‘Round Yon Virgin Mother And Child
They were too late.
The scene in front of them was like a granular tableau scraped on the canvass with a palette knife, full of heavy colour, yet expressionless and devoid of life.
The woman was dead, her body lay cooling against the laminate floor, dark hair spread in a mix of her own blood and dark, viscous mud. Her husband knelt beside her, his hand still clutching his game controller, while across the room the flat screen exploded with the violence of an animated war.
Both Jack and Gwen eased into the room, their attention, like that of the husband’s, on the dated figure clutching a six month old child. A muddy sediment pooled at his feet as he turned his bloated face to greet the newcomers. Jack looked over his shoulder and gestured for Tosh to stay by the door; she gave a curt nod.
He crouched down next to the body the soldier’s creamy gaze following him. Jack touched the husband lightly on his back drawing the man, fleetingly, from the cries of his son. “Where are the others?”
The stunned man frowned. “What… I..?”
Jack changed tact. “Were there any others?”
“I… Yes… They… Hannah she… The baby…” He went to stand but Jack held him back.
“They left,” he whispered finally looking over the body of his wife.
Jack pulled the man to his feet. “Tosh, take him outside and see if you can reach Ianto and Owen.” He stepped away as Tosh pried the controller from the husband’s grasp and guided him to the front door letting the cold air in as she opened it.
Gwen shivered and moved forward as Jack stood by her. “It’s Isaac isn’t it?” She let her gun drop to her side, her eyes never leaving the baby.
The dead man turned to the sound of her voice dwelling on the pitch of his name as if he was not used to hearing it. “Yes, miss.” Water and slime dripped from his lips.
She held out her hand. “Why don’t you give me the child?”
His eyes shifted to the struggling infant. “Can’t do that, it has to die, see.”
The grandfather clock, by the staircase, worked piecemeal on the seconds its lavish pendulum swinging with a strident resolve. Gwen felt its pound echo through her skin.
“Why?” she asked, “it’s just a baby.”
The soldier squashed his swollen lips in thought, a lone beetle escaping through the sponge of their flesh. “It’s not right, its blood belongs to us, George broke the pact.”
Isaac drew the child closer to his water filled chest causing liquid to seep into the child’s cotton baby grow. A yell from a computer generated GI caught everyone’s attention, they turned to the flat screen and a 3D Normandy beach littered with bodies.
Isaac shook his head and turned away. “I don’t understand what we fought for, I don’t understand this world.”
“That’s because you don’t belong in it,” Jack spat out, “this is not your time, you died on the battlefield of Passchendaele.”
Gwen shot Jack a quieting look but the young soldier just laughed, it was a miserable sound. “You think I don’t know that.” There was no anger in his voice; just sorrow.
“I live that death for eternity fighting against the mud as it slowly fills my lungs and buries me as if I never was. Covered and forgotten, a cold and silent death, alone in the night with only the demons of my thoughts for company.”
He shook his head. “And as I wait for the inevitable, I pray, I pray for a shell blast or a bullet, I pray for a quick death not the leisurely slip of the mud’s embrace but no one answers my plea. I guess God’s too busy weeping at the follies of men to hear one cry above all others.” His fingers encompassed the child’s head touching the soft pulse of the infant’s fontanel, a harsh reminder that he was of dead flesh.
He glanced at Gwen. “I have no grave, see, no marker, nothing to say ‘I was here’.”
He cradled the baby and looked down as it nestled into his hold. “No child of my own to carry my footprint into the future. I’d survived so much, is it wrong to want more, to live?”
Gwen edged forward. “It is when it costs the lives of others,” she whispered gently.
He looked to Jack for clarification questioning his motives as the baby stirred against him finding no warmth. “She promised us life.”
“She lied,” Jack said bluntly, “Isaac Bevan died at Passchendaele.”
“Then who am I?” he paused, “what am I?”
The child began to cry again, the game exploded with bursts of gun fire and the grandfather clock chimed the passing of another hour.
“Dead,” Jack answered.
Isaac held his gaze a moment longer, his stare stripping him of any pretence. “Is this all there is?”
It was a weighty question, a spiritual one and Jack had no answer to give, no comfort to offer. He swallowed, the background noise retreating. “I don’t know,” he answered honestly.
The dead man bowed his head. “Then I am indeed a sinner for I’m in hell.” He kissed the baby gently on the head, his lips anointing it with a daub of earth.
Gwen took another step forward almost touching the child. Isaac looked up. “Here,” he said holding out the infant, “I wouldn’t want to condemn another to the same fate.”
Gwen went to gather up the child but the soldier hesitated, his body trembling. His gaze fell to the baby in his arms. “I’m sorry,” he whispered in a broken voice, snatching it quickly away from the outstretched hands.
He cried in pain and Gwen felt the sting of a slap cut her face but no one had touched her. She stumbled back as Isaac lifted his head and glared at her, the skin of his face moulding itself into that of an old woman, a green light spilling from the dead man’s eyes.
“No!” The refusal was distinctly feminine and split by age. “This blood is mine!” Spit spewed from the soldier’s open mouth giving the words substance.
The child was dragged further into a watery embrace, sludge baptising the soft down of its head causing it to cough and gasp under the flood. Jack pushed Gwen aside and aimed high, firing a shot through the top of the soldier’s head. Sediment bled from the wound and a handful of red slugs writhed in the seep of its movement.
Isaac looked to the captain, the grimace of a smile pushing at the haggard grooves in his cheeks. “Have you learned nothing?” the voice drooled, “your bullets are useless.”
Jack grinned. “Who said anything about bullets?”
Cracks fractured from the impact crazing through the soldier’s skin like a drought on a dried up river bed. There was an ear-piercing cry deep within Isaac’s body making the light bulbs burst from their housings only the spark of the television saved them from darkness. The sage glow faded and with it Agroná’s imprint.
Isaac Bevan looked to the smoking gun and then to Jack, his face fracturing with the break of the alien’s hold and just for a second he became human once more. He closed his eyes and whispered, through lips that bore no age or injury, a prayer of thanks. Then his face fell apart, flesh slipping from bone that crumbled before even reaching the polish of the floor. Gwen rushed forward and caught the child as the dead man’s body turned to dust.
The second hand clawed at the clock face trying to steal more time but it was unable to shift its fine tip from where it was stuck between the stretch of a breath and its exhale. Time was twisting in a circle, lodged in a moment, surrendering its influence to a more ancient power.
The child began to wail as if sensing the malice circling the house.
Hailstones hit the window as the teeth of a storm snapped at the glass with acute anger. Tosh came running in, the husband close on her heels, both looked battered and wind swept as they fought to close the door.
The whole house was immersed in darkness as the flat screen erupted into several pieces, causing Gwen to cover the baby with her body as it shattered across the room.
It turned cold, the dust on the floor moving in a swirl of a promise. “You have taken one of mine; I shall take what is yours.”
Copyright RMC Dec 2017