It was the start of the end of the House of His Love. We had come to a place with no name. The sun was going down. On a headland in the distance there were men who had come from the sea. They had risen there as vague little shapes. With my bad eyes I was late to perceive them as men. The shadows sprouted arms and legs and my novice, Donn, pushed me down and we lay there flat. The outlines grew larger, shrank, grew again. We watched them, and I felt His Love escape from the world. We were quiet and still, keeping flat on the grass. My chin was on a rock, and Donn’s hand was on his knife. Over the waves, the seabirds were calling. The men moved closer together. One of them gestured at the sky, towards the cold white sun. It was impossible to say what their ages were, though one of them was fat, and had long white hair like a woman’s which flowed above his head in the wind. He stood apart from the others, sulking.
I felt that the world was a drum which was pounded once or twice.
They disappeared off out of view, perhaps to the beach, we thought to a small boat, which they would row back to their ship, which would be hidden in a cave. If that was what it was, they did not get into it. They did not go back to join another ship and they did not go back to the north, where they were from, although the truth was we had all come farther north than was sensible. Instead, they returned to the headland and spent the night in a hollow there. We followed. When they settled down, we walked on our elbows and knees to hide in a niche in the rock to try to hear what they were saying. We couldn’t understand it. I could hear Donn’s heart beating. We retreated for several hours and discussed what to do. We argued. We spoke through our teeth. He wanted to count their number. To be sure.
We climbed back to the same patch. We saw smoke and a tiny tongue of flame. We were envious of the fire, but there would be no going up to it. He wanted to attack them while they slept. Not possible. Too many bodies were moving on the flame.
I said, ‘Let’s go.’
But Donn was watching them, and his hands were tearing at the grass.
It was a period of months after disease and despair had ruined our home: two years after my thirtieth year alive. Two years since white strangers had first come to make a hecatomb out of our nearest community of neighbours, and our House, built for His Love, into a hiding place where we waited to be found.
We remained there through the winters, waiting, thinking about the old country where the sun rose and fell once a day. On this island, the extreme edge of the world, the winters took the sun from the sky and no light existed except for the light of candles and fires. In the New Year, with the short days finally breaking on the water, Donn and I were chosen for a period of keeping watch and hunting, moving west along the shores until we gradually reached the north. This was work that would last until until the next dividing day when the moon and sun shone for the same length of time. It would bring us where ice floes ran in the distance, where nobody lived or fished.
It was here the strangers had landed first. They must have been ravenous by the time they made it to the green parts. In the community nearest to us, they had killed every man over the age of twelve and every child under the age of three. They had taken the women, but for one or two grandmothers whom they left in the ashes. Later a child was found inland, wearing a mask, trying to keep warm by the heat of the fumes from a vent. The survivor, who did not speak real words, was taken in and made into a novice, to work with Carick, binding and restoring books in the workshop. He showed love for the substances used in these processes, and when he was finally dissuaded from assessing them with his tongue, learned their names and became proficient in their use.
In the night, Donn panted. He wanted to decapitate white strangers. I felt that in his dreams, as we lay wrapped in sealskin by the smoking ash, he heard the air whistle from throats as he cut them open. He was probably smiling, in his skins, as the red juice jetted and pumped from the neck, dripping and splashing while he carved through the hinge of skin to remove the head. He wanted to hold the head up, dedicate this act to His Love and attach it, by a rope run through the ears, to a post on a headland, or on a chain attached to the post, the chain run through the skull to another post. To make a fence. Allowed to continue he would fence every beach, until he ran out of coast, or out of skulls.
Donn was earmarked by His Love to die in his own way—the red way. And I was earmarked by His Love to die slowly, on my own—the white way, in a boat with books, floating towards the edge. And some others were earmarked by His Love to go the green way, on juts of stone out in the waves, eating seaweed and puffins, suffering every day, hearing the old bells in their heads, thinking no doubt of their mothers and brothers, in the old country.
But His Love went on working in our lives, and we went on singing.
On the return trip to make the alarm, we saw a white bear on a raft of ice, a short distance from the shore. Its tongue was dry. All it could do was wheeze. Behind it lay a cub, frozen. Donn swam to them, cut down the living bear and pulled both bodies onto the beach. I rubbed his hands and feet until he was warm again. He took the skin from the larger one and thawed the smaller one by the fire; when he had cut both skins off he turned them, that night, patch by patch by the flames, to half-cure the insides of the furs. We stood square sections of the shoulders on sticks by the flames and turned them about now and then and ate from them. They tasted bad. We were sick. I moved back and forth with more wood until I collapsed and slept. In the morning I found he had stitched the skins together with two upper jaws hanging off each shoulder. ‘That’s His Love,’ I said. ‘The two together, forever.’
‘That was His Love,’ he said. ‘She wouldn’t eat her cub although they were out there for who knows how long, and she starved beside her cub and did not even eat his tongue. Cub went the white way. She went the red way.’
We reached our House. There were forty-five living souls there and only His Love knew how many dead ones: it was a House that was heaving with flies in the summer, carpeted with rats in the autumn and shaken to the core, in the winter, by evil spirits. The ghosts of the Loveless and worse than that filled up the rooms to the roof and let no one sleep, taking the smoke from the candles and shaping it into grinning faces that dispersed near the ceilings. Periodic screams tore through the walls. We were jolted awake. If the noise persisted, the afflicted man would be encouraged to sleep alongside one of his brothers for comfort. On some occasions, despite searching, the screaming person could not be found. We loved our House, though, because His Love lived there, inside us. Almost always.
We were at the door. The slot was opened. A blue eye stared.
‘You’ve been gone for seven days.’
‘Did you miss us?’
‘Put out your tongues.’
He scrutinised our tongues through the slot.
Then Donn lifted the head of the mother bear.
After we recounted what we had seen, the House shed every habitual and reassuring sound. Everyone prepared for Hell. Chickens and geese were shuffling faster, and the pigs screeched. Donn began to shove people aside so all the questions were addressed to me. As the group stood listening to my answers and asking me more questions, there was anger at the front of the crowd, and tragic noise, and at the back dumb confusion, and sadness.
Later I was alone, in the writing room, turning the pages of the Book.
The Book was reputed to sing or make a noise if evil approached. I put my head beside the page: I heard only my own breathing. It had arrived the summer before accompanied by a team of green-faced men, volunteers with enflamed anxieties about giant serpents and doors that opened down into hell, and equally absurd dreams of singing their way to the edge of the earth to peek out over it and see the messengers of His Love, hovering and whirling in a waterfall that would pour from the edge and pitch into the stars…
These boats had come less frequently over the last few summers. Sometimes a long boat full of different sorts of men, with a living leader. Other times smaller boats. One that washed up full of rags, feathers, dead birds, fish scales and many bones of different sizes, dried blood and shit, and the skull of someone. The human bones had been gnawed on by human teeth.
When the Book was first opened, the top pages were damp and a yellow larva was pumping inside the first word. Moths escaped it. There’s more learning gone into them than into us, someone said. We put a lamp near the window, and so the learning flew away into the night.
Now the first pages had been repaired with our inferior inks. A red from seal’s blood. Thin gold. The new binding was tight and carefully done. But it seemed to have lost the ability to sing. How could we put the power back into it?
Carick was the book-binder, though he couldn’t be trusted to write. When we were singing, he stood at the back, smiling; he broke every note and had to be shushed. The same smile was stuck to him whether he was outside working or inside cleaning or making books. The youth, the survivor from the community, was learning maintenance from Carick, but it was thought unlikely that the training would lead the youngster into the garden of literacy.
Once a man denounced the boy. He was one of a group of visitors, a big boat, I forget his name. Many of us suspected, and some of us knew that this boy was likely not such, although he acted that way. The visitor said that His Law was not being followed. He went to check the sex. Carick went between them, took the man’s ears and railed at him and then yanked one ear so the man fell. That was enjoyable. I’d never seen such a big man brought down by an ear.
The bell was rung. Everyone gathered. The Father of our House informed us all that we would soon be martyred: there was not much enthusiasm. Anyone who wanted to could leave, he said, and go to the island to the west, with the little house, and return after the attack; but no one volunteered.
We waited on our knees in the House of His Love for the strangers to come. We heard them at the gates. My eyes were shut. They came into the hall. They walked about, shouting even when they stood close together. They smelled of pure sea. I opened my eyes. In front of me was a handsome face, a bent nose and healed lip under thin hair, talking to a smaller man with a flat forehead and a leather cap tied to his skull. They had weapons in their hands, and more strapped to their backs or swinging by their sides. They ignored us. They walked in and out, gathering up our possessions and discussing their value.
They took all precious metals, any furs. A long basket of pelts was dragged away. Outside, they got to work on the barrels of food. They were interested in our bell, but argued about how to dislodge it. Our Father walked towards their leader and addressed him. The leader put a blade into our Father’s heart and pulled it out, and then spun him around and held him so the blood poured out of him in our direction.
Finally, four of them were carrying the bell out through the gate, following the others. A group of three carried a locked chest. This was full of book materials. I went outside, walked around the perimeter, but couldn’t see Donn. I went back to the gate. I climbed up the tower and looked out: they had left the bell on the rocks. Carick’s voice was behind me. I turned. Carick was coming from the door of the House, following a stranger who carried the Book. He was grabbing for it. They kicked him out of the way. He was smiling. I climbed down.
Carick got up and followed them outside to the slope that led to the shore. I followed. Something made me turn and move along the cliffs instead.
I saw forms standing in a line on a headland. One of them was there with his arms raised. He uttered some words and the others answered together, and they kept on chanting as I approached. The lead chanter bent down and picked up two heavy objects and lifted them slowly. They were heads which he held by the ears. I recognised the dumb faces and the dropped jaws, and the pig-like underbites. Their expressions were not much changed from life. I felt sad but not so surprised. After all, Hell was inevitable and foreseen. For some time, we had been thinking of it every day. Then the holder of the heads saw me and made a remark, and I ran.
No one rushed to follow me.
Down by their ship, I saw the bell discarded in the surf. A group was loading our possessions onto the boat from a pile on the sand. Out by the keel, the fat one was held back with thin chains by two others, both of whom were shouting. They were shouting at Carick, who was running through the backwash with a wound in his side, holding the Book to his body. The chains were released. The fat one flew, tearing up the water. His eyes were agonised. On his helmet there was a sharp corner. He came to Carick, twisted Carick’s face in his hands, pitched and butted him, then lifted his head and did it again, then dropped Carick into the water. The two behind him ran, grabbed the chains, and pulled the fat one backwards. His face was a parody of a baby’s when it is first pulled out, a hallucination of hair and screaming. I saw the Book sinking and Carick floating with his temple bashed in, his eyes crossed like an idiot’s and the ghost of the smile there. The fat one saw me staring. He was set free again. I could see down the black throat. The hair and the chains rose behind him as he jumped in the surf.
I moved. The earth beat.
When I got inside the gate, there were seven dead men lying in a line. Two were missing their heads. Three others were missing entirely. Carick, Donn and the youth from that community. I told what had happened by the boat. We stood at the wall and watched the vessel move out of the bay. There was going to be a storm: it was whispering over the grass. Everything was shapeless except for the water, which jumped and jerked and turned inside out like a god that couldn’t decide which form to take.
We went to the beach. Someone heard a high singing sound and we followed it. We found the youth holding Carick’s hand and babbling. The Book was on the chest of the body. The youth had put a cloth on the broken head. We put some cloaks on them. I carried the youth on my back and the others the body. At the House, there were many sounds—curses, blessings, questions. And quotations.
We went to reinforce things. The youth from the community, wrapped in his blanket at the top of the platform, gave a fierce cry. The boat had reappeared, retreating from the weather. The sail was attached on one side only and the untied corner writhed on their suffering bodies. Waves broke over them as they clung to the frame. Two oars were sticking out of the side of the boat, twitching. Then we could see a disturbance. We saw Donn with his back to the stern, holding a weapon. In his other hand he swung a head by the hair. The wind and the motion favoured him and the white strangers were falling on the deck, some of them cut by him and some knocked down by the storm. We shouted his name. The ship tilted over and the men spilled out of it. The sail lay on the water and it was lost.
The youth from the community was insane. We believed for a time that this was due to inhaling the fumes near the vents where he or she (because finally no one was quite sure which) had remained for a long time inland since the previous raid. But was it possible that he had been left alone for longer, long enough to make his own language? In the weeks before the attack he had used real words. Now, after it, he (or she) began to speak to us. We asked where his family was. He confided that his family were burning in the pits, that His Love was doing it.
‘His Love is burning my family. He has to do it.’
‘To make them into a new shape.’
The youth had been given no name by Carick. So we decided to call him Alby, and call him a he. On the second day of the storm, Alby was in a small room, screaming.
I had been nominated Father of the House. There was a chance that by having Alby there we were in breach of His Laws, inviting punishment. The screaming sickness made things worse. So I determined that someone should discover whether Alby was male or female, to put an end to the issue and determine if (he) would be allowed to stay or if (she) should be sent away. So two brothers with expertise were sent into the room. When they emerged one of them told me that he would explain to me later in private.
Milk was boiled with seawater and roots. Alby was made to drink it. Moaning and clawing his (or her) stomach, Alby bent and unbent. Saliva poured from the edge of the table to the floor. A muscle in the stomach contracted. Sweat rose up as steam into the room. The head locked backwards and the eyes glazed. They held him or her. Someone said, ‘It’s coming out,’ and I saw the white head of the worm come feeling from the mouth, and the body of the worm slide out in a spasm. One of the two experts was insisting that, in fact, ‘all of this was predicted’ some years before. A hand grabbed it and the worm was thrown into the fire. It twisted there and contracted. We all sank to our knees and gave words of thanks to His Love.
Once, I dreamt a woman was standing before me on a boat. She took me under her cloak and put my face onto her breasts and I said, ‘Who are you?’ and she said, ‘I’m your wife.’ I looked over her shoulder and saw a pair of eyes under a hood and I said, ‘Who’s that?’ and she said, ‘That’s your son.’
Then the boat moved backwards, and I looked down and saw that I was standing on the shore and they were not beside me or even looking in my direction as they floated away.
I went and told someone: ‘That’s a common dream here,’ he said. ‘You’ll get used to it.’
Another night, I was visited by His Love: a woman came and stood in the room and her eyes had no soul. Instead of a soul was something better, an illumination that flowed out unendingly like a waterfall and seemed to nullify all dangers. She held out a book. On top of the book were a cup and a piece of paper with a picture on it of a face. She put down the book and picked up the cup and poured light out from it onto my feet, as I laughed.
On the third day of the storm the earth pounded. A body of smoke like a horn came up from the peak of the mountain on the island to the west: the earth had opened. The smoke became red at the base of the horn. We saw liquid fire jump upwards and outwards in orange gouts which, we knew, would spatter down and start fires, or flow to the black beaches to be hardened by waves. The red, the black and the grey smoke interwove with the ripped-open cover of the clouds. Ashes we knew would fall from the smoke. The rain that would fall on our House would be black.
The rain started. People ran about. Someone chased a goat through a banging door. Men were slipping and scrambling in the mud, slapping their hands over their eyes or their mouths. Alby held onto a rope attached to a canopy, jeering madly at the burning fires in the earth.
Black water ran down the cracks in his face.
I climbed the steps to the ramparts. I looked out to sea. In the distance the cloud had formed a funnel that reached down from the sky and touched the waves. Near the tip of it, the sea flattened and began to spin. There, beyond the edge of the cliff-sides, a whirlpool opened, separate from the storm. Looking into it, I saw the suggestion of bodies, fins or tails that swam with the motion of the water. The core of the pool tightened, and I saw an eye. It was a black eye which flashed into view, scanning the world above it. It was gone, and then it came back. It pivoted and flickered. It was taking in the chaos of the storm. It was almost a casual glance, but precise, the type that a craftsman would give to a thing he had just finished making.
Then it was gone and the pool was erased by the waves.