He asked the corpse a question: ‘So now you are dead, are you?’
We ventured further from the shore. The sand became stonier, colder and wetter underfoot, like unset cement. And the weather altered too; a chillier breeze crept in from the north. It seemed to wash away the colour from the sun, and from the sky too, turning it as hoary as the silt flats, making everything dimensionless. It was as if we were in one of those opera sets I would see later in my life – dramatic shrinking perspectives, alternate worlds in a box – two characters wandering a boundless landscape.
By the time my master had discovered the larger oysters, started cutting them from their beds and putting them into his bucket, my mood had turned again. I looked back at the palace. It had a grim, inert air. Except for our quarters close to the kitchens, the windows were all dark. Most of the royal party had gone for the winter. Although my master had kept me largely apart from them when they were here, as I was still puppyish on my feet, I had nonetheless relished the sense of a pageant unfolding in the main part of the building, of cooking, children playing, a thrill of stewards and chamberlains, lutes and harpsichords and peals of laughter. Now, other than the old queen – whom my master had stayed to attend to, incase she grew sick – only the dourest of staff remained: unsociable guards, washerwomen forever veiled behind wind- flapped cloths, and night-wardens with heavy sets of keys. I turned back to my master, hoping he would have finished by now, but found him standing bolt upright, arms out, with the bucket dropped on its side.
‘Sssh,’ he went as I padded towards him, his tone so sharp that my ears folded back and I wondered if I’d done something wrong. But his eyes were fixed on an islet of crooked rock some distance ahead. Usually it dwelt beneath the sea, but the low water had exposed it to its foundations. As a breeze sighed across the plane, one side of it stretched into a crescent before returning to its crooked form. I was startled and looked up at my master but he offered no explanation or reassurance. His eyes remained riveted. The wind whistled and charmed up ghoulish spectres of sand, sending them rolling past us. Once more the side of the rock heaved, but this time I realized that it was a shape behind it that moved: the sail of a boat.
‘Who is it? Who goes there?’ My master’s voice was stern and I barked. He took my head firmly in his hands. ‘Not a sound out of you, you hear? Not a sound.’ He continued forward, cautiously approaching until we had a view of the wreck: a small craft beached on its side, a navy sail strung between spar and stern, the underbelly holed and gaping open. There was a third weightier blast of air and this time it carried a smell with it, an acrid ammonia stench that stung my nostrils.
A pair of crates lay upturned in the sand, one intact, the other cracked in pieces, a rainbow mess of glass phials spilling from its interior. My master righted the undamaged box, wiped the mud from the escutcheon on the front and jolted in surprise. ‘From Opalheim.’ He turned to me, a peculiar slant in his eye. ‘From Opalheim he comes.’ I would hear the name spoken often in years to come and it always carried with it a sense of magnificent doom. The insignia showed three turreted towers below a crescent moon. My master’s hand jittered over the flotsam of bottles, but he didn’t pick any up. They were exactly the type he kept in his workroom, which contained quantities of powder or metal.
‘Who is there I say?’ he ventured again in what I came to know as his battle voice, but the only reply that came was the creak of ropes, the flutter of sail, and the irrefutable sharp sodium stink of putrefaction. By then I knew the scent, to a degree, from the odd dead gull or rat, but nowhere near as thick and pungent. My master must have also noticed how strong it was, for his hands shook and a faint adrenal surge lifted off him, the aroma of fear. We circled the ship and saw the body on the other side, legs tangled in rope and hoisted up towards the mast, whilst stomach and head were half sunk in the silt below. And as the boat groaned back and forth, so the corpse was dragged with it. My master smeared his hand up and down his cheek, pulling at the skin. ‘My champion, what are we to do?’ Then, in a small voice that had, I fancied, an undernote of hope, he asked the corpse a question: ‘So now you are dead, are you?’
He pulled himself together, squared his shoulders, marched over to the cadaver and hauled it on to its back. Instantly my master’s face uncreased, the fear snapped from his eyes and a gasp came from him that sounded almost like a laugh, though I couldn’t tell if it was from relief or disappointment. ‘A courier,’ he said. ‘When I saw the intaglio, three towers, I – just a courier, though. Poor soul. Drowned. A courier returning my chattels that is all. It was so long ago I asked for them. I had all but forgotten.’ That same curious laugh. ‘The storm, you remember it? When was it? A week ago? Just a messenger returning my old compendium, poor thing.’
Close up, the stench gloved my throat. The body was grotesque, chest and face bulging and bloated, skin unlayered and marbled with veins. Its tongue was a coal pebble sticking out from a bone-white mouth, and its eyes were pale-grey glass.
‘What shall we do with him?’ my master was saying. He looked up at the waves breaking beyond us. ‘If I drag him to sea, the tide will bring him back again. That is no end for a man. Not a good man.’ After his fit of terror, he was practical now, as I had always known him to be. ‘I shall do as the Romans did.’ He cast his eye at the sun, split in half as it sank. ‘Quickly, my boy, it shall be dark soon.’
He hurried homewards, but I stayed in front of the cadaver, as fascinated as I was repulsed. It did not live in the true sense, did not breathe, but somehow it seemed to exist with greater force than the other humans I had met. Perhaps because decay is the most virulent form of life, or perhaps because nothing speaks more of the phenomenon of being, than the absence of it. ‘Do not get left behind.’ My master’s voice twisted away on the wind. He was already halfway home, cloak flapping from side to side as he dodged rock pools. I went after him.
He shouldered open the doors to our quarters and ushered me in first. ‘You wait here for me, understand?’ I obeyed, reluctantly, stalling in the unlit hall as he hurried off down the passage. I started to sit, but the floor was cold, so I half hovered over it, cocking my ear to clanks of metal and screeches of wood that came from the boot room. He returned with a heavy jar and a tinderbox and, as he rushed past, I caught the scent of lamp oil and tallow. ‘You wait. I shall return.’ And the door slammed shut.
My stomach turned. His footsteps descended to the beach again. The hall darkened and I circled, one way then the other, reassuring myself there was nothing to be afraid of, that my master would come home soon and all would be well – but still dread mounted. I cast my eyes to the statue enthroned at the base of the stairs, the sculpture he spoke to sometimes, an ancient, sad-eyed hound carved in marble (extraordinary that hands had fashioned those emaciated bones), its head turned as a man in rags approached from behind. ‘Good morrow to you, Argos,’ he would say stroking the dog’s skull. ‘How patiently you have waited for his return.’
I had to see what my master was doing, so I slipped through a side door into the principal part of the palace and took the stairs up to the long gallery. I’d visited it once, in summer, when the building was lively. Now it was peopled only by statues. I mounted a chair and leaning on to a sill, I had a view of the ocean. In the distance, my master was a shadow cutting across the mercury stillness of the silt flats. He stopped just beyond the crooked islet, busied himself around the boat, until moments later a golden light flared up. The glass panes of the casement shimmered with it. He was burning the body. I recall – how it seems like yesterday – my guts knotting as the blaze reached its apogee.
My master stayed there, dutifully waiting until the fire had diminished, before he turned and started to lumber back. I slunk down on to the floor and glanced at the congregation of sculptures: a bearded colossus wrestling a sea creature, a young lady reclining on a chaise with a lyre tipped from her hand, an old sage brandishing an open book. The night shadows bending over their contours made them all come to life in a monstrous way. And there were paintings too, even more illusive renditions of people, deceits of canvas and pigments: a gentleman in a fur-collared robe with a kestrel on his forearm, an old crone bodiced into a carmine gown, a young rake dressed in black and clutching a skull. All that time ago I had yet to travel the realms, to know the majesty and horror of cities, to witness war first-hand – its stench of hot metal and coppery blood – or to lose a friend I loved. I’d yet to learn also how centuries would pass for me, that I’d live and live. All that was to come. And yet, in that moment, amongst those ghostly watchers, somehow I felt the presage of those things weighing upon me. Dusk engulfed the room, sending me mad with fear – then at last I heard my master coming back in below. I bolted down the stairs two at a time. He had filled one of the crates with coloured glass, the phials that had previously lain strewn across the sand, and now he set it carefully down in the doorway. I leapt up, welcoming him with ecstatic barks and licks of my tongue.
‘What a fuss is here! What a fuss,’ he said, even though he too was shaken. I followed him into the boot room and watched him in the gloom as he washed his hands, and then to the parlour where he lit candles and shuttered the windows. Before he closed the last of them, he paused and peered out towards the crooked rock, still frightened it seemed by what he might have discovered.
‘Everything shall be well, no?’ he said, kneeling down and holding my skull in both hands. ‘We are content with our lives, are we not?’ His tone, the abrupt intensity of it, unnerved me and at once I thought of the body, of fat catching light and bones turning black as they incinerated. I thought of the statues and paintings in the dark gallery of the palace – the bearded colossus, the reclining lady, the rake with the skull – and they too seemed to belong to the world of the dead. It was only after he’d built a fire in the hearth and we’d sat in the warmth of it – he on an armchair and I at his feet – after the stone had heated beneath me, that my heart began to settle.
‘No!’ He sat up and looked round. I lifted my head to the door, wondering what he’d heard. ‘The oysters.’ He sighed. ‘Left them on the beach. And our bucket too. The tide will take it.’ He shrugged and sank back again. ‘No matter. Tomorrow, we’ll go once more. Maybe tomorrow we’ll find finer ones still.’
I watched him from the tail of my eye as he fell asleep and his hands went limp at his side. Only then did I recall his strange behaviour on the beach. ‘So now you are dead, are you?’ he’d asked in as curious a voice as I’d ever heard from his lips. I wondered who he’d been expecting.
I would find out soon enough.