He was standing above, or maybe flying over, a steep river valley thick with dark fir trees. He must have been high up; he could see the forest going on and on relentlessly right up to the horizon. It was raining. The air was so heavy with precipitation it hung like a thin veil over the pines, making the bitter green branches look iron grey. Beyond the iron curtain, thought Daniel.
“No Daniel, not a real curtain,” said Miriam.
But he’d been a very literal child. He’d always seen it, the wall of dull metal sheets swinging and clanging across the maps of Europe in his schoolbooks. He’d been an American child too, for all Miriam had tried to seal him in her hermeneutic world of God and music. He couldn’t help but feel sorry for the children behind the curtain who he was told were not free. Even in his sheltered world, the images filtered through. The toxic candy stripe of Chernobyl’s chimney, the tired looking tramcars and rusted automobiles of Moscow, the soldiers parading in Red Square before old men in Uniform, that was Daniel’s Russia. Everything was clumsy and unfinished; the television footage always had a yellowish sheen that looked to the fastidious young Daniel worryingly like it had been dipped in urine. It was a place of poison and corruption, where the truth was never told and young girls were drugged to perform perfect cartwheels.
He never realised how big it was. That it was full of wide empty spaces where one could be so free one could die from it. Danny was from an island twelve miles by two. The exposure caught him in the chest and locked around his throat. If you scream in the forest and no one hears it, have you really made a sound at all?
He was sweating. And then, suddenly, he wasn’t alone. Something was moving through the gauzy grey forest. The dream was badly edited; the scene lurched abruptly into close up. Something velvety and carnivorous was slinking between the huge trees. It moved fast, threading silently through the forest with the unconscious grace of an animal. A thin wisp of trapped cloud screened Daniel from its gaze for a moment before tumbling on in the clammy air.
The beast looked back at Daniel. He was in uniform. He was dressed in a grey army greatcoat with stars on the collar.
It’s odd how dreams distort faces, thought Daniel.
Michael smiled at him through the trees. Only, not quite Michael. His face had the pinched high cheek boned look of one always close to starving. Streamlined, Daniel thought. It’s the look of one who hunts to survive. We’d call it madness here, this intense alertness.
In his gloved left hand he was holding a revolver. So we’re not alone in the forest, Danny thinks. We’re not free even here.
Michael smiles as if he is used to apparitions from another time manifesting before him. His eyes are the same colour as his uniform. They burn; they’ve been painted in over the celluloid. They’re the only things here that feel fully solid. Then he turns away and continues his journey through the forest.
Daniel is left alone again with the overpowering sense of space. He can hear gunshots in the distance now, but he’s not afraid, he knows Michael survives. The light is fading from the day, or perhaps the mist has rolled down from the knife-edged precipices above them. The needles on the floor are damp but look comfortable. There’s nothing else to do. Danny curls into the clammy, woody smelling needles and let the night of the Northern Tiger wrap itself around him. He feels the explosion of warmth that signals the onset of the delusions of hypothermia. The ground is hard against his flesh and he sinks gratefully into it.
When he wakes Michael is holding him from behind, resting his forehead against the back of Daniel’s skull, breathing warmly over his neck. Daniel presses back against it comfortably. Michael makes some indistinct noise of pleasure.
“I dreamt about you.”
A hand snakes over his hip. As his awareness of his body returns, Daniel becomes faintly aware he’s woken up hard. The hand wraps itself round the tip, tugging a little. This feels more comforting than arousing to Daniel, who is still a little numb from slumber. Daniel always likes it when Michael takes the initiative in sex. It’s good to have something to give. It makes him feel secure.
“Good was I?”
“You were in uniform,” Daniel says. “You were in this misty pine forest high up in the mountains. And you were holding a gun.”
Michael laughs in Daniel’s ear and increases the pressure on his member.
“No, a real gun. I saw you dressed as a soldier and you were hunting, or being hunted through these trees. There were gunshots.”
“I’d rather like to see this gun shoot its load.”
“You were a soldier, weren’t you? In a forest.”
“Mmm.” Daniel wasn’t sure if this was an affirmative or just a general noise of appreciation.
“I’ve been waiting hours for you to wake up.”
Danny swallows. Expressions of unabashed desire were rare from Michael. He seemed pleased enough to be making love with Danny when it happened, but almost never stooped to admitting to needing the act. He knows it’s clingy to need this re-assurance, and that that in the scheme of interpersonal things is a bad thing, but he wishes Michael would tell him he needed him more often.
“Why?” Asks Danny, all coy.
Michael grinds his erection against Daniel’s arse in reply.
Michael rolls away for a moment to get the lubricant. Daniel is determined to get an admission of lust. He sighs as the cold fluid is smeared down his arse crack. It wakes him up a little, makes him more alert. He moves over Michael’s exploring fingers, feeling the fog of sleepiness lift from his nethers.
“Horny as hell, hard and aching for three hours wanting to fuck you.”
Daniel gasps a little at this and realises that Michael has used this shiver of desire to slide gently into his body.
The sex is leisured and sleepy. Michael nibbles happily on Daniel’s shoulder, lazily stroking his cock, without any desperate frenzy to take things further. Daniel feels full and stretched and happy, not so very far from the contended snooziness that follows a large meal apart from the ticklish arousal in his erection. He can see soldier Michael on his eyelids every time his eyes flicker shut, although after a while he’s no longer in the forest, but in a rough shed, kneeling before an anonymous comrade sucking his cock. He hasn’t even taken his cap off.
Daniel’s hand moves over Michael’s increasing the pace. He shifts his hips as the arousal begins to spread throughout his groin.
“Did you go down on the other soldier boys?” Asks Daniel.
“On one, yes. On my best friend.”
Daniel lets out a little moan. Soldier Michael’s lips part happily around the thick member being thrust into his mouth. His hair falls down like a theatrical back screen, throwing into relief the whiteness of his neck and the purple of his slightly bruised lips.
As if he senses Daniel’s heightened arousal, Michael wraps himself closer around the boy, nuzzling the side of his face, making gentle noises of encouragement. Danny’s raised his hips a little to allow his lover in deeper, and Michael takes full advantage of this, going in so far Daniel can feel his balls against his arse cheeks. His blind right hand still holds Daniel around the waist, pushing him downwards onto the thrusts inside him.
They fuck contentedly as dawn crawls across the skyline. Daniel in particular, is struck by the beauty of the violet light, the purity of it in the final seconds before daylight. It seems to chime with the purity of the sensations coursing through his body. He’s aware of every cell in his body, they all send out a clear note of perfect desire. He hums. Michael whispers tender obscenities into his ear.
In full daylight, Michael turns Danny to face the pillows. It’s a better position to thrust fast and hard and the both want to come now. They’ve moaned it to each other over and over. Danny feels his whole arse being thrust up by the violence of Michael’s strokes. When he comes, Michael sits stock still, holding him, pressing his face into his shoulder, kissing the smoothness of his back. Daniel spills over his hand, gasping in relief; still not quite sure whether he is awake or asleep.
They roll back into each other’s arms, and then Daniel asks:
“Tell me about the war Michael.”
For a moment, Michael’s post lovemaking snuggling seemed to expand to become a presence all by itself. The desire for total comfort radiated from him. Daniel felt churlish for interrupting the subtle business of the redhead arranging himself amid pillows, blankets and body parts, rather as if he had stolen something small and precious.
He’d given up expecting a reply; in fact he was rather hoping the question would be forgotten, when Michael said:
“It was just the usual kind of war. Noisy, unpredictable, lots of people running about trying to kill other people.”
Danny was almost going to laugh, before another disturbing feeling took over. Michael had killed people. The man he shared a bed with had violently ended other people’s lives. He felt suddenly like such a child compared to Michael. After all, what experience can compare to that? It felt almost like some kind of super-virginity, those who still have it barely walk on the same earth as those who have lost it.
Daniel snuggled further into Michael’s shoulder to escape these uncomfortable thoughts. The shoulder was reassuring, something that could be shared by those on both sides of the divide. It was warm the way Michael was, although curiously - probably due to Michael’s excess of sleek, wiry muscle Danny told himself - it didn’t feel much like flesh. It was too smooth, a little like marble or plaster.
“Do you not want to talk about it?”
Michael laughed softly to himself. He could rub in this superiority of experience sometimes thought Daniel. He couldn’t look fully into his face from where he was lying, but he could be sure Michael’s eyes were staring off into the distance, slightly above an invisible horizon. It was as if he was looking to the sky for one who understood him. It was the look that made Daniel feel loneliest.
“What do you want me to say?”
Michael’s voice seems to mockingly echo his voice when he asked him how he wanted it in club Xyro when Daniel had been a trick and Michael a whore. It had a flicker of the passive aggression of the performer towards the audience. Daniel sensed the conversation becoming tense, and the fear of conflict rose in his chest like a flood of icy water. He stroked Michael’s chest tenderly,
“I love you,” he said.
Michael unwinds a deep brown curl between his fingers, then lets it snap back to shape like expensive gift ribbon.
It had become Michael’s standard reply, and it was always said with some tenderness. The phrase seemed to have become shorthand for a set of feelings altogether more complicated. I know and I care for you very deeply but please don’t ask for more than I can give, perhaps that could be it. Daniel seems satisfied anyway. He rolls a little further onto Michael and lets him unravel his curls.
They lie in safe silence for almost an hour, expressing the desire for warmth and comfort through touch alone. They can’t hide from the day though, and soon full sunlight is streaming in through the windows. Michael begins to get shifty; he knots a little under Daniel’s hands. He can’t lie in bed in daylight. He can’t lie still; he’s too fully awake when the sun calls to him.
He leaves stating his intention to buy Bagels. He ignores Daniel’s pleas that they can get them on room service, yes even the special ones from the little store on the corner of east 8th and 7th. Michael laughs, says where’s the fun in that and walked away from Daniel as soundlessly as in his dream.
We’ve got totally incompatible body clocks, thought Daniel, as he moved into the long strip of heat where Michael’s body had been. He pulled the blankets over his head against the light, and soon was dozing again.
He was soaring now, over the grey forests in a land where it was always twilight. Every so often a jeep’s headlights part the trees, sickly yellow in the mist, revealing dirt roads that vanish in the swampy half-light the minute they pass. They’re burning dirty diesel oil; the smoke hangs from their back bumpers, sticks in Danny’s noise. There’s mist in the air and some kind of fume too, more intense than just from he spluttering trucks. He senses he might be closer to the forest’s edge, near where the factories are, because the smell has a stifling chemical kick to it. It’s like hot rotten vinegar, he thinks, like the paint factory in Red Hook.
Why was he there? He forgets. Community musical festival, something Jan arranged when they were still playing covers. It was shabby and it stank and there were bullet holes in the hall they played. For all his leftfield egalitarianism, he was glad to get out of there.
He’s hovering downwards now, away from the knife-edge ridges and tree covered slopes, down towards a muddy river frothing red and purple with effluent from some unseen industry. He can see the blackened tree stumps beside the water where the forest has been poisoned; gnarled roots stick up through the dirty mud. Blue Danube no more, thinks Danny.
The mist is coming down thicker and thicker; visibility goes down to twenty metres, ten, five and now Daniel is walking on the stony ground, but he can barely see where he’s putting his feet. He goes on, the mist swirls, the smell hits him again, the same sharp ammonia that makes him want to retch. The fog swirls and suddenly the moon is visible, chewed at one edge - a few days past full. This strikes Daniel as odd because he remembered a crescent moon shining over cold clear New York City yesterday evening. But who knows what the moon does here?
The mist swirls and Daniel is sanding before an army camp. He sees ahead of him the metal mesh fences topped with coils and coils of razor wire, behind it the concrete turrets of the look out posts, squat with sawn short tops ending in little slots of windows. Floodlights stain the passing banks of fog turquoise. It’s not been here long thinks Danny. The buildings inside, they’re temporary, prefabs. It’s the enemy camp on stolen land, he thinks, then the filthy mist comes down again and it disappears from view.
Something grey crawling past his feet disturbs Daniel. It is another soldier boy, a very big one. He’s executing the finest belly crawl that ever left West Point, a fine quick slither while keeping the elbows and knees tucked into the body. Advancing across no man’s land, thinks Daniel. He’s sliding round the perimeter fence like a large grey tadpole, freezing to the ground when the fog lifts. He’s easily twice as wide as Daniel and slightly taller too, with a thick black braid running between his powerful shoulders.
It’s funny they don’t make them cut their hair, thinks Danny. Then he thinks stop being so Western- centric. Why shouldn’t it be the culture here that the soldier boys grow their hair long? It’s no less stupid than sending young men out to fight each other. He likes it; he thinks it makes them look like pirates.
Danny slowly follows the crawler. As for himself, he’s walking tall. He’s filled with a sense of calmness, as if the murk has invaded his senses. He feels invincible, walking beneath the machine guns feeling in no danger at all.
I am an international observer, he tells himself. I am neutral.
They’ve made their way back into the forest. One side of the base still borders on to the unconquered wilderness. Beneath the cover pine trees, the slitherer sits up and pulls a pair of wire cutters from inside his muddy fronted greatcoat. He’s going to break in, thinks Daniel. Sure enough, he sets about cutting a hole close to the ground. His hands seem numb; he seems to be making hard work of it. Danny wonders how far he’s crawled on his chest and how much energy it must take.
Danny stands there waiting for the bandit alarms and the floodlights but they never happen. Maybe some sensors have been disabled; maybe the base was still so new they weren’t put in yet. Maybe it relied on fear alone to keep people away. The soldier crawled through the fence and Daniel walked in after him, the mesh seeming not to affect him, until they were standing in the empty space of the parade ground.
The soldier waits behind one of the sheds while a searchlight scours the ground before him. The light catches on his cheekbone, and Danny sees again that look of hunted alertness. Despite his big frame the boy’s features have the same brittle tautness as Michael’s did. He’s beautiful, breathtakingly beautiful lit up in the brief flare of the sweeping lights, but he’s beautiful like a leopard or a fox. It’s the beauty of a wild thing, not a human.
Daniel worries guiltily about that being a terribly racist thought before the mist rolls over the camp again and they start silently creeping through its shadows.
They move on in the whiteness for quite some time. There’s nothing on either side and Danny wonders vaguely if they’ve gone somewhere else. He becomes aware of a low building rising out of the mist beside him. It looks like a hanger or a barn. He’s not sure if he should be able to but he can see inside. It’s black and white, but there is no fog. He looks in closer and sees the white is the exposed skin of hundreds of people, all naked, all without flesh.
The skeleton people, although cramped, move around quite unselfconsciously. They make ordinary human gestures, four even seem to be playing a game with some pebbles, and that is the worst thing about them. The skin is drawn over their jawbones so they have animal muzzles, Danny can see where the bones on their ribs fuse at the front like the hulls of ships. Yet they keep moving as if this state of affairs was nothing out of the ordinary to them.
Danny’s seen these people before, on a school trip to a museum, something to do with High school history and the Second World War. They’d shown a flickering black and white film of these creatures whose bodies were no longer human but whose gestures mirrored our own so closely it hurt.
His class were uncharacteristically silent. The some of the girlier girls uttered platitudes of shock and horror. The boys maintained a stony silence, wanting to move on to something they can laugh at again.
“What do you think Daniel?”
Suddenly the whole class was looking at Danny. What does it matter what the hell I think, he thought. Then he realised these people were Jewish and so was he, so he was expected to have some profound insight into it all. Him, Danny Newman who had grown up as sheltered and well fed as any of them.
“Yes Danny, what do you think?”
He sweated. The class wanted a definitive answer; they needed him to say something to make sense of what they’d just seen, to neutralise it. He fidgeted with his fingernails for a moment then looked up and said:
“It wasn’t just Jews.”
He keeps staring in through the barred window until the fog lifts again and the revolving light drowns the sight with brightness. When he can see again, he’s crawling along the side of the barracks again, still in the trail of the grey soldier. They’re singing in there now the skeletons, in raspy dry voices, some folk song from wherever the hell they are, sung in the lugubrious speech of the region.
From somewhere above and ahead of them someone else takes up the song. This voice too is painfully dry but the soldier seems to recognise it. For a moment he becomes careless darting ahead to where the sound is coming from leaving Danny alone on the wet earth. Then Danny realises he recognises the voice too.
Daniel runs around the corner and stops still in utter shock. There’s a body hanging from the back wall of the hanger. It’s another of the skeletons, differing only in that it still has some of its hair. He looks at first like he has been concreted into the wall with his right arm raised above his head. Then Danny realises he’s suspended by a chain embedded in the cement. He hardly thought it was alive except that he could see the heart bumping weakly against the skin of his chest. The legs were black and the whole body stunk of decaying flesh.
Danny recognised him by his scars. The cuts on his chest and side, the missing nipple, the white lines he had run his hands over were all here as they must once have been, fresh bloody and raw. He looked up and saw Michael’s face, and it was Michael even behind the mask of collapsed cheeks and protruding mouths that all the creatures here wore. He could feel another scream building up inside him.
The soldier seemed to have a stronger stomach. He reaches up and touches Michael’s free hand.
“Maitimo,” he says, his voice choked. Over and over again, stroking the fingers that are probably beyond feeling. They seem wrapped in their own bank of mist, a hundred miles from the prison camp. Daniel feels like he is intruding in a very private moment. He guesses this is the best friend who used to receive Michael’s oral favours. He’d thought it was a little slutty fooling around on Michael’s part when he had told him, now he knows this was not so.
Amazingly, Michael moves the heavy bone of his jaw and speaks. Danny’s fists clench feeling the effort it takes to force the words out.
“Kill me, Fin.”
The other is perfectly still for a moment. Then he pulls the hand to his lips, kisses it and nods his head. He takes a few steps back from Michael, pulls out his revolver and points it directly at the struggling lump in Michael’s chest.
“I love you.”
No thinks Danny, no. It’ll get us killed, it’s too loud. Then he realises the dark haired soldier has no intention of leaving his friend. He says one word which Daniel does not recognise but knows by his tone is a word for God. He pulls the trigger.
There is a click, nothing happens.
The soldier curses heavily under his breath and opens the barrel to clear the jam. He’s clumsy with cold or maybe emotion, the barrel swings wildly and the bullets scatter onto the dark earth. He bends over, searching foe them, running his hands across the floor. Then he sees something and his whole body changes. His shoulders stiffen, and even from behind him Danny knows he has rediscovered hope.
He moves sideways and returns wheeling in an oil drum. He climbs up onto it and scoops his ghoulish lover up into his arms. Danny hears the breath rattle into Michael’s lungs. There’s a dry scratching noise that may have been a sigh in relief.
“Fucking shit soldier.”
But the other one, Fin, is almost laughing now. After the despair of a few moments ago even this nightmare has hope. He tugs at the chain on Michael’s wrist, cuts at it with a knife that has appeared from somewhere, all to no effect.
“With the knife Fin, please. Let me die.”
“Fin love. Please, kill me and go.”
“Of course.” But Danny saw he was looking up at the shackle still as if he refused to be defeated.
“Promise you won’t scream.”
There was a flash of the knife and an arc of blood flew through the air and landed at Danny’s feet, although it looked for a moment that Fin had effected some magic trick, because Michael suddenly fell into his arms.
He was still alive too, or seemed to be from the gasping sounds coming from him. Fin held him close, wrapping his greatcoat around him, pulling him down onto the ground as the searchlight flashed past. It was only then that Danny realised what he had done. He saw the grey streaks of blood along the pale concrete and Michael’s hand still in its iron cuff.
The soldiers huddled in the shadows at the bottom of the hanger. Fin was tearing strips from the lining of his jacket to make a tourniquet. Michael had gone blue at the lips, he seemed to be using all the strength he had suppressing the little whimpers of pain that occasionally burst from him. Fin pulled out a flask from his inside pocket and pushed it into Michael’s bony muzzle. He retched but kept swallowing. Then Fin lifted him to his feet and they stagger together through the murk and the darkness towards the hole in the fence.
They’re staggering through the woods now. Danny feels his chest expand in relief to be outside the walls of the base. Michael was stumbling along under Fin’s greatcoat. He had his arms over Fin’s shoulders; Fin had his hands round his waist, more or less carrying him except for the bloated, purplish feet that still pawed the forest floor.
There’s a Jeep waiting for them in a clearing. Fin open’s the back doors and pulls Michael inside. They’re moving already before he closes them. Michael’s gone into deep shock now, fretting incoherently. Fin wraps his coat fully around him, holding him on his lap to protect him from the jolts of the unsprung vehicle on a dirt track. His fingers run soothingly over Michael’s wasted face.
They’re not human, thinks Danny again, this time with crystalline surety. It doesn’t seem unusual anymore.
Michael reaches up weakly and touches the tips of Fin’s fingers. A strange look crosses his face; the look of someone completely lost who has at last sighted something familiar. Fin strokes his brittle hair and says something Danny doesn’t understand. They’re retreating back into their own language, their own world. Danny feels very superfluous.
Then suddenly there is a bump, and the jeep seems to burst open. Maybe they hit a mine, thinks Danny. All he knows s he is now running, running through a bright ring of light like a glorious sunrise, and Michael’s arms are now around him.
He’s a dead weight and his long limbs drag. Danny can feel the wet blood running over him. Michael looks up, hopeless, beyond agony, struggling for breath. He pulls the greatcoat around him and says.
It’s not far. They’re running now along the black metal fire escapes that lined the back yards of his childhood. Or Danny’s running, Michael’s head lolls down and he throws up a little of the vodka. Danny could have killed Fin for that. You shouldn’t give alcohol to people in shock everyone knows that. He wipes Michael’s mouth on his sleeve, pleading with him. He pulls him a little further, up to the door he knows.
He knocks on the door with relief coursing through him. It’s familiar, he tells himself, it’s safe. She’ll know what to do.
A dark haired woman opens the door. She looks them up and down, Danny and the semi-naked skeleton clinging to his shoulder. Michael’s blood drops on the doormat.
“Mama,” says Danny.
Miriam shuts the door in his face.
Danny howls. Michael’s limbs are like tentacles, dragging him down. He falls to the floor in the doorway wrapped up in these bones and bones as Michael’s breath rattles. He falls over so he’s kneeling over Michael, looking into his face, looking into his eyes. There’s something impossibly black in them, the knowledge that only skeleton people have, the knowledge of complete annihilation. Danny looks transfixed into the horror as he feels from there gaze his skin too being pulled off, his flesh being overrun. Michael’s stiff arms come up and pull him into the darkness.
He looks and sees terror. The arms are like a cage.
He blinks, he’s being shaken. The walls of his bedroom loom up around him and for a moment they seem terribly unfamiliar. Someone’s arms are pulling him, and he wishes they’d let go.
“You were having a nightmare. I could hear you down the hall.”
Michael smoothes Danny’s hair. He’s wearing a grey shirt, slightly unbuttoned. Danny can see the muscles at the top of his chest. He looks into his face, fleshed out now and beautiful. Reflexively, Danny shudders in repulsion.
Michael continues to hold him. A look of wary understanding flickers across his face before it returns to it’s usual calm.
“You know,” he says, “Don’t you?”
“I dreamt about you again,” said Danny shakily. “This time you weren’t so hot.”
Michael puts the brown paper bag he had come in holding on the side table and jumped up onto he bed beside Danny. He’s wearing a dark green jacket with a hood falling over his shoulders trimmed with what Danny tells himself must be fake fur. The material’s soft, not tight, but it follows the line of his arms well. It must have been personally tailored due to his height. He was vain enough to appreciate a good fit, or maybe then again it was because he was neat and took great pleasure in things being just so. His hair was arranged into smart braids that run well below his waist. Even the fingernails on his left hand were neatly clipped.
And it was all so effortless, thought Danny. Michael wasn’t the sort to cultivate a well-groomed image; it just seemed to fall upon him. He put no obvious energy into it, although Daniel had caught him darkening his eyebrows once. He looked so much like sleekness and the glow of health were a part of his very being; it would be impossible to imagine him without them.
Well, I managed it, thinks Danny bleakly.
“What did you dream?” Says Michael softly.
So Danny tells him. He nods occasionally, but says nothing. After Danny has finished, he says:
“Your Mother hurt you badly, didn’t she?”
“Oh no,” says Danny, “Oh no you don’t. Don’t turn this into a conversation about me.”
“It was your dream.”
“Everybody knows my Mother hurt me, thank you. Can we talk about your fuck ups now?”
“Everybody knows I’m missing a hand,” said Michael with a wry smile.
“Was I close to how it was?”
Michael laughs again. He lay back on the pillows beside Danny, eyes half shut.
“I was rather looking forward to breakfast in bed, followed by a leisurely bath and maybe then dozing in front of a movie. That’s not going to happen now is it?”
“No it isn’t.” Says Danny. He shocks himself with how like Miriam his voice sounds. He feels uncomfortable with the cold surety of command in it. Michael moves up a little from his position of repose in surprise.
“Very well,” says Michael, settling himself in an upright position. “Yes, you were right. The details were a little off, but yes. That’s what happened to my hand.”
Danny was quiet for a moment. He knew he needed Michael to say something although he had no idea what the magic word might be. He knew he was putting him on the spot, doing the exact same thing to Michael his high school history class had done to him. Say something and make it feel normal; please say something to take away the guilt.
What he really wanted to ask was “Did you live?” He knew the answer should have been obvious. Michael was sitting in front of him looking very alive indeed; Danny could even see his chest slowly rise and fall as he took his usual calm measured breaths. He’d had a hippy teacher in elementary school that told tales of - Inuit? Native American? - men who had been warned by the sprits that their wife was a ghost and had returned home to notice the blank holes in the face and the creeping bones beneath the skin. He felt their repulsion now, the way they would shrink from the flesh that they’d been so close to. He was doing exactly the same, his skin was bristling at the realisation that the creature in his home did not belong here but belonged somewhere darker, somewhere under the earth. Danny swallowed.
“You survived.” He tried not to make it sound like a question.
“Yes,” said Michael. “Fingon got me back to my brothers who took care of me.”
“The one who saved me. My lover.”
“He didn’t look after you?”
“He was a commissioned soldier. He couldn’t just desert to mop my forehead.”
“You must have needed a lot of taking care of.”
“Oh I was fine when I was flat out on my back, it was only when I started moving around again that I became difficult.”
“Difficult?” said Danny.
“I was a little delinquent for a while. I used to steal from the kitchens and spy on my brothers. It got better when I got stronger and could start training again.”
“Training for what?”
“For war Danny.”
“You went back and fought?”
“With one hand.”
“Yes. That’s the thing about being invaded nobody really gets out of fighting. It’s not a career like it is here.”
“Did it hurt?”
Michael looked very wry for a moment.
“I was out cold the whole time. It wasn’t like in the dream.”
“Yes. I’d been hanging there quite a while when Fingon found me. I never spoke to him, I couldn’t have.”
“How did he get you out?”
“He must have carried me. I don’t know all I remember is waking up in Mithrim.”
“That was our camp.”
“How were you?”
“Sedated. In pretty poor shape really. I couldn’t turn over in bed. My brothers had to do everything for me. Luckily I was to drugged to feel humiliated.”
“We had a lot of opium in the hills.”
At that Michael’s putative home lurched ten thousand miles south in Daniel’s head to the borders of Afghanistan.
“You must -,” stuttered Danny, “You must have suffered terribly.”
Michael looked blankly, as if he did not understand the word or if he could not understand it ever being applied to him.
“Fingon rescued me,” he said after a pause, “and then I was safe. I don’t think about what happened before.”
Danny shut his eyes and listened to the thread of music Oakey was pushing out of the mixing desk. One perfect sliver of Brian’s guitar, tweaked in splendid isolation until the lack of a crease between his eyebrows denoted even Oakey was contented with it. Danny listened to the notes waver, the growl reach a menacing pitch and tried very hard to feel contented himself.
“We didn’t think you were coming down today,” said Gabriel.
Singers, Danny thought. No appreciation for the workmanship of the proles of the band. The bands blue-collar craftsmen will slave over a chord sequence for days, then I’ll waft in and warble over the top obliviously. The caricature cheered him slightly.
“How’s the replicant?” Asked Brian.
“He’s fine,” said Danny tersely trying not to rise to Brian. He felt Gabriel’s hand on his arm in that easy way he had, low key and comforting without any questions asked. Danny wondered if he learnt that skill in some Tibetan monastery or if he had been born with it.
“Did you find the serial number on the back of his skull?”
“Yeah,” said Danny. “Yeah, I did.”
Brian looked up, surprised at the answer. Danny looked like he was about to cry.
“He was in some kind of death-camp. I never knew.” Danny sounded choked.
“Oh man,” said Brian. “Shit, I never meant that.”
“No, I know you didn’t,” said Danny. “Because thinking is some kind of anathema to you.”
“Guys, we have work here,” said Oakey sternly from behind the desk. Music, music Uber Alles. Gabriel stroked Danny’s shoulders as they listened to Jan’s bass line filling the room.
Michael was sitting in the centre of the bed with his arms round his knees. The television was on, although he wasn’t watching it. He looked rather like he was watching the darkness fall outside. He seemed to Danny like he hadn’t moved for a long time.
Danny was suddenly taken by the conceit that Michael was indeed a replicant. He knew enough not to trust his own instincts when they wished to paint the object of his affections as superhuman; that was just the hyperbole of infatuation. But everyone did it to Michael, Jan, Brian even the ever prosaic Liz. Gabriel called him “your man of the Sidhe,” Brian called him a robot or a “pleasure-bot” if he was feeling particularly evil. They all pronounced this as calmly as if it were a known fact, hoping the sheer absurdity of the statement would stop them being taken seriously.
For a moment the complete certainty that had been there in the dream welled through him again. He is not human.
Michael’s mouth curled a little in the darkness as if he could see into Daniel’s thoughts.
“In my culture,” he said slowly, “There are certain attacks it is thought better not to survive.” He looked down at his knees. “We’re warriors you see. Anything that maims you, anything that might weaken your mind, anything that,” he paused “destroys your integrity, would make you less efficient as a fighter. It’s thought better to die than to sustain these wounds, in fact it is considered most selfish and immoral if one lives through them.”
“But that’s, that’s terrible!” said Danny.
“We were soldiers,” said Michael. “We had different priorities. Maybe your desert ruling ancestors would have understood.”
“Should I take you before King Solomon to hear his judgement?”
“I’m not sure he’d respect the nature of our relationship.”
“Were you an outcast then?”
“No. I was lucky. My family were extremely powerful if not exactly reputable. We had royal blood and a lot of soldiers under us. No one could force me to do the honourable thing except my brothers, and they were not honourable men. So I lived on, but that doesn’t mean people were ever really comfortable with me.”
Oh Michael,” began Danny softly.
“I’m not telling you this because I want pity. I’m telling you this so you know I’m quite used to being treated as – as something strange.”
“But,” said Danny, “You shouldn’t think of yourself that way.”
“Danny, you think of me that way.”
“I,” faltered Danny guiltily.
“Yes Danny, you do. Sometimes because you’re a hopeless romantic and would enjoy the tragedy of it all, sometimes because I just feel odd.”
“The way you ears point out through your hair doesn’t help your case,” said Danny.
Michael smiled and lowered his head a little to his knees. He still wasn’t looking at Danny.
“In 1944 the Hungarian resistance asked the Allies to bomb the tracks to Auschwitz. Some people had escaped by then, the Allies had a pretty good idea of what was going on. They didn’t do it.”
“They bombed a factory four miles away – I know,” said Daniel. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“They used to hear the planes go over every day, forty or fifty US bombers. How human do you think the prisoners felt listening to that?”
“I dunno what they felt.”
“No,” said Michael. “Neither do I. At least I was a soldier. I knew - what happened – was a risk I took. But I’d guess they felt like Jews or Gypsies or whatever a long, long way before they felt like they wanted to be people.”
“Isn’t that what the Nazis wanted?”
“Yes,” said Michael. “It’s what all torturers want. And when I first came back it was easier to think of myself that way. Yurch, that’s our word for them, the spirits of undead soldiers, the ones who should have died. I’m sure your culture has a similar concept.”
Danny nodded wondering if he did. Zombies he guessed were the closest.
“I know you think I’m being very cold blooded about this.” He swallowed, still staring into the
quilt. “But I don’t know any other way to be. I’ve tried all the usual methods, talking it over, getting blind drunk, the auricular acupuncture and still I have no better story to tell. I know you need some kind of tale of healing to make me feel real again; some admission of suffering and catharsis and recovery to explain how I am here and not still in some shadowy prison from the edges of your consciousness.”
“Thank you for the psychoanalysis,” said Daniel.
“Well, it’s true isn’t it?”
Danny wondered if that was what he wanted, if the story of a magical healing process was what he needed to make Michael familiar once more.
“Did Fingon need that?”
“Did he get it?”
“What happened to you?”
“You mean him and I? He got used to me after a while. And after a while of him being used to me I stopped feeling so Yurch-like. Then he died.”
“I don’t understand. Do you have no emotions about that at all?”
“I had a great deal of emotions about it. They’re all dealt with now.”
Danny sucked in his breath.
“Still think I’m a replicant?”
“How do you know about that?”
“I know that’s what Brian calls me.”
“Jan tells me. Apparently he calls me “The Sperminator” too. It annoys you.”
Danny for a moment felt a brief sense of irrational betrayal from Jan’s actions. Arch confidentiality was almost sworn in blood.
“He’s nearly right,” said Michael in a low voice. “I’m something that looks like a complete being but isn’t. My emotional range is closer to that of artificial intelligence than that of a person.”
“I used to think that way at first because it was easier to say I was yurch than to admit to the damage done. What they do to you in those places strips you of all emotional connections, to your body, to places, to other people. It just seemed better to say I was a yurch and feel like a robot than to acknowledge I’d gone through this process and that also – it might be reversible.”
Danny slipped his arm around his shoulders. Michael didn’t try to move away.
“When did you decide to be human?”
Michael turned to face Danny at last. He reached up his left hand and stroked Danny’s cheek softly.
“Yesterday morning, most mornings. Usually my resolve lasts until lunch although I can get to nightfall on a good day.”
“So your not human now?”
Michael kissed Danny softly in the gloom. Danny tensed a little and Michael stroked his arm gently.
“Relax,” he said. “I’m not going to try anything. I know it’s going to feel strange for a while.”
Danny did ease up a little at Michael’s reassurance and his calmness in the face of their crisis. His soothing whisper of a voice put a time limit on the strangeness and once that had happened the oddness seemed to diminish by itself. He allowed himself to sink back onto the bed, surprised at how tired a day of listening to endless remixes had made him. He was also surprised at how comforting it was to hold Michael in his arms even when he felt so much like a stranger. They kissed tenderly as the dark swamped in around them, like teenagers scared to go past first base.
“You feel very human to me,” said Danny after a while.
“Homo ’s ‘appiness.” Said Michael.
Danny laughed. They held each other tightly against the night and the fear that was gathering in the shadows beyond their bodies’ circle of warmth. The nightmares buzzed over their heads and flashed past them, the demons stayed in their corners; Danny no longer knew who was comforting who. He clung on to Michael and waited for the dawn to banish the terror that stalked the air just beyond the warm circle of their bodies. It was only when the violet light began to seep across the bedroom that he could finally give in and drift to sleep on Michael’s chest.