Fiction · 07/13/2011

Bad Star

My teeth, they grow sharp, so sharp, like those of a bear or weasel. Every day a little sharper. I run my tongue along the edges and marvel at their shape. I have been out here for many sunrises, creeping through bushes and trees and scrub with Matty Fletcher always at my side, closer than my shadow. When I was a boy Father taught me how to do these things:

  1. Track deer and wild boar and others of God’s creatures
  2. Read the stars and find my place in our World
  3. Slaughter and skin an animal, then preserve its flesh

Matty Fletcher’s father did not give him such knowledge. He leans against a tree and watches me with blank eyes. Without me, the wild dogs would devour him this nightfall. Fortune was with us after the ship sank and I found him lying on the shore; if any of our cargo had discovered him I fear Matty would be dead now. Although I suspect they all drowned, shackled as they were, like animals. That first day Matty looked at me with a fearful countenance and asked, ‘Are we the only ones then?’ I could see his lip tremble and I was reminded of how my youngest son had cried at night. ‘You mustn’t fret,’ I told him, ‘for God is on our side and I will look after you as if you were mine; my own flesh and blood.’

We salvaged little from the wreck, only a satchel containing a tobacco pipe, some sodden tobacco in a cracked box and a small bag of shot but no pistol. Yet Fate smiled upon me once more and I found my sextant still in its case on the sand; a gift from Father before my first voyage all those years ago. Matty seemed enchanted by its weight and function and I let him carry it, for in part it distracted him from our grave misfortune. This is a wretched land, Godforsaken and full of beasts and demons. Everything is topsy-turvy and wild; a land that could change a weaker man. I cannot remember the face of my wife anymore.

When darkness falls I call Matty to the fire and tell him stories of my youth: of strange lands and oceans, of sea beasts and dragons, of basilisks and mermaids. Sometimes I show him the stars and other heavenly bodies and tell him their names. I tell him how their passage through the firmament governs our fate from the hour of our birth and cannot be altered. But when he asks what they say about our path I look into the fire and say nothing. I think often of my boys during these long nights; how they appeared almost as if sleeping when I left for Plymouth harbour as the sky turned rosy with dawn. The sea was my first Mistress always and she will be my last. Matty is the age my eldest would have been. He cradles my sextant as he would a young child; comical as Matty is not much more than a child himself. At first I tried to show him the ways of hunting, how to track an animal, skin it and cut it into parts, but he is weak and clumsy, and the prey we find is pitiful; small mouse-like creatures, gristly, barely enough to feed a beggar’s dog. I fear Matty has too much black bile inside him as he is affected greatly by these misfortunes, some days unable to rise. On these days I carry him. We must keep moving. I have heard light sounds following our progress; scampering and scratching noises, intermittent and almost imperceptible, like the sound of pebbles falling down a rock face.

The sun blackens us. It burns and shrivels our skins till we resemble our fathers. We are surely the only people in this land. Every night I track our position by the stars, every day we follow the course of the sun. Hunger is our constant companion, more constant than the North Star which I fear we will never see again. Matty cries out strange words in his sleep but he quietens once I comfort him. His face becomes still and empty as his night terrors subside and I think once more of my sons’ small faces, white against whiter pillows. I had no choice but to leave them; my wife had become cold and that morning she was colder still, her flesh hardening as her love had hardened against me. When the night gives way to a hue of grey, signalling the approaching daybreak, I lie close to Matty and listen to his breathing. If I sleep at all I do not remember my dreams.

The days have no definition. Time has no meaning. I think often that we have been walking in circles as the landscape does not change. The scratching sound comes more regularly now but when I turn there is no one or thing behind us. Matty does not turn but trudges forwards, his eyes fixed to the ground; he would surely perish without me and my guiding hand. One evening as the light is fading black clouds crowd into the blackening sky and thunder is all around, and I know now that the Devil is after us. We find shelter in a knot of scrub and watch the rain. Matty shakes and I hold him close to my chest, to my heart, oh my heart.

By morning the storm has abated, but soon the heat quickens once more and our situation worsens; we are starving, our limbs perishing and our tongues swollen with a wicked thirst. But still there are wonders in this land: dust devils stretched miles high, gigantic rocks of incredible red and golden hues, turning purple and silver with the passing hours. Matty shows no interest; he speaks little and his eyes are glassy. Erelong I begin to leave him in the shade of an outcrop during the day whilst I search for sustenance. But often I just sit and survey the wilderness, barren of God’s providence, for I am starting to understand He truly has abandoned this place. Nevertheless, whatever force controls this land sends me animals, larger than our earlier fare; I break their necks before binding their carcasses to my belt. I am beginning to see this is a deceptive place, teeming with hidden life if one knows where best to look; a serpent launching on a rodent and consuming it whole, inch by inch; an oily scorpion raising its sting; a bird picking the bones of some large creature. Often I linger into the dusk, till the shadows are lengthening like long fingers stroking the ground. When I return Matty is huddled into himself, his hair hanging round his face in dark tendrils and he will not look at me, nor will he speak my name. Yet he still accepts the food I bring him, ungrateful wretch that he is.

The sun blackens us. It burns and shrivels our skins till we resemble our grandfathers. The heat shimmers so I cannot tell the land from the sky. Matty no longer listens to my tales at night, nor does he study my sextant; I take it from him and pack it in my satchel. We make less progress each day; Matty stumbles behind following blindly, whilst I find myself feeling more invigorated somehow, wondrous as our rations are meagre. That night I lie awake and listen to Matty’s ragged breath even as I watch the constellations turn. Father always used to say that some people were just born under a bad star.

I return from the desert early the next morning, as the dawn is touching the sky. I now spend more time exploring this vast expanse of land by night; studying the beauty of a rock, or the strange flora that thrives secretly under the pale light of the moon. When there is no moon I creep forward on all fours, feeling round with my fingers. I think Matty is dead as I approach the camp, but when I push him with my boot he opens his eyes to mere slits. He pulls himself up but then lies slack; he makes no endeavour to brush away the flies that land persistently on his skin. When I set out he does not follow, but before long I hear his footfall behind.

The heat is curdling, but the light seems different somehow, more brilliant. When the sun reaches its zenith it bleaches out the blue of the sky and I feel my blood thickening in my veins and arteries. The sound of flies is all around, and I see that I leave no shadow, no mark upon the land. And I know the Devil has found me once more. I can hear the stars twisting beyond the white sky, and trying to hide their faces; heavenly bodies that have shaped my path throughout all these years. I bare my sharp teeth and gnash them, click, click. When I turn Matty cowers and tries to run, but he is weak, far too weak, and he knows it is much too late. I take a rock and bust his brains out. I drink his blood hot, and suck dry his bones.

+++

Claire Joanne Huxham’s fiction and poetry has appeared in Monkeybicycle, The Molotov Cocktail, Phantom Kangaroo and Metazen. She lives just outside Bristol (UK) and teaches English at a local college. She can be found online at clairejoannehuxham.blogspot.com.