Monday, 5 February 2018

Balance.



It is always quiet in the garden. You’d be surprised that such a place could exist, so close to the heart of the city. But it does. Has always existed, as far as anyone can remember.

Very few try to remember, though. The human mind is really good at glossing over things that unsettle it. The veneer of everyday normality is comforting.

Yet, there are a few who remember still, diligently. The ones who tend the fences, sweep the grey-bricked paths. And the ones who perform other, less mundane tasks.

No gardeners in this garden though. The plants take care of themselves. The trees are old and tall, trunks grey with lichen, the twisting, criss-crossing branches casting shadowy nets. And everywhere, white flowers bloom like bursts of flame in the gloom.

The air is still. Only a few beams of sunlight ever break through the canopy to illuminate the fountain amidst the trees.

And at night, they drift in on shadowy wings.


***


It was early autumn when she first saw the place.

The local park would mean having to meet Bertha and all the others, with their prim self-righteousness and their condescension and barely disguised pity. But she’d go insane if she stayed inside any longer. The cable had been cut off months ago.

The landlord had been hounding her for the rent for nearly a week now.

So she fled into the city, Timothy by her side.

Ava counted her blessings when it came to Tim. The boy never complained, never screamed or threw tantrums despite the meager circumstances in which they’d been forced to live for almost a year now.

And whose fault was that?

As they walked on aimlessly through the city, Ava noticed a fancy looking car stop across the street, all glossy black and shining chrome. A man got out of it, and for a moment her breath caught. Her hand moved towards the gun hidden inside her purse. But no, it wasn’t him. The nose was different. And he didn’t have the wretched walking stick either.

She seethed with anger and frustration. Fat lot of good it would’ve done even if she’d somehow found him. What was she gonna do, shoot him in front of Tim?

Lemuir was practically untouchable at this point. A single phone call from him and they'd all be killed or carted off to prison. And Tim would end up in some foster home somewhere.

She needed him to be dead. Didn't matter if she had to empty the gun into his smug fucking face herself, she’d gladly do it. All of their problems would sort themselves out once Lemuir was dead.

But that was easier said than done. She shook her head and glanced at her surroundings. They were in an old part of town, one she’d never visited before. She’d been walking for almost an hour now, and only had a very vague idea of where they were supposed to be.

“You tired yet, kiddo?” she asked Timothy.

“Kind of.” he said, and stopped.

She crouched down beside him and brushed the hair out of his eyes. Brown hair, like hers, badly in need of a haircut, falling down over a pair of mismatched eyes. One brown, one white. It'd been like that since the accident, and the doctors hadn't been able to do shit to cure the blindness.

Another reason to hate Lemuir.

“Wanna head back home?” she asked him.
“Not really.” He turned around and pointed- “Can we play in that garden for a while?”

She looked towards where he was pointing. There, across the street. The rows of buildings ended somewhat suddenly at an old stone wall, covered with vines. A massive gate was set in it.

She stood up and frowned. Something about it felt.. off.

“I’m not sure it’s open.” she said.

But Tim was already moving towards the place, pulling her by the hand.

“Look, there’s people inside!” he exclaimed. “It’s open.”

She could see them too now, just beyond the gate.

“Oh alright.” she gave in. “But we won’t stay long. It’s starting to get dark.”

As they crossed the street and came closer, again she had the impression that something was off. A strange feeling of unease had started gathering in the pit of her stomach.

It was too quiet. Too damn quiet.

They reached the gate. An iron archway twisted overhead, covered in twisting green vines which bore white flowers. Ava couldn’t see any name on the arch. No plaques or signboards on the wall either. She wondered if it was private property.

The massive gate swung open noiselessly at a slight push from her. A grey brick-path surged ahead into the garden.

An old couple stood near the gate, the man sweeping the path with a broom, the woman seemingly lost in contemplation, staring at the trees.

Ava gripped Timothy’s hand tighter and walked towards them.

“Good evening” she said as the woman turned to face them. “Are we allowed to be here?”

The man with the broom glanced at her for a moment, then went back to his sweeping as if she wasn’t there.

The old woman peered at Ava through her glasses for an uncomfortably long time, then said “Don’t see why not. The garden is open to all.”

Her stare was making Ava uneasy, and she could feel Tim squirming against her. “Oh, alright.” she said “What’s this place called? Didn’t see a name outside.”

“Never heard it called anything more than the garden.”

“Oh. That’s uh, okay, I guess.” Ava said.

The woman stared at her for a few more moments, then seemingly moved her attention back to the trees.

Tim was tugging at her hand again. “Ava! Come on.”

“Oh alright.” she said, and let herself be pulled along.

As she walked past them, the man stared at Timothy. At his eye, of course. People always stared.
Almost to himself, the man said “The fountain’s very pretty this time of the evening.”

“We’ll check it out, thanks.” Ava said to him, but he was already back at his sweeping.

Ava shrugged and walked ahead along the path.

Once she was a fair distance away, the woman turned to the man.
“Was that wise?”

He paused his sweeping, and stared at the handle of the broom in his hand.
“They are marked.”

“It will not end well.”
“That is not for us to decide.”


“Yes,” said the old woman, watching the figures of the girl and the child in the distance. “It’s for her to decide.”









* * *






The garden was deceptively large.






Ava hadn’t expected the place to be this big from the outside. But the path stretched on and on, the bricks a dozen shades of grey and black, undulating like a river of grey silk.






She felt very out of place here. The bright colors of their clothes seemed to be in harsh contrast to the surroundings, where even the leaves on the trees seemed so dark so as to be almost black.






Strange white flowers bloomed everywhere, unlike anything Ava had seen before. They bloomed along the path, in the branches of the trees, floated in the small ponds; filling the air with a fragrance that was at once familiar and unknown.






His initial enthusiasm worn off, Timothy was even more subdued than usual now, sticking close to her. They could see dark birds sitting in the branches, staring at them as they walked past.






There was no birdsong.


Only stillness and the sighing of the wind through the leaves.






The path seemed to lead to a low hill in the distance, its crown covered with a grove of trees.






“Ava” said Timothy, “I think we should go home now.”


“Yeah, okay.” she said, squeezing his hand. “Let’s just see that fountain the guy mentioned and we’ll head back, alright?”


“Okay.”






We could leave now. Why am I making him climb a hill? She wondered. But she felt a strange compulsion, something she couldn’t explain to herself. The feeling that something was supposed to happen.






She had no idea what.






They climbed the hill in silence. The trees grew tall and dark here, their trunks covered by greyish lichen that seemed to glow in the dusk. Ava could hardly make out the sky, and the only light seemed to come from ornate streetlamps that cast a pale white radiance across the path.






They reached the summit. There was a clearing of sorts here, although the sky remained as inscrutable as ever. Four paths converged there, and at the centre was the fountain.






The silence was deafening.






Ava wanted to run. Every fibre of her being was screaming at her, to run, run, run away from this place. Something was deeply wrong.


But she couldn’t bring herself to move. She couldn’t bring herself to panic.


All rational thought seemed to be draining away in favour of a hypnotic urge- to move towards the fountain.






She gave in.






The fountain was white marble, and it seemed to glow in the gloom.


As she walked towards it, a thought in the back of her mind seemed to notice that Timothy had let go of her hand and was walking towards the fountain too. It didn’t seem very important at the moment.






The water splashing in the fountain made no noise.






It was crowned with a single carved flower, pure white, which wept streams of sparkling water into the pool below.


And the pool was black.






Ava moved closer, in a daze.


Coins. She thought. It’s a wishing well.






The floor of the fountain was covered with coins, mounds and mounds of coins, all of them rusted black with age.






Again, she felt that indecision in her mind. She had a choice here. They could leave now, and nothing would happen, and they would put this wretched beautiful place behind them. Or..






She felt it happening from far, far away, as if her mind was suspended in an ocean of treacle. “Should we make a wish?” she heard herself asking Timothy.


He nodded.






She rummaged around in her purse. The cold metal touch of the gun seemed to clear her mind a bit, but the dream-like quality of the situation persisted.


She found a coin, kept it in the palm of her hand, and stared at it. She looked at Timothy.


He nodded.






She tossed the coin into the water, and the world changed. As the ripples quieted down, she could hear the silence being broken.


A shifting, rustling sound, like thousands of papery voices whispering in unison. She saw smoke drifting into the clearing.






Her vision focused, and she saw the truth. Not smoke. Wings. Hundreds, thousands of black butterflies and moths, streaming through the trees towards the fountain. The beating of their wings created a continual whispering, like millions of ancient pages being turned, millions of dead voices clamoring for words.






She felt fear then. And yet they came, and came.






They streamed towards the fountain and floated in a shifting, swirling pillar above it, like a whirlwind of ash. And soon the individual insects blended into each other, and a shape came into being.






Human shaped, yet not, floating with inhuman grace and otherness above the shimmering water. Like a woman its form seemed to Ava, and yet at the same time completely monstrous, with an alien otherness that made her shudder.






She wanted to scream, to run away, to leave and never come back. But the dream-like state of mind persisted. She waited.






A voice spoke then, and it made her feel her mind would be torn apart. For she hated the voice and she loved it, wanted to listen to it for all eternity and tear off her ears rather than listen a second more.


The voice spoke, and a million whispering voices spoke as one:






What is it that thou desires?






Ava shuddered, and felt that her mind was made of drying amber, thick and golden and unyielding to thoughts.






Ask, within reason, and thy thought shall be fashioned into reality.






A trillion possible thoughts leapt into her mind, each more enticing than the last. She turned to find Timothy staring at her.


All color seemed to have been bleached from the world, and all that remained was black and grey and white. White, the terrible white of Timothy’s eye, staring at her.


She knew.






“Timothy-” she managed to gasp out, and turned to the fluttering, shifting figure atop the fountain “his eye-”






Healing for the child then? whispered the thing.


It can be done. But there must be- it paused, as if looking for the right word- balance. Dost thou comprehend?






Ava shook her head.






Something cannot come from naught. To fill one fount thou must drain another. Wilt thou accept then, knowing the cost of balance?






Realisation came to her. She looked at Tim again. Looked at his eye. And she nodded.






There was a noise like countless pages tearing as the thing laughed.


And so it is done.






There was a sound like the clinking of coins, and a blur of movement. And then Tim was on the ground, clutching his eye and screaming.






Ava reached him as he passed out and fell silent. Shaking, she removed his hand from over his eye. It wasn’t white anymore. It was bloodshot, but it was whole.


And then the dull pain that had started in her own eye twisted into a stabbing agony, and half the world went dark. On her knees, she crawled towards the fountain and looked at the reflection in the water.


Two eyes stared back at her. One blue, one blinding white.






She looked above her. The moths had scattered like ashes on the wind.






***






The doctors couldn’t explain it. Of course not. Stuff like that doesn’t happen.






She explained it away to the others as a transplant. She could see that they weren’t convinced. Well, half-see, anyway.






She had only the haziest of ideas as to how they’d returned from the garden. All her memories of the night were broken and shadowy, and all she could recall of the journey home were incoherent fragments.






She’d gone back, a week later, after the regret had made her weep all night. She stood outside the massive gates, unable to build up her resolve. An oppressive silence taunted her from the other side.






She walked back home, tried to forget, and cried herself to sleep.


Seeing Tim happy was worth it, she kept telling herself.






***






They lost seventeen people over the course of a month. All thanks to Lemuir, of course. The so-called cold war that the gangs were engaged in with him was getting warmer by the day. And bloodier.






Ava knew things were getting out of hand. And so when Gerald ended up dead in a gutter with a knife in his throat, she decided to put the plan into motion.






Cut off the snake’s head, and the body shall wither.






She hadn’t told anyone about what had happened in the garden, and she didn’t tell anyone what she planned to do that night either. She didn’t know if it would work. But if it did, if everything went as she hoped, she wouldn’t be coming back.






She said her goodbyes.


The final and hardest farewell was to Timothy. Little Tim. Her Tim.


He couldn’t understand what was happening, but he knew something was wrong. Wouldn’t let her leave.






But she had to. For his sake.






Ava walked to the garden alone, her mind made up.


She entered without pausing at the gate, and set off towards the hill.






The old woman was waiting for her on the path. She knew.


“Please.” said the woman, her voice earnest. “I know what you plan to do. Reconsider.”






Ava shook her head and pushed on past her






“Vengeance is a blade without a hilt. Do not use the fountain for this purpose.” the woman said, clutching Ava by the shoulder, “Or you shall know true regret for the small remainder of your life.”


“I know how it works.” said Ava, shrugging off her hand. “I’m prepared to make the sacrifice.”






She walked on towards the hill.


“Oh, but are you?” said the woman softly, watching her go.






The moon hung high in the sky when Ava began her climb up the hill. Moonbeams filtered down through the branches, illuminating the path with a sickly white radiance. She could feel the dream-state descending upon her mind as she neared her journey’s end.






Before she knew it, she stood before the fountain, coin in hand.


Again, a moment of indecision, of possibilities. Last chance.






She tossed in the coin.






The moths and the butterflies streamed into the clearing, tiny black wings fluttering and whispering, sibilant voices chanting as they flew.


Once again, the whirlwind of ash rose above the fountain, the wings melting into an ethereal solidity. The shape took form.






Thou hast returned.






Ava nodded. The voice made her skin crawl.






What is thy desire this time? Speak and-






“Death.” said Ava, and the whispering seemed to grow a thousandfold. “The death of Antoine Lemuir is what i desire.”






Very well. Thou recalls the matter of the balance? It seemed to Ava like the thing sounded almost smug, if that was possible.






“Yes” she said, closing her eyes. “I am ready to make the sacrifice.”






Thou might find thyself not as willing when it is time for thy reckoning.


Again, there was that horrible laugh, like a million pages being ripped apart.






We ask thee again. Ava jumped, but kept her eyes closed. The voice was right in front of her now, and her heart felt like it would burst.






Is this what thou desires?






She steeled herself and opened her eyes, and found herself staring deep into the faceted black voids where the shape’s eyes should’ve been. The world was drained of all color.






“Yes” she said, as every fibre of her being screamed at her to run. “Death it is.”






The shape floated back to the top of the fountain in a whirl of shadowy wings and whispers.


It is done.






There was the clink of coins again, and this time she saw something emerge from the fountain. Huge, razor-edged claws, its body undulating with black coins like a suit of armor. Compound eyes stared at her for a moment as mandibles clicked and giant wings unfolded. She fell to her knees in horror.






There was a blur of movement, and it was gone.






The man thou named now chokes to death upon his own blood. The thing atop the fountain turned to face her. And thy debt is paid.






“Why” said Ava shuddering “am I still alive? What about the balance?”






Thou took from him that which he cherished most. His life.


But thine own life is not what thee cherishes most, is it?






The sick realisation washed over Ava. “No. That is not what was agreed on. It was supposed to be his life for mine!”






The most cherished belonging, taken from each. The balance is - fulfilled. And with that, the thing burst asunder into a storm of moths, fluttering and whispering in the moonlight.






“NO” she screamed, as her feet took her away from the wretched place. “NO, NO NO NO NO. NOT LIKE THIS. NO.”






She was sobbing with desperation by the time she reached home.


She saw it on their faces when she arrived, and she knew. She knew.






She went into his room. She shook him, trying to wake him up.


But Timothy would not wake.


She kept shaking him, weeping now, beseeching him to wake up, to say something.






But the only sound in the room was the fluttering of moth wings, black in the moonlight.
























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