Except tonight. They ate their salty soup, drank their wine (the other first-night luxury), and kept their thoughts to themselves. When they’d finished, Thom rose and set the kettle just outside the door, letting in a draught of darkness. Julian looked up from his mug, the fire a welcome responsibility, and in that moment they all heard it — the thud of something falling, or springing, from the roof. Thom leapt backward, slammed the door, bolted it.
There was a short silence in which each of them pretended not to be listening for sounds of approach. Thom leaned against the door as if to barricade against — against what? He would not put a name to his fear. The more languages he learned, the less willing he became to wield them glibly. Gia had been unforgiving about lies, unlike his thoroughly liberal parents. “Words bespeak the world, Thomas.” She’d had a way of speaking that his mother called quaint (“but delightful of course, she’s so good with the boys”), but he remembered how it had made him feel, smartpuzzled and the world all buzzing. She couldn’t be dead, could she? Back then she’d laughed — though not unkindly — and thanked him when he promised to marry her as soon as he turned eighteen, that very day. Later he’d worked out that she was probably closer in age to him than to his parents.
“A clump of ice,” Julian said.
Thom looked toward Marty, who gave a rueful smile, the sort that made women forgive him, and began to clean his fingernails with the tip of the knife he’d snatched up. Under other circumstances Julian would have complained. He was a bit of a stickler for the social graces, and Marty was not above baiting him, all in good fun of course, but no one was inclined, at the moment, to banter, to say much at all. A friendship can perplex outsiders as much as a marriage: ‘What do they see in each other, they’ve got absolutely nothing in common.’ Marty, the least intellectual of them, found time for a novel or two per week, mostly crime fiction. Father Anselm’s church had taught him to be wary of fancy words — that nonsense about “In the beginning was the Word … ” — so the only poetry he read was Julian’s. He left the highbrow stuff to the others. If there were any exorcism to be done, he’d do it with the blade of his knife, thank you very much. It was mere habit, that stranglehold of Catholic habit, which had pushed his prayer button for a couple of seconds there.
“We need more water for the washing up,” Thom said.
“Let’s leave it for tomorrow.” Julian drained his mug, a disservice to the wine he always supplied from his own small but proud cellar. He collected the enamel dishes and spoons whose handles had been used, at some point, as makeshift tools (or weapons), set them in the zinc basin, and went to see about the stove. “There’s enough water for our hands and teeth, for tea in the morning too.” He added some wood to the fire, remaining crouched in front of it while Thom moved to the cabin’s only window to check the curtain, which in all likelihood had once served as a quilt. Resisting the impulse to press his nose to the pane, thickly bordered in ice, Thom made sure that there were no gaps, then fingered a corner of the hand-embroidered fabric — whimsical animals, their rainbow colours still bright enough in places to appeal to the child in him. No two animals were exactly alike, though unmistakable as hare or wild goat or chukor, as bharal or marmot, a wild profusion of them. It took him a moment to notice the single predator, a snow leopard camouflaged by the grey of its markings in the grey of a rocky outcrop — the work of a fine needlewoman. Quilts were often the tapestries of the poor, a wonderful repository of memory and folktale. He wondered to whom this one had belonged, to which obviously beloved child. The world over, womenfolk looked after their good linens, then passed them on to the next generation till they became treasured and fragile heirlooms. Why hang the quilt here unless some disaster had struck?
“Stop being so jumpy,” Marty said.
Thom had intended to point out the leopard, but now he dropped the corner of the curtain, reminded yet again why he’d been right to refuse Marty’s job offer. Telling Kate about it had been a mistake, though.
“Look who’s talking about jumpy.” Julian stood up with a warning click in his right knee, temperamental ever since a tennis injury. It had been an arduous trek. “Put that knife away before you stab yourself with it.” Or before someone else does it for you.
After a moment of disorientation, Marty found himself listening, quick-pulsed, rigid, for a sound he could identify. He was no longer prone to nightmares, he’d outgrown his years ago. Maybe this was what it was like for his mum — its own sort of clotted darkness. Thankfully, her lapses were brief and there was a fair chance, according to the doctors, that with the new drug she’d remain stable for years, long enough at least for the research to catch up with the money he was pouring into it.
It must have been the snowstorm that had awakened him. He found the zipper on his sleeping bag, freed himself enough to turn onto his side, and tried to make out the figures of his friends. The cots were wedged along the walls, the roof so low that sex would present an interesting challenge. A bit like an airplane lavatory. Was the wind really loud enough to mask their breathing? He stared into the darkness, reluctant to grope for his torch. In his mind the narrow beam of light lurched drunkenly as the torch was knocked from his hand. He remembered the smell of whiskey on Father Anselm’s breath. Breathe deeply, he told himself. It’s only a memory. A memory can’t touch you.
As a boy, he had peopled the dark with wickedly dark companions, one of whom — Laila — had been a lissom, grey-eyed catgirl who continued to prowl the dark alleys of his teen years, guarding his secrets, stalking his enemies, sharing his bed. She could be terribly jealous, though. There’d been a number of nasty incidents, diminishing (somewhat) after he’d written her an embarrassing sort of love letter, but her passion could be quiteful too: the church caretaker never understood why a single grave, and no other, served as the neighborhood litter box. In the end, he abandoned the attempt to plant even the hardiest bulbs and left it to the dandelions and catmint.
Marty’s muscles ached, and in the chill of the cabin he wanted nothing better than to nestle back into his sleeping bag and, under cover of the slambang overhead, conjure a few minutes of warmth with Laila. But ghosts are the bullies of the unconscious, and the only way to deal with bullies is to confront them. No one was asleep up here, that much he was sure of. He felt his way first to Thom’s cot, then to Julian’s. He ought to have been relieved to find them empty, his reading having furnished him with plenty of gruesome alternatives, but now he’d have to check the rest of the cabin. He could have called out, of course. This wasn’t a church, where you were meant to speak in whispers. He could have called out. He could have screamed.
The scream, when it came, sounded like something animal. Or something human wounded to animal. Quickened to danger, Marty sprang back from the head of the stairs, from the glimmer of light, and plunged toward his cot for his knife.
Night after night, Julian lay awake trying not to hear Danny’s screams. He’d been a colicky baby, and nothing he and Marion had done seemed to make much difference — except the breast, of course. After Danny was kidnapped, Marion faced Julian across the scarred kitchen table and confessed to once feeding their son a teaspoon of the crème de cassis they kept on hand for her great aunt (the table not the only valuable heirloom she’d passed on to them). “He choked on it,” she said. “If he’d swallowed, I’d have given him more.” Then she recited a lifetime’s worth of offenses, each more sordid (yet petty) than the last. It had been a long time since Julian had bargained with the god of his childhood, and her recital was pathetic, the horror of their situation impossible to match. Or so he thought until obliged to identify Danny’s remains. At what point does a child stop screaming? At what point lose consciousness? Marion chose to believe the doctors’ answers.