Thumbs. Beasts and Thieves
The First Chapter: Above
A shadowy figure glides smoothly across the rooftops, barely touching the slates under foot, running across the apex, leaping from ledge to chimney stack to parapet to ledge, then stepping out into thin air, to land gracefully and silently on the next roof. Measured, well-practiced steps take it across the irregular jumble of dwellings, shoehorned into every available space. Sharply pitched roofs point like fangs to the starlit sky and chimneys, handfuls of twisted and broken fingers, wheeze lazy smoke and cooking smells that hang lifelessly in a stinking blanket over the night. The shadow’s path is an uneven zigzag around high walls and buttresses, leapfrogging weathered and squinting beasts that hold up the roofs and channel water into the streets. It pauses and tilts its head to take in snippets of gossip that creep through shuttered windows and to hear the sordid secrets of the world. It skirts the watchmen guarding the grander buildings who are paid to peer out over the city, but never look for intruders from above. If they catch a movement from the corner of their eye, they might imagine one of the gargoyles smiling at them and shudder at the trick of the night and draw their cloaks tighter about them and draw closer to their feeble torches for an ounce of warmth.
The shadow stops, toes poking over the parapet. A few feet away, across a gulf, is a window cut deep into an ancient wall, blackened by mosses that cling stubbornly and wetly to the otherwise sheer face. Above and below are other slits gouged into the fabric of the decrepit building but this window is the largest and nearest, filled with pieces of uneven glass, bound together in a jagged lattice of buckled leading.
The dark shape does not look down but glances around, and gazes over the surrounding roofs, sniffing the air, sensing that it, too might not be alone, that someone else could be reckless enough to climb to sit on the top of the town. It shrugs and turns back to the job in hand.
From over one shoulder it unwinds a length of cord with a brutal claw of metal attached. The claw is swung out across the gap, back and forth, sharp metal fingers moving closer to the window, then upward and swooping around the shadow’s head, faster and faster, until it arcs over the void like a rigid spider and explodes through the brittle glass and metal of the aged window. Tiny fragments of light cascade into the dark like a shower of stars. Another pause, to listen for any noise from the building, but the tower and the city continue to sleep undisturbed, except for a dog in a distant street that barks continuously, imagining intruders all around.
Wrapping the rope around its narrow waist, the shadow takes a step backward and it tightens, as the claw slices into something inside the tower. A tug to test the firmness of the hold then, leaning forward, out over the edge, the shadow leaps into nothing. Arms flail in an impersonation of bird’s wings and it lands with a crunch on the window ledge, clutching at the lead frame. One foot slides a little on a clump of moss and the shadow loses both toehold and handhold and slips, scraping painfully down the face of the wall. The rope twangs tight and fingers stretch out to snatch at the ledge, just out of reach. With an effort, it pulls itself a little higher up the rope, ever so slowly, inching closer, feeling for a grip on the window ledge.
The claw, having dug its razor points into a heavy piece of furniture on the other side of the window, decides that this would be an excellent time to tear itself free, taking a chunk of wood with it. Metal screeches as it dances across the room, bouncing off everything that cannot give it purchase. Suddenly released, the shadow falls fast, with nothing to fix onto on the vertical stone surface. Tired of dancing and as quickly as it let go, the claw finds a more accommodating piece of rotten window frame to slice into. It holds.
The rope pulls hard on the falling figure, squeezing the waist tighter, proving that the shadow is not a spectre but is flesh and blood, as the air is forced from its lungs with a groan. The stretched rope bounces the figure back up the wall, spinning it around and thumping it against the bricks like an unwanted doll. The head jerks and bangs against the hard, hard stones. The body hangs limply, arms outstretched.
The rope slackens, relaxing its grip around the waist and it rolls up the body, which slides downward as the rope moves up across the thighs, the knees and finally snaps sharply around the ankles. The rope squeezes so tightly that it digs into the flesh and threatens to cut off circulation to the feet.
The body swings gently in the soft night breeze.
When you turn upside-down for more than a few seconds, you feel the pressure build behind your eyes, inside your nose and across your cheeks and if you continue this way for a while longer, pressure increases across the back of your head, around where your spine meets your skull. Longer still and it eases, as your head gets used to the rush of blood. There is a short period of feeling fine and the pleasure of looking at the world from this new perspective which can last a few minutes, until the pressure builds again and you hear the roaring of blood in your ears. Being suspended the wrong way, head towards the ground, for a longer time, can lead to a tensing of your legs and backbone, adding to the difficulty you experience in swallowing or breathing.
Dazed, the shadow shakes its head and looks down, seeing flashes of bright colours in the black. It presses its palm against the wall to stop the sickening sway. Inch by inch, the figure curls itself upwards towards its feet and grabs the rope, pulling hand over hand, until it is upright again. With every ounce of strength in its arms, it climbs the rope to the smashed window. Ever so carefully, it drags its limbs over the ledge. Silhouetted in the frame, it takes a final look out of the window and with a disbelieving shake of the head, it disappears into the building.
On the house opposite, a statue holds the parapet above its head, at the very top of the wall, facing the window.
And it blinks.