The slow burn of hot smoke filled his lungs nicely. Swirling smoke inside his lungs, he could just imagine; small twisters in the depths of his being, touching everything with an ashen hand. Plumes of white-grey were expelled through flaring nostrils, as if something horrible had been found inside and the smoke needed to escape. Once the warm air dissipated, cold air moved in to burn the edges of his nostrils more so than the tobacco smoke ever did. Cold, the air was, and stingingly refreshing, as was the pavement he sat on, and the wetness seeping through the denim of his jeans, and the wind biting through three layers of flammable polyester. He flicked the end of the cigarette towards the bin, missed, forgot about it.
Smacking lips, a puff of smoke escaped. The taste in his mouth was that of a badly maintained exhaust pipe. He spat, white and sticky, and averted his eyes from where the gloop of lung butter landed. Lips cracked, fingers numb. No watch to look at, phone dead. That had been his last fag.
Tongue exploring the yellow roughness of teeth, he capitulated to a diversion distasteful to him; he looked about and examined the environment he didn’t inhabit but rather just passed through. As far as the eye could see: graves, graves and graves and old buildings that didn’t look shiny and chromed like the architecture he enjoyed, the ones where people who wore suits worked in. Those buildings looked like Lamborghinis, they did. These cemetery buildings looked like a horse cart without an axle. Stone and mortar, same as his grandfather used to make. What’s the point in that? More of the same colourless slabs of…. History and tradition be fucked, they is boring as all hell.
He spat white, heard it land with a rustle on some leaves. Looking down at the crude fluid made him a little sick. Mistake. He sometimes forgot to avert his eyes; it was better not to think about it, about what the smoke was doing to his lungs.
Drool dribbling down the side of her lips, tubes going into places they had no right to be, a machine dripping someone else’s cells into a body clinging, clinging, clinging to a hope that this isn’t all too late. His naan was somewhere in this cemetery, with lungs rotted long before the rest of her did.
He laid back on the biting, wet coldness of overgrown grass; closed his eyes to mental and physical worlds. His teeth felt like corn on the cob covered in cat hair. The lighter in his pocket nagged at him like pebbles in your shoes and there was a pebble digging into the small of his back but he had found a spot that wasn’t as damp and it was comfortable. He tried thinking instead of what he would do after today, and that reminded him that he was out of cash, and the emptiness in that wallet screamed “overdue” in the language of ignored post rotting behind his front door. It wasn’t his door either, it was rented, with someone else he never saw, someone who only talked to him when she needed spare change for the bus he only recently learned she never took. Some women did that, he had come to realise, just talked to you because they needed something from you. They only rang you because their fathers had told them off for not visiting the cemetery and they were now angry at you because their father had heard that you did visit on occasion. He could hear her voice screaming at him and could feel his hands shaking with the memory of the impotence he felt at that very moment. He could remember agreeing to come here just to stop her from insulting him and to make the shaking go away so he could go back to worrying about other things.
He opened his eyes. That other world returned to the past.
The iron sky was cold, biting, sharp and bright somehow. He tried to recognize shapes in the clouds as he had done once, when he was little, but saw nothing but the pain of too much light. He sat and breathed in; the air felt like he was breathing in a hedgehog desperately trying to stab his way out of confines most soot-darkened. He felt a tightness in his chest, coughed and spat something bubbling white. He turned his eyes away from the glob. Ignoring the stabs of discomfort, there was an odd lushness in the pain of cold air, of unchanging sky. The clouds didn’t move; stayed the same – forever, he hoped. He hoped for that.
A bird caught his eye, making him turn. He followed the motion to the tree – tall, rugged, and with bright green spike-like leaves he didn’t know the name for. It was an old man’s face of a tree; wrinkled bark from root to crown. The trunk didn’t look like it was filled with sap; its wrinkled surface was more like slashes and gauges left after a knife fight gone wrong than any tree he had ever seen. Age and history and perhaps more had taken flesh from this tree, left a chronicle of a history no one could read. Suddenly his eyebrows furrowed. Did the hole… move? No, no way; just his eyes playing up again. But his stare lingered, there, in the spot three heads above him, where two pimple-like holes where branches once had been, level and about forearm distance apart. Between and a little under the two gouges, there was a lopsided hole making the whole thing look like a face, if you let your brain play tricks with you. Sap had dried in that middle hole violently made, as if scooped out by claws and brute force. Gold, red, yellow and black, the sap was.
His throat made a noise and his eyes followed the trajectory of what had been dislodged from his chest. He only heard it hit the floor and tried, tried to forget how that dollop of phlegm had looked. Just to avoid standing up he shook his head and turned to the cemetery gates for another distraction that barely worked. Old, they were, made of cast iron and stone, and stone turd-like shapes where gargoyles had been. Weathered, was the word. Yeah, stone and people weather poorly. From where he sat he couldn’t see any details, and he didn’t give much care to stand up for a closer look. He had seen enough stone buildings for his liking.
He turned fast towards the tree. Half-falling on his side, his hand holding his weight against the floor, everything ready to vault, head trying to hide behind a shoulder. “B-b-bloody he-e-ell!” his voice, hammered by a beating heart, left cracked lips. Crows took to the sky, not standing for this lack of etiquette. The tree stood where it was. It stood still. And yet something had made his skin crawl. Slowly, cautiously, without taking his eyes off those three holes on the bark, he lifted a hand off the pavement. Reluctantly he looked at the source of the stabbing pain and was glad the broken glass hadn’t punctured him like a cyclist’s tire passing by a pub a Saturday morning. He cursed those who drank and littered in public spaces, but the voice faltered under the weight of its own hypocrisy. Shaking his hands on his trousers, the man stood up. He glanced at the tree, then down at his shoes. Dampness had seeped through his trainers, and his pants, and his ass was numb from cold and lack of blood. As he shook his legs awake, he tapped his plastic hoodie’s pockets for tobacco before remembering what he had run out. His mouth was really dry. How long had he been waiting for? He would kill for a fag.
He turned to the right, and the wind made the saliva swing around and he had to clean it off his peach fuzz with the back of his hand. Colour would’ve come to his face, not in embarrassment, but in anger at whomever had seen it and, by proxy, at himself. But no one was about, so he could relax… He couldn’t even spit properly! What a waste, he was. A waste of time interjected with perennial achievements in failure. Movement at the edge of his vision! He let his eyes follow it slowly, without straightening or moving at all. Something fell on a bunch of leaves collected at the root of the old craggy tree. Splat, splot, two dollops of sap landed. His hair stood on end and, again, he tried to swallow but his salivary glands weren’t forthcoming.
He let his eyes travel up the tree’s body as if he were checking it out. He met the old tree’s empty eye sockets, and saw sap in its screaming, gaping mouth. It was still, unmoving, frozen in place. And yet he knew what he had seen. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe the thoughts were just… were just…
He shook his head, sucked his mouth dry and swallowed hard.
He pressed a palm against his forehead. Maybe he should’ve read the doctor’s letter before coming here. Maybe he shouldn’t have left it piled up with all the other due date bills, all the council taxes and the bills and the Cash Generators and the Aldi vouchers… Maybe not reading the letter would do him in. What if he missed an important appointment? An urgent something that that would make everything quiet again; not quiet like an empty room, mind, but quiet like… like the cemetery. He breathed in and out, slowly. His hands were shaking, so he put them in his hoodie’s pockets. Yes, quiet like this: just wind and birds and a lawnmower in the distance. And the dead.
He began pacing from where he stood to the cemetery gates and back and forth and back. The wind bit into him, but he ignored it. Better to not think about anything. Better to just move and don’t let any thoughts come into his head. And yet he felt the hairs on his nape stand straight, reaching out to a sky as if hoping aliens would abduct them away from the madman they were attached to. He stops, looks at what would’ve been gargoyles a hundred years ago; they were supposed to be guardians, right? If they were whole, would they be able to look behind him and tell him that the footsteps he was hearing were just coming from people returning from respects paid to a fresh tombstone? Would they be able to tell him that, yes, the footsteps were real and not just in his own head— “You wot!?” He turned around, fists clenched high above ready to deliver just punishment, eyes wild. He met its gouged eyes on its wrinkled face and it then looked away like someone caught in a bad attempt to spook him.
He relaxed his fists, but his heart wouldn’t slow down.
The tree was perfectly still.
The wind rustles tree tops, crows take flight, return, pick at where he had been and take to the sky once more. The formless sky fades, letting some sunlight through, before it is smothered by a pillow of future rain. Only then does he put the idea into action. He looks down, keeping the roots in the corner of his eye. Stupid game of red light, green light he was playing. Stupid. But a dollop of sap splat-splot onto leaves. And another, and another. The sap was moving, landing, alive. He wants to look up but stops himself. He takes a step forward, two and then feels sap hit his trouser and splatter everywhere as if someone had just spewed on him. He jumps back, lifts his head to stare at the tree. The mouth worked as if it were swallowing then returned to its original shape. The sap dribbled, dribbled down the tree’s gash of a mouth like drool on his naan’s wrinkled, mouth. And then it froze in time.
His stomach turns, but he still manages to step up to the tree. It looms above him, staring with eyes of a tortured prisoner. No, no eyes. It has no eyes. They were gouged, he thinks, moments after it was lashed until it bled its own blood, and that of generations back. Long, bright white scars crisscrossed the tree’s trunk, if you stared long and hard enough. He stands before the tree and then, then extends a hand… but still is too far away. Gingerly, he takes a slow, dragging step forward. A crunching sound from under his trainers makes him jump and recoil, but he holds steadfast and keeps his gaze on that tortured, screaming, agonizing face. Something goes down his spine and he feels like he’s lost something as he looks down. As the man crouched, he swallowed the tears.
There, half-covered by autumnal leaves, there was an arrangement of rocks; a semi-circle of hand-sized stones wedged against the tree’s roots. He brushed leaves and mud, revealing other the leftovers of other items; tea lights, half melted onto the rocks; a jar filled with old bird bones; and mud-caked stones. Frowning, he picks up one of the stones; it was smooth to the touch, nearly soft, and very pretty, once he removed the mud. He dropped the stone back where he had found it and felt really cold all of the sudden. The tree tops were still.
He sniffs, sniffs and catches an iron-taste in the air. He breathes in, and there it was, somewhere past the smell of his rotting teeth and the cigarette smoke stuck to his clothes. He would kill for a fag, for a spliff, for a Valium… for anything that would make this unease go away. Someone to talk to, even. But the only thing he gets is more sap landing on the leaves, right in the middle of the semi-circle. Drip, drip, drip, the heavy, glass-like drops land on the mulch. He could imagine hot candle wax landing on an open chest, a knife suspended on a screaming man already too delirious from blood loss and pain to even struggle against ropes stained a raw red. The wax and blood are the same colour, smell the same as whatever iron-smelling thing was hiding under this tiny altar.
His legs begin to cramp. Blood, breath, thoughts all quicken, speeding up, bullet trains with no way of stopping. Pupils turn to pinholes.
As he stands, the tree’s mouth works and then stops, frozen, as if nothing had ever moved.
Then he shouts. He shouts, his kicks the tree. Nothing. He shouts and kicks it some more. Needle-leaves fall softly on his head, as if the tree itself were patting him on the head as if he were a child having a tantrum. No! No! He had seen it move. This tree was alive, it was. This was real, he knew. Just like the thoughts that weren’t his own thoughts were real and not just imagination, just like it was real that nothing was his fault. He punches at the mouth, feels a stabbing pain up his forearm, feels fingers sensitive from the cold and dampness scream at him.
“Rhys!” A woman’s voice screams at him.
He jumps, slips, falls.
“The fuck you doin’?” The woman walks to up to Rhys, crossing her arms as the man brushed mud off his jeans.
“Shittin’ meself, that’s what,” He said, made a sound in his throat, but nothing came out. “You fuckin’ spooked me, you sneak.”
“I didn’t. Kept hollering and calling, you ignored me and kept, what, kicking that tree? What for? What, you been waiting long? No, forget it, don’t care, I know you’ll blame it on an episode. You brought the flowers?”
He felt the muscles on his face tighten. His hands were shaking, so he put them in the pockets of his grey hoodie.
“Oh, yes. Yes, I did. There, by the bin.”
The woman stared at Rhys for a long moment before walking up to the bin and picking up a bouquet of yellow and blue flowers. They were bright, shiny, and smelled like days six months past. She looked at the petals for a long while, breathing in deeply.
“Ho-ho! Rhys. These are posh and all. Must’ve cost you loads,” She said.
Rhys shrugged. “Naan’s favourites,” He said. “Anything for naan.” He added, in a whisper.
The woman began to walk away from the cemetery gates, towards the pale white orb of the sun hiding behind clouds, and the many graves without names therein. She didn’t wait for Rhys, just walked.
Rhy glanced at the old tree for a second, then at the woman, then at the tree.
“Got a fag?” He said when he finally caught up to her, nursing his knuckles.
“Yeah,” She said, digging into her grey hoodie and producing a small tin box. “Only one, though. Don’t nick anything else, ya hear?”
“Yeah, yeah,” He said in a quiet voice. He opened the box carefully, making sure no tobacco spilled out. There were four rollies, thin, white. White like what his lungs produced. White like the stuff his naan had coughed up into a tube surrounded by white walls and white beeping machines that breathed for her. His mouth tasted of rotting trees. Of trees. He closed the tin and gave it back. “Nah, actually, I am okay.”
The woman shrugged, light a cig for herself. “You’re better at this than me, Rhys. Fuck, I can’t go an hour without one.”
Rhys just shrugged, feeling something in the small of his back. He turns around, seeing the full height of the tree shrinking in the distance.
Ian Cooke was born in a narrow tropical country; he then moved to one with a dragon on its flag. He’s an illustrator, storyteller and social entrepreneur interested in matters of multicultural intersectionality, scientific and social communication, weird erotica, sustainability, and psychogeography. He likes to walk behind abandoned restaurants, find rotting furniture, and imagine a fantasy wonderland made from the uncontrollable thoughts of a toad-licking prophet that sat on that broken sofa. He’s worked with marine paleobiologists, archaeologists, poets, t-shirt companies, and photographers. His work has been seen on The Cardiff Review, Porridge Magazine, National Museum of Wales, a meeting of the Western Society of Naturalists and shortlisted for the Reportager Award. He’s creative director of Ffangaí, a Cardiff-based collective. Find him online at iancooketapia.com or as @IanCookeTapia almost everywhere.