Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Mariner's Angel

They won't let me see my ex-wife; they say she's not in any fit state. They will let me look at the baby, which is in an anonymous crib in a room with twenty-three other anonymous cribs and a large viewing window. Nurses move up and down the rows, smoothing blankets, checking for signs of cot death (I can only hope that when it happens they start shouting 'Code Blue!' but I suspect they don't), and generally looking after the babies. I can tell which crib Julie's baby is in because the crib is oddly ornamented. When I asked about that the nurse's face went vacant, and she drooled until I went away. I hid round the corner and watched, and her face took a good minute to unslacken after I'd left, so whatever hit her was intended to keep her out for a while.
I've seen ornamentation like that before, and that's part of the reason I'm not describing the child as my baby. I don't think I had anything to do with it, not directly anyway. But I remember the ornamentation from the desert.
I was walking more or less south, it was just afternoon and I was heading towards the sun. The sand underfoot was so hot my ankles felt like they were cooking, and the breeze only seemed to go as far down as my knees. There was no shelter around though, and I wanted to leave the desert now, so I wasn't pitching the tent in daylight. Then I took a step and a hole opened in the sand before me.
I froze, before I realised that the perspective had changed and I was stood at the top of a slope down into a valley. Again, the sand became sandstone as I descended, and the at the bottom was a narrow trickle of water in a stone channel. I tasted it warily, and it was clean and cold, so I refilled my water cannister and looked around. To my astonishment, there was a small boat sitting on the bed of the valley. Its hull was the same colour as the sand, and from anywhere else it would probably have been invisible. I went over to take a look.
I think I could have jumped and grabbed hold of the railing on the side, but there was a rope knotted at intervals hanging down so I pulled myself up that way. On the deck, I stopped.
Tied to the mast, looking tired and thirsty, was a man with an ageless face, eyes as green as jealousy, lips as red as a television vampire's and the soft glow of applied electromagnetism all around his back and shoulders. When he saw me his eyes glistened, and the glow solidified briefly into thousands of softly bristling feathers. He was an angel, an electromagnetic angel.
He croaked, and I held out the water cannister, making sure not to touch his fingers as we exchanged it. While he drank I walked round him; the wire binding him to the mast was copper, there was a grey cube at the base of the mast behind him, almost surely a field generator, and there were earthing wire tied to manacles around his ankles.
"Thank-you," he said, holding out the cannister. I took it back; it was empty.
"Why are you here?" I said.
"The Mariner has tied me here to bring luck for his voyages," said the angel. He didn't sound angry or upset, nor even resigned. He sounded matter-of-fact.
"Seems like a dangerous thing to do, leaving you on your own like this."
"It's been three years and two days."
I knew I shouldn't; I'd seen so much in this desert already that I knew I should have walked away and minded my own business, but I reached out to the grey cube and turned the field generator off.
"Take this." The angel threw a coin to me, and I slipped it into a pocket. Then I jumped down from the boat, ran to the stream to refill the cannister, and hurried back out of the valley from the direction I'd entered. I kept my back turned when the light got brighter and brighter and I knew that the angel was hovering on unseen fields of electromagnetic energy behind me, freed from his prison at last. Finally it faded away, and I took the coin out of my pocket and looked at it. It was covered in tiny, dense carvings of strange aquatic things that seemed to have built a city and be inhabiting it. The more I looked at it, the more I felt drawn into it, so I put it away, but not without wondering who -- or what -- the Mariner was.
Those same carvings are now all over the baby's crib, and no-one wants to talk about how they got there.

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