LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

After the Rain, by Polenth Blake

aftertherain

I’m ten or seven when it starts to rain. Claire takes the afternoon off work. She arrives home with an umbrella broken by the wind and a damp box, with a cake inside from the supermarket. She can’t afford a whole day off to bake a cake. I’ve understood this since I was twelve.

She sees me at the top of the stairs. “It’s vanilla. Your favourite.”

“It won’t matter,” I say.

“Why not?”

“There won’t be time to count the candles.”

*

We’ve been running for months when we find the pond. A boat is stranded in the shallows. Dirty white, with a chipped swan’s head rising out of it. We’re in the middle of a forest, with a few trees that are centuries old, in a line as though they’re part of a very slow parade. The rest are saplings, though the fastest have almost reached the canopy of the old ones. This was a park in the future, where children paid to pedal the swans, and the swans didn’t get a say in it. The park has tried to forget, but the roundness of the pond will always give it away.

An old woman washes a blood-stained jacket. She rubs it against the rocks at the side of the pond, then wrings it out. The blood is mixed red and brown, new and old.

“Excuse me, sir?” says Claire.

“Peggy,” says the woman. “Peggy Sharpnail.”

Claire is confused because she sees what’s straight ahead. Her time never goes left or right. A woman doesn’t stop being a woman because she has a beard, cascading down to the water as a waterfall. Or wrinkled skin stained with algae. Or nails that retract like a cat’s. Though in one time, when veering strongly to the left, it’s the cats who come later and have claws like hers.

Claire puts an arm around me. “It’s coming on to rain. Is there shelter nearby?”

No one can be trusted after the rain, but the beasts don’t speak. They don’t wash their blood-stained clothes.

“I’ll tell you, in exchange for the child,” says Peggy.

“What?” Claire holds me tighter.

“There’s no helping you.”

Claire hurries away, glancing back until Peggy is out of sight.

*

The secret to beasts is to pretend they aren’t there. I sit quietly in one of the toilet cubicles. I don’t flinch as the beast enters. I don’t look her in the eye. She’s like a lion and a lizard or none of those things. Her arms are as long as legs, and her body covered in oily fur. She squints with narrow eyes, but she doesn’t understand what she sees.

On the way out, she treads on one of the spiders. I gasp. The beast whips around and rakes claws across my side. I don’t cry or scream. Any more sound would be the end.

Once the beast goes, I wash the spider clean with my blood.

*

The roads were bad before the rain. Potholes spread around like little patches of fungus, spreading, spreading, spreading. Tarmac grew in the spaces around the weeds. When I arrived home, I’d trail in a beach of gravel from the pavements, as they decayed slowly back to a time when there were only rocks and no roads. No one here was special enough to bother fixing the roads.

Once the rain came, it didn’t take long to become a forest. Tiny ash seedlings rose within a day, as though they’d been waiting for the road-makers to leave.

“Where are we going?” I ask Claire.

“I don’t know. We can’t stay here.”

There are sounds in the night. I pretend I don’t hear them.

“I want to stay.”

“It’ll be fine. You’ll see,” she says. “Friends stick together, right?”

She’s my mother, but she likes to think we’re the same age. Sometimes she’s right. Some days I’m eighteen and wishing I’d had more time to be a child. Some days I’m thirty and glad I escaped from school and other children and people wanting me to be things I’m not.

We pack a few supplies. The last tin of baked beans. A bottle of boiled rain water. An umbrella, repaired with tape and string. It stops raining long enough for us to hurry down the road forest, ignoring the gaze of the houses as we pass.

*

After the first rain, after my birthday, Auntie Tracy dies. She spits out the rain water we’ve gathered and boiled. “Boiling isn’t enough,” she says. Claire is upset with Auntie Tracy, because it has to be enough. We haven’t seen a beast for weeks, but we still hear the sounds. We can’t leave yet.

“We could drink from the puddles,” I say.

“That’s no different,” says Claire.

Auntie Tracy knows Claire is wrong. I can see it in the words she doesn’t say. I want her to leave, and drink, and be odd, like me. But the next day, she’s a puddle of fresh blood in the kitchen, as though a beast called and she made them a cup of tea. I draw pictures with her blood. It flows through my fingers, and into my marrow.

*

Claire wants to leave the park, but we can’t. There are more beasts every day, thicker and thicker. The edges of the park are so filled with their cries that we have to turn back. We find an old toilet block, hidden by new trees and ivy. The plumbing ran dry long ago, but the roof has held. I huddle by Claire and the spiders, as we hide from the rain. I’m eight, like the legs of a spider. I’m six, like the spider who got too close to the beasts, and whispers her warnings to the spiderlings.

Claire looks up at the spiders, though she can’t hear them. “Do you remember the time I found a spider sleeping on my pillow?”

I remember. Claire screamed, and I’d had to put it outside. “Why aren’t you scared now?”

“We’re the spiders now,” she says.

*

My teachers say I’m an odd child. I predicted that when I was three and it came to pass sometime before or after. The drawing sets them off. My family is Claire and me, and tortured faces all around us. We’re standing in a puddle made of our tears, silvery-green.

“Why did you draw that?” asks the teacher.

“The beasts are always there. Now, soon and after.” I want to say they should run, but they’d take that as a threat and not a warning. Dangerous children are sent to bad places.

“You’re an odd one.”

“Odd children survive,” I say.

*

There’s one way out of the park, but Claire won’t take it. That way leads back to home, and the silent road forest and its gazing windows. Claire wants to leave the other way, towards the beasts. She’s drawn to them. Yet we’re running from the beasts, so she can’t do both. We travel up and down the park, through tennis courts and rose beds. The roses grow taller with every passing and I wonder what’s hidden at their centre.

“Why don’t we go home?” I ask.

“We’ve got to keep moving.” She’s agitated, clawing at the ivy on one of the fences, looking for a way past the beasts.

I notice Peggy first. I wave and she smiles.

Claire notices. “Get away from her!”

“Don’t mind me. I’m just getting wood.” Peggy has a bundle of sticks, wrapped in a ragged towel. It’s cold when the rain comes, and her bones are old. Her marrow shrunken.

Claire growls and I pretend I don’t hear.

Peggy backs away, but as she leaves she says, “How did she die?”

*

Auntie Tracy finds us after the first rain. She rattles the door, crying. Claire lets her in. They say they’re identical, but they’re not. Claire has a deeper dimple on her right cheek. Auntie Tracy is odd. It’s better to be odd.

Once she’s calm, we share the stale remains of my birthday cake.

*

I leave the park, intending to return to the road forest where there aren’t any beasts. My scratches bleed, leaving a trail, but they won’t come this way. Their time is real, so it goes from start to finish. They can’t go backwards. My time is imaginary, so it goes from left to right and all the way around again. I can go forward by heading back.

The rain begins as the park fades from sight. This is a shopping area, with trolleys covered in honeysuckle. I’m no longer afraid of the rain.

Once the puddles have formed, I stoop to drink. Between each drop, the water settles, and I see I’m an odd child. My hair faded to green. My skin wrinkled leather. I’m a spider with eighty legs or eleven, as my birthday comes around again. Some would think me a beast with my moss-stained fangs, but I know I’m not. Beasts can’t talk. Not when the rain takes them.

I consider my words and my name. The choice of who I want to be. “I’m Jenny,” I tell imaginary time. And Jenny I’ve always been, before, after and now.

*

I’m five or sixty when I dive into the water. The pond weed covers me, soothing my cuts. As I swim deeper, I hear the chatter of caddisfly larvae, binding their cases of silk and stone. The murmur of sunken swan boats. I see Peggy’s face in the darkness, her hands reaching for mine.

*

Issue 5 (Winter 2015)

Story copyright © 2015 by Polenth Blake

Artwork copyright © 2015 by Kat Weaver

Polenth Blake lives where the mushrooms bloom in autumn. Polenth’s stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Unlikely Story, and Nature. One day, those stories will grow eyestalks and slither away.

Kat Weaver (artwork) is an illustrator and writer whose work has previously been published in Apex Magazine and The Toast. She lives in Minneapolis with her girlfriend and two birds.

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This entry was posted on February 12, 2015 by in Stories.
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