Book: Black River (2016)





The needle went into his neck and he had seen it, seen it in the killer’s hand, glinting in the candle light, a static image, a single second expanded into eternity. Like a car crash, the world seemed to slow for his thoughts while his motions remained chained, uselessly, to a much swifter timeline. There could be no time to mount a defence—there was time eternal to understand.

It was in his neck and he was stumbling out of the seat. Now thoughts were gone and movements everything, the last hope was only in flailing, clutching, grasping. And then both were fading, then he felt himself in the killer’s embrace. The world was fading. Was it all just a dream? The whole unpleasant thing—from birth to death? It might as well have been.

Now there was only comfort, only the bliss of being, of living, existing without thought. What was there to judge, to compare or interpret? There was no longer anything to judge with. Just a life that could neither understand nor care for its own impending extinguishment, the flawless and inexorable destiny of its own inherent nature.

He felt a shadow around him. He felt himself in an embrace and melted into it, as if now at last without his fractured mind he could allow the touch of another to comfort him. There was no other, no real boundaries. Just life and energy, the common flow of all things in the universe. What dim and faint consciousness that remained—itself just enough to comprehend this and nothing beyond—was experienced as a wonderful ecstasy, a transcendental blessing permeating from everywhere.

Golden light and a faint all-consuming hum, this was experienced. Warm, comfortable, blissful release, this was felt. Now and then he felt the expression of a distant universe upon the body that was miles away around him, almost impossible to feel—like a telegram from the pantheon, received with the indifferent mind-consuming joy of the soul itself.

He felt that out there somewhere he was moving now, still in the embrace of the universe, passing through space and time, and then he was fading back from that world even further, fading back into his own mind. Back into whatever it was that knew itself as Hardy.

Visions, images, olfactics of ages past pass through him, memories experienced as though ongoing, regressions accepted as indisputable fact. The shadow with him always as he moves backwards in time. He is transported fully back to his childhood, to his parents. In this world a self independent from his parents is utterly forbidden, he is a slave to the emotional narrative they dictate for him, which is a narrative of chaos and terror, total submission. All other instincts and emotions are blackened with the violent brush of shame, locked away and forbidden. Years pass. By the time he is old enough to fight back he has already lost. Now the fight itself becomes one more act of self-destruction, an invitation to punishment, to psychological evisceration. The shadow is with him always throughout. It whispers in his ear:

This is the thing people talk of when they talk of love

Now he is a man, the shadow with him still, shrouding him, keeping the light of other lives away. The shadow has been his oldest friend, now around the corners of his conscious mind he understands that the shadow has always been his only enemy. Years away from them but they always with him, one day he wakes to learn the parents died—an unsolved freak occurrence with the subtle implications, perhaps, of a murder-suicide. A dim dark delight dances over an abyss of rage and pain which is underneath the black, underneath an ocean of deepest black, something he knows he cannot look into, cannot let himself willingly face. That is why it was put there, a disease of the mind designed and refined by generations of screwed-up broken people, passing it off to one another like grotesque and quivering squid shooting poisoned ink at their own kin down in the deepest, darkest depths of the Mariana Trench. They will never admit to it, each is alone and ashamed, consumed by what each shares within them, passes amongst them. This was the family heirloom, foisted on him through subtle spells, hymns and incantations far beyond the twisted comprehension of the broken ones who moaned it through every gesture, every intonation, in every expression and movement.

Something was lost, someone was lost, long ago. A child was never welcomed to the world. What grew in its place was a shell, a ruse, a pretty mask on a limbless leper, a cripple in a wheelchair pushed by a shadow that whispers, whispers, whispers endlessly in his ear. Hardy can feel his body again, feel the shell of his flesh as it is breached once again, an achingly insufficient boundary against the world of cruelty beyond. Sharp, electrifying metal cuts through his wrists, through his ankles. There is comfort in spilling blood, an externalization of wounds that are otherwise unfathomable.

“Emily,” he whispers.

You will never see her, not as you are…

As a man he searches for enemies, placeholders for the parents within, the shadow pointing the way, always at the edges of his vision. He gets into trouble, burns bridges, confirms for himself what he has always believed. That the world hates him, that humanity hates and fears him. That this is the only truth. Throughout all this, for some inexplicable reason, he attempts to pursue a normal life, a career, the mirageous grail of personal fulfilment. He fails, of course, vindicated at every turn.

Now the blood is running from his wounds thicker and across the void between him and his skin he feels the contrast of the heat of the blood and the coldness of the air. He is outside, somewhere far away he is outside and the shadow is dragging him through fields of long wet grass. Hardy is waking for the very last time.

His eyes opened on darkness, he listened to the sound of the killer and his own fevered breath, the violent rustle of grass, as he was dragged through the cold, wet darkness of night. A great ache followed the awakening, pain that was hot and cold as it churned throughout his body, internal, external. His hands and feet burned with the affront of their physical breach while the thundering chemical smog of his mind was like the furious compression of some great industrial drill tearing at the rocks of all nature itself. This terrible cloud in his head, this diseased hangover of an agonised lifetime, almost drove him back into the depths of his coma, almost demanded a premature surrender, and Hardy almost retreated again.

And then he was back, fighting his way to the surface of his mind, to the sensory world beyond. He could see little in the darkness, for now he could recall less, but he knew with a tremendous certainty that his actions in these pounding moments could well be the most important of his entire existence—the ultimate and final summation of his life. A purpose after all.

Yes, and now recollection too began to return. He was Brian Hardy, who had slipped and stumbled and fought his way down black alleyways of futile error, fuelled by ignorance and idiocy and the awesomeness of the self-destructive drive that had underscored his every action like a treacherous ley line leading directly to death. He had written about Emily, fallen beneath cancer and madness, genuflecting without thought to both. He had drank and starved to quicken the journey, challenged others to take a part, and finally, without a friend, he had invited this killer into his world.

The one who was dragging him through wet fields in a night aglow with moonlight. The one who held him to his breast, so close that he could feel the other man’s shallow breath. Cold fear tempered the physical torment of his condition—did this psychopath know he was awake?

It was pertinent to remain as languid and as loose as he must have been in his previous unconscious state. Thankfully this was not difficult. The real difficulty would have been in struggling, in hardening, in fighting back against the other man’s hold. There was little strength in his body now, though strength at least in his will. He was dying now, even if the killer evaporated completely from this moment and left him alone he would still not live to see morning—the only question now whether he would leave this world alone.

He would have to trust, trust himself for the very first time, he did not know where they were going, what grave this mad man was dragging him into, nor how he would strike at his captor before that time came. A slight flick of the wrists alerted him to their bind, the sharp pain of his ankles as they dragged against the ground warned him of theirs too. At least his arms were free—when a chance arose to use them he could not allow hesitation.

Now they were under darkness, thick pungent mud beneath their feet, the killer struggling to press forward. Was this man exhausted? How much time had passed since that time in the bar? Had he been dragging Hardy ever since? Perhaps there was hope.

Then the trees passed from above and they were by the river, glittering and majestic in the moonlight. All was clear, the moon so bright against the black sky that no creature could hide its face without slinking into shade. The killer paused, still as a deer in a hunter’s crosshair. Hardy helpless in his arms, praying to himself to succeed. If this was it, if the killer knew he was awake, he would have to strike soon. And then the grip tightened around his waist and the killer pulled him into the river.

Cold water flowed against him, biting at the wounds of his ankles and up towards his waist. A quick impulse to denial was felt, a dread at these certain waters of his approaching death. No, no, it couldn’t be this. It couldn’t be over. Wasn’t there a promise in life that things would be well, gifts would be bestowed? Riches, the love of a woman? Wasn’t he due those things before the removal took place? No, no there was no such promise. It was over. He had to trust that, trust his own final form, aches and scars and all those things too.

They moved deeper into the water and Hardy knew how it could be done. It was possible to find strength if strength would never after be needed. It took strength to pump his heart, to deflate and inflate his lungs, to power the miracle of his human mind. He could take that strength away from these processes, away from himself, and use it all to take them both beneath the river.

They stopped in the water almost up to their shoulders, Hardy’s legs dangling in the flow as he let the killer take his weight entirely, using up the bastard’s energy as much as he could. Hardy’s eyes were closed again, his jaw set, bracing.

“Brian Hardy,” the killer said, “I’m sorry that the fates have not permitted your continued existence… but the only road forward now is cobbled with your bones. Goodbye.”

Hardy almost laughed at the fool. He felt the killer turn him in the water so that now the other man must be watching him. Hardy’s eyes were still closed and he never opened them again. It was time.

He rose his bound hands up from beneath the water and then threw them down over the killer’s neck and against his back, clutching him into his irrefutable embrace. Electric stars flashed against his vision such was the ferocity, the pounding determination, of his final effort to wield strength in this world. Launching his entire body against the killer, he drove them both down beneath the water.

Hold on Hardy, his mind serenely sighed, hold tight. Forget everything else. Forget that this is pain, forget that this is effort and sensation. Now indifference to these things. These things just are. This is destiny. This is predetermined and immovable. There is no world in an infinite multiverse where either of us would rise again. No effort to assist that which is already certain. In a moment this will already be done and therefore already has been written. Hold on, hold on, hold on.

After a time, the killer stopped struggling, went limp in Hardy’s arms. Hardy had been holding on until that moment and continued to hold on for a moment thereafter. He was smiling under the water and somehow still conscious without even a breath of air. Still conscious though without a thought at all.

Above the river clouds passed across the sky which was mostly clear but for these scarce wisps of silver and grey. The earth moved and the moon moved too, towards its bed beyond the flat verdant horizon. The water flowed in currents and waves above the point where the two men had descended without rising again. It flowed like that for millennia. Further downstream a swan took flight from the water and rose north over the lake and into the copper clouds of dawn, fizzling out from sight against the fires of the new morning sun. Two magpies flew down from the sky and alighted the fragrant blossomy branch of a rosebush, joined then by a third and finally their awaited fourth. A kingfisher lifted its beak from the water, the silvery scales of its prize sparkling from its grin against the nascent light of the new spring day. In the distance the first traffic of the morning’s caravan of careerists moving sleepily into the city could be heard, joining the joyous song of the birds who woke early each day to welcome the light. In this bright sun now the river was not black, but silver, golden—azure and white. Floating down now, down further under its ice-cold waters, Hardy knows nothing but bliss.