Smoke Signs

This selection is from NonBinary Review Issue #5: The King in Yellow. Get NonBinary Review #5 from the Zoetic Press website. 

Three names were scrawled on the wall and Constanze could pronounce none of them. Pressed into the plaster with a now absent knife, the shape of the letters spoke of tree roots entwined through shattered animal bones and drowned sailors rotting on the beach. She ran her finger across the words and scraped white powder from underneath her nail.

Henrietta came into the room behind her.

“Did you write this?” Constanze said, not turning around. The younger woman placed her hand on Constanze’s shoulder.

“I can’t even read it. What do they say?”

Constanze motioned toward the desk and waited for Henrietta to pass her the laptop. The cheap, plastic, case scorched hot from the overworked battery.

“Do you even know where to start looking?”

Constanze rubbed a hand through her plait, staring at her fingers as she placed them on the keyboard. The inevitable loose hairs clumped in her palm. She shook her head. In the free drawing programme she sketched the names and tied the simple drawing to posts on three different forums. The first specialised in onomatology, the second etymology and the third occult alphabets.

While they waited for replies the two women collected mud from the flowerbed underneath the window and wove it through with dried pampas grass. Once the figure was finished, scalp raised to a three point crown, they placed it on the hearth and burnt it to clay with a cook’s blowtorch. The blue flame guttered as the fuel ran low. The room filled with the smell of burnt grass. Mustard coloured smoke pressed itself into the grooved letters on the wall.

Constanze walked up and rested her face against the first letters of all three names in turn until they left their mark upon her skin. Henrietta hooked her arm through her lover’s and led her across to the single bed, dragging the worn blankets from the floor and cocooning them together. Through the wall the street talked itself awake.

*   *   *

Sometime in the early hours the computer spat them answers, the only light the Chinese lantern glow through the sheet pinned across the open window.

Henrietta pulled the sheet free of the pelmet while Constanze poured stewed, thick tea from the cold teapot. On the wall smoke continued to swirl inside the letters.

Together the women clicked through the still open tabs on the screen, each one contradicting the last. The words were in an alphabet only found on a sand bank in the north Atlantic. The names used dipthongs carved into trees at the bottom of a backfilled mineshaft in the Yorkshire Dales. The words had been spotted in a single SETI analysed signal in 1992.

“Are any of these correct?” Constanze said, sipping her tea and spitting it into the hearth. The liquid soaked into the cracked clay figure.

“All of them,” Henrietta said.

Putting her mouth close to the wall Constanze inhaled the yellow smoke from the first name, Henrietta the smoke from the second. There was a hint of damp from unseen bricks. The final name they shared, the taste of burning haystacks sticking in the back of their throats.

Inside saturated lungs the spirits of the words felt at home. Their temporary, bronchial, abode reminded them of the trees worshippers used to carve their names on. Replacing oxygen they allowed themselves to be carried deep into the frontal lobes of the two women.

Feeling their new tenants squirm into comfort Constanze and Henrietta picked up the biscuitware figure from the hearth and carried him across to the Formica dining table where they ate at each sundown.

They placed the figure on his back on a fine porcelain plate, the gilding scraped off due to years consuming sweetmeats in aspic. With tarnished silver knives and forks they divided up the clay limbs and ate them in the order told to them by children’s books. The legs tasted of smoke, the arms rotting leaves. When finished they kissed, sharing the taste of their meal. Grit stuck in both their throats until they swallowed three times and took a mouthful of cold tea. Parting, a glaze descended over their eyes and they sat facing each other, arms resting on the table.

*   *   *

The trance lasted until dawn, the glow touching Constanze’s face first, then Henrietta’s. They stood and walked across to the window. They saw more names carved into the brick of the houses opposite, each chipped out with surgeon’s precision. The single room felt too small for them and their new dwellers.

In the street neighbours ignored each other, walking along with glass eyes and trembling hands. Glances turned inward.

Spirits branching the gap between the two women Constanze and Henrietta lifted their heads high and sauntered to the park, keeping any bare skin away from the iron of the fence. Hand in hand they walked to a small stand of trees and, picking one each, placed their mouths against the bark. The spirits swirling in their nerves turned themselves back to smoke and, axolotl like, dragged themselves out of the two women’s mouths into the split, silver bark. Exhaustion overtook Constanze and Henrietta and they fell to sleeping on broken branches.

Staying as smoke the spirits drilled into the roots of the silver birch trees, spreading through the surrounding soil. Gathering grains with a brambler’s grasp. Underneath the women’s resting the spirits created limbs from badger flesh and the white bones of long dead birds. They shaped fingers from the twist of tap roots and pulled water from deep springs to smooth out a smoke of skin. Once they counted the number of limbs, and were satisfied they were far in excess of any creature of flesh or carapace they had tasted, the spirits dragged their new bodies from the dirt. Dead roots ran through them, creaking as they stretched. Pollards crowning their heads rattled as they stepped.

The first picked up Constanze and pressed her through its navel until, still breathing, still dreaming, she was encased by clay sternum and clavicle. The second kissed Henrietta on the forehead, tasting the salt of her sleeping skin. The spirit knew the love it carried for her was Constanze’s even as it lowered her into its cranium and felt her squirm to settlement in the damp earth of its face.

With the women placed, and their dreams of plaster mould and rotting wallpaper shaping dioramas in the flesh of soil, the spirits rose themselves from the park and walked through the streets to return to the sea.

Steve Toase is an author and archaeologist living in North Yorkshire and occasionally Munich, Germany. In Steve’s work, Gods are found in boxes, trees hitch-hike and bears play chess in sunlit plazas. His story “Call Out” has recently been published in the Best Horror Of The Year Anthology 6