King Candaules

Jean Leon Gerome, "King Candaules" (1859)

- It wasn't your fault.
- I'm sorry?
- I just said it wasn't your fault, what happened to me.
- I never thought it was! If anything, it was your ...

With a start, Phil realised she was speaking out loud. The voices in her head were at last starting to spill out into the world. At least, that seemed the most plausible explanation. Wasn't it?

But the head in her hands continued to talk:

- This isn't the end of it, Phil. You have to listen to me. There's some stuff I have to tell you ...

It all seemed amazingly real. The muscles in her jaw clenching and declenching as the words came out, each one wrung out of the inertia of rigor mortis - the pale light coming on and off at the back of her eyes.

The blood had long since ceased to drip from that clean, transverse cut, but now a little colour had come back to her cheeks.

- Pat, is ... is that you?

She couldn't stop herself from addressing the thing that used to be her best friend's head, that mouth she'd kissed, those eyes she'd stared into so many times. For all she knew, it mightn't be Pat at all. She'd read of demons, souls of the dead, who possessed the bodies of the departed before the life force left for good ...

What if it was one of those? And yet, she felt so forlorn, so lonely, naked and cold here in the dark.

- Of course it's me, who did you think?

The speech came easier now, as if the head was recovering old motor skills, learning how to lubricate its sound-box past a croak.

- I know I'm hallucinating, I know it can't be you, but ... Oh, Pat, I'm lost, I don't know what to do ...
- Stop blubbering and feeling sorry for yourself, that's the first thing.

But it was quite some time before she could control the racking sobs enough to speak again to the blood-stiffened thing in her hands.

- Why have you ... come back? Aren't you dead now?
- My God, I don't know how I ever put up with ... Of course I'm dead you stupid cow. Can't you see I've had my head cut off? D'you think I'm trying to get you to give me the kiss of life? I'm here for you, you numb cunt.

Somehow being sworn at by a severed head brought Phil back to herself. The circumstances might be insane, trading insults with the (slightly-deflated) severed head of her ex-friend and lover in the dark, but then ... the situation definitely was insane, had been for longer than she cared to think - since she'd taken that pie round to the hunky new guy next door.

Perhaps even before that ... since she'd caught her husband screwing round on her, had found out that he'd stationed one of his buddies behind the curtain to watch her undress, had fucked her in full sight of that same friend (she'd wondered at the time at his unaccustomed vigour) ... then, the meeting with Pat, the naughty talk, the pussy-licking parties ... all insane. A trajectory that led here, to the dark.

- There's no need to be like that. I'm not completely stupid. Which one of us is still alive, I'd like to know?

It was kind of a relief to surrender to it, to talk to the head as if the whole thing made sense. Perhaps that's all she'd needed from the start, in fact: a friend to talk to.

Stripped of all else, she still had that, at least.

- Fair enough. Point taken. That was pretty smart of you, I must admit, slipping that sticker between his ribs. Crawling out of that hell-pit was good, too. You've done well so far, girlfriend. Mind you, I played my part -- distracting them till you could get the jump on them.
- Distracting them! You mean screaming and moaning and trying to give them information as they tortured you ... you would have sold out everyone you knew for another five seconds of life ...
- Okay, okay. Maybe I would have. Things were different, then. I still had stuff to lose. You're still alive. You don't know ... how it feels.
- Oh, Pat, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scream at you. It's just ... I'm so alone. Can't you tell me what to do?
- That's just what I can't do, I'm afraid, cutie-pie. I can talk to you like this. That is, if I am talking to you - you're halfway to going insane, you know, girlfriend. This could all be in your head, in which case ... I'm afraid you really are talking to yourself ...
- Don't say that! I can see you. That's what I thought at first, too, but now I'm sure it's you. I'm sure I'd never think to say the things you're saying to me now.
- Really? Well, anyway, whether it's me or not, it's time to get to the point. You've got to get up and keep going.
- Why? I'm going to die here, aren't I?
- I'm not going to lie to you. There's a very good chance of that, I've gotta admit. But you don't want to just sit here and wait for it.
- Why not?
- Because those guys are still behind you, and they're pissed.
- Oh, Pat! No!
- Yes, I'm afraid so. One thing to sit here and die of cold and hunger in the dark, but it's quite another to get spitted by those creeps ... I should know. That's what they're doing to me right now.
- But where should I go? The tunnels all look the same ...
- Yes, and that's how we've stayed ahead so far. It was hours before they discovered the body, and then they set out to hunt you down. No girl has ever gotten away before, but they've had a lot of manhunts in the tunnels. At first it was easy, all they had to do was follow the gouts of blood. Sorry about that.
- You mean, while you were still bleeding from the neck?
- Yeah. But I dried up pretty fast, I have to say, so that didn't give them much of a clue. And then you have been wandering around here for quite some time - I don't think you realise just how long. And there is the whole underworld of a planet to hide in here ...
- Are they going to catch me, then?
- Eventually, I'm afraid, they will. They're not all that far off. You can't hear them, but I can -- I can somehow sense them coming. That's why I had to ... come through, come back to you.
- Thanks, Pat. I loved you, you know.
- I know, I know. Jeez, kid, I love you too. I wouldn't be doing this otherwise, I can tell you. I can't feel pain anymore, but there's no way you can know just how tiring it is to keep this up.
- So should I just get up and keep running? Try out tunnels at random until I reach the surface? Before I sat down to rest I was wondering where the light was coming from. I even thought it might be coming from you, at first ... Is there a way up from here?
- No! You mustn't go up. Don't you get it? The surface is not your friend. The cold and lack of air would kill you in a second. That's just for a last resort if they get too close. You've got to go down, go deeper into the crust.
- Why? What's down there?
- I don't really know, to be quite honest - just that there's something down there. I'm being blocked from knowing, if you really want to know. Something's telling me that it's not a place for the dead. You've still got a chance, just the slimmest of chances, of reaching there, though.
- And if I don't?
- Well, you'll die. Of cold and exposure here, if you don't move and they don't find you in time. Of torture and abuse, if they catch up with you (and that's looking pretty probable right now, I have to say). Of asphyxiation if you follow the light back to the surface. None of them especially attractive ways to go.
- So you're saying I've got no choice?
- You've always got a choice. You can take up any of the three I've mentioned - or else you can try to live.
- Fuck, I feel so tired. Is it so bad, being dead?
- Well, Phil, I just can't recommend it. The tiredness doesn't go away, that's the first thing. It's just that you can't refresh yourself by resting. And there's no pleasure left in things: in eating, drinking, sex ... all that's gone for good. There may be more to it than that, mind you. I'm a pretty new corpse. But I can't see things changing much. Time ... doesn't mean the same thing over here.
- You're scaring me a bit.
- Good! At last! I must say, you're taking this whole dialogue-with-a-skull thing a bit too easily, I think. You should be scared. You should be putting those gorgeous little buns of yours into action, and trying to find your way down to ... the place you've got to go.
- It won't be worse than here?
- Well, that I can't say. I don't see how it could be, but I don't know for sure. I don't know much of anything at this point, actually; I'm really pretty fucking tired, Phil.
- I'm sorry, Pat. ... Pat?
- Hmmm? I was nodding off there, kid. If there's anything else you want to know, you'd better make it fast. I don't know how long I can keep this up.
- Do I really have gorgeous buns?

It seems as though they've been walking for hours. Every time they reach a junction in the tunnels, Phil chooses the one heading down. As a result, the faint phosphorescence she could rely on further up has faded out almost to nothing. If it weren't for the pale light in the eyes of her friend, she'd be completely in the dark. Not that that matters so much down here. What is there to see but rock and tunnel entrances and more rock?

- You're fleeing for your life and you're still worried if your arse looks fat?
- Not worried, exactly. It's just ... You were the one who mentioned it!
- It's a great arse, believe me, honey.
- Yours was great, too.
- Yeah, tell me about it. You know, in retrospect I feel I spent a bit too time sculpting those buns of steel. I mean, where has all that expenditure of energy got me now? All that's left is a head. And I'm not even going to start on all the jokes you could concoct on that subject ...
- It's just ... you know my husband.
- Oh yeah, I know your husband. Fucked him a couple of times, I guess you knew that.
- I guessed.
- Sorry.
- That's okay. It doesn't matter now. It's just that ... you know he showed me off. When I wasn't looking.
- He was proud of you.
- Is that what it was? Pride? Having his friend hide behind a curtain while I got undressed, fucking me in front of him ...
- Well, no, not pride exactly, I guess. It just turned him on, I suppose. Showing off his very best toy to make his friend envious. Like that Greek story, I suppose.
- Greek story?
- Yeah, I read it once, or heard about it, maybe. This King invites the commander of his palace guards to watch the Queen undress. He reckons she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, but he had to show her off to someone to prove it to himself. He chooses an underling because he thinks that way he’ll run less risk of the story getting out.
– What happened?
– Well, the story does get out, somehow. And the Queen is royally pissed! She summons the captain of the guard and tells him he has to kill her husband or else she’ll have him killed. So he does, he kills the king and marries the queen. So he ends up sleeping with the woman he was invited in to perve at. And he sires a line of kings.
– And the moral is?
– I don’t know. Beauty is dangerous, perhaps. Or it’s easy to lose the thing you value most if you take it too much for granted. That’d be your husband, certainly. He wasn’t even that good of a screw.
– And me?
– You what?
– Am I that good of a screw?
– To me you are, baby. You’re the best. But don’t forget that I’m never going to have you again ... or anything else for that matter. Just dust to drink and dust to eat and dust to lie in and dust to fuck and dust to talk to and dust to ...

The voice drones on and on, like an old-fashioned tape recorder running low on batteries, but Phil is paying little attention. She can see again, just faintly, and hear – hear something, something like the gurgle of a stream, of running water, the splashing sound of a stream encountering bare rock.

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