By Stephen Thom
'There was a grove, dark with holm-oaks, below the Aventine, at sight of which you would say: ‘There’s a god within'. The centre was grassy, and covered with green moss, and a perennial stream of water trickled from the rock.'
Ovid. Fasti. Book III, March 1, Kalends.
The wind moaned outside. Tom watched swords of rain cutting up the night through the window. The dusty clock on the mantelpiece beat a lugubrious clump as the stocky man in the white robe wobbled his rolled-up tenner over the pile.
'Don't...' murmured Tom, but his voice felt washed in from miles away. He slugged back several fingers of gin to combat the ketamine. The robed man inhaled violently as the tenner glided. His neck cricked still and the hand with the note spasmed, the tenner frantically conducting a tiny orchestra long-vapourised into white dust. Tom drank again. The man's wedge of right cheek slapped onto the table. Jammy red string seeped from his nostril.
Jenny was laughing on the bed. Tom looked round in leaden blocks and saw her pallid form thrown up in the mirror on the dresser opposite.
'It's not funny,' he said, slowly.
A wad of ash flumped from her dangling cigarette as she rocked forward. Her eyes were lit and white clots peppered the edges of her lips.
'Weird fuck!' She screeched.
'Jenny.' Tom closed his eyes and iridescent flecks bound into black beetles. 'Jesus.'
Her giggling slid into sobs, slid into echoing tunnels as he drifted off.
He looked up muddily at her padding from foot to foot, jiggling an empty glass. Her face was oilish and her lips crusted yellow.
'Tom, get the fuck up, he's dead!'
'Who?' He wiped a skein of greased saliva from his chin.
'The man, the man from the car park!'
She was bowling round the wreck of the room now, slinging bottles and baggies into the holdall. Pacing up to the pasty chunk of head on the table, she prodded.
'Fuck,' breathed Tom. His left hand flapped at the floor and wrapped around the gin bottle.
Jenny was fiddling around underneath the table, tittering again. 'Look,' she grinned, flashing the stuffed wallet.
Tom's eyes watered as the gin flared in his throat. He turned to the clock. Two am.
'Let's go,' he mumbled, lurching up. She fluffed her hand over the table as he jigged the crammed holdall shut, rubbing the bloody remnants over her gums.
'Further. Just get far away from there.' The cider bottle frothed at her mouth as they lurched over a mound, and she hawked a noose of spittle between her legs. Rain drilled at the bonnet and windscreen. A membranous mist coated the subfuse fields they barrelled past and the hills and stark treelines beyond as if a great, malevolent entity cast from a thousand lost souls moved to reclaim the land as the world slept.
Tom navigated the winding turns and swells, slugging deep draughts from the bottle passed to him. 'What was that last place?' He croaked, squinting through the scuzz of the wipers.
'Fuck knows. Abernethy?' Jenny's voice was muffled as she sparked a pipe. A dull spread of lights washed the fogged black ahead, lit matches dropped amongst the gloom. A wall of trees rose on either side, breaking intermittently for pathways and fleeting glimpses of houses.
Tom blinked scratchy eyelids.
'Look, who the fuck was that lad again?'
'A freak. You met him in the car park, or something. When you went to get the bag.'
'What was his thing?'
Jenny pushed a pungent furl of smoke. 'Eh?'
'His thing, I mean... why the fuck was he dressed like that?'
She shrugged. 'Fucking... some group. Nature, deer, whatever.' She shivered with sudden laughter, descending rapidly into hacking coughs.
A white flash of sign evaded him in the downpour. They slid through a deserted junction and over a rolling bridge. A single street veered off to the right, flanked by sparse houses. Tired streetlights spilt a slim glow around a yellowing hotel exterior as they drifted past. In time, the last of the streetlights and the memory of a village sunk behind them and the sweep of fields returned.
'Tom,' she said, passing him the pipe. He followed her sunken eyes to the grainy castle ruins assimilating through the mist and rain-needles. He sucked deeply at the metal hole, relishing the swirling musk. His free hand nursed the wheel, and he took in the dilapidated rectangular stone enclosure rising on a rocky hummock in the centre of the field to their left. With a jolt he realised white figures were moving amongst it.
'Slow down,' she breathed. Puffing a wreath of thick smoke, Tom pulled onto a grassy rise. Killing the engine, he reached under his chair for the gin. They drank and watched the people flitting amongst the ruins.
'Kismit,' Jenny sniffed. Her eyes were wet and milky when he looked round. Her skin was yellow and stretched, her teeth stained and in the drum of rain he wished for other ways, other ways beyond this relentless plate-spinning. 'Think that's his freaky pals?'
'Yeah,' he muttered, looking down. When he looked up he could see lights dancing amongst the distant figures. 'Deer?'
'Something like... aye. Deer, owls. Nature, like. Fuck, Tom, you meet some weird cunts in the sticks. I wasn't listening that much.'
Tom passed the pipe back. 'Shouldn't have left,' he wheezed, 'shouldn't have left like that.'
'Fuck it,' she leaned in to caress his neck. 'That's what we said when we left before. Fuck them all. There has to be something more, Tom. You said so.'
Tom frowned. Jenny giggled again, and he looked round. Across the field, a tall figure in a flowing white robe was approaching the car at pace, hood pulled up.
'Fuck this,' he said, scrabbling to pull off. Jenny cackled as they bumped down onto the road again, enveloped by the night.
Rain spattered the glass and her head hung limp on his shoulder. The bottle that had rolled from her hand dribbled with gulps on the floor.
'I'm not ever going back, Tom,' she slurred. 'I love it here with you.'
An hour later she was fleeing again. She straightened up from the CD case on her lap, sniffing.
'Fuck! He FUCKING DIED and we just FUCKED OFF! Do you - fuck, this is what it is, this is what we wanted, this is fucking living!'
Her head bobbed down again and the note cut left to right. She rose puffing, and banged the roof.
'Jenny, Jesus,' Tom mumbled. Gripping the wheel, he peered out at the soft tubes of light puncturing the darkness, and a deer flashed into being. He twisted to the right. They shuttled into a wet verge, skidding to a mushy halt.
Strips of dawn light brushed the fields around the forest. Bloated maggot roots ate away from strapping trunks whose bushy protrusions picked spidery paths amongst each other like children's handwriting. A crow, observing the car from a distant branch, trip-hopped to rise into a spiral arc, black wings coasting over the sprawling bucolic collective.
Tom slumped against the wheel, thinking of the mindless office jobs and the weekends they spent obliterating them. The decision, the uncertainty now, but above all the feeling at the spiked edge of their bound consciousness at three am when the converging rush peaked. When the first morning glass siphoned out the shakes and they knew that this way of being was the only way that would ever work.
He cracked the door open and stepped gingerly from the car. Jenny, crying and laughing, bundled out sooking from the creased plastic bottle and tripped. There was a nip and a preternatural spark in the air as if the woods were clamouring silently to see them.
He crunched over the top of the verge, the wind buffeting him gently. Looking down, he saw stones littering the edge of the forest, piled in clumps. He stooped to pick one. Little spiral markings adorned its flat face. He glanced back. Jenny was silent behind him, looking towards the trees. He followed her gaze to the man in the wooden owl mask standing between totemic trunks.
He slipped on the stones as he stepped back and raised his arms to balance himself. The man in the owl mask rubbed his hands against his white robe and raised them in a similar way. He stamped his foot. Tom twisted round to the car and saw two more robed men - one in a similar owl mask, the other with a magnificent pair of antlers strapped to his crown - standing stock still above Jenny.
'I - ' Tom stuttered. The first owl-masked man stepped down to the verge and removed his wooden visage. His face was pale and thin and his eyes were deep-set pebbles. He slid a knife from his belt and paced over to the man with the antlers, slicing at the binds and lifting them off. He turned to Tom, proferring the owl mask.
'Fur ye,' he croaked.
Tom felt his hands shaking and he looked up, eyes watering. A single crow circled above, tracing great loops as if to pull time and space apart; stretch, elongate it and say: here, here is how time is, not this wretched thing that shrivels and strips until you pass your sovereignty over to a toxin.
He's going to cut my face off, thought Tom. He's going to cut my face off and give me this new one.
'Fur ye,' he said again, stepping forward. The men behind began binding the antlers to Jenny's head, and she moaned, eyes rolling in stupor.
'Fur the first two weeks, like.'
Tom frowned. The man pressed the mask into his hand.
'Til ye dry. Ye musn't lose hope. Like wur pal. Wur pal who ye see'd. Yon left us, 'fore he wis dry.'
He looked past to Jenny, crying and pawing at the ground. The other two men were going through the car, pulling out bottles, pipes, roach ends and baggies.
'Fur ye,' the pale man said again. Tom took the mask and stared into its empty wooden eyes. 'Fur the first while. A higher hing, like. To give yon to. Wur all try'n too.'
Tom looked up to the hem of the forest. Rows of robed figures stood among the trees.
'There's somethin' within ye,' whispered the man, clamping a hand to his shoulder. 'Ye've jist f'rgot.'
Tom stopped to straighten his tie in the mirror. He took the stairs in twos, past the antlers and owl mask fastened to the wall amongst framed photos. It was their five year anniversary today - a separate anniversary to their wedding, a secret one. They wore the chips on their wrists for one night only.
Their time in the commune had accounted for the first shell-shocked three months of that.
Jenny beamed at the bottom of the stairs, fingering the hem of her new dress.
'You look wonderful,' he breathed, and she laughed again, as she always did. He clipped down the final stair into a suspended, unique, full and infinitely vibrant compound of time teetering on the verge of another, and a panoptic safety net that pressed: this, this, I promise, always this -