Sunset. Everything blood red. There’s a little boy, maybe eight or nine years old, standing on the beach, right at the point where crescents of foam reach his toes. I don’t think my husband can see him; he hasn’t reacted, though the boy is only a few metres away.
The boy, long-haired and dressed only in a loincloth of seaweed, stares towards the horizon, holding his arms out, snapping his fingers with both hands and talking in a susurrous voice, almost mimicking the sounds of the sea. His tone is lighthearted, even joyous. Switching to English he looks back and flashes a huge smile at me. “Hello, tell Ben to carry on down the beach. Say you want to sit on that rock and think for a while.”
I look at my husband. He’s staring at me, confused. He says, “What are you looking at? Why have you stopped?”
The boy continues singing but interjects to speak to me, “Please, you need to tell him to go on. It’s best that we’re alone for this.” His tone is both authoritative and beseeching. “Give him a kiss first,” he adds, turns and darts towards the cliff, scrambles up impossibly steep rock and disappears among the trees. “Back in a moment!” he shouts down.
Ben, leaning on his walking poles, says, “Are you all right, my dear?” The wind whips his thinning but pointy beard, grey and white hairs flicked in the gust.
“Yes. I’m going to give you a hug and kiss and sit here for a minute. You get the ice creams. I’ll be along shortly.”
His bushy eyebrows rise in mock horror. “I’m not going to leave a pretty young lady alone on this wild beach. Anything could happen!”
“Get the ice creams, you old fool.” I plant my walking stick on a stone, lean forward and peck him on the cheek. “Mine’s wild ginger, raspberry if they haven’t got that. A cone … one of those with the bit of chocolate at the bottom. Quick now. I have thinking to do.”
“And what would you be thinking about?”
“How would I know? I haven’t had a chance yet. I’m having a thinking moment. Get on with you.”
He jerks his beard to point along the beach. “Ginger or raspberry. Message received and understood.” He totters away. Really, we’re too old to be walking on uneven surfaces but we have both aged without grace, kicking, fighting and screaming against the rebellion of our bodies. He’s unstable as I watch him disappearing into the dusk. We shouldn’t have come this far from the promenade but neither of us have ever been sensible. We’re so close, so similar; two aspects of the same person. I love that man so much.
A sound makes me turn. The boy is back on the beach. In those insufficient moments he’s collected firewood, thin sticks, kindling and what looks like a nest of dry grass. He’s squatting down and talking to the grass in his hands. It’s like I’m hearing half a conversation in a foreign language, his voice, laughing, chiding, coaxing and chuckling in turns. A ghost of smoke rises from the nest like a pirouetting dancer, thickens and a tiny flame erupts followed by more. Within seconds the boy has a small cone of twigs alight on the sand and piles sticks over them. He turns, winks at me and dashes among the breaking waves. Reaching into the water he sings, laughs again and straightens up while lifting two lobsters. Returning to the fire, he kneels, places the lobsters on the sand and strokes them once on the head. They stop moving. Dismembering and cleaning them with his fingers, he places the tails on sticks over the fire and the rest around the base. All the time he’s busy singing, whistling, and talking to things or people I can’t see.
I seat myself on the rock, and study him. He’s busy and doesn’t seem inclined to talk to me. I’m fascinated. He’s not human, that much is obvious. Everything I’ve ever seen has clearly recognisable states, but his is … are … ephemeral. One moment he’s so insubstantial I wonder how it is I can’t see through him, in another appearing beyond massive, as if he could walk through rocks and they would have to shatter around him. In the end I’m so mystified I ask, “What are you?”
He sniggers. “Oh humans! Humans! I remember now your need for names and categories and the illusion of knowledge and the even greater illusion of control. I have no category … nothing has. I am me.”
“If you are not … OK … how do you differ from a human?”
“If I were to tell you that we’d be here for eternity. You’ll find out soon enough – in, hopefully, a nice way. That’s the plan.” He rocks back on his heels and hugs his knees. “I used to be a human.”
“What is this about?” I ask. “I haven’t much time.”
He leaps up and kneels before me, his hands on my knees. “Time is not a problem. Just trust me. It’s not. Don’t worry about Ben for the moment, concentrate. I’ll take you through this but I can only think of one way without tangling you up in confusion and distress.” He looks into my eyes. “So I want to tell you something … things … but don’t be frightened: we’re nice. The first is that we prey on humans. All I, any of us, do is destroy humans.”
“Why…?” I tense, fingers tightening on my stick. “Are you preying now; are you going to destroy me?”
“Only the human bit – what’s left of it. Gods, I wish I’d had someone to help me through it.” He strokes my knees.
I ask, “Are you going to kill me?” He may look like a child, but frankly there’s no way I could stop him. Just look at the way he scrambled up the cliff and carried a huge pile of wood. I could cry out but I feel so calm…
He winks at me, “Yes, I look like a child but that’s not the whole story. The important bit now is that I’m in your mind, reading your thoughts and slowing them down, blocking others so you ask the right questions. I’m doing this with all the intelligence and love I can muster. Afterwards we can talk about it and see if there is a better way. You’re going to need to do this – what I’m doing now – very soon. This is my first time.” He sighs. “Yes, a child. I was a human child: I loved being a child. Then I grew into an adult and it all went wrong. I tried to be what everyone wanted, what society expected and encouraged me to be. Too many conflicting pressures all claiming to be the most important … and somehow I failed to pick up sufficient wisdom and a thick enough skin to deal with them. The result was a malformed twisted grotesque: a poisonous homunculus. I was revolted by the man I became. I didn’t admire or trust him … and I had to be him!” He pats my knees, rises and turns back to the fire. He calls, “If I remember rightly, I killed myself.”
“You’re dead? You committed suicide?”
“Yes … yes. I only killed the adult. I kept the best bit. There are so few benefits to being human. Keeping the best bits is one, family ties another. There are friendships too but you get all these things anywhere. It’s hard to find any point in being human at all.” He turns the sticks and other pieces of lobster. “Do you like mackerel? There are some close. I can call them.”
A thousand questions in my mind seem to evaporate. Yes, something is messing with my head. But for all that’s happening I remain tranquil and able to think clearly.
He looks back to me, pulling hair into a ponytail to clear his face. He ties it with a strip of semi-dried seaweed, fragments tumbling from it. “I love you!” He lets those words hang for a moment. “We go into people’s heads, hearts, bodies and destroy everything we can. It takes a lot of us and a lot of effort. Why do humans even exist? Is there any point to them?” He stands, pushing a lobster claw with his toes. “Nothing suffers anything like humans do. Nothing is so ignorant and out of control … and so removed from reality.” He looks at me, head tilted to one side. “Tell me, what’s the point? Did you ever find a point?”
“Are you really going to kill me?” I close my eyes. Why did I close them; did he make me?
“No … I’m going to feed you. Look around.”
Opening my eyes I see the beach has changed. This is a different place and the sun is just rising. The colours are unworldly. It all smells different, scents I can’t identify. The air feels thicker. I’ve been here before … some fleeting memory. I stand, my stick falling away: I don’t need it. That’s a shock. I’m strong again, stable… “I’m dead?”
“No, you’re alive … just, this moment, born again. It will take you some time to readjust but you’re free now. Incidentally, don’t worry about Ben. He’ll cope and I have news of him.” He watches me for a while. “What can you see?”
My panic regarding Ben is suppressed along with more questions. “A strange but familiar place … another planet?”
“Just that … just one place? You’ve a long way to go yet then but that will come.” He turns the lobster tails. “These are nearly ready. How do you like them?” Walking over to me, he takes my hands. “Maybe you’ll change into a child like me or stay as you are or become a … oh, let’s go for stupid names and categories while you still think like that; siren, selkie, huldra, demon, angel, fairy … anything so you can free humans from torment. Cancer, car accidents, ageing … anything. You don’t realise it but without us you’d all be trapped in hell for ever.” He tips his head to one side. “Did I do all right? Was the transition painless enough?” He stares into space. “I think I got you through it all right. You’re free now and I love you. I’m also going to stop meddling with your thoughts. Brace yourself, you’re on your own now.” He grins.
Momentarily my mind is swamped with released thoughts fighting for attention. I dismiss them – now I see his face clearly. “Arthur!” I choke out a sob, fists pressed against my mouth.
He grins. “Hello, Mum. Yes, I left hell. You’ve reminded me of how humans think and my departure must have brought you great distress. For that I am so sorry but it was all getting too ugly. However, at least it meant I am here for you now. Look, we need to work out if there’s a better way to do what I just did. You’re going to be the best one to field Ben. We’re working on him – he’s going to be freed soon.” He hugs me. “Come and eat.”
©Gary Bonn, 2017