(c) Russell Proctor 2018. All rights reserved.

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“Save us!”

The cry rang through the stone corridors of St Agathe’s nunnery, rousing the sisters from their quiet contemplations, pious readings and welcome sleep. Some cowered at the disturbance and started praying if they were not already doing so, begging their lord’s protection in case their refuge was under attack.

In her cell, Sister Edithna finished her prayer to her own god, Dionysus, and chafed the circulation back into her arms and legs. The stiffness in her limbs was not caused by long hours of kneeling—the lord of wine and theatre didn’t require his followers to kneel at prayer—but by the icy conditions of her cell.

A hammering at the door startled her, accompanied by words between frightened gasps. “Sister! There’s evil come!”

Edithna slipped the gold ring from the forefinger of her right hand and opened the door to a wide-eyed novice. “What is it, Marie? Be quiet lest Mother Gertrude hear you.”

The girl stared, panting. “There’s…there’s…”

“Yes, you said. Evil. But I doubt even the devil himself would be out on a night as cold as this.”

“No…not the infernal one.” The girl swallowed and took a deep breath. “There are men here.”

Worse than the devil to this innocent girl.

“Come in.” She pulled Marie into her cell and made her sit on the cot. “Now talk sense. What’s happened?”

It was a few moments before Marie could speak again. “Soldiers have brought a wounded man to the infirmary. A monk.”

Although the nunnery was a day’s journey west of Rennes, travellers seldom sought shelter there on the way to or from Vitré or Montfort. Most chose the monastery a few miles further west, but a wounded man would be brought to the nearest place of assistance.
Marie leaned in close and lowered her voice, but fear still crept in. “He’s badly injured. I saw a wound in his side. So much blood.”

Before seeking sanctuary in the nunnery, Edithna had seen more blood than any innocent person should. Her home town of Fougères had been attacked by Carolingians invading from the east forty years ago. The massacre had left few alive. Only by good fortune had she been able to find refuge here in St Agathe’s.

“I see. A monk you say? Perhaps he was attacked by bandits.” She left the cell and strode towards the infirmary.

Little Marie followed at her heels, clutching Edithna’s robe so as not to trip over in the dark corridor. “I saw his wounds. Horrible they were. He’s been torn open.”

“A wild animal, then. I’ll attend him. Go to your dormitory now and pray to God no bandits may enter the walls of St Agathe’s, and no wolves either.”

“Not a wolf!” The girl shivered. “The phantom!”

“Enough of that!”

“They say he wanders the forest, killing all who cross his path.”

“Be quiet! Don’t suggest that to the other novices, if you value peace and order.”

No good would come of hysteria; Marie’s fears needed to be stifled before they spread. The nuns, sheltered from the world, rightly feared the supernatural.

After the girl had gone, Edithna continued down the dark corridors to the infirmary. No need for a candle, since her eyes penetrated the darkness like a cat’s. All true followers of a deity possessed an ability that set them apart from other mortals. Her night-vision attracted the attention of Dionysus, who had made her one of his maenads many years ago.

In the infirmary, Sister Bernadette, the assistant infirmarian, bent over a man in bed. The smell of blood came readily enough to Edithna’s senses, as did the piteous moans of the writhing patient.

“Hurry,” said Bernadette. Concern, not animosity, made her blunt. She clutched a wad of blood-soaked rags to the man’s side.

He was about thirty, a monk as evidenced by the torn cassock that lay on the floor. He wore now only a pair of braies, his nakedness excused by the need to tend his wound. Worn sandals were still on his feet. His right arm clutched a leather satchel.

Edithna picked up fresh cloths and nodded to Bernadette, who removed the bloody ones. In the monk’s left side was a gaping wound, not something neatly cut with a blade but hacked or torn out. It resembled an injury caused by the teeth or claws of an animal. One thing was plain: the poor man was not much longer for the world. Edithna pushed the fresh rags over the wound and applied pressure.

“What can we do?” she asked. Her own medical expertise extended to tending the aged, bandaging sprains and prescribing for the chills and fevers the sisters acquired from the damp conditions of the nunnery.

A sour grunt from Sister Bernadette. “Prayer might help. I can’t.”

Edithna noticed another man waiting on the far side of the room, a soldier in chainmail and livery, staring intently at her and chewing the end of his long beard. One of the monk’s escorts on the road.

“Get that man out of here,” she said to Bernadette. “He’ll disturb the other sisters.”

As if on cue, one of the elderly nuns in another bed woke up and started moaning.
Bernadette hurried across the room to shuffle the soldier out. The man seemed reluctant, but when Edithna glared at him he followed the nun.

Lifting the cloths to examine the wound, she winced at the shredded meat. The man threw his head back in agony and Edithna noticed dark bruises on his neck. She had seen the neck of a hanged man back in her secular days: this monk’s bruises were made by no animal—someone had tried to strangle him.

She tugged at the leather satchel clasped under his right arm, but the monk, although only half-conscious, tightened his grip.

“I won’t steal it,” she said.

“No!” he gasped, blood-shot yellow eyes turned on her. “Please…”

“I can’t bind your wounds properly unless you release it.”

Not that there was much point: the man would be dead in a few minutes.

“Better…to pray.”

Edithna leaned in closer to him and whispered, “Don’t try to talk. My god can’t help you. He isn’t one who has power over the dying. But he blesses you, and wishes you a peaceful journey.”

“Which…journey?” Even a monk might fear his destination to be Hell rather than the Paradise his god promised the pious.

“The one due to all good men,” she said. No god, not even Dionysus, knew what happened to human beings after death. Such things were not the concern of the immortal.

The monk moved his arm slightly, causing a fresh gout of blood from his wound. “The heart,” he groaned.

“What heart?”

But he said no more, and a minute later had closed his eyes forever.

***

The singing rose to the roof of the chapel and echoed back, full of the resonance of wood.

The nuns sang to a god Edithna could never know, but the words still thrilled and rumbled and lifted her heart beyond the mere confines of the mundane. Fifty voices harmonising, each driven by a soul and mind united with the others, each feeling a truth and universality that gave impetus to their devotion.

Edithna closed her eyes as she added her voice to the others.

After the hymn finished she kept her eyes closed, waiting for the last echoes to die, for the last tremble of the rafters to settle. Only then did she look around once more. No ornate stained glass or golden fittings here in this simple chapel, only the wooden crucifix above the altar and hard benches for the rows of praying nuns.

At the end of the service, she waited until it was her row’s turn to leave and shuffled out with the others, hands clasped in front, taking small steps only, her slippered feet hardly feeling the icy stones beneath, so full was her heart with song and reverberations.

“Sister.”

Mother Gertrude, the Abbess, lurked at the door of the chapel. Edithna bowed and waited for the other to speak—it was not the place for a mere lay sister to initiate conversation with her superior.

“Your choir was most transcendent. The Lord indeed blesses your efforts.”

Edithna didn’t smile, but her heart felt relief. It was not the deity the Abbess worshipped who had made the hymns sublime, but long practice, weary hours in the chapel, cozening and encouraging the singers, badgering them in the most gentle way to improve. Music and her own innate love of art inspired Edithna’s efforts.

“There is something I must speak to you about. Sister Bernadette told me of the monk who died last night in the infirmary.”

“Yes, Mother. Unfortunately, his wound was mortal. In the end only prayer could ease his passing.”

“Did he tell you what happened?”

“No. He could hardly speak, and his only words were of proper concern for his immortal soul, not his earthly body.”

A sour grunt. “You would know about immortality, wouldn’t you?”

For ten years the woman had been Abbess at St Agathe’s, and had been a nun there for twenty years before that. Over the time she had aged from youthful beauty to wrinkled woman, while Edithna, who had been there longer, still retained the appearance she always had. True followers of a deity did not age, although they were still subject to death by other means.

The Abbess sighed. “I’m sorry; I spoke harshly. All the sisters here respect your agelessness. They know it is a gift from God.”

“Yes, Mother.” Living in the nunnery assisted Edithna to hide from inquiry. As long as she pretended to worship the Christian god, and put her changelessness down to divine favour, she could hide from the inquisitive.

“The monk was Brother Antoninus from the Abbey of St Germaine in Rennes,” the Abbess continued, taking a seat at the end of the nearest bench. “The sergeant you saw was the leader of his armed escort, guarding him on his journey to Loudéac. He told me that last night Antoninus wandered off from their camp a little way, presumably to pray in solitude. The escort heard sounds of a struggle and ran to assist. The sergeant saw someone bent over him, wearing a monk’s robe and cowl. At the arrival of the guards the figure fled. The soldiers bore the monk here for assistance.” She crossed herself and muttered a benediction. Edithna copied the motion but not the words.  “The sergeant asked me, was there anything in his satchel?”

The satchel, along with the monk’s clothing, had been returned to the escort. Edithna had handed them over personally.

“No,” replied Edithna. “Sister Bernadette had—”

“I have already questioned her. She didn’t inspect the satchel before he died, but you had some words with him.”

“As I said, only about his immortal soul. He died unshriven.”

“Yes. Most unfortunate.”

All the other nuns had left the church now and returned to their cells. They were alone in the quiet chapel.

“The Archbishop of Rennes sent me a letter some weeks ago to expect Brother Antoninus,” said the Abbess. “We were to give him and his escort shelter if needed. He was conveying something important to Loudéac. A relic.”

Relics often made procession around the country as they were valuable to believers, being capable of miracles. They were usually body parts of the saints and the blessed, but also pieces of the true cross or clothing.

“What was it?”

“The heart of Bishop Gaston Moutiere of Rennes.”

“I have heard of him.”

“So you should. He died fifty years ago and his heart, blessed may it be, has been a source of faith and healing ever since. Some whisper already that Bishop Gaston should be made a saint. His heart was to spend some time in the church at Loudéac. You did not find it among his things? Then whoever attacked him must have taken it.”

“Perhaps,” said Edithna. “But no bandit would steal a relic, even if he knew Antoninus carried it. He could not sell it, for it would be too well known, and such a thing would not perform miracles for thieves and sinners.”

The Abbess coughed in the icy draft that blew into the chapel. “There are many legends about Bishop Gaston and his good works in life. But other tales, too. Apparently his body vanished shortly before his burial, leaving an empty coffin. Fortunately his heart had already been removed and placed in its reliquary in the cathedral. Some say he was taken to heaven by the Lord himself, body and all, so blessed was he.”

Edithna did not dare to ask what Mother Gertrude thought of that tale.

“God knows all,” she replied, an answer that often satisfied to fill a gap in her conversations with the Abbess.

“Do you think robbers attacked Brother Antoninus?” the woman asked.

“Perhaps.” To see the reaction, Edithna added, “I heard one of the novices fear a supernatural assailant.”

“You mean the phantom the meek-minded believe haunts the countryside?” the old woman replied. “The ignorant blame any violence on that cause. Pay no heed to such gossip.” But she shuddered nevertheless.

“There are such things that wander the world,” persisted Edithna. “And you must know that mutilated bodies are found a few times a year either beside the road or in the depths of the forest. The common folk hold that a phantom goes forth in plain black habit and hood and seeks the souls of the righteous.”

“They do,” said the Abbess. “But the wise say it is no more than a child’s ghost story.”

“Of course, Mother,” Edithna said. To persist with what her superior regarded as a mere folktale would not carry favour, but she could not help adding, “There is one thing about the stories intrigues me, however. Those who have seen the phantom and lived say it wears a bishop’s ring upon its bony finger.”

The reaction of the Abbess startled Edithna. She rose from her chair, fists clenched, and threw a dark glance behind softly spoken but emphatic words. “I have heard that lie. How can it be true? No bishop’s ghost would attack the living.” She settled back. “I have tolerated many things about you, Sister Edithna. Your refusal to take your nun’s vows distresses me always. Do not add blasphemy to that refusal. If the phantom is real, and does indeed wear a bishop’s ring, then it must have stolen it and sports it as a mockery to all good Christian souls.”

Edithna bowed her head. “Yes, Mother.”

She didn’t look up as the Abbess stalked away and left her in the silence of the chapel.

 

***

By the light of a single candle in her cell, Edithna took out the chest that contained all her worldly goods and removed from it the small, locked wooden box she had taken from the monk’s satchel and smuggled out under her habit.

The soldiers had collected his corpse and his few possessions for burial in the morning, but she had kept his satchel’s contents. It was, of course, stealing. Sister Bernadette would not have done it; Marie would have rather cut off her own fingers than purloin anyone’s possessions. But as long as remained a lay sister, Edithna did not feel bound by the rules of their god. Dionysus had other responsibilities, other priorities. Out of curiosity after the monk’s death, she had looked in the satchel he had been so desperate to retain, and took the small box within.

She suspected what was inside, but still hesitated to open the box. It was wrong, surely, to interfere with the beliefs of another religion, particularly one that protected and sheltered her. But her suspicion about the true nature of the phantom and why it might have attacked the monk nagged at her. After a minute’s prodding with a knife taken from the kitchen the lock opened.

Inside, on a velvet cushion, lay what appeared to be a black stone. She lifted it out and it fitted neatly into the palm of her hand.

A human heart. Shrivelled, hard, preserved. A relic indeed.

The heart twitched, and the faintest red glow came from it. At first Edithna thought it a trick of the light, but the candle burned steadily. With more twitches and tics, the heart began to beat as if truly pumping blood. The movement soon became a steady throb.
She set it down on the floor, where it continued to pulse and glow.

O Dionysus!

What a damned thing that could beat alone, outside of its body, so withered and old and yet filled with a supernatural life.

Lifting it again in her palm, the heart throbbed harder when held closer to the outside wall of her cell. Drawing it further away, the throbbing slowed and the light diminished slightly. When she held her hand in another direction, the heart became still again until returned to towards the outer wall.

That wall faced the forest a mile away. So the heart acted as a compass to its original owner, the bishop of Rennes, the man revered for his charity and care in life, and miraculous wonders after death.

Forty years Edithna had lived a lie hiding in St Agathe’s. The real world was full of death and war. Here there had been sanctuary from its perils and some acceptance of her secret long life. But now she held in her hand a beating, undead heart seeking return to its owner. She wondered what was to be done now.

She closed her eyes and prayed to Dionysus for guidance. He hardly ever answered. As lord of wine he spent much of his time drunk. Although he dwelt among men, was indeed half-human himself as the son of Semele, he usually kept aloof from the ways of mortals. He didn’t answer now.

She stared again at the heart and thought of the bishop seeking it through the years, hoping perhaps to reunite with it and be once again complete. Some longed to leave the sinful world and move to another place of existence, looking for something better than earthly pain and trial.

“It is up to me,” she said aloud. “Very well, then. I will give the bishop back his heart, for Dionysus and my sisters and brothers.”

***

The buildings of St Agathe’s were surrounded by a wattle and daub wall, outside which lay the fields that provided the nuns with food, the stables where the few workhorses were kept, and one or two outhouses and barns. Beyond those a more impressive stone wall blocked out the sight of the secular world. The only door through that wall was locked, but the wall itself, worn and ancient, could be scaled by anyone determined enough.

Edithna’s hands and toes were sore after the scramble, and she sat down on the edge of the road to put her shoes back on. Fresh snow had fallen that day, which helped her night vision by lightening everything under its white blanket. Of course, that meant many details of the terrain itself were hidden.

She walked across the road and over rough fields to the edge of the forest. The cold penetrated her cloak and the thick wool of her habit and coif so her teeth chattered as she sought a path into the tangle of undergrowth. The only warm part of her body was her right hand, thrust under her cloak, partly wrapped in the cloth in which she had secured the heart. It was warm, as if it still pumped the life essence. When it pulsed strongly, she walked in that direction—when the beat weakened, she turned and stepped off again until it once again beat hard.

At the edge of the forest she took it out and saw its red glow had waxed a little. It showed most life when held slightly to her left, although no path lay there. Her night eyes peered between the trees and discerned nothing but undergrowth and twisted roots.

The cold worsened as she stepped under the branches.

The pall of cloud that had settled over the face of the world obscured the moon. Had she not been able to see clearly enough to find her own feet, Edithna would have tripped over tree roots many times and possibly sprained an ankle. The deepest shadows could still deceive even her cat’s eyes.

Before leaving the nunnery she had slipped the gold ring that was the sign of Dionysus’ order onto her right forefinger and prayed—not to her god this time but to her fellow maenads and satyrs. Fifty years ago she had attended a revel, one of the orgiastic ceremonies in praise of Dionysus. There she had met other followers of the wine god, and had indulged in rites that would have shocked Mother Gertrude into stunned silence. Some years after, when ordinary people first started to notice her ongoing youth, she secluded herself in St Agathe’s and had not stirred since. Sometimes it seemed her little god had forgotten her completely; perhaps he would answer her prayers more often if she did something to prove herself worthy.

She halted, listening. Wind in the trees; the soft patter of snow on leaves; somewhere, the soft thump of a hare, the hollow call of an owl. Night noises, forest noises, all expected.

A phantom would make no sound at all. Nevertheless, something had caused her to stop.

In her right hand, the warm heart throbbed strongest straight ahead. She stood in a little hollow ringed by broom and gorse bushes. The top of the hollow was at head height, so she could not see above the ring of shrubbery. A fallen tree at the bottom of the hollow prevented her easy progress, so she turned left to walk out and edge her way around.

A shadow lurked at the top of the bank, something that carried no warmth, shunned by even the faintest whisper of light. Not even her eyes could make out any details.

“Who’s there?” she called, but cold and uncertainty made the words come reluctantly, lacking any power or authority.

The shadow slipped away.

She ran towards it, tripped on an outflung root and fell sprawling. The heart tumbled from her hand into the snow. Ruby red, pulsing. Edithna scooped it up and thrust it once more under her cloak, but by the time she looked again the shadow had gone.
Fool to call out! A phantom would not respond, and the forest might hide any number of bandits.

She put a finger to her lips to remind herself not to speak again and walked up the slope to where the shadow had appeared. Nothing there now but low bushes and snow-covered branches of holly. The heart held next to her own throbbed and pumped warmly.

Edithna went forwards like a night-creature, peering alternately at the ground and through the tangled woods ahead, the sound of her steps louder than the other night noises. After several minutes she halted and fumbled at her belt for a flask acquired from the nunnery’s store of sacramental wine. The alcohol cleared her thoughts.

Madness to be out here, pursuing a phantom that could kill her as easily it had Brother Antoninus. Madness to think that she, a mere maenad, might have any influence over whatever creature as the former Bishop of Rennes had become.

Noises ahead as a forest animal pushed through the undergrowth. A fox dashed past her feet, fleeing something. A fox was a good sign, perhaps: one of the sacred animals of Dionysus.

The heart grew warmer, felt more alive in her hand. She fancied real blood dripped between her fingers. Drawing the heart out, she held it up and stared ahead.

Something came towards her out of the darkness. Only her night-vision saved her, giving enough warning to duck as a dark form rushed from between black tree trunks. Her left foot dug into a snow-filled hole, trapping her for a moment. The thing turned and shoved her in the back, crushing her face down into the snow. Hard fingers grabbed her head and pulled it back. Bony fingers snatched at her face.

Edithna’s right hand holding the heart was trapped under her body; her left pressed into the snow as she tried to twist to one side and break the attacker’s grip. For three seconds neither prevailed until the creature let go of its own accord and fell at the foot of a holly tree.

She rose and looked at it. A leering face, no more than a skull under a monk’s cowl, yellow teeth set in gaping jaws. Yet in the eye sockets, a gleam of living light, the shred of undead vitality that still clung to the ghoul. A skeletal hand reached out, the bishop’s ring clearly visible on the third finger. Edithna knocked the hand away, felt the rage of a maenad rise within her.

With a clatter of bones, the thing staggered to its feet and Edithna could now see it clearly. Slightly shorter than herself, given extra height by the ragged black monk’s cowl and robes. On its bony feet a pair of slippers suitable for the carpets of a church rather than the forest floor.

All that was left of the former Bishop of Rennes, his funeral clothing a humble monk’s habit rather than ornate bishop’s garb to signify his humility before God. An animated skeleton held together only by willpower and desire.

“There’s no need to attack me,” she panted, holding the heart in view. “I want to return what your followers took.”

The eyes gleamed and the skeleton hands twitched a little.

The heat of maenad rage still burned inside her, roused by the attack and not yet sunk back to embers. Only once before had she experienced it, when the invading Carolingians had ransacked her home town. Then she had killed one of them, a murder that haunted her still, many years later. The rage would make her reckless; she sought to control it.

The being reached out a hand, then drew it back, fingers clawing the air.

“Take it,” Edithna said.

Again the hand groped for the heart, and again was withdrawn as if stung.
She bent down to place the heart on the ground, but didn’t let go. The bishop also knelt to grasp the heart, then shook in a rage and rolled aside into the roots of a tree. For a moment it thrashed there, bones clattering against wood.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “You are Bishop Gaston…”

It rose to its feet, hunched over, hands twisting together in front of its face. After a moment it turned, the cowl slipping off to fully reveal the yellow skull. The eyes burned more fiercely, twin diamond-gleams of desire.

But not desire for the heart—only to kill.

“You aren’t just Gaston Moutiere,” she said.

Something fought the bishop’s own will within his animated remains. There were many malevolent spirits in the world. One of them might inhabit a corpse to ridicule existence and slake a blood-lust born of envy for living things—and what more sinister mockery than to do so in the body of a venerated bishop? Perhaps a draugr or revenant forced him to walk abroad in this undead existence. That was why it had released her rather than continue its attack—the bishop must have asserted his own will. If Edithna gave the heart back, his human soul might be freed and find peace. The struggle within its bony frame had raged for fifty years. Long enough even for the dead to despair of release.

The revenant ran for her, groping. She held the heart out, but its bony hand knocked her arm aside, sending the heart flying from her grip into a mound of snow at the base of a tree. Too late to halt its onward rush, the thing staggered past Edithna, who retreated once more, slamming hard into a tree trunk.

The creature fled, leaving the heart where it had fallen, pulsing weakly, its heat melting the snow around it. A strong desire came over her to leave it there. If the bishop wanted it he could have it. But the thing that possessed him—some fiend from Hell or somewhere worse—might win their struggle, and that would mean more deaths, more fear on the road to Rennes. With a heavy sigh, Edithna picked up the heart and replaced it under her cloak.

Although the skeleton had no eyes to see with, some infernal sense beyond that of normal men guided it through the forest. Its slipper-shod feet left a clear track. Edithna followed. More than once she brushed against a limb and snow tumbled down her back. The third time that happened she almost resolved to return to the nunnery and damn the bishop. But again, the thought more innocent people might fall victim to the revenant’s blood-lust kept her moving.

At last, a sound ahead—the cracking of branches heavy with snow. Edithna hurried forwards, tearing a long gash in her cloak on a thorn bush, and arrived at a low bank of earth between two tall, dead trees. At the foot of the bank, piled in a rough jumble, a heap of white objects. As she drew closer parts of the pile came more sharply into view. Bones and skulls, both human and animal. Trophies, perhaps, the revenant’s killings. A horrible stench of decayed meat hung over the place. At her feet was a leg bone, still with traces of rotten flesh clinging to it. A half-decayed body lay further off, stiff with cold. That was the source of the stench. Perhaps the revenant brought all its victims here for some arcane purpose.

She listened intently, anxious not to be taken by surprise again. Nothing but the whisk of branches stirred by the subtle breeze. Clouds passed from the moon and for a minute the world became almost too bright for her night vision. She cast her gaze under the trees. No ominous shadows.

Something gripped her left arm. Bony fingers clapped across her face, then moved down towards her neck. With her left hand Edithna sought to prise the fingers away, but not even her maenad’s rage gave her the strength to unbind those relentless fingers of bone. No muscles gave the creature strength: it was unremitting will, supernatural yearning for her life that empowered it. The fingers closed on her throat, the ends digging into her flesh.

Others might have prayed. A monk or a nun so attacked would surrender to their god and die with good grace, perhaps also with a silent entreaty begging for forgiveness of sins. But Edithna was a maenad, and her god was a rebel and a lunatic. His followers were the fringe-dwellers of society, the starving actors and romantic poets and drunkards of the world.

They had nothing to lose.

The rage burned within her, gave her the strength to push backwards hard with her feet. Both she and the skeleton fell with her on top. Her skull connected with its own bony head, the pain forcing a cry from her lips.

But the fingers around her neck let go, allowing her to suck in a glorious breath. The rush of cold air into her lungs revived her instantly. She rolled aside, although the revenant kept its grip on her left arm. She took out the heart, still firmly clutched in her right hand, and let it fall into the snow.

The skeleton reached for it, but then pulled its hand back.

“Take it!” Edithna gasped to the bishop’s soul trapped within the grisly creature.
Instead of reaching for the heart, the skeleton’s right hand began to pry the fingers of its left away from her arm. With a savage twist, she managed to free herself and grabbed the heart.

“Here!” She plunged the heart into a gap in the monk’s rags and pushed it up into the into the chest cavity.

Take it back!

For one horrible second the creature’s right hand found her throat once more and gripped hard. Then it fell away with a clatter of bones as the hellish force that bound them together dissipated. The skull toppled from the spine and struck Edithna’s shoulder, but it was nothing but dead bone now. The rags collapsed around the pitiful pile.

The bishop’s soul had gone, and so had the demonic thing that had usurped his corpse.
Edithna lay gasping for a minute, swallowing back the bile that had risen in her throat at the harsh choking it had received. Then she knelt and said a prayer to Dionysus, not in thanks, because he had done nothing to help her, but to let him know she was all right and hoped he approved of what she had done.

And an answer from her little god came back.

You have done well, my dear. I am proud of you, a true maenad.

Cold air stung her smile as she retraced her path back to the gorse-lipped dell, and the way to St Agathe’s.

She would leave the nunnery again soon, this time for good. Too long she had remained hidden there, counting endless days, pretending faithfulness to one god over another. Death had come close tonight. But she could not hide forever. A maenad only flourished when she walked free, unfettered by fear, brazenly facing the adventures of the wide world.

The wind died between the trees as fresh snow tumbled from the sky.

 

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Waiter!
Excuse me!
Could I have a menu?

Waiter!
Excuse me!
If it’s not too much trouble.

Waiter!
Excuse me!
I’ve been here an hour already.

Waiter!
Garçon!
(This place is French, isn’t it?)

Waiter!
You bastard!
Your pants are on fire!

Waiter!
I’m starving.
At least bring me an entrée.

But waiter came there never,
And he finally passed away.

Copyright 2013 Russell Proctor

What Daddy Did in the War

Russell Proctor

Ellie always woke just before dawn, in the quiet time when no bombs were falling and the sound of the guns had ceased for a while.

She turned to the wall beside the bed, hugging her teddy bear. Her eyes traced the vertical crack in the plaster, the one that Daddy said appeared when a bomb fell on the house and destroyed it. She liked to imagine it was the crack into another world, and if she stared at it long enough it would open up and there would be a beautiful, colourful land beyond it. Ellie couldn’t remember when the crack had first appeared. There were lots of things she couldn’t remember – and too many things she couldn’t forget. The War had been going on most of her life. In her imaginary world beyond the wall people weren’t fighting and killing each other. The real world was a world of sound: the crash and slam of bombs and sometimes the sound of planes dive bombing or the heavy crump of artillery somewhere a long way off.

“Ellie! Marcus! Time to get up,” Daddy called from his bed on the other side of the cellar.
She rolled over and sat up. Her little brother Marcus was still sleeping beside her. He could sleep through any number of bombs, certainly through Daddy telling him to wake up. Daddy said it was because he was so young, just six years old.

“Yes, Daddy!” Ellie waggled Marcus’ arm but the boy continued to snooze. “Marcus, you’re such a baby,” she whispered to him, but her voice was gentle. “Bang,” she whispered playfully in her brother’s ear. “Boom. Here comes a bomb, Marcus!” She giggled. He didn’t hear her in his dreams. Let him sleep, thought Ellie: there was little reason to wake up.

Daddy got out of his bed and stretched, yawning in the silence of the cellar. Ellie loved the pre-dawn silence. Perhaps the soldiers stopped fighting to have breakfast. She wondered if they sat down together beside their red-hot guns and ate their rations and talked. That would be nice if they did. Maybe one day they would forget to start fighting again and they could all go home and Ellie could leave the cellar.

Ellie climbed over Marcus and skittered in her pyjamas across the cold tiles and into the little toilet cubicle that was the only other room in the cellar. It always stank in there but there was nothing they could do. Then she went back into the main room.

Daddy was making breakfast on the stove in the corner. It was baked beans again. Daddy would go up each day and forage for food and other things they needed. It was very dangerous.

“Hello, Daddy,” she said as she sat at the wooden table in the middle of the cellar. And her Daddy turned and looked at her.

He was a handsome man, Ellie knew that. But there was a hard centre to his eyes, a darkness behind them that must have happened because of the War and the danger he faced each day as he went up to find supplies. The darkness in his eyes had deepened over the years. There were lines in his face that hadn’t been there before, too.

“Hello, Ellie,” he said. “Did you wake Marcus?”

“No, he’s still asleep.”

“Breakfast will be ready soon. Go and wash.”

“Can we have hot water today?” But she knew the answer.

“It’s too dangerous, Ellie. The soldiers might see smoke from the fire. Soldiers would know someone was down there and find us. Besides, we don’t want to waste fuel.”

He said that most times Ellie or Marcus wanted hot water. “Wouldn’t soldiers finding us be a good thing?” she asked. “If they are good soldiers? We could leave the cellar.”

Daddy just smiled. “Go on, breakfast will be ready soon.”

Ellie went to the tap in the corner and filled the metal bowl underneath. She took one big breath and plunged her face into the icy water and scrubbed.

After she emptied the bowl into the drain in the middle of the floor, she turned to look at the picture of Mummy hanging on the wall. Mummy was dead. The enemy soldiers had killed her when Marcus was just a baby and Ellie was only two. She had some vague memories of Mummy, just like she did of the outside world. After Mummy had been killed, Daddy took Ellie and Marcus and led them down into the cellar under their house and hid them.

Marcus woke up when Ellie finished washing and he cried a little. Marcus always cried when he woke up. Ellie would usually comfort him but today she was hungry and just wanted to eat instead.

“Be quiet, Marcus,” she said in that big-sister way that made her feel more important. He was such a little boy. “Go and wash.”

Daddy smiled at her grown-up ways as he dished out the beans and bread. “You must do some learning today, Ellie,” he said. “You didn’t do any lessons yesterday. I saw your books still in the corner.”

They were still there now, a few exercise books and readers and books of sums that Daddy had scrounged from the world above. He had risked his life to get them, Ellie knew, and she felt bad on the days she didn’t feel like learning things.

“Yes, Daddy,” she said. “But why should I learn to read? There’s nothing to read anyway.”

Daddy nodded at the pile. “There are plenty of books there, Ellie.”

“But I’ve read them all. I almost know them by heart.”

“Well, then I’ll have to find you some others. Somewhere.”

Immediately, Ellie felt sorry for complaining. For daddy to find her more books he’d have to risk his life in the War outside.

“You don’t have to, Daddy,” she said. “I didn’t mean it.”

“Reading is important, Ellie,” said Daddy. “And doing your sums too. What’s five times nine?”

“Forty-five,” she said instantly. She was good at sums. She knew that one day she would be able to teach Marcus his sums and his reading.

“It’s important to know things, Ellie, so when the War is over you and Marcus can lead normal lives.”

But to Ellie the War showed no sign of being over. It was still quiet overhead, but she knew that soon the noise would start again.

Marcus sat at the table and was spooning food into his mouth. He never said much. The only two people he had seen his entire life were Ellie and Daddy. Perhaps he felt he had said everything he needed to say to them.

“Are you going up today, Daddy?” Ellie asked. Her father sat opposite her at the table and sipped the big cup of coffee he had made for himself.

“Yes, Ellie, I always go up.” He smiled at her wanly.

“I don’t like you doing it.”

He nodded. “I know, but we need to get more food. And your pyjamas are almost rags. I must see if I can find a shop somewhere that still has some clothing in it. Woolworths on High Street might still be standing.”

Marcus banged his spoon on his plate. He was always hungry. Ellie dished up some more beans for him but felt guilty. The more they ate, the more Daddy would have to risk his life to find food. Ellie felt like more beans too, but didn’t have any. There would be that much more for Daddy.

“Are there many friendly soldiers out there now?” asked Ellie. She always hoped the friendly soldiers would beat the bad ones, but every day those guns started up again. The War was always just overhead.

“Yesterday wasn’t too bad,” said Daddy, and there was a flash of light in those dark eyes. “I saw the Sergeant.”
Ellie smiled. “I like the Sergeant,” she said, even though she had never met him. “Will you see him today?”
“Maybe. I hope so. He’ll protect me, you know that.”

“Will you look for food with him today?” The Sergeant was Daddy’s friend and could usually find what Daddy was looking for, food or clothes or wood for the stove, or sometimes a small present for her or Marcus.
“Yes,” said Daddy. “And some new pyjamas for both of you. And some new books.”

“I’m afraid the Sergeant will be killed in the War,” said Ellie.

Daddy nodded. “Yes, he might. But he’s a good soldier and a brave one and I think he’ll be all right.”

“You should ask the Sergeant to come and visit me,” she said. “He’s done so much for us. I want to thank him.”

Marcus had stopped eating and was holding his spoon upright on his empty plate. He wanted to meet the Sergeant too.
“He’s a busy man,” said Daddy, a little hesitantly. “He has many men to command and sometimes I don’t see him at all. He’s keeping us safe by fighting the enemy.”

“Well then if you see him today thank him for me.”

“I will, Ellie.” And daddy smiled.

She picked up their dirty plates and took them over to the tap to wash them. The water splashed out of the bowl and Ellie had to mop up the spill. Most of it leaked away into the drain in the middle of the room, but the tiles could get slippery when they were wet. When it rained outside everything got soaked as the water came in through all the tiny holes and cracks in the walls.

Daddy started to get dressed, ready to go out. He put on a blue shirt with epaulettes and badges on it and dark blue pants and put a peaked cap on his head.

Ellie frowned at the uniform. Daddy noticed. “Don’t worry, Ellie, this makes me look more like a soldier. The friendly soldiers will treat me with more respect dressed like this. And as for the enemy, well, if I go up looking like a civilian they might think I’m a spy and they’ll kill me for sure.”

“Like they killed Mummy?”

“Yes, Ellie, just like they killed Mummy.” Daddy’s voice was heavier than usual as he said this.

Ellie was so afraid that one day Daddy would not come back. Then she and Marcus would be alone, with no one to find food. She would have to go out herself then, an eight year old girl dodging the bullets and the bombs, trying to find food for herself and her little brother. Where would she look for it? Would she have to wear a uniform too?

Her Daddy put on the gun he always took with him when he went out. It was a big, heavy thing. Ellie hated it. She had held it one night, after Daddy had gone to sleep, and wondered what it would be like to use it in a War and kill someone with it. Had her Daddy ever had to shoot anyone? She had never asked him, did not want to know. She didn’t want Daddy killing anyone just to find food.

“Be brave, Ellie,” said Daddy, which was what he always said just before he left.

Marcus was staring at their father. Ellie looked for some emotion on her brother’s face, but there was nothing. Sometimes, she thought Marcus wasn’t quite as bright as he should be. Maybe the War had done something to him, affected his mind. Daddy tousled Marcus’ hair and smiled at both of them.

“Bye, Daddy,” said Ellie. It would be another long day. “I’ll be waiting for you tonight. By the stairs.”

Every night she made sure they were his footsteps coming down the stairs to the cellar and not those of someone else. Ellie knew what to do if it ever was a stranger. There was a special hiding hole that she and Marcus could climb into, hidden away behind some rubbish in one corner. They were to get in there and be very quiet until whoever it was went away.

But every night, so far, it was Daddy who came back down those stairs.

“Bye, Ellie.” Daddy leaned down and kissed her and then kissed Marcus, and then he stepped over to the door and opened it. Ellie could see the stairs leading up to the War outside. Daddy climbed the stairs just as Marcus started to cry again.

Don Brinkley closed the door at the top of the stairs that led down to the cellar where his children were hiding. He walked through the house to the study and opened the lid of the CD player. He removed the CD inside and selected another from the rack on a shelf. This one was called Special Sound Effects 13: Battle Sounds and Explosions. All the others were the same, just variations on a theme. He slid it into the player and switched it on. The sounds of fighting and diving planes and whooshing rockets were low in the room, but the speakers he had installed in the cellar carried the sound down there clearly. The War had started again.

There was another picture of his wife, his children’s mother, on the wall. He touched it with his lips the way he did every morning before leaving for work.

He opened the front door and stepped out into the quiet suburban street just as Police Sergeant Pete Henderson pulled up in the patrol car. Pete was kind enough to give Don a lift most mornings to work at the local police station.

“How are you today, Don?” asked Pete.

“Not bad thanks, Sergeant.”

“How are Ellie and Marcus? They well?”

“Yes. Their grandmother sent me an email last night. They love living with her down in Sydney.”

Constable Don Brinkley looked out at the world with dark eyes. One day he would find the street thugs who had robbed and killed his wife, and then the War would be over. But until then, at least he knew his children were safe.

“Brad, are you there?”

I buried my head further into Murder on the Orient Express, hoping somehow that would stop me from hearing my wife. Hercule Poirot was about to solve another fiendishly clever murder, as always, and I wanted to be there for the kill. As it were. But it didn’t take need his deductive powers to work out that Georgia had a job for me to do.

“Brad, can you hear me?”

It was tempting to answer “No”. I sank a bit lower into the chair and raised the book closer to my face, like maybe she wouldn’t notice me, like an ostrich with its head in the sand. But it was too late. Georgia didn’t just enter the room, she arrived.

“We have a wasps’ nest,” she said emotionlessly. It was rare for Georgia to become animated about anything. Why get excited when a simple statement would fulfil the same purpose? Nevertheless, her voice could still convey a great deal of meaning. This particular flat tone not only said that we had a wasps’ nest, it also made it absolutely clear that I was going to have to do something about it.

I remained silent, pretending to focus even more on Agatha Christie’s thrilling prose. Maybe if I just kept reading…

“Did you hear me? We have a wasps’ nest.”

It was no use. I couldn’t pretend any longer. “A wasps’ nest?” I said. “Why did we get one of those? Seems a bit extravagant.”

Georgia stood over me, one hand gripping the top of my book in case I tried to climb inside it or something. There was no escape. I lowered the book and smiled resignedly.

“There’s a wasps’ nest on the switchboard,” she said. “You need to get rid of it.”

We were prone to wasps’ nests in our neighbourhood, those little yellow and black paper wasps that built those amazing nests. It had been some time since we had had an infestation ourselves, but when we did it was usually the switchboard that attracted them. Maybe it was something to do with electro-magnetism that they liked, some sort of sixth wasp-sense that enticed them to that part of the house. They could be dealt with easily enough, but there was some risk of getting stung, and that was the last thing I wanted on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

But I was trapped. I put the book down. Making excuses was useless. Georgia had a phobia about insects, any insects, but ones with stings particularly. Oddly enough, other creepy-crawlies were not a problem: spiders, scorpions, centipedes, none of them bothered her. It was insects. Six legs. I always had to get rid of them for her, even the occasional harmless ant that had taken a misguided opportunity to head in from the garden.

“All right,” I said, heaving myself out of my chair. “I’ll get the bug spray.”

I had nothing against bugs myself. But I had to admit wasps were not good to have hanging around. I could envisage having to go out to the switchboard one night to reset the safety switch and being stung repeatedly.

When I went into the kitchen to fetch the bug spray from under the sink, our daughter Holly was eating lunch. “Wasps,” I said as I fished for the spray.

Holly said nothing in her typically surly teenage girl manner. Of course, I hadn’t given her much of an opening to reply to. I found the insect spray and shook the can to see how much was there. “They’re on the switchboard again,” I said.

“And you’re going to kill them?” she replied, looking at the spray can like it was a grenade launcher.

“Of course.” I headed for the door before she could fire any more animal activist barbs at me. She followed, abandoning her sandwich, out onto the back porch where the switchboard was.

There was a nest there all right, a paper wasp nest: a long, grey hexagonal construction. Several wasps were busy there, building away. The nest really was quite a clever thing. Such industry and cleverness in insects was to be admired. They had no brains to speak of, and yet all by themselves they could fashion this bizarre-looking but marvellously functional home.

Holly followed me over to the nest. “Oh yeah, a wasps’ nest,” she said, like she hadn’t believed me. “Hey, that’s hard to say. Wasps’ nest.”

“Yes, well, your mother wants it gone, so stand back.”

But Holly had more things to say. “You can’t just kill them. They haven’t done anything.”

I took the top off the spray can. “It’s what they can do that worries me. I don’t want to get stung. Neither do you. And your mother has a phobia. You know that.”

“But they’re just innocent insects,” she protested, peering at the nest. “It’s cruel.”

“Well, what do you want me to do? We can’t let them alone. They’ll just build more nests and before you know we’re living in Wasp Central.” She was right. Wasp followed by certain other words was hard to say.

“Then move the nest.” She pointed to the trees in the back yard. “Over there. They’d prefer the trees.”

I pointed at the nest, careful not to get too close. The wasps were still flying and crawling around it. “I’m not moving the nest,” I said. “They want it here. It’s nice and sheltered and…electro-magneticky.” I wasn’t even sure that was a word. “They’ll just come back.”

I looked around to see where the wasps might be coming from. The half dozen that were there were very busy. Occasionally one would fly off and another would arrive. It was amazing how they knew what to do – how did they communicate with each other? I remembered something about bees dancing to tell the hive where flowers were. But these were wasps, little black and yellow bastards. Their stings would probably hurt like hell.

“Go back to the door and get ready to close it,” I said to Holly. As soon as I sprayed them I would have to run for it. While the wasps were choking and gagging on the spray they would no doubt be angry and I was wearing short sleeves.

Holly didn’t move. “No,” she said. “I’m not being a part of this.”

“Holly, just do it. Please.”

She folded her arms and her lower lip came out in a pout. I’d seen this before: my sixteen year old daughter had gone into negotiation mode. Favours were going to be asked for. What would it be this time – a later curfew, a higher allowance? All for a lousy wasps’ nest.

“I want to get a tattoo,” she said.

Well, I hadn’t seen that one coming.

“No,” I said.

“Why not?”

“You’re sixteen. Sixteen year old girls don’t get tattoos.”

“Yes they do. Most of my friends have one. I want one.”

I didn’t reply, just indicated the door. “Hold the door open, please. These things’ll get vicious.”
“I’ll do it if you let me get a tattoo.”

It really wasn’t that important for Holly to hold the door for me. I figured I could get to it in time before the wasps stung me, but if she was there, she might as well be useful. It was most certainly not worth conceding a tattoo for.

“What sort of tattoo?” I asked, and as soon as I said it, I knew it was a dumb thing to say. Now she’ll think I’m willing to negotiate. But I was just curious.

“I don’t know. Something cool.”

“No.” That was that. End of discussion. You had to be firm about these things.

But Holly wasn’t finished. “Kate got her nipple pierced.”

“What?”

“My friend, Kate Powell. She got her nipple pierced.”

I knew who Kate Powell was. A very – what was the word? – forward young lady indeed. Always had a boy with her, and not always the same one. Wore short denim shorts all the time, no matter what the weather was doing. I know, I know, I shouldn’t notice these things. But I took pains to observe the people Holly went out with, like a father should.

“I don’t want to know that,” I said truthfully.

“She did. She said it hurt like buggery. But it looks cool. She showed me.”

I couldn’t help it: a vision of Kate showing Holly her pierced nipple popped into my head unbidden. Eww. I thrust the image away. “I feel really uncomfortable discussing Kate’s n…” I stopped. I couldn’t even say it.

“So me getting a tattoo is nothing compared to that,” said Holly. And she had a point, but that wasn’t going to change my mind.

“No,” I said. “Hold the door.”

Holly wrinkled her nose at me, which was another of her favourite tactics, expressing extreme distaste for my dictatorial ways. She looked at the wasps’ nest mournfully. “Poor things,” she muttered, and then stopped. She was standing close to the nest, staring hard at the wasps.

“Look at that,” she said suddenly.

If this was some scheme to distract me from my task it wasn’t going to work. I shook the can again, getting ready to spray and run.

“That wasp,” she persisted. “There’s something wrong with its head.”

How she could tell that a centimetre-long wasp had something wrong with its head was beyond me, even though she was standing rather close. How did she know what a wasp’s head was supposed to look like anyway? She pointed at one wasp hanging on the very end of the nest.

“That one. Look closely.”

If she had been one of my goofy mates I would have refused, because they were the sort of guys who would find it awfully funny to make someone lean close into a wasps’ nest and then give him a shove from behind. Ha ha. But this was Holly, and even though she was annoyed at me right now she wasn’t nasty like that. So I looked at the wasp.

There was something wrong with its head.

The head looked too big for the body, for one thing. But it was more than that. The head was…well, pale, and there seemed to be fine, long hairs around it. I tried to remember pictures of wasps I had seen, and it didn’t look right.
“Maybe it’s a new species,” I said.

“Well there you are then, you can’t kill them now. A new species,” said Holly triumphantly.

But it was more than that. Holly had been correct – there was definitely something not quite right about that wasp. I looked at the others, crawling on the nest. Their heads seemed peculiar too, but in different ways. No two heads looked the same.

“Get the magnifying glass,” I said. “It’s in my desk.”

Holly hesitated.

“I’m not going to kill them,” I assured her. “Let’s take a closer look.”

She was back in a minute and handed the magnifying glass to me. I peered closely at the wasp at the end of the nest.
My hand shook a little because there was most certainly something wrong with the wasp and I felt a slight uneasiness. It wasn’t just the possibility of being stung – there was something vaguely disturbing about it. Wasps should look like wasps, not like…

“Fuck,” I said.

“Dad!” Holly hissed instinctively, then giggled. “Mum might hear you.”

There are times when I felt divorced from reality, when sometimes I could step aside for a moment and mentally look at myself like I was someone else. That was now. The world around me suddenly seemed like a dream.
The wasp’s head was…well, it was a human head. It was the head of a woman with blond hair. A human face. I looked again.

“Fuck me.”

Holly giggled. “Go for it, Dad,” she said, amused by my language.

But I didn’t hear her. I looked at another wasp. This was the same, but different. It had a human head, but it was the head of a man, with a black beard, a long bushy one, like Ned Kelly. I could swear he looked at me as I scrutinised him under the magnifying glass. I handed the glass to Holly. “Take a look.”

She looked, and didn’t say anything. But I heard a gasp of breath.

“They’re people,” she said. “Like little people.”

People’s heads on wasps’ bodies. I took a step back. “Move away, Holly,” I said. She continued to peer closely.

“They’re all like that,” she said. “They’ve all got people’s heads.”

It was hard to breathe. I grabbed Holly by her shoulder and hauled her away from the nest. “Don’t get too close.”
We both stepped back, and looked at each other. Holly gripped the magnifying glass tightly. We both spoke at the same instant:

“Don’t tell your mother.”/“Don’t tell mum.”

This was not the sort of thing you could explain to Georgia. But what were we to do? This was incredible. I took the glass from Holly’s hand and moved towards the nest again. I could swear one of the wasps turned and looked at me as I approached. I stopped. It stared at me. The head was too small to read any expression. I slowly raised the magnifying glass and tried to focus. My hand trembled. Behind me I could hear Holly breathing deeply.

This wasp’s face was that of a young man. No beard, no long hair like the other two. I tried to see if it in any way recognised me as a human being, if there was any intelligent expression on the wasp at all, but the magnifying glass wasn’t powerful enough for that. I stepped back again.

“This is freaky,” said Holly, and she shrank closer to me and touched my arm. She had become my scared little girl.

“Let’s just go inside for a moment,” I said. Holly nodded.

We went into my study. This was where I should have been when I was trying to read. Georgia didn’t like coming into my study, and knew I didn’t like her there either. Even Holly kept out of it. “Dad’s man-cave,” she called it. But we went there now and Holly collapsed into the chair at my desk. It was a moment before either of us could speak.

“What do we do?” I asked.

“Maybe we…” began Holly. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s some kind of joke.”

I had an idea and nodded towards my computer. “Get online. See if you can Google anything like this.”

Holly started tapping on the keys. I felt like getting a drink, but was reluctant to leave Holly alone. What was I afraid of? That the wasps would come in and attack her? They were wasps, that’s all. Just wasps. I had to tell myself that several times. They were just freaking wasps, for heaven’s sake. Wasps don’t have human faces.

“I don’t even know what I’m looking for,” said Holly.

“There might be something on the news sites.” I was impatient. “Just Google ‘wasps with human heads’ or something.”

“I tried that. There’s nothing, just some article about paper wasps being good at recognising other paper wasps.” Holly was impatient too.

We were silent for a minute then Holly said, “Are you still going to kill them?”

I frowned at her. “Kill them? How can I? They’re people. No, not people, they’re…well, they’re like people.”

“They’re scary.”

Well, there was no denying that. My hands were still shaking. What could possibly explain this? Were they some government experiment? Some freak of nature? Did they just look like human faces? I knew there was a thing called pareidolia, where people saw faces that weren’t really there, like seeing Jesus in a hot cross bun or something. Was this just an illusion? A pattern on the wasps’ heads that made us think we were seeing faces? But they had all been so different from each other: beards, long blonde hair. They were real human faces.

Holly had taken out her phone and was texting someone.

“Who are you texting?” I said quickly.

“Kate.”

“You can’t tell anyone anything!” I spluttered.

Certainly not some ditzy teen with a pierced nipple. It would go viral in half an hour. Mercifully, Holly put her phone away, but the sour expression had returned to her face. I remained firm: we had to keep this quiet, even if it was a new species. We had to be certain what we were seeing was real.

“We should catch one,” I said. “Catch one and examine it closely.”

“I’m not going anywhere near them,” said Holly. “They freak me out.”

I kept telling myself they were a new species. We hadn’t really seen human faces, it was just pareidolia – there were patterns on the wasps’ heads that made us think we were seeing faces. If we caught one, and showed it to a scientist – an entomologist, that’s what those insect guys were called – we might be famous. We could have the species named after us. After me. That would be something. Even Georgia would have to be impressed with that. Even Holly.
I could be both rich and famous.

And they weren’t really people…not really. That was silly. Impossible.

“Dad?” asked Holly. She was tapping at the computer again. I looked at the screen. There was a close-up picture of a paper wasp’s face. Holly had enlarged it until the pixels were on the point of distorting the picture. It didn’t look anything like what we had seen.

Polistes humilis they were called, according to the website: common paper wasp. I didn’t like the sound of that name. The humilis part sounded too much like human. Apparently there were three hundred species around the world. Ours hanging off the switchboard didn’t look anything like this. The nest looked right, though. A new species of paper wasp was still possible, if there were three hundred already.

I was determined now to catch one. I could take it to the university. Even if I couldn’t catch one, I could take a photograph of it. Thank goodness I hadn’t killed them. My camera was in the desk drawer. As I took it out Holly turned from reading the text on the computer screen.

“What are you doing?” she said, and there was an edge to her voice I didn’t like.

“I’m going to take some pictures of course. We have to get these things identified.”

“You said not to tell anyone.”

I sighed. Teenagers could never see the blinding obvious. I had hoped my own daughter would be better than that, but each passing year brought new revelations about her. “This is different,” I said. “The scientists will want to see this.”

“Well if you can tell scientists I can tell Kate.” And she was reaching for her phone again.

“Don’t tell Kate. Don’t tell anyone.”

Things would become impossible if word of this got out. There could well be fame and fortune in this discovery, but I wanted to do it quietly. But my fingers twitched. I wanted to head out to the switchboard despite Holly and take some pictures. Perhaps the wasps would leave, perhaps they would decide the switchboard wasn’t the best place to nest.
And what was going on, anyway? Wasps with people’s heads? It was ridiculous. I had to be an illusion; Holly and I had convinced ourselves that we were seeing faces that weren’t really there. I made up my mind; I had to be sure.

“Come with me,” I said, “I need your help.”

“What for?” Holly was surfing other websites now, looking for more wasp species.

Why did she always have to question everything? “I’m going to take some pictures of the wasps,” I said. Really, she was being so difficult about it all. I was excited now, had thrown off my initial disquiet about the wasps – this was an important scientific discovery. Why the hell couldn’t Holly see that?

“Why do you want me?” she said, blowing air out impatiently.

To be truthful, I had no idea why I wanted her to help take pictures. But Holly was as far as I was aware the only other person in the world who knew about these wasps. But, of course, I said totally the wrong thing in my impatience. “Well, you can….” And then I had an idea. “You can take some pictures of me taking pictures of the wasps.”

“Huh?”

“To verify what I’m doing is real. To help show it’s not a fake. Use the camera in your phone.”

She shrugged. “Ok. But in return you let me get a tattoo.”

“Don’t start that again.”

She crossed her arms and smiled at me. “Let me get a tattoo and I’ll help you. And I won’t tell anyone. Not even Kate with the pierced nipple!” She laughed at the last bit, looking for my reaction. Grossing out parents is a favourite teenage pastime.

“Don’t be silly, Holly. Stay here then. And tell whoever you like. Who’s going to believe you without proof?” I waved the camera. “Exhibit A.”

Holly turned back in the chair and started tapping on the computer. “Fine,” she mouthed.

I went back out to the wasps’ nest. They were as busy as ever, building the nest, flying around, ignoring me as far as I could tell. I raised the camera and tried to focus in on them. There was a Macro function on the camera that could be used to take close-up shots. I had never quite got the hang of it. Holly would have known how to use it, but there was no way I could go and ask her now. I turned on the Macro and focused on the blond wasp, the one with the long hair around the face. She was poised with her rear end inside one of the nest cells. Was she laying eggs? I paused with my finger over the shutter button. She loomed large in the lens.

But I didn’t take a picture. I couldn’t. It seemed so intrusive, so bizarre. It just didn’t feel right. I lowered the camera. Tomorrow might be better for taking pictures. Tomorrow the wasps would be settled in and not so busy and would stay still and I would at least have had a good night’s sleep and might be more rational about all of this.

Back inside, I tried to settle down with my book. Things were quiet for a while, even though I was too keyed up to read. The front door slammed a few minutes later – I caught a glimpse of Holly’s dark hair out of the window. Well, she was out of the way for a while at least. Probably gone to tell Kate all about the wasps. Maybe she would bring her around to show her. Then things would get interesting. I almost looked forward to the encounter. Yes, Kate, these are the famous human-headed wasps Holly told you about. What do you think of them? No such a loser now, am I?

“Brad?” Georgia was there again. She had a habit of moving silently that had always irritated me. Wearily I lowered the book again.

“Brad, did you get rid of the wasps?”

I sighed. “Not yet. I’ll do it tomorrow.” She frowned. “I looked at them,” I continued in my defence. “They’re, um, they’re too active at the moment. Tomorrow they’ll be quieter and then I can kill them more easily.” Georgia did not look impressed. “Holly and I looked it up on the web. They’ll be quieter tomorrow. It said so.” My voice became weaker and slower as I watched Georgia’s unsympathetic face. “On the website.”

“I want them done now.”

Of course she did. But there was no way I could tell her about the wasps, about their human faces. Georgia would simply not understand.

“All right,” I said. But I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do. I headed out once again to the porch.
The magnifying glass was where we had left it, on top of the switchboard. But the spray can had been moved. It was on the porch under the nest, and the top had been left off. I went over to the nest.

There were several dead bodies of wasps on the porch next to the can, and none alive around the nest. There were no living ones in sight. I bent down and picked up one of the wasps by one tiny leg. It was quite dead. Grabbing the magnifying glass, I focused on its head. It was the male one with the beard, but the beard was shrivelled now, and the face was twisted in a rictus of agony, the mouth open, screaming. Stone dead.

Despite the obvious suffering, the face looked even more human now. It was no pareidolia – this was a real human head on a wasp body. I dropped it instinctively.

The others were the same: all dead, all obviously in torment in their final moments from the chemicals in the bug spray. This was not an extermination of unwanted insects. This was murder. Mass murder. Of course, it was impossible, but I couldn’t get over the idea that these wasps were intelligent, that there was more than just facial features that tied them to real people. There were real people, people who had somehow been turned into wasps.

Who were they?

Of course, it didn’t matter now: they were dead and their secret was dead too. And I knew who had done it. I wasn’t Georgia: her phobia would not let her onto the porch while the wasps were still there. She would not have approached anywhere close enough to see their heads. And anyway, she had just asked me about them. Holly, then. She must have left by the front door, doubled around to the back porch and done it. Presumably she had then taken off. But why had she done it? She had been against killing them all along. Why would she change her mind?
Going back inside, I saw her bedroom door was closed. There was a square of paper attached to it. It was Holly’s usual way of telling us what she was doing, leaving these notes. I looked at this one, a little anxiously. There was just one line on it, in her handwriting.

Maybe next time you’ll let me get a tattoo.

Fifteen billion years ago, there wasn’t much.
Nothing at all, really.
Then, suddenly, out of nowhere,
There was the Big Bang.
 

Bang!

it went, only louder than that.
 
And everything happened.
 
Stars. Planets. Galaxies.
Trees. Cows. The colour blue.
Deoxyribonucleic acid.
Screw-top jars. The Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Lions. Absurdist Theatre.
World War Two. Pencils. Thunder.
The delicate touch of a butterfly alighting on a chrysanthemum.
Moonbeams. The Great Barrier Reef.
Clowns.
And automatic teller machines.
Everything.
All because of the Big Bang.
 
I had a Big Bang last night.
Her name was Stacie.
I didn’t see any planets or galaxies or screw-top jars.
A good thing really:
It was only a single bed.   
            
–          Copyright © 2012 Russell Proctor
When I die,
I want to come back as a banana.
Then I’d lie
In your fruit bowl and you would feel calmer
Knowing I was nearby,
On your table.
Yellow.
Then when you picked me up I’d say “Hello!
“It’s me. I’m a banana. Bet you’re surprised!”
 
When I die,
I want to come back as a rubber duck.
Then I’d sit in your bath and with any luck
When you pulled out the plug
I’d spin round and round
Over the hole.
And watch you dry yourself on a towel.
 
When I die,
I want to come back as one of those
Little bits of cotton wool they stick
In the tops of medicine bottles.
Then I’d be the first thing you touch
As you grope in agony
For soothing relief.
 
When I die,
I want to come back as a banana.
Anyone can be a pineapple.
 
–          Copyright © 2012 Russell Proctor
My mate Brian
Bought himself a new car.
It’s got a 2.4 valve fuel-injected overhead underslung differential with a turbo-charged automatic trans-carby radiator cap.
Or something.
 
Brian likes cars.
And football.
And chicks.
And words of one syllable.
 
My mate Brian
Brought his new car round to show me.
“This is me new car,” he said.
“Good one,” I said.
(I never miss a chance to show off me knowledge of mechanical stuff.)
 
Brian and me
Went for a drive in his new car.
We were going to pick up a couple of chicks.
Or something.
Probably something.
 
So there we were,
Cruising down the main drag.
“Why don’t you floor it?” I asked,
Thinking that’s what guys with new cars like you to say.
“Ok,” he said.
And he floored it.
Right up the back of the ute in front.
 
Jeez I laughed.
 
Brian had to pay for the damage to the ute.
He doesn’t take his new car out much anymore.
Reckons the chicks are going to have to come to him.
So he sits there, staring out at his new car in the driveway,
Chickless.
 
I don’t know,
If he wasn’t me mate
I’d think Brian was a bit thick.
 
–          Copyright © 2012 Russell Proctor