Extract from Faith in the Flesh

October 13th, 2000 • Posted in Extracts |

(From the novella “Bad Flesh”)

There is a good chance that I will never return from this trip. The lumps on my chest have opened up and are weeping foul-smelling fluid; the first sign of the end. I wear two T-shirts beneath my shirt to soak up the mess.

And if my disease does not kill me, Malakki is always there in the background to complete the job.

The island is awash with a deluge of refugees from the Greek mainland, fleeing the out-of-control rioting that has periodically torn the old country apart since the Ruin. From the harbour I can see the shantytowns covering the hillsides, leprous scatterings of huts and tents and sheets that resemble a rash of boils across the bare slopes. All hint of vegetation has been swept away, stripped by the first few thousand settlers and used for food or fuel for their constant fires. Soil erosion prevents any sort of replanting, if there were those left to consider it. There is a continuous movement of people across the hillsides; from this distance they resemble an intermingling carpet of ants, several lines heading down towards the outskirts of the city.

In the city itself, faceless gangs ebb and flow through the streets, moving aimlessly from one plaza to the next, or sitting at the roadside and begging for food. There are hundreds of people in uniform or regulation dress, most of them carrying firearms, many of them obviously not of standard issue. Whether these are regular army and police it is impossible to tell, but the relevance is negligible. The fact is, they seem to be keeping some form of radical order; I can see thin shapes hanging from balconies and streetlamps, heads swollen in the fierce heat, necks squeezed impossibly narrow by the ropes. A seagull lands on one of the shapes and sets it swaying, as if instilling life into the bloated corpse. Retribution may be harsh, but there seems to be little trouble in the streets. The fight has gone from these people.

I reach the edge of the harbour and look around, trying to find a place to sit. The boat journey has taken eight days, and in my already weakened state the stress on my body has been immense. Inside, I am still fighting; I cannot imagine myself passing away, slipping through the fingers of life like so much sand; I can barely come to terms with the certainty of my bleeding chest, the knowledge of what is inside me, eating away at my future with thoughtless, soulless tenacity. The Sickness is a result of the Ruin, perhaps the cause of it, but for me it is a personal affront. I hate the fact that my destiny is being eroded by a microscopic horror created by someone else.

Over the course of the journey, I have decided not to sit back and accept it. I wonder whether this is what Della intended – that her vague mention of a rumoured cure would instil within me a final burst of optimism. Something to keep me buoyant as death circles closer and closer. And that is why I am here, chasing a witch-doctor in the withering remains of Europe’s paradise.

I see a vacant seat, an old bench looking out over the once-luxurious harbour. I make my way through the jostling crowd and sit down, realising only then that this position gives me a perfect view of the long heap of corpses against the wall. I wonder if they are there waiting to be shipped out, perhaps dumped into the sea; I muse upon the twisted morals behind their slaughter, try to remember what reason the policeman had been trying to impart to me. Trouble, he had said. Poor bastards.

“You ill?” I had not even noticed the woman sitting beside me until she spoke. I glare at her. She is the picture of health, or as healthy as anyone can be in today’s world. Her face is tanned and smooth, her hair long and naturally curled. As for the rest of her, her robustness sets her aside. She is trim, short, athletic looking, but still curved pleasingly around the hips and chest. Her bright expression, however, is one of arrogance, and I take an immediate dislike to her.

Apart from anything, it is presumptuous to assume I even want to talk.

“And is it your business?” I ask.

“Might be.”

The relevance of the answer eludes me. Thoughts of String are still long-term; in the short term, I have to decide what to do now that I have arrived.

My thoughts are interrupted, however, by the sound that has become so familiar over the years. A swarm of angry bees, amplified a million times; a continuous explosion, ripping the air asunder and filling the gaps with fear; pounding, pulsing, throbbing through the air like sentient lightning. A Lord Ship.

Around me, along the mole and in the plaza facing the harbour, people fall to their knees. The act effectively identifies those who have come to the island recently, for they remain standing, glancing around with a mixture of shock and bewilderment.

“What the hell are they doing?” I gasp in disgust.

There are two men huddled at my feet, their eyes cast downwards and their hands clasped in front of their faces in an attitude of prayer. They are mumbling, and I can hear the fear in their voices even over the rumble from the sky. I nudge the nearest with my foot, and he glances up at me.

“What are you doing? Don’t you know what they are? Why don’t you try to live for yourself?” The man merely looks at me for a second or two – even then, I’m unsure whether he understands – before remembering what he had been doing. He hits his forehead on the ground, such is his keenness to prostrate himself once more. His voice raises an octave and becomes louder; he is sweating freely, shirt plastered to his back; two ruby drops hit the pavement from his clasped hands where his nails have pierced the skin.

I stand, dumbfounded. “They must be fools! Don’t they know?”

“Leave it!” the short woman says.

“What?”

“Leave it! Leave them be! Don’t say anymore!” She stands next to me and stares into my eyes, and what I see there convinces me that she knows what she is talking about.

My pride, however, tries one more time: “But don’t they know-?”

She grabs my elbow and begins to lead me through the kneeling crowds. The dirigible has drifted past the edge of the town, pumping out its voiceless message, and now it appears to be heading inland. The hillsides have stilled, the dry ground hidden beneath a carpet of procumbant humanity. I try to resist, but she walks faster, surprising me with her strength. She seems to know where she is going. Within a minute we have scampered into a shaded alleyway and she has dragged me into the shadows, hushing me with a hand over my mouth as I go to protest.

“Watch,” she whispers. “Things can get a bit weird around here.”

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