This morning is different to the others.
I awake lying naked on a plain of polished obsidian. It is lit by a dim, pale, light, as if the crescent moon were hidden behind a thin covering of cloud. The plain stretches as far as I can see in every direction. It is perfectly flat and featureless: no trees, mountains, rivers, buildings, people. It is neither hot nor cold; the air is not stale yet there is no breeze. It is neither humid nor dry. There is no sound but the sough of my breath and the faint slow pulse of my heart.
I have nothing. No clothes, no food or water, no shelter. It doesn’t matter; I am not hungry or thirsty, cold or damp. I raise myself with aching muscles and begin to walk towards the horizon. Nothing changes; the hard surface under my feet is uniform; no dirt, grit or texture to break the monotony. Time passes, and becomes irrelevant. I don’t know how long I have been walking, maybe hours, maybe only minutes. The light remains the same; there is no dusk, no dawn. I keep going in a straight line until the ache in my feet and legs forces me to stop. I am sure that if I keep going I will reach the edge at some point.
When I sit down to rest they come, materialising as if from some cloud of vapour. The largest of them bellows at me unintelligibly, his eyes bulging, foam collecting at the corners of his mouth, flecks spitting out as he roars at me like a preacher. Groups of homunculi scuttle up to me making impossible demands and waving papers in my face; they run back when I kick at them, then regroup and return. A vicious harpy pinches me, jabs her fingers into my sides, and claws at me with her long nails until I am covered in red scratches and small weals. She is relentless, only finally making way for a demure-looking black-haired woman. This one is clearly in charge, for as she approaches me the clamour dies down and the movements cease. The others crowd in to watch.
She is carrying a small leather bag, which she puts down next to me. Then she smiles, embraces me, and speaks: Don’t worry. You can trust me. You’re amazing. She strokes my skin, looking into my eyes, still smiling. Her green eyes are cold, dead, shark-like. She deftly opens the bag and takes out her accoutrements: scalpels, knives, syringes, tubes, a silver-rimmed glass flask. She lays them out in a neat row, then says: I had these specially made for you. I’m so lucky to have got you; you’re so generous. She takes my head in both hands and turns it so that we are looking directly into each others eyes once more. She smiles again, then says, It’s nothing much, I just have to take a little each day until I have all I need. It won’t be too long, don’t worry. Make a fist for me. Now relax, you’re going to feel a small scratch on your arm. I look down to see her inserting a needle into my arm at the elbow. What flows out into the tube is not blood but a clear fluid. She collects it in the flask, frowning with concentration. Precious stuff. Don’t want to spill a drop. She smiles, So good of you to donate. When about a pint of the fluid has passed into the flask she withdraws the needle and gives me a small swab of cotton wool to hold on the wound. She lifts the flask and takes a draught of the fluid, clearly savouring it to the full: Ah! She exclaims, That’s the good stuff. Next she lifts a small, sharp knife, leans in and makes an incision in my chest. Again there is no blood. Just paring away a little of your confidence now, and we’ll take a bit of self-esteem with this one here, and I’m sure we’ll find a wee bit of hope, and then we’re done for today. After she has finished she embraces me tightly again, strokes my face and says, You are so class. Thank you so much. See you later. With that she is gone. The commotion starts up again, but dies down after a while, as they disappear in ones and twos. Weakened, I stretch out on the stone and sleep.
The next day is the same, and the one after, and the ones after that. I walk, the horizon does not alter, and the light remains unchanged. The only noticeable differences are in me: I am becoming dependent on the small kindnesses and comforting words of the green-eyed one. I bask in those brief moments of contact as she drains me. She grows stronger with every piece of my spirit she devours; I lose count of the sessions, realising that there isn’t much of me left. She must have sensed this too, for on the next visit she changes the routine, pulling out a new blade. This one is long, like a carving knife. It has a black handle with EXIT inlaid into it in silver. She hands it to me. I feel the heft of it, run it gently across my skin. The temptation is strong, but she stops me and takes it back, saying, No. You are too beautiful. I can’t let you go from here. Not yet. I still need you. hearing this, my spirits return a little, and she takes some for herself, slugging greedily from the flask. And so it continues. Sometimes she brings the exit knife and lets me handle it for a while before she takes it off me. This is an effective strategy. Her power grows, and she brags about it to the others, who look up at her in awe.
And yet something eludes her. No matter how she probes and cuts, she can’t find what she’s looking for. It is frustrating: her mouth turns down at the corners, her brow furrows. She tries new strategies, skilfully manipulating my emotions, but she has underestimated me. She cannot remove the conviction I hold safely hidden from her: one day I will wake up in my own bed. I will dress in fresh clothes, put on my boots, go outside, and smell the herbs that grow beside the path: mint, rosemary, fennel, and sage. I will catch cool raindrops on my face, soak up the petrichor, and feel the warmth of the sun when the clouds pass, driven by a south-westerly from the Atlantic. I will meet my friends and we will play music together and laugh. I will taste fresh bread from the bakery and Polish ham from the deli on the Ormeau Road, and drink a pint or two of black stout in the Errigle Inn. And when I meet the creatures of the Obsidian Plain on the streets of Belfast, I will know that I defeated them.