MARCH OF THE MONOLITHS – A SHORT STORY BY MARTIN CATHCART FRODEN
Photo: Peter Iain Campbell / www.peteriaincampbell.co.uk
There’s a woman standing at the helm TEN of vessel number two and her hair is as black as a coal seam. Her fogged-up eyes are squinting, searching for a trace of light in the darkness of time interrupted. In the cold of the sunless morning, steam rises from her cheeks as tears tumble out of her eyes. She is thinking of what she will leave, and of who she will leave.
Everyone else in the eight vessels is under the surface, united in a collective coma, brought on in a second – the chosen nomads within becoming stateless sleeping beauties. Mercifully it had happened at four in the morning, the witch-and-wolf hour, when most of the crew were inside.
After the black second that was the end, she was the only one left awake. In the pure white second that followed it, one that lasted for hours, she was instructed, and inducted. The responsibility for her people now hangs around her neck like a millstone, like a litter of mayoral chains. The woman is awake because she is the Pilot.
She feared there would be a wave, a river of locusts, a dark cloud of gas. She thought the NINE angel of death would walk past the ships but that her five thousand souls would be safe as long as they were inside the boarded-up crafts. Those outside the Pilot carted upstairs and into their beds. Those away or beyond the reach of imagination, memory and geography, she will leave behind. This includes her brother and a man she had hoped would one day become hers. She knows he works nights and wouldn’t be back until eight in the morning, she knows because she makes a point of bumping into him. Now he is lost to the waves. Lost too will be queens and ministers, gardeners, maestros, saints and most of her friends.
The Pilot has lived inside one of the ships all her life, but never knew their true function. Now she has wordlessly been shackled into the work of Moses, and all she can do is add her own salt water to that of the seas. Soon she dries her eyes and walks across the topmost platform of the vessel she’s been put in charge of. She checks on the wires stretching out to the seven ships she will be towing. EIGHT Finding them still taut she nods and in vain searches for the dawn.
When I woke up everything was shaking. I had heard of earthquakes but I didn’t think we got them. I had felt us sway in storms before but this was different. I got up and crawled across the floor, fearing I would be hit by objects falling off shelves or the lamp coming out of the damp plaster of the ceiling. I looked out the windows but it was completely black, darker than in the middle of the night. This total darkness scared me more than the rumbling. I tried to open the window but it was seized up, not for the first time.
I had been bedbound for a few days, and bathed in cold sweat during the night. I was still feeling feverish, but I got dressed and walked to the front door, expecting it to be boarded shut too. There was no one SEVEN in the corridor leading to the stairs, and there were no replies to my knocks on neighbours’ doors. The lift wasn’t working today either, so I started the long walk down. Once I got there I couldn’t get out. The same thick black fog I’d seen through my window was swirling outside. I thought there was a fire somewhere, but it wasn’t hot or hard to breathe, just dark.
By now I was sure I was dreaming and pinched myself. It was only when I started to bleed from the arm I became really scared. I cried and I shouted in the hope that someone would come and find me. I would have settled for a dog, a pigeon, even a rat, but I soon became convinced I was alone.
The ships form a red phalanx. They have been made to wait, but not for much longer. The population of the vertical village are now sleeping argonauts – in a sense children, each and all like the woman’s own son. Each a spore to be carried on the winds.
The Pilot’s craft, stranded on a launch pad next to a silvery burn and SIX a marsh full of broken furniture guarded by a grey heron, will not remain tethered much longer. The Pilot, racked by fear and unable to make out much beyond the rim of the ship, feels the rumble too, the low frequency growl from somewhere within.
The noise was soon unbearable. It had been rising slowly, and I hadn’t noticed how much louder it had become since I woke up. Now I couldn’t hear myself even when I was screaming. I made it back to my room, with a ragged throat, and put on two jackets in case I would have to walk through cold anarchy outside. If I ever made it outside. I put a sleeping bag and as much food as I could fit in a backpack, as well as matches, a kitchen knife, a hammer and a torch.
My vague plan was to break open people’s doors, to see what things or food they had that I could make use of. I hoped that I wouldn’t be flooded, but as long as we remained standing I had a good chance. If I was submerged, so FIVE would everything else around me be. Apart from the roar around me I couldn’t hear anything so I didn’t know if war had broken out, if there was a volcano erupting. If this was the end or the beginning.
I decided to start my raid from the top and depending on how I got on, I would either sleep in my own room or wherever I found a better bed. Locking my front door and smiling at my own habit as I put my keys in my pocket, I started walking up towards the top platform.
The eight Brutalist, Modernist vessels are condemned but underneath the crumbling cladding, the protruding rebars, the hundred swearwords in a hundred languages on the walls, the ships are seaworthy. They look cumbersome and heavy – standing stones, sarcophagi, obelisks – but they will be a haven in the sky.
Again she goes to check on the seven lines that connect her ship to the others, and finding them taut she nods to herself, satisfied. FOUR She feels the waves of loneliness and quiet roll in over her until she can’t stop the tears. Then the noise, which was a low rumble at first, and has now risen rising to the roar of a thousand amplified lions, escalates. Walking back to the tiller the Pilot thinks about her son, and the story of Departure she will tell him. If he wakes up.
Using the hammer I managed to break the padlock on the door leading to the top platform. I had been up here before when I was younger. I knew there was a lift service shed, probably a mountain of beer bottles and fag ends, a high fence with barbed wire keeping the drunks in and capturing nearsighted pigeons. When I stepped out onto the platform I had expected chaos and fires on the horizon, maybe helicopters or planes, but it was completely empty. No points of light anywhere, just an even grey blanketing me in. There was nothing at all apart from the persistent noise and now the lump in my tattered voice box grew even bigger, choking me.
I looked in all directions and to my despair I realised I would die alone. If not today, then soon. Robbed of sunlight, of hearing, of fellow humans, of a reason to keep it together.
Then I thought I glimpsed movement in one of the corners of the platform. I walked over and found that a thick wire had been tied to a quayside steel ring, and they were moving slightly. I THREE realised the wire must be tied to something, as it was taut and stretched straight out in front of me rather than down towards the ground. I yanked it but it seemed to be held in place solidly on the other side too. Then I saw something, maybe a big bird? Then I felt everything move underneath me.
Accompanying her for the initial stage will be a Peregrine falcon. The winged guardian has been nesting and crying out from one of the high masts for many years, but she’s not seen it yet today. Then she thinks she sees movement on top of one of the other ships. She crosses the platform with an arm raised for the bird to land on. Again there’s movement, and now her heart can’t believe what her eyes see.
There’s so little time, and the roar and the distance makes it almost impossible to convey her message to him. She screams and gestures, flaps her arms like the falcon.
Her hair is like a dark halo around her, whipping in the wind. She’s cupping her hands around her mouth, TWO but I can’t hear what she’s shouting. She points at her wrist, then makes rapid running motions with her hands. I takes this to mean she’s in a rush. Then she points at me. I’m in a rush too, it seems. Then she reaches down and starts pulling on the rope. Her motions send waves across to my platform and the ring where the wire is attached rattles. She waves both her hands for me to come to her. I shake my head, thinking of the front door. She’s persistent in her pantomime. She starts desperately pointing to the sky, and it dawns on me. In the middle of the monstrous rumble I realise I have no other option.
Running downstairs and breaking down doors, I start looking for ropes, wires, harnesses, whatever people on scaffolding use. Anything to tie myself to the rope connecting me to her. Anything to traverse the abyss that separates me from her.
He runs away from the platform but she doesn’t think he has understood. She is forced to return to the helm, anxious and resigned. Her mind soon occupied with the complexities of gravity.
The ships in the armada will form a convoy. They, like the Santa Maria, Niña and Pinta, will set out to find a fabled land. Soon they will cast off from their mooring, becoming nothing more than diminishing lights in the sky. The eight giants will rise ONE into the sky, leaving nothing but concrete rubble. Moulting, shredding the red shrouds they have been forced to wear. This cerecloth will be left on the ground, rubbed off while the crackling, whipping flames propelling the vessels upwards will paint the sky. The ships are made from fuel and fire, and valves and pipes, too big to believe when on the ground, and impossible-looking marching through the skies. No one will witness the spectacle.
There are uncertain waters awaiting the Pilot and the five thousand she has been put in charge of. She thought she would be making the journey alone, but now she can’t take her eyes off him. As he attaches himself to the wire connecting the two vessels she find herself praying with clammy palms. As time is running out she reluctantly returns to the helm. She no longer squints looking for a trace of light, she no longer cries. She now looks for a head of hair as light as hers is dark. A man suspended, traversing. She now looks to the dark seas of her future with a NOW quickly beating heart.