a fantastic speech and her advantage to preach to the real livers of radical lifestyles.
“Democracy’s implementation of your rights over someone else’s. That’s pathology, fascism really, because if you’re undefined as a class, you can’t have rights. And people won’t accept anything that isn’t generic and classified according to a type. And classification is imprisonment!”
They see her potential, isolated as they are, a colony of cranks, mad as loons, believing they can stick an oar in the river of the global economy from the watery hinterland outside Katowice.
“Double-edged, yeah? Rights don’t give you democracy, they give you rights over other people who don’t have any.”
Yes, as the applause subsides the campers realize what they have been yearning: a new political messiah. They flush with joy that they’ve chosen.
The computer lab consists of a few sad, hardly operable carcasses, but there’s a backlog of incoming chats and opportunities within the rapidly moving, fragmented matrix of information and personnel supporting movements like Pig Island.
Would you like to hitchhike to Barcelona?
No, boycotting road transport this month in honor of transhumance.
How about the campaign to save Transylvanian wolves?
We’re local. Bring wolves to Poland.
Will you trade pigs for apples?
Schweine über alles. Alles kaputt.
Any free places at Pig Island?
Next season. Waiting till Momma goes.
Did you hear Tesco’s building four big boxes in Katowice?
Yes, we’re going. We bought the gas masks and goggles.
Exit or activate?
Good question. What’s farming?
Marcus’s got a crush on you, Katica.
Like any man, only when I’m sick.
Romance doesn’t stop her. Marcus isn’t her type. No, she’s rough and tough. No, she wants a big protective fellow with a beautiful face from a good family. Or does she? Marcus is quite charming, in his way, if it weren’t for insisting on shedding his underwear to prove to her that his crudité diet is working, that’s he has not even a whiff of body odor.
Kat pounds her answers back, the table drumming with the racket of her typing, avoiding the nagging question of the Pig Island Blog.
It’s a quandary. The pigs are dead but the donations are gushing in. She’s loath to stop, even if it’s unjust to skim off the Polish public and take advantage of their support for the cause of heirloom swine. But her stock of photos is dwindling, she’s running out of what to make up about Fraud’s piglets or Deception’s gammy leg or Contempt’s attempts to mate with Blasphemy or Indolence’s sore jaw, possibly from a tusking competition with young Pride, and poor Intemperance who has run off. She doesn’t have the gall to announce the end a vital source of revenue.
She sighs. She’s bungled it. Her ethics are stopping her from more fabricated days in the pigpen. It’s a reckoning. The camp’s far more than she bargained, an infant without need of sleep and she its young mother. To make matters worse, she has nothing comparable to Momma’s authority over the laboratory. Young, pretty, she can’t control everything with threats like Momma Earth. No, she’s got a different leadership style and posture, cooperation not coercion. And, yes, that’s prone to failure as her moral authority devolves in the egalitarian atmosphere of the wanton camp, its overwhelming success an unreal midden of tins, bottles, condoms and wrappers secreted along the bank.
And the fights and fires at night.
She’s on the tipping point when Marcus, for once indispensable, appears in the computer lab. A solder gun and cables in one hand, balancing an errant satellite decoder in the other, Marcus says in his elfin voice. “Ignore the urgent stuff, Kat. Do the important stuff first.”
“Hah!” she snorts. Pig Island is perpetual work in motion: new shelters to be cleaved from sea containers, removal of the engine from a barge, a new summer kitchen, the listing community center, the perpetual struggle with the garden, the trouble with the seed bank, the stolen solar panels, sustainability and sufficiency nearly impossible if humans are involved. As she retires, she admits Marcus’s right. She needs a plan.
It’s her tent she regards with special skepticism. Just a cape of blue and white batik separates her space from buckwheat farts, patchouli-scented offerings to the gods of sex, and the hocus-pocus of global warming.
God made them of granola and little else.
Nearly every morning she wakes with zeal. Her heart spills with love for the grace and beauty of Pig Island. Her woes are forgotten, the only way they could be, due to the state of the camp. Just looking at it rapidly saps what vigor she possesses.
She’s lackluster, exhausted and she seeks the loobray for solace. There’s a nice view of utopia — compost toilet, fresh screed, door open, room to read — the refreshing, personal repose Katarina esteems. She browses through the stock, her fingers tumbling if by chance onto the ragged spine of Seymour’s Self-Sufficiency. Reading over his illustrated manifest, Katarina wonders long and hard what direct action means aside from burdock wine or peafowl. Happiness? For a moment, she accepts it’s a silly crisis and steels herself with a reminder of history.
Each and every Sobieski is a patriot! Polish destiny is European destiny. If Dear Uncle Jan had not saved Vienna, Europe would be the Turks!
She knows to play that down in public.
Polish history has caused the house of Sobieski enough headaches.
She smirks, thinking of her predicament: to farm or not to farm, to take up the mantle of stewardship Seymour started or to agitate and turn Pig Island into a real, functioning charity?
It’s her salty bingo moment, exit as activism.
She’s not indispensable.
There’s no leader.
Of this camp.
Of this country.
Of this continent.
Of this world.
Of this world.
Yes, there’s no need to molder in camp!
No need to guard ospreys near Kaliningrad.
No need to glue herself to the Jewish quarter in Bialystok.
No need to petition the courts to protect Polish bison.
No detours to Romania to chain herself to the Carpathians in the path of an EU superhighway or return the Danube to its ancient delta.
Yes, there’s some pride, too, like the thrill of sabotage in the garage of Warsaw’s parliamentary carpool. How could her ex-boyfriend, deputy minister of development, not miss her? Deity and medusa, wearing a white cross, holding a funnel and bag of sugar in her war-like hands, thumbing her nose at the Sejm, unraveling a banner that exclaims: Fuck the dogma of perpetual growth, save some leftovers for later!
But having made a Gandhi-like menace of herself, she’s taking a sabbatical.
From the camp’s rum reaction, they’re not too upset: that radical crusading bitch will be gone.
Civilization is sordid. It takes her in under a quarter hour.
She buckles at the bus station in Katowice. Having quaffed the last of a flask of homemade summer-apple juice, she admits, Coke’s great.
Kat vanishes into the belly of the Euroliner to London.
A nauseous loop of onboard TV does nothing to allay her alarm: billboards clutter the countryside, malls and petrol stations hunker along the artery west, factories manufacturing non-stop, thanks to the Polish elbow.
And it isn’t only Poland.
Germany is brimming with people and their junk, too!
Umbrellas of light protect the cities, banishing the primacy of darkness to which she’s accustomed: the wonder of the heavens and earth’s place in it. Mesmerized by the restless autobahn, she wonders how elaborate social controls like architecture, law and media allow people to think this is right, proper, fun or sustainable. How did they manage with so many lies?
Tonight is no different as Katarina crashes asleep full of unanswered questions. But her sleep is shallow, her head resonating against the tinted window of the bus sliding past the old mercantile towns of the Hanseatic League.
The Channel’s congested with shipping and smog.
She’s revolted by the glittering duty-free and betting lounges on the ferry. A deep funk settles over her mood. From the upper deck the sea looks sick and chemical. How she yearns to turn off the taps of the world economy!
Kat’s soon bearing down on Leviathan and she’s thrilled, so much so she fumbles a sketch in her recycled notebook, torn from her hands by the infernal gusts and soon tumbling into the ferry’s blue singing bubbly wake.
England looms into view against the oaten sky and ashen cliffs.
She doesn’t detect anything irregular or ill-advised. Other than the pong of vinegar and ale rising from its shores.
Katarina thumbs the documents in her fanny pack as the Euroliner rolls onto the quay. Her vanity’s unsettled by the Katarina Sobieska in her passport. How she’s matured: a sun-ripened face lost in a nest of dreads, prim clothes replaced by rustic wools and rain gear, her color natural, her emotions adult, yet her pose up-yours.
She also spots the plastic cards and wonders: how much is left?
How easy would it be to resume?
But she’s steadfast. She’s made her choices and she doesn’t want to go back. Like any Pole, Katarina has arrived in England for a gig: seasonal labor.
Robert Pickle is ruddy yet handsome and smells like wool, milk and what she thinks to be cannabis.
She nods at the recycling containers judiciously placed through the farming town of Hereford, odiferous of manure, hairspray and cider.
He’d buy a round of Snakebites but he’s driving.
Nice bird, he thinks, nothing like that slapper in Prague. He looks at her confidently, impressed by the young woman’s physique.
“Czech?” he asks.
Katarina vigorously shakes her head. “Polish,” she says. She pinches her face, insulted.
They pass along tight, dark, twisty lanes lashed with branches.
“Oh, we’ve got loads of Czechs at Pickle Farm,” he says, “You’re bound to get along!”
She shivers. Those slaves who bowed to the Germans, Hungarians and Russians? Yuck!
“But Mr. Pickle, I hoped to improve my English,” she protests.
“Dickens made hops popular once, love. By now the working class got cheap flights. Call it what you will, seasonal labor or cash work, the farm couldn’t survive without the likes of you.”
Katarina marvels at the Tudor villages and verge, green and remarkably plastic free. But she’s nearly ill by the time the Landrover finishes the last turn, gears over the hummock, rattles over the cattle grate, brakes at the apple orchard and soon parks.
Her sandal crunches into the gravel of the yard. The masonry is dotted with colonies of ferns.
“This’ll be you,” Robert says, one hip dipping unequally as he escorts her to the stone pig barn. Concrete stalls divide it into a rough and tumble dormitory for a group of long-faced wet Czechs.
She groans in alarm, nearly a whinny.
Pickle Farm is Pig Island all over!
Rather than be difficult, she greets them, but her tone is wrong, high and impeaching. They frown back, condemning the Pole who is flushing scarlet with rage or embarrassment.
What’s she on about?
Doesn’t she know it’s bloody hard work?
They revert to chitchat in English. No one wants to acknowledge they speak two almost identical languages, Czech and Polish, at least admit while sober, certainly not standing in sweaty wellies in charity shop threads reeking of damp and snails. They offer her some sausages hanging from the rafters and tins of Czech pork stew strewn around a hotplate, but Katarina turns up her nose.
Where are the chard pizza and sorghum custard she loves?
They want to sleep and she wants to marvel. Katarina wanders off into the warm, pagan light. She’s thrilled to be alone and can’t face communal living so suddenly. She spies the hay ricks and plans, if need be, to make a nest. But at present Katarina rests on a piece of cardboard on the hillock, the brittle air of autumn enveloping the land, and gazes at the darkening sky. For so compact a country, pockets of it could be very wild.
Meditating, transfixed for hours, the stars her ensigns, wrapping herself in a sanctuary of white light, she’s disturbed when the valley shakes violently. She draws herself together and blinks. Against the sky is an unkempt shape that’s rooting up oaks and eating shovelfuls of earth at the edge of the woods. A peel of malevolent laughter rolls down the valley. The aroma of donkeys and vomit coarsens the breeze.
A light goes on in the farmhouse.
Then in the yard.
Unafraid, it’s coming closer.
Katarina dips on her belly among the tussocks of meadow herbs and swims into the ground.
The shape passes. Fringed with hair, it has another one on its back.
And her baby!
She’s jumbo, tipping cows and squirting them in her juvenile’s mouth.
A bell clangs in the yard.
Mega doesn’t like the sound of the bell..
“Mwa,” she cries, slinging the baby over her back, leaping from the meadow, stampeding through the hops, parting the woods like the sea, gone. From the distance echoes a ginormous roar.
The cobalt gradient of dawn slides into the black sky, wiping away the intimacy of the heavens as the birds begin their aural war.
The lights flicker in the pig barn.
Up now, her body cold and wet, she’s satisfied and amazed. England’s magic, but for the itchy bed of dried meadow flowers and hay that are her resting place.
She confronts Robert in the farmyard an hour later.
He’s reasonable and denies everything. “If you’re missing home, you can stay in the house. My wife’ll make a room for you upstairs. No point in being unhappy.”
He sums it up precisely: no point in being unhappy.
That’s so English, so not Polish.
That’s Central Europe’s lot: unhappy.
From that morning on, she has no meaningful contact with the Czechs.
“How about the tour?” she asks Robert.
“In a mo’,” he says, occupied by Nancy and the book-keeping balanced on the kitchen table.
“I can do that,” she says, nodding at the lines of figures squiggling down the ledgers.
“Can you?” he asks.
“Yes, I was the project manager of Pig Island.”
“It’s in Poland. We rescued pigs.”
“Well, we haven’t got pigs anymore,” interrupts Nancy, cagey around the girl and her impudence to camp in the farmhouse. Who’s she after?
“Just Czechs,” says Katarina, smiling at Nancy, clearly the realist ensuring the survival of the farm, silence following the quick verbal bout for house and territory.
“Everyone alright?” asks Robert in the interlude, the wood stove hissing, the remains of a fry up in the sink. He’s well looked after.
Later, invigorated by a pot of Yorkshire gold, pointing from the Landrover, Robert shows her the Herefords in their mottled jackets of red and white. “We’ll be eating that one,” he says, nodding at a young bull. “And that one, too.”
Katarina clucks at the small herd. They’re wary and won’t abide petting. She’s secretly alarmed by the state of her husbandry.
The intoxicating smell of resin reaches her before they gain the top of the knoll and gear down the slick path.
A tractor moves along the furrows, steadily sliding underneath the sloping wirework. Riding on the trailer, cocooned in waterproofs, the Czechs slash down the bines, stripping the tangle from the wirework and poles, piling them at their feet, working in an organized mosh, until an empty trailer is available for them to begin again. The men are ruthless, efficient, never tire or fail.
Katarina appreciates the delicacy of the operation from the comfort of the Landrover for a few minutes as Robert marches out into the mud and detritus to give orders.
“Color in ‘em,” says Robert, looking with pride into his creased, red hand at the pyramids of bright green flowers free from disease or mold. “Let’s see that thresher, shall we?”
They gear over the hump and turn off and park at the modern barn. The machinery is clamoring and fills the air with the roar of its labor. The women tend to the bines, loading them into the thresher. The pungent green cones are plucked and bagged at the other end. She’s horrified at the noise but has to admit the practicality of diesel-fired help.
“You’re with me,” he says. “Looks like you can take the work.”
And she could.
The sacks arrive at the barn every half hour on a teetering wagon. She follows Robert’s example, loosens the burlap bag, hoists one on her shoulder in one swift movement. Once inside she thumps it down her front and unleashes a bright green cascade of hops onto the webbing, slowly filling the drying rooms waist high. The smell is overpowering, narcotic, but she adapts to the pleasure of wading in blooms day after day, her femininity awake, alight in the warm barn.
“The freedom’s inside,” she thinks, looking at the aromatic ocean of flakes that needs emptying, tidying, sweeping up before a new wave.
Her overactive mind is muted, no longer overflowing with actions, lists, thoughts or insults when her body has labored to its ultimate end, if it were not for a nagging sense and bewilderment about the whereabouts of the giant and her baby that leads her on a few late night stakeouts in the orchard that have yielded no trace but the cold. She consigns the sighting to her fatigue and the long personal journey from Pig Island to Pickle Farm, the toll of the sacred in every day.
“It’s not what you do, but who you are,” she mutters, trying to reassure herself, given wholly to her task: the barn.
She’s got help, an old man with a jutting hernia, fetched from a cottage on the farm and who answers to the name of Earn when she shouts loud enough.
She grasps her wooden shovel and pushes it against the fragrant and fragile, dry now, slick with pollen and waxy oils that rustle through a chute in the floor into a large plastic burlap tube — a pocket it’s called, according to Earn who runs the press.
Katarina sews up the pockets down below, numbers them, wrestles them on the scales, the weight rarely differing.
“Color in ‘em,” says Robert.
“Aye, color in ‘em,” Earn says, repeating Robert, not remembering whose father was first to coin their mantra.
Katarina’s allowed a puff when Robert turns on the blower.
Hair receding, bronze, full of responsibilities, owner, boss and foreman, Robert Pickle is a hunk and his beauty inspires her. And she’s grown fitter on a diet of beef and spuds under Nancy’s gaze, watching for signs of affection or flirting.
”This farm,” she says, “this sweet, simple exit is wickedly better than sabotaging the world economy.”
Robert looks at her askance, looks at his cup of sweet milky tea and his bit of sausage sandwich, stalls, doesn’t quite know what to add. “Dreaming will do your head in, Katarina.”
“I’m blessed,” she says. For once in her life, Katarina is grateful but it’s coming to an end, the autumn detected in the easy yet quick slope of light warming the barn. Even a giant couldn’t provoke too lengthy a spell of appreciation, before Katarina found something about which to complain or attack.
“The Czechs have finished the hops. Apples are next, then cabbages, kale or daffodils,” Robert says. “You’ll join me for a pound a pint?”
If not sex, then alcohol, he reasons.
“”You’ll come to the Hop Pole tonight?”
“Of course,” she says.
A sturdy bar runs along one wall and train seats prop up the rest. It smells vile, of sweat and tobacco, alcohol and Vince, complaining richly, spittle in his large white beard that reaches to his vest.
The cider hisses from the spigot into the grubby glasses.
“Where you knocking about to next, Kat?” Robert asks. “Now that you’re drinking cider.”
He automatically crumbles some flakes in his hand, then sniffs. Hops are his being: ultimate and actual. He’s sad that she’s going. He had worried at first, but she exudes such confidence by now. Kat had excelled. Robert couldn’t farm without people who could work that long and that hard, and for that he would reward her handsomely.
“I want to get off the grid,” she says “On a boat,” she adds as an afterthought, as if water is her natural ally.
“Sounds like you’ll need someone to warm you up this winter,” Robert replies, a faint warbling crush in his voice, nothing that he would dare to declare. Oh, she’s a sublime mixture, rude when polite, beautiful when ragged, surely made of coal and steel as much as flesh and blood. He relishes thinking about exploiting the tension between them, dancing on the edge of temptation. But Kat’s neutral, without commitment or purpose when it comes to Robert. Her mind’s moving onto other plaudits and she’s not one to be attached or wanted.
The red pennant lashes in the wind. A young oak has been erected, a mast, held in place with twists of baling wire. From its roots dangles a stomach, punctured by several bite marks. In the canopy is a coarse black woolly mask. Underneath is a faggot of branches tied with wheat. Tesla squints at its center: a package wrapped in nightshade and nettle. Inside, the arteries and coiled accordion of the esophagus. There he knows, her heart.
Tesla hurries to the cabin, His rubber-knobbed sticks pock on the deck. His way is blocked by a cask. He struggles to vault it and wiggle down below.
The interior is milky and white. A mandolin and staff at one end. Bare, except for a kettle on the side of the iron stove and a jug of cold oregano tea. On a table he finds a pewter flask, a plate of rosehips and onion sprouts. He casts his eyes over the swaying bed.
There, snoring, is a man.
“Mister Moon?” Tesla asks in his sternest analog.
“Master,” Moon says as he wipes the saliva from his beard and raises his head from his spit-soaked pillow. He’s wearing a long tunic. “What’s that racket? Of whom do I have the pleasure of receiving?”
“Detective Nick Tesla,” he says with authority.
“Of forensics, indeed, Master Moon.”
“Wicked,” says Moon, who takes in the automaton before him, a skin of wire, weights, pulleys, and linotype wearing a tin Mac, with an off-pitch voice and calipers for jaws.
“Your whereabouts last night, Master Moon?”
“Got mashed, read some Dampier and kipped out.” He smells like rum and resin.
“So what did you see or hear?”
“Can anyone confirm your alibi?”
“Maybe the neighbors? Try Des.”
“Help me, Moon.”
“A girl lies dead alongside your boat and her heart is tied to your oak mast.”
“You do have a mast on Stultifera Navis?”
“Only for the turbine. It’s collapsible. Fools wouldn’t fit under the bridges with a mast.”
“Got a wheelbarrow?”
“No, just a trailer for my bike. That’s Des. Des likes chopping wood. And Kat. But she’s gone. Left a long time ago.”
Moon lifts his hemp smock and aims at the pot next to the bed. Moon was beyond measures like manners, race, money or class. He’s just Moon, skimming above the surface, observer, mirror and more.
“Strife among you lot?”
“What lot?” Moon took umbrage; they weren’t all dropouts. In fact, some of them had quite a pedigree, smithed from rugby and safaris, made wealthy with sugar and slaves.
“Is it nice living off the grid, Moon?”
“Most days, yes.”
“Someone was angry, Moon.”
“You tell me, Marlowe.”
“You like crime, Moon?”
“I’m new to Gothic Dada.”
“Why the cask?”
“Foxes after my kitchen.”
“And the skin overboard?”
“Keeps the cider cool.”
“Full of answers aren’t you, Moon?”
“And you questions, detective.”
“This your boat?”
“Would you come with me?”
Moon groans. He’s been done before for GBH. Moon inevitably slips on his sheepskin boots and follows Tesla’s hurdling figure. He doesn’t walk as so much as de- and re-materialize in frames, a hologram, at least to Moon’s scattered leftovers of a brain.
Topsides, they’re pelted by jots of slush.
“What’s this revolting thing?”
“A liver,” Tesla says. “It belonged to our victim, Moon, and for your sake I hope it’s not your palm prints round her thorax. You see?”
Inspector Tesla extends his arm, flexes the junky conurbation of its length and points with gravitas at the remains. Moon follows the action of Tesla’s arm and chokes.
“And that’s her heart.” Tesla’s arm the points to the ominous pennant and the faggot nimbly bound to the leafy mast.
A gusher of vomit gathers in Moon’s throat and he leans overboard. Tears streak down his eyes. He tremors in his smock.
“Beales,” Tesla calls. “Fetch the swabs. He might have eaten some of her.”
“No,” Moon cries, “No, it’s not true.” Moon wipes his jaw, shakes the sick from his hand. “It’s Kat, Katarina. Don’t you know, you cunt. It’s her teeth. The big ones, twisted in their centers, with those gaps. I’ve snogged with those ivories.”
Moon reaches for his wineskin cooling overboard. But what pours from its mouth is not bubbly and amber like cider but as thick and congealed as blood.
Tesla smiles at Beales who swabs the rivulets of sick.
Moon drops the skin and dances in short sharp steps, ripping knots of his hair, pushing at the oak mast, the craft rocking. Moon smears the liquid on his gray smock, nearly slipping, spitting overboard, the wind pushing the fabric between his legs.
“No, no, no.” How he despairs.
“How come, Moon?” asks Tesla.
It tastes like her. Like cabbage, pork and rust.
“Yes,” Moon says, a giant hiccup of emotion shaking his body. “Come below and I’ll tell you.”
Tesla, Beales and Moon are clustered together in the galley. Moon’s recomposed. Through the portholes they can see the bagging operation. Gruesome.
“Engine trouble,” Moon says. “That’s how I met Katarina Sobieska. On Thatcher, her boat, a rental.”
“We know that bit. Where’s Thatcher now, Moon?”
“How should I know? Katarina quit the canal, I think. At least this stretch.”
“She’s your lover?”
“Yeah, scads of rude texts.”
“Maybe she loved you and that’s why she sent you such messages? To provoke you?”
“Yes, she did and she’s very good at insulting people to get their love. She’s insecure about where she’s from, I guess.”
“Nice go. A princess from Poland.”
“What’s she like?”
“Wild, evasive, I don’t know really. Like a saint, an angry one, not like me but like me, so we fit.”
Beales butts in. “Moon, there’s one thing. You don’t ever not know when interviewing with Detective Tesla.”
“And to know not?” Moon pauses. It’s a fatal flaw of Moon’s, jokes in the wrong places.
“We played games. I’m Moon or Heathcliff or Frank Bacardi if I must be. Katarina called herself Kat most of the time, that was exciting enough. She said she had a guru in Poland, at a place called Pig Island, said she wanted to cross the channel in her boat. Mad. Sure, I like a bit of tree hugging and indignation but Katarina, she’s utter nutter. Me, I’m easy come, easy go.”
Beales interrupts. “So who killed her, Moon? You?”
Tesla mutters, crossly. Beales’s impatience could jeopardize everything.
Moon nods sadly as the blue bag is lifted onto a gurney, one wheel wagging erratically as it heads down the towpath, together with a barrow of evidence, the commodore for her soul, ions in the overworld mankind has imagined as the resting place for the soul, no longer flesh in the world she has made, returning to what she was given.
If only Moon could remember Dub night, he’d feel much better.
Katarina Sobieska scans the board in the foyer of Roots co-op. She’s encouraged: fliers for shiatsu, pet yoga, reiki, geothermal heating, recumbents and what she has in mind: an address of her own. Sort of. She pushes aside the card for drama therapy and then her finger stops on a worn but clear announcement. She saves the number, then dials.
“Ms. Emily Gross of Garden Teas?” She clamps the battered Nokia to her ear. Her jacket smells like hops. Seasonal pay rides in her breast pocket. Her plan to forego the family fortune has worked so far. Yes, it’s teenage idealism, radical childishness, that has cut her off.
“My name’s Katarina Sobieska, Kat if you like. Is Thatcher still to let?”
“Yes, that’s my boat,” she replies in a cautious tone.
“Can I see her?” Katarina kneads her feet into the matrix of industrial floor, shifts the backpack on her shoulder.
“You’re a nonsmoker? Can’t abide smokers.”
“Half four, then, the marina at Monkton Combe.” Need a lift?”
“Oh please,” she said, all breathy excitement. The English could be so cordial.
“Right, outside Golden Plaice on London Road. I’ll collect you. Lilac Prius. I’ll toot. Tah.”
Unsure of what to do in the interlude, Katarina meanders down Walcot, Bath’s anti-consumer street, cellars for reclamation and upholstery on its hill and a medley of charity shops and boutiques hugging the pavement. It’s not as charming and innocuous as she would guess: the flagstones are blotched with the remains of the weekend horde: onion bhagee, Schwartzburgers, organic ale, gum, pharmaceuticals, vinegar, tobacco, plasma.
Undeterred, she ducks into the Bell, hunkered against the main road. It’s snug, homely and a bit raw, what a pub should be, furls of hops and streamers hanging from the ceiling. She chucks her bag under the long bar studded with taps and a gathering of the two o’clock riff-raff with odd haircuts, in the background the clink of billiard balls and good-natured taunts. Her dreads fall in a lusty knot from the crown of her head as she studies the list of guest ales.
“Half of figgy pudding,” she says to the barkeep, a girl with a pierced lip and a steep cleavage that smells of men. “Internet on, yeah?”
The girl nods at the computer mounted in the corner.
Kat quickly logs in and pings her friends.
No one’s online.
What a pity.
Probably off the grid, too.
Or locked up.
She rolls up the shredded sleeves of her plaid jacket and runs her finger down the side of the glass of black ale. Even an extrovert like her would tire of the leers, so she slips off her stool and exits the Bell’s back door that opens into a covered enclosure.
A motley collection of youth is swaying around the picnic tables. Plumes of smoke issue from the glue of their mouths. Wraps of cannabis and resin are spread casually around their broken fingertips. It’s disconcerting; they’re so inwardly cool and individual, so against the collective, order and rankings. Someone’s always rolling spliffs and the kids are chopping and pasting their speech. Yet they can’t seize all the space: wrapped in blankets, stretched across a row of tables, boards buckling under the weight, feet protruding into the bike parking on the drive, is a giant.
“Who’s that big chap sleeping rough?” Kat asks.
A glowering boy with mini-mohawks carved from eyes to ears answers. “She’s Mega and she’s a giant.” Chains rattle around his waist as Asbo shifts from taped boot to taped boot. Bitter sloshes from his glass onto his tattooed hand.
Asbo draws back the blankets. She’s dressed in a calico of rags and hand-me-downs. “Look at the size of her!”
“Amazing,” says Katarina, not disclosing the sense of thrilled discovery in her voice.
How come giants are thriving on a diet of booze, curry and chips in England? Why doesn’t Poland have any? Did the Polish Nazis exterminate them all?
Giant rescue, she concludes, what a great campaign! What a way to mobilize the public!
“She’s gonna have a baby, too. Moon got her up the duff.” Asbo’s voice sounds like ground bottles. “Dirty girl.”
“I saw one with a baby in Herefordshire. Could she the same?”
Asbo emits a short, sharp snort, shakes his head. “Druids brought her from Chew. Harassing sheep. So she kips here. We’re waiting for her to wake up so we can score. Mega’s the man.”
“Mwa,” Mega growls, “Mwa lotta gru mwara. Urp. Tenty?”
Asbo hands her a wilted tenner and he gets a little stamp of nothing in exchange.
“Tenty!” she says.
Asbo jabs at her with a shav he’s pulled from his boot. His mini-mohawks shake like worms. “Have a go!” he shouts, his eyes vibrating threateningly under his brow.
“Oi, respect, Asbo!” yells the rabble.
“Yeah, respect,” Katarina whispers.
Asbo feints, lunges to glass Mega with the pint glass he’s broken in the other hand.
Mega’s not going to get rolled.
She catches Asbo’s hand, holds it like a paw and simply squeezes.
Asbo’s face minces together and he whines like what he is, dog and baby.
“Mega!” the kids shout.
Mega stands, releases Asbo who falls onto the concrete like a doll. Her head inadvertently tears through the tarp protecting the back area. A great streak of menstrual-colored hair runs though her matted locks. She smells little worse than straw or dung. Her face is puffy and welted. She’s been rounded on, not only by the likes of Asbo.
“Mwa,” she says, scratching herself, guarding her belly, studying the bullies, her customers.
Slung round her waist is a bolt of carpet, in its center, a baby.
“Aw, Mega, I’m going to get help,” says Katarina. She likes lost causes. It’s a pleasure. That’s why she’s come. Like the English, she adores a good loss, too.
“Mwa,” cries Mega, one tragic public act of defiance from sectioning, one reversal of circumstance away from prison, quite beyond the regenerative elixirs of the local social services office, destroyed in person numerous times.
Mega, careless, reckless and lost.
Mega, poor, homeless, dyslexic.
Mega, expecting, single mum, on benefits, taking cash work when she’s not too whacked.
Mega, torn by an ancient thirst and hunger, rubbed by a violent temper, made of abundant strength, governed by hasty emotions, hemmed in by motorways and aqueducts, a cauldron boiling in an open hearth.
Yet, resourceful, cunning, Mega’s survived!
“Don’t worry, love,” says Kat. “You’ll love Poland. Your family too. But first I got to find us a place.” Oh, Katarina’s generous to a fault.
If not pigs, why not giants?
She’s satisfied with her courage as she reaches to touch her new friend.
Mega swipes her hand away.
“You’ll regret that,” Kat adds. “You don’t know what I’m capable of. I’ll be back in a tick.”
Thatcher is a perfect match. She’s a jaunty weathered blue, free from muddy scuffs and rope, a neat quad of flowers planted on her roof and a mossy log casually placed there for company.
“Just the right type,” says Ms. Emily Gross, adamant yet ambivalent in the saloon, yanking an argyle and lace curtain over the window. Everything and everyone’s comfy and at hand. “The open space tends to enforce some tidiness,” she says, a tinge of hysteria in her voice prone to runs of nonsensical cackling and hiccups.
Kat plumps her cushion on the sofa. She huffs, satisfied to be off the grid again, back to generators, batteries and wood. It looks very doable, not too overindulgent, neither too long nor wide, traditional in berth and beam, perfect for a novice, as Ms. Gross has insisted while brewing up and pointing out the accoutrements and fittings, clearly an expert at how things work aboard her boat.
“You do know what a liberal conservative is, don’t you dear?” Emily gulps nervously.
Kat pauses, even if all the evidence would say, yes, Emily Gross is confused. What nonsense is a liberal conservative?
“Is it like a premod?” she asks.
“A premod? That doesn’t sound a liberal conservative to me. You’re English, aren’t you, love?”
“Polish,” says Katarina.
Alarmed, Emily Gross replies, “How nice.” She quickly reweighs her offer. From the confused accent, Emily had wondered if Katarina might be an Oxbridge type. But what kind of educated person would believe in premods?
“You don’t smoke in Poland, do you?” Emily asks. Her eyes wander to her secret compartment. She’s been furtively homing in on it the whole time.
“Oh, no,” Kat says, “but the proletariat does. They can’t imagine freedom without vodka or cigarettes.”
Emily Gross hasn’t heard the word proletariat since the sixties. It sounds as stimulating and vaguely rebellious now as then. But she frets about the independent attitude seeping from behind the girl’s gray eyes sparked with emerald. Despite her reservations, she’s going to have to trust her. Thatcher needs a good lodger.
“I’ll want a deposit,” she begins, spelling out the terms of their agreement. “And you’ll buy fuel, chop wood, that sort of thing? I’ll cover the mooring fees and council tax from your rent.”
“Yes ma’am. I’ve got pounds,” replies Katarina, tapping her pocket.
“Pounds are for prols and guineas are for gentlemen,” recites Emily. Money is her favorite topic after tax.
That settles it.
“Shall we share the peace pipe to celebrate?”
Katarina nods appreciatively.
“I’m actually very naughty,” says Emily Gross, disclosing a neat piece of disguised carpentry, a drying cabinet for her homegrown, her voice clattering with nervous laughter. “Guerilla gardening,” she says. “What better than a wicked little boat like Thatcher to ferry me to my spots? Who would suspect a liberal conservative of such gall?”
Soon Emily lights a chillum loaded with a mixture of ginseng, marshmallow and sensi from her cabinet. It can smell revolting so long as it’s not tobacco.
“Everyone’s very friendly on the canal, at least as far as Hungerford.”
“Superb,” Katarina says, suspecting code for too friendly.
Emily Gross dabs the chillum with patchouli oil and clasps it in the chamber of her fist. “Up to you when you heat, dear.” She nods at the stove. “I don’t bother. Just tea.” Emily is animated from the smoke, burning like joss, its balsam rubbing under her woolies.
Katarina smiles, her body loosens. It had been touch and go so far today. She drops her shoulders and asks. “When can I start?”
“Easy does it,” Emily says. “You must read the rules first, dear, before you sail!”
“Oh yes please!” Rules thrill Kat, the rules that she makes.
“And if you forget,” adds Emily, “they’re posted along the way. From now on, you’re in charge. But do ask for some help at the locks. The windlasses are in the deck locker.”
Katarina listens without interruption to Emily’s reading of British Waterways rules: good boatmanship and complete self-reliance, the code of narrow boat pilots.
One toot, right… Two toots, left… Three, reverse…
Katarina accepts England might as well be Euclidian Greece, ruled, lined, divided, apportioned, banished of disturbing concepts like infinity, fractals or particles, even if the hedges would say otherwise. By making and having rules, in theory, England’s free of the disorder that the rest of the world has in spades.
Four toots, pause then one short, right turn round…
Four toots, pause, then two, left turn round…
Yet she realizes that for all the state’s reliable revenue of fines and fees for violating its rules, a small minority cares not a whit, so enduringly cute in their emphatic believe in the local that they trouble to put it into practice. Suddenly she’s a direct beneficiary even if she’s a newcomer. Bath’s like that. She better be grateful if she wants to put down roots to sustain and grow.
Returning to the end of Emily’s zany rehearsal of the navigation code, Katarina predicts there might be a clash.
“Do watch out, love,” Emily calls as she strides towards her Prius in the marina parking lot. “Remember one long and two short toots and it’s a stalemate.”
Emily’s full of judgments and she abhors hoi polloi, one of the perils of being so contrary in her political beliefs.
“And if you’re near Bradford, do stop in for tea. My treat.”
Scuffing and bumping her way from the marina, Carbon steers the stub down the waterway, the tiller resting easily in her hand. Thatcher brushes along, neither completely in the water nor on the bank. Cyclists churn by, easily surpassing her four-mile-an-hour maximum. People automatically nod or wave from their vessels — some spic and span, others husks — then shake their heads, angry or amused. Katarina beams back, pleased but puzzled.
It’s the name, she realizes.
She might as well be on Pol Pot or Bokassa.
No wonder the bloody boat was to let!
But Thatcher cruises beautifully, coasting to a last patch of sunlight as the distorted orb drops behind the hills.
A swan rears up then backs off. It’s wonderful, a force of quiet being, a quiet being that overtakes the all too precarious state of human, becomes being, and from that she feels a surge of altruism: she should really help others, not herself. Yes, she’s in a pickle and she understands the consequences: she can’t be irresponsible.
No, not with Thatcher.
An inexperienced pilot on a blackening canal, a route that fills her with a strange dread, she’s not rushing to Bath tonight. So she banishes the thought of a mission with an easy declaration.
Don’t promise what you cannot keep.
Anyway, why try to be superwoman when heroism is actually, simply ordinary?
Keeping watch, startled by bursts of noise in the reeds, Katarina feels trapped and restless from the enormity of what she’s done, exiting against the grain.
The bargains come quick and early at the farmers market on Saturday. She’s hurrying. Pushing a pink banana bike with tassels jabbed into its grips — riding on the pavement banned — Kat plows through the throng to the abandoned train station. Nearly there, across from social services, Kat hears the lyrical tune of the Poles. Yet she resists socializing for a packet of cabañas. She strides by Powland Deli with a goonish panache, forsaking the urge for a taste of home. After all, there’s fresh Toulouse in the market hall but Kat’s mostly after shabby used books and slightly blue cheddar. She won’t pay more than two quid for anything, including the pheasants.
Later, invigorated by a doughnut and macchiato, marching past the chains of shops on the high street, dragging her bike and groceries, looking in the windows, a pretty yet serious outfit strikes her like sweet, teenage perfume, and she pauses. After many cold, damp nights under a pair of duvets, wearing pajamas and two layers of polar fleece, she yearns to be warm and pretty again.
Judging from her reflection, the Earth Granny look isn’t doing her any favors. Her vanity urges her to shop.
Chattering, pale, her bag drooping from her shoulder, standing in front of the cash point about to bang in a PIN, she stops. Summoning the fiber of her spirit, facing her enemy, Kat turns and weaves to the abbey. Not Catholic, it will do. The spires poke grandly at the sky from the plaza. Organ practice blasts through the heavy doors. She touches the stone and that’s her quotient, just a touch, to know, to make a wish: if belief boxed communism and won, surely it’d knock out capitalism too.
Someone had to win.
The falsetto of civilization and wealth quickly appeals to her as the hardships multiply.
Katarina is unprepared for the precariousness of her life on the narrowboat. She slides among her favorite spots along the 14-mile ribbon of canal in the river valley between Bradford and Bath until it becomes routine as the cold and rain. She avoids the locks, enjoys the aqueducts and moors at her pleasure. Surely, she is privileged to enjoy the beauty, if not for disputes with Thatcher’s infrastructure. Yes, Kat does appreciate the luxury of little worldly anxiousness other than these repairs and the chore of chopping wood, but she misses the security of Pig Island.
“Communal living’s the tops,” she thinks aloud “God, I need a Marcus.” She curses under her breath, tying up, trying to brush over the harsh reality of her days, the huffy, exiled snob envious of the manor houses, the fine livestock and mounts and luxury cars scattered along the valley. It’s her greed.
She’s marooned outside town, pinned between the popular, noisy pub, the George, and the rugby fields opposite, with no escape.
Consolation comes a day later when she struggles with the engine, a mug of tea steaming on the roof, her hands as black as her mind.
Stultifaris Navis draws alongside. There’s a rugged young man onboard, unlike any of those who have sized her up — the jogging fanatics running along the canal or the rabble of the canal itself.
Why be who you are?
Why not be who you aren’t?
“Name’s Moon,” he says.
It’s sissy-like and not everyone makes her laugh.
Moon has guile with birds, big and small.
“It’s a mouthful,” he says, gesturing to his boat, “so I just call her Fools,”
Kat remembers Pig Island.
He smirks behind his eyes when she introduces herself.
“Kitty, eh?” he asks, intrigued.
“Kat, silly,” she says, correcting him.
“Super moniker.” Moon recovers his breath. “I’d have thought you’re Ingrid Pitt.”
She blushes. Who’s Ingrid Pitt?
“What you want?”
“To help, Kat. Let’s have a look.”
She feels a buzz moving through in her torso. Help. What she’s always wanted.
Thatcher neither lists nor sinks when Moon’s onboard.
“Shit engine,” he says looking at the black charred hunk, the panels of the deck removed to the roof. “I’ll tie down. Need my kit.”
He returns with his tools and wearing smart gumboots. He carries his body with a maturity that stirs something in her heart. Everything about him, every exquisite move, reminds her of cock.
Thereafter, for all he’s worth, Moon helps the Polish nation.
Moon exhumes the engine from the urn-like compartment. A quantity of oil spills and Kat cleans it up.
Dissembled in no time, it’s rudimentary: it’s not like the alternator’s fucked or she needs scraping. Stalling, Moon makes a performance anyway.
Midway, he asks, ”How ‘bout some tea, miss?”
Kat complies happily. She has organic sausages and toast in stock.
Moon watches as she grates a long fibrous root.
“What’s that? Burdock?” He recalls the odd little Japanese bird. She ate everything raw.
“It’s horseradish, silly!”
Moon’s never eaten real horseradish.
She ups the ante as they savor another pot of tea. “Rabid dogs,” she declares from the galley as she tops off a mixture of raspberry syrup and Zubrowka with Tabasco.
Moon relishes every bit of light that enters his eyes.
They interlace arms.
“Look me in the eye when you toast. It’s very rude not to.”
Her eyes are like a fascinating poison.
His like tombs.
“Too right,” Moon says. “We’re a nation of queers and criminals, and the every look’s an invitation. I don’t go where I’m not invited.” His mouth’s burning. Then sweet and burning. “Grand,” he exclaims, wiping his gash with his sleeve.
Slowly, she warms up to Moon and stops showing off.
Moon’s halfway there when she sits on his knee, farts and titters. He’s more assured when Katarina sets to making perogi.
“Meatballs?” He brushes against her high waist as she rolls up the sachets, pinches their tops and plops them into boiling water, then fries them up.
The weather’s foul. His craft is nearby.
Can Moon distinguish between hot or sweet, letters or languages, current and concurrent lovers? Is Katarina a new girlfriend or an ex?
“Lots of Polish birds in England now,” Moon says, an oily digit stirring more Tabasco into his post-coital shot.
Hasn’t she’s noticed?
“Love boiled birds,” Moon says with gusto to the pool of jugged pheasant on his plate.
Kat summons her sternest voice, though it’s hard to have too much power after shagging poor Moon’s brains out. “Women aren’t birds, Moon.”
“But that’s what we call them!”
She tugs at his hair and nibbles on his ear.
“Especially if they like a good flap, eh?”
“Listen, Moon, old king Sobieski saved Leopold’s skin from Mehmet IV at Vienna in 1683. We may have capitulated later, but what bird can trace their ancestry like that?”
Moon pauses. Just what is he going to fabricate? It’s a Big Issue moment, when the alacrity of his tongue and the cleverness of his wit fuse, the output not quite what he expects. “Mine goes further back.”
”What’s your family name then? Come on.” “Bacardi,” he says, suppressing a laugh. “Lord Franklin Bacardi.”
“I’m Princess Katarina Sobieska.” she replies. “Who’s the trump?”
They grin at one another like silly pets and shake hands in bed, glad for a proper introduction.
He doesn’t want to disappoint her, so he rambles about Lancashire because he’s positive she won’t know anything about the many middles of England. But his best concoction by far is his account of yachting around the family’s sugar cane estates in Bermuda. “It was rum that made us rich,” he says, as if she couldn’t figure that out.
“No,” she corrects, “the slaves made you rich.”
“Castro took our Cuban distilleries, you know. Now we’re stuck in Puerto Rico.”
“The dirty Communist!” she whoops, leaping, hitting her head on the roof. “We suffered too, you know, horribly. The Germans, then the Communists. And imagine, they were mostly Jews, which we in Poland have a tradition of hating and killing!”
Bathing in the interlude, they tumble and wrestle, foreplay for another shag.
It’s difficult being Moon, much less Bacardi.
“I’m from Gloucester, Katarina. Me mum and dad are teachers.”
“Ah,” she says. “Ah!” Her tone begins to lift, the words coming closer and closer together. She’s being mocked. “Because I’m Polish bird I’m going to like your prank! Am I bird or am I not?”
“Not a bird,” he says weakly.
Holding her down isn’t an option. She swings. Bites. Scratches. She charges him with a kitchen knife. The more he tries to placate her, the more she shakes with fury, the more in jeopardy he feels.
“There’s an old Polish saying,” she screams, “when they hit, run.”
He’s blocked most of her blows.
Moon never has encountered such anger and he’s afraid his boat will breech during the row. Yet it’s thrilling being at the utter mercy of a naked, raging princess with hot pink nipples, if they’re both telling the truth, of which he’s sure he’s not.
Moon won’t be leaving again. He’s absolutely besotted. He knew she could be this wonderful. Moon’s careful about that, checking out and bedding any new females on the canal.
He laughs to himself. Not a bird, a chick.
Dare he hazard another poor joke?
By the time she calms, sweat had accumulated on her skin.
“If I could bottle that temper,” Moon says, “I’d be rich.”
“What are you a lord of? Anything?” Kat’s voice is piqued with irony. What a bluff. “What’s your name, Moon? Why not Disgrace or Insolence or Blasphemy?”
“Funny names for fools,” he says. Why not Fame or Celebrity or Corruption, eh?”
“Yes, Fools, that’s what’ I named my pigs.”
“So I’m your pig then, not your dosser?”
“O yes, my sweet little hog.”
If there’s a time to confess, Moon realizes, it’s now. “Heathcliff,” he says, “Heath if you like.”
She throws back her throat and cackles. “Why Cliff, you’re either a hero or a cat!”
“I prefer Moon actually.”
She’s cruel and he’s humiliated.
“Suits you, Moon, with that beard.” She howls some more, her maw open, her lips stretched over her rack of teeth.
He’s angry and he’s outclassed. Moon’s a super sobriquet, just not as cool as Kat Kata Katalin Ektarina Katarina. But for the privilege of loving her, he’ll gladly do whatever she wants. The earth if need be.
“Yours?” she asks, pinning Moon down for a last, irresistible romp.
“Well, it’s bigger to start with,” he says, smiling broadly.
She opens his long muscle-rippled body, swirls her hands over his chest and along the hairy stockings that rise over his hips. It’s been a very long stretch without a man. Properly.
The touché of gender war is bliss.
The shape bounds down the towpath, ducking the trees, crouched and running. Mega’s feet beat on the earth. Then Mega slows to a jog.
Mega pads up to Moon’s boat.
Moon owes her.
“Mwoon,” she calls, “Mwooon…”
Crafty, Mega tickles the raft. Punches it to and fro.
She pushes her eye against a porthole, stuffs her finger in the hatch.
Who’s that slumbering next to Moon?
The same girl?
The same one from the pub?
The very same living on Emily’s tug?
She staggers back on her haunches.
The very very same!
Waves ripple against the bank.
He’s cheating again.
She pushes on it, pushes her to a watery orbit.
But she can’t do that. Drown Moon, her love, father of her future child?
But she’ll teach him.
Oh yes, Mega’s mischief.
She jumps in the canal and first takes a piss.
She slips her hands under the boat’s beams, then lifts.
The ropes snap from the boat and Mega starts to walk..
She’ll return for Thatcher later. Anyway, she’s out and needs a top up, another kilo of Emily Gross’s skunk that all her psycho customers love. For now, it’s revenge, benign yet frightening.
With little labor Mega wades through forests, hops roads and hedges, vaults entire towns until she finds a patch of plains.
Angry and playful with her extraordinary strength, Mega hurls Stultifera Navis into the darkness, the moon and his queen boomeranging past city walls, aircraft, satellites, asteroids, past Hermes and Ra, into the dust of stars, then curving back home as Mega runs to palm their vessel in a giant’s game of intergalactic yo-yo.
“Moon,” cries Katarina. “Oh Moon!”
“What love? We’re not budging from our sturdy Tardis!”
They sleep in bliss, Moon spread on his stomach, Katarina curled over him, a blanket cast aside.
Mega shakes the salter, dashes it over her meal, the earth, and claps it in her hands to dislodge the two grains.
But they’re unperturbed.
Moon and Kat are secure in the wobbly range of his orbit.
Sleeping with Moon, dreaming with Moon, swooning across the night sky, Katarina Sobieska is the shape of a blue-white kite gliding in the otherwordly bright darkness of the white-blue sands. She’s easy for once, because Moon doesn’t bother with worries like ideas of wasted time. No, Moon’s affable company to raves, stories, crop circles, menhirs, undead and sex, but during the day, he’s invisible and unseen, of tides and menstruation.
Mega smells him before she sees him: ale, genitalia and musk.
Horns prong from his head. An old bull. His very being and business is to fuck them all. He’s been raiding breweries, breaking into barns for barrels of perry and scrumpy after trumpeting for a gang of his mates, and now he’s unsteady on his feet but in the mood. He sucks in his gut, bends for a start, sights the target, a sexy hirsute female he’s seen somewhere before, and bounds across the field.
Sober, the disturbance unwarranted, the threat real, Mega bolts. Wildly running, there’s no time to be elegant, for she’s desperate to escape the panting old bull bearing downs.
But he’s a bit unkempt and unfit and he pauses, unwinding a length of rope from his gnarled waist. He loads a cow into the mattress sling that joins the two pieces. Calculating roughly, he whirls the cargo around his head and releases.
An incoming cow mooing toward her, Mega starts to laugh.
Being a giant is a lonely game.
Why not take father on?
Get him stoned.
Fuck his brains out.
And introduce him to Moon.
Or Asbo — that troubling turd.
Oh, giants have no qualms with taboos, for that’s what they’re made of.
Mega turns and disappears into an overlooked crack in the earth, her hideout and abode, furnished with the bones of her ancestors that glisten black, oiled with tallow and surrounded by offerings and treasure. Settling down to rest, she sweetly coaxes her juvenile from his crib.
Kat sulks in the morning. She stares through the misty window. She has to laugh. She’s trapped inside a giant cock. And got one for a bloke. Regardless, outside, her boat is nowhere to be found.
Moon stumbles, mumbles into his tea, looks up. “What’s wrong, princess?”
She arches her eyebrows under her fringe of shorn dreads. Wrong?
“I love you, Kat,” he says. “And your boat. We’ll sort it out.”
Does he really mean it?
Moon hesitates. His feet segue into the galley from the mattress spread across the living area. His pattern is to have another go, prove he cares and then get out.
“We’d be a jolly bunch,” Kat says.
Moon doesn’t like the ring of we. No, we’s too fresh, too close. Too pregnant! He’d been off his tits. He looks at her and is reminded why. Her burnt amber muff, sprouts in her armpits and her nose. He gets up from bed, finds his smock, leggings and wool boots in the kitchen.
“Does that mean you have a girlfriend? Kids?”
“No,” Moon says, apparently lying. “I need the afternoon, that’s all.”
She’s vulnerable naked in bed now that he’s dressed. Is he blowing her off? Is he reliable?
Katarina and Moon each wait for a sound from one another.
Faced with an uncertain, cold limbo, they have to be practical. The unexplained loss of Thatcher. The sad groove and its accompaniment: an endless mulch of pebbles, leaves and mud. The morbid Avon nearby, dull brown fields under winter’s watch. Hibernating could be superior with two bodies and a hot bottle in bed.
“Right,” she says, “I’ll chop some wood.
“Best time really, cold but calm,” Moon stresses. He pokes the embers of the fire, quickly shoves in some logs. A kettle and a frying pan go on top. “To the end of the Jane Austen tours,” he toasts as he fiddles some sausages from their packets. He’s not as choosy as Kat. Anyway, Moon prefers the spicy Brontes to the plain Austens.
“What a riot,” Katarina replies, noncommittal, reminded of the prim passengers, high on Pimms, gawking at the hills.
The air resounds with the chuck of the ax and Katarina’s baseline grunts. Moon’s never seen anyone chop wood like this. Katarina swings at a log and lodges the blade in the top. The she lifts up the lot, niftily turning the Day-glo handle behind her shoulder, reversing the load and using the slug of log to split itself.
He’s shy of her after she nearly emasculated him in the galley.
Soon Moon retrieves the chainsaw and a tape measure. He likes his logs to be exact so they fit neatly in the stove. He ruthlessly blading in the surrounding woods, she blithely measuring, the saw roaring over their voices, they work together for hours, tallying not, covering the roof with rows of bright timber. Together, they’re not total primitives.
A dense smog of coal, wood and diesel lingers under the canopy of trees and snarls the towpath. Everyone’s boiling water for the community’s evening brew up.
She rests her boot on the fender as light falls. Her notebook and camera are spread out on the roof between the potted hydrangea. She’s forgotten about self-sufficiency, pleased by the ingenuity and passion of Moon, the wind turbine whirring on the roof. They’re charging up next to the local party circle, a hearth of stones, some low benches, a wine opener, a section of tarp on the bank.
Hair pulled back in a ponytail, the gray in his beard apparent, Moon’s people stop to chat. He’s dandied himself up for tonight in a brocaded vest, around his waist a pashmina, a tweed cap on his head.
Is he dealing wraps?
Or is he tending to his chronic social life?
Is that what Moon’s about?
Shangri-La passes, broadcasting an overamplified reggae remix of Jethro Tull.
Asbo’s whacking bottles off the roof. Both his hands are wrapped in white mitts. He’s been to the clinic. He’s dancing with a couple of wild young creatures in moonboots, miniskirts and hoodies who wave their red arms. Even Asbo’s got girlfriends. Funny, engaging, satirical, care not, want not, pissed, Asbo could please a crowd.
They nod at Katarina as they skin up and talk to Moon, who draws an audience around the party circle that she doesn’t necessarily want to like. But she’s being unfair. Not everyone could be a cool alternative creative or even a simple-minded aristo. Someone had to suffer from no opportunities and bad habits.
“A good witch with all the right bits,” spits Asbo. He rubs his pierced neck and tips his hood, trimmed with fur, nodding at her as he talks to Moon.
“Who serves it to me when I need it,” Moon boasts, full of macho, hoping he’s out of range. He rolls his eyes at Kat, ducking his neck rhythmically to the sound system running off the generators.
Warming up in the cabin, Kat sighs, understanding the import of her last message from Momma Earth. Utopia’s sinister. It’s one thing to have an inventive disregard for the system, another for life itself.
She’s worried as the stroboscope starts to go off, glittering against the low-slung sky: tonight’s Dub night fancy dress and both Moon and Asbo are apparently in the running for best male costume. Boats are arriving from everywhere to see the contest.
Best male’s a big event.
Beales parks alongside the residence on Pulteney Street and honks. The edifice has been scrubbed; a fancy brass plate is posted on the clean sandstone.
Tesla battles with the heavy wooden door of №69, the Windsor Hotel.
A single iron-clad wheel is fastened to the stub of one leather limb. On the other leg he wears a holster stuffed with an ornate glass pistol.
Detective Nick Tesla is a shade of himself. He turns his head down the corridor of what today is pure wind. Gripping the railing, he bumps down. Tesla curses on the steps, glares at Beales. “Oh, don’t help!” In the end he hobbles on the flagstones towards the van.
Beales is bemused. If Tesla isn’t an automaton, he’s a cartoon. He enjoys watching Tesla suffer, snug in the police van splashed with the blue and green graphics of the force.
Haunted by the case, he’s grim. This is not death by misadventure.
“Got my death ray,” Tesla says, patting his good leg once inside.
Beales chuckles. “Looks like one.”
Tesla’s shaken from the descent from the attic. He prefers the utter darkness of his room, the void to which he would certainly return this morning, the windows smothered in curtains, each layer nylon and black. In his sanctuary, shielded from artificial and natural light, he guards the peak of his bittersharp genius: built beyond the parameters of radiation, his prototype, the ray gun with which he has armed himself.
“Alright, sir?” Beales tries to sound upbeat.
“Read the log at the station, sir. Apprehended the masked rapist, eh? The magistrates must be pleased.”
Tesla nods. For all his tenacity he has not managed to locate Thatcher along the canal squiggling methodically across the waist of England. All he’s identified are some very large footprints, what the forensics lab reports to be a prank.
“Did you get another ribbon from the city for saving the women folk, sir?” The traffic is light and they soon hit the dual carriageway and accelerate, wind baffling against the panels, and Beales continues, “You’re a real dynamo in the force.”
“Just drive, Beales.”
The distance is a trifle yet spliced with intercuts of the nagging canal, thick with a whispering, teasing electrosmog, a chortle of frequencies that clogs his very own.
“I’m off,” Tesla says as they park at a boggy cricket ground. He wants to approach the case a different way.
Beales helps Tesla from the constabulary van. He’s a right mess. He guesses Tesla to be hungover, victim of too many three-for-one alcohol pops, but that’s the domain of minors
“Careful,” Beales warns. “Mind the leg.”
Tesla glowers and pushes off, disappearing along the path. His good leg jogs along deliberately and the wheelie squelches through the mud. The unsolved murder is accumulating in his mind and his brain tingles as he considers the boats bunched guiltily against the bank waiting for spring.
Something’s out of synch.
Nick’s thirsty in an odd metallic way when he spies the Cross Guns. He brakes cleverly with his hands, zigzags down the steep embankment at the aqueduct, and lifts his appendage past the threshold, a grate.
“Porter, that’s got plenty of ions doesn’t it?” he asks, excusing himself to the barmaid clad in tattoos. It’s a trek back to town and he needs nourishment like anyone else. Ruminating on a terrace, the willows dashing the Avon with their melancholy branches, he spills some ruby porter on his mesh Mac. The nerves in his face are numb, unreliable because they’re recycled from the dead.
He admires the boats along the canal despite his prejudices: graceful, arbitrary, efficient, assured, self-contained and personal too, a sweet reminder of the barges along the Duna and Sava in Belgrade, the youth when he first had discovered an exit from, and solution to, earthly concerns.
The further along he goes, the more radical the attitude becomes. Broad in color, similar in stripe, these are the people of the margins who really do escape. He supposes that’s what Kat found. Exodus in the multitude outside state and capitalist power. And a sacrifice of something far larger.
Unnerved walkers hurriedly pass, saying nothing to the cyborg tying his faulty bits, stopped for repairs outside a ramshackle brick house, quite alone, with neither companion nor friend. A carpet of sprouts emerge from the muddy towpath, sodden in patches, quite dry in others, and he reproaches his lost leg.
The whole jury-rigged system has lurched to a halt. One more severe malfunction and it might just be an irreparable end. But upon the advice of his doctor he’s taken precautions, modified to English ways, abandoned his morning tumbler of raki, and even started to eat.
Yes, Tesla is a borg, forced by pecuniary time and circumstance to scavenge his own fabric from what’s been at hand, for over the sesquicentennial of his reported death, he’s been burned, embalmed, buried, excavated, warehoused, exiled, dissembled and crushed. Yes, he always returns, a Houdini of electricity, a haphazard, rudimentary exoskeleton of pigskin, locks, playing cards and string. He’s wired for movement from the rubbery nerves of cadavers and the springs of watches. He’s filled the gaps in finite places with cotton wool, bric-a-brac and a gut made of Hoover bags. Yes, Tesla’s mind is a fragile phrenology of cables, valves and circuit boards, his crystal heart warmed by vacuum tubes, powered by a six-pack of charging dynamos, copper spools bound under his chest. Sure, the appliance of his antique mind rebounds with fields of plasma and alternating current, but his spirit is made of all manner of rays and waves, a pulsing universe living on the grid yet utterly without wires. Yes, nothing’s insurmountable. Tesla, the father of free energy, ignored, discounted, forgotten but omnipresent as the ground.
The funny thing is that, except for Moon, no one’s every asked him anything about it.
He notes the sign for the tea garden where, barring closure, he can fortify himself: scones, clotted cream, jam and first flush under the creamy blooms of an apple tree. At least he can pretend he’s human.
Passing a cute stone bridge arching the canal, he inadvertently plucks a wad of thick tufted hair wedged between the stones. Not a sheep or a horse? Man? Deer? Or something else?
“Ms. Emily Gross?” he calls into the house.
“Quite,” she says, soon appearing from the kitchen. “Anything wrong, Detective Tesla?”
“No, madam. Did we ever find your boat?”
“It’s a lost cause, surely.” Emily says, her voice winnowing to a high. She doesn’t want them to find it anyway. Her harvest is gone and she can accept that as a business risk. That’s the wonder of handmade garden teas, a fiddle but so unusual and popular that she’s always got an income in cash.
“Your boat didn’t have another name, did it?” he asks, pushing a scone into his gullet, the crumbs spattering over his chest, the cream melting in the corners of his mouth. If texture is anything to go by, it tastes splendid. He’s liking this new food thing.
“Leviathan,” Emily says, pausing. “But as a widow I wasn’t having any of that stinky old-fashioned Hobbes. Being a modern liberal conservative, I wanted something with some punch. Thatcher was just the umbrella I needed.”
“I think Thatcher’s changed names. More than once, I’d say.”
“Hit or miss.” She emits a high squeak. She’s a bit too near his malevolent vacuous eyes.
“Have any large animals?” he asks, probing another direction.
“Peafowl. No emus.”
“What do you think of this?” He shows her the lock of hair from the canal.
“Coarse,” she says, rubbing it in her fingers. “Could be a llama. Peter Gabriel’s got a few. Or his mate with the yaks, Brian Eno. They live round here.”
“I thought it to be human.”
“A very big human. You couldn’t knit with it, maybe even make jewelry. It’s more like wire.”
“Precisely,” he utters, smiling, rising from the table under the apple tree, maneuvering over the roots and ruts of the garden. “For want of a hair.”
“Do ring when you find it.” Emily Gross seeks a steely undertone to banish him. “I’m still paying for my mooring at Monkton. It’s dear but I don’t want to give it up because of the waiting list.”
The reminder of administration sends him off.
Refreshed, rested, Tesla rejoins the towpath.
A spray of budding canopy reaches heavenward. The livestock are mute in the grass trenches. The birds have suspended their territorial air war. Nothing is as it should be: an abrupt stillness ranges in the woods, and from which seeps an energy of incredible violent grace, reflected in what looks like an enormous, sleepy eye.
Tesla deliberates. How to get to the other side? How to manage it without bushwhacking?
It’s touch and go.
Wet, muddy, splattered with leaves and slugs, deteriorating quickly in the damp, he achieves his objective, a thicket from which glints a gigantic lens.
He loosens the snaps over his glass death ray.
“May I be of help, Miss?” Tesla asks.
The eye quivers in the brambles and hazelnut, a hump rising from the midst of the shrubbery.
“Miss, are you lost?”
“Ah, uh, ga urnh bahl sis cica,” says Mega, stirring.
Tesla clasps his hands around a log-like finger and looks deeply into her face. Much is written on the burnt, truckle-like surface: suffering, exile, grotesque, strength, anger. It puts him at ease. She looks exhausted.
“Now, I’m Detective Tesla and everything will be alright. Do you have a name?” Softly, he says to himself, all the while his mind paused over the safety of his death ray.
“Mwega,” she says.
Her breath reeks of kegs of ale and boxes of cigars.
Mega’s wound a tablecloth into a turban. She’s dressed in a calico dress of stapled sailcloth. Her leggings are made of blankets and unzipped jackets and her bare arms are pocked with burns. She’s got a bag stitched from tarpaulin. Her boots are a curious hodgepodge, glued together from leftovers, the bottoms of trainers and wellies and any old leather. She’s adept and she’s had to survive by her wits and crafts.
“Take me to your home,” Tesla commands. “Home.”
Mega deliberates and then she beckons he step in her hand. She’s got nothing to hide.
Tesla delicately climbs aboard and she tucks him in.
Ducking trees, sometimes vaulting, Mega runs down the towpath towards town. Mega exerts good-natured menace, hazard and fun like a tankard of methylated spirits. Suddenly she’s beaming from its taste and the next she’s naughty. She hops bridges and bounds from bank to bank. Flakes of mud crackle from her skin, her salve against fleas and ticks. She swings from beech and bashes at the sycamores. Sand, beetles and earwigs spill from her hair. She playfully lifts open the black doors of locks, splashes in the cascades and rolls in the moss.
Mega wades into a marina and vandalizes the boats. She tears the tails from oxen in the field and flosses her teeth. She slides across a golf course into the clubhouse. She bends the radio, phone and electric masts of the grid for her gymnastics. She badgers a cemetery for skeletons and she shakes the coffins for gold, flinging them away and shouting, “Mwenj! Mwenj!”
She chases joggers and flings away barking dogs. Then she hunkers low and dashes a length of canal, all the while Tesla clutched in her hand like a strange mortified bouquet. He’s both happy and sick to be witness to the destruction of a tad of the principles he discovered and that brought about so much corrupt profit and regressive progress.
Spinning in the whirlpool of a turning basin is Mega’s home, a black funereal husk, a basic coffin of black wood without ornaments. All the glass is out and the roof removed. It’s been gutted and in its center is a bathtub of roast sausages, a basket of rusks and two pieces of lumber fashioned into tongs. Roughly painted on its side: LeViaThAN.
Tesla points at the boat that Mega has retrieved.
She plops aboard. With an excess of leisure, she settles on her buttocks among the sausages. Mega’s having a splendid time in her banger bath.
Tesla tucks her in, then rubs her with both hands: on the chest and on the stomach and she exclaims, “Ohm.”
Tesla pushes off her boots and puts her toes in his lap and massages them like traffic cones.
“Mwirr,” she says, “Mwirr.”
“Katarina?” he asks.
“Mwa guaran no bitsh. Nono.”
At fault, she has to accept she lost her temper at Dub night.
Katarina angered her by fucking Moon.
He the dream and she the stalker.
Moon and Mega.
She purrs in the floating sarcophagus, tended by her keeper, draped in her homemade robes. It’s serious and sacerdotal until she emits a great fluttering snore.
Tesla believes in her strength, doubts her utter innocence and has trouble assuming she’s responsible for the murder on Stultifaris Navis.
He’s found the Bosch that Moon must have used for inspiration. The blackguard. He’s annoyed and fingers the death ray, passes the moment to make an unnecessary, vengeful choice.
Why should monsters die?
When Nick himself is not a man.
“We’re the same, you and me,” he tells the resting giant in her black canoe. “We live laterally, don’t we Mega? You’re legend and I’m energy.”
Nick Tesla starts to hop and peg away. Town’s not too far. The terraced hills are visible from the last bend. Then he turns and pulls the cross-hairs of the death gun to his eye. The prototype’s merely speculation, theory, something manufactured when all his laboratory staff had gone, stored with his bones, his applications given a final, terrible resolve.
It’s no different from cold blue glass.
He points at the sky and selects his target. The moon hangs in the blue-black sky, dusky and nibbled like a red rose.
And on a hilltop, in silhouette as they were dancing on its fragrant opal coals, Tesla scopes Moon, jeering, and Momma Earth, flashing him with her gross muff, her followers clenched to her teats like ants.
With no sense of impending folly, Nikola Tesla pushes the trigger.
His gun fuzzes like soda.
Unused, untried, it warms just as he drops the barrel to the ground. A sorry flow of toothpaste-like antimatter drips to the towpath. It fizzes, smokes, reacts, burns, then glows. The mud starts to evaporate, then the topsoil and clay, the bedrock, the sediment, then mantel, lava and core. He’s inadvertently bored a large keyhole in the earth before he can wipe up.
The death ray hisses, coughs, fizzes again then convulses.
Water surges through the embankment, Mega on the crest of a wave, making an improbable success of her voyage over the abyss to the frozen Neptunian center of the earth, the water drawing narrowboats and then all of Somerset into the expanding gap.
“Wait!” Tesla cries but he’s far too tardy. Water is the last liquid he needs and Tesla grinds to a stuttering halt. Toppling, he is swept away into the cold inferno, buckling, tumbling, dashed upon the earth’s vivid black frozen center.
Moon meditates on a nearby hilltop, a pine growing from the slope above his head, smiling at the cataract flooding the bypass. He’s dressed in a red crushed velvet shirt and waistcoat, sitting on a rosette of braided grass, his black legs tucked underneath him, his feet smothered in yellow plastic slippers.
“Can’t destroy Moon, silly bugger,” he says, sniggering as the torrent spreads across the valley, sucking up farms and developments, its own violent void, buildings swirling towards the netherworld, Bristol.
“Too right, Master Moon,” says Momma, recently arrived from the Indonesian archipelago, too late in heeding the call of her protégé while bouncing around the world like a ponging ball.
Carried to the hilltop in a palanquin by new devotees who sow the way with seeds, Momma savors the view of what’s left of her realm. She’ll have a lot of cleaning to do and plenty of patching up. She touches Moon’s shoulder.
“Imagine my luck, a moon that’s a man.”