Author: valpincon PM
I submitted this piece for my uni unit this term...apparently they're going to teach me how to write...the idea came from a meeting, a present, and a warped mind :p Like anything I write based in reality, it diverged a very long way by the second sentenceRated: Fiction K - English - Words: 1,790 - Reviews: 2 - Favs: 2 - Published: 12-16-04 - id: 1784404
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
"It's a tupilak."
It is roughly cylindrical in shape, about the length and thickness of a finger joint. It is as smooth as polished marble, except at the base, where a starburst of greyish airholes feels grainy under her thumb. It fits perfectly into the palm of her hand.
Then there is the carving: a gruesome face etched into its curved side, startling her as she turns it over. Two exaggerated vees denote a ferocious scowl above slanted eyes; flaring nostrils, tribal marks slashed where its cheeks would be; it ends abruptly in a single snarling row of teeth. It looks like a demonic chess piece.
"Reindeer horn. I got it in Greenland, in Ilulisat."
It is hideous. But she loves it, loves its ugly little sneer, its truncated weight in her hand. She clutches it greedily. He isn't looking at her, but out over the Grand Canal, elbows propped up on the pitted stone slabs of the Ponte degli Scalzi. Deeply scored graffiti on its surface is already being worn away by the touch of a hundred hands. He watches the grey-green water slopping the steps of the dock, the shift and shimmer of the trailing weeds in the flecks of afternoon sunlight.
"It's an ancient Greenlandic tradition. They say the shaman used tupilak to take revenge on their enemies."
His voice is low-pitched, accentless but for a lingering New England lilt. He speaks slowly, gravely, wreathing her in the past and its secrets, a natural storyteller. She listens intently. She is much younger than him. She alternates between awareness of her ignorance and youth's natural arrogance, which makes her try to hide her awe of him.
"The tupilak had to contain the essence of the enemy – a hair, a fingernail, a drop of blood. Then it was brought to life with the shaman's powers – and sent out to kill." He pauses for effect, glances down at her hand next to his on the parapet: small, smooth, sunburnt. His own are large and heavy knuckled, constantly in motion as he speaks.
"A tupilak was a dangerous weapon – for the shaman as well as his victim. For if the target's spiritual force was greater than the shaman, he could repel the creature, and it would return and destroy its creator."
He finally turns to look at her: conker-coloured eyes in a narrow, unshaven face, dark curly hair thrust in a pony-tail just beginning to be touched by grey. Embarrassed to be caught staring at him, she drops her gaze to study the evil nugget in her hand. She tries not to notice the dial on her wristwatch flicker round to half past five. He hasn't worn a watch for years, and time, he said, had ceased to matter to him. But to her, now, time means everything - their short time together, the years of time and experience that lie between them, the timetable she must keep to.
She tries to silence worries about the train that she may miss. She thinks about the tupilak. About Greenland, where she has never been, the age and ice and savagery the name evokes sweeping incongruously over her in this balmy, civilised city, Venice in high summer.
"Tell me about it. Greenland. Why did you go there?" Tell me. She is so hungry for his words. She hadn't spoken her own language for two weeks before she met him, sheltering from unseasonal August hail in the colonnades hemming the Piazza San Marco. The bloated pigeons that filled the square were rising into the sky like an oily black cloud, the skimpily clad tourists were rushing for cover, and he was there, laughing at the world turned upside down.
They crossed the empty piazza in the rain, stamping the trembling mirror of the sky, she breathless and elated and afraid.
"Who are you?" she had asked, balanced on a high stool as he propped up against the bar, sleek and dripping as a seal. She drank with reckless abandon, drowning her nerves and loosening her tongue. Mostly though, she simply let him speak. He didn't tell her of himself, as was customary. While he knew she was English, was bound for a three-year degree in history, was exploring Western Europe with a month-valid Inter-rail card, she only knew the name he gave to her. He told her of his travels; of the places he had been. The names became a prayer-like poetry: Prague to Dresden, Lisbon to Madrid, trains and planes to London and Baghdad. Sometimes he didn't tell her names, swore that he had forgotten them. But he told her of a week of sunsets turning snow blood red, of learning to buy food in a Babel of languages, of a month where all he saw was blue-grey sea, of domes and spires and endless mountain peaks. She was absorbed, enchanted.
"Why did you go there?" she often enquired, when his narrative reached a caesura.
"Because I had never been there before."
But he has never spoken of Ilulisat. And suddenly, he seems so ill at ease; she feels a coldness penetrate her bones. She isn't sure she wants to hear it now. But she has asked, and there's no going back.
"I went there for my college. I was assistant professor of geology, studying for my PhD in earth sciences. We were collecting samples for research." This is the longest sentence he has ever said to her about himself. She doesn't dare to speak, to shatter this, this fragile confidence.
"It was just a field project, for a week. While I was excavating, I found – that." He makes a clumsy gesture at the object in her fist. Suddenly it feels heavier than before, and her fingers close around it once again, like a child caught with a stolen sweet. She feels that same suffocating heat, the guilty blush flooding her head like wine.
"But isn't it – important? It looks old." He turns to face the water once again, and she can't see his face. His voice seems to come from far away, a lone bass beat amidst the high-pitched symphony of accents rising and falling away over the bridge.
"I found it. I took it. Doesn't matter why. It was so long ago; and now it's yours."
"Why are you giving it to me?" she asks, trying to keep her tone light and neutral, a dark unease swirling low in her chest. He turns and smiles, the first time that he has; she's surprised she doesn't like his smile. It seems incongruous with his dark eyes, the deep-scored lines around his mouth; it lacks sincerity. But she smiles back, hoping to hide her inexplicable discontent.
"Why not?" he says off-handedly, and shrugs. "I've had it since I started travelling – but now I think it's time that I went home. It just seems – right somehow. Don't you want it?" She looks away from the disconcerting smile, back down at the tupilak. It sneers back up at her, mocking her irrational fear.
"Of course. Thank you," she says without thinking, not wanting to be rude or seem a fool. The smile vanishes, and she's relieved to see the face she recognises resurface – thoughtful, secretive, distant and yet kind, not that strangely feral, mismatched smile. She puts the thing into her bag, feels happier now it is out of sight.
"Oh God, look at the time!" she cries, appalled, but almost glad of the excuse to go. "I'm going to miss my train if I don't run." What can she say? These perfect, strange few days, so suddenly come to an end in such an off-kilter, unsettling way – how to sum them up in a few trite platitudes? "So glad I met you, we must keep in touch"? She knows, and knows he knows, they never will. Some things are self-contained within themselves; to try and stretch them unravels the whole.
"Goodbye. It was – I'll never forget you."
The cliché doesn't jar the way it should. He reaches out a hand, but falls just short of touching hers. His eyes are fathoms deep, unknowable. Disoriented, she looks over her shoulder for the reassuring bulk of the train station. When she looks back, he's crossed the busy bridge, and is watching her from the other side. Awkwardly, she waves a hand whilst hoisting her backpack. He raises an arm in return, still as stone as the crowds break around him. She turns, and elbows her way through the oncoming throngs of tourists to the steps of the Ferrovia. There she looks back one last time and finds that he has gone, lost in the faceless masses on the bridge. She takes in the view which delighted her when she arrived only three days ago - turquoise water, ochre marble steps, funereal gondolas tied in ranks to candy-striped mooring poles. A gondolier is punting past one-handed; the other holds a mobile to his ear. His laughter bounces off the crumbling walls of the dilapidated buildings that list into each other on the banks. But all she feels is a hollow sense of loss – of what she doesn't know. All she knows is she wants to leave. She hurries through the terminus and boards her train to Milan.
- - -
Ice. Darkness. The stars all upside down. Blood on the snow, screaming, shut up, shut up –
She jerks awake, choking back down a scream. The fat old woman opposite her stares incuriously, then returns, unimpressed, to her crossword. The static-laden intercom announces in Italian and English that the train will shortly arrive at Milano Centrale. Collecting herself, she finds her fist is locked painfully around the tupilak; four crescents of red blood mark her palm where her nails have bitten deep into the flesh. Already though, the nightmare fades away, leaving only nausea and a chilly film of sweat over her face. The train arrives, and she steps onto the platform, walks into the terminus, and stands beneath the huge departures board, searching for a train back into France, from Paris on to Calais and then home.
The board rattles incessantly, sulphuric yellow letters flickering, a bewildering panoply of names, places she's never been, may never go. Florence, Rome, Vienna, Brindisi. From Brindisi, you can get a boat to Greece. And beyond Greece, the East lies unexplored.
Because I had never been there before.
She stands confounded, deep-shadowed green eyes still dull with haunting dreams, the tupilak still clutched in her left hand.
- - -