by Jarl Nicholl
He didn’t know where the statue came from, and could hardly imagine how it came to be here in this rustic little house. It consisted of two bedrooms, a kitchen-and-living area and a lean-to that formed another pair of rooms out the back; these contained a toilet, a claw-foot bath tub and an old washing machine that leaked and had no spin cycle. That didn’t matter. Clothes dried easily out in what might have been the post-apocalyptic sunshine; the thing was to rise early enough to hang and collect them before the sun became too oppressive. It was the heat alone that dried anything; the stillness was remarkable and constant, like the silence.
His medication was there in a wall cabinet in the lean-to, thank God, in plenty, while in the kitchen was a large cupboard filled with canned goods, even though the fridge – like the one back home, he half-remembered – was empty but for a carton of off milk and a few unidentifiable items wrapped in plastic film. He had discarded these and left them in the bin by the back door, where in the absence of garbage collection, they remained.
There was a bookcase in the living room, or rather a set of four breeze blocks supporting a pair of two-by four planks, against the wall. The contents were eclectic: a few best-sellers with embossed lettering on the covers, the authors’ names bigger than the titles, some literary classics and obscure books with literary pretensions, magazines ranging from Playboy to National Geographic and some old and slightly mouldy cloth-bound histories, one of which by chance provided the first and only clue to the statue’s provenance.
The statue was the least comfortable fact about his otherwise comfortable lodgings, making him feel that he was under its under hostile surveillance – which made little sense, unless its pupil-less eyes could see through walls. He shared a wall with it, a highly unnerving situation.
But there was nothing to be done. There was no phone, no computer, and more than once he had explored as far as possible outside before the heat of the day sent him into retreat, having found nothing of interest in the arid landscape of unworked fields and sparse, ruined buildings.
Opening this book at random one day, his eye alighted on the following passage concerning the de-Christianisation of France under The Convention:
‘. . . burials were to be conducted without any religious ceremony, in fields planted with trees, "beneath the shadow of which shall be erected a statue representing Sleep. All other emblems shall be destroyed," and "the gates to this field, consecrated with religious respect to the shades of the dead, shall bear this inscription: Death is eternal sleep."'
The association of ideas to which this passage gave rise caused him, after some hesitation, to go and unfasten the heavy bolt on the outside of the door to the statue’s room. This room, lacking a window, was empty but for a bare single bed that itself had something sinister about its design; perhaps it was just that the thing of metal bars, rusty old springs and mesh, looked so uncomfortable. Besides this the room was empty except for a pair of heavy linen curtains and, of course, the statue itself.
On the one or two occasions he could remember entering the room previously, he had not been game to approach the statue’s niche in the corner of the room by the far side of the bed. But now that curiosity demanded an answer, it was time to take another look. So cowed was he by its presence that, as he approached, the life-sized figure seemed to grow taller, until his impression was that it stood a head above him, only a further foot from the low ceiling. He practically tip-toed around the room, eyes seeking the statue’s (as if, featureless as they were, they might be following him) until he stood directly before it, afraid to break the eye-contact that he felt was somehow preventing the thing of greyish yellow marble from springing on him.
When he had rounded to face it, astonishingly, he found exactly what his far-flung hypothesis predicted. It stood on a low plinth with the inscription, 'LA MORTE EST UNE ETERNAL SOMMEIL'.
He left quickly, running once his back was turned on the morbid figure, shut the door and re-locked it with the heavy deadbolt that, suggestively enough, was on the exterior of the door.
What kind of joke had it been – and whose? – to bring that thing here? Based on the eclectic contents of the bookcase his working hypothesis was that this was a halfway house of some kind. Was the statue really an 18th Century French public sculpture? If so, how so valuable and rare a piece of history found its way to wherever he was, out here in the bush, was a first-rate mystery.
The statue wore a toga: folds of fabric fell in diagonal stripes across its chest and encumbered one of its arms. But they might have been vectors of frozen motion. The posture was other than might have been guessed, however: a slouching mope with the shoulders lifted high, the chin jutting out a little. The facial expression seemed vaguely appropriate, or appropriately vague, except that the forehead was creased in an oddly conspicuous way. It was not a classical figure at all, but rather somehow impressionistic, more in the style of Rodin’s Burghers or even the more experimental figures of Medardo Rosso – though perhaps that was true more of the afterimage than the image itself, since he found it so hard to take a concerted look at the thing.
The crease in the forehead above the gouged eyes seemed a significant detail. Was Sleep having a bad dream? Was it angry – with him?
He remembered the doctor who put him on his current medication. The young man had seemed too large for his creaking office chair, seated at the level required by a desk too low for his frame. He would swivel to face his patient, legs sprawled out to one side, bent at the knee. Then he would straighten and cross them at the ankles as he faced his patient in what seemed a highly articulate, even an elegant, motion.
‘Well of course all medications have side-effects, just the same as all actions have unintended consequences. If we could travel back in time and give our ancestors an antibiotic to prevent the death of half of Europe from Plague in the Middle Ages, an unintended effect might be that we ourselves would never have been born – which of course would mean that we could never have travelled back in time to do anything in the first place!’ He smiled at his wit and readjusted his feet, while his patient did likewise. ‘But no, it’s a fair question. Side effects may include,’ he counted on his fingers, ‘drowsiness, loss of appetite, nausea . . . ’ he trailed off as if to suggest that he could go on and on. ‘Nothing out of the ordinary. But everyone’s different. Just try it, and if you’re not happy you can come back and we’ll keep trying till we find the right prescription.’
The doctor smiled and his patient nodded. After that the prescription was written. The patient could not remember having subsequently returned.
Given the singularity of that medical practitioner’s repartee, the thought had occurred to him since the commencement of this strange new period in his life that he might have found himself in some parallel universe, a limbo world, a product of some paradox that precluded him from full existence or nonexistence.
Each time he viewed the statue, it seemed to occupy a slightly different posture. He had been back again since the revelation of the lettering on the plinth and had taken note of its slouching, possibly sullen posture that time; now, perhaps his memory was at fault, but that previous time the mouth had been closed, surely. And it had stood further back.
So the statue was alive. And what if those hands with their reaching, avid fingers were slowly, inexorably seeking his throat? If that was the case then the thing to do was simple enough, at least in theory: leave the thing in its room and enter no more. The door was sturdy (well, sturdy enough one would hope), there was a lock on the outside (for good reason, perhaps!) and there was no reason whatever for him to enter the statue’s room in any case. Let them be a pair of uncommunicative and mutually indifferent housemates.
How had it advanced, though? Had it picked up its plinth and carried it a couple of steps? Or did the plinth sink down and rise up out of the floor to meet it?
Having slept through the day, waking only to take his full allotment of medication for that whole 24-hour period, he lay awake at night experiencing withdrawals and hearing strange noises that may or may not have been imaginary. His resistance was increasing with his dependence. The immediate antidote to such discomfort was to take another dose and go back to sleep. This he usually did, until one night he felt mysteriously able to resist the urge and instead got up and went into the living room, to the window. He craved space and air – or at least their image, if the air outside was too cold to let in, and his bedroom window gave only a view of the fence to that side of the house.
The noises inside his head were bad. There was a creaking that made him think of bones shifting in their joints under a thin tent of dry flesh. That seemed to come from within him as well as without. There was also a blustering noise, as though the window in the room that looked out on the otherwise empty, red dust-covered yard, towards the tree near the fence that was the only thing living, had been opened on a storm. The creaks and cracks were deep and low and prolonged. All of this was strange since another atmospheric peculiarity of the locality was the absence of wind. Outside was lit by a full moon and a fantastic cascade of stars, brilliant against the sky’s blue-black.
Underneath this cataract of light he focused on the lonely tree against the tilting corrugated iron, the fallow field of dead weeds and browned stalks behind it, on the other side of the dirt road down which no traffic ever came. It was swaying slowly, rhythmically. He watched for a long time as its movements increased steadily, gradually. He imagined that the cool breeze from the air conditioner was really the same as that felt by the tree. Now it was dancing like a bacchante, twisting and swirling its foliage and even its branches in a way that, although it must have been due to the wind, seemed possible only for a being endowed with volition.
Yes, it was dancing as though on hot coals, even while nothing else seemed to move. That meant little, perhaps, as there was nothing much to move. He focused his eyes on the fence behind it, which was a makeshift thing of slack wire supported by irregular pieces of scrap wood that had the appearance of charred bones sticking up out of the earth. It was matched by some same structure on the far side of the road, on which flat, vacant land covered in low scrub stretched out indefinitely.
Nothing else was moving out there except the tree – not that there was much to move; but then, why did the wind, which must have been very high, not disturb the dust in the front yard?
Then there came another low creaking sound from the vicinity of the shadowed doorway behind him. Unable to turn, he lengthened out the moment of fear. Time seemed in one sense to have sped up, and in another to have slowed down: the former externally, the latter internally.
And now reflected in the glass, where just a moment ago he had imagined there was surely a hand – one of those grasping, straining hands of marble, or whatever strange, shifting substance it was, gleaming blue in the moonlight.
When he did turn around, of course, it wasn’t there.
The blessed trance was broken by that momentary shock, however, and when he went back to bed, fearful of shadows, he found the simplest thing was to break a couple of blisters in the pack beside his bed. As a result, the next morning he woke to a familiar effervescent feeling in his veins, throughout his body, but most of all in his extremities and the back of his cranium. He lay for some time, lolling between sleep and waking, dozing until forced to get up and start the air-conditioner, the sun burning through the thin crevice between the heavy curtains before his bed.
As he ate his breakfast of tinned corn, he contemplated the growing certainty that it was the medication that prevented him from understanding what the statue was, and what it meant. His brain would cloud over as soon as he tried to think about it; looking directly at the thing was almost as difficult as staring at the sun. Surrounded by mysteries and growing curiosity and dread, he began to realise that he would have to stop taking his medication if he was to make sense of the situation.
And moreover, he was now running low on supplies of both medication and food. How this had failed to severely concern him he was hard-pressed to say, except that it, like everything else, had something to do with the psychological effects produced by the statue and the medication. That alone made it possible for him to function in its vicinity.
The withdrawal pains he was accustomed to, except that they now got worse and worse. His skeleton felt as though it wanted out from under his flesh and he suffered from alternate bouts of hot and cold sweating. His head ached and throbbed, along with all the muscles in his body. His appetite waned and he slept when he could, the rest of the time just lying there, staring at the walls and ceiling of his room. He could hear his close companion now, unmistakably knocking against the wall like the branch of a tree in a storm. There was also a horrible creaking and rattling that he had almost believed existed only between his ears, but was now definitely issuing from the other side of that wall.
In a paralysis of dread and resignation he listened for these noises that were sometimes clear and sometimes indistinguishable over the tinnitus he had developed and the humming of the air conditioning, which he was now forever turning off and on again. What he felt sure would be the final, unavoidable confrontation could not be put off much longer, but the time was not yet ripe. Let him first sweat out the last traces of the drug that still clouded his mind.
It was lucky that his appetite had all but died, as he was down to the last few cans of food and would soon need to set out and face the rigours of the landscape. That this would mean his death seemed more likely the more he thought about it. To die without confronting the riddle of the statue now seemed far more horrible than death itself. It was a marginal and dreamlike impulse towards heroism that, he knew, was at a single remove from one towards martyrdom.
And so one day, trembling from fear and nausea, he opened the door to his co-habitant’s chamber slowly. With his heart ringing the bells in his ears at high pitch, he expected at any moment a grey, inhumanly powerful hand to wrap its fingers around the edge of the door and force it fully open.
But nothing stood before him where he had last seen the statue extend its avid hands towards him. There was a smell in the room that he had not previously noticed – like the lair of an animal and, something told him, a sick one – as well as some dark, filthy looking stains on the carpet. The colours in the room, formerly a frigidly bluish scheme, seemed inexplicably to have faded to a vague and somehow terrible greyness.
More astonishingly, where previously there had been curtains, there was now a window that had been most emphatically boarded up.
He entered silently and looked around. Where was its inhabitant? The creaking, rattling noise was coming from the space beside the bed where the statue had first stood. He moved slowly towards it. When his foot struck a groaning floorboard another shifting noise came from the same quarter that was hard at first to define. It frightened him in a subtly novel way. But his resolve did not weaken. The noise made by that floorboard was one he had heard before in the night.
A moment later when he stood to the right of the foot of the bed, he saw before him an emaciated human figure dressed in rags and covered in bruises and filth, staring at him with an expression of terror, arms extended in a gesture of supplication.
Jarl Nicholl lives with his family in North-West Victoria (Australia) where he teaches high school English until such time as his genius shall be recognised. His stories also appear in The Horror Zine and Quarter Reads. Find him at http://jarlnicholl.blogspot.com.au/
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