The Night You Showed Me Ambaglass
Because there are things you won’t remember.
We held hands and ran through reeds.
Tipped in cigarillos of fluff, they cracked like whips against our thighs.
(You a little louder.)
And the overcast glowed orange— swabs of cotton soaked in tea— the streetlights working themselves up to shine.
Fireworks in the distance gently broke like bones, the sky too bright to see them; we were still days before Hallowe’en
Down by your house a shallow stream: the water curdling brown with dirt, carried from fields, eddies foaming with effluent. We fell down its shallow slopes and, filthy, kicked water at each other.
A bridge crossed the stream, taking your road so straight for miles you could see where it hit the horizon. And cars at speed would hit the humpback, sending heads to thump their roofs— they droned overhead as we scissor-walked our way beneath the bridge.
You were tall enough; you could place a foot on either side and straddle the stream.
But me, too short, I’d shuffle along the ledge on one side, my back hunched up against the curve of stone; a slow and precarious job.
And beyond the ditch, the stream, the bridge: a pocket of quiet and dark, plucked out of the earth, a nest of thorns and brambles, a hollow hidden beneath the trees.
Our low and secret place.
Shauna, you remember, don’t you?
That night, you showed me Ambaglass.
That was the night it began.
We knelt in half light above the stream and slowly the smile deserted your face. Something bright and heavy weighed your eyes and when you spoke it was with a hesitance I’d never known from you before.
I watched your fingers curl in grass to rip from clay. “We trust each other, don’t we?” you said.
I nodded, leaving my shoes half-laced. “Of course.”
Your eyes, weighed as they were, slipped under lashes.
“Kevin,” you said, “I have to show you something.”
“Can I do that?”
You looked at me. And who was this shy and timid girl? No-one I knew.
“Will you let me do that?”
Mutely, I nodded again.
With your eyes on me you removed your jacket, folded it carefully, lay it on the bank.
“Here,” you said, turning to show the small of your back, a thumb tracing the crease of spine. You pulled your ponytail to one side and took your t-shirt in your hands.
I watched the material rumple and sway as you brought it up one side, then the other.
The light was dim in our bower of green and you curved to show me something in the dark.
I looked at what you had for me.
“Lower,” you said. “Look lower.”
And that word, the way you said it…
“Lower,” you said, “This morning, I felt it, a roughness in the shower…”
And lower I looked and saw… there was something at the base of your spine, a scaly patch of wrinkled skin, paler than that surrounding.
I moved closer on hands and knees.
“I’m scared to touch it again,” you said.
“What if it cracks?”
“What if it comes away in my hand?”
And in that space, made dark with leaves, there came the drone of cars and the bump as they struck the bridge and left the roadway for a beat.
And fireworks, softly bursting, far away.
“What is it?”
And closer I brought my face to the rough— my eyes going down the notches of your spine and I held my breath lest you felt it.
And I was scared to touch it too.
But we trusted each other, didn’t we?
I reached out.
My fingers touched and traced: I heard your breath catch softly, saw the skin between your hips for a second flexing.
What I felt was coarse and warm and as my fingers ran its length a slight wax gummed my fingertips.
“It’s…Shauna… The way the wrinkles are around the mole. It could… it could almost be a… face…”
“Shut up,” you said, disgusted, and arched yourself away. “That isn’t funny, Kevin.” You let your t-shirt fall and combed out your hair with peevish nails.
But I wasn’t trying to make a joke.
“I’m going home,” you said and I sat on the bank and watched you work your way back under the bridge.
I thought about calling to you.
I thought about apologising.
But only for moments.
There was that gum on my fingertips.
There was that thing on your back.
I wasn’t trying to make a joke.
You remember Shauna, three nights later?
You threw a stone up at my bedroom window.
And I opened it and looked out.
And you were standing on the lawn, looking up.
Like we were in a film.
I pulled on a dressing gown and stumbled groggy down the stairs.
The clock said half four in the morning and everything was painted in navy and bone.
I came into the garden and you were pale and a hair away from panic.
You took my arms and dug in nails and words couldn’t come from you quick enough.
“I was half asleep,” you said.
“I turned on my side.”
“I felt it— A sucking feeling. A gap.”
Your nails were close to breaking skin.
“Kevin, it spoke.”
And my response…
My response was shameful inadequacy: “What did it say?”
“Words,” you said, turning your face away, “Just words. Just…”
You closed your hands softly over your mouth.
And I stood there dumb and offered no comfort.
Just stood there and looked at you as you shook with the cold and the horror.
There was nothing on your feet, I remember that, and you wore your brother’s jacket, because in the rush you couldn’t find your own. And underneath, nothing but the nightdress you were growing too tall to fit.
I took you by the hand and led you inside, it was all I could do.
In the kitchen you sat on the counter and showed me the strangeness again.
And you were right—the wrinkles had grown and parted—two uneven slits above and a longer one in a curve below and the moles between grown even bigger.
And there was nothing in the kitchen except the clock ticking its way towards five and our breaths.
(Yours a little louder.)
And as I placed my fingers as gently as I could I felt it part and open further.
A wordless something trickled out and sent me reeling in my chair—
It hung in the air forever.
“Kevin,” you whispered, “what’ll we do?”
Night surrounded us in shades of bone and navy, cloths of unwarmth.
“What’ll we do?”
Never heard you speak like that before.
That was the horror for me.
We stood in my kitchen and shook with the cold.
That night we knew.
Ambaglass was growing.
The next day your father let me up the stairs and into your room.
He smiled the way he always smiled.
Sad and gentle since the stroke.
And here was another dark hollow—the curtains closed, all light banished, and you, curled away among pillows and sheets. We sat on your bed in silence.
We must have sat there for half an hour at least, before you spoke.
“There are… times, Kevin. I don’t remember.”
“I have missing hours,” you said, “I have missing days.”
Slowly you unravelled your foot from the sheets.
And I saw:
Muck on the sole.
A rim of blood around a broken nail, dark and crusted.
“I wake up in fields. I wake up walking miles from home on roads I’ve never walked before.”
“Kevin, where do I go? What do I do?”
Your hand came out and searched for mine.
“I’m scared,” you said, and it seemed you were shrinking upon yourself, taking the strength of your voice with you.
“I don’t want to sleep.”
“I don’t want to close my eyes.”
“Who knows what will happen?”
I tried to comfort you, stroking your hand, mumbling soft and meaningless things, repeating words I’d heard in films:
You’ll be all right.
We’ll get through this together.
I’m here for you.
Those words weren’t meant for the likes of me.
There was no consoling you.
But suddenly you gripped my wrist, almost fit to snap it.
“Lock me in.”
“Lock me in,” you said, and your face was set in stone and there was an edge to your voice.
You dragged me down, the weight of you.
“Don’t let me wander. Don’t let me be taken away again.”
Who would argue with those words?
There was a lock on the bathroom door and the window too small for you to get out and we put blankets and pillows on the tiles. You made your nest afresh in there.
I looked in on you. Hands wrapped around your shins, your chin resting upon your knees.
They’d lit the bonfire out on the green; flame and shadow fought in the window.
You were lit, you were shadowed, you were lit.
“Good night,” I said, “I’ll be right here.”
“Nothing will happen to you.”
“I won’t let it.”
And then, Shauna, I shut you in.
I settled into a chair and tried to get comfortable. Noises made their way up the stairs.
The front door, hammered by trick and treaters.
The snap and sizzle of fireworks, the howls of terrified dogs.
And you, tossing and turning and finally falling asleep.
And curled in that chair in the hallway I followed you down.
We held hands and ran through reeds, hurried under endless bridges.
And what sent us running so far and so fast?
A voice, high and cracked.
I dreamt that voice was calling me and woke to find it was.
The cold stiff of my body—wakening an agony—
And it said “Kevin…”
“You made a mistake…”
“There are sharp things in here.”
“You left me with them.”
“Left me free to maim.”
The voice, Shauna. The voice wasn’t yours.
Nothing should sound like that.
“Open the door, Kevin… Open the door.”
Twisted painful in the chair and the words that drained all heat remaining:
“Open it or I’ll put her through it.”
And I was something boneless flung against wood, fumbling with the lock.
“Don’t— Don’t—” were dumb fragments of word.
An eternity to unlock the door.
And slowly you came.
Walking backwards out of the room.
It was like…
(Do you remember, Shauna, the time we saw that lorry strike a calf?
And how it tried to stand.
How it bled from its mouth and tried to walk.
A ruined thing. Struggling, desperate to live.)
Your hands jerked, sought in vain to bend the right way— I could see muscles straining— hands crossed and took hold of material under your shoulder blades.
As if you were showing me how to do it, in one long slow motion you tore apart your nightie: A long and ragged tear down the centre of you, shoulderblades hinting, showing the curve of your spine to the dark, revealing the thing that had grown at its base.
A face, smudged and blurred.
Blinking white eyes and moving blue lips.
(That time we went to see the body taken from the reservoir, that’s what it looked like; something drowned, something water had worked upon.)
“Kevin,” it said, “look what I’ve learned to do,” and it smiled. with perfect teeth.
And I dropped the first thing that fell into my mouth—“What are you?”
“Ambaglass,” it said, lips and jaws savouring syllables:
The backs of hands prodded and worked the crusted lump, squeezed an eye to bulge, snail-like.
“Aren’t I a clever boy, to do what I’ve done?”
I watched as he jinked your hip to show a swell of flesh through cloth.
A whisper came from me:
“Get out. Leave her.”
And Ambaglass laughed, “No… no… you’re going to help me get stronger, Kevin.”
Hands ran over you.
“You want rewards, Kevin?”
He sent you a step towards me, bent your neck until it cracked.
“She likes to be licked beneath her ear.”
Your fingers rose to touch the place.
“Or she will, when it happens.”
Softly he puckered his lips— Mwah.
I felt sick.
And… other things.
“We’ll call your cowardice gallantry, hah?”
He ground your head around in a swing of matted hair.
“You just want to see her safe, isn’t that it?”
He drove your jaw into the doorframe.
“Should I give her bruises?” he shouted, “In places you’d never expect? Terrible places? Should I let her wake to find them?”
He started screeching: “Kevin? What happened? Why am I..? What did you do to me?”
It was your voice. He was using your voice.
I couldn’t let him hurt you, Shauna.
I let him out of your house.
I went with him.
Shauna, I know you don’t remember this.
I know we’re running out of memories we share.
But I want to make you understand.
I followed Ambaglass down the centre of the road, the rags of your nightdress opening like a flower.
I followed him as he went under the bridge.
To the place that was ours.
I could see your face, bruised and crack-angled, your mouth and eyes open, half-hidden by hair.
No light in them. Dead spaces, staring back.
We sat together in the hollow, you and me and Ambaglass.
And the way he had you sitting, nightgown riding up your haunches.
I shouldn’t have stared. Shouldn’t have followed the hem as it rose.
“Claw the dirt,” he said, “Claw the dirt.”
Bending, I tore the grass and broke cold soil and filthied my fingers—
“Make me stronger,” he said, “make me stronger.”
And in the dead of night I sat and fed the face on your body worms.
He held my hand to guide them in, lips rubber cold on fingers, breath a stink of coloured air that set me retching.
I fed him for an hour.
Finally, the last worm went in.
Fireworks broke and spattered over town, in instants you were blue and red and green and every splash of colour showed me something different—
What was I looking at?
You, the girl I…
Or this other thing, old and twisted, your body cracked and bent out of recognition.
I don’t know.
But Ambaglass caught me staring and smiled.
“Kevin,” he said, “I think I’m in…”
Worms between his smiling teeth.
I left your body with Ambaglass.
The sun had not come up the sky when you phoned me the next morning.
“Where were you?” you said.
“I woke in the bathroom.”
“The door was unlocked.”
“My feet and hands were filthy.”
“What did you let me do?”
And when I said nothing, when only silence came down the line, you whispered:
“I was sick.”
“I vomited worms.”
And when I said nothing the receiver came down with the softest of clicks.
I stayed away for days. Hid when you came to the house, told my mother to say I was out. I left the phone to ring and ring…
Knowing that you needed me.
If I was to say I’m sorry, would you forgive me?
If I was to say I made the wrong choice would you understand?
Would it mean anything to you if I said I’m ashamed, Shauna?
I abandoned you. Did nothing even when I heard things, heard people talking:
Saying they’d seen… something… on the roads.
Saying livestock had gone missing, only to turn up hollowed and dry.
I did nothing even when you left that message on my phone:
Blood on my hands.
Blood in my mouth.
Where are you?
I need you.
Ambaglass growing stronger, you growing weaker, but I couldn’t do anything.
I told myself I couldn’t do anything.
And then, the thing in shame I’d hoped for most…
You stopped calling.
You stopped phoning.
Nothing for a day.
And terror seized me, flung me across the town at daybreak, saw me hammering on your door, the pain of each blow doing nothing to assuage my guilt.
And I called and I called for you.
And deep inside the house you and Ambaglass were screaming.
(You a little louder.)
Something final was happening.
That was this morning.
That was hours ago.
And the things I’ve seen…
He didn’t suffer, Shauna, I want you to know that.
Ambaglass made it quick.
Do you know where we are?
We’re in the hollow again. We’ve gone to the place beyond the bridge.
Shauna, it’s important that you listen to me.
There’s been a…
There’s been a change.
It’s why you can’t see.
Why you can’t speak.
Ambaglass tells me you can hear…
(Shauna, he’s watching us, using your face, looking down at us over your shoulder. He’s trying to use your face to smile.)
Stronger, he said, why should he be consigned to the second face?
Oh, I know. I know Shauna, but don’t—don’t panic—
We’ve come to an arrangement.
I’ve made him change his mind.
He won’t gouge you out.
Won’t cut you away.
You’re just going to go to sleep for a while.
Remember, that night you showed me Ambaglass?
A wrinkle of skin, a couple of moles…
But enough to grow back.
And Shauna, I’m going with him. That was his price. Wherever he goes, whatever he needs. But I’ll be close. I’ll keep you safe. I’ll be waiting for you when he lets you come through.
And I’ll make this right.
Try and forget.
Forget and go.
Just let it happen.
Think of it as going home.
But we’ll hold hands again.
We’ll run through reeds.
We’ll go back to our special place.
(I love you).
Graham Tugwell is an Irish writer and performer. The recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010, his work has appeared in over fifty journals, including Anobium, The Quotable, Pyrta, THIS Literary Magazine and L’Allure Des Mots. He has lived his whole life in the village where his stories take place. He loves it with a very special kind of hate. His website is grahamtugwell.com.