Art as a Mirror, by Tracie McBride

ArtAsMirror

. Art by Steve Santiago – http://www.illustrator-steve.com/ – click to enlarge

Wiremu sneaked a sideways glance at his daughter as he navigated the rental car over the decaying country road. Courtney poked desultorily at the iPad in her lap, face set in that peculiar adolescent expression that encapsulated ennui and disdain. Now and again she raised her head to gaze out the window and sigh dramatically.

“Why does everything look so…poor?” she said.

“Because everyone is poor,” he replied. The landscape had been changing by degrees since they left Auckland, affluent suburbs giving way to cashed-up lifestyle blocks, the lifestyle blocks seguing into larger, more utilitarian, yet still well-kept farms, the farms becoming more gorse-ridden, the livestock scrappier, and the buildings more ramshackle the closer they got to his parents’ farm (his farm now, he had to remind himself). A little ahead, a gum-booted youth with dreadlocks urged a grubby stallion into a gallop as he rode it bareback along a tumbledown fence line. The boy reined the beast to a halt to stare at them with dull-eyed suspicion as the late model car purred past. The radio reception went from patchy to non-existent, the speakers radiating nothing but white noise, and Wiremu leaned forward to stab the power button off.

“You know, you used to love coming up here to visit your grandparents when you were little,” he said to Courtney. “You’d run around barefoot, paddle in the creek, eat peas straight out of the garden…every time we went, there seemed to be a different litter of feral kittens living under the house, and you’d spend half your time trying to catch one of them. You never did though, which is probably a good thing, ‘cos your mother would have had a fit if you had. Ringworm, fleas, non-specific germs…if there was something you could catch, she was afraid of it.” Wiremu gripped the steering wheel a little tighter; seven years after the divorce, and his ex-wife’s helicopter parenting was still a sore point.

Courtney had swapped iPad for mobile phone, clicking away with impressive speed as she composed a text with her thumb.

“Huh,” she said, not looking up from the phone. “Don’t remember any of that. Are you sure? I hate peas.” She pushed a few more buttons, raised the phone closer to her face for a moment, and then dropped it into her lap.

“Bloody hell, Dad! Why’d you drag me all the way to this hell hole? There isn’t even proper reception out here!”

With a calmness he didn’t feel, Wiremu said, “Did I ever tell you how much like your mother you are?” It was a cheap shot, and he knew it the instant it was out of his mouth. Courtney’s murderous glare told him it had found its mark. They spent the remainder of the journey in sullen silence.

Wiremu had been back to the farm only once since his father’s death four years ago. His return felt like coming home to an empty house after a long holiday and finding that someone had been moving things around in his absence; everything seemed familiar yet somehow obscurely contaminated. His father had signed a long-term lease with a neighbour for the use of the land when he became too ill to work it himself, and the paddocks looked in good nick – the pasture lush, the grazing beef cattle fat and placid. One of his cousins had been renting the tiny two-roomed cottage, and when she’d told Wiremu she was moving, he’d come up with the evidently ill-considered plan to fly in from Melbourne, collect Courtney from her mother’s home and take her away for a weekend of father-daughter bonding and nostalgia. The bush-covered hills loomed threateningly, blocking the horizon, and the humid air clogged his lungs. Have I been away too long? Or not long enough?

His cousin had taken excellent care of the cottage; were it not for the light patina of a week’s worth of dust and a still-lingering hint of cigarette smoke, the place would be spotless. He was relieved to find the outbuilding containing the toilet and shower was equally clean. Even the spiders hadn’t had a chance to take up residence again after a thorough scouring. The slightest appearance of dirt or arachnids was likely to send Courtney screaming.

“You can take the bedroom,” he told Courtney, jerking his head towards the door as he carried their bags inside, “and I’ll sleep on the couch.” Don’t tell her that’s where her granddad died or she’ll lose her shit. He unpacked the groceries, lining up the items along the scarred kitchen bench. A jar of chargrilled capsicum, a small wheel of brie, a couple of fillets of Marlborough Sounds salmon, an artisan sourdough loaf. Removed from their place on a Parnell store shelf, they seemed frivolous, his choices the grown-up version of a kid let loose in a lolly shop. He knew what his father would say if he saw all this — You need a proper feed, boy. A big bowl of pork and puha, and some fry bread for afters – none of this yuppie shit.

“Nobody says ‘yuppie’ anymore, Dad,” Wiremu muttered.

Courtney looked in from the bedroom. “What did you say?”

Wiremu started. “Uh…nothing. Just talking to myself.” He smiled and shook his head. All the better to shake out the ghosts. Perhaps he had been living alone too long if he was letting his imaginary conversations with his father intrude on real life.

He prepared an early dinner, which Courtney barely picked at. She declined the offer of a game of cards after dinner and retreated to her room. Wiremu lay on the couch and stared at the smoke-stained ceiling. He drifted off to sleep to the sounds of cattle lowing and the incessant clickclickclick of a texting teen.

Dawn came with birdsong and the aroma of sizzling bacon. Incredibly, Courtney was not only awake, but cooking. She hummed softly as she moved about the tiny kitchen.

“Is that the free range bacon I got at the specialty butcher before we left?” Wiremu said groggily.

“Yeah, Dad. What did you think – that I went out and stuck a pig before breakfast?” But she smiled as she said it, and he counted it an infinitesimal step in the right direction.

“Except for the fact that it takes days to cure bacon, that’s not such a silly idea. Pig hunting is a big thing around here.  Lots of wild boar in the bush. Your granddad and I used to do it old school – just him and me, our best pig dogs and a hunting knife each. Carried my first pig out of the bush when I was 12.” Wiremu accepted the proffered cup of coffee and inhaled deeply.

Courtney wrinkled her nose. “Ew. Killing things. Gross.”

Wiremu shrugged and gestured at the plate of bacon and eggs Courtney was placing on the table.

“But you’re happy to eat something that someone else has killed for you, as long as you don’t have to get your own hands dirty?”

“Well…yeah. Why should I get my hands dirty if I don’t have to?”

Wiremu sighed and took his place at the table. If he had to battle with his daughter, this was not the ground he particularly wanted to defend.

“So…you’re up early,” he said around a mouthful of toast and egg. “How come?” He studied her as he awaited her response. The colour in her cheeks, the relaxed set of her shoulders, and the tranquillity in her expression…she seemed changed from the sour-faced young woman he’d collected yesterday.

“I dunno…it took me ages to get to sleep last night. It’s too quiet here, you know? Or maybe, not quiet exactly, just the sounds are different. No traffic noises, no sirens… everything’s different here. Even the air is different.”

“Different…in a good way?”

She gazed out the window for a moment, a faint smile on her face. “Maybe.” She took a few bites from her plate before asking, “Do you think, if we go for a walk in the bush,” – she waved her fork in the general direction of the door – “we’ll see some wild boar?”

“It’s not quite as easy as that,” Wiremu said. “They’re pretty scared of people, generally, and…” He stopped at the disappointed look on her face. “Well, if not pigs, we could come across the odd feral goat. Lots of birds, for sure. And there’s a good-sized creek –- more of a small river, really –- that runs along the boundary. Might see some eels or koura.”

Courtney brightened. “Cool!” Wiremu had a flashback, bright and stabbing, of his four-year-old daughter in joyous anticipation of a trip to the zoo. He looked down at his plate and swallowed a non-existent mouthful of food.

The bush walk was less pleasantly nostalgic than Wiremu had hoped. They found three punctured inner tubes, limp and dusty like the discarded skins of some sinister creature, that had evidently once been used for riding down the river. The careless littering offended him out of proportion to the crime. He’d also forgotten about the insects. Sand-flies plagued his ankles, flies sought out his sweat, and the cicadas’ bush melody thrummed overly loud in his ears. Courtney, though, remained keen, leading the way and supporting her long leggy strides with a slim branch she’d found and pressed into service as a walking stick.

“Oh my god, Dad! Look at this!”

Spurred on by her excitement, he huffed up to stand beside her, hoping that she hadn’t by some fluke come across a feral pig; those things could be vicious when cornered.

It was a pig – of sorts. The thing was planted in a small clearing in the scrub. It was perfectly pig-shaped, but its form was entirely covered with thousands of crystalline globes and bubbles, some as small as his fingernail and ranging up to fist-sized. The boar stood frozen in place, head lowered as if to charge with its glass-armoured tusks.

“The reflections…they’re perfect! Like a million little computer screens,” Courtney said. “Who could have made something like this? And why would they put it way out here in the middle of nowhere?” She edged closer, her face rapt. “It must have taken them ages. I wonder what it’s made of.” She reached out to touch it.

The hairs rose on the back of Wiremu’s neck. Where Courtney saw an inorganic and whimsically-placed art installation, he saw…contagion. To him, the bubbles looked like glassy pustules, poised to burst at the slightest provocation and infect them all.

“Don’t!” he called. Courtney paused, her hand paused mere millimetres from the pig’s bizarrely adorned hide. “It could…it could…it looks really fragile. You wouldn’t want to break it, would you?”

She looked regretful as she slowly withdrew her hand. “It’s really beautiful,” she said, “and really weird.”

“Yeah. Really weird.” Wiremu hopped from foot to foot, then caught himself; it was a subconscious movement he used to make in times of high anxiety, and one he thought he’d grown out of decades ago. “You know, I thought we might go for a drive to the coast today. There are some lovely beaches ‘round here and most of them are quite secluded – not like the ones you’re used to. We could stop for lunch in Mangonui. Best fish and chips in the country, they reckon.”

“We discover something amazing like this, and all you can think about is fish and chips?” Courtney stood, glaring at him with her hands on her hips. Mercifully, she had turned away from the pig. Wiremu trembled, poised on the brink of fight-or-flight; it was all he could do not to seize her, throw her over his shoulder and run like hell.

“We can ask around some of the shops while we’re there,” he blurted. “See if anyone knows about it.”

“Yeah…OK. That sounds like a good plan,” Courtney said. She took one step, then two closer to Wiremu. He let out a shaky breath.

As they began to make their way back to the cottage, Wiremu risked one backward glance at the “sculpture.” He could have sworn he saw it blink.

They spent the day just as Wiremu had promised – browsing through small town craft shops, strolling along beaches that were nearly deserted in the early autumn off-season, and licking salt and grease off their fingertips while looking out over the sea. Sunlight glinted off the water, reminding Wiremu uncomfortably of the pig’s reflective growths. Not that he needed reminding; every query to the shopkeepers of reclusive artists or unusual craft activity in the region was met with blank stares and shrugs, which only served to make Courtney even more eager to discuss with him possible explanations. With Wiremu just as persistently trying to divert the conversation to safer ground, the subject was omnipresent. Courtney didn’t so much as glance at an electronic device all day, which should have been a triumph for Wiremu, but only served to make him even more uneasy.

Dinner was a passable pub meal, after which they played a couple of games of pool. Courtney’s presence drew the attention of a couple of local youths, and Wiremu spent most of the game striding around the pool table and shooting warning glares at them, like a lion defending his oblivious offspring. It was arguably one of the most difficult parts of being the father of a teenaged daughter, yet he found it vastly preferable to returning to the cottage and the pig by the river; at least he understood young lust.

On their return to home base, Courtney went straight to bed. Wiremu waited a while before easing the bedroom door open. He stood in the doorway for nearly an hour, listening to the slow and steady ebb and flow of her breath and watching by moonlight the lump her body formed beneath the covers. Finally satisfied she was fast asleep, he retrieved the torch he’d packed – the power supply to the cottage had been known to be erratic – and slipped out the front door. In all the time his parents had owned the cottage, he’d never known them to lock it, but he did now, wincing as the stiff mechanism groaned in protest at the turn of the key. For practical purposes, it was a futile gesture; whatever he was dealing with, he doubted it respected such puny protections as door locks. The action served more to ground him, to keep him rooted in the here and now and real, the key a talisman against the slow slippage of his sanity.

He turned on the torch, collected Courtney’s walking stick from where she had left it leaning against the side of the cottage, and set off into the dark. The scrubland through which he walked rustled as unseen night denizens fled his approach. Possums, most likely, and stoats, cats, nocturnal birds…all harmless creatures, yet the movement of the foliage about him seemed suggestive of something far more sinister.

What if it’s not things running away, but running towards?

When he reached the area where they had found the pig, he thought for one relief-filled moment that it had gone; retrieved by its creator, perhaps, or simply melted away like the figment of his imagination he so desperately wanted it to be. Then the torchlight caught on a mirror-like surface. No, a myriad of mirrors, all scattering light in an obscene attack on the darkness.  He crept up to the thing, pulled his shirt up to cover his nose and mouth in an almost superstitious gesture, then squatted perilous inches away from the boar’s face.

He found himself looking into the eyes of a living creature. Black eyes rolled in terror, flashing whites. The animal’s mouth hung open, and the crystals, or spores, or whatever-the-fuck they are, coated its tongue and extended down its throat, choking off any squeals of warning it might be inclined to make. A tiny tremor rippled over it, setting the bulbous growths tinkling and chiming softly.

Wiremu yelped and fell backwards. The torch fell from his hands and rolled to cast its beam squarely on the boar’s eyes. He rose on shaky legs, backed away a few paces, and then braced himself.

Fight or flight, fight or flight, fight or flight…

With little conscious thought, he swung the walking stick full force down on the boar’s skull. It gave way with a sound like the crack of an axe biting into wood. He had anticipated being sprayed in shards of glass, but most of the substance that flew from the broken creature was viscous and slimy. Wiremu kept bashing, and bashing, and when there was nothing left to bash, he trampled it beneath his boots, until all that remained were a few tiny, chitinous shards and a puddle of noxious ooze slowly seeping into the earth. He had a fleeting, lunatic impulse to lie down in it, to let it draw him down, too, into the dirt and return him to the stuff from which all life had once sprung.

He picked up the torch and made his way back to the farm, bypassing the cottage and instead heading for the shed some 50 metres farther down the driveway. There, he found a spade, a half-full petrol can, and the box of matches his father had always kept on hand for lighting the smoker or the hangi pit. Soon he stood, naked and sweating despite the night chill, clutching the key to the cottage door in his fist like a weapon, watching his contaminated clothes burn and taking care not to inhale the oily, rank smoke they gave off.

He scrubbed himself raw beneath a near-scalding shower until the water ran cold, then let himself back into the cottage. Moving with stealth, he dressed and packed their bags, then opened the curtains and sat, red-eyed and silent, waiting for dawn. Courtney had barely set foot to floor before he was urging her to get dressed, get packed, and get out.

“What’s the hurry, Dad?” she grumbled even as she complied. “I thought we were having a good time.”

“There’s a storm forecast,” he lied. “They can come on suddenly, and the roads can get flooded or washed out. I don’t want us to get stuck here before it hits.” He had her out the door and mere steps away from the car and salvation, when her gasp drew him up short.

The grass around the cottage was studded with animals, all covered in the same glass-like growths. A possum was set, frozen, at the beginning of a climb at the base of an apple tree, its crystalline claws dug deep in the tree’s trunk. A calf stood with its head lowered as if to crop a mouthful of grass. A pukeko balanced on one spindly leg that looked composed of tiny bubbles that glittered like gemstones. At Courtney’s feet, a little kitten faced off against an even smaller mouse, whilst a bull mastiff cowered near the boot of the car, lips drawn back in a permanent, glassy snarl.

Courtney crouched, and Wiremu understood what she meant to do.

“No, no, no, no, no!”

Too late. She had picked up the kitten, and was turning it over in her hands, examining it closely.

“The detail in this…it’s so perfect, if I didn’t know better I’d think there was a real live kitten underneath it all.” She held it out to him on an outstretched palm. He backed away, mouth opening and closing soundlessly.

“What’s wrong, Dad?” she said, advancing slowly on him as he continued to retreat. “Yeah, I get that it’s a bit creepy, somebody sneaking around the farm at night and planting these things, but -– surely you’ve got to appreciate the art in them.”

Her gaze was fixed on his face, so she didn’t see her overnight bag at her feet until she was upon it. Another too-late warning shout, and she was stumbling, the kitten clutched reflexively to her chest. She righted herself, then looked down at her t-shirt in dismay.

The remains suggested nothing of feline origin. Translucent fragments of the glassy substance clung to her shirt and pinkish, gooey substance soaked through the fabric. She shook her hand to dislodge some of the gloop, her face twisted in revulsion.

The change set in with terrifying speed. Wiremu wept as he led her away to the shower. She did not protest, did not question, only allowed him to strip off her clothes and bathe her as tenderly as he had when she’d been a toddler and they had shared a home. Hard little nubs sprouted and swelled across her back, her arms, her belly, and she moaned softly in pain as he towelled her dry. There was no need for clothes, even if he had been able to dress her without hurting her; the bulbs covering her skin gave her a malevolent modesty.

They made it halfway to the car before Courtney’s limbs ceased to bend.

“I’ll carry you,” Wiremu whispered. “Get you to a doctor. There must be something…”

“No.” Her voice was hoarse and laboured, the crystals beginning to invade her mouth and work their way down her throat. “It hurts. Too…late.”

Too late, too late, it was all too late –- his warnings, the shower, his return home, the whole idea that he could make up for nearly a decade of absence from his daughter’s life with one weekend away. Courtney closed her eyes, and the infection fused them shut.

He saw himself reflected in every bubble, as distorted and ugly as she had been –- and ever would be –- beautiful. She had frozen with one hand extended slightly in front of her, as if offering benediction, and he knelt beneath it, half in mourning, half in worship, until the first pustule rose on the back of his hand.

Heedless now of contagion, he gathered up each glassed-over animal, took them into the cottage, doused the pile in petrol and set it alight. There was just enough fuel left in the can to give himself a good soaking. He took a final, perverse pleasure in inhaling the fumes before striking the match.

It hurts…

Too late…

It hurts…

With his daughter’s final words echoing in his head, he took her into his arms.

Tracie McBride is a New Zealander who lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in over 80 print and electronic publications, including Horror Library Vols 4 and 5, Dead Red HeartPhobophobia and Horror for Good. Her debut collection Ghosts Can Bleed contains much of the work that earned her a Sir Julius Vogel Award in 2008.  She helps to wrangle slush for Dark Moon Digest and is the vice president of Dark Continents Publishing.  She welcomes visitors to her blog.

If you enjoyed this story, let Tracie know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Steve Santiago.

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4 responses to “Art as a Mirror, by Tracie McBride

  1. Why do I have a feeling this is the remnants of the infestation brought to Earth in the Color Out of Space?

    • I didn’t make that connection, H.M. First thing it got me thinking of was that J G Ballard story The Illumininated Man. Nice work Tracie.

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