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1Q84: A Very Bad Book

Ban Fiction: 'Then Somebody Bends' by Mazin Saleem


She talked to her pet in pet-voice, smushing its cheeks and speaking close enough that her breath made its nose twitch, the high-pitched ’Ello!, the very rhetorical questions asked in a voice made ogreish by coming from her kiss-shaped mouth, with affirming reflexive declarations, ‘Yes you are!’ and so on. In a handheld mirror she was showing the pet images it couldn’t understand, first among them itself. Then she showed one of the young women who’d once approached the castle. In continuing pet-voice, she acted out an explanation of what the images meant.


Because a dog would chase her out, all the young woman first saw of the castle was the cliff-face of a wall, and a garden with its Pompeii forms of snowed-under cherubs and shrubs beneath a cold and clear brown sky, so quiet a space it was like a huge indoors rather than outdoors. She ran laughing from the dog (a boxer pinscher barely bigger than a cat) not seeing the windows that’d been put out, but cleanly, or the fountains and birdbaths tumbled to one side. She backed through the gap in the castle-hedge, to humour the boxer, to no longer enrage it by ignoring its guard duties. It kept yelping to the point that it yelled.

Watching out for the dog, she managed next to make it through the gardens, to the front hall, whose heart-shaped mirror was whitewashed over, then the kitchen, where the silver and glasses were whitewashed too. Thinking it was the shadow of her cloak along a colonnade, she turned and saw lurking in strobes through the smog-pumiced columns what looked like a chestnut horse. It had a horn: not pointing out like a narwhal’s but back like a crest. It rounded a column, charged at her, went up on its hind legs, a ruby unshod hoof close enough to nip her cold ear. A piano-toothed mouth foaming in anger? in terror?

When it rained, the castle stirred least, no animals about till the last puddle had lifted; she made it to the second floor. She was arrested at the top of the stairs by the nasal breathing of someone asleep. A cat opened its lime-green eyes. Through paper-cut apertures it watched her hostilely. The eyes searched her, like parts of her face were moving that she couldn’t detect. She kept the hissing, now yowling cat in sight as she backed off down the landing. It limped as it followed, first on three legs, then two, then it dragged itself down a corridor forking leftwards and behind. At the other end of the fork, where the walls became balconies, a huge bird strutted out.

The eagle dove off and crashed around the winter castle. Thinking it looked hurt, she tried to keep it in sight, and found it shoulders-hunched in an alcove where the slit window streamed cold over its feathers and down her neck. It put a crab-sized claw on her, she fell against a palette on the wall. It tied her to the palette, like undoing entrails, then screeched the palette from out of the alcove, carried the palette with her on it, bursting up and diminishing in one lift the castle and the woods into a brief spot in vast greenness. But as the eagle was flying, it dropped suddenly, then a feather-crest eyebrow squeezed and relaxed, and it flew higher. Dropped suddenly then flew higher. It flew the rest with both eyes closed.

A flash of beak, she threw her slender arms to her face, but the eagle was cutting the rope now they’d landed. When it left, its eyes were open, yet it still crashed down as soon as it’d reached above the branches. She marvelled at the cut expert knots then followed the squawking sound.

* * *

The older woman was pleased the younger had shown due diligence, unlike her three sisters, and come to see her before the castle for tea and a chat. She referred to her throughout as ‘you beauty’ or ‘beautiful’ - “Hope you don’t mind. A class thing. But also the nickname I give to anyone who loves themselves, true loves themselves.” The rest of their talk was less gracious. “For you girls to think of my work as needing a solution implies it's incomplete. I said the curse was not concluded but that’s not the same as saying it’s been waiting. Not every curse is made to be lifted, every spell to be broken. What else can I warn: witches aren’t justice!” She sloshed upwards with her cup. “Don’t you know that the spider on the wall above your head is silently screaming? Poised for hours, till it comes flailing at you, all the while screaming. It can’t hear us, but we’ve seen it. It wasn’t coming at you, but must head back to the castle.”

* * *

What does she see? The eagle’s feathers thicken like they’re freezing or turning to ceramic petals. More terrible than its squawking is now its silence, apart from an occasional crack. The wings split at the longest pinion, into a hardening crescent-shaped forefeather and a straight but spiked second feather. With the sound of butchered meat being torn, the rest of each wing splits four more ways, each split twirling into a segmented long twig. Air bakes upwards like an oven. The beak collapses as if being pulled inwards by a string, at the end of which crackling retreat the eyes from maybe the contracting pressure pop out on pink stalks.

It scuttles the woods as fast as a rat. Though moving side-on, its mad dash to escape her means its own gaze is focussed on the rising carpet of the road, a complex nook-and-crannyscape that with the speed and precision of a knitting machine its eight legs traverse and fly across skilfully.

Breathless, Beauty heads it off at the gates; the crab dallies, darts, stops, three-point-turns. At pause, it bobs mechanically in the frozen mud, bellowing itself, jetting thin moist streams from its hidden tender gills. What doesn’t it want her to see? Or want her to? With a wince of eyestalks and a sudden cooling, which turns the air to mist, the faintly screaming as if being boiled crab flips on its back, its shell in one throb breaks into an instant and irregular mosaic, between whose cracks like raw flesh underneath ageing and eczematous skin sprout white and red shoots, feathers again, a blossom of twitching pink flesh and feathers, while telescoping high out of the jabbering and squealing crab’s lower half, a pair of striated sticks, golden, like a wispy gold rope trick. She keeps gazing, transfixed, as the flamingo uprights and strains its face at her, and already in a jaggedly forward expansion, the mist turning to a miniature snowfall, the face bulks out to that of a pig’s. She looks away, only listens to it snuffle and drag itself into the castle.

* * *

She’d always look away. But once, looking for the toilet, she chanced upon the pig from behind, snuffling frozen compost. She was gazing at it with concern, it farting and nibbling, grunting ho-hum chides to self, when a rotten apple popped left and the pig pursued, sidelong to her, and met her gaze, squinted, then greyed and bubbled like rotting vegetables down to the wrinkled cheroot of a slug.

* * *

Or times it comes to gaze at her, drawn by a nag it does not understand nor feel on its hairs, but somewhere over and above, watch her from the ceiling as she passes below, even glances up, near, but not quite at. It climbs down tinily and silently, and stands for hours by her so-warm pulsing knuckles as she leans back on her hands in front of the fire.

* * *

She was self-possessed enough not to start when she saw the clumped spider right by her hand, withdrawing her hand only because of the next step, when it saw that she’d seen.

* * *

Just when it’s getting used to its octagonal worldview, feeling the fibre drum of the world, it silently screams, and four legs on each side fuse to two pairs, fangs curl into horns. Yet the goat-sense only stays as horror at becoming a worm, the worm-sense at rising as tall as a giraffe. It doesn’t know what it is each time, giraffe or worm, in the same way giraffes and worms don’t.

* * *

The tabby cat had been gone for days in the woods. When it came back it had a dead vole for her. While it cleaned the back of its ear with a hand tucked in a brown sleeve, she checked the skies for hawks and vultures. She refilled the castle pond for it to hunt in instead, and these fish she sometimes ate. When months later it erupted into a kingfisher, it’d swoop expertly and dump dragonflies at her feet. It stayed to enjoy the soft scratch on the egg-light ridge of its head. She put the insects in the bin as soon as it flew off. Then she invited the witch to the castle with her discovery about the pace of the changes.

* * *

“No, my Beauty, before you ask, it’s not that. Love is nothing, love is shit. You can love anyone! Why you: you love a beast!” The witch explained this but facing the frog that somehow managed to hop backwards like a sandbag tumbling down a keeling floor. “For a second time, witches aren’t justice. Didn’t I change chambermaids and office managers as much as the little lord? Fixed in their function, turned to use-objects.”

Listening distractedly on the sofa, Beauty leapt up as if bit, then turned and apologised. From that point, she wouldn’t sit on anything but floor. Which furniture was dumb object and which dumbstruck servant? With certain chairs, if she pressed her ear to the tight felt that took the print of her palm or the track of her nails in a peach-fuzz-white, she’d hear deep, deep down inside: the crying of a wasted life.

Some other ways for you to waste your life: ‘What do they see in me? What am I scared they see? What do I want them to see? What do I want them to want to see?’

* * *

Over months, she refills the fountains, drenches the mirror and the silverware with turpentine. The kingfisher looks in them, and at her, and she at it, longer and longer. With light, its face grows up and out, eyes unflanking from parallel to widespread like a butterfly opening wings to dry.

The rest you can see in the pond: He woke on the floor to rising music. He kissed Beauty, then saw with joy his servants, one freed from cogged innards, one from burning hands, one from gushing snout, one shellshocked from the indignities of the toilet, all who, beyond their lessening daze, saw him and her.

Still kissing, he reopened his eyes, and in the pond he saw the servants seeing him and her. With them gazing on astounded, he tried to pull away, to stop kissing the leering monkey, the screaming swan, the hippo, the giant starfish. Through mouth that struggled to press off its invert stomach, he dismissed his servants. But he could still picture them seeing her, and so he’d shudder and drop the giant snail, push it away with his foot as it furred into a fruit bat. He never looked away, though, from the pond to her, to check, could not even conceive of this. The air was still. By worry, disappointment, then contempt, he is transfixed.

He hears voices breaking down into song. It looks up to see why she didn’t listen: “You Beauty, love yourself less, and give into the itch that you now feel too, search that face as it searches yours, see what it sees them see and be chaos, forever.” But the witch and Beauty are looking down at the baffled sparrow, while you are looking into the mirror into the pond.


Mazin Saleem writes at TabulitOpen PenLitro MagazineThe LiterateurBig OtherLittle Atoms, and here. If you'd like more illusions shattered, have a chat with him on Twitter at @maybemazin.

Art by Sarah Anne Langton.