You spot her in the bustling crowd. Easy prey. Most people step off the train and stride down the platform confidently.
They'll discover her soon — the hyenas. You've seen their hunt many times. They single out their kill, circle closer with lingering eyes, and then — they strike:
"Where are you going, mister...? Oh, I know exactly where it is. I have my car right outside. I can take you there...? No problem. Come with me." Their words are soothing, their hands gentle. Their eyes are cold.
You never see their victims again.
The sun glares down on the busy platform. Luggage boys run to and fro on the steaming asphalt; young girls sway their hips, all the while balancing dangerously overloaded fruit baskets on their heads; boys in military uniforms kiss their girlfriends enthusiastically. At the edge of it all, people like you stand quietly in the shadows, observing. Sometimes you wonder what brings you here. Because you keep coming. Every day at noon when the train from the capital arrives, you are here.
The wide brim of a sun hat hides her face. She clutches a small brown leather bag. Her back is straight and she holds her head high. Yet you sense something fragile and youthful about her, with her slender figure and long neck.
Surely, she must have a traveling companion; scanning the platform for signs of one, you notice a man standing utterly still a few metres from her. A hyena. The shine of his polished shoes competes with the metal of the mobile phone he's talking into. Then you realise: he's seen her. Alarmed, you step out of the shadows and into the sun. Your eyes prickle painfully in the glare and you lift your right arm to shield them. But before you're able to retreat back to the balm of darkness, she looks toward you. A long moment passes and suddenly she approaches you. You wonder if you're hallucinating.
She's tall, but not as tall as you. The lines around her eyes surprise you — she's older than you imagined. Her scent of honey, camomile, lemons and sweet sweat tickles your nose. Shuddering, you realise it reminds you of summer — not like here, where a merciless sun shines all the time — but in a place where the sun is welcomed after months of absence: your home.
It's been too many years.
You can't help but smile a little as you gaze down at her. Unsure if it's her scent or her face, you ask: "Do I know you?"
A puzzled expression flickers over her pale face before she dips her head so you can't see her eyes.
"Can you help me? I need to get to Safalq." Her voice is low and husky. You bend slightly to hear her through the street noise, and wonder why she doesn't answer your question.
You shake your head: "No." But it's a lie.
"I pay well."
"There's nothing there." You can't keep the brusqueness out of your voice.
She cocks her head and gazes up at you. It must be the sunlight, you think, because her pale eyes suddenly seem to burn yellow. Even if you tried, you know you wouldn't be able to look away.
"My husband died there. I need to see the place."
You curse yourself for sticking your head out. You should go back to the shadows, go home to the room you rent across the city, the room that stinks of urine and sweat — it calms you, the decay in your life. But when you look down at the slight woman with the old lines around her eyes, you know you will help her. You study her, looking for something — anything — that explains the mystifying familiarity, but her face reveals nothing. From the corner of your eye, you notice the hyenas circling. Sighing, you realise no one will offer to help her except them. Something turns inside you.
"Meet me at the gas station in Farrow Street in two hours."
It's a long drive. You'll need a full tank and some spare canisters. Better locate that camping equipment, too. As you turn to walk away, she rests her hand lightly on your arm, enough to make you stop. The heat from her body radiates through the fabric of your shirt. "Thank you."
Stunned, you watch her walk away down the platform. Her hips swing slightly from side to side.
You long for a shower. It's been a while since you left the motorway and turned onto the narrow gravel road towards Safalq. The car windows are shut, but still, road dust clings to your skin. Grit lodges in your eyes. You could swear the fine grains have found their way inside you, too — they irritate your throat, making you cough. In the rear view mirror, the sun lingers pale on the horizon. Before you the pitch-dark night awaits. You switch the front lights on but their white beams only reach a few metres ahead. It doesn't slow you down. Instead you open the window and inhale the cool night air and let the smells of the cooling earth and smoke from distant campfires wash over you. Relaxing for the first time in many hours, you feel strangely alive and awake. It reminds you of the nights in Screfnia.
Much time has passed since the evil of humans ceased to surprise you. Your years as a war photographer have removed any pretence you might have had that there is any goodness in this world. If someone asked, you'd say you were bored, utterly uninterested in the world. There is not a thing left that can shock you.
Not after Screfnia.
Still you wake up from nightmares about piles of corpses, staring eyes, bomb-flattened villages. Nightmares that started in Screfnia, where almost every night, you tossed aside the sweaty blankets and walked outside to breathe in the cold air.
A pair of eyes shine in the car lights and you step on the brakes. The animal — probably a rabbit — stares in fear for a fraction of a second, then leaps out of the way and you speed up again. You envy it for a moment. It's been a long time since you felt fear.
If someone asks why you are not afraid, the answer is simple: you long ago decided that you'll die young. It's why you live in solitude and decay. People would look at you and shake their heads, not understanding. Your body is a pamphlet of scars and memories of sharp objects. Bullets, even. At times, anyone would have sworn that you were actively seeking death.
Thirty-five is the number you've set. And even if you were haunted by nightmares in Screfnia when you made yourself this promise, it's still valid: If no one has killed you before you turn thirty-five, you will do it yourself. You don't know how, yet, but you'll do it.
Actually, you do have one fear, but you don't want to admit it: that you will not have the guts to follow through.
You turn thirty-five tomorrow.
For the last hour, you've been mulling over whether you should stop and rest. You are opening the window even wider when she speaks — her first words since you left the city. She appears to have been deep in thought, like you. You could almost pretend she wasn't there, forget her, if it weren't for her scent, which fills the car and lodges inside you together with the sand grains. It is why you have opened the window, to clear your head.
"What kind of place is Safalq?"
"Hell on Earth," you mutter, your voice harsh after the hours of silence.
Her low chuckle makes you snap her a look sideways. Smiling widely, she cocks her head like she did at the train station, her teeth gleaming white in the dark. You narrow your eyes.
"Sorry... it's just that..." You hear laughter in her voice and grip the wheel tighter. "You sound just like my husband."
"He was a man of few words too and when he spoke, he was always complaining."
Not sure if you should feel offended, you remain silent.
"It's difficult to explain fully," she continues, "but he always seemed to think the worst of life, of the places he visited, of the people around him. He was never satisfied. He would always find something to criticise. The meat was not bloody enough, the opera singer had a false voice, his sister had too many children, his dad didn't take his share of responsibility. Every day, every moment he'd find something to pick at."
The moment you say it, you regret your words. Silence stretches through the car and you glance at her, worried. She's not smiling anymore, just staring out through the windshield. You curse yourself. You lift your hand from the wheel but stop it mid-air. Were you going to touch her? Fool.
You rub your eyes and study the road in front of you, though it hasn't changed. A few hours of sleep would be nice. There are wool blankets in the trunk. The air is cool, but not cold.
"I need to rest," you say without looking at her, and pull the car over to the side of the road, bumping over some rocks before coming to a halt and switching off the engine. Then you buzz around until both of you sit with your backs against the car's side, facing a small fire. Stars blink in the distant sky. It's quiet, except for crickets, but you suspect both wild animals and people are around. Mostly lone wanderers, though you think there might be a few settlements nearby. They're bound to have seen the car lights. Hopefully they'll leave you alone. But you check that your rifle is loaded before you put it on the ground beside you.
The sandwiches in your stomach and the cup of steaming tea in your hands soon make you drowsy. Your head keeps falling to your chest.
"Now — in hindsight — I think he was utterly disgusted by life," she says.
Her words, loud in the quiet, hold a bitter edge. You force your eyes open. The firelight illuminates her face. She seems sad. And you understand: she's still thinking about her husband. For a long time she's silent and you close your eyes again. You've almost slipped into sleep when she speaks once more: "Then suddenly he became absent. I mean, he was there, but not there, if you know what I mean."
You sit up and sip at the now cold tea, struggling to stay awake.
"It's not like he said it straight to me, but it was clear that he longed to be in another place. Actually, he stopped talking to me. Then one day the police came to me at work, telling me that my husband was at the hospital, that he'd crashed his car into a mountain wall. It was a dangerous place on the road. They told me he was lucky but I knew when I saw him: he'd tried to kill himself — he was not happy about surviving. When I asked him, he just laughed at me. He lay in the hospital bed with broken limbs, laughing, and told me to go home, that he didn't want to see me. So I did."
She glares at you. When you nod, she bows her head, but not before you've seen the wetness on her eyelashes. Inwardly you rage at this man, how he wounded her.
"How did he die?"
She dries her eyes with the backs of her hands. "He jumped into Safalq."
"I'm sorry." You don't know what else to say — what can be said to such a thing — though the questions press inside you — why have you never heard of this? But she must have heard your regret because she smiles. You return the smile and you sit like this for a moment, smiling at each other until she shivers and pulls the wool blanket around herself. You wonder if it is the night chill or the talk about her husband's death that makes her feel so cold.
"Why don't you stretch out in the back seat?" you ask. "I'll watch the fire." The questions can wait until tomorrow.
She pulls herself up and pulls open the back door. Before she gets in, she stares down at you, her pale eyes weirdly yellow again. Just your imagination, you tell yourself — it's the fire that makes her eyes shine like that.
"What?" you finally ask.
"You remind me of him."
You scowl at this.
"He said he never wanted to grow old. When did you decide?"
Stunned, you gape up at her, but she's already climbed into the car and shut the door.
It's noon when you reach Safalq. A tall fence circles the area. The car purrs to a stop in front of the gate and you regard the sign warning trespassers of the dangers within. In the distance, steam rises from the mountain. Then you become aware of the smoke in front of it: a single spiral of smoke rising from behind some bushes. When you squint, you can see roofs. Must be scientists — no one else would be allowed to be here now. There have been increasingly more reports about earthquakes, rising temperatures and gas emissions over the last few months. Though Safalq hasn't had any outbursts for about a century, it's only a matter of time. You don't see any people or surveillance cameras, but that doesn't mean the place isn't monitored.
"Are you sure about this?" you ask. "The place might be watched."
Your travelling companion doesn't answer but when you turn, you see her nodding slowly. The lines around her eyes look deeper and she's pale as if she's been awake all night. She's not spoken all morning, but you have been too occupied with your own thoughts to notice. Exhausted, you haven't been able to sleep either. Her words last night still haunt you.
Without a word you swing the car to the side of the road behind a huge tree. The low hanging branches will conceal it from a distance. Hopefully you'll be back before anyone discovers it. She picks out her small bag from the trunk while you straighten your stiff muscles and spine. With a determined look in your direction, she strides towards the gate. It opens soundlessly. Half expecting an alarm to go off or guards to come running, you pause, listening, but all you hear is a bird chirping and a distant radio. If you were alone, you'd probably take the shortcut past the houses towards the mountain, gambling that no one would spot you. But you're not alone and something inside you insists that you protect this woman, that it is important to do so. Even after last night, she seems familiar, and you wonder if you've met her before.
With your eyes on the roofs behind the low bushes, you tug at her sleeve and point to a small trail next to the fence: "We'll go there."
Smiling a little — what does that smile mean? — she steps onto it in front of you.
You don't know how long it takes. The trail wiggles in all directions. The sun sinks low in the sky as you climb uphill through thick vegetation. At last you stand at the edge of the green, the bare face of the mountaintop in front of you. The sun is almost lost on the horizon. The air is thick with gases and you cover your nose and mouth with the bottom of your shirt. About a hundred metres above you the steam cascades down the mountainside — or is it smoke? You feel uneasy.
Shaking off your small rucksack, you take out the water bottle and drink loudly before you give it to her. While she drinks, you scrutinise her face, looking for signs that she's tired and wants to turn around. Sweat pearls down her forehead under the sun hat, dampness stains the back of her shirt, and her breath comes out in small gasps, but she doesn't appear weary. She clutches the little bag she's carrying and you wonder what's inside it. Her eyes are pale but clear in the low sunlight. The otherworldly golden fire isn't there now, though her eyes shine. She uses her hand to dry her mouth, hands you the bottle, and stares up at the smoke.
"It's crazy to go up there in the dark," you warn her, but you're speaking to her back. She's already walking up the trail, lightly holding the rope that runs along the mountain side. Swearing, you follow.
It doesn't take long to reach the top, though you stop a few times imagining that the stone under your feet moves or that the air is so thick it will choke you. When you arrive, you can't see her. It's dark now, but worse is the steam pouring up from the crater in hot waves — you fear it might burn your skin. Your eyes are watery and irritated. Deep below your feet, lava flows in massive circles and smoke rises from it here and there. A massive kettle. You feel small. Instinctively, you step back.
Walking carefully around the edge, you spot her at last. She stands still, staring down, her face lit up in orange flashes. She hasn't covered her face like you; she doesn't seem to mind the blistering heat or the smell. Her sun hat is nowhere in sight — did it blow off? Her bag is on the ground. Silently you step over to stand next to her, studying her face. Tears fall from her eyelashes. You stretch out your hand and touch her moist cheek with light fingers, then drop it quickly.
Ashamed that you've disturbed her mourning, something private, something precious, you whisper: "Are you all right?"
But your words are lost in the rumbling noise from below and suddenly you feel irritated. Why is she grieving a man she talked about so bitterly last night? Who treated her so badly? Annoyed that she harbours so many feelings for this unknown dead man, you bend over and yell into her ear: "Are you done now? Can we go back?"
She locks her eyes with yours. Then she drops her gaze and you follow it to her bag. The top is open. Curious, you crouch and open it wide with your index fingers. She doesn't stop you.
Pictures and papers. The bag is full of pictures and papers. Surprised, you glance up at her, but she doesn't speak. Taking it as consent to investigate, you pick up the pictures on top and examine them in the red light: a close-up of a man sleeping, another where he's awake but with his head turned away from the camera, a third where he sits at a table with his hands around his head. Reaching down into the bag, you find that all the photographs are similar. You don't know how long you sit there staring at the pictures, your hands shaking, certain you are dreaming. It can't be true.
The pictures are of you.
"How...?" You stuff the photographs quickly back into the bag and stand up.
"Am I dreaming?" Your voice is thin.
Her eyes blaze yellow but she doesn't speak. Again you are sure that you know her, that you've seen her before.
"Who are you?"
She tilts her head a little to the side. You feel desperation building inside. Why won't she talk, explain? The ground shakes under your feet, but you hardly notice. The orange glow below seems nearer, doesn't it? A faint voice inside you says you need to move now, leave the volcano, leave this strange woman. But you shake it off, lost in her intense golden stare.
"I am answering your wish," she finally says.
Not understanding, you frown. "What do you mean?"
She lifts her hand and touches your face with cold hands. "So much pain," she murmurs. You can barely hear her. "I saw you, you know, in Screfnia. So young, so tired." She pauses. "I followed you over the years. You seemed so lost. Bored."
A low chuckle escapes her. You know then: she's the one you have been waiting for. You are thirty-five today.
"What about your husband?" you yell.
She grabs your hair, pulls you down, lets her mouth glide over yours. "Dearest, it's you."
A smile touches her lips and you tremble at the sight of it. And you remember. The young woman you left behind. How you despised her in the end, despised everything about your life together, and one day just left her to drown yourself in wars and death and misery. You remember how beautiful she was, how much you miss her. The tears blur your vision.
Laughing, she ruffles your hair. "Honey, it's time. You are thirty-five."
Her face seems to change, her skin drawing tight over her cheekbones, making them sharper, and her chin seems a little more pointed. And the memory of the young girl vanishes. Her eyes glitter bright yellow. This is someone else — something else. Chills go down your spine. For the first time in a long while you feel fear.
"Who are you?" you ask again.
Flashes of orange streak over your head and something smells burnt. Did it singe your hair? Wide-eyed, you stare down at the volcano's centre. A sputtering kettle, you think, about to blow.
"I am your death." She reaches out as if to grab you and you stumble backwards and glare at her, panic dancing wildly inside you. "No!" This can't be true. You're having another nightmare, you tell yourself.
"But I'm what you want, what you've wished."
Something snaps and a keening wills its way out of your mouth: "Noooo!"
You fall down on your knees, feel the hot ground searing through the fabric. Slowly, without taking your eyes off her, you crawl backwards around the edge until you come to the trail and lean back against one of the rope poles and look around for the woman — or what is she? But she's nowhere in sight. Without hesitation, you hurry down the trail.
With shaking hands you start the car engine. As you pull out onto the narrow road, something makes you look out your rear window. The woman stands in front of the gate in the grey morning light, the mountain behind her. The steam rising up in the sky. Her eyes blaze yellow.
You stare straight ahead.
You are thirty-five. And a day.
is a Norwegian-Icelandic writer and editor living in Copenhagen. Margrét's stories have appeared in a number of both magazines and print anthologies such as In flight literary magazine, Gone Lawn, Luna Station Quarterly, Tales of Fox
and Fae and Girl at the End of the World
. Her debut book The Stars Seem So Far Away
was published by award-winning Fox Spirit Books
, in 2015. Margrét is co-editor for the anthologies European Monsters
(2014) and African Monsters
(2015) and she's editor for Asian Monsters
(2016) and Winter Tales