A long time ago, I wandered into my weekly lecture at Liverpool University expecting my own English tutor, Steve Newman to talk about Keats’ poetry. I didn’t get Steve, instead his wife delivered a talk about the Lamia which kept me spellbound, not least because Jenny Newman took the side of the snake-woman against the cold rationality of her (philosopher) enemy in the poem. My affection for the Lamia persisted and it is one of my favourite poems. The description of her metamorphosis is like a super sensual Dr Who episode!
I decided that the Lamia would make a great outside detective and would need a ‘mate’ as curious as she was hence ‘Bella’ stolen at least in part from yet another of Keats’ longer poems. I also thought they would need a profession aside from incidental detection, so Bella is a travelling guru of curiosity, with a strong clientele at the ‘beach’ of South Carolina..
Her hands were small on the wheel. Dark grey gloves worn like pelt. An under pelt of something that lived quietly yet joyously alive. The left hand reached down for the gear change and brushed my thigh. No apology. Third gear such a lingering agony until fourth and fifth. We were away from our town, driving on smooth grey roads with little to distinguish them except the falling leaves and the spits of rain. My mouth tasted dry and then wet. She fed me small sweets with a gloved hand, so I could taste the fur too and she held them to my mouth. I doubt she realised how new my mouth was , how long the tongue could be, how much I longed to coil myself, about her waist, her sweet neck barely glimpsed above her black collar. More wool. Always wool in winter, even in spring Wool heats up. I veiled a look and drank in her side face. Pale with cheekbones you could slice your skin on. And the fur. I liked the capable hands; so competent, so ambitious. .
Can I pause here? Everything was new once. You may not have this surge of wonder, of core electricity, but I do. You see I was not like this until very recently. Even recently is new for me. And sitting next to this woman felt more remarkable. I am remarkable: so is she and this is where it all began.
A man in a brown coat waved at our car. This seemed a sign to slow down and I noticed the car lost its movement and her hands settled on the wheel. Lights flashed and the empty road became at once crowded with uniformed creatures all consumed by some mission. Each uniform occupied a space and we sat parked at the road side in silence whilst the queue of cars waited to be talked to by a tall man in orange.
I stretched out my neck. Maybe willowy could be a good disguise after all. All those years of rippling to good effect. I narrowed my eyes. Used my senses new and old. Voices were loud and agitated. Some lights had been put out in a circle around a pile of clothing in the road. Radio voices mixed in with the sound of the car. We were told to wait by the orange man.
My friend found a cigarette and blew smoke out of the window. Then I saw what all this mess was about. No one should look like that a voice was telling the world. No one should become such a thing. The heap of clothing had recently been a person. A team arrived with special coats and lots of white cases. I heard crying.
Truth be told, I felt the wrong shape myself, sat there, watching a human being reshaped again because someone had wanted to leave their signature.
Bella and I got out of the car. Our Love could wait.
‘’Do you know how much energy it takes to cause this? ‘’The man in the plastic coat took off his glasses and wiped away the rain. If he had once been eager, life and death had hurled that one over the fence. Cameras were busy and Bella finished her second cigarette.
My nose twitched. Beyond Bella’s tobacco, someone had left something behind, something the plastic coat might not know. Bella touched my arm and pulled me towards the tape.
‘Look’ she said.
The hands of the woman were cupped to the sky. A sweet gesture if you were on a beach, double jointed and part of your brain wasn’t leaking onto the road. But it was the left hand that was trying to tell us more, a strange red line wrapped around a stone that shone even in this faded light. The woman’s bloody fingers held an amber star.
I nodded at Bella. ‘’What can you hear breathing? ‘’ I said.
Bella said nothing, her confidence gone, moving behind me for shelter.
A dark scattered shadow mixed in with the breathing and stirred slightly amongst the broken body of the woman. When you are in the company of a predator you match their breath. I pushed Bella to one side. She knew. If he was hiding out here, camouflaged amongst the lights and the dead, then so was I and the human noises at the edge of this place could be like small matches lit and then blown out.
I swear something was breathing that should not. Dead things should not breathe, but some things should never have been alive, let alone dead. This breathing contained an echo, as if the breath came from another place. Believe me when I tell you that it did. It had escaped from an ancient tomb, a buried place. The Creature had extinguished in one moment, the protection of time. Thousands of years of enforced silence and peace, gone. Now the creature and I were neighbours again though there was nothing neighbourly about this creature. Think propinquity: the propinquity of menace.
The Woman in Black
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