So here’s the thing.
I sat down yesterday to write my essay for this site. I had a topic. I had a sense of where the piece would start, where it would end up, and how it might go in-between. But when it came game-time, I realized:
I got nuthin’.
Could be I’m a bit burned-out – and maybe I could have essayed about that, except Elizabeth Bear already said everything I would want to say about that point in your writing when the writing becomes about not writing. It is time to refuel, wander the poppy fields and watch the comets in the sky. Time to let my mind turn over a few times, shake itself out, do a little yoga. I wouldn’t say I’m blocked, exactly. I’ve got stuff to work on, and I’m excited about all of it. But I also just finished a four hundred pound novel that I’ve been carrying around for a while. My muscles are sore. It’s a good kind of sore. But like I said:
I got nuthin’.
So I give you instead a novel excerpt. This is what happens around page 60 of LORD OF BONES, sequel to my first novel BLOODANGEL. The books are contemporary, urban fantasy shot through with currents of horror. I like to think this chapter is one of them.
Thank you for your time and understanding.
Next month we shall return to our regular programming.
A STRANGER COMES TO TOWN
(excerpt from LORD OF BONES, Roc/Penguin, July ’08)
In truth, the surfer had noticed something earlier that morning, although he put it out of his mind right after.
There had been one wave. One perfect wave. He saw it on the horizon and thought it must be some kind of heavenly gift, because this was one of those times when the sea wasn’t up to anything much; surfers saw you getting out of your truck with your board over your shoulder and greeted you with the dreaded, Hey, mate, should have been here yesterday. He agreed with them – he should have been here yesterday, meant to be here yesterday, except his girlfriend’s mother arrived early and threw his plans to hell.
But then this wave came out of nowhere, and he eyed and measured the moments and paddled out for it and man met wave in perfect salt-spray communion. He became more and less than a man, flowing out of the water and the board beneath his feet. The sea swept him high. He crouched and carved through this world of blue-green streaming wonder, salt on his lips and in his eyes, and he felt his heart roar along with the ocean.
Someone else was in the wave with him.
He registered it in pieces. The shadow rising inside the wall of water. The slithering touch across his shoulders, thick wet whisper in his ear. The sense of presence which had nothing to do with the sea, slipping through the spray and light. Riding the sea. Riding him.
Then it was gone.
So that was the first thing. Perhaps it was a warning. It might have helped him, saved him, if he had heeded it as such: a sign that the world was not quite right today. Better to get off the water, detach himself from his board, spend the day on the sand with his girlfriend in her fetching white bikini, her skin smelling of coconut oil, the icebox packed with beer and roast beef sandwiches and ice cream, part of her strategy to lure him away from the waves for at least a little bit, so she could spend quality time with him instead of her Peter Carey novel.
But he was a water baby grown into an ocean prince. The sea was his home. This presence he had sensed had nothing to do with the ocean. It came from somewhere else entirely. So he dismissed it as some odd, fleeting phenomenon, a trick of the light and the mind. Believing in it would be like believing in a ghost, and, despite what many in his family considered to be his highly flaky, New Age kind of nature, he was much too practical for that.
So he straddled his board, and floated, and meditated on the beauty of the day.
He was thirty-seven, lean and leathered from a lifetime spent outdoors. His long, straight hair had turned grey by the time he was twenty-five, silver ten years later. Around his neck he wore a tiger’s eye for luck and guidance, a shark’s tooth for power and virility.
Sunlight on his shoulders, sunwarmed water sweeping round his dangling legs. In the near-distance, Bondi Beach curved like a thick golden smile into the sea. Music and voices floated over to him – British and German tourists – but it was quieter here, on the south side, where rip currents made life more hazardous. He was a strong swimmer, always had been. He and the sea understood one another. He had survived a near-drowning experience as a child, an encounter with a tiger shark as a teen. The sea demanded his awe. Twice it could have killed him, but it chose to let him go. He loved it for that.
So when the shadow came up beneath him, he noticed it first with a sense of detachment. He thought, Shark?, and drew his legs onto the board, but it didn’t really move like a shark – rising and expanding, a blooming darkness in the water– and that was when he felt coldness along his spine and in his belly, because of the wrongness, because there was nothing in the ocean that should look or move like that.
And then the thing turned over.
Turned over slowly, slowly enough for him to realize there was a shape, a body to it, and he realized he was going to see its face as the water swelled and streamed beneath him and the board rose up, and a whimper escaped him and too late he thought to close his eyes because the face, the deep lipless pit of the mouth and rows on rows of teeth, the small ashy glints of countless eyes and they were all gazing straight at him, and he saw the intelligence in them, and he saw the black streaming limbs floating up towards him, leisurely, as if this thing had all the time in the world, and the surfboard flipped over with that same insolent laziness and he was in the water, thrashing, cold smooth blackness folding over him, hands skating across his body and latching on his calves, and he thrashed at the surface of the water and spat out salty water and screamed, not even screaming words, his mind had gone beyond words, and then he was screaming down through the water, watching the river of bubbles of his life force escaping from his wide frozen mouth as he felt himself pulled down, down, to where the sunlight filtered out completely and all warmth vanished and there was nothing but the cold and the dark.
Absorbed in her novel, Hilary looked up because she thought she heard something: a cry familiar yet odd, which had nothing to do with a sunny Sydney day at the beach.
Johnny? she thought. Except that couldn’t have been him.
And her mind circled back to a recurring nightmare: a great white somehow getting past the shark net and honing straight on Johnny. It was a fear which Johnny himself liked to laugh at. “That’s ‘cause you’re from Canada,” he would tell her. “You know how people here will assume Canadians get attacked by, like, bears and shit? It’s the same thing.”
“Canadians do get attacked by bears,” she said defensively. “I mean, every once in a while.”
“Every once in a while.”
“It does happen.”
“You know someone personally who’s been attacked by a bear? You know even a friend of a friend who got eaten by a bear?”
“There are shark attacks in the news. I read about them.”
“They’re in the news,” he said reasonably, “because they are news. If there was anything ordinary about them, they wouldn’t exactly be news, now would they?”
And he gave her that grin, that broad white grin flashing against his tanned face, deep lines radiating out from his eyes. All that man is, is a child grown older, Hilary’s mother had sniffed, but then Johnny had turned that same smile on her, called her ma’am and held open doors and asked what kind of wine she liked so he could go buy a bottle before putting the chicken and corn on the grill. A child grown older, Hilary’s mother had repeated, before relenting a little. But he’s got nice manners, that one. And he seems to treat you well. You seem happy.
Hilary stood up in the sand, scanning the water, twisting the small diamond ring along her finger.
She saw surfers in the distance, bobbing in the bright blue as they waited for waves that didn’t seem to be coming. They were too far away to see if one might be Johnny. The cry lingered in her mind, uneasily, like a dream you couldn’t remember enough to figure out why it disturbed you.
And then, along the stretch of water directly in front of her, she saw his silver head break the surface.
See, she thought, you were just being silly…but no denying the weakness in her knees, the long sigh escaping her.
Something odd about the way his face and torso were just…rising from the surface like that. Something odd, too, about the way the little kids acted. Busy with their pails and shovels and castle-building, they saw him coming and broke, scattering up the sand, one of them yelling “Mama! Mama!”
Water streaming off his body, that silver hair he was so proud of slicked along his head and shoulders. She saw he was naked. He had gone into the water in blue-and-white boardshorts and was coming out nude, just the tiger’s-eye necklace circling his throat, and the black leather cord with the shark’s tooth falling between his nipples, as unconcerned about his genitals swinging freely between his carved-out thighs as if emerging from the shower with only herself to witness.
Then his eyes locked on hers, and he came towards her in a way that seemed much too fluid, and he gave her a grin, white jagged teeth inside that tanned skin, and it was not the grin, the teeth, she remembered.
And Hilary felt, in that moment, the first unhinging of her sanity.
He was right in front of her and he smelled of seaweed and something else, something that made her remember her father’s coffin beneath a weight of roses, and he took her wrist in her hand. His grip was too tight and too hot. He brought her gently to the ground and knelt in front of her, the both of them on her oversized red towel, and he said, “What’s my name?”
“What’s my name?”
He cocked his head. “Maybe we can think of something else. Where do I go?”
She stared at him.
His eyes were like sun-scorched discs of violet. No man had eyes like that. Those were not Johnny’s eyes. Johnny’s eyes were blue, like faded denim. This man’s pupils were like small black pits she could see all the way down into, to where things slithered at the bottom. The hot grip on her wrist, the dripping nakedness, were repulsive to her, and she tried to squirm away but he pulled her closer.
“Where do I go?” he said. “Where is the heart?”
“The heart of things. The center. I have people waiting and I mustn’t be late.” Again, the grin. “It’s rude.”
“I don’t know,” she whispered.
It was very hard to get the words out.
She said, “What happened to Johnny? My Johnny?”
“Oh.” Casual flick of his head. “That one’s gone.” He lowered his face to hers, breathed in deep, his nostrils quivering. She was aware of her own long body, exposed in the white bikini. She felt very cold. The sun seemed to have gone away. Maybe that’s why she was trembling?
“Ahhhh,” he said, and smacked his lips. She caught again the sharp white teeth. Cannibal teeth, she thought. Didn’t cannibals file their teeth like that? And this person, this thing, who was not Johnny even though he was in Johnny’s body, rocked back his head and rolled it along his shoulders and said, “It’s good to be back. It is.” Then the scorched-out eyes leveled with hers and she tried to look away but he touched her jaw with his other hand and guided her face back to his. Once again she was spiraling into the black void of those pinprick pupils, pinpricks that widened and deepened as if to take her in and swallow her down. For a moment she thought he would kiss her and she felt, again, that odd freewheeling feeling of a mind coming loose, the first bricks tumbling out of a wall. “Look at you, little thing,” said the Johnny-thing, “I guess we could have some fun,” and he was tugging her to her feet, and she wanted to scream but her voice was snuffed out and she wanted to run yet felt herself padding after him, as he hummed and sang, as the beach stretched away on either side and surfers waited for waves and sunbathing tourists went about their day. As if it was any other.