Fiction: Dowsing the Cut
By Aidan Scott
His iron-clad boots struck sparks across the cracked and uneven asphalt parking lot, the sound of them echoing threefold through the shadow-soaked spaces and tired forms of abandoned buildings, standing like sentinels awaiting his approach. Night had not covered the city for long, though already its somnambulant and ketamine-laced inhabitants were crawling from their ramshackle hovels, seeking and crying out for a reprieve and a numbness which they knew he could not bring. These sleepwalkers spoke languages he’d never heard before and as he passed a group of them, stepping over the gutter and up onto the path, he felt them grasp at his trousers and moan like wounded animals left to die. He stepped past and left them in their primordial stupor, gathered as you would gather with loved ones in a church.
He moved through abandoned warehouses and above them, as part of the horizon, cranes loomed signalling new developments meant to blanket over the old ones, a layer of collective and induced amnesia which had already taken hold. The shadows seemed darker here and as he approached the cut, he heard the rumbling engine of a houseboat resting against the muddy stone edge. All had turned to swamp in the mire of that decay and on the deck of the houseboat he saw a dead swan, rotting and soaked, it’s chest open which laid bare a set of shredded lungs, looking as if they’d been turned to lace, spun out over the dirty feathers and the mouldy wood of the deck.
He stepped down and as he did it rocked gently and he heard the brown, thick water beneath it churn as if suspended above a fire in a boiling pot. He approached the swan and lifted one wing aloft and soon, where the wing met the shoulder, the joint slipped free and was thence pulled from its final resting place. He had an uneasy feeling that he’d disturbed something, trespassed some ancient rite. He looked down and saw tracings of dried blood over the wood and they were the tracings of the city itself. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw the sleepwalkers had all followed him and congregated in the deeper shadows among the warehouses. He was sure he could see their eyes glowing as spectres summoned forth from a place where time meant nothing to anybody. These were the dreamers, and these were ones who’d built the city from loose strands of thought and of song. He looked over to the open door of the houseboat and dropped the wing and stood and called into the darkness.
‘Old? Are you there?’
He lingered, poised as a man awaiting a new awareness. Soon, a limping form emerged from the darkness and he saw that it was a man and he saw that it was Old. Stumbling forth, Old wore which hadn’t been washed in over a decade, a long beard lathered in muck and grime and hair that dripped with grease or yet some other form of detritus. His eyes were small like a moles and what teeth remained in his red-stained maw were yellow and black and rotten, thick with filth. He seemed to move in slow motion, his arms crooked and held aloft, a rictus smile pulled back across his face.
‘I hope I’m not intruding on anything,’ the man said, gesturing to the swan. Old only giggled and knelt down beside it, pulling loose feathers out and pocketing them.
‘Dinner,’ he whispered.
‘Old, you can’t eat that.’
‘Did not say it was for me.’
The man thought it best not to inquire any further.
‘Why not ask for what you seek, then?’
‘I seek nothing,’ the man responded.
‘I see what you want.’
‘And how’s that?’
Old looked up at him, his eyes watery and damp, clusters of sleep caught round the edges and he smiled again, a waft of rancid breath filling the man’s nostrils.
‘When out at sea I divine meanings from small things,’ Old whispered.
‘We’re floating in a gutter.’
Old giggled again and the man half wanted to leave the wretch alone and in silence to complete his alchemic divinations with only the shadows to keep him company.
‘I speak of the city,’ said Old. ‘The entire span of it is a palimpsest.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘I think you do.’
The gibbering voices of those who dwelled in darkness were rising in a violent and tossed chorus of guttural churning. The man looked back and saw them no longer, as if they’d dissolved into the buildings and the shadows and become part of its great form.
‘They speak the language of angels,’ whispered Old, as he reached into a fold of clothing and pulled out a scrimshawed and dampened whalebone box. ‘Is this what you seek?’ he asked.
‘A shame,’ Old said, casting it off with a swing of his arm and the man watched the thing arc through the air and land in the brown water and it sunk slowly as if in mud and soon the man could no longer see it.
‘I thought you knew what I sought,’ said the man and Old only scowled at him and hissed, black spit shooting in thick ropes from his mouth and the man stepped back and it seemed as though he looked down upon the face of a shadow. He almost tripped on a bundle of something, rope, tied to the deck and flung over the side. He supposed an anchor lay at the other end. Suddenly a laugh echoed from Old’s crusty mouth and fled outward through the city and up, up, up into the firmament, to where yet darker things lay dormant. Old struggled up onto his feet and slowly lurched his way over to the edge of the houseboat.
‘What be hiding in such murky depths? What forms wallow down there in refuse of past inhabitants? Do you ever think on that?’
‘No,’ replied the man. Old grinned.
‘Would you like to see?’ he rasped and whispered.
Old turned his head slowly to the entrance out from which he’d emerged, and the man followed his gaze, ready to avert his eyes at any moment. He had no wish to lose his mind. All he saw beyond the edges of the wooden frame was darkness.
‘I don’t see anything,’ he said.
‘That’s because you aren’t looking.’
He held his gaze and soon, from deep inside what seemed like his own awareness, a small point of light expanded outward from the darkness in a slow burst like a lightbulb expiring in reverse. The man moved closer and as he did, he felt a warmth touch his skin and creep up his limbs to his face and over the top of his head. Through the doorway he saw, in the light, the vague forms of what seemed like angels. They were dancing around an open bonfire, their faces the fullest measure of glee and their movements slow and sluggish and heavy.
Tuth theh lighths, voices whispered from somewhere beyond himself. All his angels paused their dance, some in mid-air and some in mid-spin, craning their necks around, and they watched him. Whath ye sthee isth tha methur ahf ahl thyngths.The man cried as he felt panic seize his muscles and, unable to breathe, he tried his hardest to pull himself back from the rim, yet whatever held him in its grasp had availed him of the strength and the ability. They all were laughing, ever laughing, and he tried to close his eyes, yet the lids seemed pierced through with hooks and the effort afforded him only pain. He screamed yet no sound emerged and from behind him, he heard the voice of Old whispering in his ear.
‘Do you see now?’ the old man rasped. ‘Do you see them dancing?’
Aidan Scott is a 22 year old writer from Canberra, Australia. He mostly writes fiction based on history, mythology, the occult, and dreams.
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