Aphelion Issue 221, Volume 21
September 2017
 
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Bread and Blood

by Agnieszka Halas




Fog wreathed the streets and blind alleys of Chalal like bandages wrapped around a corpse.

Shouts echoed from the direction of the quay. Harbor workers toiled like ants, unloading a galley, its bow carved in the likeness of a monstrous fish. From time to time a stronger gust of wind brought the stench of rotting flesh. Natalia could only guess at the contents of the wooden crates that came--hundreds and thousands of them--on cargo ships from the land of Leviathan. The workers loaded them on ox-drawn wagons, which then rolled, one by one, along the stone road that led beyond the city gates and away into the mist.

Chalal was a place where many pathways crossed, both visible and symbolic. A crowd of entities incessantly swarmed through its streets and taverns--damned souls, demons, and creatures from the dreamland, nameless shadows, and monsters from the deepest confines of Hell. They came here, sentenced by the judges above or sent by blind fate. Chalal swallowed them like a whale, and then regurgitated the remains.

Natalia wrapped herself more tightly against the chill. She watched as emaciated, ragged souls struggled to load yet another wagon. The overseer was clad in dark green armor with a metallic sheen, resembling beetles' wings. He twirled his whip, now and then cracking it above the workers' heads, watching in satisfaction as they flinched, then quickened their movements. She felt no sympathy. They had been sentenced to hard labor, but there were worse punishments.

Spukk, the imp whom Afzal had assigned as her bodyguard--a creature resembling a cross between a turkey and a small black crocodile--was not his usual talkative self. He lay immobile, snout resting on forelegs, lazily watching the passersby.

Suddenly he snapped his head up and gurgled warningly. A woman was approaching, clad in rags, her gray hair greasy and unkempt, her movements shaky. Obviously mere days away from turning into a shadow.

She stretched out her bony hands towards Natalia.

"Please, I beg you, give me a vial of blood. Just one. I'll pay tomorrow... I swear..."

"No."

"Just a drop, then!" howled the woman. "Just one little drop, you bitch!" She raised her fist, but Spukk, alert as ever, jumped up, flapping and squawking, clawing at her garments.

"Leave her be," Natalia ordered. The imp grudgingly released the damned soul, who spat on the ground by the girl's feet.

Natalia and Spukk watched as she shuffled away, disappearing into the mist.

"We won't see that one again, that's for sure," the imp remarked with contempt.


* * *

The walls of the tiny garret were scabby with peeling paint; the floor creaked at every step. A cream-colored silk dress lay on the dingy bed, contrasting starkly with the surroundings.

In the kitchen, Spukk was noisily gorging himself on stinking meat scraps bought from a street vendor. Natalia undressed and hastily sponged herself off in a basin of water.

Outside the window, several gray figures floated by. The wind blew and they rose, whirling like dead leaves, then disappeared from sight.

Natalia dried herself off with an old towel, and then reached for the dress. Putting it on, she shivered, realizing how much weight she had lost in the last couple of days.

She carefully combed her hair and pinned it back with golden hairpins shaped like scarab beetles--Afzal's gift. Then, from a shelf, she took down an ornate box that held her cosmetics--another present from her patron. Ages ago, it must have belonged to some courtesan from ancient Greece, or perhaps Rome.

She carefully painted her face to suit Afzal's tastes. Crimson lips, cheeks lightly dusted with rouge, dark lines elongating the eyes.

Finished, she cast one last critical glance at her reflection in a small pocket mirror. Then, from the box, she took out a glass straw and a small leather bag, tied with a faded ribbon. She untied it and carefully measured a portion of white powder onto the mirror's shiny surface.


* * *

As she walked through the dirty streets towards Afzal's villa, Chalal's ugliness somehow felt less oppressive. The drug warmed her insides and seemed to coat everything with a shimmering rainbow mist.

She crossed a square where water trickled from a fountain shaped like a brass pig's head, falling into a stone basin, around which an unruly group of klobuki--small birdlike demons with large beaks--squawked loudly. Now and then, squabbles broke out between them and one or two of the creatures flew up, wings flapping, only to land again in a different spot.

By the wall of the nearest building huge flowers bloomed, their fleshy petals resembling raw meat. At the end of the alley stood a crumbling stone archway, decorated with partially obliterated hieroglyphs.

From the shadows came the tinkling crash of a breaking bottle. Natalia flinched. A man in a tattered army uniform staggered out from under the archway. Seeing her, he straightened.

"Hey, Suzy, never thought I'd meet you here," he said hoarsely. "Remember that dancing hall in Cairo? If I had only known, I'd never have gotten into that mess, I'd never have shot Marty..."

He extended a hand, as if to touch her, but Natalia drew back. The man lost his balance and fell heavily against the wall.

"Christ, if I had only known," he repeated. His face was already turning dark, the features shrinking and contorting. In a moment, his body disintegrated into ash. A shadow, a faint figure like a puff of smoke, drifted upwards and was blown away by the wind. Natalia stared into the sky, hypnotized, long after it had disappeared. The angry squawking of the klobuki brought her back to reality. She shivered and walked on.

Afzal's villa was hidden behind a tall brick wall. Beyond the gate stretched a lush garden, full of palm trees. Apelike soldiers in full armor guarded the gate. They blocked Natalia's path, but stepped aside when she showed them her token--an onyx gemma with the carved image of a capricorn.


* * *

Several familiar objects stood on the polished tortoiseshell tabletop. An open casket full of glass vials, a decanter of wine and two goblets. Afzal was sitting on the satin sofa. His folded wings covered him like a cloak. Golden embroidery on his scarlet robe glittered in the candlelight.

He was beautiful, in his own way. Slender, with gleaming black hair, an alabaster face and eyes like twin rubies.

Obeying the rules of etiquette, Natalia bowed to him--a low, ceremonial bow.

"You're getting paler," Afzal said. He filled a goblet with wine and shook the contents of one vial into it, swirled the mixture, then handed her the goblet. "Drink."

Although the wine was sweet, Natalia could taste the salty, metallic tang that marred it. Too desperate to feel disgust, she eagerly drank the liquid, down to the last drop. Afzal was watching her with narrowed eyes.

"Come to me," he said when she set the goblet down.

He could be gentle when he wished. And she felt no aversion towards him; quite the opposite, in fact. His skin was velvety and hot, exuding an aroma of musk, myrrh, and resin.

When he slowly slipped her dress off, Natalia felt a rising wave of desire, so powerful and sweet that it drowned out everything else. She clung to the demon, laughing a low, hoarse laugh.

Afzal untied his robe and spread his wings, which filled the room like a great dark cloud.

"Come to me," he whispered. And her world, as usual, was suddenly reduced to his velvety, musky body, his breathing, and his rhythmical movements, finely tuned to her need.

She slowly drifted back to reality, panting, dazed by his scent, still shaking from the flood of pleasure that slowly quieted down, leaving her languid and exhausted.

With the tip of one curved claw, Afzal grazed her collarbone and licked the blood from the cut.

"You taste like smoke," he smiled and a cruel gleam came into his eyes.


* * *

From taverns around the marketplace came the sounds of laughter and music. Natalia stepped over a corpse lying in the gutter. A bloody hole gaped in the dead woman's chest. A corpulent baalmon was crouched under a nearby wall, chewing on a hunk of rib.

"Enjoy your meal, Bakr," Natalia quipped. The demon nodded, smacking his lips with gusto.

In the center of the marketplace stood a basalt statue of Justice. Nearby, as usual, Blotch the cripple was sitting in his wheelchair, wrapped in a filthy blanket. Natalia had no idea if there was any truth to the rumor that during his earthly life he had owned several luxury brothels in Sydney. Some of Chalal's old-timers said that he had lost both legs to diabetes; others, that he had driven his sports car under a train while drunk or high on cocaine, or both.

He was talking with some kid in a black leather jacket. Seeing Natalia, he bared his decayed teeth in a smile. Blotch always reeked so badly that you could almost see the stench, oozing out of his pores like a brownish, fetid mist.

"Where's Spukk?" he asked.

"Organizing a fresh shipment."

"But you've got the goods with ya?"

"If you have the money to pay."

"Sure. Got plenty of cash today, baby."

"Lucky you, then. How much do you want?"

"Gimme two dribbles and a slice." He dug four blackened silver coins out of the pocket of his ragged jacket. "Give Afzal my regards."

Stifling her disgust, Natalia took the money, then handed him two vials of red liquid and a thin slice of bread wrapped in dry papyrus leaves. Blotch immediately unwrapped the bread, stuffed it into his mouth and swallowed it down almost without chewing. He uncorked both vials and drank the contents, then began to cough--a horrible, wet, tuberculosis cough that reverberated in his chest. The youth watched the scene with interest.

"What are you selling?" he asked. Natalia looked at him with contempt, but also intrigued by his naive question.

"New in Chalal?"

He nodded, brushing a strand of greasy hair from his forehead. His clothes were nearly as dirty as Blotch's and he looked ill, face sallow, dark circles under his eyes.

"This stuff is real bread, from the land of the living, smuggled across the border, and real animal blood," the cripple explained, having caught his breath. "We all need nourishment to keep up our strength, boy. Without food, in a few days you'll turn gray and go flying with the wind." He indicated several shadows floating over the roof of the nearest house.

"Where are they going?"

"No one knows," Natalia answered. "But not to paradise, you can be sure of that. Why would you want to know, anyway?"

The youth looked at her with black eyes that seemed oddly sane, for Chalal, but also terribly sad.

"Why are you here?" he asked suddenly.

"I don't remember," she lied as unwanted memories surfaced in her head, like garbage floating on water. Magda, her makeup smeared, eyes glazed. Money on the floor. The female searcher at the police station, professionally polite, wearing rubber gloves and a smile as false as a wig.

Don't think about it, she told herself coldly. Nothing can be changed now. You know what awaits you. Grayness and the wind.

"Damn," Blotch said suddenly, his face turning pale under its layer of dirt. "Look who's coming."

Natalia looked in the direction where he was pointing and felt a spreading chill.

Three armored demons emerged from a side alley. Armed with a variety of vicious-looking weapons, they walked slowly, chain mail jingling. One had the head of a panther, the second one--of a hyena. The third one, blue-skinned, his eyes two orbs of scarlet incandescence, wore a pendant of severed human hands.

"Who are they?" asked the youth. Natalia silenced him with a sharp gesture. She pulled him under the nearest archway, ignoring Blotch's panicked exclamation. The cripple did not even try to move, frozen in terror.

The panther-headed demon took a small black object from his pocket. Something rattled, and then pattered softly. Dice rolled across the pavement.

The blue-skinned demon gathered them up and whispered something to his companions. They chortled approvingly. Blotch stared at them, mouth open but not making a sound, as they approached.

"We've been playing to see who gets your eyes, stinker," hissed the hyena-headed one.

The youth in the leather jacket suddenly pushed Natalia away and walked out from under the archway. He stopped right in front of the three demons, with the determination of a would-be hero--or an idiot.

"Take mine."

Natalia squeezed her eyelids shut. She knew what was coming, and did not want to see it. The inevitable scream tore into her drug-heightened senses like the crack of a whip.


* * *

"He must have hoped he'd redeem himself this way," Spukk said derisively, curling up in an old armchair. "Human gullibility knows no bounds."

Natalia said nothing, staring at the darkening sky outside the grimy window. Clouds were creeping in from the sea and shadows floated away, away, melting into nothingness.

Memories swirled through her head.

It all really started when she met Bugs, nicknamed for his resemblance to the cartoon rabbit. Earlier, she had smoked weed, used acid and tranquilizers, but Bugs helped her graduate to better things. He liked to experiment. Together, they came up with the idea of mixing cheap Slovak meth with LSD and some kind of antiepileptic drug that Bugs got hold of through his cousin, a pharmacist. They dubbed the mixture "fireballs". The stuff was pure, sweet madness; it kept you awake for several days at a time, running on a bright stream of manic euphoria, and the crash afterwards was not too bad. Bugs talked things over with a friend, a speed dealer, and together, the three of them got a little business going. Fireballs sold like hot cakes and after a while, amusing stories began to circulate. Once, a bunch of partygoers overdid things a bit--the stuff did not mix well with vodka. The contents of a lingerie drawer got dumped out of the window into the street; someone stood on the balcony screaming about green aliens, as someone else huddled under the living room table, shaking in a panic attack; afterwards, Magda danced naked in the parking lot and barely managed to escape after neighbors phoned the police. Everyone had a laugh about it later; it had seemed funny at the time.

Shortly afterwards, Bugs ended up in hospital after a motorcycle accident. High as a kite, he had made a bet and then, no James Bond, he had slammed full speed against a lantern pole. And later, there was that New Year's Eve party, the one that ended before it really began. Magda lying on the white carpet, her makeup smeared, eyes glazed. They could not revive her and finally someone phoned for an ambulance, but it was too late.

The things that happened later were all a blur in Natalia's memory, because she did not really want to remember. Several pictures, though, remained stubbornly fixed in her mind. The police station, the female searcher, money and plastic bags scattered on a table. Pale green walls in a hospital, or was it in prison? The dentist who extracted five of her teeth, so rotted that they crumbled under his touch.

Her first night out of jail, in Bugs's old apartment. Laughingly, he told her that since the accident, he has another nickname--Picasso--and pulled up his T-shirt to show the scars on his belly.

A clear plastic bag half-full of speed. The powder looked different than usual, brownish. They joked that the dealer might have cut the stuff with rat poison.

Natalia was the first to load up her glass pipe and click her lighter.

The hit flooded her with heat and black dots danced before her eyes. The next thing she knew she was laying on the sofa, her mouth foul with the taste of bile and chemicals, her limbs heavy, and then the world slowly melted around her, blurring into grayness and haze and sleep. She could not remember if Bugs had risked calling an ambulance. It did not matter now, did it?

She got up and reached for her cloak. The imp lifted his head.

"Where are you going?"

She felt her eyes fill with tears, even though she had promised herself she would not cry.

"I'm leaving Chalal, Spukk."

"What are you planning?" The imp sounded frightened. "No one can escape from this place and you know it!"

"Oh yes, it's possible to escape, all right." Natalia's mouth twitched into a bitter smile. "The money and the goods are hidden under the doorstep. Have a talk with Afzal, he may let you take over after me."

"If you're going to try what I think you're going to try, you won't be able to pull it off," said Spukk, his expression suddenly malicious. "I know you can't stand pain."

Damn, he's right, she thought with a shiver. Then she remembered the contents of her casket. She had something there that would help.

She measured out a line of white powder on her mirror and leaned over with her glass pipe to snort it up. The familiar burning sensation hit her, followed by a flash of euphoria, as bright as fireworks.

Cocaine is an anesthetic.

"Think it over," the imp urged quietly. He extended a paw to touch her hand, but Natalia drew away.

"Leave me alone!"

He obeyed. Natalia wiped away the blood that had oozed from her nose. Afraid that hesitating any longer will make her lose courage, she ran out, the tears once again filling her eyes.

Chalal had never seemed this repulsive before. Holding her breath, she walked through the fetid alleyways, past beggars and cripples, ignoring rude calls and drunken taunts.

Soon it will be over, she told herself grimly.


* * *

Dawn was breaking when she finally found them in a tavern in the port district, barely a stone's throw away from the docks.

The dimly lit interior stank. Two imps were snoring under a table in a puddle of spilled wine; a third one was singing a ribald song, waving a bone. In the corner, a drunken girl with red, spiky hair, dressed in a skimpy dress and fishnet stockings, sat slumped against the wall, staring listlessly into space. Next to her, a baalmon with three gold earrings in his pendulous lower lip was gorging himself on pieces of putrescent meat, crawling with larvae.

The three warriors were sitting in a corner. From their table came the rattle of dice, again and again. Suddenly the game stopped and silence fell throughout the tavern.

The three demons rose and went up to the red-haired girl, who started and looked up at them, her gaze suddenly sober, but also painfully dazed. Like a doe caught in the glare of a car's headlights.

"We've been playing to see who gets your heart," said the one wearing a pendant of severed hands.

Natalia rose and walked over, making her way between the tables. Time seemed to slow down, seconds stretching out like drops of sticky syrup.

"Take mine," she said, trying hard to keep her voice from shaking.


THE END


2014 Agnieszka Halas

Bio: Agnieszka Halas is a Polish freelance translator who has published a number of short stories and a dark fantasy trilogy in Polish. Agnieszka blogs in English about weird diseases and bizarre medical cases under http://weird-diseases.blogspot.com.

E-mail: Agnieszka Halas

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