Fiction · 02/15/2012

Excerpt from Kilea

Father’s glances held Kilea to her seat, pinpricking up the bones of her back to the nape of her neck. Her brain throbbed against the inside of her skull, just slower than the pain pulse; colours twisted together into her muscles. Every now and then, the beat of both stuck, making it hard to get air. And when at last Father turned away, let her free, all the lost breaths came back at once in a bloodrushing wave.

Looking down, she saw the sun, dazzling on broken slates in the grass. The manse, over her shoulder, without light on it, was armour-plated like a woodlouse; slippery and living. But no longer watching her, it had turned in on itself, in hiding. A face appeared in the top-floor bathroom window — cheekbones, swept-back hair like flattened sets of feelers. Then it was gone. She got up slow-as-slow and edged round the side of the garden, keeping close to the fence. Father hadn’t forbidden her from leaving. The front gate creaked, but no one saw, and she was out into the bright street, safe.

The pavement was yellow coloured and gave a clean look to everything. A fresh bundle of people were just getting out from a silver-flashed coach at the bus station; they dragged their bags, coats, children, spreading outwards in their threes and fours. Rubberneckers, Mrs Sabine had said, that was their nickname. Not friendly, but fitting, after the way they gaped at everything. They made the locals, outnumbered and annoyed, have to walk in the road. One man, red and rolling like a harbour fishing buoy, clipped Kilea’s shoulder with his swinging camera. He boomed an apology, without turning to check if he’d done her any harm. She squinted after him until the pain eased, and she could walk in his direction, without him noticing. Why had the rubberneckers come to the village? Nothing was open, only the man selling newspapers from the boot of his van. All there was to see was the monument, with its lion and ring of red paper flowers. Once they went home, the rubberneckers would forget it all — the streets, their hotel, the village itself. Eventually nothing would be left, not even holiday snaps, when the people in them had died and gone from the earth. They would die, she thought, and no one would remember them. And no one would be angry then.

Something had got in her right shoe and was pinching. Kilea stopped to stand on one foot; a pebble in the shoe. It must have fallen from the top of a mountain, part of the highest peak, and had grown smaller until now she could hold it, the size of a plum stone. It was strange to think of the weather, the earth getting worn away by drizzle, and rivers digging out channels underground a drip at a time. She set the pebble down at the side of the kerb, out of the way where it would not be kicked or bother anyone.

A charge was building, thin and shrill, like the turning on of a television or a large machine. The pitch rising, a many voice in a soaring vhmm. She leaned against a wall, braced, for if it grew, higher and higher, and swept everyone flat, she could be left the only one standing. The lights in the buildings and the lamps were trying to spark, then the sound went flat; fufffff. See-throughs appeared, flickering in between the crowd. Four of them. All of about the same size, not obviously woman or man. They were like the air that wriggles and blurs above a hot pan, but with a purpose, wishing her forward. She had read that when a tsunami comes, there is a sensation, a shockwave that only animals can feel. They run into the hills for safety; all the people drown. A cat sidled under a parked car, and left only the twitch of its tail behind. Time to try for higher ground.

It was hard for her body to remember the rhythms of stepping, weaving through the people. When the see-throughs moved, they had grace, swaying into the open spaces, quicker than she could. They steered her along a sky-grazing street she had never been before. The view right was of the harbour falling away, the pink, blue and white harbour houses above a scraggly, low-tide beach. The village still didn’t have an end; she passed more painted houses, all facing out towards the bay. A group of people stood reading sheets posted at a door, their heads slanted all to the right; a restaurant in disguise as a family home. Keep going, a little further, voices whispered.

The road climbed up in a slow twisting loop; hovering seagulls clipped in and out of sight behind the hump of grass. When they mewed they sounded like hungry kittens on the cliff-ledge. The Lesser Black-backed Gull. In her book it was very noble sounding. Larus fuscus; nests in colonies, breeding in early March, on average producing three eggs per clutch. She worried that might not be the correct species, but the Fauna book was in her room, and she was not about to go back.

A gated path from the road fell right, along the side of the cliff. Kilea looked at the schies. Down there, safe? She didn’t speak aloud. Folk did not think it was polite to talk to see-throughs. But they paid no notice, just hung at the fencepost, shivering. She examined the way. It was glossy with leaves and windblown flowers — Rhododendron ponticum. Subspecies baeticum — running steeply from the gate to a pale one-storied building, where it split in two and the light dappled. The building sign said it was a hotel, closed for repairs. Or closed forever. No lights were on, and no one was going in or out with paint and ladders. The lower road passed it, and on into green shade. It would take her far off to the headland, to where the black rock hitched into the sea. There, she thought, over the causeway, that was where she must go. The see-throughs went into the bushes, and the air became cold.

The path was pocked with big holes that tried to turn her ankles, and gravel that slid into a paste of mud; crunchy pebbles slicking over her shoes in the thick sauce. Down to the deepest mud at a kissing-gate, where the last of the rhododendrons grew, and on to old-man birch trees clinging to the steep side. The birches were tall and bony with bark peeling like bad skin. Kilea put her hands on a trunk and pushed. It made her side sting and her breath stick in her chest again. She pushed again, harder; it would not shift. Push, she thought, the birch will break out of the earth and go tumbling down, crash through the glinting tin-sharp waves. Leaning forwards, she gave her weight to gravity. The palms of her hands flooded with heat and she had to let go and hold them in the cool shade.

But why did she want to knock it down? To be a birch, Kilea thought, alone among other trees. Imagine at night on the dark hill in a storm, shaking in the wind. The roots, almost uplifted, gripped into the ground like fingers. Her head felt light; she became aware of the difference between her quick hot breaths and the quiet all around. The air was sweet with the gentle respiration of the plants, cut only by her slight shaking, like the trees, and gusts from below that carried in them the smell of mulching seaweed. A brown bird scuttled from a flowering bramble, and disappeared into a lattice of rust-coloured bracken.

She went on, and the path started to level with the shore. Above, the hill was purple in summer heather, interrupted by scraps of dark grass and the gulley of trees. Their crooked branches loomed wisps of cloud out of the sodium blue sky. The water of the bay was black. These colours were those of paint blocks, waiting to be blended if a large enough artist came along. She had read in a story that the world had been splashed with colour from the explosion of a distant sun. Before that the only colour on the earth was grey, the everlasting grey of sand grains on the beach. Really, the island had once been covered in volcanoes spurting lava and thick ash clouds. If someone had taken a picture of that time it would have shown the black mountains (always at her back, there when she didn’t look, jagged like fresh flint) and orange, bubbling rivers. And dinosaurs, who wandered their footprints over the fern-and-horsehair braes.

The dinosaur world, to Kilea, was the tiny wedge of pines that grew thick together at the edge of the sports fields and the play-park. Dead sixty five million years ago, a number that no one could count, but still they were there gumming the needles and keeping the field weeds trimmed. When she went to the park she would ride the swings and think of them, imaging their heads come up through the netted canopy. She loved having the second of weightlessness, right at the top point of the swoop. She might leap straight off, land on the humped back of a browsing diplodocus. And as the swing pulled downward, she could trace the dry scales with her fingertips as she slid along its tail.

The sea had a hearty smell now. It would be good to breathe deeply, but it was too hard. A line of boulders stood between her and the black rock. She clambered over them; streaks of light sent through her body, the way a deep sea jellyfish sends bioluminescent signals — warnings in the dark. Kilea thought for a moment. She had never been within hand-reach of the water, except once on a boat trip to spy on a colony of necking gannets. She would go now. The nearest inlet of the sea had no reflection of her, or anything, as it was all glutted with bladder-wrack which shoogled the incoming waves. It showed, in the drawback of the water, now, now, down to the seabed covered in rolling sand. The girl stepped over a slow coiling wave. It was clear, frothing white at the edges. A page turning, or milk boiling over in a pan. She looked up and saw the finger of the black rock, finally close.

The flat of the causeway lead her on, a safe way under a skim of slopping, icy water. It looked like the village pavement, but had always been there, before the dinosaurs and the lava. On either side, the deeper water churned. At the end of the causeway, a set of stair-stones carried her up onto the island’s back. An uneven hump with furzy patches of yellow moss. Seaweed and stranded limpets clinging to the lower sides. She had in her mind a space for everything new and worth knowing. An explorer’s log labelled ‘findings’ — unlined, tea-coloured, locked with a brass clip:

West rock —

The steppingstones. Very slippy.
Long crack going down to sea underneath. (Possible crab home. Makes hissing noise.)
Extra long spiky grass. (Question: how does it grow in no soil? How does it know the difference between rainwater, which is good, and saltwater, which is bad?)

Middle rock —

String of blackyblue mussels. Dead, alive? Not moving, so impossible to tell.
Funny blue-coloured jewel in rock. Rare? Worth coming back to dig it out?

East rock was where she made her most important discovery: the puffin. It had been dead a very short time. A tiny pillow-soft, black and white body with a head that seemed too heavy; its throat pinched in. Its beak was slightly open, the end chipped off. The wings fluttered. Kilea sat carefully down next to the puffin, stroked flat the feathers and folded the wings close to the body. Her hair was being blown into her eyes and it stung.

“Bully!” she yelled at the wind. A black wave threw itself against the black rock, the spray spat in her face. She stood up and shook her fist in the direction of the wind. Bully! Her voice was whipped away, dropped out to sea. There was a noise behind her that was not from the sound of the sea. A shape.

A body, trembling slightly; flecks of water clinging to a cold glass. She looked for the eyes, only two deeper hollows, where water-drops ran down making the cheeks. It was a light thing, barely there at all, no dust or earth for it to be made from. Someone who had died there on the rock a long time ago. The see-through spoke her name, aloud and wrong, not a whisper in her head. Its voice did not have any rhythm. It said her name again. And a warning, a noise like a crow’s call, backwards.

On the other side of the figure, the causeway was gone; covered by the tide. The glint of it put a chill in her. The schie made the birdsound a second time, calling to watch, to heed.

She closed her eyes, walking quickly through the figure, felt its wetness, not anything more. One step over the edge of the island, into water. Her body shattered — blackness in her brain — ice-floe cold, thick and congealing. She tipped back her head, gaping at the waterline. Eyes open, take a breath. She spat, pushed her arms out in front of her, trying to keep the weight of water back. Feet toeing for the floor. The far side rose and fell; a plank of driftwood in the sea’s middle, and the see-through was tangling seaweed at her arms. Telling her how drowning felt. How long on the rock. Longer than living. She mouthed waves; choking, kicking raggedly for land. The schie’s voice came at the same loudness, but the pitch was rising, wind and lapping water not able to blot out the sound of its call turning to a scream.

Half-way. The rock bed was a little higher. Kilea could put her feet down to rest against the tug of the current. The screaming stopped. A bird came low and sudden over the sea, and circled between her and the land. It was the puffin she had found on the rock; the head at an angle. The wings, missing feathers that the wind had stolen, were not beating but shearing the air. It looped, swinging so close she felt the chipped beak brush over the top of her head. Changing tack, the bird flew up and sped towards the shore.

Walking through the water was a struggle in sodden clothes, the tide slapping against her, trying to push her under. She lifted one foot. Another wave hit, scooping the other foot off the sea floor, dragging her sideways. No longer any ground. The girl closed her eyes, trying to tread water. Stopping. No energy, and cold snipping around her body. Only thing left was a tiny shard of selfness, floating, a stinging in the lips from salt. The next wave might knock her out, drag her under.

It didn’t. Swept her body up, up. For a time there was nothing,

the sensation of weightlessness

Her limbs rolled and crashed. The back of her head was scraping grit. She had blood and water in her mouth, then air. Then the sound of the sea drew back. Her heart beat seawater, an oarsman rowing down a river in an underground cavern, dipping — lifting. No pain. No thought. Under her splayed-out hair was a tiny world of glass fragments and wet jewels. Then the stones melted. Face down on sand, she heaved and shuddered. Her tears were the hottest thing in the world. Feeling flowed back to her body gradually, as a scalding in her back and lungs.

When she could, the girl sat up. The sea, no longer a monster, had become itself: the waves cutting over one another, each separate, silver-edged. Then there was absolute calm. Clouds marooned in the water. She got to her feet and made for the path. By the shore rocks lay the body of the puffin, broken. She touched it with her foot, without wonder, flattened with exhaustion.

A heavy, jelly-like rain began to fall as she reached the pass between the birches. The mud took one of her shoes, and tried for the other. Her tee-shirt hung close against her back; the salt rubbing raw.

Up the path, and onto the main road. Grey at the sides of her seeing. There was a woman. Pink plastic jacket. Down low, tying her shoe. Oh my, what’s happened? Are you alright? A black camera hung down her front. Kilea stared; the lens had stripes in pink. The stripes circled, in focus, out. And the woman’s face. The jacket was wrapping around her. People talking overhead, a man to the woman. Catch her death. Scared. Parents? They were asking her a question but her mouth kept cutting off her answer. They were going back towards the village. Blue and white paint and seagulls and the rain, all heavy and swaying. Her teeth trying to bite her tongue. Then they were outside the button shop and Mrs Sabine was talking. Moving into the shop and the jacket was away. The door closed; warm but she was shaking. A bad electricity in her body. Mrs Sabine took her into the back room.

Her clothes were off and Mrs Sabine’s cardigan was around her. By the stove, as close to it as possible without burning, the chair shuffled up close. The heat made her mouth calm, but her hands went red and swollen at the tips. She looked at them and saw that they were ugly, and the thin parts of her arms were too white like bones, they almost had been snapped. And Mrs Sabine said, have a good cry. But she was still shaking, she didn’t know if this was crying or not. Hair fell in her eyes and she rubbed away the strands. Mrs Sabine was coming over and putting her arms around her; pressing her into the smell of spiced wool. All of her unravelled then, in the hot space on Mrs Sabine’s chest, and it hurt and she couldn’t let go.

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Helen McClory was raised in both rural and urban Scotland. She has lived in Sydney and New York City and is currently to be found in the Old Town of Edinburgh in a three hundred year old flat opposite a tunnel into the underworld. The manuscript of Kilea won the Unbound Press Best Novel Award 2011, and publication is currently being sought for it. To keep the wire steady, Helen is working on a second novel about the intersections of love, failure and technology set in New York, New Mexico and Cornwall. Progress on this at: schietree.wordpress.com