A quiet voice. Shallow and dry, struggling for breath.
It is only one word, one syllable, but it transfixes me. It always did, even from my earliest days, reading it in the testaments.
Now, as then, it means me and me alone.
It pulls me towards wakefulness.
A young man sits on the dresser at the end of my bed. Barely more than a boy, so skinny that his earth-stained vest seems to drown him. His legs are clutched into his chest, knees smearing dirt against his chin. He is trembling.
“Thou.” He says. The arcane word sounds absurd in his farmhand Oklahoma accent. His eyes bulge. He begins to stutter, every word like an exhalation of dust.
“Thou, Thou, Thou.”
My skin is raw with sweat. I peel back the covers and go to the boy. He flinches and turns aside, but I grab his chin in my hand, a little more forcefully than I mean to. I hear a sharp snapping like a twig breaking. His head lolls hot against my palm, his body sags sideways.
For a moment my heart freezes, but when the boy looks back at me his eyes are still alive, still making frightened little butterfly flits to take in my face. He coughs, his head rocking side-to-side.
“Thou, Thou, Thou,” the words rasp quieter, drying up. He looks confused, as though this is not what he wants to say. “Thou.” He gasps, running out of breath.
There is a ceramic jug of water on the dresser. A tin mug beside it. I reach for it, stretching, still holding the boy’s chin and terrified of what will happen if I let it go. I knock into it, water slops over the polished walnut, but my fingers just grasp the handle and I manage to pour some into the mug. The boy’s eyes roll up to mine as I put it to his lips. He sucks with tremulous little sounds.
Tiny beads of water begin to seep from the drying wound that opens his throat like a seam.
I stare in horror at the cut. The cut. How have I not noticed it before? Water trickles from the corner of the slit, dirty with blood, staining his dusty shirt. He is clutching something close to his heart, as though it is the most precious thing in the world to him. He shifts and I see it. A straight razor: its edge clotted up.
The leak from his neck continues until he stops drinking, but his voice sounds a little easier when he speaks again.
“Thou shalt.” He is looking past my shoulder. I follow his gaze. Iris is lying in my bed now, her shrivelled mouth puckering as she draws breath. She looks untroubled. I don’t understand. She was not there before. Why, how did she…
The boy looks at me and shrugs, his shoulders moving independently with his head loose in my palm. The weak ribbon of his neck gives it no support.
“Thou shalt not…” he says and trails off. He kisses his teeth as if to say Well, what won’t you do to her?
His eyes are no longer frightened. They are flat. Angry. Wronged.
I am following him down a hallway lined with doors. I don’t remember leaving the bedroom. The floor of the corridor is white, dry and cracked like desert earth, or the bark of a dead tree. I pant, my breath harsh, abrading my lungs. I am cannot catch the boy. He is too far ahead, though I can see him clearly enough. The light here is as bright as a dustbowl noonday. It seems reflected from the ground itself.
Trying to catch him. I try. I try. My knees pop and crack as I stumble. He keeps getting further ahead, I try to followhis straight path, but the pale floor branches, tree-like under my feet, twisting and shrinking to twig-thinness. The floor itself ushers my bent, gasping form towards the doors. Away from the straight path.
The boy meanders along the middle of the corridor, along the trunk, getting smaller and smaller. He walks slowly as though dazed.
There is door before me. I set one hand (the fingers are trembling) on the handle. I slump to rest, and it opens. The smell of fresh rainwater hits me. The sound of thunder, felt rather heard in my gut. I am in a woodland. An automobile sprawls in front of me, as decrepit as a stepped-on insect. It has crashed into a tree bole, one wheel still spinning. Rain rattles off its carapace like bullets.
“Thou Thou Thou”
I panic. I suddenly remember. The boy is escaping. Something violent, murder or worship, aches in my chest and I turn to follow him. I close my hand, instinctively, to pull the door to, but my fingers do not close on the doorhandle.
They close on something heavy. Thick white stringy hair, vile with sweat, bunches between my knuckles. A liquid hotter and thicker than the rain spatters on my foot.
I recoil hard, and drop it. It rolls and bounces, lost in the undergrowth. I spin on the spot, sick trying to force its way out of me. I am terrified, suddenly terrified I will not be able to find…
…The door! There it is. Between two trees. Opening back onto the corridor with its branching floor and its dozens of doors.
I stagger back in. I cannot breath. I reel from branch to branch, the sharp little twigs cutting the skin of my bare feet. I am bleeding, covering the tree effluent from my rancid little stigmata. Gaps open up between branches and I fear (hope, no fear) I will fall through. The limbs catch me though, when I stumble. I am cradled by the dead bark.
The boy is hopelessly far ahead now, I can barely see him. Bile fills my mouth. I push myself up awkwardly, my hands going though gaps in the knotted-branch floor. Twigs and matted thorns tear at my cheeks and my lips and my nostrils. I am crying, phlegmy and snorting blood. I try to run after him.
I gain. I gain. So slowly. How long is this corridor? The pathway bunches and coils like an organic thing. Sometimes I feel I could touch the boy, even though he is hundreds of yards ahead. I am constantly sidetracked into offshoots of the tree, flinching away from the doorways they lead to.
I find myself circumscribed, caged in by branches so densely interwoven that it is utterly dark. I do not know how I got here. I can no longer see the boy.
Before me: a door. The cracks of light at its edges are the only reason I can see it at all. It is the only exit. I don’t want to. I don’t want to. I don’t want to go. My fingers tremble as I reach out. I feel the prickle of shock setting in as I turn the handle.
I’m in the parlour of the house. The door led from the tree to my home, the reverse of the door I followed from my bedroom. Soft piano music floats through from next door. I breathe out heavily, but I do not lower my hand. A bald man has just come in from outside. He fills the room, his grin broad, needy. His eyes open onto a void. As though some thief had stolen what ought lie behind them.
His eyes open onto a void, a pure blackness, and I know, somehow I know, it is my eyes, reflected in his that I see. And it is my theft that emptied them.
He kneels and kisses my hand, mashing his fat lips obsequiously into my knuckles. “My archangel,” I hear myself murmur. I feel my lip curl, proud of what I’ve stolen.
Vines, thin and sinuous, wind around my arms and pull me back through the doorway. I do not know whether to scream or laugh in relief.
The door closes. The tree around me is blasted, quite dead, but the vines are green, blossoms erupt from them like flares. They unwind and slither upwards, out of sight. I follow them, the bark of the tree peeling under my feet like dead skin.
The vines spill from the bottom of another doorway. I kneel in the bole of the tree, branches radiate out in all directions, hundreds of them, thousands of them. And every one ends in a door, carved simply out of the same dust-white wood. A face behind each one.
Every one of them frightens me.
One foot. One foot in front of another. I urge myself, push myself forwards leaving bloody loops and whorls with my toes. With every step I grow less afraid, braver, yes that’s it, braver. I forge towards the door.
A creature crouches before me when I open it. A woman, naked and feral. Manners and words stripped from her. I have taught her to pray, taught her to be prey. I feel myself breathing quicker, my fingernails carving half moons into my palms. I am jarred, like a clock wheel slipping over a broken gear. I feel suddenly unstuck in time. I gaze at the ravaged woman.
This… this is a memory. But no, this girl has yellow hair not black. And behind her, where she lies ragged as a doll on the table, is Norman. Norman was not there the first time. This was for his benefit, the eyes in his paralysed face are stretched wide with horror that mine should reflect-
But do not. No matter how I try to contort them they do not.
The boy’s voice, and for the first time I believe him. I shall do this, because I already have.
He is waiting for me when I limp back through the door. Waiting, amongst all those other doors that by chance or cowardice I have not entered.
Where his dusty boots meet the dead bark of the tree, green shoots and blossoms spread, as though his presence were healing it. I hate him. I hate him for that. I sicken with hate and weaken and am afraid. Chewing my lips for the taste of blood.
The boy’s eyes are on me, sullen and passionless. His lolling head mocks me.
He snaps his razor open.
We are back in my bedroom, and I do not remember how we got here. There is a dust of dried leaves under the door, as though blown in by a desert wind. I sit again on my bed, Iris by my side. He perches on the dresser, my battered leather suitcase open on his lap. Using none of my tenderness, he lifts out the whip.
I lurch towards it, through air suddenly thick. Long ingrained instinct drives me forward, I clutch at the whip, that simple braid of leather as though could save me. It takes long, long seconds for me to cover the distance to the end of the bed. The boy has ample time to make a loop of the whip, slip his razor into the crook of it, and cut it in half.
I kneel before him, wanting to cry. Holding both halves of the useless scourge in my hands. I seethe to kneel so. My heart simmers, but I do not rise. I feel I have been kneeling before this boy my entire life.
He removes the whip from my right hand, and gently, oh so gently, presses his razor blade into it.
“I… I did it for you.” I don’t know why I say this. I echo my sister’s craven whisper, made hoarse by the knowledge of its own falsehood. (how I loathe him for making me feel like her)
“No, you didn’t” He says in his farmhand voice.
I take the razor he has given me, and set the point to my forehead. I drag the clotted, rusty edge through my skin. Biting my lip at the pain, and the feeling of the blood trickling over my cheeks and the bridge of my nose. I try to use his face as a mirror, following the lines of the bones I can see beneath his skin. Carving his features into my own.
I must. I must endure this in silence.
He does not try to stop me. He gives no sign he approves. He simply watches as I make my graven image of him in my flesh.
It is working, I am, I am becoming…
At last he sighs and says.
“No, you ain’t.”
I bow my head. My breath ragged, little gasps and chokes of it high-pitched in my ears. The lines of blood on my face are clotting, setting. I look nothing like him. My features are setting into a hard grimace, caged by the lattice of blood.
As gently as he surrendered it, he takes his razor. He wipes it on his shirt hem, folds it, and walks away past my shoulder.
When I turn to look, he is not there. I am not in my bedroom. I am in Iris’s room. That is why she is there in the bed.
“Justin?” She says, sitting up. “Justin are you alright?”
My throat is parched. It tastes of the dust on his boots.
“I saw things.” I manage to say. My chest shudders once, but the sobs are subsiding.
“It was just a nightmare.” She kneels by my side on the floorboards, her face furrowed. She kisses my cheek and I know she cannot taste the criss-crossed blood I feel there.
“No.” I fold my hands lap. “I saw things.” My repetition sounds wooden, imbecilic. “I did, I will do terrible things.”
She looks at me. Her manner stiffens. Something in my voice has made her take this seriously.
“We’ve all done terrible things Justin,” she says.
“Yes,” she whispers “Sometimes we… we have to” her face is taught. With a little shock I realise she is pleading with me. “For the Lord. He… washes us clean. The things we do, we do for Him…”
(I did it for you)
I hold her gaze and she trails off. The dried-on blood, the failed image of him holds my skin stiff. It will not let me smile. She searches my face, growing more and more frantic, looking for any trace of forgiveness.
I think of all those doors. And of all of those faces behind those doors, contorted with fear and hope. They have all been shown something terrible. Something true.
They are all ready.
“No.” I say simply. She sags.
I will not bear false witness.