The Drunks’ Totem, by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Drunk's Totem art

Art by Riley Schmitz – https://rileyschmitzart.carbonmade.com/ – click to enlarge

The morning that Fuchs saw the sculpture, he had lost 24 of his 60 kilogram target and was aiming to walk two miles.

It was in the centre of the grass, hidden from view by the trees until he came around the curve of the path; branches and twigs twisted together and planted into the earth, thrusting into the still-dark sky and moving in the breeze. The outermost ends of the branches and twigs were adorned with bottles and bags, giving it the look of a skeletal thing grown bulbous, budding. It startled Fuchs, made him jump when he saw it and then laugh at himself for his nervousness.

Fuchs was fat. Not overweight or large or chunky, but fat. Obese, actually. “You aren’t morbidly obese,” said his doctor, Longdon, during his last appointment, “but it’s only a matter of time. Your joints are struggling, your blood pressure and cholesterol are high and God only knows the toll it’s taking on your heart and lungs.” Longdon had said more, giving Fuchs diet sheets and exercise advice leaflets, all of which Fuchs intended to ignore, had it not been for Longdon’s last comment.

“The question is, what do you want to see when you look in the mirror? The physical things, the fatness and the joints and the blood pressure, are remarkably easy to sort out, but it’s your mind that has to change. You have to want it. Look at yourself tonight in the mirror and decide: are these the eyes I want?” Fuchs had done as he asked that evening, looking, really looking at himself in his shaving mirror. His eyes were flat pools, dark with exhausted shadows; yet, when he looked at himself in the childhood photographs of him and his family that lined his walls, he had happy, vibrant eyes. In his childhood photographs he was thin and happy and living, and he wanted to be that again. Not all of it, certainly; not thin, particularly, but with living eyes that did not look reptilian in their misery. He wanted a chance at happiness.

As he walked, the sculpture stood sentinel to his side. Its twisted limbs writhed and reached out to him, dancing in the stiffening wind that swept in from the estuary. In the moonlight, its swollen fingers made obscene passes through the air, rich with dank intimation and disquieting, fleshy promises. The local drunks had made it, Fuchs presumed, telling the story of their night’s activities through this weird totem. It wasn’t the first time that he had come across their leavings; bottles and cans, the blackened remains of fires, sometimes clothes, and once the remains of a sleeping bag, its skin slashed and its filling strewn across the ground in sodden, white clumps. Normally, the drunks were gone by the time he arrived, only occasionally remaining there to jeer at him as he shuffled along, their cries settling on his broad and wobbling shoulders. He hated them because they frightened him, and because they laughed at him, and because he could do nothing about either.

So, exercise and diet. Diet was easy; Fuchs simply replaced as much of his current food with low fat alternatives as he could. Exercise was harder. Strenuous exercise was out, both Longdon and Fuchs agreed on that. Swimming, favoured by Longdon, was out as well; Fuchs was acutely conscious of his flabby body, and revealing it near-naked in public was unthinkable. “So get a good pair of training shoes and a sweat suit, and walk,” said Longdon. Fuchs had done just that, and in doing so found the solitary activity he needed. When walking, he could hide in the night and still get fit, and no one need see him.

Fuchs’s preferred place to walk was the local cycle track. It was an oval of concrete path encircling grassed playing fields and abutting the river, built on reclaimed ground that never felt truly dry. Trees surrounded it, and mostly, it was deserted during the pre-dawn hours Fuchs spent there. The only illumination that reached the track was the cool glamour of the stars and the moon and the ambient light from the distant town, bleeding the air a musty orange and glittering across the surface of the river that washed itself alongside the straightest section of the path. Fuchs was starting along that section now, the path unravelling ahead of him, a lighter strip of grey in the gloom. There was no movement, no noise. No drunks. Mists rose from the river, its level raised by the tide so that it lapped at the uppermost edges of the ground sloping away from the path, completely swallowing the silt flats that lay between the path and the water. He liked the sound of the river as he walked, enjoyed its gentle lap and suck. He usually liked its smell, too, a fresh tang of salt and clean mud that washed the faint smells of exhaust fumes and cheap takeaways from the air.

This morning, however, it smelled wrong.

It was a rich odour, pungent with brine and rottenness, and something else, something like fish meat gone bad, houses long abandoned and pale, stagnant water. It made the air heavy, a syrupy thing that clogged Fuchs’s lungs and left his teeth furred with loose tracks of slime. Grimacing, he tried to breathe through his mouth, but he could still smell it, could feel it slithering around his tongue and down his throat. He thought about turning back, cutting short his walk, but did not want to. This was his time, precious to him in ways he could not easily articulate. He had been here in every type of weather, in summer and, like now, in the depths of winter, and had never yet missed a day or failed to complete the tasks he set himself; he had left his fat strewn the length of these paths, bundled in healthy sweat and his own growing pride.

Besides, turning back meant going past the construction of branches and the thought of that made him as uneasy as braving the smell. It was the sculpture’s angularity that bothered him, as though it were mocking him with its scrawniness. Looking back, Fuchs saw that it was still there, just visible in the darkness, its legs and arms blurring into the mist. Legs? He snapped at himself. Arms? And why shouldn’t it still be there? Where would it have gone? It was just a stupid joke, just a lurching, creeping thing in the dark.

Now, why had he thought ‘creeping’? It couldn’t creep, couldn’t move at all. It was simply branches and rubbish, twisted into a shape almost like a living thing. Fuchs set his back to it and walked on.

The smell became worse as he walked, thickening into the air and laying against his sweating skin in slippery, tangled skeins. What was it? A cow, perhaps, washed down from the farmlands upriver, bloated and swollen in death? Pollution, oil, or rendering from the slaughterhouse on the outskirts of the town? It came in waves, rising but not falling away, seeding the air with the scents not just of death but of wrongness, of corruption and blight.

And then something moved in the water. Fuchs did not see it; the darkness shifted about him as ever, the moon dancing behind clouds and reappearing, but he heard it. There was a splash as the something pressed against the current, breaking the surface of the river. Below the splash there was another noise, a great exhalation that carried the suggestion, but not the sound, of language within it. The river noises were lost for a moment beneath nearly-heard words that were in no recognisable tongue and which itched at Fuchs’s ears. He peered intently across the expanse of water and had a momentary impression of a disruption in the rippling, reflected light playing across the water’s surface. There was a great shifting of a mass that he could not identify and then, with another splash, it was gone.

The smell faded with it. Perhaps, thought Fuchs, it had been a cow after all, caught on something and splitting with decay. Shifting currents had finally moved it on, letting the air trapped within it escape in a foul, susurrant belch. It made sense; he had been spooked by the sculpture and then over-reacted to a noise from the river. Just a fat man jumping at shadows. He walked on, angry at himself.

A little further along, Fuchs came across cans scattered across the path and down the slope to the river. They were not the normal detritus of Lancaster’s midnight drinkers, crumpled and pockmarked with cigarette burns. Instead, these had been twisted and torn into new shapes, tiny homunculi with grasping hands and clawed, supplicant fingers. Some bobbed on the surface of the water, shadowed and glistening with moisture. As he watched, one slipped below the surface with a faint plop of bubbled air. It did not resurface. On some of the cans closest to him, Fuchs saw that the edges of the torn metal were crusted with a blackness that might be blood, but which looked somehow thicker and less vital. In their posture, the cans looked helpless, laid out in sacrifice and desperate for rescue. Fuchs moved through them as quickly as he could, lurching like a newly-mobile toddler as he tried to maintain his speed whilst not touching the wretched figures. They shifted in the breeze as he passed, spinning as though trying to follow him and silently beseeching him for help.

Fuchs had reached the halfway point of the straight length of path now. To one side, the river moved in slow crests, to the other was a playing field whose grass caught the low moonlight in grey pools. Wreathed in mist, its surface was churned and split, the earth’s dark flesh showing though in glistening whorls. The pattern of the scarring was strange. It was disjointed, yet there seemed to be a pattern there, an underlying meaning in those exposed swirls that was just out of his reach. Not words, certainly; an older and more guttural communication full of brutal plosives and glottal stops, given form in text and etched on the ground’s very skin. The scars seemed to writhe as he looked at them, changing their meaning in aching, clutching instants. Fuchs turned furiously away telling himself, Nonsense.

Beyond the grass stood a fringe of trees, alert in the night. The hectic dance of their limbs in the wind sent rustles of sound to him and shadows slipped around their trunks, leaning out to reach for him across the open space. The trees looked sickly in the reluctant light, stunted and bowed by the weight of the darkness. Creeping shadows joined with the churned earth, surrounding him, trapping him in the night’s tongues. He wanted to be home now, to be away from here, and he walked more quickly, forcing his protesting legs to greater speed despite the roaring in his joints and the ragged stab of breath in his lungs.

There was another totem ahead of him, he saw, this one planted out in the river itself. It rose from the water a few feet from the bank, its bony limbs hung with strips of cloth that fluttered madly in the breeze. It was bigger than the first, taller and more solid. Fuchs had the sudden, awful feeling that it was a purposeful creation, not a mere drunken fancy. It was an indicator, although of what, he did not know. A calling, perhaps, or a request, urgent and ragged with longing. More sacrificial cans floated around it, along with what appeared to be dead fish and pages torn from a book. The sodden paper had swelled in the water; they were bleached the shredded, dirty ivory of old tusks. Shivering as the water pressed around it, the totem lurched at Fuchs as he came abreast of it. He cried out, looking down so that he would not see the thing, and hurried on. For the first time in his adult life, Fuchs forced himself to run.

Dark lines curled around Fuchs’s feet as he moved, shadows which made impossible shapes and capering around him like antic worms grown fat on diseased soil. His shuffling feet dragged through them, feeling a resistance to his passage that was impossible, and yet was real, and that only his great weight helped him overcome. Air wheezed in and out of his lungs, each exhalation spewing saliva out past his lips, and each inhalation sucking sharp pains in with it. His heart throbbed and his belly shook as spasms nipped at his gross flesh, sending ripples playing across his skin. He floundered, slowing, his mass the victor in the uneven battle with his strength. Raising his head, he saw that he was close to the edge of the fringe of trees, where the path began to move away from the river. Lost in the darkness of the tree trunks, more totems danced their slow, gathering dance.

Stopping was as hard as running; Fuchs ceased moving his legs but carried on forwards and stumbled, the bulk of his body still shifting, dragging his weight over and past the balancing point of his already protesting knees. He took several helpless steps towards the beckoning figures before he came to a complete stop, air rattling in his ears and scouring his throat. The moon, freshly appeared from behind the scudding clouds, elongated the shadows farther, draping them up his legs and dappling his belly and chest. They lay across him like bloated fingers, grasping and tugging at him in a boneless caress.

From this close, Fuchs could see differences between the totems. Some were tall, made of larger branches and fringed with twigs and paper, or material left to dangle and dance as the air shifted about them; others were smaller, seemingly fashioned from rubbish or smaller pieces of the trees, hunched low to the ground like scurrying things dragged from absolute darkness and desperate to be back in its embrace. Here and there, more of the tiny figures made from cans dangled from outstretched limbs, twisting in the air and catching, reflecting, losing the moon’s graceful light. Yet more lay strewn about the ground, writhing as the wind caught them up and then dropped them again. Even the trees themselves looked to have been twisted into unnatural shapes, their trunks forced around and their limbs brought out so that they made half-human figures, but with too many arms and more fingers than any human could have, endlessly grasping at the air, at him.

No, not grasping. The shadows might feel as though they were reaching for him, but the figures did not. Rather, he felt that they were calling, their sinuous movements an endless invocation, but from whom and to what? Not himself, of that he was sure. They reached past him, over him, around towards the river and, beyond it, to the sea with its abyssal depths and cold, swirling currents. Reached and called, a summoning in the same language he had seen etched into the grass and mud, in a voice both vast and chill. Fuchs looked back along the path, at the other totem now almost hidden in the glittering mists, its feet lost to the water, yet its message no less immediate. It, too, bent supplicant in the wind towards the expanse of water beyond. Past it, invisible now, the first figure he had seen still danced, he was sure, still called to out with urgent clenches of its bony, ragged fingers. Fuchs, his mind faster than his body could ever hope to be, understood without knowing how he understood that he had fallen into the centre of a great invocation, some ceremony whose design and purpose was unclear, but which he felt–knew–to be wrong.

Around him, the wind shifted once again, bringing with it once more the sound of those corrupted and bitter words. They were desperate now, building towards a frenzy that capered about his ears and prickled at his head. Sounds like the bubbling of ocean slime and the roaring of approaching beasts played around him, catching in his hearing and at his throat with pallid mutterings. And then he saw what bobbed in the water further out into the river.

At first, he thought they were fallen totems, broken collections of branches whose paler wooden flesh showed gleaming against the darker skin of bark, but then he saw more clearly the shapes of the floating things, and saw the ivory gleaming for the bone it was. Flesh, teased into corrupt patterns clung to the bone and drifted in eddies at the river’s surface. On some pieces, fur was visible; on others, shreds of clothing lay across the exposed meat and in tangles in the water alongside them. The bodies were mangled, torn and savaged. Even in the constantly shifting light, Fuchs saw that there were curious marks and bruises across the exposed skin. Whorls and curves covered it, the edges of great circles, puckered and ripped and dried to a weeping crust, the imprint of violence whose cause he could neither identify nor name. Horrified, Fuchs lurched back. The moon–gliding behind more cloud and softening the shadows into a messy, jigging confusion of overlapping, distorting edges–covered the slaughterhouse remains with a shroud’s pallor.

He took another step, feeling exposed as he backed away from the river. His heels kicked against the prostrate can men, the sound of their skittering harsh and shrill against the staccato swirl of the angry sounds still shimmering around him. What in the name of God had happened here? There looked to be many bodies out in the water, animals as well as people. Fuchs wanted to think that they had been the victims of a frenzied human assault, but something about the torn and tattered flesh put him in mind of animal attacks, great crescents of muscle exposed by a shark’s teeth or an alligator’s fangs. Surely no man could have done that? Another step away from the terror of it; another. Another–more cans clattering about his feet.

Another, and he saw movement at the edge of his vision.

Across the expanse of grass, over the etched earth, shapes moved in the shadows and darted among the trees. Creeping figures slipped from trunk to trunk, graceful and silent in the darkness. What light there was–hazy moonshine saturated by cloud and the dwelling lights in the distance reflected by the shuddering surface of the river–hesitated at the treeline. Fuchs could not see clearly, but the figures looked as though they were dancing, gyrating as they darted from hiding place to hiding place, their arms flailing and their feet leaving the earth for seconds at a time as they leapt in graceless bounds. They came no further than the edge of the trees, sometimes allowing themselves to be caught by the light, their pale nudity exposed and then lost again as they cavorted back. Fuchs had the impression of saliva strings trailing down chests, of mud spattering across legs, of hair twisted with sweat and dirt, of branches and cans held aloft and waved as though in obscene greeting…

…Of hands, slick with blood

Whoever they were, Fuchs knew that they were not drunks; these were no stumbling inebriates jeering from afar and mocking with thoughtless cruelty. There was a purposefulness about their movements, a rhythm evident in their revealing of themselves to him and then slipping into the shadows again that was intended to scare him. That they were the creators of the totems, he had no doubt; their fevered dancing seemed to be a moving mirror for the totems’ ragged, twisting shapes. He had never felt more exposed, standing between the cold reaches of the river and the frantic, dervish movements, and the leering attention of the totems ahead and behind. He turned on his feet, peering into the darkness around him in hope of some avenue of escape, but none presented itself. The dancers were getting closer, coming further out from the cover of the trees before they darted back into the inky shadows, and although he could not see their eyes, he knew that they were fixed on him with a glittering, hungry intensity. Around them, the chanted words came stronger, peaking in dry, staccato bursts with longer moist phrases. In a moment he realised that the dancers were not uttering the words themselves, but rather, the very earth was sounding the words written upon it, letting them rise from the ground like dank mist swirling up in a great cry of desperate summoning.

Before Fuchs could even wonder why the sounds made him think of a summoning there was another sound, this time from the river. A splash, then a writhing, heaving noise as if something huge was being dragged through the mud at the water’s edge. Or was dragging itself from the water. He stood motionless, hoping to still his breathing, become a fat statue invisible in the darkness, but aware of the hot glow of observation from amongst the trees.

Another noise, a rattling of cans as they skittered across the earth and the path and knocked together; the sound of water breaking and spraying. The smell came again, fierce as burning spices, and then the words rose up further, gibbering, insistent, barely audible but louder than any other sound in his life. Fuchs stared back along the path and saw a black shape pulsate at the river’s edge, saw the flailing of things that he wanted to believe were arms but knew were not, and heard the terrible, dark grunting as it thrust itself forward again. More cans scattered before it, and the water behind it rippled and thrashed as it heaved again. The not-arms flailed, slapping down into the mud and across the path, great ropes of flesh that glistened in the dark with water and movement. One whipped out farther, digging into the earth on the far side of the path, and a trembling moan rose from the people in the trees: anticipatory, desperate, longing. The thing in the water grunted again, the sound of air being expelled through lips that were the wrong shape and size to form simple words. Another heave, and more of its body appeared, humped and dripping in the night. Fuchs, still frozen in fear, had a momentary glimpse of other things buried in the water beyond, clawing at the surface, only to fall back again with splashes like dark chuckles.

No, not more things; one massive thing, its flesh filling the whole of the river, pulling itself up upon the shore increment by tiny increment. Its not-arms (tentacles, he said to himself, tentacles) thrashed, gripping at the concrete and earth and tightening like the steel hawsers of a ship docked in a storm. Another shudder of movement and the vast body crept another few inches forwards, mud splaying out from under it as more of it came ashore. A huge eye, black as lost hopes, peered at him as voices raised themselves in triumphant howls, and then Fuchs was running.

He knew within a few steps that it was not going to work; pain, fresh and sharp, exploded in his knees at every step. His fat, the outlying regions of his body that he had so recently started to shed, moved against the rhythm of his lumbering run, disrupting his balance, pulling him one way and then the other, and his lungs clenched and roared in violent rebellion to the exertion. But, mostly, it was that he was too slow.

Never before had Fuchs felt his size and the ungainliness of his body so acutely. No matter what messages, borne of terror, he sent to his legs they could not carry him any faster away from the emerging thing. His muscles pushed and his survival instinct roared, but his body, so long his enemy, now became his undoing. He could feel the air move at his back, hear the writhing language curl around, pulling the thing in the river into existence, felt the gaze of the impossible thing upon him as the tentacles sliced the air at his shoulder and bit into the ground at either side of him. They dragged gouges into the soil as they tautened, and the noise of a great mass dragging itself further up the slope came to him in a sour wave. Leaping figures bounded across the field to his side, and more were even now pushing their way through the trees ahead of him, kicking at the ground and shaking the totems so that they, too, became part of the dance, their bony limbs jerking in spastic anticipation. From behind, there was more noise, a huffed exhalation that broke around him in a damp, stinking caress. The figures danced on, more and more frenzied, urging the thing behind him to keep coming. Fuchs fled, and knew that he could not flee.

It was his left knee that finally gave up the uneven struggle. It cracked with the sound of a stout branch wrenched from a dying tree. Fuchs crashed over, slammed hard into the ground, and rolled onto his back. Great screams came from around him as he thrashed, the pain from his leg a white-hot glare in the darkness. He struggled over onto his front, knowing it was hopeless but crawling on anyway, his hands digging into the earth and his feet scrabbling for purchase. More tentacles slapped to the ground around him, more huffing and panting sounds rolled across him and the dancers came ever closer, penning him inside a writhing, wailing circle.

A tentacle fell across his shoulder. Gripped, tightened. Dug in, and drew him back towards the river. He twisted and rolled, trying to break its grip until another tentacle whipped around his legs and a third slipped around his belly with a touch as subtle as a lover’s finger before squeezing cruelly tight. Weeping, he cursed his slow and bloated flesh as, behind him, something grand and ancient pulled itself from the river and came to feed.

Simon Kurt Unsworth was born in Manchester in 1972 and is beginning to despair of ever finding proof that the world was awash with mysterious signs and portents that night. He lives in an old farmhouse miles from anywhere in the Lake District with his wife Rosie and assorted children and dogs, where his neighbours are mostly sheep and his office is an old cheese store in which he writes horror fiction (for which pursuit he was nominated for a 2008 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story).

PS Publishing recently released Strange Gateways, his third collection of short stories, following 2011’s critically acclaimed Quiet Houses (from Dark Continents Publishing) and 2010’s equally well received Lost Places (from Ash Tree Press). His stories have been published in a number of anthologies including the World Fantasy Award-winning Exotic Gothic 4, the Gray Friar Press’s Terror Tales of the Cotswolds, Terror Tales of the Seaside and Where the Heart Is, the Ash Tree Press’s At Ease with the Dead, Shades of Darkness and Exotic Gothic 3, Stephen Jones’ Haunts: Reliquaries of the Dead, Ellen Datlow’s Hauntings and Lovecraft Unbound, and Salt Publishing’s Year’s Best Fantasy 2013. He has been in six of Stephen Jones’ The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror as well as The Very Best of Best New Horror. He has a further collection due, the as-yet-unnamed collection that will launch the Spectral Press Spectral Signature Editions imprint. His debut novel, The Devil’s Detective, came out from Doubleday in the US and Del Ray in the UK in March 2015.

He never updates his website but you can visit its dusty abandonment at www.simonkurtunsworth.co.uk

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

Story illustration by Riley Schmitz.

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