2. Sleeping GiantsHe pulled his foot sharply away, the water was scalding hot. Biting back a yelp he went back to the matt and stood with one foot turning pink from the ankle down. He bent down and turned on the other tap, letting a frigid gush hit the bubbles below. Steam rose, hot and cold water in cold and hot air. Light ran around the room, jumping from window to wall and bouncing, elastic from the rippling surface of the bath. She pooled by the sill and basked around the lace edges of the narrow curtains. Light and shadow threw and caught each other, flirting together as they leapt from wall to Boy, splitting in bubbles and singing silently, brightly, on the taps and plug-chain. Awkwardly he watched where light flooded in through the open window. Outside, the strange city-country sounds were rumbles and birds, close trains underground and voices in a garden nearby. Inside, the naked boy with a pink foot and cautious eyes took of his watch and let it fall to the floor, soft sound lumping into the thick rug-matt. He stood facing the open world, looking down at himself and blinking. Steam rose. The sounds outside stayed the same. Light watched, patient and still. As the water cooled to a hot swimming pool he turned back to the bath and stepped in, finding the bubbles gather soft about his legs. He stood, water up to a line across his leg, back to the door, eyes blank to the steamy, warming room. The sounds from outside faded away until only light and bubbles glinted in his eyes and ears, light and the glimmer of her reflection on the wall. Light and he were standing with the water swirling above his feet, the water reaching up to pull him softly down, opening wide and pulling up and over his falling body. Water bobbed and heat rose. Light danced and chased the shadows away. The paint was peeling on the ceiling and he studied its various splits and cracks, taking in every detail, drawing the map of that faded white world into his mind. The main road stretched from the pipe in the corner halfway to the centre of the room, smaller roads splitting to the outskirts. Parks and town squares formed out of loose paint and plaster dotted the criss-crossing scratches. Life crawled through the cracks and spread out to the walls and down to the floor, a wave of this small town in miniature blackened the room, lifting it onto hundreds of backs. White ceramic cracked as the black channels patterned up to the lip where the still steaming water held back the tide. Gently he pulled a hand through the water and let the wave of steam blow the smudges away. Flecks of shadow floated upwards and the sun caught them and turned them in his gentle hands, caressing their shifting undersides. Boy reached his hands up and back, feeling the length of his whole self, soft under the warm watery blanket. As he watched the water shifted then the bubbles held, the mountains of his body creating perfect islands in the still water. Huge, puffing clouds descended and floated around the distant rises. Knees were twin peaks, then a valley before the chest, one smooth rise and fall. Neck falling ridgedly up into the tucked chin, a small blunt cliff before the badlands of the face, then the sea beyond. With bent legs he slipped downwards, head and back sliding along the bottom of the bath until the water lapped up and over his face, eyes closed tight to the heat. The water pressed warm and close to his ears and the small sounds of the world blurred and bumped against the edges of his smooth hollow. Space opened up around him with deep sounds thrumming from below and the clunk of silver as the necklace he wore slid round and landed chinking, metal against the white. Lifting his chin, his head tilting back, he felt the cool air above the surface and breathed deeply. Chest rising and falling with the ebb of the water, bubbles holding then bursting. The shape of his head, the long reeds of his hair, the light that passed through glass, steam, water, closed lids. Above the water, in the room and through to the outside, a deep breath stirred and without alarm Boy felt clumsy again; his knees bumped together and the sharp bone of his hip shifted away from the walls that tightened and clunked uneven. The water was closer still and the sounds in his ears were heavy and distorted. Something outside was pulling at the skin of the water, ripping up tiny ripples across the sheet glass water over his body. Something shone, overwhelming the sunlight with a constant blaze. Brilliant and striking, the light boomed then sighed. Something had glowed above the surface. Boy reached up and gripped the edges of the bath tight, pausing for a moment, eyes still closed to the sudden flash. Pull upwards, lifted head and a rush of water flowed back and around, swirling into the space left by neck, shoulders, chest. Sitting up against the back of the bath he rubbed his eyes and ears until the water cleared and the small sounds popped back into the room. He blinked hard and sat staring into the spiralling foam that licked around his knees. Leaning forwards he stretched out for the chain that limped gently between his ankles. The chain jumped and he tugged but the plug stuck fast. He pulled harder, water splashing, the chain cutting taut against his fingers. Giving up he let the chain go and sat back, sending a churn of water that waved then settled. He looked down at his hands where the chain had refused his tug, a thin red welt lined his wrinkled, fleshy palm. The memory of the brilliant light still blinked a burnt spot in both eyes. He rubbed hard and, finally, he looked up. There had been no music. No alarm. No heralding trumpet. Only that sudden light that had blurred in the backs of his underwater eyes. Serene and impossibly beautiful the angel stood looking out through the open window. Hard gold eyes tracked something outside and light span in dizzying spirals, swimming in two tiny, glossed circles. Neither moved. The small sounds faded away. Even light became still, watching the two silent figures expectantly. The angel turned its head. The movement was grace and benevolent power; the tide shifting with the moon, great storm clouds building on the horizon, the orbit of far-flung planets over thousands of years. The two golden circles took in the boy, the bath, the cracking yellow paint. Lips of faded gold curled into a smile that held nothing like kindness, but radiated a shimmering, power that relaxed the tense, shivering boy. Without realising he could move, he stood, and the two faced with four unblinking eyes. The face of heaven held still. Between Boy's feet the taps gurgled then gushed, water hitting water with a hiss. The scalding rush swirled around his bare legs but he felt no pain. Slowly the mark began to rise until the flood began to splash up and over the edge, steaming drops hissing on the cool tiles below. Soon the water was at the lip, for a second holding tension, then a great dome rising, breaking. Still they stood and, as the water poured out into the room, the angel's smile shrank and faded. The two perfect lines that could speak only the most gracious truths lay in wait. The water stretched further and further and met the ocean in a rush, stillness bound by a thin spit of land that curled the lake into a wide, open bay. On either side the hills rose heavy and green from the edges of the lough, spreading their wide feet across the earth far beyond this secret cove. Boy and angel stood side by side on the hard stone beach, facing out towards the cove's close and the boundless sea beyond. The lake stood still, and light lay with flashing eyes, waiting on her even front. Boy stood by angel and waited. Time passed. From where he was he waited. It looked a picture, someone had tidy brushed out this frame over a year or so somewhere in another ancient place. Two figures and the big blue round, and the long green sides, and the slim paler blue beyond that opened up and above into the dome sky. Flecks of oil froze the movement of the trees and angles and contrast and all the things that painters use like scratching and scrambling and sitting down combined to make something like water, grass, and the rest. Something like a breeze glossed over them and Boy counted the breathes he made as the breeze stepped in front of his small mouth. He counted and got to a hundred shivers, each with the rub of that wind and the nothing went on. The big ball went round as it always would, quicker than the longest, two-month-before, day. Sun wanted to hide behind the hills beside Boy's left side and his back. Light clambered over still and stretched the long way from hilltop to water, but hadn't it come a long way already to stop suddenly just before it got to where he stood? He thought about crouching down in the grass and holding his hand up to block midday from the beetle and watching it stop. Then he took away his hand and it scrambled again. The power of the sun in his small pink hand. Beside him the angel walked out along the beach, footsteps dampened by soft sand that he could not see. At the edge of the water they stood and ripples lapped against bare feet, a frigid blue caress. From across the sea, a pinprick of light broke the horizon and shone, blinking against the blur of sky and sea. Figures began to outline in the heart of the brilliance, others like the first detached and flew without aid, white against the sea and sky. All were simple, the golden images of the one he knew. All were silent, all with quiet gilded eyes, that were at once both stone and soft, full to the brim with love for and the love of mankind. They fell into line in a great ring, standing looking out to the heart of the lough. The cherubim stood to the south of the lake where Boy stepped forwards to the threshold of the water. Other lights appeared and swelled and rose and landed gently, the host growing to number several hundred standing at the water's edge. The valley was filled with the cloud, the whole sky brilliant with the glory of the light. The sound of the sparkling cherubim could be heard chiming across the sea; it was as if the voice of Light itself was speaking and singing out. Then stillness, and Boy looked from the angels to the lake, where the hundreds of high-natural lights were reflected in the glimmering pool. Look again. He took a step closer to the tiny white heaves and looked deeper into the lake. Amongst the echoing lights it was difficult to discern but another thing was there in the water, another light. As he watched the thing grew and grew, and grew brighter and brighter. The lights rose shining through the deep blue gloom, spinning and burning up and up, then breaking the water and rising still till they hovered above them all. A figure began to form in the glowing mass that stretched and shrank and blew, billowing outwards, wings spreading wide and free. The soft white of their feathers brushed hands against the cool air of the lake and light shivered with excitement, throwing her arms around the ghostly, gold-eyed silhouette. Boy caught a tight breath and held it, staring up at this new figure. This was not an angel like the throng that stood around, simple and composed. This was a being of golden fire and chaotic brilliance. Three sets of wings gushed six great swooping drafts across the surface of the wind, pulling and shaking, beating against the sunlight. Something brushed lightly against Boy's foot and he dragged his eyes from the wonderful behemoth to look down at the small streak of brown that had just jumped past his bare leg as it scuttled across the beach. A squirrel, down by the water, running with tail flicking behind. Leaping and panting it disappeared into the small rocks and stones of the shore. Boy looked up at his angel. 'Did you see that?' The figure said nothing, perfectly still it watched the Seraphim. 'There was a squirrel by the water. It ran across my foot.' Nothing. But now he noticed a low hum that must have begun when the flaming figure first appeared and built until only now could he hear the sound of the thousand soft voices. He looked around at the others, similar in their transfixed adoration. Meanwhile the burning soul beat gently, still out above the lake. A sharper noise cut through the building throb of the angels' song, a bird shrieked and Boy turned to find a gull standing with wings tucked. It looked him deep in the eye and called a soft, pained whine. 'There's a bird now.' Then, with eyes still tracking his, the bird lifted its glossy black white pattern wings and, with a beat, was gone. Boy watched it go, the sound of the hum growing into a thrumming rhythmic energy that rose and fell and bounced across the water in great shifting waves. He looked back to where the bird had stood and the flicker of other black and white shapes caught his eye. A whole flock of gulls were flying low above him, following the first and the squirrel before. As he watched more and more birds lifted from the trees around the base of the mountains and flew out across the water towards the flat fields on the other side. 'Where are they all going?' Not expecting a reply. The hum was an open song now, that rang out, bouncing from lake to mountain in heavenly chorus. Wonderful, aweful, beautiful melodies swung in and out of each other while a resonating drum-like drone beat from the beach and thumped through the stoney earth and on and on and on and on until the boy felt his heart begin to thump with the same calling song. More birds were flying overhead, more creatures, tails and fur, were running from the woods, fleeing in their hundreds as a new sound, a deafening, shrieking, grinding wail, sliced through the air that vibrated with light. From under the mountains the agonising, colossal clamour grew and grew and then there was silence. The humming stopped in an instant, a thousand mouths silenced by an unknown hand. No bird flapped its wings, no scuttling legs snapped a twig or leaf. The fields and the lake stood anxiously still... With a great booming crack, Boy felt a tremble that seemed to shake up and outwards from the earth, a single ripple speeding hard and fast from the mountains in a curling loop across the lake. Then silence again. He looked to his angel, stood still beside him. 'What was that?' The angel said nothing but looked up into the hills where the tops of trees still stood in the full light of the afternoon, though evening shadows were beginning to wallow and fold into the valley below. Far up above them the mountain creaked and groaned. From another invisible hand the animals' tumult was cued again as they ran and dived and flew in great swathes from the stoneside. With a cracking of trees and grinding of awesome, ancient joints, Earth grumbled and lifted His giant head from where it lay at the mouth of the lake. Stretching back His massive neck, He raised his stone eyes and looked down on the glowing throng below. What had been a brilliant light was a flickering candle to this time-worn Sleeper. Great cracks, deep as mine shafts ran through His long arms which stretched down to the earth below. So much wet-sand to Him, He pulled ragged trenches through the hard rock, gathering and turning over boulders the size of houses, taking up great fistfuls of towering trees and laying them down in a bed of destruction. Boy's mouth dropped open so that his tongue was flat and the back of his throat did a gurgle, as all manner of creatures fled from the devastation. Birds flew up in great clouds of chattering wings, their thin light frames battered and crushed by the tree trunks that fell from the great fists of the Giant. Deer and wild pigs came bounding and were trampled by the boulders that rained down from above, whole flocks and herds disappearing under the Dreamer who worked with huge sweeping hands to re-shape His pillow. When His bed was complete the giant lay down his mighty head of clay and stone, before reaching down towards the lake, scattering the tiny lights like so many fire-flies darting from the hand that gripped the edge of the water. With one vast throw he lifted the cover of the lake up and over, a tidal wave of blanketing waterfall that cascaded through the air, crashing down over the mountain range that fell, dripping, still and quiet. Water flowed in thin streams from the sides of the headland, coming together and parting in a stitching stretch that criss-crossed the hillside and gathered into the lake. Already it was hard to see the huge stone arms for the surrounding rock, the closed eyes of the sleeping giant were part of the blank rock-face that stood in the shadow of the afternoon sun. The imperceptible sound of a thousand feet leaving the ground brought Boy back to the lakeside. He looked to the centre of the water but the Seraph was gone, only the glimmer of the surrounding figures lit the surface of the cool blue. As he watched, the host lifted gently into the air and, as one, they flew out across the water, skimming the surface. In a spiralling arc they surrounded the shimmering peak of the giant's head, then in moments were beyond the headland and twinkling, nothing but dots of light, glittering over the open ocean. 'Are they going back to heaven?' The angel said nothing but watched until the last of the lights softened and the line of the sun reached out and gathered up the mountain's shadow, laying it gently out across the lake. For the first time the angel's mouth opened and the voice that came from the golden lips was thick treacle honey and birdsong, the chiming of sweet bells and the low purr of giant cats. 'You wonder why I brought you here.' 'Yes.' Boy stared up at the solemn figure who still looked out across the water, a thin wind beginning to whip flicking eddies and frosty white peaks. 'Why you.' 'Yes.' Boy could not look away, could not feel the tears that were streaming down his ruddy, glowing cheeks. The head turned, the old thin smile playing across gilded lips. Piercing golden eyes turned and looked back, past the boy to where I — 'Where have you been?' Boy turned and looked over his shoulder. Looked straight at me. 'How long have you-' The pipes groaned as the water gurgled and ran out, the last drops bubbling on the cold floor. The bathroom echoed dully around him. He was alone with the frigid air. Next door a lawnmower burred and somewhere in the house wood was creaking as it relaxed. Above the paint peeled, the same streets and roads of a yellowing, fading town. He sat up, shivering, and reached for his watch. Letting out a sigh he leant back, his bare spine stretching the length of the cold, hard bath. He let out a deep, frowning sigh and felt for the edges to pull himself up and out. Wrapped in a towel he sat watching a droplet as it ran down his leg and dripped with a tap onto the floor. He sighed again then stood and, without looking back, he left the room. Light from outside knocked and found her way in through the half-closed curtains, shining in a single beam onto the wall where she sat in herself, resting for a while before she began her slow, easy early-evening sweep across the room.
©2007-2021 Benedict Esdale