Beneath the surface, I spit glittering vitriol in an acid arc around myself. These spattering thoughts blister words into the dirt: ‘Join me in lockdown… feel this grief for a past life… falter here with me, in this stuttering uncertainty.’
But there are those who continue to grow within four walls, plucking opportune plums from a laden bough and making life sweet. They barely stutter at all.
I, meanwhile, simmer in my acid bath, my skin growing thinner with every slow second. The liquid blooms rose-pink and rises.
At some point I should stand up and wade out, before too much of me is lost. But the burn is comforting and the return of full gravity is too much to bear.
I’m staying here. Hip deep in shed niceties, I pass the time by drowning well-meaning platitudes until they dissipate to nothing.
I’m waiting for a letter. It exists in potentia every morning I approach the letterbox, a Schrödinger’s envelope that only resolves itself as my key turns in the lock.
The letter will contain an appointment date, one that I can hang on my empty reels of calendar. It will let me pretend to myself that things will one day revert, the threads will once more be woven into a tightly held pattern of predictability.
In the meantime, the future unspools wildly and puddles at my feet, shapeless and purposeless.
Of course, my former self resented those tight wefts of work and travel. The endless predictability of the future chafed and bit, and left no thread free for a spontaneous embroidered trill.
Yet despite the benefits to my current state of uncertainty, I remain blind.
Society isn’t all that keen on people having unplanned futures, or unpredictable and potentially unstable paths. It likes individuals to snap into acceptable roles, populate and pay up. Faltering in no man’s land is a sign of weakness, laziness, fecklessness, or failure, so people self-flagellate until they implode or fit back in.
I circle myself in my mind and snap at my heels whenever I start enjoying myself. I can’t relax into this state in case I start liking it.
Instead, I remain vigilant and wait for a letter, listening for the click-clack of a loom re-started.
Her tongue felt as swollen as a ten day old sausage, and had turned a similar grey-green colour. Guppy poked at it dubiously in her warped tin-kettle reflection. It didn’t pop, which was probably a good sign.
She really hoped it didn’t fall off.
She had made her way out earlier, keenly aware that it might raise suspicions if she wasn’t spotted in her usual haunts. Happily, she never really spoke to anyone anyway (at least when she wasn’t lying), so her silent blistered mouth hadn’t been a problem.
The whole town seemed to be aflutter over yesterday’s incident. The baker’s wife was enjoying the attention, dramatically recounting just how horrifically traumatic it had all been, with one hand pressed to her bouncing bosom. Guppy snorted in disgust, then casually scooped up some particularly moist horse dung and dropped it in the woman’s carelessly unattended basket.
The boy had been taken to the lock-up, according to a man nursing a wobbling tankard. The boy had been wheeled away in the night, according to an over-excited milkmaid. The boy had never existed and it was all a conspiracy designed to make people think that – Guppy didn’t stay to hear the rest of that theory.
The most reliable source, the guards, were thankfully just as chatty as the rest of the townsfolk. The boy had been taken to the guard house overnight, but was now being held at an inn while awaiting collection by a private owner. It took her another hour to figure out which of the inns was housing the boy, and the rest of the afternoon to finish her preparations.
She went for tried and true, and nicked a pinny from the pile of washing on Mother Arbie’s back doorstep. It was unfortunately a pinny for someone with the approximate girth of two large beer barrels, but she figured if she wrapped it around enough times, it’d do. This unfortunately had the effect of turning Guppy into an immobile starched cylinder, and she had to redo the whole affair three times before she was able to walk in it. The multiple attempts had also resulted in considerable muck spreading over the formerly-known-as-white surface, so she was a bit dubious about being allowed anywhere near a kitchen at this point.
Still, she figured people should bloody well be grateful to have an extra pair of hands about. Even if said hands were attempting to steal a small grubby boy.
It was the inn on the north-eastern road, which headed off toward the capital city and the coast. It was a clean enough place, big stable round the back and six or seven rooms upstairs. It was usually frequented by traders (most of whom stayed for as short a time as possible), and the occasional staffer (they didn’t like to be called slavers anymore, something about making it hard to fit into decent company).
Two deep breaths and Guppy headed in, with only a slight pinny-induced waddle. It was mostly quiet in the corridors, all the noise was coming from the kitchen at this time of night. She found herself a basket and swiftly started stuffing it with various towels and cloths. Basket under one arm, she headed upstairs and knocked on the first of the guest doors. Silence. She pressed her finger to the latch and pushed on the heavy wood.
Empty, just a greyish bed in a greyish room.
Rooms two and three were the same, so it clearly wasn’t peak season for the inn. Room four gave a muffled shout to come in, and she popped her head around to see an overstuffed gentleman attempting to pull a brilliant purple coat over his straining arms. He barely glanced at her when she asked for laundry and so, after a quick scan of the room, she left him to his herculean effort.
Room five was silent. She thumbed the latch open and peered in, then immediately felt her heart kick into a faster beat. Gotcha.
The boy didn’t look up. He was tied to the head of the bed by a length of rope that allowed him as far as the chamberpot but no further. His mouth was stuffed with something that looked like it might taste even worse than the flavours she usually encountered. That pinched face was nearly clean, but the raw red eyes suggested it might have been washed with tears rather than pump water.
Guppy snuck in, gently pushed the door closed and set the basket down on the floor. The boy was staring at her. She held a finger to her lips, then pulled the rag out of his mouth. He retched, spat, and began to gnaw at the cord at his wrists. Bonds undone, he stood and glared at her.
‘What are you doing here?’ His tone was not in the slightest bit grateful.
Guppy frowned and shook her head, his glare hardened.
‘You could talk well enough yesterday.’
She rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue for inspection. His recoil made her suspect that it hadn’t improved much from its earlier inflated state.
She stuck her thumb behind her at the door, beckoned. He just sat down on the bed, mouth firmed into a belligerent line. Guppy waved her hands frantically in front of him, gave him a none-too-gentle yank.
‘I don’t know who you are, but you weren’t on my side yesterday. There’s no way I’m going anywhere with you.’
He was clearly mentally defective.
She slapped her hands in exasperation against the mottled pinny and stomped around, reaching for the door.
It nearly hit her in the face.
The man behind it quirked a thin gold eyebrow at her. He was slickly dressed in a dark green tailcoat and pale gold trousers, making her think of a particularly skinny tree.
‘And who are you, er,’ his nose wrinkled pointedly, ‘Young lady? Two for one deal is it?’
Guppy scowled and gave him a vicious kick to the shin.
The boy stared in horror as the man crumpled thanks to Guppy’s follow up knee to his delicates. She reached over the man and grabbed the boy’s arm to drag him out the door, scuttling down the narrow steps and out the back entrance. Extremely angry swearing was audible from the open window above.
Guppy lowered her head and pelted faster, boy in tow.
She’d already decided she couldn’t take him to her usual sleeping place, too much risk they’d be seen. But there was a mostly forgotten cellar full of rotten potatoes behind old man Leecher’s house, and she’d spent a night or two there without any hassle before.
She could hear the boy starting to wheeze, and though she gave a scornful huff, she eased up the pace. They couldn’t run through the streets anyway, not without someone seeing and remembering.
They were five streets away from the house when she heard sharp footsteps behind them. She bustled the boy into the shadowed side of the cobbled street and hustled him onward, one ear listening to those footsteps in their wake.
Four streets away.
Three streets away.
Two streets – the footsteps had gone silent. Guppy whirled, pushing the boy behind her.
And found the sharp edge of a blade beneath her chin.
She tasted lies young. Much younger than most other children of the town, who were strategically warned by mothers and nursemaids that if you lied, a four-headed serpent with teeth as long as your arm would bite your tongue clear off. And you would also be sent to bed without supper.
Guppy had no mother, no nursemaid, went to bed without supper more often than not, and never encountered a four headed serpent.
What she did encounter was taste.
The first time had been after she swiped a particularly fine looking meat pie left cooling in the baker’s window. Belly full of evidence, she had widened her eyes in panic at the baker’s wife and hurriedly denied any knowledge whatsoever of meat pies in general, let alone this specific pie (it had been remarkably buttery and crumbly, with a firm meaty middle, riddled with chunks of apple).
At her bumbled denial, Guppy’s mouth had flooded with eye-drenching sourness, a taste that seemed to be dissolving her teeth as well as her tongue.
She’d managed a wavery smile convincing enough to send the baker’s wife off after another target, before sticking her mouth under a spigot and scrabbling at her tongue with dirty fingers. The taste of pie was long gone.
In a land where lying was accompanied by such unpleasant consequences, most everyday folk stuck to the truth, or at least as near the truth as would mitigate the risk of tongue scorch and public shaming. Guppy, however, began to try lie after lie, exploring the flavours and learning to tolerate the taste until she could keep all trace of the terrible mouth experiences from her face.
She discovered that white lies tasted bitter-sweet, less dreadful than bold-faced lies, but still with a lingering edge of after taste. Lies of exaggeration bubbled with rotten fumes akin to the smells from a dung heap. Lies of fabrication, including tales told to entertain, would result in an explosion of salt, as though your tongue were caked in crystals.
She got away with it all too, until she encountered the boy.
He had been visiting the market for a week now. He looked about six or seven, with a painfully thin face that often had tear tracks streaking through the dirt. Guppy had watched him clumsily swipe food from several of the stalls, and was pleased to see that the stallholders who noticed his thefts kept quiet, eyes sympathetically watching his frail frame.
Then the boy stole from the wrong stall. The baker’s wife set to screeching as soon as she saw her missing loaf, drawing the swift attention of a town guard, who hared after the boy and had him pulled up by the collar in a few strides.
The boy had had the sense to ditch the bread as soon as the woman had started her howls, but the baker’s wife pointed one plump finger directly at Guppy, who had unfortunately been front and centre for the entire debacle. There was no time to dart elsewhere.
The guard turned to her, the boy gasping in his grip.
‘Girl. Did you see this boy take bread from the woman’s stall?’
Guppy gulped. She could lie, but it was fairly clear that the boy was the culprit and she didn’t want it revealed that she could speak untruths. But if she told the truth, the boy was probably headed for a life of slavery. The boy’s eyes were huge in his haggard face, beseeching her with silent pleas.
‘I saw him.’
Guppy looked down, unable to meet his gaze. And as the guard whirled away with the boy in hand, she felt a curious burning begin in her mouth. Within moments, her tongue seemed to catch alight, scorching the roof of her mouth into blisters, and forcing a whimper to escape her well-trained lips.
Later, as she lay with a rag dipped in cool water inside her mouth, she thought that this must be the taste of betrayal. The result of speaking what you know is wrong in your heart, no matter the technical truth.
The boy’s eyes continued to haunt her.
Swollen-tongue be damned. He wasn’t going to disappear on her watch.