With a bunch of drunk Portuguese guests screeching I’m not Spanish as a backdrop,
Sila sat down at the coffee-stained table
in the hostel kitchen
rubbed at the arm that he’d slept on funny the night before
and tried to read the Chinese on the carton with a substandard lemon pic. One word, lemon, obviously, but the rest of it
and even when Joanna intercepted his brainwaves and said no sugar lemon tea, there was no flinch or tut or bite back in raw Slovene, just a concentrated shift to the stairs leading down to the hostel entrance.
‘Staring will definitely make it happen,’ said Joanna, sucking the carton into disrepair then throwing the remains towards the bin [and missing]. Irritated, she got up and corrected the mistake, saying no to the Portuguese guy trying to hand her a tambourine.
On the couches, in the adjoining communal zone, the rest of the drunks stopped singing. For four seconds. Then started up with a new song, this one in more advanced Portuguese.
Joanna gave it one line before muttering, ‘vai, vai, vai, vai, vai, vai,’ and heading back to her seat.
Sila was still stuck on the stairs, mesmerised.
‘You need a telescope?’ she tried, unsure of her own line.
‘Okay. No telescope.’
Eyes half hazed, she turned and stared at the Santa Sangre poster on the wall for a good seven minutes, mind shifting in soft moves between the film and the director, the setting and a flight back home, family and insanity, a cartoon duck she used to find funny when she was small, that same duck with blood on its beak as a tiny blonde girl bit a human finger off, smiling, in a simulacrum of an adoption office, which in her logical mind she knew was just the façade of immigration.
The poster lost her, replaced by the Vacas print next to it. Then the Basket Case art. Then the staircase, and the thought of what might come up.
That wasn’t coming up.
That might still come up.
If the green-wigged aswang had miscalculated in some way.
‘It’s those caverns,’ said Sila, turning to examine the palm of his hand. ‘Some kind of dark magic in them.’
‘And the rest of it.’
‘Soon as her finger touched the wall, she stopped noticing us. Didn’t hold our hand so much. Nah, the other stuff is just decoration. The caverns are the thing…to catch the conscience of the…whatever Celia is.’
‘Well, we are not caverns.’
Sila chuckled, turning it into a cough. For the seven hundredth time. Phased it out. Muttered in Slovene. Got up and took his cup to the sink, refilled with apparently safe water, and sat back down. Rubbed at the nebulous pain in his arm. Stared at his palm again.
Joanna stared at the same thing, what she thought was the life line, and coughed. ‘If I tell you we should go to the bus station tomorrow, will you look like a Russian again?’
A nod in response, followed by a repeat of go to the bus station.
‘Now that it’s just us…’
Joanna paused, at the same time as the background singing. ‘You agree?’
‘Room booking ends tomorrow.’
‘We’re not going to extend?’
‘For a few more English lessons? And whatever you’re doing with those Mandarin learners. Nah, I think we’re done here.’ He looked up from the study of his own palm, smirking. ‘No more Madonna dream.’
Joanna nodded, moving her hand to grab at a lemon tea carton that wasn’t there.
‘Besides, Lisboa is pretty decent. Borderline beautiful, actually. Everything has this kind of light pastel colour to it.’
‘And the cabinets?’
Sila grunted, switching to the Santa Sangre poster.
‘Still on a break?’
‘I’m going back to the room. Pack for tomorrow.’
‘Maybe watch an episode of Trek. The space station one. See if it can distract me a bit. You staying here?’
Joanna held up the Gum Yong book, its cover Chinese and unreadable.
‘Keep one eye on the staircase then. Just in case.’
An ep of Trek wasn’t the worst idea, if it had been the one where the Malkovian scientist leaves with the Enterprise at the end, or the one where Rom forms a union or any Worf-centred hour,
but it wasn’t any of those
it was The Visitor, one he usually avoided cos it made him dig up things, incapacitated him, and
despite compensating with quick searches for Lisboa pastel buildings very beautiful summer time, Sila couldn’t block out the image of an aged Tony Todd in a blonde wig, telling Sila with a Sisko name badge that the bond had to be severed, and living in Celia’s Phalanstére wasn’t so bad, the walls were rough and ancient and
if you squinted hard enough
there could be a hundred demons around you, gregarious, sociable, instead of twenty-five mute ones.
It was still bleak, but not the bleakest
enough for Sila to accept for the ninth time that Søren would be okay where she was, without them, but
if they really were going to leave her behind
then at the very least they should go and say goodbye, otherwise
what were they?
Almost an hour after the Trek epiphany, and twenty-five minutes after he finally managed to sell the idea to a blank, tambourine holding Joanna,
the two parents were back outside Mate De Neptuno, staring in at a deserted bar that couldn’t possibly stay in business if every night was like this.
Unless of course, Celia had used her longevity immortality won’t die until the sun retracts to stockpile enough wealth to keep it going
which was very possible
judging by the calm mask on her face as she sat on her usual sofa, bodyguarded by uncle Neptune above, either staring at the bicycle repair shop opposite or dust floating muon-size on the night air.
Walking in with both hands out of his Matjaz hoodie pockets, and wincing when the pain in his arm started up again, Sila crouched down in front of the aswang and pre-empted with, ‘we’re not here to cause trouble,’ before moving into his Søren goodbye request.
Celia’s eyes moved, a little to the left, but there were no accompanying words.
‘We just want to say goodbye,’ Sila added, performing a mock begging gesture, which broke almost instantly as the aswang yet again failed to respond.
‘Two minutes only,’ said Joanna, coming in from the other side, waving a hand in front of Celia’s face.
Nothing. No flicker of irritation, no flinch.
‘I think she’s in a trance.’
‘Fine. We’ll just go straight down.’
‘You think the door will be open?’
Sila started walking, shaking his head at the deep red bulb above the counter, pushing through into the back room and wiping non-existent dust off the banister of the stairs as he went down.
Joanna caught up to him on the bottom step, saying that it didn’t really need to be said but this whole thing was creepy and maybe it would be better if they just left a note, or one of their email addresses.
‘If she’s in the caverns…you go in one side, I’ll take the other.’
‘Not a good idea.’
‘Use your phone as a torch.’
‘And a weapon…’
Joanna pulled out her phone and confirmed that, once again, there was no signal in underground Phalanstére, not for her at least, but the grey-skinned basketball player standing by the Archives, hand tucked around Søren’s, other hand typing something, they were okay.
Must be a local service, she thought, stepping back as Sila continued on, wondering if Søren would even notice they were there.
Or was the lighting too dim?
Compared to the deep red glow upstairs, it wasn’t much different, but for some reason it was hard to make out the features on Søren’s face,
just the blonde mat of hair cocooning it.
Blonde padding out a black hole
a future murder tool
but not now, apparently, as Sila exchanged silent words with her, did a sesame street wave, very embarrassing, then backed off and watched as the miracle daughter returned to the far cavern wall
caressing something clearly more valuable
then retreating as a floating blonde wig into the shadows.
‘Barely even looked at me,’ Sila said about seven separate times, as they walked at half their original pace back up the stairs, through the main floor of Mate De Neptuno, and out onto the streets of Sevilla.
Nearby, two locals helped another guy to vomit next to a bin, three girls competed against themselves in front of a shop window, the sky drifted pink, and, behind them, Celia was still in her trance
fingers on the glowing purple necklace.
Joanna tugged on Sila’s hoodie sleeve, telling him it was weird, but not that weird when you considered that she was an aswang.
‘Wah…too hard,’ he replied, rubbing his arm.
‘It still hurts?’
‘If you prod it, yeah.’
He kept rubbing, walking forward past the dancing girls, the vomiting local, then did a pivot and came back. Without disguise, he stared back into the Mate De Neptuno.
‘She can’t see you,’ said Joanna, holding her position.
‘Probably some kind of meditation.’
‘It’ll be okay tomorrow. After some rest.’
‘No, my arm. The whole time I was down there…no pain. Soon as I come back out…’
‘You were distracted.’
‘It’s related…the necklace, some kind of trick. Has to be. Look at her eyes, her body…’
‘We’re not going back in.’
He turned, opened his mouth then gestured at his arm as if it really were key to something and headed back inside.
Half-worried, mostly annoyed, Joanna followed.
The deep red lighting blinked unorthodox as they parked themselves in front of Celia again, Sila grabbing the aswang by the shoulders and shaking until her hand detached from the necklace.
‘Downstairs, if you must,’ she replied, swaying limply from right to left but making no attempt to shake off Sila’s grip.
‘If you’ve hurt her…’
‘Bada bada bada bada. Beyond you now…far beyond.’
Sila let go, backed off almost into Joanna behind him, and then muttered, ‘what did she…’ as the lights blinked again and
they were on the stairs
the skateboard invisible but surely there, and then not there as the floor levelled out and Phalanstére beckoned, filling itself in with block inserts, Archives, Language Exchange, Info Shop, Snacks, Telephone Exchange, stores that probably weren’t stores, unnamed, the bean bags and
to the left, a new structure
a wooden stage set
Celia Von Trier
five totems stretching up and dissolving into vague green haze at the top, Søren attached to one, Cool Spot sweater over medical robe, a dark-skinned man hung upside down adjacent, a white-skinned woman on the other side, all three linked by transparent wires into the neck and dark red blood flowing between
Cronenbergian body triptych
retching, bile, spit
get her down in Slovene
fuck in Cantonese
Phalanstére vibrating, pulsating within its foundations as both Sila and Joanna stumbled over, tripping, falling, crawling, swinging wildly at the blue-coated windpipe hanging down from the aswang’s head as
Celia attacked, shrieking maniacally, spouting gibberish in Tagalog and then
on a De Sasssssssaurian level
in comfort English
grunting in satisfaction as Sila and Joanna understood, then attacking again, teeth first, talons and the rest of her form somewhere else
controlling the lights perhaps, or the wall tremors, or the phantom switching of position by the three bodies tied up on the totems
but the head was enough
to dig into Sila’s arm and put him down
green lights shifting to darker green in celebration
totems settling on two bodies only
the third crawling snake-like past the beanbags, blonde hair swirling as it launched upwards and grabbed hold of Celia’s scalp, her windpipe, ripping out one eye, clawing at the cheeks then,
maybe out of pity
dropping the blue-soaked mess into the lap of another demon, who had materialised out of nothing next to the Archives, along with a circle of comrades, all in the same trance state as the simulacrum of Celia in Mate De Neptuno upstairs.
‘… … … … … … …’ came in gutter Tagalog as Joanna pulled Sila up by the sleeve, grabbed Søren’s hand and dragged the three of them back up the stairs
into the bar
and out for the second time onto the streets of Sevilla,
both the drunk and the dancing girls gone,
the sky a very human shade of
‘It’s not deep,’ said Sila, wiping the blood off his arm wound, then looking back to see if anyone was on their tail.
‘… … … … … …’ replied Søren, eyes neon yellow, red dot cartoon character dotted with Celia’s blue blood.
‘… … … … …’
He looked at Joanna, who was shaking her head. ‘We should keep going, get away from here.’
‘Or burn the place down. Fucking aswang…’
Søren yanked on Sila’s sleeve, making him bite down on a scream from the wound movement. ‘… … … … …’
‘She said she wants us to go,’ translated Joanna, head now stable, eyes on the end of the four-inch wide street.
‘Just a guess.’
She gestured at his wound, and then blocked the way as he shook his head and tried to go back.
‘What about those other two people?’
‘Don’t know, don’t care.’
‘… … … … …’
‘She said please can we go back to the hostel and stop tempting aswangs to come out and bite you again.’
‘… … … …’
Sila looked at the sign above the bar, the dark red neon of Mate De Neptuno, and said fine again. Then circled round Joanna and jogged up to the entrance.
Inside, it had shifted, the scenery lit green.
Customers, three groups around different tables, drinking.
The two demon staff at the counter, staring outwards.
And on the sofa, beneath the imagined ball of Neptune, a grinning Celia, full-bodied, double-eyed, awake.
‘You understand…’ she whispered, her voice somehow reaching Sila’s ears, ‘she’ll devour you both. One day.’
‘Determinist,’ Sila mumbled back, frowning at his own answer, then holding up his dripping arm wound as a trophy
saying it’s fucking nothing in Slovene
and going back to Joanna and their miracle daughter, who added something in Danish that he assumed was praise
or decided it was.
Better that than the aswang’s right.
Back at the hostel, things were inverted.
All the guests were outside, some of them smoking on nearby steps, others napping on benches that had been overlooked by those fuckers on the local council who usually put spikes up to stop the homeless getting a decent night’s sleep.
‘Fire alert,’ explained the hostel night manager, pointing up at smoke coming from one of the second floor windows.
‘Started by who?’
‘Should be okay, thirty minutes.’
Sila nodded, keeping his hand over the giant blood stain on his hoodie sleeve, and went back to Joanna and Søren, relaying the explanation.
‘The Portuguese singers…’ said Joanna, folding her arms and staring at the tambourine guy by the bin.
She continued to stare as Sila guided Søren over to a nearby step, or Søren guided him, using her fake irritation as a stopgap excuse to stay where she was,
thinking not of the fire
or the bizarro sacrifice ritual they’d just staggered through
or the arguable rescue of a sub-child, with blue blood all over her cartoon sweater
but the future
the non-tech, non-Mars version
where she would go to Lisboa, perhaps home to Hong Kong, with a child who didn’t look like her, who would eventually devour them both, and a guy who couldn’t, on an atomic level, forget about cabinets.
She looked over at them, the blonde demon examining Sila’s arm wound, blank-faced, probably muttering ancient Danish.
Then at the wisps of smoke eking out of the hostel window.
Then at her makeshift family again.
Was this it?