Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
Sherelle dashed to the window and leaned out, desperate for a glimpse of Vinia's body. Nothing; not even a row of bubbles. Hang on, though, was that a disturbance in the water further down river? Her fingers fumbled as she unbuttoned her uniform and stepped out of it, ready to dive through the window.
"Nurse! What do you think you're doing?" Festin Burke's voice echoed through the room.
"Er," said Sherelle. She whirled around and grabbed her uniform; she held it against herself in a vain attempt to hide the purple lace which only partially covered her confusion. She pointed to the window and finally managed: "One of the bodies, sir, it fell into the river. I was just going to-"
Festin's little round eyes held speculative interest as well as moral outrage. Underwear suited this girl, he thought. She really could be quite attractive... What was she twittering about? A body in the water? "Well, don't fuss about it; there won't be too much pollution, it'll get washed out to sea soon enough."
Sherelle looked at him with wide eyes. "But- but-"
He clicked his tongue and frowned. "Don't stand there with your mouth open. You've managed to freshen the air a little; keep it up. Get on with the job." He wiggled his fingers at her in encouragement and pottered out of the room. People did all sorts of odd things if he didn't keep his eye on them, he thought; but at least this little nurse had made some difference to the place before she'd been grabbed by a mad urge to disrobe. Purple lace, good grief. He hoped she'd -uh- not do it again, yes, definitely not do it, what was he thinking of for heaven's sake? He looked down in surprise as his usually torpid member lifted its head and thrust against his pants. He had a vague memory of this happening before, a long time ago, before the council became his passion. If his memory served him aright, what one did was grasp the member and rub it... Oh yes...
"Sir?" Sherelle's voice at his back made him jump and feverishly stuff bits of himself back into his trousers. "Sir, I just wanted to know - should I tell the river police?"
"Get back to work, nurse, for heaven's sake. I'll see to it. Shoo!" He kept his back to her and walked off with dignity.
Sherelle sighed, wiped her tired eyes and turned back to her task. For a minute there, she could have sworn that he'd been having a quick - no, not the Great Moralist, she thought with a wry smile. Well, it was no use worrying about that body; the current would have carried it far away by now. She'd reached her favourite patient now, the one labelled "Angus" - strange that one could get fond of a zombie. She wasn't sure what it was about him. Perhaps it was his expression, because he wasn't handsome. His hair was a startling red, and his whole body covered in freckles; even the penis, she thought as she smoothed it into its tube again. She bet he'd make a great lover. Or was it true what they said, that size made no difference? She'd have to bring a ruler along some time.
While Sherelle was busy thrusting Vinia's body out of her mind, Vinia's auto-pilot was doing its best to thrust some mind into its body. It was doing quite well; it hadn't managed to cry for help, but it was achieving something pretty good in the "glurgle" range, and there was at least some reasonable churning-up of the water going on.
Vinia managed enough movement to attract attention from Sloshforth Villars' raft as it continued to slide upriver.
A series of heavy barks floated across the water from the raft's shack; "Whomp, whomp," the sound came in a rhythm of steady bangs. This was rich, deep type of bark, with a sound suspiciously like a rusty-hinge squeak at the end of each "whomp". Well, it was a rusty hinge. Sloshforth had been meaning to oil it for some time.
"Shut up, Lupudana! What is it?" Sloshforth stowed his oars and clambered forward across the raft. His printing press squatted, a dark shape in the doorway of the shack, and thumped its platen shut again on another "Whomp".
Sloshforth peered into the murk of the river. Hmm, yes, Lupudana was right; someone down there seemed to be having quite a struggle. Ah, the body was rising to the surface again. He reached out with his boat-hook and snagged Vinia by the hair. The press rattled its rollers in a growl as its master strained, heaved the body on board, and swore vividly.
At last Vinia lay on the logs, silent and nakedly wrinkled by her lengthy bathe.
"A woman! I'm plagued by bloody women these days. Lupudana, you asshole, why'd you have to notice her? I should'a left her to the nixies," Sloshforth said. He peered closer at her relaxed face, "Mind you, this one does seem a bit quieter than most. Looks as though our river brethren already took what they wanted from her, doesn't it?"
"Rrrr - whomp," said the press.
"Yeah, you're right, it ain't like them to leave off in the middle of a good wet bit of drowning. Most of 'em make a real art of it. Shoddy job, this one." He felt her arm; the skin was quivering. "Silly woman, nude bathing at this time o' year. You're coming out all over goose-bumps." He picked her up with surprising gentleness and carried her to the shack where he sat her propped up against a corner, between the stove and the washbasin, and then dried her with care.
A huge, fleecy towel snuggled around her, all warm and soft and comforting. Here's somewhere else at last, her auto-pilot thought. Much nicer. Not so wet.
The sun had climbed a good quarter of its way up the sky when Theola Devin awoke to the sound of the doorbell. She groped for her clock and peered at its face through blear-filled eyes. Oh hell, she thought, and leapt out of bed. Uh, sorry God, I meant `Oh bother'. Ow, my head; whatever is wrong? She groaned and sat on the edge of the bed with her head in her hands. Nightmares, that was it; she'd had the most awful dreams.
The bell rang again. She flung on her housecoat, a bright blue kaftan; hunted for her shoes; and finally stumbled down the stairs wearing one Turkish slipper and holding the other. She swung the front door open. The couple outside stepped back and huddled together. They weren't used to colourfully dishevelled vicars who brandished glass-studded shoes in their faces and yelled: "What is it?"
They were used to people slamming doors in their faces, but that was different. That was what happened when you had a Cause.
"Well?" Theola's voice had calmed; she was puzzled. Nobody ever visited her.
With one eye on the slipper-hand, the spokesman straightened his tie, touched the brim of his hat and stepped forward. He held out a sheet of paper. "Madam vicar, I have a petition to put to you. I know I speak for us all," he looked at his mousy companion, who nodded encouragement at him, "when I say that I hope you will see that this abomination-before-God is eradicated."
"'All of us'?" Theola squinted at the paper with its enormous, block-letter heading. "GODLY? I don't understand-"
"We are God's Official Denouncers of Licentious Yobbos. You must have seen our commune near the village, Madam. We take every opportunity to denounce the evils-"
"Yes, fine, I understand." Theola felt a surge of irritation. "So what is it that you expect of me?" She peered down at the paper.
"Beltane, Madam. We require, nay insist, that the practice be stopped. It is an abomination against the Lord, and every year Yobbos descend on our own doorstep and produce every manner of licentious behaviour."
Theola blinked at him. "What are you talking about?"
The mousy woman took a quick breath and hurried into speech with a squeaky little gasp: "The Travellers, Ma'am -gasp-, they come to Fallekin Barrows and desecrate the hallowed ground." She finished with one last gasp, and flushed bright red.
The man glanced at her in approval. "So, Madam, I trust that you will act upon that petition and see that the practice is stopped. We also expect to see the Lord's will enforced here, in the matter of disgraceful alcoholic absorption. Good day, Madam." He tipped his hat to her and strode off down the path; his companion trotted after him.
Theola slammed the door and slouched into the kitchen. What the botheration did they expect her to do? It was the word "Official" in their title which had really made her want to spit at them. She would have to curb her temper, she thought. A cup of coffee, perhaps that would steady her nerves and shake off the effects of last night's awful nightmares. She shuddered again as she remembered. Lost souls had called to her from a burning tar-pit, begging her to save them - and then thrown things at her when she'd tried; the earth itself had buckled and swayed, trying to fling her away as it turned; and a man with a shaggy beard had followed her everywhere. He wore rough woollen clothes, held a heavy staff, and called out "Want me to eat you?" over and over again. But worst of all was the final dream which had awoken her with a cry in the darkness before dawn; she'd been stuck in a treacly substance which reeked of decaying tomatoes. The bearded man had looked down on her and laughed at her struggles. It had taken her ages to get back to sleep again after that one.
The coffee managed to cut through the coating on her tongue, but breakfast, even after she'd taken the time to dress and had brushed her teeth, was a waste of time. Everything tasted like singed paper. How could a few dreams have such an effect? They were only shadows after all. She snorted at herself. Well, she had a sermon to write; she'd just have to get down to it.
Two hours later, she was still fiddling with her pen and looking out at the sunlit, bustling village. She shook her head, and thought: What on earth is wrong with me? I seem to be the only one around here with a headache! Perhaps I need some fresh air.
She dropped her pen, flung on a coat and strode up the hill to the church. She shuddered as she passed the statue; that awful bird was sitting there again, on the man's - Mr. Marrow really must come and cut that off. She would take no more defiance from the fellow.
The cool, stone peace of the church enveloped and soothed her as she passed through the huge arch of the doorway; she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The slight smell of dusty stone and old wood mingled with strong scents from arrangements of violet and bluebell.
She opened her eyes and looked up towards the lectern. Her hand flew to her mouth; it was him! The man from her nightmares, standing there and examining the stonework with interest. Nonsense, she thought; just because he has the same shaggy beard and homespun woollen clothing. And anyone can have a heavy oak staff... She gave a little gulp and stepped backwards.
The man turned at the noise, and looked at her with an enquiring lift to his brows. His eyes held a warm laughter, and he jerked his head towards the lectern, with its lavishly carved foliate heads. "Quite something, eh? There have been some good craftsmen here." His voice was normal, deep and gravelly. "There's the statue outside, too. Real moving stuff."
Theola frowned. "You mean that dreadful, naked thing? It's disgusting. I'm going to have it removed."
"Now, why do that?" he said; instantly he was beside her, and she could smell a tang of damp oak-leaves on his breath. "'Tis life, isn't it?" His hazel eyes looked deep into hers, and he smiled as she winced. "Poor kid. You're right screwed up. I'm not going to eat you-"
She gasped at the echo from her bad dreams, and giggled with slight hysteria. He grinned in sympathy. "Show me round this church of yours, eh?" He took her hand. "The name's Kerr. Kerr Nunnos."
Well, at least here was somebody showing an interest, Theola thought, and was surprised how easy it was not to shrink from his touch. The nightmare memory was fading fast. His large hand felt warm and dry; like smooth, sun-baked bark.
She'd fallen in love with this building from the moment she'd first seen it; there was a throaty passion in her voice when she spoke of it, and her doughy cheeks flushed. Her eyes glistened with enthusiasm. She pointed out the ornate carvings of figures on the pews, and told Kernunnos that the lectern had been decorated with what was now thought to be an ancient pagan god: "John Barleycorn, some call him. But of course, it's all nonsense; I think the carving was done to appease the early settlers around here. This is on the site of an ancient temple, you understand. It's comforting to think that they were all brought into the fold, and taught the truth."
He chuckled. "You don't think that folk come along here to worship the wrong god, then?"
She gave a wry smile, and rubbed her fingers over the polished wood of a nearby pew. "No, Mr. Nunnos. I think attendance would be greater if they did."
This time, he threw back his head and gave a shout of laughter, a glorious, wild sound.
Theola wanted to laugh too; her heart felt so much lighter. She gave a little gurgle. "There's a legend around here about godlessness; this place was hit by a lightning-bolt a century ago, when the villagers turned their back on God. So perhaps they'd better watch out now!"
"So your god isn't mad about these rough pagan figures, you reckon?" His deep voice echoed up to the cool shadows of the vaulted roof.
She turned to look at him, and her voice became a strangled squeak. She could have sworn that his hair had stirred slightly although there was no breeze. He looked vaguely familiar, not just from her dream, and a bubble of laughter lay trapped in his eyes.
Theola shivered. What tricks the imagination can play, she thought, and led the way back outside, into the sunshine. She realised suddenly that the weight on her mind had cleared completely; the nightmares had collapsed and become amusing memories. Somehow things didn't seem so bad any more. Well then, right now was the time to tackle that sermon! And she had a wonderful idea; she could use those foliate heads as a theme. She held out her hand to say a hurried good-bye, but forgot everything when a loud squawk erupted nearby. It came from the old eagle, whose outstretched wings could be heard beating the air around the new statue.
Egrette was defending her perch.
Doug Marrow had arrived, complete with hammer and chisel, to remove the offending member. He wasn't enthusiastic; whoever had carved this was a terrific artist, and he hated the thought of mutilating the work. Not that he was having any luck with it. The stone was close-grained, almost like clay to look at, but impossibly hard. Whatever kind of tools could shape a rock like this? He looked at the blunted end of his heavy chisel and shook his head.
Oh hell, and now here was the vicar, she'd give him an earful too, he supposed. So his jaw dropped open in amazement when she hurried by, saying: "Oh it's you, Mr. Marrow. Don't bother with that right now if it upsets the bird. Good-bye, Mr. Nunnos; I hope you'll start coming to our services."
Kernunnos gazed after Theola's hurrying form and licked his lips. She might not be beautiful but there was something... The ecstasy of her love for this church made her almost attractive. He wondered whether other forms of love would have the same effect. Yes, the little creatures in this Continuum were quite delightful. He had to hand it to Arianrod, she certainly knew how to design people.
His expression gave no clue to his thoughts, but Egrette gave a derisive cackle. He looked around at her and said: "You're right, o'course." Then he picked up a blade of grass, blew a short, high-pitched note through it, and disappeared.
Doug stood, hammer and chisel in hand and his jaw swinging open; he pondered the meaning of life, madness and the vicar. He nodded at the eagle, smiled vaguely, and wandered off to find a decent block of stone to carve.
Gaia moaned beneath her infested skin, in her half-sleep. The itch was becoming unbearable; it filled her dreams and ran along her inflamed nerves to her very core. She tried to shift slightly in her air bed, to ease the pressure on her womb. Her consciousness rose closer to the surface and thought longingly of cold baths. She'd had a glorious one, way back in her youth, and it had killed off most of the fleas.
Somewhere in the background of her psyche she could hear the celestial songs on the World Filigree; but they weren't as soothing as usual. She could detect a note of hysteria in the song from the module known as Aldebaran-4. Something about a dangerous infestation somewhere in the universe, a bloating of the aether of life. The song was a delicate, haunting call for action; the edge of it felt like despair. Gaia was so sleepy, she really didn't want to have to concentrate. If only there wasn't this itching... She yawned, and a little town somewhere in the Developing World disappeared into a brand-new volcano. Only one hundred people were lost; it didn't make headline news.