The strange wound on the inside of her forearm opens, and the memory, unforgiving and instant, shocks him unconscious. With a twitch of her dirty fingers she pinches it shut, and he finds himself on his back, blinking at the sky.
‘What was that?’ he asks, not ready to move his head.
‘That was you remembering’ she says.
‘There is no how. I know that much.’
While they talk, the revelation, seconds before so blinding and painful, is gone. Bringing himself to an upright position he sees they are sitting in the hollow of a storm drain behind his house.
‘It…its gone…I can’t remember. Why would you give something just to take it like that?’
She doesn’t respond.
Panicked by the sudden loss, he reaches for her arm to show him again. At his approach the wound instantly snaps open, emitting a series of shrill barks so unrelenting and fierce all he can do is writhe on the ground and clutch at his ears. The sound brings to mind birds scrapping in high-up branches.
‘Its not something for you to take’, she says plainly after the air has quietened, and it dawns on him he doesn’t know the stranger beside him, or how long they’ve been sitting together.
Casually positioned, she reclines on the palms of her hands, knees raised and swinging lazily apart, resembling the posture of a child. Her clothes are black and dusty-white strips of old cloth, patched across her frame so haphazardly the shape of her true sex is hidden. He questions why he calls her she in his head, for the voice, both coarse and melodic, is more the texture of bark and dust than man or woman.
‘I’m sorry…I, uh…I’ve become confused. Who are you?’ Again she says nothing, but he feels his limbs weakening slightly when one eye rolls in its socket and focuses on him, the cornea a violent piercing umber. Above them on either side of the concrete embankment stretches the flat city of his childhood.
He knows it by heart from the shape of the sky. The avenues held apart by sprawling patches of dead grass; a world of unkempt cottage lawns, splintered fences, empty ovals, car-parks and ghost-town arcades. And the smaller monuments of his childhood; acorns and ant-hills, bus-stops and tree houses; the storm drains dry in summer, running through his memory like the parched veins of a giant. He sees himself walking each day, counting every leaf and pavement-crack until his head aches, hoping to find some clue in the mess of images littering this familiar but forgotten world.
As the woman stares he sees it all reflected back at him in the sickly dome of her eye.
‘Terribly ill-equipped, human heads.’ she says, breaking the spell of her gaze. ‘Born with holes in them, always missing this or searching for that, only gets worse with age’.
She’s removed something from beneath her rags and holds it in the cupped palm of her hand.
‘I…I don’t know what you mean’
Something moves beneath her clothing, he is almost certain, though it might only be the breeze rubbing against her tattered rags, or the lines on her weathered skin bunching as she moves. There is something incongruous between the way she holds herself and the quality of her voice. The lazy angles of her limbs, which before reminded him of the way a child would sit, on closer inspection appear awkward and lax, as if no muscles are in place to bind her skin, so her head and legs flop lazily from side to side.
She holds out her hand to him and reveals its contents; a single worm circling mindlessly against her skin. Out of its element it twists aimlessly, blind, unable to find a way forward or backward. She winds the struggling creature round her index finger and feeds it slowly to the hole in her arm. It widens in acceptance of the gift, and again he detects the slight movement beneath her skin and clothes as the wound splits further open.
Horrified, but unable to move, he sits in silence watching her.
Gushling Worlds ©, 2012