That morning, I heard Salagattum for the first time. The low buzzing of air as it twisted around the Pillar. Barely there, layered on the everyday sounds: the wind, the creaking of the support ropes, the night crew’s chatter. It would be awhile before Kalle and the others tuned in to it, but the hum promised a couple of important things: being on the ground soon and returning home. The thought jolted me from sleep and I scrambled out of the nest I’d made in the folds of Kalle’s blanket.
‘You’re up early,’ he tore one eye open and squished himself deeper into his bunk. Since we left Rauma, his face had sprouted a forest, like the one gliding past the window, below us. I stayed planted on the wicker wall. ‘Alright, I’m getting up too,’ Kalle groaned, wrestling with the heavy blanket that wanted him to laze around and daydream all day.
With the summer dying, the sun had grown redder. Its light squeezed through the oval pane and dowsed the cabin in pink, though Kalle’s face kept a grey tinge. He licked his lips, looking at the jug of water. Today, getting a drink meant that he’d have to force his fingers to uncurl and subdue the tremor, to avoid a storm in the glass and a flood on the table. Sad to see him like that.
‘I need you, buddy, time for another one,’ Kalle’s hands went up slowly as if burdened with stones and raked his hair. I cruised over the mess of instruments and maps piled on the table while he lifted his shirt. ‘What do you think? Right side today? Let’s find a juicy piece of flab, eh,’ his chuckle rang both courage and exhaustion. Flab? Good luck with that. He had a sinewy body, sucked even leaner by the disgusting travel food – dried meat, hard cheese, hardtack. Everything hard and nothing hot – the fun of being on the road. His skin flexed and popped like a ripe gooseberry in my jaws. Control. Relax. Instead of a gush – a measured dose of venom, leaving the wound unstirred, healing, not hunting. ‘Tssss, easy there,’ Kalle’s flank twitched. ‘Please, don’t knot yourself.’ Sure, sure, doing my best. I purged the strain from my body and finished the injection.
If you ask me, an almond biscuit is true love distilled. Kalle unwrapped a square of cotton and the bitter-sweet smell crawled inside me. Here, suspended above northern wilderness, stuffed between a protractor and a pair of soiled gloves, lay a treasure – twenty three biscuit crumbs. The Wrights knew how to read stars, how to create life, how to slap a gondola on a colony of Apelenii Aetheri and turn it into an airship. But, most importantly, they knew how to bake. So, even after weeks inside Kalle’s bag, the biscuits tasted as fine as clouds soaked in joy.
‘Sorry, this is the last of them,’ Kalle nudged the precious flakes to the centre of the cloth. He’d never touched a single biscuit, nor let anyone near the stash; he kept it only for me. Colour returned to Kalle’s face, his movements sure and quick. He drew a breath, exhaled the last shreds of weakness, and reclined in the bunk. Smiling, he watched me settle into the curved windowsill and get to work on the treat, as the sun, struggling but determined to prove itself, swaddled me in warmth.
‘Kalle-Te-Ne?’ A crystal voice trickled in. A few moments later, the door slid to the side and a perfect little nose poked in.
‘Come on in, Vi! I’ll say it again, just call me Kalle, no need to be official. After a week in this chicken coup, you’ve seen me with my hair down and all. The horror!’ Kalle laughed and Vi chimed along. There she went, the same drill. Sit next to him, ignoring the other perfectly empty bunk, pretend that turbulence made you lean into him, ask how this and that works, don’t forget to twirl your hair. Sweet girl, though, almost as sweet as an almond biscuit. Vi wriggled into place and smoothed the collar of her uniform decorated with a navigator’s wind rose. The black suited her, as did the splash of silver buttons and the harness belts, which cut her silhouette into a picture of elegance.
‘You can really see it today. It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?’ Vi stretched over Kalle to peer out of the window. He didn’t move, happy as a barn cat, and who could blame him. The tide of Vi’s breath caressed my back. Her scent came too – what a trapeze artist might’ve smelt like, lily-of-the-valley probably, light and thin, with an undertone of worry. I kept snacking while the three of us took in the landscape. The Pillar rose fourteen degrees due East, out of the mountains whose peaks looked from the distance no bigger than a string of bumps. We needed another two days to reach the drop off point in the foothills, but the Pillar, already as thick as a man’s finger, toyed with our sense of perspective.
‘How big do you think it is? Up close,’ asked Vi without shifting her gaze from the lonely stalk, which disappeared into infinity through a flock of clouds permanently tied to the mountaintops. It stood proud, shining silver in a brew of trees, stone, and faint daylight.
Kalle squinted and pursed his mouth. ‘No one’s ever seen one of these, to my knowledge, let alone measured it, but I think it’s ridiculously big, would take days to walk around it. There’ve been stories for thousands of years, but nothing reliable, you know, no evidence. Like water through your fingers.’ He clenched his fists and opened them again, studying Vi, his eyes moving from her face to her hair, to the dip of her waist. She sat up straight and tucked her knees under her chin – an idol in its niche lined with furs and quilts.
‘Look, it’s finished eating,’ whispered Vi, following me with every pulse of her mind, as if witnessing one mystery wasn’t enough. I took my time crossing the wall and coiled up in a corner of the opposite bunk.
‘He. Yes, he’s done now. Time for him to rest, I guess.’
Correct, Kalle, sir. I wanted space to work through the tension. Not from the food – those tidbits hardly counted as such. Normally, tension is good; it pumps the fluids around the body, keeps us sealed, so things don’t fall in or out. Tension is life. But the sudden jitters in my gut and my off-beat breathing started to take apart my inner peace, brick by brick. Seeing the Pillar in detail rattled me more than I cared to admit. Kalle had put on the cool-and-in-control act. Though I could tell from the way he’d been touching his nose and neck, he was also getting scared.
Vi closed her eyes. ‘This whole thing is insane. The damned Pillar is here. Make a recording of it and we can all go home. Why do we need to drop you off? Why get any closer?’ She tried to keep her voice steady.
‘Vi, we are not going that close. My buddy and I will scout a place to put up a research camp. It will be in and out. Let the Deney Wrights play with the Pillar all they want, it’s none of my business. A couple of days hiking in the fresh air and back on board. As long as you don’t forget to collect us,’ Kalle winked. ‘I’ll bring you back something nice. How about a squirrel? Do you think the captain will approve?’
‘It’d be more useful than some of our crew, I’m sure,’ giggled Vi, tilting her head. She sparkled again. Not her habit to dwell on things – what a lucky bean. ‘Anyway, you’ll need to have your hair done to protocol when you disembark. How about I help?’ Vi swivelled to face Kalle and, without waiting for an answer, got busy ransacking the lacquered ebony box where he kept his grooming essentials. Too cute. Did Vi realise it would take six feet of ribbon and twelve gem-encrusted pins to produce the orchid hairdo required for Kalle’s rank?
‘Sure, since you seem to be doing it already,’ he said, just to tease Vi, then let her turn him by the shoulders so the job could begin. ‘Do you know how to make the orchid?’
‘Umm, yes. I’ve had some practice.’
‘You’ll need those pins, some with rubies and others with sapphires.’
She had no clue. The comb danced along the length of Kalle’s hair, the dark strands alive with shine, either from the angle of the light or, more likely, a lack of washing. Out of everyone on board, only I had the luxury of keeping myself clean at all times. Kalle started whistling a tune from back home. It had a spring meadow-y flavour, so he obviously felt content. Healthy. Maps and charts rustled in his hands. He pulled the last vial from his Directives Pack, playing with it, picking at the ornamental glass with his fingernail. Shortly before landing, he’d inhale the contents to receive the final instructions. He hated personal olfactograms. As he put it – they made him doubt reality, but since the Deney had no better way of transferring classified information, Kalle made peace with the scent programs temporarily rearranging the furniture in his brain. Vi worked with the tip of her tongue sticking out – a pink arrow pointing to the disaster on her subject’s head. Patient as a sedated mammoth, he gave her all the time she wanted to experiment.
Kalle savoured the last note of his song and we sat quietly, cradled by the air currents, safe inside our bubble for another day – the colony drifting over the endless carpet of trees, bald patches sprinkled with herds of reindeer, and rivers pinched into impossible loops by a god’s hand. How broken it all looked with that thing bisecting the skyline.
‘Do you hear that?’ Vi paused, letting a length of silk ribbon hang to the floor.
‘I think so.’ Brows bent, Kalle fidgeted in his seat. ’It’s not the wind. Might be that special sound they talk about. The Pillar scholars even gave it a name. Salad-something… Can’t remember.’ Salagattum, Kalle, sa-la-gat-tum. Finally, their ears had caught up to their eyes. ‘Supposedly, strange things happen when you approach the Pillars,’ Kalle yawned and stretched his arms. ‘Some argue three more exist in different parts of the world.’ Four, but close enough. ‘And they all have the same effect. But who’s to know it’s true?’ Nobody. You’ve got to trust your eyes, not the ramblings of long-dead idiots who called themselves Pillar experts. Snuggled in my fresh nest, I listened to Kalle’s voice wander in and out of focus, aware of the tiredness sweeping me up. ‘They pull you and twist you as if you were made of dough, and you don’t feel a thing, and you become flat, like a swirl painted on an egg shell. They mess with your thoughts, too. All nonsense. Dusty old nonsense.’ I teetered on the verge of sleep, surrounded by words jumping into the soft void one by one, until I gave up and fell along with them.
Arms and legs – as clumsy as oars on a boat. Had I used them before? The neck lifted my head to a better angle. I looked like Kalle or Vi or any other human – a five-pointed slab of meat, wrapped around a tube. A tube made to chase pleasure. With both ends. We weren’t so different after all.
Every item in the room had been an old friend. The sofa-bed with its ribs in my back, and the stool on pointy legs like a dancer ready to leap. They teased my memory, they represented my world. And someone who brought light into it would be here soon. I knew it.
‘Lana, my sweet bird, you must take them. Look at the quality, the thread. No idea where Natashka found them and I don’t want to know. What good are they to me except to put them over my head to hide this tired mug?’ My grandmother’s voice, brittle and kind, came from the adjacent room. I remembered her – a little ball of yarn rolling around the flat, drying wash cloths on the radiator, rinsing jars, frying potatoes in margarine while complaining about butter shortages. ‘But a special girl like you needs to be spoiled sometimes. I’ll put them in your bag and that’s that.’
‘Thank you, Baba Anya. You shouldn’t have. A golden soul you are. No, a diamond one!’ I held back my thoughts, afraid to miss even one word from Lana’s lips. ‘How’s Sasha today?’ Her voice dropped.
‘He’s not eaten much, but I told him you were coming and he perked up,’ Baba Anya sighed quietly. ‘Those doctors know nothing. They’re running us in circles with their tests. What you’re doing is remarkable, I can tell it’s what we need. Something different. A new hope.’
Muffled words followed by seven steps. The hinges squeaked as the yellow rectangle of the doorway grew, reflected in the china cabinet. The door closed behind her. She walked across the long shadows on the rug, and stood by the window. Lana. My stomach melted into sweet mush.
‘Hello, prince. Smells like dark thoughts in here, they ruin your appetite.’ The pockmarked casement grunted in Lana’s hands and the tulle curtains sprang to life in the breeze, inspecting the visitor with their edges.
I squeezed the air from my lungs. On the way out it rasped ‘Good evening’ – an ugly sound, much like Kalle would’ve made on a bad day, when his body couldn’t move anymore. Embarrassed, I wanted to say something else, to open my arms, to show Lana how much I’d missed her. Instead, my human limbs only twitched, glued to the sheets by illness or the stickiness of a dream. How I felt for Kalle just then! For his ups and downs, the anger and frustration at the need to be healed.
‘It’s alright, rest up. Getting better is your only job.’ Lana moved closer, in a halo from the sign across the street – it said LENINGRAD, with a gap in the set of neon teeth where the E had burnt out. She sat next to me and laid out her gadgets on the stool. Her thigh – firm, bursting with goodness, the cure for all the world’s troubles, touched my side. ‘Your grandmother gave me three pairs of Czechoslovakian tights, bless her. Now I know how lottery winners feel.’ Lana smiled – four creases in the corner of each eye, perfect symmetry. ‘She could’ve swapped them for a new TV set, I imagine.’ Lana tossed her head towards the glass-fronted box with a doily hanging off the top to cover its dead face. ‘Have you been bored, simmering in four walls all alone?’ She ran a cotton ball over five needles – each one like a whisker plucked from an unlucky animal. The smell of alcohol punched me in the nose; it reminded me of white coats and shiny floors.
‘Yes,’ I croaked, nodding, picturing in my head blocks of flats stretching for miles in all directions, pastured in mud – grey beasts in whose pores small creatures such as myself breathed and turned food into shit.
‘Then I’ll tell you another story.’ Lana peeled back the covers and laid both hands on my bare chest. Fire started in my blood, touching down where my legs met. ‘But first, let’s find the meridians.’ Her fingers travelled from my forehead to my navel, from one shoulder to the other, exploring every route and destination in between. Lana bent over me, eyes shut. Nothing could spoil her beauty. Not the hair dye, a shade of red unknown to nature, not the blue eye shadow or the lumpy mascara. Life, time, late nights, and early mornings had been pulling her down – I knew every line on her face; new ones appeared faster and the old ones cut deeper. But she fought back. And I wondered how long she could last, because she gave so much more than she took. ‘Sasha. Sashen’ka. What am I going to do with you? You aren’t from here, are you? Where do you live, behind these gorgeous eyes?’ Her lips closed around my chin, moved to the side of my neck, and stayed there for a moment. ‘Well,’ she exhaled and cradled my cheeks in her palms, ‘we’d better make a start’.
The first needle went into my abdomen, on the right, under the last rib. Lana’s finger hammered the metal filament into my skin with expert speed and left it trembling to the rhythm of my insides. Warm tingling spread from the entry point – exactly the desired effect.
‘This, Sasha, is where you’ll find the swamps of Akara. Your clothes always stay damp and the sun resembles a broken egg yolk because of the steamy heat. The locals look like frogs, run around naked, and ride giant flightless birds. If we ever went there, we’d have to sanitise our water and keep our hands where they belong – everything in the swamps has teeth or claws.’ A smile stretched my lips but didn’t stay long – the muscles tired easily.
The second needle dug into my left side, mirroring the first one. ‘And to the East, my prince,’ continued Lana, ‘we have the land of Ka’lim. The desert is blistering. You can only travel at night, guided along safe tracks by glowing khalami beetles, and you spend the days in caverns or snow-white tents, drinking sour camel milk to replenish your strength.’ Beyond the old wall carpet, the gills of the radiator, Baba Anya’s porcelain knick-knacks, and the city yawning after another day’s work, I sensed movement. Great cogs ticking, pegs hitting notches in precise patterns to churn worlds, to re-organise them, and it gave me a thrill to be part of a shuffled deck. As long as Lana stayed close.
Her third needle landed at the edge of my right shoulder. ‘The City of Witches, my dear Sashen’ka, hangs off a cliff, which drops into the Crescent Sea. The streets rise sharply, slick with mist, and they could suffocate you – so narrow they are. Yellow lights from the laboratories up in the towers burn day and night, shooing away travellers and sailors. I’m a witch too, you know. People have always said it and maybe they’re right.’ Lana’s eyes went blacker than the deepest well. An ideal hiding place. In the gathering dark, I listened to the beat inside my chest.
‘The island empire of Shi lies here.’ Lana drove the fourth needle into the bend of my left elbow. ‘The golden roofs of its temples reach for the sun. Tiny creatures, who by the way live to be a thousand years old, skim the ocean in slender boats like water-striders.’
She brushed the hair off my forehead and pushed the last needle between my eyes. ‘And in the far north, where reindeer drink from icy lakes, a great pillar rises out of the mountains. And if you want to know all the secrets of the universe, listen to the shaman’s drum as you hide from winter by the fire, inside a shelter of kaanatak bones.’ Lana scanned my face, rolling the veins on my hands under her fingers in an absent-minded caress. ‘Which story would you like to hear? Just give me a nod.’ One by one, she touched the needles, the five silver stingers, five embers on my skin, fed by the heat in her belly. She hummed gently, looking for my signal, and when she reached the last needle, still dancing in the middle of my forehead, I moved. ‘Good choice, prince.’
by Ivan Petrov
Ivan is a Russian-born aspiring writer now living in England. He is a chemist by trade and he writes because it’s impossible for him not to, as he’s come to realise. His hobbies include referring to himself in third person, travelling for no reason, playing music that lives in his head, drawing things that don’t exist. https://www.ivanpetrov.co.uk/