He turns, head raised, inhaling. Shale and sedge underfoot, and then a tight slope down to the line of scrub before the hill breaks off into the forest of the valley. The branches flex and quiver above us, praying into the dark. The scratch of bramble on my bare calf, a line of sweat on my lip. The night is pulsing with heat and silence.
Noah, I say. Noah.
He skips on ahead, thrashing his stick to the undergrowth. The mad thatch of his hair, the narrow legs pale and glowing, the ripped t-shirt. I pause for breath. Ahead and down I can see the cusp of moorland, bare and shadowed, with here and there the soft glint of porchlights from all the hidden farms. All the cottages like the cottage we have run to, secluded, off-grid, folded into the long sleep of this quiet land where there are so few people.
He cries, Mum, just a few more minutes! They’re out here, I know they are! We have to find them.
It’s getting late, I tell him. We can’t do anything in the dark. It’s dangerous . . .
A high whine floats across the night, piercing and sad. A moment passes. The note falters and falls into a grim and angry chuckle. There’s the rip of dead leaves and ivy, the crash of torn roots.
Noah’s off at once, bounding down the slope towards the woven scrub, the broken ground beyond.
Cheeka! he calls out. His child’s voice is thin, fraught with emotion. Cheeka, where are you!
Don’t get too close!
I can’t help myself. He’s safe with them, I know he is. He’s always been safe with them. But you should never give a wild thing all of your trust. They don’t belong to us. They don’t belong to anyone. They’re not even real.
A scrap of cloud unfurls, a wrinkle in the black. As it peels away from the moon the land is picked in silver. I see Noah running, running, eyes wild.
This way, this way! I can hear him, he’s crying!
I follow, loping in his stead, lungs like bellows. Poor Cheeka, I think. Poor Patchie. Noah loves you, he really does. Despite everything, he can’t help himself from loving you. You’re like children to him. There’s nothing on earth he wouldn’t do for you.
We’d reached the cottage while the afternoon was turning, the sky pale pink, the sun dipping west. The shadows of the trees stabbed down into the valley beyond, and there was something dream-like about the light as I stepped from the car, as if the cottage and the dusty lawn, the tattered outhouse, were all no more than a pastel daubing, and I could just reach out with one bold stroke and smooth them all away.
The Saab’s creaking engine, pushed to its limits, ticked and twanged like broken clockwork. The car rocked back on its heels at the reverberating slam of the passenger door, Noah sprinting to press his face against the windows’ mottled glass. I hauled our bags from the boot, the tins and biscuits and milk from the motorway service station. When Noah looked back at me my heart lurched. Our sons, our children.
Another adventure, he said, and smiled.
The last one. I promise.
No, he said, looking back through the glass. I promise, mum. It’ll be different this time. I promise.
We spent the first few days tiding up, sweeping a rime of dust from the porch, scrubbing the counters with bleach, scraping up with dustpan and brush all the little black cylinders of mouse shit in the corners of the rooms. Unfurling our sleeping bags onto the lumpy mattresses, flinging the old sheets into the groaning machine, washing the plates and bowls, the flaking pots and pans. I checked for a signal but there was nothing, the bars of the phone flickering between one and none. Silence, perfect solitude. I allowed myself a moment of reflection, sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the careful wind as it drifted around the corners of the house. Another adventure.
Noah’s days were soon devoured by the countryside around us. The novelty of the earth flexing underfoot, dirt roads, no traffic. Woods and fields, sharp perturbing smells, the coiled passage of a crystal brook that snaked along the edge of the meadow below the cottage. Night’s archaic darkness, the deep and abiding function of the sky, spackled with stars. The house sat there on its slight rise above the valley, fringed with trees and hidden from the road, squat, the whitewashed walls streaked and grey, a sort of slumbering craftiness to it. The end of the line, I thought. The last stop.
Every evening, as we got used to the place and as our presence there felt less jarring, I’d quiz Noah on how he was feeling. Was he anxious? Was he too lonely? Did he miss them, would he make more?
You’ll tell me, I said, if you ever feel the urge creeping up again? Won’t you?
Course I will, mum, he said. He crammed beans into his mouth, lips pushed out, jaw mashing. Always such vigour in him, such happiness. So few could see it, but you’re frightened by what you don’t understand. I felt it too, sometimes. It’s a strange thing to be frightened of your own son. The ice in my belly, the anxiety that wouldn’t let me sleep.
I never mean to, you know, he said. Not really. It just happens, half the time. I can’t help it. I like them, and they like me.
I know, I told him. I know.
My hands mourned the cigarettes I’d given up. Conversation over, he turned back cheerfully to his plate.
That long and piercing whine again, the gurgling chuckle. I could imagine the farmers by their hearths, hearing that sound uncoil across the night, reaching for their shotguns. Not a fox, they’d think. Never an owl . . .
Mum, over here! I’ve found Cheeka! He’s hurt . . .
Noah stands amongst the tide of bramble that surges up the hill. Berries still hard green buds, thorns like claws. A screeching rustle in the shadows, the thrash of branches. I come close. I see Noah trying to reach into the bush, prising with his stick against the barbed vines. Peering, I can see Cheeka lodged there in the scrub, leathery skin blue as midnight, scratched by thorns. A black oily liquid evaporates from the wounds with a stench of burnt plastic. The three jaundiced eyes roll madly, the nubs of the wings quivering with frustrated flight. There’s no head there; it’s all body, bulbous, a misshapen basketball. Those strangely bird-like, three-toed feet scrabbling at its fetters, the tongue lolling out to lick Noah’s hand, the hint of teeth.
Help him mum, I can’t get him out!
Noah’s weeping. And, despite everything, it’s sad to see the creature caught like this, in such blind distress. I take the penknife from my pocket and start cutting away the vines, thick and unyielding as barbed wire. They break apart with a sharp and bitter scent. Cheeka bobs with excitement, huffing, gurgling away to itself.
No, not the worst he’s made, I think. Not by a long shot.
I keep the blade extended. When it’s free at last, Noah buries his face in the lank strands of hair that drip from the narrow crest along the creature’s back. It’s all I can do not to pull him away, to put myself between them.
Be careful, I tell him. Don’t squeeze it too hard.
The thing capers about his legs, but you can see the change in it already. It won’t be long now, I think. Even Noah can see it.
We head back up the hill, listening for Patchie, Noah with his hand splayed across Cheeka’s back.
Cheeka . . . He always has the names ready. Whenever they appear, when they haul themselves from the vibrant aether, Noah always knows what to call them. It’s like the names were prepared long in advance, and he only has to see their faces to know who they are. Patchie and Cheeka are new. Before them there was SooSoo and Harrifer, Jenchi, Caska. A dozen others I’ve blanked from my mind, names unlimited born in the weft of his imagination, sparking to his lips as the creatures formed. Things of many eyes and none, with raw distended mouths, tentacles, spines and crests, tangled black pelts, claws. No, Cheeka’s definitely not the worst. Gangler was the worst.
They’re never strange to you, your children, never ‘other.’ Everything about them comes at you with limitless acceptance; the strange games they play, their weird rules about food and clothes, their tyrannical refusals. That’s just who they are, the person you’ve made. They couldn’t be any other way. If they were, they wouldn’t be them.
When he was three, Noah came into the kitchen while I was washing the dishes, hazy-eyed, voice lilting with fatigue. He told me he’d made something like a mouse.
A mouse? You saw a mouse in the sitting room?
Like a mouse, he said. It’s mine. I made it.
What does that mean darling? Mummy doesn’t know what you mean.
I can show, he said, toddling off. He pointed to a corner of the sitting room, a slick patch of oil on the carpet, steaming into a faint vapour. Oh, he said. It fell away. That’s sad.
What’s this, Noah? Were you sick?
Dabbing my fingers to the mess, sniffing; an acrid, rubbery chemical smell.
No, it was just my mouse, he said. It’s gone now. And he sat back down on the sofa and waited for me to bring him his lunch.
He was six when we first had to move. By that point I had got used to the small and insubstantial chimeras that flitted through our house every few months; tailless, rat-like things with flat, adumbrated faces, that broke apart in a smear of corposant and dust; or the strange, undulating scraps of matter, something deep-sea about them, that drifted purposelessly across the ceiling, with their quavering antennae and softly papping mouthparts—Noah sitting there cross-legged on the floor beneath them, staring up in wonder and delight. I’d got used to all this, I’d accepted it because . . . well, what other choice did I have? It’s just part of who he is, I told myself. A gift, a talent, like the child geniuses who grasp calculus at three, or compose symphonies on their potty. Some kids are just different. Noah was just different, but not everyone saw it that way. Neighbours and friends would catch sight of these impossible things, no matter how hard I tried to hide them. You gain a reputation for being a recluse. You don’t send your son to school, and the slow attention of the state soon swivels towards you. Questions, inevitably, are asked. Before long, the questions can’t be brushed off, and the safest thing to do is leave. Midnight flitting, packing the bags, posting the keys back through the letterbox. Driving, the next town, a distant city. Then countryside, farms and fields, places where there are no people to see. He thought these were adventures. He was never lonely, because he had these friends close to hand, whenever he needed them.
They never lasted, these creatures he made. Whether it was some slackening in his interest, eventually they just became too unstable and broke apart into the dream-stuff of their making. Or maybe it was just the troubled incoherence of an unnatural thing? The world, after all, can’t bear too much unreality. Whatever it was, he would always mourn them, like any child would mourn his pets.
Days would pass. Life would continue, but soon his mind would turn to other things, and in time more creatures would come.
If Cheeka was all body, then Gangler was nothing but limbs. Spindly back jointed legs, creeping on cloven hoofs, the arms curiously simian, wavering, it would pick its way across the carpet like a pholcid spider, bobbing its sac of bones. Grey, stinking of rot, Gangler appeared one morning splayed into the corner of Noah’s bedroom. It had come out when he was asleep, he said. Sometimes that happened. He dreamed, and then in the morning there it was. But what dreams, I thought, could make this? What could possibly take place in the boy’s head to make this its natural production? I cried, then, for the first time. All my fears, the horror of it, the dread of discovery, found their locus in Gangler. I hated that creature as much as I have ever hated anything in my life. The way it moved, the way it smelled, the sight of its limbs wrapped around my son’s body as they cuddled each other. The way it crouched in the darkness and watched. What happened with the neighbour’s cat; and then what happened with the neighbours’ son.
Another adventure, Noah asked as I packed our bags. I glanced at Gangler, flexing its limbs in the hall. It didn’t have any eyes, but I always felt it was staring at me. Peering with its mind, appraising. I shuddered.
Another adventure, I said. Just the two of us . . .
We closed it in Noah’s abandoned bedroom and drove away. In the days after we arrived at the cottage, I worried that Gangler would somehow find us, like one of those lost pets that make epic, cross-continental journeys to find their owners. Gangler would eventually track us down, I feared. At night, I would lie there in the dark and listen for the scratching of its legs, glancing for the creature’s jagged shadow as it lowered itself from the rafters above my bed. But I had nothing to fear, I knew. A few days and it would have dissolved into mist like all the rest of them, glimmering into the shade of its unbeing.
He calls out Patchie’s name, but only half-heartedly now. He can see it in Cheeka, the way the creature falters on the sloped ground back up to the cottage, the clawed feet scrabbling at the incline. It stumbles now and then, flops to the ground, huffs, staggers up. It burbles along beside us, but there’s something strained and exhausted in the noises it makes, a sense of distance. Everything slows, like a clock winding down. Noah looks away. Patchie, he calls, but more quietly now. He looks down.
Poor Cheeka, he says. He pats its head. Cheeka looks up at him, eyes blank and unfocused. The air shifts, the breeze comes in through the trees ahead of us, agitating the grass.
As much as I hate them, I can’t bear this moment. The deep blue of Cheeka’s hide begins to fade. Its mouth falls open, slack, the great jaw patting to the earth, a sliver of drool like black ink dripping and steaming away. For a moment it looks no more substantial than a painting, a cut-out left lying on the grass. It has no grip on the skin of the world. Noah is crying, softly. Cheeka fades, dissolves, leaving only an oily smear on the ground, the smell of burnt rubber, a fizzing ozone charge in the air that raises all the hairs on my arm. Noah wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. I pull him close.
Poor Noah, I whisper. Poor boy.
The feel of him, the heat, the incontestable life. The feel of something surging and growing, something here.
We go back inside and I warm some milk for him before he goes back to bed.
Maybe Patchie will come back in the morning, he says.
I hope so.
I hope so too.
Later, while Noah rests in fitful sleep, crying out at times, I sit at the kitchen table with the penknife in my hand, blade still stained by the bramble sap. The night ticks around me; the breathing of the trees, the creaking relaxation of the house. I test the blade against my thumb, the resistance of skin. I think of Gangler, and next door’s boy. Simon, a quiet kid. A soft laugh and a pale fringe of hair brushing into watery brown eyes. Sitting there in his back garden, arranging all his coloured blocks, lost in his little boy dreams.
There’s a sound then, rising in the night, a distant call. The sound of a bull seal on desolate shores, a hundred miles from sea. It booms and fades across the darkness, and after a moment of poised stillness it comes again. Sad, I think. Closer this time, searching and lonely.
I test the blade. Noah, adrift in dreams, calls out a thick, unyielding note.