No Other Hope but You (a Prose Sestina)

She stands looking at the crossroads of the paths of stepping-stones that almost meet but then collide away at perfect right angles, leaving a full-stride gap between them in the middle of the pool in the single clearing in the centre of the overgrown forest. Everybody has been told about this, so she knows that this is the place where the perpetrator spirits of suicides-by-drowning have separated from the victim spirits of the same drowned suicides and where the perpetrator spirits are constantly circling in the direction of the clock, trying to choose the correct path home but unable to do so, and the victim spirits are always circling in the opposite direction, trying to flee back into time to escape the continued manipulation of their perpetrators. She knows that each suicide spirit was compressed at the point of creation to the size that would fit inside the bell of a foxglove and she also knows that none has ever escaped so that is why the evaporation from the silty water is saturated with a chorus of minuscule buzzings. She stands alone at the edge of the water in the moonlight. The knife between her teeth gleams sallow.

Moonlight spills down, shears across the surface of the water, and bounces up crookedly from its reflection, forming a crossroads with itself above the tops of the trees, and only at that intersection does she see the spirits - winged, snub-nosed, each encased in a private atmosphere of ghosted sweat - moving against each other with a sort of passionate indifference through the shrunken patch of illuminated air. She reaches down to a foxglove, and puts the little finger of her right hand into its bell. An acidic tingling seems to shear her skin away in little petals of fleshed-away finger-meat. A collective malicious giggling rips in to her then ripples away in a pure-tone diminuendo, like stepping-stones of sound receding into a mist-strangled perspective. She takes the knife from her mouth, rips off the bell from the flower, bites into it and then swallows it, and her ears begin to hiss and her head begins to flounder. Her brain feels as if it is flaking backwards into a drowned forest.

Something flits in and perches on the nape of her neck like an insect from the forbidden part of the forest. It titters as it bites, then flies away into the moonlight. She ignores the bite, and drags her hands over the enlargement of her stomach. It feels as if something has drowned in there and refused to go, as if it is stuck in the same mud that keeps the crossroads of stepping-stones in its implacable position. She holds her breath and listens. The air never goes quiet.

But now, all she can hear is a ringing too low in pitch to allow her to trace its direction, like a bell ringing in submerged church tower. She eats another bell from another foxglove. Something jumps up from the forest floor and nibbles her toes. Something else sniggers and sucks the blood away from the wounds created. Her feet blister up straightaway. With each truncated stride she makes, the pain makes her feel like she is walking over stepping-stones made of the memories of the knives of the soldiers who came that time. She looks towards the moonlight crossroads and sees the spirits hover briefly, turn towards her, bare their tiny teeth like pine-needles, then return to the choreography of their criss-crossed paths. She looks down. Her toes have turned black, like they are drowned in their own discarded blood.

And she too feels drowned, as if she is floating in a soup of forest murmurs, slowly being chomped smaller by the abrasion of all the other victim ingredients. Something stirs within her, like a bee kicking inside the bell of a foxglove. She tries to edge further around the edge of the pond, but her stomach is too big now to allow her to squeeze through the gap in the vegetation, so she cannot escape her proximity to the start of the path to the crossroads and she returns to the water's edge. The forest seems to twist in the moonlight. She feels a stab of pain around her heart, and squats next to the silted inflow to recover. She gazes at the stepping-stones. She calculates how tall they must be to reach the bottom of the pool. Something behind her seems to chuckle.

As she stares, the stepping-stones seem to undulate, as if they were in danger of being drowned in the acrid sediment and are crying for help. She continues to squat. She feels tiny tooth-marks on her ear. She brushes them aside. A sound like rain made of melting metal cackles around her and half of it becomes a visible mist of minute bodies and disappears into a halo around the moonlight and half of it drags itself deep down inside her, dripping through the chambers of her hearing that have been impregnated by the spite from the foxglove and hence infected by a twittering morass of whispered screams that seem to carry the malign essence of the forest. And now is the time. Now her life has reached a crossroads. Now she has to decide.

She stands there drowned in moonlight. She eats a final foxglove bell. Her head feels as heavy with confused patterns as the overgrown forest itself. She steps away from the bank of the pool onto solid rock. She walks along the stepping-stones as far as she can go without turning. She holds her hand down, like a vanquished sword. She draws a deep line across her wrist, at a perfect right angle, then throws the knife into the water. She throws herself after it, down into the hole at the centre of the crossroads. She is not aware of a splash. She begins to feel her spirits separate. Into two, not four.

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