I was fifteen when he first turned up, some flashy guy in a leather coat with starlight in his eyes. My dad couldn’t see him, or he’d have bashed him in, or tried to, anyway. It’s hard to bash a sunbeam as it trickles over the front of your daughter’s school shirt, or punch the wind for flicking up her skirt.
‘Watch out for that one,’ said mum. ‘He’s a right arse.’
Like most, I was braver when I was young. Would laugh in his face, tell him to get lost, and if I felt a fluttering on my cheek—him as a butterfly, azure wings and sweet-licking tongue—I’d swat it so hard that I’d wake the next day with a black eye.
But when I got to my twenties, I’d seen the outcome too many times: women locked into their own bodies, naked on the plinths for tourists to giggle at. Women scattered on the sea, scooped up by whales and guttering gulls. I finally understood that this wasn’t a game, some battle of wits ended by a daring flourish on my part, when trumpets would play as everyone stood up to applaud. This was how things were.
I moaned to Jasmine. She was patient at first, nodding along and sharing her own stories. But that didn’t last long. ‘Seems to me you’re enjoying the attention,’ she murmured, not meeting my eyes. ‘Ignore him long enough and he’ll get bored.’
‘Is it happening to you?’ I asked, a little sulky, so she lifted her hair to show me the snake. I’d thought it was a headband, but no—it was a slithering, tongue-flicking presence wrapped around her head. ‘Listen,’ she said, bending her ear to mine, and I leaned in to catch the non-stop pleading, the cajoling, the nasty little cries of entitlement and rage.
‘Just ignore him,’ she said again. ‘He gets smaller, over time.’ She frowned. ‘I think.’
I shook my head. How could I ignore the bull that stood, shining, in the supermarket aisle between me and the mature cheddar? And that wasn’t even the worst of it. He was fucking sly. I mean, he’d found a way to sit between the bubbles of our Dr Peppers, sliding into our mouths until we coughed. Or he’d land on our hair in the rain, one drop, then another, until he’d got a tight enough hold to pull us forward for a kiss. Or we’d be sitting in the coffee shop, fiddling with our phones and just trying to forget that time exists, when the chair would shift under our arses, arms pressed in to hold us in an embrace.
Finally, I became too tired to fight any more, so travelled to the statue garden at the bottom of the mountain. The remains of the women there seemed to shudder at my approach, which frightened me, but I was determined to see this through, and when he appeared (a feather drifting in the air, tickling my nipple through my shirt) I dropped to my knees and put my hands together in prayer. ‘I ask for guidance.’
A suspicious pause, then: Speak.
I took a deep breath. ‘What can I do to make you leave me alone?’
Nothing. And do it for the rest of time.
Then he was gone, leaving just a whiff of sandalwood incense. Shaking my head, I turned to leave but my body felt stiff and cold. I tried to scream, but my voice didn’t work. The bastard, I thought. The absolute shit.
My arms were over my head, my new tunic flapping stonily in the breeze.
After an hour or so, I noticed some of the others moving. ‘Has he gone?’ I asked out of the corner of my mouth. ‘My arms are tired.’
The statue nearest the gate nodded imperceptibly.
‘And we have to do this every day?’
She stepped down, stretched her back and rolled her shoulders. ‘Only when he’s looking.’ She blew a spider out of her nose. ‘That’s better.’
I thought about how much I liked my job, especially when it got really busy. I cried a bit, then got angry, and eventually went to sleep on one of the empty plinths. I guess that was around twenty years ago, but I honestly can’t be sure. It’s hard to keep track of time, despite feeling its passing. I’m rougher now, chipped and stained. This suits me. The garden is pretty, the sun is warm, and we are vigilant in our care for each other. We don’t let anyone break the rules.
When she comes, tumbling through the gate, she looks about eighteen. She has massively curly hair and a gap between her front teeth, and we hide at first because she is shining with her own light so much that we thought it was him in disguise.
‘Hello?’ she calls. ‘What am I doing here?’
We gather around her. ‘Don’t worry,’ we soothe. ‘He’s turned you into a statue. There are worse things.’
‘He hasn’t, though? My arms move.’ She wiggles her fingers in our faces.
‘Yes, but…’ It’s hard to find the words. We don’t understand why she just doesn’t get it, why she has to make this so hard. ‘He sort of has. You’ll catch on soon enough.’
‘And you all live here?’
We nod, stone necks creaking.
‘What do you do with your lives?’
‘We watch out for him. We keep ourselves safe.’ Our voices are earnest. ‘Just remember that when he manifests, you must obey.’
The new girl looks around at us, one after the other, and suddenly begins to cry. ‘There, there,’ we whisper, stroking her plump arms. ‘Let it out.’ But when she looks at us, her eyes are dry, and we realise that she is only making a crying noise with her mouth, fists rubbing at her eyes without touching them. ‘Waah,’ she says, finger pointing at our faces. ‘Do you recognise yourselves? ‘Cos that’s you.’
We gaze at each other, then back at this newcomer. Our mouths are perfect ‘o’s.
She begins to laugh, then makes us sit in a circle around her. ‘I have a story for you,’ she says. ‘Picture this. Soon, he will come back to the garden, bored of chasing the girls for a while, seeking the cool pool under the waterfall to bathe in, some sweet honey to suck, and when he is out of the water he will look up, surprised, for there is a circle of stone women around him.’
We exchange looks.
‘He strikes out with his powers but it doesn’t hurt. The lightning grounds to the soft, rich earth and is diverted away. He changes them into ants and flames and raindrops but whatever form they are given, they still come for him.’
We lean forward.
‘They blow dust in his eyes and sting his feet, rattle around behind his eardrums and knock him down with the force of a storm. They set fire to his face while the rest of the statues bite, tear, swallow him down, and he is so chewy and tastes of gin and woodsmoke and the smell of wallpaper paste, and the women continue to consume him, crunch his fingers and rip the flesh from his hip, and yes, they might hear him laughing as they take him into themselves, their gullets, craws and bowels, to squash and squeeze and scald with acid, forcing a bite of god into every one of them, but the laugh is small and high.’
‘And then what?’ we whisper. ‘Do the women take his power?’
‘Who wants power like that?’ she sniffs. ‘No, what happens to him is that same thing that happens to anything eaten.’
‘He gets shitted out.’ She is shaking with laughter. ‘The women shit him out. And when he shows up again, they sniff and gag and make puking sounds, begging someone to open windows, light scented candles, even singe their hair, for even that would be better that this tainted presence, which, no matter how shining, how grand, has every woman and girl checking the bottom of her feet, calling ‘god, what on earth is that stink?’’
‘Yes,’ we say. ‘Yes. Will you show us how?’
She does, and we do. It works.
Annabel Banks’ work can be found in such places as Granta, The Manchester Review, Litro, The Stockholm Review and 3:AM, and has been broadcast by the BBC. Her recent collection of short fiction, Exercises in Control, is available from Influx Press. She lives in London.