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The blade slashed the length of the body before fingers dug into the flesh, peeling back skin, and ripping out the innards. Meat slapped in a tray and then the knife slashed again. The air in the shed was thick with the pungent smell of slurry dragged up from the riverbed and the contents of the eel’s digestive tract spilt by inexpert cuts. Tay’s stomach gurgled but she couldn’t look away.

Another bucket of eels was emptied onto the scratched table, workers grabbed for them and pinned them down, heavy blades chopped, and heads skittered into the corners, mouths flapping as they fell into heaps.

“What the fuck is this place?” Tay said with her hand clamped over her mouth.

Her chaperons had been quiet on the ride over, the older, sterner one in the back with her, twisted in her seat, staring at her the whole way while the younger drove and smiled at Tay in the mirror. Tay had asked questions but all she got was a blank smile and a craggy face. She didn’t expect anything different now.

“It’s an eel shed,” a woman said, her voice triggering a wave of childhood memories for Tay. The Great Mother was older than the last time Tay had seen her, but she was still impossibly tall, with red streaks running through her long grey hair.

“Great Mother,” Tay said bowing her head.

“How are you, my child?” The Great Mother reached out, cupping Tay’s chin with a hand larger than her face.

“I’m alright, been better I guess.”

“I imagine you have. It has been a hard life for you, no one understands that better than I.” The Great Mother wrapped Tay in a long powerful arm and turned her away from the bench. “What happened this morning, child?”

“You don’t know?” Tay asked looking up at the Great Mother as they walked further into the factory.

“I want to hear it from you.”

Tay hesitated, glancing up at the Great Mother. There were no secrets from her, no corner of the mind that she couldn’t penetrate, and Tay had no doubt that she already knew everything.

“I think they used the phreno that Dorn wanted Terry to deliver. I saw it on the table, open and on its side. It was horrible.”

“Did you take any of it?”

“No,” Tay hesitated, and the Great Mother squeezed her shoulder, the long arm still embracing her. Tay looked up at the face she had idolized in childhood, expecting sternness but instead finding only concern. “I did, twice, but we cut it before using it. I know we shouldn’t have; we knew it was wrong, but we were bored and at the time it didn’t seem like a bad idea. It was a wild trip which should have put us off, but I guess Terry wanted to try it again.”

“Why were you not with them?”

“I went for a walk. I had to get out and clear my head.”

“And did you?”

“No. When I got back to the flat I felt even more confused and then I opened the door and... and I saw them. They looked like they suffered, clambering over each other trying to escape. I breathed some of it in and passed out.”

“What happened then, and keep nothing from me, child? This is important.”

“I had this crazy dream but then I woke up and since then I feel like something's changed inside me like I’m not me anymore.”

“How so?” The Great Mother stopped to let a worker back a pallet truck out of a side room. A viscus liquid sloshed around inside a large container and Tay pointed at it, able to smell the contents despite the thick plastic.

“Is that phreno?” Tay asked pointing at the container as it was dragged towards the roller door at the front of the factory.

“Do not concern yourself with that,” the great mother said as they passed the open doorway to a laboratory.

“There’s enough there to last years.” Tay let out a low whistle at the stacks of milk jugs arranged on tables and the floor. Each one was full of a murky liquid that coated the sides as they were picked up by the workers. “Why do you need so much of it? That must be enough for the entire sector.”

“Do you feel different today, child?” the Great Mother asked, turning Tay’s head around with a gentle push from a long finger. “What has happened to make you feel like you aren’t yourself?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the world that’s different.” It was cold in the shed, her t-shirt damp from the rain and she rubbed her bare arms feeling the goosebumps under her fingertips. “I’m sorry I ran but I didn’t know what to do. They were dead and my head was swimming. I know I should have gone back but I don’t know what I could have done. I didn’t know when Dorn was going to turn up and the militia might have been called before that and I would have been arrested.” Tay took a breath. “Are you angry with me?”

“Of all my children you are the only one that could never disappoint me,” the Great Mother said. “I was concerned for your safety. When word reached me that you had vanished, I was beside myself with worry.”

“I’m sorry. I thought when they came for me that I was in trouble.”

“I sent them to fetch you because I could hear your pain. I can always hear you. I knew that you were having a revelation and didn’t want you to have to go through it alone.”

“Do you mean the visions? I’m not sure what they mean.”

“Your mind has always been capable of rejecting reality. You are here but you aren’t. You are a traveller, Tay, of the mind as well as the body and you roam further than anyone else. Others might think you are simple but not me, I know the truth.”

“People think I’m stupid?”

“Only because they don’t understand you. But I was there when you were born, you didn’t cry, you just looked up at me with these beautiful eyes and I knew you would be the one.”

“What one?” Tay scratched her neck. “I know you think I’m not stupid but could we, just for a moment, pretend that I am?”

“Child, you must stop this charade. This self-doubt only limits you and right now I need you to believe in yourself. Can you do that?”

“Yes?” Tay fought back the shrug, “I think.”

They reached a low sandbag wall that held back the swollen river. The channel entered the shed before being split by a dozen concrete islands connected by one long metal bridge. Chains dangled from the roof to half-submerged cages buffeted by the relentless flow. On the central island was a little room with a rusted door, suspended over the water by a fat chain.

“The river’s really high,” Tay said hoping the Great Mother had brought her there to see it and not for any other reason.

“What does the Temple of the Peripheral mean to you?” the Great Mother asked, turning Tay to stand in front of her.

“Home,” Tay said believing it to be the truth. She was born to it, grown up with it and throughout her life, the temple had been the defining institution, it was her family.

“And what is the ambition of the temple?” the Great Mother asked patiently, her hazel eyes flicking over every part of Tay’s face.

“To kill the snakes,” Tay said, looking at the Great Mother to see if she answered correctly. There was something about her face that reminded her of someone she’d met recently, but Tay struggled to think of who.

“And?” the Great Mother prompted.

“And ascend to paradise.”

“You once believed that the snakes were a lie. You shouted it for all to hear.”

“I was wrong when I said that. They’re real, I know that now. I’ve seen them.”

“You have not. There are no snakes in the sector, neither real nor phantoms. What you saw were hallucinations. Your mind snapped under the power of the undiluted phreno and in its attempt to bring order to the inner turmoil it conjured forth the snakes.”

“They were very real. One bit me!” Tay raised her arm, intending to offer the bite marks as proof but when she found the skin was unblemished, she looked at the Great Mother in confusion. “It bit me right here, I don’t understand.”

The Great Mother took her arm and gently brushed the skin.

“It wasn’t real, my child. In the early days, before I founded the temple, I employed the imagery of the serpents as a linguistic vehicle, one that would allow my patients to express their inner turmoil. The snakes are a way of conceptualising the chains of reality, but it escaped into the unsupervised group sessions and became a central tenet of a burgeoning belief system, one opposed to the direction of society.”

“The snakes escaped?”

“No, there has never been any snakes in the sector,” the Great Mother said. The shutters at the front of the shed rattled as they rose to let a van back in. “I tried to get away from them in later sessions, but I was a victim of their popularity. I wanted to help people and the story of the snakes brought more of them to me so in the end I was forced to accept the symbolism into my temple.”

“But I have one sitting here.” Tay placed a hand on her left shoulder. “A small yellow viper. It spoke to me.”

“Forget the snakes,” the Great Mother said, a touch of impatience working its way into her otherwise calm demeanour. “I’m trying to tell you that you are different from the rest. You were born to the temple, but you are not one of the faithful. Why do you think that is?”

“I don’t know what you mean. I love the temple, it’s my family.”

“The temple teaches that family limits us, it traps us. The sole function of the family unit is to break the spirit of the child and ensnare the adult in a web of responsibility that prevents them from ever breaking free of reality. You grew up free from family and became a beautiful spirit, driven only by the winds of your desire.” The Great Mother beamed at Tay, but Tay wasn’t so sure. There had been an ache in her heart for as long as she could remember. It had waxed and waned over the years but when she looked back, she could see empty spaces where family should have been.

“Your solitude liberated you but still you sought a connection with another,” the Great Mother said. “You loved her, didn’t you?”

“Mara? I don’t know, I can’t remember.”

“You did. I listened to what you said about her in your sessions. It was love, Tay, never doubt that. She broke your heart and sent you back to us and for that, I also loved her, for she gave me back my daughter.”

“But I didn’t, it wasn’t real,” Tay said staring down at the snake on the back of her hand. The line of questioning was leaving her feeling unsure of herself. “I killed her. She died because of me.”

“Are you sure? Did you pull the trigger or order the killer to do what she did? The murderer and the victim are both channelled by their environments, by the countless peripheral choices that we all make. You are as much to blame for her death as a child crying in a supermarket or a brick in a wall. It is the power of the peripheral to control our lives that has fascinated me all my life. The influence that we grant not only people but inanimate objects to dictate the path of our lives is immeasurable and yet I have made it my life's work to measure it.”

“But I set up the meeting.”

“Because of a love for your sister and a need within you to see the object of your desire once more.”

“How do you know everything about me?”

“Because I can see into your heart.”

“But how?”

The Great Mother bowed her head so that she was closer to Tay’s. “All matter exists in a lake and time moves across it like a wave, stimulating, lifting and carrying before collapsing and ending. All of this is simply a collection of patterns lifted upon a wave. I can read the patterns because I am not in the wave but on it.”

“Okay?” Tay said licking her lips.

“In time you will understand,” the Great Mother said smiling, “or you will collapse with the wave and be forced to wait for the next one.”

“Yes?” Tay screwed her eyes up as a pain sprung up behind them. She raised her hands to rub at them, but the Great Mother caught her by the wrists and squeezed tightly.

“Does your soul have worth?”

“No?” Tay squeaked. She wanted to be in the Takoma with Tony listening to one of his stories, anywhere other than under the intense gaze of the Great Mother. “Maybe? I don’t know what the fuck you’re on about. I’m really trying but I don’t understand why you’re asking me all these questions.”

The Great Mother shook Tay by the shoulders, strong fingers digging into her muscles. “Do the lives of those around you have worth? The girl and her brother? Tell me quickly.”

“Yes,” Tay said without hesitation.

“And would they say the same about you?” Tay tried to look away, but the Great Mother let go of a shoulder and instead clamped a hand around her chin, tilting her head up. “Would they say you have worth?”

“I forgot how tall you are,” Tay said. Staring up into the Great Mother’s eyes made her think of someone else she hadn’t seen for a while. “Have you got a daughter my age?”

“Focus, child. Have people gone above and beyond to help you? Have strangers strived to keep you alive even though you exercise zero situational awareness?”

“Yes?”

“Then you believe you have worth.” The Great Mother leant on Tay as she climbed over the sandbag wall. “Let us test that theory.”

Tay looked down at her shoes and then at the Great Mothers’ white wellingtons.

“Tay, come on.”

Tay stepped over the wall, flinching as the freezing water rushed around her legs. The Great Mother was on the bridge watching as Tay waded over and climbed up to join her.

“What is all this?” Tay asked shivering as a cold breeze ruffled her wet clothes.

“It is an eel trap. I purchased it over thirty years ago as a present for my husband.” Water flowed under the bridge, pieces of rubbish clanging as they hit the support trusses. “He was a chemist and had a fascination for eels. He loved telling me about the mystery of their birth. That they were truly magical creatures that sprung forth from the mud. He was obsessed with their blood and like most chemists, spent his free hours tinkering with the products of his research. I indulged him, and in return, he gave me the gift of phreno.”

“Phreno’s eel’s blood?” Tay said with a touch of disgust. “We’ve been drinking blood all this time?”

The Great Mother poked a finger into Tay’s chest, just under her ribs and then prodded her heart and finally her forehead. “It unifies your breathing, your heartbeat and your mind. It is a meditation shortcut, used by temple followers. Most think that is enough, but a few go the extra mile. People like you. You are almost there but you still have fear in your heart.”

“Why have I been seeing eels?” Tay asked staring down at the muddy water flowing just under the bridge.

“You have, where? You must tell me.”

“This morning in the kitchen. I didn’t see them, but I could feel them. We were in the flat, but I guess they could have come through the toilet. Then in the hotel room, and this afternoon in the street. I don’t think I realised what they were until just now. I thought I was imagining them.”

“With the rising waters, the eels are escaping the river and spreading across the sector. Are they speaking to you?”

“If I say yes, are you going to say that’s part of the hallucination?”

“No,” the Great Mother said and then continued across the bridge. Tay followed reluctantly.

“They’re just talking? Can eels talk?”

The Great Mother opened the door to a room suspended over the river. It was dark inside with rusting walls and water bubbling up from a grate in the floor. “Do you fear death, child?”

“No, yes, shit, I don’t know?” Tay said quickly as her heart tried to escape through her throat. She looked back across the river to find that her chaperons had followed them across the bridge and were now silently watching her.

“Why?” the Great Mother asked.

“Why what?”

“You have been closer to death than many. You know how fragile life is, how fleeting it can be. How is it you still fear death when you have become so familiar with it?”

Tay stared into the dark room, “I’m not sure. I don’t think I used to be. It didn’t bother me the idea of dying, I just figured it would happen one day when I wasn’t expecting it, but then...”

“Tell me, child. I want to understand so that I can help you.”

“I think there’s been too much of it. It sounds stupid but I don’t want to add to, shit, whatever happens to it, the body and the soul I mean.”

“That doesn’t sound stupid at all, quite the contrary. Do you believe in the soul?”

“I think given the choice then why not? Otherwise, you’re just dead and I don’t want to be that, so yeah, I fear death.”

“Would death be so bad?”

“Yes, absolutely!” Tay said raising her voice. The older of the chaperones bridled at the outburst. “Sorry, it’s just when I think about death all can see is a cold and empty room like that one. There’s nothing in there, everything just stops and life, as shit as it is, is the opposite of that. I like noise, always have, the more the better.”

“Calm yourself, child.”

“I can’t,” Tay said pointing into the room again. “You’ve got me standing in front of a dark room that looks like a cell and you’re asking me if I’m scared of death and talking about waves and all I can think about is drowning. I know you’re the mother, and great and all but I’m not sure how I feel about this.”

“How do you think you feel? Emotions are strength, child. Learn to control them and you will be stronger.”

“I feel pretty fucking terrified, to be honest, have been for the past week. I’m tired and I just want to go to sleep.” Tay thought she saw something change in the Great Mother’s bearing. “Not like that. I want to live. I want to be perfectly clear on that. Life good, death bad.”

“How can death be bad when it is just a state of being? Ice and steam are different, but they are still water. Death and life are states of being. Your soul is like water boiled in a kettle or frozen into an ice cube. Fearing death is as pointless as fearing life.”

The young woman appeared at their side, carefully holding a teacup filled to the brim with a black liquid.

“Until you understand this you will never become the person that we need you to be,” the Great Mother said.

“What I’m meant to be?” Tay asked in genuine confusion. “I’ve got a lot of questions right now and I don’t know what’s going on. I thought coming here would give me answers but I don’t have a clue what’s happening.”

“Take the cup,” the Great Mother commanded.

Tay did as she was told. An oily residue coated the sides of the cup and Tay wrinkled her nose at the sight. “Thanks. What is this?”

“Drink it,”

Tay raised the cup to her lips and took a sip of the pungent black drink. To Tay’s lack of surprise, it tasted like blood but with a healthy dose of ginger. She made to stop drinking but the Great Mother tilted the cup back with her index finger and Tay had to gulp it down. It clung to the sides of her throat, choking her. She coughed and spilt the black gunk down her chin, spitting on the floor. “What the fuck was that?”

“Poison.”

“What?” Tay asked looking up. Both of her chaperons were now at her side, gently pushing her into the little room, one of them took the cup from her and they both retreated.

The Great Mother filled the doorway, stooping to get her head into the frame. “You must face your past, child, or it will control your future. We need you to be more, the sector must be reborn in your image.”

The younger woman reached in for the handle and winked at Tay before slamming the door shut.

Tay was left alone in the darkness, the cell gently rocking as the river pushed at one side.

“Let me out, please,” Tay said as she slapped a hand on the algae-slick walls. She quickly became disorientated in the dark, stumbling as the cell rocked and bouncing off the walls.

Her stomach gurgled and Tay couldn’t help but imagine the black goo as it ate away at her from the inside. This wasn’t anything new, Tay told herself, this would be like the other times. The blackness would wash over her and threaten to take her but, in the end, she would remain. Tay screwed her eyes shut and pressed her hands to the wall. If she let the fear take hold it would only make it worse. She took several deep breaths, each time ignoring the growing effort needed to fill her lungs.

“I’m sorry,” Tay said with her head hung between her arms, “I don’t know what you want me to do.”

She banged on the wall and the cell lurched as it dropped just enough to give Tay a fright. “What was that? Great Mother?”

The cell dropped again, and the water bubbled up from the grate until it covered Tay’s feet. The descent stopped and the room tilted as the river pushed against it. Somewhere above, Tay imagined the chain straining with the weight, rusted links spreading as the river sought to claim her and drag her to the bottom.

“Is this it, are you going to drown me?” Tay shouted. “Do it then, I don’t fucking care.”

The walls made a flat sound as Tay kicked them, she tried again but slipped and banged her head against the metal floor. She let out a pitiful groan and slumped against the wall, her hands in the water, fingers pushing through the grate. There was a green glow coming from beneath and Tay lowered her face to just above the water. Long shadows swam under the cell, eels rippling as they fought the current. One darted closer and Tay pulled her finger back before it could bite her.

She coughed and tried to clear her throat, but something was stuck there. She broke into a coughing fit that wracked her body and brought tears to her eyes. The poison was working on her insides, attacking her lungs and churning her stomach. She knew that it would happen no matter what she did, that she was dying, and she didn’t want to. If she managed to get out of this room Tay swore that she would find Gren and Jens and say sorry for leaving them.

Tay caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. Through her blurred eyesight, it looked as if a dark shadow had detached itself from a corner and come forward to loom over her. She sat still, hands clasped to her stomach and only moving when she took a sharp intake of breath. The light from beneath was brightening as more of the eels gathered under the cage.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Tay said addressing the strange shadow. She took a deep breath, but it fell short, she tried again but each time it felt like her lungs were shrinking. “Help me.”

The stranger didn’t move, their feet stuck in place.

Tay stared at the shoes, clear in the light from under them. She reached for them, pulling herself through the water, hoping the stranger wouldn’t leave her before she reached them. Her finger touched a shoe and it moved. She grabbed it by the toe and lifted it up, water pouring from the open heel.

She rolled onto her back, the water covering her ears and the roar of the river filling her head. The shoe clutched to her chest, fingers running along the toe, finding familiar patterns. It was a man’s, hard leather, stitched and Tay slipped her hand inside, narrowing her fingers to the tip.

She remembered as a child doing this with a pair of shoes that sat by the door, sitting with them, and practising with the laces, tying them in knots and then her father would pick her up and sit her on his lap and help her unpick them. The laces were gone on these shoes, pulled out or decayed.

Tay closed her eyes and thought of how small she once was. The memory of her father resurfacing in her mind. She didn’t have many of him. He’d been fun for a while, a tall man with a big head of hair that she loved to grab when they played. He would laugh and ask her questions, so many questions about her day. She would answer and he would listen as if it was the most amazing tale he had ever heard.

He never asked her about the voices, and she never told him.

“It’s why I went... to the river,” Tay said to the shoe in between breaths. “I woke up... I could hear them... whispering... I wanted to tell you but... but mum told me not to... I wanted to hear what they... had to say so that I could... tell you.”

She remembered turning the handle on the door, there was no lock on any of the doors in the commune, people free to come and go. She could see his shoes sitting by the door as she crept out on tiptoes.

“They told me to... go to them.” Tay had walked out of the building, a child of eight wandering the streets, directed by the voice of a ghost. She found the river and it was the most majestic thing she had ever seen. Broad and smooth in the moonlight. A ribbon of glass running alongside the enormous wall, soaring in her memories until it reached the heavens. She wanted to know what was on the other side and the voice promised to tell her if only she would step into the water. She never knew how her father found her, but he had.

Tay held the shoe to her chest as the water bubbled up around her body, the cage lowering slowly, taking her back to that moment that she had lost in time.

“I’m so sorry... I didn’t want you to die,” the green light was filling her eyes as the blackness took her lungs. “I just wanted... to hear them... You should have... you should have...”

Tay coughed once and then her throat closed. She wanted to claw at her neck, to slap her chest, do anything but all she could feel was the rising water and the shoe in her hand. She stared at the rusted ceiling, the green light dappling its surface, and she saw him swimming down to her, his narrow face, bubbles streaming from his nose, as he reached for her and grabbed her hand, she was a dead weight, but he pulled her to the surface where she caught a rope. Strangers hauled her to the shore as she searched the water for her father, but he was gone.

The water climbed over her nose and seeped into her mouth. It rose quickly until she was under the water and the green light surrounded her. She concentrated on it as her memory faded away.

Eventually, a thing with weight detached from what Tay had been and dropped through the water to embed in the mud. It sat there, not thinking, not living but existing. The soul in a state of being other than life, one of thoughtless dreams. The memories of others played out before closed eyes, the story of a million souls born from the mud like the eels that wriggled up from deep below, nudging the dead being as they passed and gave birth to other lives.

A thing that might have once been Tay joined them, a natural expansion from the void, a bubble forming and popping into the long black shape. Wriggling length, darting through the water, free and enthused with the simple joy of existence, no thought beyond swimming. They swam together, bodies rubbing as they fought the current, letting it rinse them clean, sloughing off the memories of the past until the core history remained. The shared truth of all existence in the sector, the book of life stamped by every soul as it stepped from the water to try again.

A memory sparked of bare feet slapping on wet concrete, laughter echoing off walls and a child pulling at her hand, the face changing, morphing from boy to girl and back again in an endless gallery of eyes and smiles, all of them holding her hand. A thousand times she ran, herself, himself, themselves melding and changing as often as their partner until they had been everyone and held the hand of all the others.

And Tay was born swimming against the current, sure of her origin, unknowing of her future. Fingers cupped the water, eels entwined with her limbs, keeping her going. A family of millions.

Above her a body died, the water invading cells, hastening decay while she swam just below, bathed in the green light and embraced by all her brothers and sisters, all her lovers, enemies and friends. They wanted her to stay but they weren’t all there.

The others walked on land and breathed in the sky. They worked and they fought, constrained by the dreams of others, betrayers of their needs. All of them lost and needing the truth, needing to return to the mud.

Hesitation crept into Tay’s fledgling mind, a doubt that rippled along her body and disturbed those around her. At every touch, she shared a memory, some moment in time that she had crossed paths with the other, a kiss, an embrace, an angry word or brushed shoulder on a train. The memories stacked up one atop the other, crushing her with the weight and collapsing the part that was Tay under the weight.

The eels swam, lost in the joy of movement, with no care other than to keep moving.


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