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The Nature of Balance: Crying Blood

an extract from the novel
by Tim Lebbon

Blane stopped outside the village. From a distance it could have been The Nature of Balance by Tim Lebbonan optical illusion, but this close in he could see the truth of things. The place was abandoned and had the appearance of a lost Amazonian city.

Nature had smothered it.

Directly before him an ancient stone bridge spanned a chuckling stream, the Tarmac road crossing it as incongruous as a strip-light in a cathedral. The stream itself was a dirty brown colour and as thick as oxtail soup, visibly heavy with the load of silt and mud it carried. Its banks were comprised of raw rock, soil and plants having been washed away in a surge. The bright scars of recent exposure to the elements were still evident on the stone. The gully it had formed was deeper than it should have been, as if the waters had taken on some exaggerated abrasive quality. In the bank nearest the town an old stone structure had been uncovered; solid walls, a portion of a staircase, hints at foundations. An archaeological oddity that no one would ever have the chance to study. Detritus still tumbled into the stream from the unsteady, sheer walls of the gully, causing lazy splashes in the thick water.

Blane leant on the parapet and stared down. He felt as if he was seeing something never meant for human eyes. Something time had abandoned for a while to leave to its own devices. Turning, he walked into the village.

That same thought struck again and again, at every sight.

The road ended at the bridge. At first it was cracked into crazy patterns, but only slightly further on it had been completely clothed in a carpet of grass, crawling weed and low, wide shrubs. In places the pitch was still visible, frozen into fluid snapshots as if trying to escape its own suffocation. The spread of vegetation did not stop at the road but hauled itself up garden and building walls, skirting them with bright green and occasional splashes of coloured flowers which looked all wrong. The colours were there, as bright and attractive as usual, but the flowers themselves were deformed out of shape, pointing away from the sun, swollen as if full of pus. There were some colours which Blane had never seen.

The first few houses on the left had been demolished by trees. Moist, creamy trunks sprouted through walls and roofs, darkened areas of weathered bark yet to appear to protect the sudden growths from the elements. One tree was twice as tall as the house it impaled, holding twisted scraps of carpet and broken furniture high in its branches like trophies of some age-old conquest.

But this was not age-old; none of it. This was all recent. Trees growing in a day. Plants spreading and breaking the ground, the stream carving itself a deep niche in the sick land. All in one day. Blane was terrified; but he also felt something else, something which tugged at his melancholy heart.

Pride.

Fay was unafraid, yet she did not follow him in. This was all for him to see. It had only taken her a brief visit the night before to arrange the messages, and now it was down to him to wander through the village and find them.

Then he would find the messengers.

Fay watched him at the bridge and wished they could talk. But that time would come soon; for now she had to prepare for it.

There was a chance that she would not live for much longer. She could almost feel her flesh being consumed by her own body, in whatever frantic hunger it mistakenly felt. Her clothes hung on her like rags, defining narrow shoulders, stick-like arms, points of bone stretching the skin fit to burst. Blood leaked from every orifice, a bastard mockery of the rhythms she had once been the mother of. She let it congeal and harden into crisp brown scabs. Life was fleeing her, slowly but surely, but she did not care.

Inside, she felt wonderful. She would be with Blane again soon, if only for a short time. She would tell him her secrets. Then, let nature do as it would. Let it finish the job.

It was Blane's turn to go mad.

There was a body stuffed into a thatched roof next to the village pub, perhaps to keep cats at bay. A tree had pierced it with its rapid growth, lifted it from its resting place like some divine miracle-worker, and hauled it Heaven-ward until the roof structure caught it. Blane could not make out whether it was a man or a woman, but he could see where the tree had grown straight through the still-cooling flesh and exited the body in a claw of ribs. He was tempted to go closer to inspect, but other sights called him. And something else was here, niggling at the back of his mind with insistent whispers. A laugh, half cackle and half song. Something from before his memory began, struggling to break through.

He had a sudden image of the woman, coughing up whatever secret lay in the pit of her stomach, hauling on the thin chains and gagging on blood as it revealed itself. Would she show him, when they met? Was he meant to see? He tried to picture the song-like laughter coming from her mouth, but the image would not gel.

There were three more bodies in the shattered windows of the pub, but these seemed to be arranged. Each stood naked, spread-eagled, pressed into the frames by whatever grew inside and pushed them outward. It was as if nature was trying to exclude them from the building, and only the remnants of the window frames kept them in place. Wood pressed into their flesh and puffed their skin into spacesuit-bulges. Pale green weeds had wrapped around their legs from outside and now pulled in concert with the expanding foliage within. The pub had been called the Crown & Anchor; its sign was still visible atop a white pole in what used to be its garden. A magpie sat on the sign and set it swaying. The black and white bird had two sets of wings, one feathery and natural, the other a thin, brightly veined affair. It had something in its mouth, but it was wet, not shiny.

Grass grew in the gutters of buildings, thick and green, resembling prairie grass more than the shorter, brighter version found in Britain. Its edges looked sharp. It gave the dilapidated buildings a punkish fringe, shimmering in the breeze like lines of green fire. Cracks in walls had been found, aggravated and expanded, belching forth gouts of purple moss in malignant profusion.

Blane followed the road, although he could barely see it. He stepped carefully, always certain that in this bastardised version of the nature he so loved he would find, by accident, a mutated Venus trap or other vengeful plant. Each time his foot set down he waited for pain to intrude into his shock, acid to start eating at his old shoes. Most carnivorous plants killed by slow digestion, he knew. Once, he had thought that this was simply the most efficient way, that there was never any cruelty intended by nature. Now, doubt pressed in. What more terrible way to kill something? Humans often felt guilty about the remains of cute lambs or cuddly calves on their plates, but at least these animals were killed quickly. Nature was not nearly as efficient in killing its food, often stretching a death out for hours on end while the hunter ate into the living belly, gnawed through bones even as the victim writhed in agony.

He had never thought this way, and it was uncomfortable. But now it seemed right. In this place, nature had gone mad. Here, a hunter would toy with its prey instead of using it to fulfil a need. A fox may chase a human for hours until exhausted; a stag likewise. They had already seen what farm animals were capable of.

Blane hoped that Peer and the others were all right. Especially Peer. There was something about her which struck him as odd, but also familiar. She did not seem to gel with the group like the others, always remaining on the periphery when it came to discussion. Mary was aggressive and antagonistic, but Peer was different in deeper ways. She seemed guided, not by decisions made within the group, but by something else. Her eyes held a constant state of subtle shock, a shock deeper set and more age-worn than mere terror at recent events.

The road curved sharply to the right, curling around the high stone wall surrounding a church and graveyard. Blane heard the occasional musical tink of something striking metal, and saw dozens of black flapping shapes hovering around the belfry. Blackbirds, orange beaks mostly replaced by something grey which looked so much like metal, dive bombed the bells in the church tower. The result was a part of the song of nature. Random, unseasoned and careless, but full of order. Until now. The sense of wrongness came, Blane realised, not from the idea that the creatures around him were alien, but that he was an alien visitor to their world. It felt as though things had always been this way. They had simply waited this long to be noticed.

As the road rose and the wall dipped, his view opened up into the churchyard. He found his attention drawn there, even though he could still remember the last one he had been in.

There were a dozen bodies scattered among the graves, and for an instant Blane feared that he was seeing more of what had happened in Rayburn. But these bodies were old. It seemed the dead had sprouted; their remains had been forced through the compacted soil of decades or centuries and displayed to the sunlight. Their limbs projected in grotesque arrangements, sickly grey plants entwining them with thin stems, thicker roots disappearing down into disturbed graves and holding them aloft. Headstones had been pushed aside and tumbled, splintered wood showed wetly through the frozen eruption of soil, myriad small creatures crawled around in the damp mud, as yet undried by the sun. They were unwilling zombies in a film never to be made, slack-jawed skulls sad rather than threatening. Today, this was the acceptable face of death.

Blane walked on and found what must pass for the village square. A shop huddled in one corner, a garage in the other, benches in the centre overturned by the agitated roots of the old oak which grew there. Its fresh bursts of growth, thrust out over the last couple of days, hung whitely on its ancient withered trunk. New leaves were green and vitally fresh, but they did not match their older cousins in the strength of their appearance, nor did the new branches harbour that mystic spread possessed by those there before. They did not reach for the sky, but twisted and pointed at all angles, directionless.

A stream trundled along at the edge of the square. Blane went to it, half hoping to see clear water that was fit for drinking. But the water was the colour of sick urine, and stank as bad. He turned away and headed for the shop, wading through plants knee-high and armed with cruel curved barbs. They nicked at his skin through his jeans, but he ignored them. He was afraid that to notice their presence would encourage them more in their attack.

Foolish thoughts. The thoughts of a madman. But what he could see around him were the visions of a madman, and he felt infected with the bizarreness of the scene. To change, he thought, is to understand-

An idea came, unbidden and shocking in its sudden intensity. A madman ... or a mad woman.

The more Blane looked around, the more he saw order in chaos. A body had been lifted by the rapid growth of the barbed plants, the cruel shoots piercing the natural openings of the naked corpse and emerging from new, forced splits in the skin. But the way the mouth hung open, surprised in a scream, seemed false. Manufactured. Created. Other things, too, pointed at the artificiality of the scene. Not the disruption to living things, which was apparent everywhere, though more pronounced and advanced in this place. But the way the dead lay, in eternal mockery of the manner of their passing and the world they had been taken from so suddenly, shouted sham. Someone had been here before Blane. He thought he knew who.

A shape stepped from the shadows of a tumbled-down house. It was a woman, her mouth open in a sick grin, part pain, part hate. She was crying blood.

Blane turned to flee but another shape joined the first, then they came from elsewhere. In a matter of seconds he was surrounded, and the people with blood for tears closed in.


© Tim Lebbon 2002, 2003

The Nature of Balance by Tim Lebbon
The Nature of Balance is published by Prime (August 2002).
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