Paul McQuade’s story begins in the epic mode — “It all began with magma. The Earth was young and molten…” — and spins a tale that is legendary and fantastic, pinned against a backdrop of alchemy and Death, a tale that knowingly situates itself somewhere between Genesis and Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. He will write sentences like “The mammalian clades survived through some fluke of furred instinct” which mesmerizes with its use of that strange word “clades” and the alliteration. When he writes, McQuade follows the words, tone and sound. Lovely to read.
Paul McQuade is a young Scottish writer living in Japan, a newcomer to Numéro Cinq, a wonderful discovery.
It all began with magma. The Earth was young and molten, flowed bright, flowed regardless of the chaos it caused as it roared and tore, spilling thermal radiation. The atmosphere descended over it dragged down by new and invisible forces.
Moisture gathered in the air as cloudbursts of ink. The hot droplets writhed atomic, were changed into something posited with minerals and iron. They undulated low above the molten world, grew too heavy to support themselves.
Then they fell.
First one lone drop plummeted to the Earth’s red-gold, evaporated before it touched the surface. Death is a cold thing. It lingers. The air, for the first time, grew chill. The rest came tumbling down with a drum roll, turned the earth black with a drawn out snare hiss. By the time the clouds were empty the Earth was a chunk of cool obsidian. Life came, sprang in single cells and simple grasses, in gum-eyed amphibians and air-breathing arthropods, in horned things with lizard skins.
The air cracked as the sky admitted one last drop, ten thousand metres across, carrying with it the silver flare of iridium and all the gravity of an ending.
When the dust settled everything was encased in blue-white. Across the Earth the king-lizards shivered and fell, left only bones. The rest dissolved into particles of oil that gathered beneath the earth’s surface in lakes of black sludge. Of the reptile rulers of the young world only something like liquid remained. Sic semper tyrannis.
Walter lives on the eastern side of the lake, Eva lives on the western. Walter lives in the apartment above the fishmonger’s where he works and sleeps on the floor. Around the fishmonger are houses, and around them yet more. All the little houses are gathered on the eastern side of the lake, where at night oil lamps glow clean and bright while the dull orange of the sunset vanishes in the lake’s deep black.
Eva lives in the shadow of the mountain. Around her are fields of barley, pastures for sheep, and land that no one has claimed. Eva lives in a caravan painted apple-red. Her mother’s fingernails are the same colour. As her mother lays out the arcana in a fan, the red seems liquid. Across from her mother, sitting on a stool upholstered in azure, a woman from the eastern side of the lake winches a handkerchief in her hands, asks, Well?
Your husband, Eva’s mother says, is betraying you. Here she spits for effect. If you want him back, she says, I can help you. The woman passes a handful of silver, which her mother puts in a velvet pouch in place of a vial of off-white liquid.
Eva’s mother can distil almost anything. In the cupboards of the cramped caravan where they sleep on a bed that folds out on wailing springs, there are bottles of Love and Hate, Luck, Protection and Beauty. Her mother does not sell Death, or at least, Eva has never known her to do so. But she has it in a black vial. Just in case.
Eva lives in the shadow of the mountain and the shadow of her mother, whose talents she does not possess. The western shore is where they have stayed longest, perhaps because they are protected from the town by the lake, whose water is as black as Death.
In the afternoons, when the morning rush has subsided, Walter carries leftover fish to sell in the camp on the other side of the lake. He takes a small yellow rowboat. The paint is reflected on the surface of the water, but the water of the lake is so dark that the wan afternoon light vanishes in it. The lake water is exceptionally peaty. The fish they catch in it taste like smoke.
Walter and Eva meet each other in the late afternoon. She is beating carpets in the yard where a couple of pigeons peck at bare earth. She thanks him for the fish and passes him some silver. The coins are hand-hot. They have passed from the hands of the town woman to her mother’s, where in each palm an x is written in lines deep as graves. This marks her mother as gifted. From her mother’s hands the silver passed to Eva’s, whose left palm bears a scar from where she cut it with a paring knife when she was eight. Ten years later the scar is a white hollow.
Walter and Eva meet every day. Eva’s mother says she is sick of fish but is so tired staying up late by candlelight reading cards that she accepts it grudgingly, replaces a damp towel over her eyes. Walter’s triceps become smooth pebbles. He can now cross the lake in under thirty minutes.
The two things Eva’s mother cannot distil are Money and Time.
One night Walter rows the dark water without fish in the boat. On the other side he picks Eva up and takes her halfway across the lake. In the dead centre the moonlight picks up only hints of waves. When Walter was little a man came to town with puppets made of black paper. It occurs to him, in the middle of the lake, with Eva’s flesh giving off the smell of soap and orange blossom, that the world looks very much like those puppets. But he soon forgets.
The buttons of Eva’s blouse come off in his hands like fish scales. Two drop in the water and are never seen again.
The mammalian clades survived through some fluke of furred instinct. And when a group of them rose from the earth to meet the sky, spines cracking as they went, they brought with them the Dead. The Dead lived with the new mammals, fluttered in the wind like trails of smoke, and clung to the gooseflesh of their former shapes. Death is a cold thing. The new world suited them quite nicely.
The mammals began to bury their dead. The Dead were overly sentimental and stayed with their bones. Under the new layers of soil, the bodies melted, were absorbed into the earth’s lithosphere. The most abundant mineral in soil is calcium.
The bones of the dead were scattered across varied strata. The Dead had nothing left to hold on to. Lost in the dirt, the Dead wandered feebly, tried to reassemble their skeletons in soil far too warm for them. The Earth’s heart stayed red-hot despite the efforts of glaciers, which far above the Dead, rearranged its face.
The glaciers were just as reckless as the Earth had been in its youth. They travelled pell-mell, across the continents and the islands that sprang from the ocean depths. As they did so, the glaciers diminished, became less and less themselves as they travelled, leaving trails of ice water in their wake like comet tails. The water fell into valleys and deep caverns but mostly into the oceans. As the water table rose, a flood of cold water came up through the earth and reached the Dead. The Dead plunged in. They liked the water. Death is a cold thing.
The groundwater coursed unseen through the continents, who were at that time adolescent and finding new and awkward ways to fit into each other. The Dead split and flowed, following rivulets and outpourings to wetlands, reservoirs, and lakes.
When the glaciers were gone, only a part of them remained. The smallest part. Something like a soul. Clear as ice water, small as a sliver of bone. Only something like liquid remained.
Alanys is born in the middle of the lake.
Eva and Walter go back and forth and back and forth on errands neither really has to do but Walter’s parents are dead and Eva’s mother needs to sleep. The fishmonger Walter lives with is too busy keeping his knives clean to notice. Eva’s father lives in another town and doesn’t even know she exists. Back and forth and back and forth. Eva loses buttons. Walter loses socks. Over the side they go.
Then one day, Alanys comes. Eva hadn’t even noticed. Alanys had been an invisible guest, silently drinking nutrients of smoke-fish and distillations of Youth and Beauty through the pink umbilicus that tied her to her mother.
As they row back to the western shore in silent shock, the waves dance eagerly.
On the eastern side of the lake they bury the dead. In the caravan camp on the western shore they burn them. The people on the western side do not believe the soul should be tethered. The people on the eastern want to cling on to the bones of love, say this was the shape of it, the thing of it, this is what I had and lost. And the whole time their grief fills them like a cold satisfaction. Death is a cold thing.
In a field of grass on the eastern side, six feet deep, arms and legs and torsos melt into the soil. They are converted and transmuted, take on different chemical properties.
Dying is the essence of pure alchemy.
Eva’s mother tries to kill the baby for the first time when it is less than an hour old.
Mama, Eva says as she passes the baby to her mother, I think I’m going to call her Alanys.
Her mother spits and says, Don’t name it. Then she lowers the baby down on to the bed with the wailing springs and places a pillow over it with a talon-grip. Beneath the fabric, the baby tries to cry. The sound comes from far away.
Walter strikes Eva’s mother across the head with his forearm. She falls into the wall of the red caravan, then rights herself and says, It has to die. It has to die.
If a child is born on water it must be drowned.
We will put the body in the lake.
Eva calls her mother a mad witch.
Eva’s mother says, The baby has no roots. The Dead —
Walter wraps his arm around Eva. They walk out the house together, baby Alanys in her mother’s arms.
Eva’s mother spits blood on to the floor. Then she goes and gets a box from a slit in the bed with the wailing springs. She sits and rolls a black vial in her hands and forgets to light candles. The red lacquer on her fingers looks blood-black in the twilight. As she looks out across the lake, she hears the Dead howl and whoop as they dance above the waves.
By the time she is four hours old, Alanys has orbited the entirety of her life: from the dead centre of her birth to the apple-red caravan, from the apple-red caravan to the fishmonger, eclipsing briefly the point of her departure from the amnion. The crossing of the lake takes much longer going back. The water sticks to the oars like oil. Around the young father, mother and child, a chill wind rises, causing little Alanys to scream. Eva tries to console the baby while Walter forces the oars to churn the black water.
Eva’s mother is still fondling a bottle of black liquid in the caravan when they step foot on the western shore. Eva holds the baby close to her breast, to keep her safe from the wind as they make their way to the fishmonger. Upon seeing Eva’s hooped earrings and long brown skirt, her dark features and the baby in her arms, the fishmonger shakes his head sadly and says, Boy, you don’t know what you did. And then he chops the head off a fish that tastes like smoke, guts it, fillets it, wraps the white flesh in brown paper and hands it to the couple.
He lets them use a cabin he owns on the north side of the lake, on the foot of the mountain, where he likes to go in summer to get away from the town.
He says, You can stow the baby there and no one will be none the wiser. But you know, boy, you can’t bring that woman into town.
He spits on the floor for emphasis. The saliva curls across burnt orange tiles and mingles with fish blood.
When Alanys is eight years old she meets a man with no face. It takes all his strength just to be there, to try to touch her, no matter how many times his hand slips right through her. Alanys thinks he is trying to speak but she cannot explain why she feels this way.
Eva tells her not to be silly. That she sounds like her grandmother.
Who? Alanys asks.
Eva’s mother packs up the apple-red caravan, says goodbye to her friends, and sets off to the West. She begins by asking around the town where the oil lamps keep the night at bay, but no one has seen her daughter or the child. She inquires at a fishmonger who never stops cutting the heads off fish the entire time they speak. He has not seen anything. There is something about the man she doesn’t trust, but there is too much fish blood on the floor, and she leaves as fast as she can.
She travels her whole life backwards trying to find a place where Eva might have gone. Every night she lays out cards with shiny red nails and each time they tell her the same thing. The cards speak in rebus and what they show is this: a man hanging by his toes from a tree, a tower, the moon, and a page bearing a silver cup.
Eventually she admits defeat, gives up, stops asking.
She packs up the apple-red caravan and sets off back to where she lost her daughter. She intends to settle by the black lake and mourn. In the pocket of her dress, nestled against the curve of her hipbone, is a vial of liquid black as Death.
When Alanys is fourteen she meets a boy by the lake. He has no face but he is nice, gives her a white flower. They walk together, round the lake, where the black water trembles in the wind.
Alanys talks to the boy. He does not talk back, just shifts his head up and down as if listening very hard. When she asks him questions he seems sad. He lowers his faceless head. Alanys puts her hand on his arm.
Due to a quirk in mammalian biology, the species did not stop dividing. Like the particles of mineral-laden moisture, like the glacier giants, they began to gather and disperse, gather and disperse, gather and disperse. As if all life is just a process of condensation and evaporation.
The Living are soft as beds. Christopher enters the girl. Once inside, he stretches his arms and legs out to fill every corner of her, until he can feel the cold mountain wind on each fingertip, the dull ache of all ten of her numbing toes. He breathes. Christopher has not breathed for a very long time.
It is good to have a body. The flesh of it, the weight, the sheer sense of being. Tiny things innumerable and imperceptible to the Living.
Christopher stands up and walks back to the house. When he goes through the door his new mother holds him tight and says, Baby, you are so cold, sit by the fire.
To the Dead, fire is nothing but blindness. To living flesh it is vital. Christopher puts his new fingers so close to the flames that they blister.
The Dead do not have flesh or language. They consider this cruel. The only thing the Dead want is to feel and to speak. Above all they want to speak. To be heard. As something more than chair scrapes, something more than house creaks. Something more than nothing.
When Eva’s mother arrives, she finds the camp in which she used to live is gone and something wrong in the air. The x’s in her palms ache.
She finds the house on the north shore of the lake, underneath the shadow of the mountain, and inside she finds her daughter and one of the Dead. She makes amends, cries, and that night sits down to dinner with her daughter and her family. Walter does not say a word. Every time Eva looks at Alanys, her eyes tighten at the corners and then she looks at her mother, almost pleading.
The Dead do not fear death. They are trusting. Only flesh withers. Before climbing into bed that night, Christopher drinks the whole vial just like his new grandmother told him to. It tastes like purple flowers.
Eva’s mother takes the body to the water and weights it down with stones.
The eyes are closed, as if sleeping the deep sleep of a newborn world. The lashes come undone, one by one, float up and up, twist through the black water. When they are gone the eyelids open but there is nothing inside. The flesh unribbons from the bones, then dissolves into black particles that forget being flesh. The bare bones fall next to two buttons and a sock in the soil.
Only something like liquid remains. Only the smallest part. Clear as ice water. Small as a sliver of bone.
Paul McQuade was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and educated in Tokyo, Japan. He now lives somewhere in between. Working creatively and academically in both Japanese and English, his writing has been featured online and in print, most recently in Metazen, Little Fiction, and Cadaverine.