Extract from The Nature of Balance

October 13th, 2000 • Posted in Extracts |

The dead girl holds her mother’s hand.

She does not seem dead. In fact, she is the very image of a pretty, lively child, all sun-tanned limbs, glinting eyes and knees grazed by adventure. Even her hair appears drunk on her life force, swaying where there is no breeze and bouncing with each step.

But the girl is dead, existing only in this strange place, unmissed and forgotten elsewhere. And although her mother clasps her hand tightly, and their palms are fused by sweat, there is no real connection.

The road is cut into a mountainside. To their right, trees cling tenaciously to the edge of an almost vertical drop, roots shrivelling where earth has fallen away into the valley below. They are evergreens, but mostly brown. The road is dusty from lack of use, any line markings long since scoured into veinous patterns by the abrasive wind.

Their footsteps thump into silence.

The dead girl feels safe. There is nothing here to harm her. The road behind them is empty, while ahead there is only a virgin surface ready for them to disturb.

But there is something wrong with the trees. Those at the road-side are slanted slightly towards the valley, evidence of the land’s insidious downward movement, but they are also twisted into other, less logical shapes. They seem to turn away from the sun, seeking darkness rather than light to provide their sustenance.

The dead girl knows that this is very wrong.

Her mother increases their pace and the girl looks up, but the sun is glaring down into her eyes and she can see only a haze where her mother’s face should be. She glances down and sees that they are no longer leaving tracks in the dust. With startling clarity, the little dead girl realises that all the trees are now leaning in towards her. Following her along the road, like the eyes of a sickly portrait.

Something drifts above the path. It is a huge bird, wingspan that of a heron, but its beak and feathers scream carrion. It settles into a nest made of stained white bones, jerking its head as it regurgitates its own insides to feed its slovenly brood. As they pass by the great bird turns its head and stares at her. Then one of the fledglings pecks out its mother’s glazed eye, and it stares no more.

Mummy, the dead girl wants to say, but she cannot speak. The heat has melted her voice. She tries to scream, but there is no pressure in her throat, no movement in her chest. She is afraid and recognises that she always has been. There has been something constantly there, lurking just beyond her perception, like a vulture awaiting her demise.

The little dead girl finds that she is no longer holding her mother’s hand.

The air changes. It becomes heavier, cooler. The girl shivers, then she knows that there is someone standing behind her. To her left and right, bushes and trees fold in on themselves like polystyrene splashed with flame.

The road begins to undulate, but the girl feels no movement. Whatever unnatural shape the world is assuming, she is transforming with it.

There is a sudden pressure on her arms. Strong hands grasp and lift her from the dry earth. She tries another scream but it goes inward, shaking her bones, rattling her insides.

For the first time the girl is aware of the huge drop to her right. The valley is wide and flat, stitched into uneven squares by hopeless farms scattered across its floor. Walls and hedges divide the fields, trees huddle here and there in small groups, as if plotting escape from the confines of the man-made landscape. The farmhouses are white, reflecting the sun up towards the mountain road. From this height they all seem very small.

The girl is lifted higher, and then thrown.

Air rushes past her ears, through her hair, rippling beneath her clothing. She spins and sees the mountain behind her, the road empty in both directions. From here, the brown trees look almost as nature intended. As she rises high and then plummets towards the fields she realises that the crops are unknown to her, the trees twisted and cancerous, hedgerows bulging like blocked veins. With seconds to go before she strikes the ground, she knows that the land is deformed beyond hope of redemption.

Here, nature no longer holds sway.

Not real, a voice says. She starts; the words must have originated somewhere. Perhaps from the wind rushing past her ears?

It’s not real, the voice says again. Wake up, Peer. Please wake up.

Why should I wake up when I’m already dead? the girl wonders. What good would it do to open my eyes again? Look below you. Look around you. You have to wake up. This isn’t real. But it could be, unless you … wake … up.

The dead girl tries to open her eyes. It is not easy, because they’re open already, and what she sees makes her want to do the opposite. But suddenly the rush of air stops, the view vanishes into stagnant darkness. For an instant, she thinks that she is staring down into her own grave.

Then she realises who she is and where she is, and the darkness is welcome. She draws in a grateful gulp of air, glad that she can taste her own breath once more.

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