The night They came was a thunderstorm night, the very sky a black-feathered bird calling: Now. Now you are at the place of oblivion. The stars above us were in flight, one moment visible, the next concealed, startling from the branches. In the day everything has its place and is confined to exist there. In the darkness, we all have the gift of wings. The moonlight unfurled along the razor edge of the leaves and the lightning pecked the Earth with the indifference of a beak: Now. Now you are obliterated.
We ran through the storm as only children can, the sky fizzing over our skin, sparking against our teeth, certain in the belief we would not be struck down. After all, our feet fractured the ground just the same as lightning, gleefully cracking the spine of twigs and frozen puddles. That night only two of us had braved the storm, slipping out from bedroom windows into the cool embrace of darkness, eager to run wild and return wearing thorns.
My friend was the embodiment of savage childhood, all bowed knees and short, cowlicked hair, shaking raindrops from their skin, wearing them encrusted on their eyelashes. They were as wild as the sky, the very symbol of what it means to be young, alive and utterly uncaring. They swore brilliantly, not knowing or understanding the meaning, merely in love with the sound of fuck and goddamn and you son of a bitch whore you. They spoke the way birds sing, with complete dedication, enough that I would imagine birds turning to one another, singing: These humans, I wonder if there is any meaning to their tune?
That night was all human song, my friend’s chirruping voice and my listening ears and the sky screaming out a dirge, coming untethered like a funeral balloon.
‘Fucking rain,’ they said, but they wore it in every inch of them.
‘Fucking rain,’ I echoed dutifully, traipsing along behind them, my own skin cool and slick and damp with the fucking rain, and the way it squelched unpleasantly in my socks. My long hair was pasted to my head, stuck inelegantly over my mouth, such that it made a wet rattling sound against my lips when I breathed. My skin was so wet that I imagined breathing through it instead, more frog than child.
Ahead my friend was a racing shadow; one moment visible, the next concealed. They headed for each puddle and mud-slick bank, running up and rolling down, their skin eventually so muddy that their eyes stood out like chips of struck flint, uncomfortably blue and ready to spark fire. They were eagerly contemplating death, playing out soldiers, and a stick was soon found and pointed, a bullet shot cleanly through my chest. I fell with an exaggerated groan, although I immediately regretted it. The ground was much too wet even for pretended death. Above me my friend danced in and out of their soldier skin, smearing mud further down their neck and up their arms, simply to feel. They threw themselves hard down onto the muddy bank, peering over the top.
‘We’ve got a live one oh boy, oh boy,’ they said, their voice warped in poor imitation of the Americans, their hands clenched around their gun-shaped stick. A cowboy now, they pushed their fringe off their head like the brim of a cap. The sky made a strange ripping sound and then fractured like eggshell.
‘I’ll get the horses,’ I whispered, and went down into the night clicking my tongue softly, seeing the gleam of white mushrooms as the shine of hooves and satin black holly as wild, rolling eyes. I found a stallion and a mare, black as night the both, frothing at the mouth and gleaming with sweat as pure as starlight. I brought them up the bank to where my friend lay, gorgeous as a fucking bruise against the moonlit ground, and murmured: ‘Ready.’
‘You got the ammo?’
I handed over bullets, white as struck teeth, and then we slung them in belts across our bodies. I found a stick and pushed a bullet with a quiet snick into the handle, steadying my shaking hand against the butt. We were ready to ride. With a yell we threw ourselves up from the bank, hands clenched around invisible reins, steadying the wildly excited, plunging horses. We fired, screaming obscenities, whilst the sky cracked and whined like bullets, singing out our game of war. Now. Now you are obliterated.
Afterwards we could not have said what it was that made us stop. Everything has its place and is confined to exist there; the horses turned back to silent shadow. Perhaps it was the smell, the air suddenly sweet and coppery as blood, or the sucking sound of the sky. There was the feeling of something vast taking a breath, the world a single, wet alveolus, ready to burst.
‘Would you look at that goddamn tree?’
I screwed up my eyes to see. It was difficult to focus on, like trying to track the false image left by a camera flash. It was hard to pinpoint precisely what was wrong with it; perhaps it was that the bark looked like newspaper, paper-thin and tattooed black and white, or that the leaves appeared veinless even under the harsh moonlight. Many years later I realised that the most uncomfortable thing about it had been its symmetry. It looked like the tree children always draw – dead straight and uniform, unintended for three dimensions.
As we backed away, eyeing the strange branches, the sky gave an electric hiss. We recoiled instinctively, closing our eyes, but the tree had already tattooed itself onto our eyelids. There was the sensation of breathing again, the world hacking up white foam from poisoned lungs but, although I counted, the thunder never came. For several minutes my world was a beautiful, blackberry purple, the image of a tree that looked too much like a tree burnt into my retinas. I felt my way to the ground, finding my friend already curled up and shuddering. When my vision returned I was facing them, their frightened eyes inches from my own, their skin curdled milk under the muck.
‘We should go home,’ I whispered, but they were whimpering, their eyes darting up to something just over my head, then racing back to the ground again.
‘What?’ I breathed, the words barely making it past my teeth. I imagined wolves with dripping red jaws and real soldiers, their eyes gun-metal grey and cold. My friend raised a trembling hand and pointed, their fingernail a ragged white moon against the sky.
Summoning all my courage I rolled over, my eyes shut, flicking them briefly open. The tree still stood against the sky, black and burnt, a jagged snarl struck through the centre of the trunk. And there They were, the two of them, one silhouetted against the bruised sky, the other barely visible against the tree bark. One. Two. The only definite we were ever able to give. I opened my eyes again, ready to scream, ready to call on the God my parents took me to church to visit, but they did not move.
‘The fuck?’ whispered my friend, sounding marginally less shaken.
They were the colour of an oil slick, simultaneously black but seething with rainbow. They moved the way origami does, occupying the space they already inhabited over and over and fucking over, folding it rather than existing within it. Something was writhing in their centre, tendrils opening and closing like a fist over something else that might have been a mouth, and there was a strange, high-pitched sound, the soft chink of a moth hitting a bulb. Afterwards, I wondered if it was the sound of screaming.
My friend was standing now, slick with mud and rain and starlight, the child of thunder, and as alien as could be. Silently they walked in an awkward, hunched position and picked up a thick, knobbly stick and then searched for another, passing it to me. We did not need to pretend these were guns. These were vicious enough without imagination.
They stood in front of us, ripping and sewing space, opening and closing like a fist. They were so out of place, so wrong to look at, that my eyes were only half-focused and I was shaking, sick to my stomach.
‘We have to defend the planet.’
The American drawl was back, born of false bravado and sheer, gut-wrenching terror, and my friend held their stick aloft as if trying to channel the lightning. Children are all too ready to believe in the danger of things that appear suddenly from the dark, so I did not question this. Every fairy-tale has a lighthouse warning buried within: There are so many things waiting to dash you against the rocks. Now. Now you are at the place of oblivion. One of them suddenly released an eerie, grating wail that was felt with a skull-thumping pain more than heard, and that was all it took. Suddenly, we were ready to ride.
We went for the one on the left, the one that stood most brightly against the sky. Where we struck it, screaming fuck you and go to hell you son of a bitch whore you, it twisted like layers of coloured tissue paper, occasionally releasing that bone-shaking cry. Many years later I dared to wonder how we had looked to it, whether we had been too alien for it to see, all mud and flesh, all screams and savage blows, and whether the sound that made us want to pull out our teeth was a cry for mercy. Thin, wavering tendrils struck out at us, stinging across our hands and faces. Where we hit it the rainbow-black turned to grey as if we really had become lightning and all we touched was turned to ash.
When it was simply mush against the ground something slipped out from the mulch with a liquid shine. We stared at it for a long moment and, although I could not be certain what it was, bile rose in my mouth. The glimmering disc was just a little too familiar. The eye stared up at the sky, reflecting the drifting moon, as it dissolved into grey flakes. I dragged a hand backwards across my mouth and scrubbed violently at my lips. My throat was clogged with the taste of copper.
‘Wh-what about the other one?’ I stuttered.
But when I turned to my friend they were crying, shimmering with the strange night-dark rainbow that had spewed from the creature, leaning heavily on their stick. The other one had fallen to the ground, if fallen was the right word for the way it had jammed space open, and was making the sound of a thousand flies having their wings fried. It was already covered in a veneer of mossy grey and, somehow, we knew it was dying without a single blow. Perhaps they couldn’t breathe our air. Perhaps the lightning had allowed two worlds to collide and they had been ripped, blindly, from wherever they had been before, the strange tree a conduit. Perhaps it was dying of grief. We would never know.
We crouched cautiously and watched the creature shuddering, turning to ash as the sky cursed at the ground. It clicked more and more quietly, tendrils unfolding and waving around in the air. Eventually one tendril shuddered, or slipped, or fell open, revealing a dark eye which rotated wetly in our direction. There was a reverberation suddenly deep within my head, a noiseless sound, as if it was speaking words we could not hear. The meaning seemed to slip across, or maybe we completely made it up, but I could have sworn it said to me: boy and my friend swore they heard: girl. An odd distinction. A poor, garbled translation of something we probably misunderstood entirely. But perhaps it was trying to say: I recognise that you are children, that you are scared, and I forgive you. Sometimes, I even like to believe it.
On impulse I ran across to the rain-slick bank and pulled up tufts of wild garlic, the flowers tiny and only faintly white, closed in defiance of the night. I brought it back and held it out in front of the creature without knowing why, perhaps trying to show the tiniest piece of fragility in our violent, thunder-stricken world. That must have been the last thing it saw before it died, as the eye slipped wetly to the ground. The flower of an alien world.
We spent most of adulthood silently convincing ourselves that They had just been imagination run wild, fuelled by vicious lightning, but in old age we could no longer believe this lie. Children and the elderly accept the reality that adults deny. So that is why I am not surprised when they turn to me, with their uncomfortably blue and beautiful eyes, after seventy years of silence and ask: ‘What do you think They were, exactly?’ as they lean on the rail of our porch, blowing smoke up into a sky that is gathering clouds like lost sheep.
There is no need to ask what they are referring to. I know exactly what they mean, instantly, as if I have been waiting for the question all my life. What were They? Those strange things that were just enough in phase to be difficult to look at, as blue as they were orange and no colour we could recognise, with all those shimmering appendages, twisting like plant stems searching for the sun. I give the only answer that can be given, the worst answer in the world.
‘I don’t know.’
‘But where did They come from?’ they insist, ‘what was the point?’
‘Do you know where you come from?’ I counter. ‘In eighty-two years, have you ever come across anything remotely resembling a point?’
They snort with laughter. ‘Don’t spend too much time yelling at the sky and asking why God, why bloody why, you mean?’ They run a hand through their short, grey hair the colour of an English sky, mussing it so it stands up in random, electric spikes.
‘There was something that always bothered me more,’ I say slowly.
I walk forward and lean against the porch rail next to them, wondering how long it’s going to be before the rain starts striking the ground. I stare down at my hands where they clutch the rail, tracing my eyes over the blue, knotted veins.
‘Why did we treat them so differently when they were exactly the same?’ I murmur.
I see my hands clenched around a stick, beating bright and oily rainbows out of the first creature; I see my hands clenched around a bunch of ragged flowers, holding them up to the eye of the second. One moment visible, the next concealed, the image opening and closing like a fist. I suddenly remember the echo of a non-voice: boy, and to my partner: girl. The horizon flashes. I start counting.
They look at me then, raising an eyebrow, all long limbs and creased skin, and those eyes like a chip of struck flint, those savage, shining eyes that I had fallen in love with so long before. They take a long drag of their cigarette, and blow smoke out across the misty lawn.
‘Sometimes that just happens,’ they say at last, and shrug.
The growl of thunder finally reaches us. Now. Now you are at the place of oblivion.
Amy Wolstenholme is a biochemistry PhD student at Cambridge, where she researches some of the amazing intricacies of DNA replication. In her free time she loves to write poetry and short stories, and has been previously published in Visual Verse, Oxford Poetry and on the Young Poets Network. Her other hobbies include hiking, drinking tea and tie-dyeing her lab coat different colours.
image by Florian Olivo (via unsplash)