An Other's Look
SPAIN – SPRING 2020
A back door opened and a shaft of harsh yellow light fell onto the patio along with a large man. He landed heavily on his knees and there he remained, head down, his long tangled hair and unruly moustache and beard obscuring his face.
“Ouch,” he said. “Horrible pain.”
It had been a peaceful scene until then, the quiet time that comes after midnight when there is a spring chill in the air and a pre-dew dampness rising from the grass. Now this man was here, breathing heavily and staring at the paving slabs.
“Hard,” he said. “Very hard.”
He stood up, slowly, stiff-legged, tottering to one side as he did so. He was wearing a dressing gown, open and untied with the cord hanging loose. He was naked underneath. He raised and lowered each leg and his knees crackled as cartilage moved where it hadn’t moved before.
“Restorative,” he said.
He took a bottle of rum from his dressing gown pocket and drank from it extravagantly, tipping back his head and holding it above his mouth. He held it there for a long time until he belched and said, “Pardonnez moi,” and put the bottle on the ground, placing it exactly in the centre of the paving slab. Then he set off across the lawn heading towards a shrubbery and a ring of woodland beyond.
His bare feet quickly became wet and he stopped once and knelt on the damp grass as if hoping its coolness would soothe his knees before struggling back to his feet and carrying on. He passed through the shrubbery – tiers of landscaped bushes that had once been tended and nurtured and which now grew wild and uncared for – and entered the prickly, drier, darker area of the woods.
Silence and stillness returned. The garden was peaceful again and the night settled down to its business. And then two other shapes detached themselves from the shadows. One was a dog, old and threadbare, its eyes hidden behind curls of fur; and the other was a girl, a teenager, who had been sitting on the damp grass away from the light. The dog walked onto the patio and sniffed the rum and knocked the bottle over and waited as if expecting some liquid to drip out. The girl watched him and then made a clicking sound from her back teeth. The dog left the bottle and came over to her.
She was small and wiry and wore jeans and an old baggy jumper and ruined flip-flops. She swung a knapsack from her back and rummaged through it until she pulled out an object wrapped in a faded towel. It was a large knife. She ran her finger along the blade. “This is why you have to look after things,” she said. “To keep them sharp.” She looked down at the dog. “Come on.” She left the bag on the patio next to the bottle and set off across the lawn, following the path in the grass left by the man.
Unlike the garden and the shrubbery, the woods that encircled the man’s house were a natural feature. Eons before, tectonic movements had cloaked the Iberian Peninsula in dense woodland - beech, oak and birch forests, ash and hazel groves, thickets of elm and poplar. And where the woodland grew the animals came - bats and beavers, rabbits and hedgehogs, foxes, badgers and bears. It was a lush environment but in the higher reaches of the mountains much of the forest gave way to low thorny plants and scrubland. The winters were long and cold and in the summer the sun was high and hot. Trees huddled together sucking what sustenance they could from the dry soil, growing bent and deformed, twisted and ugly. Life that survived in these parts was tough and resourceful.
In the northwest corner of Spain were the forests and mountains of the Galician Massif. Here, the great Nuberu, the Cloud Master, brought storms and rain to punish the Galicians while the Santa Compaña, the Holy Company of tormented souls who were led by a living human processed through the isolated villages and hamlets at night looking for new recruits.
The trees through which the girl and the dog walked were mostly oak. They were the thick outer ring to the man’s property. This was a place at the far western end of the Galician region, set high above the sea where the air was clean and pure and carried a sense of space and the scent of berries and plants and leaves. South and west, the land sloped steeply away through scrubby shrubland, making its way down to cliffs and coastal outcrops; and to the north and the east, the land rose ever higher towards the distant mountain tops.
The girl and the dog made little noise as they walked. There were no clouds but there was no moon either, and the tall trees obstructed most of the starlight. She slowed down, touching each trunk as she crept past as if making her way from one vertical stepping-stone to another. Noises ahead were audible. A creaking sound. A snap. Someone puffing and panting. She stopped and looked down at her dog. “We have to be careful now,” she whispered. In her hand was the knife. She moved forwards, passing one tree and then the next, lifting her feet slowly, creeping like a cartoon character, transferring her weight from one leg to the other in long exaggerated steps.
“This is fun,” she breathed, grinning, and then she saw him.
He had climbed onto a fallen tree trunk. It was thick, about two metres in diameter, and although it was rotten and dead it was taking his weight. His dressing gown was on the ground and he was naked. His heavy, bulky, flabby white body looked vulnerable and out of place against the hard roots, bark and branches of the trees that surrounded him.
The fallen tree was lying at the base of a mightier oak that towered above it. It looked as if one tree had slain the other. The man had lassoed one of the standing tree’s branches with his dressing gown cord, pulled it tight and was now looping the other end around his neck. He pulled that tight too and turned away from the tree. He took a deep breath.
“Back to the tar,” he said.
He closed his eyes, clenched and unclenched his fists and then felt the cord around his neck. He touched it gently as if caressing it, feeling its contact against his skin. “Oh dear,” he said. He straightened his back and let his arms fall by his sides, standing loosely to attention. His eyes remained closed, his head was tilted slightly upwards. He adjusted his balance.
The girl and the dog watched. The man stood naked in front of them, his big baggy body sagging downwards, his bruised knees trembling, the noose around his neck, the knot under his left ear. He took another deep breath. And then another. And then another. And then he stepped off the tree trunk.
A lot happened very quickly. The branch creaked hugely, dipped under the sudden burden of his weight and then lifted again, taking him upwards. He broke wind loudly and leaves fell from above and he span around on the cord, his flailing legs creating increasing momentum and causing the cord to twist and create a smaller and tighter knot. His hands scrabbled at his neck and he began to choke.
“Wow,” the girl said.
The man’s tongue stuck out as he tried to breathe. It was large and wet and looked as if it were trying to escape his mouth. His eyes rolled upwards, bulging towards the stars. The girl walked over, climbed onto the tree trunk and sawed through the cord with her knife. The man fell onto the ground with his legs folded up beneath him - a pile of wheezing hairy white flesh. The girl knelt down beside him, found the knot, and cut through that too, relieving the pressure on his windpipe. He tried to suck in air and then he began to wretch and gag.
“Ouch ouch ouch,” he said like a seal.
The girl sat on the tree trunk and watched him. Then she clicked her tongue and the dog wandered over and began to lick his face.
“What’s happening?” the man said. “What’s happening?”