Saturday 28 September 2019

The Slaughter Man
Cassandra Parkin
It's my turn on the Blog Tour for The Slaughter Man and I have an extract for you today (Chapter One), as unfortunately, I ran out of time to review, but hope to be able to bring that to you soon.

She’s at her sister’s funeral, and she knows she’s dreaming because the heads of all the people there have been replaced with the heads of birds. 
At the front of the church, the vicar’s surplice is made soft and welcoming by her enormous pillowy breasts. When this day happened for real, Willow had briefly laid her head against them, in that first naked moment when the vicar turned her soft sad gaze towards her and said, I’m so sorry about your sister, and her words turned a key inside Willow’s chest and the grief she’d vowed to hold onto tumbled out like coins, splashing and crashing in bright sharp tinkles onto their laps. Now, the slick green head of a mallard turns its open beak towards her and she glimpses the tongue, flat and disturbingly human-looking. She wonders why Reverend Kate wears the head of a male duck. Perhaps it’s the sardonic commentary of her unconscious on the customs and practices of the church. She can see its beak stretching and relaxing with the rhythm of its speech, but she can’t hear a word. The church is entirely silent.
In the pew three rows behind her, a cluster of students from college – the college that used to be theirs and is now, unbearably and irrevocably, only hers – sit glossy and silent. Girls and boys alike wear speckled starling-heads, their sharp jabbing beaks turned downwards as a mark of respect, and not because they’re looking at their phones. Beside her, her mother’s body shudders with tears, but above her shoulders the raven’s head remains expressionless and silent. In real life, her mother had reached down and taken Willow’s hand and stroked her fingers and whispered, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, over and over and over, senseless and endless, until Willow’s fingers were tingling and sore. Perhaps the bird-heads are masks. Perhaps the people wearing them are trapped inside, their whole worlds reduced to the simple need to breathe. Willow wants to reach up and touch her own face, see if she too has been forced to wear one, but her hands are too heavy to lift, and so she sits and waits for what she knows must surely come.
When this happened for real, Laurel was carried into church in a white coffin with a satin finish and fiddly gold handles. Willow had looked at the coffin and thought in disgust, How can you possibly have picked that one? She wouldn’t want that one, she’d want a black one, we both would. God, if you pick one like that for me… and then the horror of her thoughts crowded in so fast that she could hardly breathe for guilt. She was imagining her parents picking out her own coffin. She was dreaming of her own ending, of going down into the darkness to join Laurel. She was imagining death as an escape.
A change in the light tells her that the men are coming in with Laurel. There’s no coffin tonight. Instead her sister rides still and flat on the shoulders of four men. Three walk with the strength and synchronicity of professional undertakers, and wear the steady gaze and long, wise beaks of ibises. The fourth, his red-topped woodpecker head incongruous and gaudy, is her father. He holds tight to Laurel’s ankle, buckling at the knees occasionally as he forces himself to perform this last duty. Willow wonders if he’ll fall, and if Laurel will fold and crumple as she falls with him, or if she’ll be stiff and rigid, like a plank of wood. 
The procession lacks dignity, the ibises unbalanced by their fourth companion, his head and suit mismatched, his pace out of step with theirs. Willow had wanted him to be with her and her mother, and she was fairly sure her mother wanted the same thing, but her father had insisted. Just as on the day of the funeral, he’s so stricken with grief he can hardly walk. Just as on the day of the funeral, Willow thinks how much better it would have been if her father had been in the pew with them. 
Then she glimpses her sister’s head, which is also her own head, sees the face they’ve both been wearing and looking into since before they came into the world, and wonders in panic, Is it me they’re burying today, or is it her? Which of us is still alive and which of us is dead? What if I’m not Willow at all, what if I’m Laurel and I don’t know it? What if she thinks she’s me? What happens then? 
The three ibises and her woodpecker father reach the front of the church and lay Laurel down on the altar. It’s been swept clean of crosses and candlesticks, and covered in a sheet of thick blue-tinged plastic that blurs the gold thread embroidery of the altar cloth beneath. The ibises step back and melt away. She will not see them again. This is the first sign.
Wake up, Willow thinks. Wake up. This is your last chance. Do it. Do it now. Right now. Wake up. Wake up! And she’s not sure if she’s talking to her twin, or herself.
She knows what’s coming next because she’s had this dream before. The congregation, each wearing their bird-heads, stand, slowly and effortfully as if they’re wading through water. She doesn’t want to join them, but this is a dream, and she’s given no choice. She wants to hold her mother’s hand, but her mother is just ahead of her now, second in the long chain of people that’s forming up behind her father, whose bright streak of red feathers glow like a beacon in the spray of sunlight, shooting through the window to splash across Laurel’s closed, silent face. This is the second sign.
Wake up, Willow thinks. This is a dream. You don’t need to stay here. Wake up and get out of here. None of this happened. You don’t need to be here. It’s only a dream. She closes her eyes, fierce and tight. When she reopens them, she can feel the rustling that comes from the excited agitation of the thousands of tiny feathers, covering the bird-heads of the congregation. They’ve begun to clack their beaks in anticipation. This is the third sign.
The minister stands behind the altar, behind Laurel’s body, and raises her hands in blessing. Her father, the first in the queue – the head of the family, she supposes – mounts the three shallow steps to the altar, raises his hands for a moment in imitation of the minister, then bends from the waist and plunges his head down, down, down, into the soft cold belly of his daughter. When he turns his face to the waiting congregation, his beak and feathers are covered in blood.
No, Willow thinks. This isn’t what happened. I won’t let this be what happens. This is a dream. I won’t let it happen.
Her mother next, stepping up to the altar with quick steps, soaring on a wave of air created by the swift eager movements of those who wait behind, as if instead of clapping their hands, the congregation are urging Willow’s mother onwards by moving their arms like wings. The gesture of blessing. The dip. The pause. Her mother’s face, birdy and bloody. 
Willow should take her place at the altar now, but she’s not wearing a bird-head. The vicar bundles her over to one side, a swift kind gesture that nonetheless has the seeds of exasperation in it, as if Willow is a small child refusing to leave her offering at the Harvest Festival, or clutching stubbornly to her small silver coin for the collection plate. Helpless and sick, Willow tries not to look as one by one, the congregation take their turn at the sacred feast, each bird in its turn, the raptors and the seedeaters and the water-birds, the ones who hunt and the ones who strip the carcasses and the ones who live on honey and nectar, each dipping their faces and raising them again, eager but not impatient, knowing there’ll be enough for everyone.
Stop, she thinks. She wants to scream her thought aloud, but her throat and mouth are stopped by a mighty weight that she doesn’t dare try to push aside. In this dream, she’s always voiceless. Her inability to speak is increasingly leaching out into her real life.
Don’t ask them to stop, the vicar tells her. There’s still no sound, just the kindly angling of her mallard head towards Willow’s face, and words that unspool in her mind. This is Death. We are all Death, every one of us, and we all need to eat. Would you rather they ate you instead? That could happen very easily. They’ll probably find it hard to tell the difference between you and your sister. After all, you’re the same, aren’t you? You’re the same. Separating you from each other, that’s going against Nature. And then her gaze turns over Willow’s shoulder, and Willow has the sense that beneath the mallard-head, the vicar is smiling. Ah, look who’s here. He’s come to call for you after all. It must be because you’re an identical twin.
And standing in the doorway of the church, Willow sees the most terrible bird of all, man-sized and man-shaped and dressed in black, with its blue-black head smoothly feathered and a thick stabbing beak like a crow and bright pitiless eyes that see everything, everything, the firm young flesh of her body and the strong marrowy bones beneath, the bright leap of blood in her veins and the glistening throb of her heart. The Death Bird sees all of these things, and then he looks inside her head and sees her thoughts, and she knows she invited him here. She’s wished for him to come for her, and now she can’t send him away again. 
There are words tumbling in her throat – I didn’t mean it, I don’t want to die – but they won’t be enough to set her free. Words only have power when they’re spoken and she can’t speak now. Her voice is locked away for ever, and she’s going down to join her sister in the darkness, and the congregation will eat her body and she’ll never see daylight again. The Death Bird holds out a long pale hand. All the flesh and feathers have fallen from his head; now he is wearing a bird-skull.
He’s come for you, says Laurel from the altar, and this is new, because usually in this dream Laurel is voiceless, too. She doesn’t dare to look because she doesn’t want to see what the congregation has done to her, but still it’s Laurel’s voice, the voice which is also hers. When they were little and recorded themselves performing plays or reading stories, they would sometimes be unable to tell which of them had spoken which words, who had taken one part and who the other. He’s come for you. You have to go with him when he comes for you. That’s what happened to me. Now it’s your turn.
But Mum and Dad, Willow thought helplessly.
But I miss you, Laurel pleaded. And you miss me too. Don’t you? That’s why he’s here. Because you miss me. We belong together. Please don’t go out of here and leave me behind. I can’t bear it.
If she could speak, she could set herself free. She could tell him No, and send him away. But she can’t speak. She can’t even hear herself think over Laurel’s pleading voice, and she isn’t even sure that she wants to be rescued, because after all, Laurel’s right. They belong together, and their sudden cleaving into separateness has made a wrong place in her soul that will never, ever heal. The thought of the long years stretching out before her, the long barren decades of life where she’ll walk alone into the world with an empty place beside her, seems like too much to bear.
I’m going to die in my sleep, she thinks. My heart’s going to stop.
And then in the place between two heartbeats, the place between life and death, she tells herself, successfully this time, Wake up! 
She wakes, sweating with fright, tangled in sour-smelling sheets, warmed only by the damp place between her legs where she’s wet herself in the utter terror of her dream.
You’re disgusting, she thinks wearily, and climbs out of the bed so she can take the sheets off. 
She pads as quietly as she can down the corridor to the top of the stairs, cautious even though she knows her parents won’t wake. She spies on them just as they spy on her, all of them secretly watching each other for signs of illness or weakness, and she knows this is one of the rare-but-increasing nights when they’ve both taken sleeping tablets. They must finally have begun to trust that Willow won’t die in her sleep because they weren’t awake to watch over her. Or perhaps they’re giving in to the inevitable truth that, if they don’t begin to look after themselves in some rudimentary way, they’ll die too. Despite the pain they would all (if they ever dared speak about it) describe as unbearable, they all still want to live. The shame of wanting to survive makes it hard for them to look at each other. 
Downstairs in the utility room, she fills the washing machine with sheets and pyjamas, then switches it on. Back upstairs, there’s a damp patch on the mattress.
Newly clad in fresh pyjamas, she considers her options. If she puts clean sheets on a wet mattress, it will soak into them and she’ll have to change them again in the morning. If she turns the mattress over, will it dry in the dusty gloom beneath the bed? Or will it simply fester and degrade into ammonia, making her room and everything in it stink? She could sleep on the floor. Perhaps that’s what she deserves. But she knows she has another place to go.
She stands for a few moments at the threshold, her fingers tracing out the shape of the name on the door. Do you still want those names on your doors? their mother had asked a few months before Laurel’s death. She’d been on one of her periodic decluttering missions, when comforting piles of detritus were swept out from corners and banished, and no possession, no matter how sentimental, was safe from her assessing gaze. Yes, they’d answered simultaneously, and when their mother tried to persuade them – You’re going to be eighteen next birthday, do you really want your names on your doors still? Really? – their father had come to their rescue. Come on, let them keep their doorplates if they want to. What harm does it do? And now, perhaps, no one would ever dare to change them.
Knowing that she’s trespassing, she creeps inside. The bed is still made up, the litter of clothes on the floor mundane and comforting. When she presses her face into the pillow, she can smell the shampoo she and Laurel both used each morning, taking it in turns for the first use of the shower. This ought to be a terrible place, a place she can hardly bear to enter, but the bed welcomes her, the shapes in the darkness feel familiar, everything feels familiar, the duvet folds over her like an old friend. She closes her eyes, knowing she’s reached a safe haven.
On the edge of sleep, she realises something terrible. This room she’s in now feels familiar because it’s her room, which she stumbled out of not two hours ago, her body seeking out the comfort of her sister’s place, her mind wandering through the border country between waking and sleeping. It is Laurel’s bed she’s left wet and unmade. Laurel’s pyjamas, taken from Laurel’s drawers, that she’s fumbled her way into. And this is not the first time. When her mother and father wake in the morning, it will be to the discovery that their surviving daughter has once again left her own bed and crawled into the space that should be sacred, marking her territory like a badly behaved cat before slinking away. She’s losing the boundaries between herself and her dead twin. The shock sends her out of the bed and over to the mirror where she can gaze at the face looking back at her.
My bed, she thinks. My room. I’m in my room. This is my room. This is my mirror. This is my face in the mirror. I’m Willow. 
She tries to say the words out loud. If she can say her own name, here in the dark where no one will hear her, she’ll know she’s all right. It’s very hard to get the words out, but after a short fierce effort, she succeeds.
“I’m Willow,” she says to her reflection, and is startled by how hoarse she sounds. It sounds as if she’s been screaming into her pillow for hours and hours, the way she sounded the first week after Laurel died. As if she hasn’t been able to speak at all now for several days, not at school, not on the bus, not to her parents, not even when her mother begged her to say something, to just try, please, sweetie, just try, you’re safe, nothing bad will happen, you can talk to us, and she tried and tried to force the words out, but they wouldn’t come. Then her mother had wept, loudly and helplessly, all the while repeating I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m being so stupid, I’m sorry, and Willow had wondered if things might be better if she was dead too. 
“I’m Willow,” she repeats, trying to make her voice softer and more human. “I’m Willow. I’m Willow. My name is Willow. And I’m still alive.”
She sounds as if her head has been replaced by a bird-head, ready for her to take her place in the church and join the congregation.
When I wake up I’ll be able to speak again, she thinks. Things will be better in the morning. I’m not Laurel. I’m Willow. I’m not dead. I’m alive. I’m taking my A-levels next summer. College starts tomorrow, and I’m going. Tomorrow, I’ll do better.
The face that stares back at her looks as if it doesn’t believe her.

About the Author
Cassandra Parkin grew up in Hull, and now lives in East Yorkshire. Her short story collection, New World Fairy Tales (Salt Publishing, 2011), won the 2011 Scott Prize for Short Stories. Her work has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies.
The Summer We All Ran Away (Legend Press, 2013) was Cassandra's debut novel and nominated for the Amazon Rising Stars 2014.

Legend Press have also published The Beach Hut (2015), Lily's House (2016) and The Winter's Child (2017. Cassandra's fifth novel is due to be published in 2018.

Visit Cassandra at or on Twitter @cassandrajaneuk

No comments:

Post a Comment