Red, spattering, dark and oily in the night.
Sprays from the neck.
The body flaps, thrashes. Limp. Mindless.
Alice breathes in hard through her nostrils. She can smell the tang of the kill. The metal scent of life hitting dirt. Her muscles are knotted, tense, ready to spring.
The chicken finally flops to the ground, headless. Its neck spurts, then dribbles, then trickles, then spits, and finally the blood stops flowing. Rivulets run down the dusty ground. They mix with the dirt and turn to reddish sludge, dark and slimy in the night.
Alice shivers with cold again. Lets out her breath. The smell has been chased away by the wind.
The woman in the headdress moans, low and ululating. It echoes around the clearing. Guests clutch their cameras, click them with furtive, hurried snaps. No-one uses flash.
The woman ignores them, drags her feet through the dust towards the body of the chicken, waving her head from side to side. She’s still moaning.
A knife hangs from one hand, loose, dangling. It drips blood with a steady rhythm, leaving a trail of life speckled over the ground.
There are murmurs, mutterings, fluttering on the wind. Languages from all over Europe drift into Alice’s ears. Fragments and snatches of questions, disbelieving, whispered exclamations. High, anxious children’s voices, hushed by their rapt parents.
The clicking of cameras is its own chorus, now, the tourist vocabulary of clicks shouting its own performative emptiness. People stare at the woman through viewfinders, judge her figure and the lighting and the angle, the zoom, the focus.
The woman shuffles closer, then bends down to the body. The knife snaps upwards, held firm and strong in bony fingers, before it comes down, cleaving through the bone and sinew of the chest with a sharp crack.
The cameras fall silent.
The tourists gawp with their eyes now. Hushed. Phones and lenses hang loose from fingers and cords.
Ribs split, snap. One, then another, then another. Each snap breaks off into the silence of the clearing, flees into the shelter of the trees as it is prised away from the steaming body. The woman levers her hands into the corpse’s chest and pulls it apart. Slowly. Painfully.
The audience can hear every popping sinew. Be confronted with the full consequence of their bloodlust.
Some look ill, ghostly white faces glowing pale in the night. Their lips are pursed in distaste. Their jaws are clenched.
But their eyes sparkle. They sit there and watch and no one leaves. No one cries out, not even the children.
A final, creaking, drawn out shatter as the chicken’s breastbone is ripped away. The corpse sprawls, gaping obscenely, offering itself up to the rich westerners. The woman delicately probes with a finger, eyes down but making sure the audience can see the display. She stirs the entrails around.
A fresh stench strikes Alice and she gags at the slap of warm, rancid shit and bile. Vomit surges up in her throat again and she fights it back down, clenching her jaw, swallowing against the waves of warm spit that have risen up in her mouth. It tastes acrid, acid, burns the back of her throat.
Her breaths are shallow, gasping, through her nose. She can’t risk opening her mouth.
Nobody notices. They focus on the woman, now pulling her hand free from the pitiful corpse, clutching a handful of dripping, shapeless remnants.
She throws them at the ground. The mess of viscera throws up a wet splash of bloodied mud as it smacks into the dirt.
The woman shuffles over, dragging her feet in a jerking rhythmic pattern. She moans again, reaches one clawing hand down, snatches one of the dirtied organs and holds it, dripping through her fingers.
She turns to the audience and looks at them. Her eyes, burning, piercing, sweep around the loose circle gathered in the clearing. People shrink from her gaze, her direct intensity. Strong men, brash women, bold, fearless children all cower as she fixes them with her eyes, a mesmerising cobra waiting to strike.
Then one man doesn’t. He’s young, almost as young as Alice. He has smooth cheeks, thick blond hair, the musculature of someone with time to spend chasing perfection, an attitude of easy privilege. And he’s swaying slightly in place, emboldened by drink and the presence of his identically meaty friends.
The woman reaches out to him. Stretches the hand holding the glistening entrails towards him. A flash of disgust crosses his face, then he remembers himself. Plasters a jaunty, unconcerned smile on his face, rolls his eyes at his friends, and steps forward.
What do I do? he asks, a thick Afrikaner accent colouring his vowels.
Speak, the woman hisses. Talk of your wishes and your dreams. Or your enemies, those you would curse.
The boy, Alice sees how young he is now that she sees him properly, laughs, too loud, too enthusiastic. He’s the only one. The pulsing organs still dribble blood and fluid inches from his chest. The woman thrusts her hand at him and he flinches.
OK, he says, speaking loudly, disturbing the still of the forest pressing in around them. I want to curse Jannie, that guy there. He points at another of his group.
A couple of them giggle into their hands. They back away from the unfortunate Jannie while shooting sidelong glances at each other, making sure everyone’s doing the same.
What is it that you want? the woman says, sibilants sizzling in the night. I am asking you to tell me the curse that I should put on him with my power.
Um, the boy hesitates, unsure how far to take it. Then a grin creases his face, crinkling his hairless cheeks with idiotic malevolence.
I want you to curse him so that he’ll never fuck again! the boy says, turning to his friends for approval of his joke. They whoop this time, laugh, high five the curser for his exemplary juvenility. Even Jannie laughs at his friend successfully making fun of the old witch.
They know it’s all fake anyway, with the comfort and certainty of the rich outsider. The privilege of science and rationality.
Jannie looks over to Alice and her friends.
Well, ladies, perhaps one of you would care to help me test the potency of this curse?
His eyes fix on Alice and she drops her gaze without knowing why. Then she feels a surge of heat in her face as she blushes, another heat in her gut as anger flashes up at her embarrassment, her shame, her inability to tell this boor to go fuck himself, her slight pang of longing. It’s the last that churns in her, and she tries to blaze it away with more hot anger, tries to despise the pigheaded manchild.
She can’t, not quite. But when she looks up again, he’s gone back to bantering with his friends and has long stopped looking at her. Alice sighs, relieved, disappointed.
Then she notices the woman. Everyone else is milling around, the enraptured trance of the performance torn apart by the interjection of cynical reality. The spell she wove over the audience has been banished.
She’s crouching now, oblivious. She has the entrails in her hand, and is waving the other over them in a loose, vague pattern. She sways side to side as she does so, rocking in place with her eyes closed and a dreamy expression on her face. She is mouthing strange words, unknown words that Alice cannot hear.
Blood patters down onto the ground with each sway. Alice can hear each droplet as it impacts and kicks up a spray of dirt. They thud, thumping with the pounding insistence of a heartbeat, of a living creature. The curse has its own life, its own vibrancy.
The heartbeats get louder, and Alice can hear the words now, hear what the woman is saying. It means nothing, shapes of sounds flowing together in a vast, foaming river. The river is deep, wild. Dangerous. Untamed.
Alice can feel the contours of it, feel where it slows and twists around a bend, feel where it narrows, rushes, feel where it finally crashes over rocks and falls.
Alice, you OK? Regina asks.
Alice surfaces, heaves a breath in.
You looked kind of out of it, Regina says. Just the wine hitting you a bit?
Yeah, I think that’s it, Alice says, not looking at Regina. Instead, she’s glaring back over at the patch of dirt where the woman stood.
No one is there. There are no footprints. No corpse. No blood.
How long have I been standing here?
Shall we go with the others? Alice says, trying to sound casual as she looks over the clearing and sees figures disappearing back down the path.
Yeah, we probably should, says Regina.
They saunter back down the path. Alice stares fixedly at her feet, concentrating on lifting them and dropping them, not dragging them through the dirt. She hugs her arms around herself, pulling her hoody to her body against the bony cold. Beyond the lamps lighting their way the forest is dark and hostile. She can see nothing beyond the path.
She can hear the forest. It calls to her, with a thousand thousand voices, speaking in tongues of times long past or yet to come. It squawks and hisses and rattles and roars and creaks and crackles and falls silent as the wind rises. Leaves rustle, and clouds of dirt kick up under her feet. It no longer smells warm, welcoming, vibrant as it did during the day. She can smell cold, damp, decay, slow mouldering ruin being recycled ever unto the morrow.
She looks up from her feet, looks into the depth of darkness between the trees. Nothing and everything looks back with a million unseen faceted eyes.
Neither she nor Regina speak during the walk back. They reach the main clearing with the restaurant and the reception and the bar, all boutique thatched huts with the electrical cables tastefully disguised by stands of shrubby bushes.
Regina motions towards the bar. Voices that Alice can recognise float out, words stolen away by the wind giving her enough to work out who’s talking but not enough to hear what they’re saying. There are some of the girls in there, and then she recognises a South African accent, then another, and she realises it’s Jannie and his friends.
Why do I even know his name? Why do I remember it? Or remember what his face looked like in the soft light of the clearing, the way his eyes sparkled with mischief and arrogance and hunger when he looked at her, the way the flush crept from her face down my body, the way it’s doing now. I’m just being stupid, a child, an immature idiot, I’m better than them anyway.
You coming in? Regina asks, after they’ve stood there in awkward silence for a moment.
Alice blushes harder at having made Regina wait.
Oh, sorry, just daydreaming a bit, Alice catches herself. Nah, I’m pretty tired, as you can probably see, and it’s been a long day and stuff. I’d probably better go to bed.
Fair enough, Regina says. Well, sleep well. Goodnight.
Night, Alice says. She watches Regina walk towards the bar, watches the easy sway of her hips in her loose dress, her casual, effortless elegance. Her beauty.
Then Regina turns. Hey, she shouts across the clearing, I wouldn’t worry about the show or anything, you know it’s all nonsense put on for tourists, right?
Yeah, yeah, I know, Alice says back. I mean, it’s the first time I’d ever seen something killed, but I mean, I knew it goes on and it’s all just done for effect and stuff.
Exactly. Don’t let it get into your head, it’s just a show, Regina says. Anyway, goodnight.
Night, Alice says again.
She watches until Regina disappears and she doesn’t quite know why. Then she sighs, pulls her hood over her head, and trudges off down the path to her hut.
It is empty when she gets back. Dark. Warm, with still air undisturbed by the wind, shielded from the outside. Alice takes her shoes off and feels the underfloor heating bathe her toes. She wriggles them with pleasure, pulls her socks off.
Luxuriates, standing alone in the dark.
She closes the door behind her and the noise of the forest is cut off. It has been chattering to her all day, been her constant chirruping companion, and now she can’t hear it.
Alice turns around to the front of the hut, the one lined with glass, and opens a window. The noise of the forest is there, faint, chittering. She pads back over to the bed.
Her clothes get neatly folded, piled properly beside the bed. She tucks her shoes and socks underneath it. Then she puts on her pyjamas and goes to brush her teeth, visions of her mother’s scolding floating in front of her.
The light of the bathroom is harsh, fluorescing hard on the bright white porcelain. There is a pattern on the tiles, an attempt to make the bathroom feel like some jungle outhouse with branches poking in gaps, but the green is flat and dull and sparse. Fake. It’s impotent against the unvarying brightness of the artificial light.
Alice finishes up and switches the light off. She steps softly back to the bed through the darkness, feeling the warmth of the room on her bare arms and feet. A tickle of wind from the cracked window stirs a few hairs on her head, gives her a deliciously indulgent shiver to savour as she climbs into bed and piles blankets around her.
She can hear a whisper from the outside, an inkling of the life and death being fought for beyond her haven. But she snuggles into the pillows and soon hears nothing at all.
Bottomless. Many and few.
You have felt it.
Chasms of knowledge. She is slipping.
Your first task has come.
The crocodile. It glitters. He glitters. She feels its maleness.
He stares. Deep black eyes, flat pools. Shafts.
Multifaceted. Multigendered. Many and one. Many behind the one.
Alice’s voice. Empty. Tiny, disappearing. In her head and in her heart.
Yes. You have it. You know it. You shall do it.
He glints green. Ancient jewelled scales give majesty.
Her feet are cold.
She is standing at the doorway to her hut. It is open. The wind gusts in, pimpling her bare flesh.
She is looking towards the bed. The room is dark, but she can hear gentle snuffling. The others are asleep.
One of them half wakes.
That you back from your walk, Al? Close the door, it’s fucking freezing, she mumbles.
Alice reaches behind her, tugs the door closed. It slides silently into place, and the room is still again but for the heavy breathing of the three lined up in the bed.
She steps carefully over to the bathroom, eases the door shut, switches the light on.
She screams silently into her hands.
She holds her hands over her face, hyperventilates into them, breathing, why can’t she breathe, what’s going on, my head, my heart, I’m pounding, I have to do something, I have to move, I can’t wake the others, I have to go I need to know what’s going on breathe breathe breathe breathe breathe.
She drags a hand through her hair, pulls at it, tugs at it again and again. Stands up, walks forward, walks backward, running a hand through her hair and bouncing a palm off her thigh, jitters.
Her chest feels tight, constrained, her diaphragm squeezing in panic. She still can’t breathe, her head is light, she feels dizzy, tired, exhausted, she needs to go to sleep. She buzzes.
She collapses. She is spent. Her breathing starts to settle, starts to come back down. Her heart slows. Her head anchors.
What the fuck happened? I went for a walk?
She stands up again, looks at the mirror, sees the bags under her eyes, her tangled, windblown hair. She can smell mud, dirt, and she looks down at her bare feet. There’s dirt caked into the cracks, collected under her nails. The soles of her feet are freezing.
Her body is sore, aching, like it’s been used hard. Her muscles are twanging. She looks at her hands. There’s more dirt under her fingernails, dirt and scraps as if she’s been clawing at something. One of her nails has cracked.
She shivers. Realises how bone-deep the cold is, how long she must have spent outside.
She switches the light off, creeps back into the darkened main room. She pulls back a corner of the thick blanket and slips in on the edge where the sheets are cool.
She can’t get warm. She can’t sleep. She closes her eyes and she sees the emerald-jade figure, his opal eyes, his diamond teeth.
And she woke up. And something happened.
He’s there again, looking at her from forever with bottomless eyes. Taunting her. Haunting her.
She stops trying to close her eyes. Lies there, looks at the ceiling. Her muscles twitch unbidden as they ready themselves to flee.
Sunlight spears through a gap in the curtain. She lies unmoving in bed and watches the dawn.
The others stir around her. The sheets shift as they unconsciously try to steal more and more. It’s the same every morning.
There’s a yawn from Alice’s left. She ignores it.
Morning! How was your walk last night? Did it help you sleep?
Not really, Alice mumbles.
Then she throws herself out of bed, pelts over to the bathroom and shuts herself in.
I’m taking a shower, she calls through the door as she opens the taps. The jet of water drowns out the grumpy protestations.
She pulls off her pyjamas as the water heats up and looks at them. The knees of her trousers are stained, grass or dirt, and there’s a huge brown patch on the front of her top. It looks like it was wet and then dried.
She sniffs at it. Nothing distinctive.
Placing her clothes in a pile on the floor, she steps into the steaming shower. The hot water hits her head, soaks through her hair and drums against her skull. She breathes in deep and feels the steam burrowing up into her sinuses, clearing her mind.
She closes her eyes. He isn’t there.
She sighs. Stands there, under the hot water, inhaling the steam. Her chest loosens off, and she is surprised when she notices the change. It doesn’t hurt any more. Tension, panic had compressed her abdomen.
When Alice turns the shower off, the small space is full of steam. She can barely see the opposite wall through the cloud. The tiles are damp and slippery under her tingling, scrubbed toes. The mirror is fogged over, such that she can’t see her own reflection.
She picks up the pyjamas and stuffs them in the bin.
Wrapping a towel around herself, she walks out framed with a puff of steam, a dragon emerging from its den. She’s greeted with a round of sarcastic applause.
Thank fuck, I’ve been dying for a pee, someone says, and Alice sees her scamper in and slam the door behind her.
Mate, you could’ve waited to rub one out, says Daisy, sounding displeased.
No, I wasn’t! Alice cries. She can feel herself blushing down to her toes. I-
She stands there, unable to meet Daisy’s eye. She glances down at her feet, at the sparkling nails she had to dig dirt from under.
I just find a long shower helps with a hangover, you know? she says, looking upward.
Fair enough, I guess. Still you could’ve left the door unlocked if you were gonna be in there for ages.
Sorry, I guess I just lost track of time. A proper shower, you know how it is.
Daisy grimaces. Yeah, I get that.
Daisy flops backwards and sprawls on the bed. I could probably do with a bit of the same, to be honest.
Oh? Alice prompts, as she sorts through her clothes.
Yeah, those saffer guys that were making eyes at us last night, a few of us went for a bit of a party afterwards, Daisy says. Little scrotes, though, one of them was trying to get in my pants by buying me whisky and ended up spewing all over the lawn. Pretty close to where you did, actually, I might introduce you two, you’ve got something in common.
Uh-huh, Alice says, pulling on clothes. Someone has pulled the curtain back and she looks out of the window, sees the deep, velvet, rippling green of the forest stretching away over the hills.
You alright? asks Daisy, propping herself up on an elbow and eyeing Alice.
Um, yeah, yeah, Alice says, tearing her gaze away from the view. Yeah, I’m fine, just didn’t sleep very well. I think I might actually be a little ill.
Well, it was only a matter of time, says Daisy. At least we don’t have anywhere to go for the next couple of days, you don’t have to try and hold the shits in on a twelve-hour bus ride or anything like that.
I think it’s just something I ate last night or something, I wasn’t too good at the show or anything, Alice says. I thought I maybe just had too much to drink, but I dunno.
Eh, whatever, we all have shit days, and you’re here long enough that one was bound to come along eventually. Daisy throws herself backwards with wanton abandon, crashing into a stack of pillows. Anyway, looking forward to another day of pampered relaxation?
Yeah, it should be good, Alice says. I’ve got some reading I want to catch up on, and I’ll write in my journal a bit, and maybe go for a walk.
Sounds good, says Daisy. We’ll be a little bit, after you took so long, but if you wanna wait we can all head over for breakfast together.
I will do, thanks. Alice reaches down to her bag and pulls out a dog-eared book, one she picked up from a battered bookshelf in the hostel in the city. On the inside of the front cover is a list of names and dates and places, stretching back across years and miles. The book has met more people from more countries and travelled further than Alice can ever hope. She’s already planning what she’ll write, where she’ll leave it or who she’ll give it to.
It’s about Buddhist interpretations of the intersection of spirituality and modernity. Alice has read the first couple of chapters, skimming through them, trying to understand, but they remain frustratingly vague, incomprehensible and somehow obvious. She looks over at Daisy, sees the small jade Buddha hanging on a thong around her neck, remembers the conversation they had back in the city about religion and spirituality, then Regina pushing the book into her hands, telling her to read it, it’d change her life.
The last name on the inside of the cover is Regina’s. It has the date, and the city, in a tight, contained script. Then there are three wild, scrawled kisses.
Alice opens it up, tries again to batter her way through the discussion. She notices the others coming and going around her, sees them look at the cover and nod as they recognise what she’s reading, but she doesn’t take her eyes off the pages. She reads the same sentence, over and over, until it makes some sort of sense.
Hey, you ready to go?
Alice jumps up and puts the book in her bag.
Yeah, I’m starving, she says.
Huh. Watch yourself, if you’re ill you might wanna take it a bit easy, Daisy says.
Thanks, mum, says Alice. Daisy laughs.
Fair, she says, and opens the door.
The morning is warm. They’ve waited long enough that the sun has begun to heat the air, and the breeze ruffling the treetops is fragrant and cooling. Alice inhales, and smells it all again, the forest and the creatures and the life.
Damn, I could get used to this.
The four of them tread the path to the restaurant, flip flops slapping noisily in the morning air. Alice squints through the bright sunshine, but can’t see anything.
Hey, did any of you guys wake up last night when it was raining? Alice asks.
It rained last night? No I didn’t notice, says Cate. There are a couple of other negative grunts.
Oh, OK then. Just I thought it must’ve done, because it was all damp and muddy when I went outside, Alice says.
They walk the rest of the way in silence. Alice patters slightly ahead, trying to rein herself in. The other three slouch along behind her, sunglasses on and hair blowing over their faces.
There’s a crowd milling around the clearing when they reach it. Aimless, restless, a flock of leaderless white sheep standing bleating piteously. The four of them walk over to the edge, where the rest of their group are.
What’s going on? Has something happened? Cate asks. Alice feels her chest tightening again, her breath drawing in.
Oh thank God, Regina says as she spots them. That’s everyone, I was worried out my mind. Why don’t any of you check your phones?
Ah, shit, sorry Reggie, says Daisy, looking abashed. But I don’t think we get any signal out in our but anyway.
Well, whatever, you’re here now. Hope you’re not too hungry, though, breakfast might be a while, says Regina, gesturing towards the restaurant.
How, what’s going on? Daisy asks. I thought this place was the absolute shit.
Well, it would be if someone hadn’t been attacked last night.
Shit, really? Cate’s aghast. Who? What happened?
Dunno what happened, but those South African guys are saying it was their mate Jannie, says Regina, leaning in closer. Did you hear the helicopter this morning?
Yeah, I wondered what that was, Daisy says. It was when you were in the shower, she says in answer to Alice’s quizzical look.
He had to get airlifted out to hospital, apparently it’s really bad, says Regina. Look, I don’t want to get anyone scared but from what those guys are saying, I dunno if it’s even safe to stay here.
Yeah. So, this morning, you remember Pieter, he went to Jannie’s hut to grab him for their morning run and the door was open. There was blood everywhere, Jannie curled up on the floor in a pool of the stuff, unconscious, with a blindfold and a gag on.
Jesus, Daisy breathes. The other girls have all turned white.
And apparently Pieter runs over to him and he’s clutching his hands over his crotch. Pieter pulls one away and, fuck man. Regina stops speaking. She’s paler than Alice has ever seen her before.
So the little glimpse he caught before he ran outside to call for help – it looked like someone carved Jannie’s dick and balls off and left him to bleed out. And I know it sounds like something those assholes would make up, but they all were serious as hell, they’re fucking scared, says Regina, looking wide eyed around the circle. And there’s an air ambulance here to take him to hospital and everything. And-
There’s a moment’s pause. Alice is panting, she can feel her heart hammering in her chest. Her legs are twitching, she wants to run, now.
And, Regina continues, they were all talking about what the curse thing last night. And I know it’s bullshit and tourist nonsense and all the rest, but you know when he got cursed never to fuck again? Well…
Alice’s head is light, faint. Her vision is becoming blurry, the sunlight hurts her eyes. She feels pain clamp her chest.
The forest shimmers serenely in the bright morning sun, a glowing, iridescent green.
Part 6 is here.