The Swayer of Sankara - Preview

 

 

Why I went into the wood, I don’t quite know; I’d heard something, as if there was an animal in pain, but it was already getting darkish and my brother Evan suggested I was a bloody idiot to even bother looking. I suppose it might have had something to do with the fact that I’d just had my seventeenth birthday, whereas he was only fourteen, so naturally, I couldn’t possibly be the one who suggested we run away.

The wood I mentioned isn’t a public one; in fact, the general populace would have quite a problem getting to it, as it’s on an island in the middle of a lake on my auntie’s estate. Actually, I suppose it’s Dad’s estate now, as aunt Esther is no longer with us, having died six months ago at the ripe old age of a hundred and three. She was quite a gal, as they say and even in her nineties, always swanned about in a black-beaded flapper dress, festooned with pearls and usually sported a highly politically-incorrect hat covered in bird-of-paradise feathers. I mostly remember her from our infrequent visits, when we’d ‘take tea’ in the stuffy Victorian front parlour while she reminisced about the world war – and I mean number one, not number two – and her adventures on the estate as a young girl, after she’d been rusticated to save her from the bombs ‘raining down from the Zeppelins’. Apparently, the last straw had been the Sopwith Pup that crashed in the back garden of their London house, after the pilot had been shot dead in mid-air. It sounds boring, I know, but she had a certain way about her, making her stories vivid and sometimes quite frightening for us youngsters and our semi-annual trips to see her were eagerly anticipated rather than dreaded, as might be supposed.

Apart from auntie, another reason for the glee was the house itself; a huge, rambling place with four floors, not including the kitchens and servants quarters in the basement, plus a dusty, bric-a-brac-crammed attic. I don’t think Evan and I ever got to explore all of it – how my aunt had managed to amass so much ‘stuff’ always amazed me. Like once, we were looking through this fairly ordinary drawing-room on the third floor and found an Egyptian sarcophagus hidden behind an old sofa. There wasn’t anyone in it unfortunately, but it didn’t stop us playing ‘The Mummy of Doom’ for a good hour, Evan shrieking his way down the corridors while I clumped after him with a sheet over my head.

Then there was the Chinese room, which we found out later was in fact devoted to all things Japanese, where we gasped at the sight of a huge glass cabinet set smack in the centre of the floor, home to an enormous red dress covered in gold thread and sparkling, multi-hued embroidery. Over a glass of dilute elderberry wine, auntie held us enthralled with hair-raising tales of her sea-voyage to Japan, where she’d been courted by an elderly, aristocratic gentleman, the magnificent kimono only one of her presents from him. It was very precious apparently, having been made for no less a personage than the emperor himself – well – somebody royal, anyway. You could tell, she said, because of the seven dragons and the golden chrysanthemums all over it.

However, there was one thing that auntie wouldn’t talk about and that was the wood, or even the lake surrounding it. If we tried to turn the conversation onto that particular subject, she’d skilfully turn it away again and eventually it became obvious that she was never, ever going to discuss it. We were prevented from exploring it for ourselves because although there was a dilapidated boathouse, there was no boat.

It was one of the first things we wanted remedied, Evan and I, after Esther passed away last year leaving everything to Dad, who was her only remaining relative. His first instinct was to sell the place, deeming it much too large for a four-member family, but with the surprisingly vehement support of Mum, my brother and I managed to talk him out of it. Frankly, I think the one thing that finally persuaded him in its favour was its proximity not so much to the city, but to his favourite golf-course. Anyway, after four months we were firmly established in our new home, with Nellie, the cook and Old Roger, who although rather bent over with arthritis, still managed to get through a staggering amount of gardening and odd-jobs. With Mum often away on promotions or book-signings, we also had an army of cleaners come in once a week, though as Evan and I were still at boarding school in Esher, they usually had the place almost entirely to themselves.

 

‘David …’ His voice had an, urgent, worried edge to it. ‘Come on … leave it, please?’

‘There’s something in there … something hurt, I think.’  I was still heading stealthily into the bushes, pushing them aside as I tried to peer through them into the gloom.

‘It’s getting dark, David. Dad’ll be livid if we’re late for dinner. You know he’s got all those people coming!’

Reluctantly, I had to admit he was right and turned back to head for the boat. We’d only got it yesterday and today’s first chance to explore had been all too short. Still; there’d be other days and the noise I’d thought I’d heard hadn’t repeated, so another of Dad’s tedious gatherings of academics had perforce to take precedence over adventure.

‘Can I row? Please?’

In fact, he was better at it than I was – though naturally, I’d never admit it to his face – so I freely consented, lying back on the rug to watch the shadows play across the ripples as they trickled into the reeds. It was only a five minute haul, but by the time we’d got the boat up onto the ramp, it’d already started to rain quite heavily, so all things considered, Evan’s insistence that we return had been well timed.

Saturday mostly down and only two days to go before we went back to school on Tuesday … but there was still Dad’s dinner to get through. Don’t get me wrong – he’s a good old stick, but he does rather tend to pontificate at times. To give him his due, he treats us more like young adults than children, so we’re expected and encouraged to contribute to the various discussions rather than being given the seen-but-not-heard treatment. Now that Evan’s fourteen, he’s also looking forward to the fact that this time, the port decanter won’t pointedly miss him each time it makes its way round the table.

 

It’d gone quite well I thought, snuggled up in bed on a cold, winter’s night. At one point, a severe-looking woman in tweeds had asked my opinion of Nietzsche’s assertion that the envious could never really be happy. As she’d had a rather penetrating voice, the question had sort of hung in the air while I had to admit that I’d never read that particular treatise into an uncomfortable silence. Luckily for me, we’d done Engels only the year before, so I quoted a bit from ‘The Law of Value’, on the subject of trade being driven by people who were unhappy with what they hadn’t got, which sort of touched on the envy thing. I got an approving look, some muttered nods and a pleased beam from Dad. Fortunately, I wasn’t asked any more awkward questions, Evan and I eventually being released before the cigars came out. He’d gone off to do some procrastinated homework, while I’d played one of the three computer games I was currently struggling with and got lost in the middle of a gigantic maze. After I’d found myself back where I started for the third time, despite the aid of an A4 sheet covered with what looked like the web of a demented spider, I gave up and went to bed.

 

Sunday and pouring. Evan said I was mad, but I wasn’t going to let it deter me from exploring the island, raining or not. I pointedly didn’t ask the parents’ permission, because I knew they’d say no, but I did at least tell Old Roger and made sure I wore a life-jacket. I had my mobile with me as well and checked that it was charged and everything.

Getting the boat into the water wasn’t as hard as I’d thought it’d be, mostly because the rain had turned the old boards slippery and I ended up on my backside twice, fervently wishing that Wellingtons had better grip. The short row to the island was no problem either, though I had to drag the darn boat up a muddy sort of beach in order to find a tree sturdy enough to tie it up to. I made sure it was secure, too, already picturing my family standing on the other side, with Dad blasting away at me on the phone while the boat floated calmly, just out of reach, in the middle of the lake. Definitely not to be contemplated I thought, tying an extra knot for good measure.

The island wasn’t very large; perhaps half an acre in all, but the wood covered most of it, some of the trees in the deeper parts obviously very old. With the rain still pouring down, my lurid yellow sou’wester and plastic mac proved indispensable, keeping me nice and dry as I clambered over moss-covered tangles and through the odd briar or nettle-patch. I wasn’t too worried about getting lost, because all I had to do was walk in a straight line and sooner rather than later, I’d hit the water, but nevertheless, I couldn’t help shivering now and then. ‘Cold,’ I told myself, ‘that’s all; just the weather,’ but despite my self-reassurances, a feeling of unease wouldn’t go away. When I stopped for a bit after negotiating my way around a particularly large blackberry bush, I realized what it was that was unnerving me – the stillness. Apart from the rain and the noises I made myself, there wasn’t a sound; as if somebody’d thrown a blanket of silence over the entire wood.

Then I heard it again, the same noise as yesterday; like a moan, but not the sort a man would make; more like a big animal, deep and throaty. It rolled over me like a wave, making the hair on my skin stand on end as Doppler echoes shuddered into the trees behind me. There was something there; something I probably should run away from if I had any sense. A sudden flash of lightning lit up the trees in front of me, the almost immediate boom of thunder giving me a double shock as I stared at the strange building not ten yards ahead. It was so covered and shrouded by lichens, ferns and algae that I hadn’t been able to make out the shape before; like a little temple, or a vault of some sort. It was circular, perhaps twenty feet across and twelve high, with a shallow, domed roof, supported by what looked like six marble pillars. I couldn’t see an opening from this side, but the walls appeared to be made of marble blocks as well, the whole thing so encrusted with various growths that I might have missed it if I hadn’t almost bumped into it. I circled cautiously around what now looked like a tomb, the rear of the building almost blocked off by overgrown briars and dodder-vine. Thorns snagged on my mac and the dodder’s seed-heads covered me in sodden fluff as I fought my way through to what actually had to be the front, because there was a doorway. A rusted iron gate formed from tightly interlaced scrolls and curlicues blocked the darkened entrance and though the hinges still seemed sound enough, the latch had been all but eaten away.

There was something engraved into the marble of the lintel above the gate; it looked Gothic, possibly Germanic. I wiped the worst of the grime off with my hand to reveal four words. I was taking French, not German, but I knew enough to recognize it as such, in some form of ancient script:

 

              hier LIEGT der Teufel

 

At the time, I hadn’t the faintest idea what it meant or I’d probably have left well enough alone and very quietly gone back to the boat. I didn’t though and gave the gate a bit of a push to see if it would open. It scared me half to death when it did more than just open, the old hinges proving to be as brittle as dried leaves, crumbling to dust as the gate clanged to the ground with frightful clatter. Slowly it tipped backwards, then fell from view into the dark interior of the building. I could hear it banging and crashing as it tumbled a short distance, finally coming to rest with a muffled thump.

There was another sound as well; the same moan I’d heard before, only now it was a more of a shriek, long and drawn-out, as if of timeless agony. It was accompanied by a clanking noise, like chain-links rubbing together … and this time, I did run, heedless of the branches and brambles which tore at my clothing.

How I made it back to the boat as fast as I did, I don’t know, but I do know I’d wet myself long before I got there. I heard someone whimpering as I frantically untied the boat and practically flung it into the water, grabbing for the oars and thrashing away like a novice. I had to force myself to calm down or I wasn’t going to get anywhere, only then realizing that it was me doing the whimpering.

I’d never been so terrified in my life; in fact, I’d never realized I could be that terrified. I had to change my underpants and trousers, though I think Mum was rather mystified to find me doing a load of washing without having to be prompted to the point of threat.

‘Are you alright, dear?’ she said, a bemused frown on her face, ‘you look a little pale.’

‘I’m fine, Mum,’ and by then I suppose I was, more or less. Nobody’d noticed my absence it seemed, or if they had, no-one said anything. I left the washing machine to do its thing and went back up to my room to see if I could coerce my computer into translating the inscription on the tomb … though from the sounds I’d heard, whatever lay inside it was a long way from being dead.

‘Original text:’ so I typed ‘HIER LIEGT DER TEUSEL’, and hit the ‘Translate …’ button.

‘Here lies the Teusel,’ it said, which got me no further than I already was – until I looked up gothic scripts and realized that the ‘s’ was actually an ‘f’.

‘Original text:’ : ‘HIER LIEGT DER TEUFEL’

‘Translate …’

‘Here lies The Devil.’

I’m glad Mum wasn’t there or she’d have thought I’d died for sure; I could feel the blood draining away from my face. Here lies the what?

Neither of our parents was particularly religious, so the idea of Satan as a tangible, physical entity hadn’t been exactly drummed into us. I’d thought about it of course and came to the conclusion that he was probably a bug-a-boo, like the Bogeyman – so if that was right, what was in the tomb? It had to be something incredibly long-lived and even more unbelievable, something that didn’t need food, because quite clearly, that gate hadn’t been touched for decades.

‘David?’ Mum, yelling up the stairs.

‘What?’

‘The washing machine’s been beeping for five minutes, dear.’

‘Oh … okay!’

I hurried downstairs to deal with the thing, remembering to clean out the lint-filter like a good boy before I chucked the clothes in the dryer and was collared by Evan on the way back to my room.

‘So did you go then … over to the island?’

‘Um … yes … it was boring.’

‘Did you find out what made that noise?’

‘What noise? I thought you hadn’t heard it?’

‘Well I did … so what was it?’

‘No idea … the wind, maybe; I don’t know …’ It didn’t feel right, lying to him about it, but whatever that thing was, I didn’t want Evan anywhere near it.

‘Can we go over there tomorrow and have another look?’

‘No point … there’s nothing there, trust me.’

He must have caught the tension in my voice, because a grin suddenly spread across his face and he punched me lightly in the arm. ‘There is something, isn’t there … I can always tell when you’re lying!’

I had about two seconds to decide what to do before he dashed off like a rabbit to tell Mum and Dad about it, though I think the force with which I grabbed his arm might’ve been a bit heavy-handed.

‘Ow! Let go!’

‘I want to show you something.’ I was already frog-marching him towards my room, but maybe it was my tone which wiped the smile off his face. ‘Sit …’ I said, pointing him at the computer and waiting until he complied before I shut the door and went over to sit on my bed. He swivelled around to face me.

‘That hurt! What’s the big idea?’

‘I did find something; a little marble building, like a tomb or something.’

He whistled. ‘You’re kidding me!’

‘Look at my face. Do I look like I’m kidding?’

‘No … now you mention it. Did you go inside?’

‘Not on your life! There’s something in there!’

‘What? Something alive, you mean?’

‘It moaned again, two or three times … and I heard something else too, like chains, clanking.’

He whistled again, softly. ‘D’you think there’s something tied up then, or what?’

‘Whatever it is, it’s been in there for years. There was this rusty old gate, still in place, but it literally fell apart when I just touched it.’

‘But … that’s not possible. How can anything be locked up for years and still be alive?’

‘That’s not all … there’s something chiselled into the marble over the door … like a warning. Oh, for God’s sake, stop whistling!’

‘Sorry … what was it?’

‘It was in German – I got the computer to translate it.’

‘So? Go on!’

‘It says … “Here lies the Devil”.’ I swallowed nervously as his mouth puckered up for another whistle, but this time, nothing came out. He just sat there, goggling at me for a second or two … and then he exploded.

‘You bastard! Fuck you and your stupid stories! You almost had me believing you!’

‘Evan!’ but he’d got up and rushed out before I could stop him and by the time I’d got to my own door, I’d heard his slam shut with a force that shook the whole floor.

 

~

The Swayer of Sankara - available in book or download format – What had David found? And what was his future now? Back to school, perhaps? Buy The Swayer of Sankara, and find out why David has to go to hell, with, as his mother puts it, ‘a professional sodomist.’

 

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