Sleepless (i)

Lois Barnum sat, bleary and uncomfortable, within the voluntary prison of a red-eye flight. She hated flying, but it was a necessary evil. Flying overnight, in this grotesque, screen-lit limbo, was not. It was either the sign of an intensely well-managed schedule, or of a botched one. This, of course, was the latter. But there she was, not quite half-asleep in a metal box trundling through the night sky. All for the reward of rushing out another episode of the bullshit TV show she hosted.

She adjusted her eye mask and pillow for the thousandth time, and began to grumble for the hundredth over how this had happened. Season five of the euphemistically titled “Out of the Ordinary” was all cut, spliced, and ready to go, and she was ready for a holiday. Then some fucker in the network decided that three of the episodes would be ‘problematic’ given the ‘current climate’. So, she had to say bye-bye to the man who thought that Jews invented Africa, the man who thought that space was a myth perpetuated by Jews, and the man who… well. It involved a certain ethnoreligious group. All quality stuff, in the sense that it possessed the show’s most saleable quality in being reckless, exploitative and tacky. But apparently it was a little close to the bone. That was the problem in dealing with a network that was morally bankrupt, but not yet close to being actually bankrupt. PR.

So, she had to dip into the files and find three more lunatics to present to her viewers, as quickly as possible. Preferably people who weren’t going to say anything racially inflammatory – at least, not so much that it couldn’t be edited out. Sadly, most of the quick hits were already covered for the season. They had reptilian shape-shifters, they had gruesome dietary habits, they had an embarrassment of outlandish fetishes. They had flat earth, hollow earth, pyramidal earth – any shape but spherical, basically. That was a bumper episode. Still, she wasn’t allowed any raging anti-Semites. In short, she had the bearded lady, the tattooed man, and the conjoined twins, but her freak show had just been robbed of all its growth disorders. To the bottom of the barrel she went.

She managed perhaps two hours of sleep before being rudely ejected into a harsh airport morning. Tom, the camera guy, had the misfortune of already living in Georgia and would be meeting her there. He was loitering outside as planned, twirling the keys to a beat-up SUV.

“Hey.” He said. “You look like shit.”

“Very astute. Fortunately, there are people willing to take my money in exchange for a solution to this problem.”

“Mine is to stand on the correct end of the camera. You can have that one for free.”

She made a vulgar hand gesture and climbed into the passenger seat. They were on the road, which was better than being in the air, but still pretty miserable.

“You know where this guy lives?” She asked.

“Yeah. Never heard of him, though. What’s his deal?”

“Claims not to have slept in the past forty-odd years. He’s had a few local news articles to his name. I guess he thinks that sleep is some kind of engineered flaw in humans that he’s managed to overcome. Like a test from our space-alien overlords, or whatever.”

“Or a magical Jewish curse.”

“Don’t get me started. Anyway, we’ve got to bust this out quick, so hopefully a day and a night should do it for footage.”

“Not exactly going to leap off the screen, is it? We gave the viewers somebody who was willing to fuck a box of old socks, and now we’re asking them to settle for somebody who’s just quite tired?”

“Well, he probably lives in a total pigsty. That’s always good for a start. Then I’m hoping he’s a good talker, basically. Maybe­ he has some mysticism stuff going on. If we’re lucky we can get a shot of him sleeping.”

“Right. That’s always good stuff.”

“Get a sequence of him explaining that he wasn’t actually sleeping, just communing with the world serpent. You know how it goes.”

“Yeah. Should be an easy gig for me, anyway. All hinging on the interview this time.”

“Nothing new there. How far out are we going? I should get some shut-eye.”

“Middle of nowhere. Rest up.”

Sleep proved to be more of a technicality. She was able to flicker in and out, but only at a rate that made the whole endeavour rather fruitless. It was enough to remind her of how punishingly tired she was, but not enough to provide even the most perfunctory relief. The internal grumbling began anew.

It was deep into the afternoon when they arrived. Even so, it was hotter than hell and many times more humid. They’d gone some way off the beaten track, taking dirt roads and detours (Tom was not a fantastic navigator), before finally arriving at an old farmhouse. She rubbed her eyes, clenched her forehead, and winced her way out of the car. First impressions were good. It was always a boon when things played exactly to stereotype, and this place was putting on a virtuoso performance. Dilapidated, tucked away in an overgrown pastiche of rural isolation, pocked with the shoddy repairs and contraptions of a man who clearly had little connection to modern life. Inside would likely be even better.

“Alright.” She yawned. “Let’s get some shots before the family of cannibals that so clearly live here decide to greet us.”

“Sounds good. Might as well die doing what we love. Producing crap.”

“There’s probably a joke in there somewhere, but I am far too tired to reach for it.”

She was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the misery of being sleepless and exhausted on a plane was handily outmatched by that of being sleepless and exhausted in the depths of Georgia. Her head was spinning in the heat, she felt like she’d been sweating for two days straight, and any kind of complex thought was rapidly fleeing the scene in a doomed hunt for cooler pastures. In theory, this was her time to prep some interview questions. This was a rushed shoot, so every stray little window of time was important. Wasn’t going to happen, though. A yawn and a grimace was the most she could get done.

It didn’t take long before Tom felt satisfied with his collection of ‘spooky countryside’ footage (a technical term). It was time to go and meet their man. The house was even more flamboyantly decrepit up close. Strips of bare wood rubbed shoulders with three or four different paint jobs. A motor flecked in seven different shades of rust puttered away to one side, serving as vanguard to a liquor still of equally ruddy complexion. This house was an old, forgotten pauper that never got the help they needed, all trauma, isolation and decay. It was perfect.

“Right, let’s get this over with.” She said. “You good to go?”

“Yeah.”

His name was Al – that was all he was willing to give. He certainly looked the part. Long, tangled salt-and-pepper hair. A pair of coarse red eyes presided over cavernous dark circles. He wore a hodgepodge of thick, greasy fabrics beneath a leather jacket, seemingly unperturbed by the heat. He stank, enough that she was confident it would come across on film. Some smells can reach the eyes. For all that, he was quite affable.

“You the TV guys?” That was the greeting. He had a soft, educated sort of voice. “Want to start with the tour? I expect you’re going to want to get some footage of the mess.”

She could hardly argue with that. It was a pleasant surprise to be working with someone who recognized the conceit of the exercise. You normally had to spend some time convincing the star that you were offering them a serious platform (then deal with the hate mail later, if it came to it). Al seemed happy enough to go along with the demands of the show from the outset. He ushered them merrily about the place, which was palatial, albeit for a particularly undemanding definition of ‘palace’ – a creaking labyrinth of dust, splinters, and strata upon strata of discarded knickknacks. He pointed out areas that might be of particular interest. The cupboard whose sole purpose was to play host to an improbable array of spiders. The bathroom that could only be described as ‘disconcertingly brown’. The flight of steps rolling down to a cellar that even Al had never found the stomach to enter. He was also a painter (of sorts), and his work was nailed up all over the house, unframed. The prodigious volume of the work was probably to be expected, as was its nature – a melange of abstract and minimal styles, slathered onto canvas with titles scrawled illegibly above.

Then, of course, there was the bedroom. For an episode about a man who never slept, that was naturally going to be the centre of attention. ‘Bedroom’ was something of a misnomer, even if that was what Al called it. There was no bed, for one thing. A slightly grimy-looking armchair squatted in the centre of the room, flanked by heaps of books. The walls here were smothered in paintings, some applied directly to the wood. An easel stood in one corner, a padlocked old chest in another.

“This is where I spend the nights, mostly.”

“In the chair?”

“That’s right. Or painting. I like working in poor light. Means you can’t really see the finished product until dawn.”

“Sure. You happy to shoot some interview stuff here?”

“I am.” He looked over to Tom. “Have you filmed enough of the house? Don’t be shy about it.”

“Oh, more than enough.”

She let out a prolonged yawn. The house’s charms had kept her stimulated, but that spell of alertness was fading quickly. The fuzz and the fog were rushing back in. She had forgotten how hot it was, how heavy her limbs and eyelids were, how nice an imaginary bed felt.

“Are you tired?” Asked Al. “Would you like some coffee?”

“No, no. Maybe later. Let’s just press on.”

Well, that was probably a bad decision, but she was sticking to it. Time to let the madman say his piece.

The End (i)

Reunion

It was shortly gone dawn when he left the village. He hadn’t been able to sleep, and he wanted to be one of the first to get there. As such, he was a little disappointed to see the temple already flooded with hopefuls. He shouldn’t really have been surprised. This was their chance, same as it was his. For most, this was all they would get. It took a shrewd and dedicated pilgrim to attend this event twice. Any more than that was a life’s work, the resort of the inescapably obsessed or desperate. This was the asking, and it was the most extraordinary event to which many among this growing throng of the ordinary would ever be party. It was their blue moon, their black swan, an event that could well define them for years to come.

Purple and gold banners flapped wistfully, their rows marking a path down into the valley and the mouth of the temple. An old, stony maw into the rock, a landmark seldom visited and a threshold seldom crossed. It was uncanny to see the crowd stirring about it. The people of this county feared this place, respected it, and so neglected it. But the arrival of a noble swept away old suspicions. They were the new gods, the new power, a face of sovereignty that could be both seen and touched – but only when they allowed it.  And so, on this sacred occasion, the people would defy their reverence for the old in pursuit of a glimpse at the new. He was already privileged, in that respect. He had seen a princess when he was stationed in the northwest, and the mark of even that briefest of encounters had not been erased by all the blood and trauma that followed. That was a trade that many would be glad to make. For him, it was not enough. And so he was here, at the asking. For those lucky enough to step inside, this would be more than a glance, more than a chance and passing visit. It was a meeting, one to one, with greatness. Am opportunity to make one’s pleas to a different class of ear, to show one’s troubles to a better class of eye.

Down among the masses, he starting inching forward, brushing past the idle and the lackadaisical until he was within a dozen or so yards of the temple door. Here, the valley was thick with the hopeful. Bodies pushed up against him from all directions, the smell of humanity filled his nostrils. The rumble of conversation, loud in its own right, was peppered with shouting and hysterics. It was not dissimilar to times past. Had he closed his eyes, he would have been back in two feet of snow, trapped in formation, hearing the violence drawing closer and closer. So he kept them open. Peering out over the assembled heads, he could see the noble’s personal guard – disquietingly tall figures wrapped in iron-grey robes, their faces hidden beneath hoods and behind masks. A true devotee would perhaps have been able to read into their garb, their weaponry, their positioning. Nobles were seen so infrequently that they came to be identified by the events and the people that surrounded them. It was likely that nobody in the crowd had ever seen the face that awaited them inside the temple, but some would have seen or heard of their silent, towering custodians.

“What will you ask for?” The woman next to him sounded giddy. “I’ve come all the way from a frontier town. I’m going to ask him to drive the clans off our land.”

He didn’t reply. Even if he had wanted to, the moment was stolen by the sound of a gong, whose rippling was immediately outmatched by the fervour it incited. At once, a hundred pairs of hands reached out towards the door just as a hundred voices cried out to be chosen. The mass swelled forward, stopping short of the guard, and becoming somehow even tighter. He was carried along in that vice-grip, clearly powerless to resist the motion of the group, swallowed up in a rush that was at once kinetic and claustrophobic. It was, again, familiar.

Then the choosing began. One at a time, the guard plucked members from the waiting mass and escorted them through the door, into the innards of the temple and their moment of asking. He stood and watched as a series of awestruck, nerve-wracked, euphoric faces were ushered inside. Some returned, flushed with tears, to a hero’s welcome. Others did not. There would be other ways out of that place, little hidden doors tucked away in the hills. Some would want to be alone. This went on and on, all through sunset. By evening, the periphery had left. Those who were only there for the spectacle, whose need to go inside had been less than their need for food and warmth that night. Let them go, he thought. They had no place here to begin with. He still stood, locked in place with the rest of the desperate, holding on to this opportunity until the very last.

That was when he was chosen. In a blur, a surreality, he was taken from the crowd, through the maw, down many generations of stairways and corridors, to a doorway bordered in purple and gold. There, he was left alone. His breath caught. His skin shook. This was the first moment of trepidation, of new fear, that he had felt since those days beyond the frontier. The fright and powerlessness of war were soaked deep in his skin. This was new, a peaceful terror, in this moment of self-determination. It is one thing to spend long years in the pursuit of a chance, another entirely to receive one. Gathering himself, he stepped through.

The noble sat on a throne carved out from the rock, now draped in silk. He wore a garment, impeccably tailored, the likes of which he had never seen, something that spoke of sex, sovereignty and military all at once. An iron circlet separated hair and visage, both immaculate. He glowed, even in the sombre light of this buried chamber. He was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.

The noble raised an eyebrow, or curled a lip, or twinkled an eye – it was impossible to tell. He fell to his knees, bowed his head, and kissed the floor.

“Your name?” The noble’s voice was quiet, soft, but all-consuming.

“Hughes, my lord.”

“That is not your birthname.”

“No, my lord. It is my peace-name.”

“Then you have fought for us.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“You may raise your head.”

He did, feeling both shame and excitement at the chance to look once more upon his benefactor.

“What is your asking, Hughes?”

“There is… someone I want back.”

It was a thought that had driven him this far, put wind in his tattered, fraying old sails for this long. Now, in the light of such glory, it seemed ridiculous. Why want anybody, anything when one such as this exists? In that moment, he understood the pilgrims, the unhinged devotees who would chase the ghost of a noble to the ends of the world. To meet one in such intimate circumstances was to lose something. A moment’s basking in this man’s presence, and he could feel the hooks digging in, the exquisite barbs that would prise some vital part of him away in the inevitable parting. It was possible that nothing would be worth anything after this. But still, he had come for a reason, and he would see it through.

“A soldier.”

“Yes.”

“From death?”

“No, my lord. At least, not that I know. Just from somewhere far away.”

The noble fixed him with a perfect, prying gaze.

“They are beyond our borders.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“It is a difficult thing that you ask. You would put such an onus on me, in the pursuit of your own satisfaction?”

“… yes, my lord.” This response had to be forced from his throat. He hated himself. What measure was his petty, impossible wish and the finite joy it might bring him? Certainly, any beauty therein was less than the ugliness of imposing it upon the god before him. He began to cry.

“Stop your tears.”

The tears stopped.

“I will do this for you. But there will be a price.”

“Yes, my lord. Any price that you name.”

“This person will find their way to you, and you will spend a decade together. Then, you will be taken, and you will serve me.”

“You are too generous, my lord. It is hardly a price.”

“But do not have false hope. You will serve me, but you will not see me, or hear me. When we part today, we are severed. You will have a decade of warmth, from my benevolence, and then a lifetime of cold in my debt.”

A lifetime of cold at the noble’s behest was infinitely preferable to a comfortable life with no connection to him.

“Do you accept?”

“I do.”

“Then leave. It is done.”

He rose slowly, on weak legs. This was his last chance to see this beauty, to share in its light and air. If he was slow in leaving, he might yet be graced with another syllable. He lingered, but not another word was spoken.

He walked alone through another lineage of corridors and stairways. Joy, sorrow, fear and anticipation ran messily together into a numb frenzy – it was unbearable. He emerged from a hidden little door, tucked away in the hills.

Some years later, he found himself at a port on the eastern seaboard. He was wrapped in an embrace, touching cheeks with a familiar, beloved face that had been lost to him for so long. As a tear ran, he closed his eyes. There, behind his eyelids, was an image of beauty that would never be seen again.­­­