Mali Yates

Mali Yates holds a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS and an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford University. She is currently a doctoral student at UCL researching ritual and climate change in the Amazon. Her writing falls into the sci-fi/fantasy genres, often working with elements of absurdity and the surreal. 

The Humble Compound

We three squealing lambs rolled down green banks, desperate to find mothers, fathers, anyone who could cotton wool our bruised skin. Weathered, malleable, our flesh contained the stories that ran from our lips. They nestled into the safety of our fat, burying themselves in so much goo they forgot their own beginning and end. 

We ran in large strides too careless to meet the precision that the task required, but we had long lost the ability to control our bodies in relation to a specific demand. Nerves cut with barbed wire, frayed in so many places they sprawled out into one large spider’s web. We knew not to ask our bodies for any movement they could not give us.

Loaly’s sweaty palm enclosed around my arm which batted it away. Even now we were free our conditioning remained. Wooley never wanted us to be team members, knocking our compassion out of us one by one.

Loaly, the last to arrive yet the first to turn. Of course it was a gradual process, a gentle hacking away at a tree, and none of us were aware of the increasing hold he had over her until her trunk was sliced straight from its roots.

One day she sauntered into the main camp dressed in a crinkled maid’s uniform spotted with old sick and began laying the table with dirty kitchenware. She hummed in a distant voice, flashing me an angelic smile now and then as her head stayed loyal to its cocked over position. The frantic energy with which she bounced around the room was the only believable thing about the scene: she tossed soil and dirty grass from the garden so high they missed the salad bowl, landing on the table which jeered back at us.

Maybe one day I will have mastered this language well enough again to explain the furniture that spoke, the shifting walls, the hollow beds that sometimes farted when you sat on them, but every time I write about the screaming dresses they appear on the page as just that, a fabrication of events that could not be true unless we lived in a world where it was more likely that the tree in your back garden knew what you ate for breakfast than your own mother did. But once you’ve eaten fried garden worms every day your perception of believability shifts.   

Worms were the cleanest thing about Wooley’s. If something wasn’t festering then you were imagining it. Hygiene was a threat to the erratic order of things you see. There was no way to see the danger beneath all that chaos. But still we were allowed to hose ourselves with the garden tap when the hardened blood became visible against our naked skin.

Line up stand up and that we did, fidgeting in the cold air. A pack of wolves huddling together for warmth, instinct banded us together in ways our minds could not.  

The tap moaned as it turned on; everything about the place was lazy. No-one knew where the water came from but once Soally said he saw a rat spurting out of the tap. Me and Laoly laughed at the thought of something so big and ugly as a rat darting out of that small dainty pipe, but now I know what I do about the state of things morphology does not seem so crazy an idea.

Things shifted all the time, under the eye. Wooley’s power lay in imperceptibility. He knew how to change someone’s foundations without them knowing, making small tears in their fabric over and over. Rip, break, split, no wonder we never had time to stitch ourselves back together.

Once Loaly’s framework was tattered beyond repair it was only a matter of drips and drops before the others were swept under his grizzly wing. It made sense in the end, why they did it, better to be the second housewife of a loving man in a humble compound than trapped with a raving nutter in a desolate village on the edge of the world. I knew which one I would rather be in, yet somehow the state of things never changed for me in the way it did them.

They all saw red where I saw blue, daisies where I saw daggers. Once Loaly began caressing a kitchen knife like it was the first rose blossoming in spring. I managed to get the thing out of her hand before the serrated edge imprinted against her cheek, but I couldn’t be there all the time. It was impossible for me to be so, not even because of the way we were structured with my bed on the other side of the room from them – my separation was another way of him letting me know I was under watch, that I would be next – but because they spoke in a way that kept me out.

It was still our language for I recognised the words, but the way they were put together made every sentence sound mangled and distorted, like they were using some sort of device. Trying to listen more to what they said made no difference, if anything it made their speech sound even more strangulated. Was it possible I had been removed from society for so long that I had forgotten my own mother tongue? The source, the benevolent, the language from which everything else made sense, the way to communicate, to relay my own stories and that which I had heard, to learn, to forgive.

Alone with my thoughts I counted the days but soon realised of course this was an impossible task, there were no days in a place without time. The rising of the sun was the only thing to rely on, to depend on, but sometimes I woke so late it was difficult to find the location of the sun in the sky through the haze of medication. Beneath the clouds I knew it was there somewhere, even if we couldn’t feel it’s rays trying to warm us through the impenetrable coldness that had seeped into our skin.

While I watched the clouds hide our remaining hope, Loaly tried to resurrect moments of excitement from her previous life. She was constantly readying the place for guests who never arrived, making and re-making the beds, hanging out dirty laundry, reorganising the seven items in the cupboards in all their possible different arrangements, cooking with dirt from the kitchen, stinking up the place. Soally helped where he could, picking flowers from the beds to lay in the imaginary guests’ rooms, beating the clothes with a broom. Between the constant fussing and the preparing it was easy for me to slip out of sight underneath the dirty bedding, into the darkness I had become so accustomed to loving.

Before darkness was not something I yearned for, leaned toward. I was a lover of sun, of the brightness that shone into my room ridding it from its overly contracted state. Even at night time I found a way to avoid the darkness, a candle, a flick of the switch, there was always an angel’s light near me. But back then I didn’t understand the true state of things, the pendulum that keeps swinging.

Equilibrium was never reached there yet still we strove for it, harmony, balance. Loaly and the others exerted all of their energy pretending that there was a normalcy that could be reached simply by carrying on, keeping up the façade as terror became so engrained into their way of being that one day they would wake up and just do, be, wash, live; the familiarity of the everyday became them.

Of course I knew that would never happen but trying to pop their bubble didn’t seem a better idea. Who was I to stop them from striving for their unattainable dream, the safety blanket they were so desperately trying to wrap around their shaking bones. I wouldn’t rip up their reality as much as they didn’t try to change mine.

We were all seeing the same thing of course, yet somehow we managed to construct different visions that enabled us to put our next step forward, to get out of bed that following evening, morning, all time was the same there.

The longer I spent at Wooley’s the more certain I became that there was no such thing as time at all. All that mattered was the immediate moment, a fragment of a life once important, a second with which loved ones used to fill wondering about your whereabouts, nothingness.

Everything stopped as soon as it begun. The flowers didn’t grow, nor the trees, the grass; we lived in a constant state of the present, a frozen snap shot of hell, ice.

Before and after, back and forth, once there was and now there wasn’t; I’m sure such things used to give me some comfort. The notion that time moved in one congruent line whipping up all that needed to change with it. But before I was free and now I was trapped, there was no assurance in that, no safety in knowledge.

Then one day Loaly came running outside with her hands flapping around as though she’d lose them if they didn’t keep moving, folding the dirty laundry at a faster speed than usual, flitting about the place like a rat not wanting to be seen.

I broke the mould and ran up to her.

“What’s up?”

“He’s gone,” she replied in a dead voice that contradicted her manic energy.

“What do you mean, gone?”

“Soally said he was moaning about the yard clutching his arm for a few minutes then jumped into his car and hasn’t been back since. That was this morning.”

She folded the clothes so fast dust flew off the fabric as it screamed to be put down. Release me, let me go you crazy witch.

I grabbed her by the arms, “are you sure? Are you really sure that’s what Soally saw?”

She put down the blood covered dress and looked at me, eyes on the floor.

“Yes, I mean that’s what he said happened. Besides I haven’t seen him yet have you?”

“Well no but it’s Tuesday that’s Soally’s day,” I replied hurriedly.

“Not anymore,” she said, the corners of her lips rising into a shy smirk. I wanted to slap her for the cheek of what she was insinuating, but my need to seize the only opportunity we had been given in three years overrode my pride.

“We have to get out of here,” I muttered.

“We can’t,” she replied in a language I could finally understand, her usual voice.

I gawped at her and she returned my stare, both registering the change in tone, the shift. I pulled her towards me and finally was able to feel her physical body as present. Her edges filled out, full bodied; she was back.

She opened her mouth to say something but I interrupted her, “there’s no time for sorry, we seriously have to get out of here Lily.”

Tears streamed down her cheeks at the mention of her real name and she nodded, wiping them off quickly.

The next few hours were nothing and everything, a book without its middle. The sun raced through the sky as we cut wires, crawled through gaps, climbed fences, ducked traps, and by the time we were running down the hill, it was nearly saying goodbye to us, dipping its rear end out of the sky, wishing us luck on our journey.

And so we ran downhill, naked, with nothing but our imaginations to serve us for the next few days when the first person we ran into screamed and yelled in horror. Our cries of relief only worried the elderly woman more and she pulled up her hands in the air and barked harsh words we couldn’t understand with bulging eyes and wrinkly skin.

The three orphans, that’s what they called us in the village. We went everywhere together in those initial moments, stuck together with the glue of what we had been through, the ropes of all we had seen tied around our ankles. Physical pain was inflicted upon us if we could not see the other’s feet and it wasn’t until the men came in their uniforms and heavy hands that we began to realise our moment of breakaway was just beginning, that as soon as we stepped out of that overgrown garden, we had signed the dotted line of divorce on our unexpected marriage in one swift motion.

Now it’s like before only it isn’t. I move my body in slow motions every morning to check that I am alive, that things are allowed to continue in the way they were. My room is exactly how I left it but nothing is the same because I am not.

I go back to the beginning, rip everything off the wall, throw away my clothes, the wardrobe, my make-up, take the bed to the charity shop, until the only thing left in the rectangular four walled room is me and this notebook. Finally I am alone, and the healing begins.  

The Sea

It’s finished, Luly cooed in a gentle voice that melted the cold liquid on my flushed cheeks. I rubbed away the rest of my tears with a knowing smile before repositioning my hands alongside the massage table.

Luly always knew how to rework stubborn knots, but he was the most obstinate point on my body, a callous lump of fascia only hardening against adversity. That didn’t stop Luly from trying though, through an array of soft tugs and taps, to release his tension. 

We met every other day for weeks during that final phase of my life when my behaviour made no sense, when I stopped being accountable for the few things I was responsibility for. I was only reliable when it came to her massages, dragging myself through the heavy fog to reach her quaint terrace coloured house.

It’s hard to say how much of an impact her efforts had on my ability to free myself from his mental conditioning in the end, but if I could relive any scene of my life one more time then it would be this one. Only instead of turning away from her soft lips I would lean up towards them and let myself be swept up in something larger than the picture of his angular face. Luly thunders through my body destroying his unwanted debris, catapulting me into the only reality in which I am saved.

Yet each time I relive that pivotal moment, and believe me I have enough time to run around the life track in as many different ways possible, I cannot remember a thing about how I’m feeling or what I’m thinking. All I can feel are Luly’s warm hands resting on my shivering calves, all I see are her bright stinging eyes. I know more about her own state of mind than my own in that scene, her need to protect, support.  

Even knowing what I do now, that two hours after our last meeting Conrad stamped out both of our lights with a serrated bread knife, two bottles of wine and a deranged head, nothing about the terror of my final scene is able to penetrate the memory of Luly’s tender hands caressing my upper back.

*

I walk the beach in limbo, a floating wing moving with the direction of the wind not the call of its bird. I am not the only soul slogging along this pebbled shore, accompanied by thousands of unlived lives. They imprint their stories on the stones, etching tales of dreams discarded not out of fear but necessity. We are the lost ones, untethered in the only place grounding enough to call home.

The sea is angry today, reflecting my emotions like always: a flick of froth warning the family who assess their chances of a relaxing swim with hesitation, a crash on the large white salted rocks, upheaving the tiny fish from their homes.

Conrad and I used to come to this spot and mimic the family’s actions, pretending we wanted to go into the sea long enough as was believable before shrugging off the idea with forced disappointment. He would grip my hand in a firm hold ignoring the sweat forming between our palms. At first I squirmed at the wetness but after a while I learnt to find peace in the fact that he must have been as uncomfortable as I was, even he behaved otherwise.

It took death for me to grasp just how much he acted. Everything he did was the result of a planned attitude or stance to incite a specific response. Luly never did something if it wasn’t her truth. She didn’t act from her brain in the same way he did. 

*

The orange lamp oozed warmth into the otherwise cream room. Candles surrounded the massage table. Even before I took off my clothes I could feel the heat from her heart touching my body, which eased in response.

‘He’s gone you know,’ she said, eyeing me.

‘I know,’ I lied.

By that point I had gone past trying to explain to people the nightmares which left me in a daze until I dosed myself with painkillers. I only alienated myself by attempting to convey the presence of his anxious thoughts twirling my consciousness into a spider’s web. There was no point in him being physically gone if I could still hear him in my head.

Luly’s wandering eyes told me to lie down and I let my naked body sink into the soft fabric, feeling the towel like material brush over me. Luly’s power was not in her validating silence or gentle touch, but in the way she was able to make me feel like it was okay to bring the worst parts of me to the table.

I’d never had the type of relationship with my parents where I could go to them with problems. If something was wrong in my family then the done thing to do was bury it in activity or intoxication. My sister went so far down the medication route it became difficult to get an honest conversation out of her. I understood her need for it but I couldn’t copy my parents’ strategy of denial in the same way. Nonetheless the environment must have had an impact on me because I have never been able to approach any friend if I have an issue.

At Luly’s there was never any need to talk. She understood how I was feeling without me having to verbalise it. Our dynamic was more than the professional premise that brought us together as masseuse and client. We were bonded together by a connection deeper than who we were as people.

*

The sea screams more than usual. Something is bubbling, somewhere below. I run along the pebbles reaching out to the other souls but they do not feel its presence, the arrival of a new power.

I reach the metal railings at the end of the beach and stand up on them, surveying the landscape. Still hills, moving water, emptiness, it’s just like normal. But something is definitely different, I can feel a rumbling.

I tread back to the middle where home is and see the family approaching the water. The children first, a boy and a girl. They tiptoe over the rocks in elegant postures as their parents watch behind them. I want to shout at them, to warn them about the shaking ground.

As the children dip their feet into the water, it changes colour to burgundy. The waves start making erratic movements, forming opaque shapes which stay erect long enough for me to try to work out what they are, before breaking. The children are blind to the water, naïve to its danger.

I know they can’t hear me but still I scream, yell, wave my arms high in the air. The girl pushes her older brother into the water and he gets up laughing, before lunging after her. I look around in panic but there’s nothing I can do. Another three metres into the water and they’re done for.

The waves rise and show no sign of stopping. I fling myself against the railings again in fear, as though it’s possible for me to die twice. The waves follow me, knowing I am running from them, angry, tremendous. With nowhere to escape I turn and face the tide, leaning my back against the sturdy metal.

‘What do you want!’ I yell.

The sea answers me in the form of a twenty foot wave that crashes on top of me.

*

When I am next able to move I lift my head up and gaze at the empty beach, taking in what feels like new surroundings. It is only then, fifteen years after the fact, that I realise: I am one among many lost souls on this trodden beach, surrounded by bountiful seaweed, hungry fish, granular rocks, and Conrad is nowhere to be seen.

There is no sign of his bushy eyebrows, those bold eyes, or his disarming grin. And for the first time since it all I can finally understand what Luly was trying to tell me all along – he was gone.

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