The archer’s crisis

“Why are you reading this?“ asked Jim, pointing at Graham’s copy of William Tell by Friedrich Schiller. “Have you gone all German?”

Graham stared at him for a second, but ignored the question and carried on reading. He was at the café inside the Student Union with Jim and Neil.

“It’s not even on the reading list!” Jim shook his head hopelessly.

Neil and Jim started talking about Shannon’s leaving do, which was the night before. Graham was a strict non-drinker and therefore it was no surprise that he was a complete outsider at parties or any other social gatherings. The only advantage the guys drew from Graham’s presence at parties was him driving them home afterwards.

“Anyway”, Jim began, “I did try my luck on Shan last night, since she broke up with Furry Fred the other week…”

Neil chuckled. It was a common thing to laugh at Fred’s chest hair. Nonetheless, he was one of the best cricket players on the whole Bristol campus. Girls like Shannon obviously liked confident athletes. Graham licked his finger to turn the page.

“The odd thing about her is that even when she’s drunk, she’s still sober,” Jim said.

Neil raised an eyebrow “What do you mean?”

“Well, as soon as I tried it on with her, she knew what I was up to and pushed me off the chair. Do you know any girl like that after five shots of tequila? And hell knows how much she’d already drunk before we arrived!”

“Well, obviously not over The Fur”, Neil said.

“Bernard would have nailed her straight away…”

Graham twitched after that comment.

“Well,” Jim continued, “after all she finished the relationship! And I just wanted a memorable goodbye-shag! Well, her loss, I guess.”

Graham closed the book and slammed it down on the table. The noise made the waitress spill the coffee whilst serving a student.

“Gee…” Neil muttered.

“Rubbish, I guess?” Jim grinned at Graham. “How far did you get?”

“He’s about to hit the apple” Graham answered.

“That’s the only exciting part!”

“I’m saving the best part for later.”

 

On his way home, Graham stopped at Tesco Express to pick up some coffee and paracetamol. In the queue was a couple arguing about whether crinkle fries or curly fries tasted better. To his right was a little girl crying uncontrollably, because her mother wouldn’t buy her any Hello Kitty chocolate biscuits. Crowded places hold nothing but nasty human scents, he thought, such as the sharp smelling breath of the person behind him and the awful rustling noises coming from crisp bags and shopping bags.

“Hi.” A voice came from out of nowhere.

On his left he saw Shannon, smiling. “Graham, right? You were at my party yesterday.” She was holding a bottle of skimmed milk, a pack of cereal and a pregnancy test.

“Hello.”

She looked hung over; her dark curly hair was worn out and unwashed, and her blue eyes pale with exhaustion.

“You didn’t have fun last night, did you?” she asked.

“Of course I did. What makes you think I didn’t?”

The queue was moving forward. Graham noticed that the person behind him looked disapproving of Shannon’s presence, as if she was about to jump the queue.

“Come on”, she said, “you were staring at my Francis Bacon posters for hours!”

 

“I like disfigured faces.”

She narrowed her eyes in slight disgust. “You’re weird,” she said.

“Oh, and you’re not? They are your posters after all…”

Graham was next at the till and Shannon handed him her shopping. “I’ll pay you back!”

As she disappeared behind the magazine stand, he could smell the sharp breath of the person behind him even more than before. Graham felt nauseated. The man at the till scrutinized him before scanning the pregnancy test. Graham stared back.

“What are you staring at, young man?” the man asked, taking Graham’s money.

“Your thumb.”

Graham quickly turned to leave just to spare himself witnessing the agony. But already before he reached the magazine stand, he heard the closing of the till, the crunching of bone and a cry. Graham grabbed Shannon’s arm and dragged her vigorously out of the shop and then she pushed him away to release herself.

“What the hell got into you?”

He noticed that the blue in her iris had come back to life again.

“Nothing, just some precog…, oh never mind!”

The startling noise of the sirens on the main road almost sliced his brain in two like a butcher knife. That reminded him of his unfinished coursework on Kafka and he started to walk away from Shannon.

“Precognition? I get that when a forgotten dream comes true.”

He stopped and turned back around. She was one of the few people who wouldn’t confuse precognition with déjà vu, he thought. The sound of the sirens has now ceased.

“Do you want to come around my place?” he asked.

“I…I don’t know. I haven’t had breakfast, yet…”

“I have bowls and spoons…”

“I actually have something important to do…”

“I have a toilet as well.”

She looked slightly irritated and probably felt uncomfortable with his persistence but finally gave in. He was watching her walk around in his apartment, which looked extraordinarily neat. The air held a fragrance that recalled the liveliest notes of a midsummer morning. Her previous insecurity about entering a student apartment had suddenly vanished. Down the corridor were two bedrooms, one on each side. One of the doors was open.

“Is that your room?” she pointed at the one with the open door.

“Find out” he said whilst preparing her breakfast. The midsummer smell had fused with Shannon’s sweetly scented water lily deodorant.

“Oh my God! I can’t believe you live with Jim.” She must have seen Jim’s party pictures on his pin wall; one showing him and Bernard dancing naked at the union, or she had simply smelt his terrible Jean Paul cologne. “You could have warned me that you live with this dirty guy!”

Suddenly he heard her opening the door to his room and spilled the milk.

“Hey!” The moment he stormed into his room, he saw her standing there stiffly; staring at his myriad H. R. Giger posters showing biomechanoids, aliens, necronoms and Debbie Harry – all twisted works painted with dark acrylic colours in shades of metal. To Shannon, they probably looked like ominous eel-like creatures with heads resembling either men’s glans or women’s buttocks, and numerous naked female reptilian humanoids intertwined and penetrating each other. His room still smelt of the black coffee he had in the morning.

“Speaking of dirty…iew,” she said.

It sounded like “eel”. He was still standing behind her stiff back, and then he watched her carefully tilt her head as though examining the Anima Mia poster in greater depth. The rigidity in her posture loosened up. She put both of her hands on her hips and they slowly moved towards her bum. Graham licked up the tasteless skimmed milk from his hand before it dripped onto the carpet.

“You lost weight since last term” he says after guessing that she was comparing her bum with the eel’s head. She turned around with a questioning face indicating perplexity and curiosity. She quickly looked to her left where the bed was; as if she had missed something and then she looked to her right. Her curls seemed revitalized; they were dangling like tinsel.

“Are you religious?” She pointed at the cross above his bed.

“I guess. Why?”

She looked on her right again, scrutinizing his favourite piece of art by Giger Satan I, which portrays Satan using Jesus as a bow. The background shows a vast wasteland of piled up, decayed human remains. Jesus’ pose is exactly like on the cross, except that on the picture there is no cross, just a string threaded through the wounds of his hands to form a bow. Satan’s hand is tightly clasped around Jesus’ lower body. His gaze and the gaze of his demons are fixed firmly at the viewer, but the most unnerving facet of that picture arises from the arrow, which is a nail, also aimed at the viewer. Every time Graham looked at it, he saw Satan in his comfortable stance, drawing the arrow back to the anchor point and…

“How do you sleep at night?”

“Pardon?”

“How the hell do you sleep at night?” she repeated. “Every time you sit up in bed, you have the devil playing William Tell with you! In fact, it doesn’t even matter where you are in the room.”

He could feel a grin developing at the corner of his mouth and hoped it was an innocent one.             “Your breakfast is in the kitchen.”

“You’re weird.”

“I’m not having breakfast at 1pm!”

 

 

Awkward silence hung in the air while both were sitting on the sofa, staring at the empty TV screen. There was an ashtray on the table with a No Smoking symbol in the middle of it.

“So uhm, who do you think might have impregnated you?”

She almost choked on the milk and he saw milk coming out of her nose. After a round of coughing and wiping her lower face, she threw a fierce glance at him.

“You are so rude!”

“As far as I’m concerned, I paid for the pregnancy test…”

She shook her head numerous times and carried on eating her cereal. His leg started shaking.

“Since you’re so straightforward and direct, let me ask you something.”

“Anything.” His voice sounded nervously high all of a sudden, but she hadn’t noticed.

“I’m not convinced that you believe in God.”

His leg stood still. She continued “You use Him as the apple on your head…”

He lowered his head and felt how everything around him was turning black. His head had started to ache.

“I didn’t put it up there. My mother did,” he said.

“So…you don’t believe in God?” she carefully put the empty bowl on the table.

“I do,” he said and swallowed a paracetamol. “It’s just – everything was so much easier when I didn’t…”

As she approached him, she said: “But nobody’s telling you what to believe in.”

“I have to.”

“Why?”

“Because of what I did.”

 

 

It was almost 5 o’ clock. Whilst walking around in the living room, he could hear her in the bathroom. She had told him that if the test was positive, she would not drop out of university and leave Bristol, but would make Fred marry her after the final term.

They were both sitting on the sofa again, close to each other like a nervous couple, staring at the strip, which was in Jim’s glass – the one he used for mouth wash each morning.

“I can’t believe it took us two and a half years to become friends, Gray.”

He remained quiet.

She continued: “That’s what you get when no one makes a move. Or it’s simply fate.”

“You made the first move today.”

“Yeah…that was because I had no money on me,” she smiled. “Other than that I always thought you were a weirdo.”

“And that says a girl who likes Francis Bacon.” He smiled a genuine smile for the first time in her presence.

“You’re weirder.”

A minute had passed and there were still no coloured bands visible.

“I told you, I never used to be like that,” he said. “It’s my new perception on life. I feel no guilt towards what I did. It’s only my mother who says I should. And yet, I pray to her God to go away.”

“Don’t make yourself paranoid. I don’t approve of what you did, but ultimately it was not your…”

Finally one color band appeared on the control region, but no band showed on the test region. She had completely lost her flow of mind and looked fairly mystified. Maybe she was double-checking the test region.

 

 

When Graham’s archery lesson began, he felt alone like never before. Even though he had numerous people around him carrying bows just like him, he couldn’t remember what fellowship felt like or what the significance of it was. Their instructor always spoke with a dull tone of voice, where people failed to listen carefully:

“Safety and responsibility always come first! Watch your companions and make sure you don’t endanger anyone! And don’t ever shoot bent or broken arrows – self-explanatory…”

Graham noticed some people getting impatient. One of the guys started fidgeting with his arrow.

“Stop it or you’ll poke yourself in the eye”, Graham said to him with a serious stare. The guy stopped fidgeting and simply stared back.

“Quiet!” the instructor said. “Now, an archer, who intends to hit the bull’s eye, must not directly aim at it, but slightly to the side…”

Graham shuddered. There was no wind.

“…Ok, get ready then. First put on your finger and arm protection, then check your bow, the strings and your arrow!”

The blinding sun was decreasing Graham’s attention span. At least there were clouds approaching.

“So. Now get into your comfortable stance and don’t forget you draw the arrow back to the same anchor point on your cheeks!”

Every student had drawn his or her arrow and was aiming intensely at the target. Graham felt that his target was not 20 yards away, but a lot further. After closing his eyes for two seconds, he opened them again. He sees a man about 25 yards ahead of him with the target painted on his body. It looked like Bernard. There was an arrogant smile on his face. Graham couldn’t see it, but he knew it. His hands started to shake and sweat was running down his head. He bent his right knee a little, drew the arrow back tightly and shot it slantwise up into the sky. The arrow faded to a dot that became lost amongst the sea of white clouds gathering overhead.

“Oh my God!” the instructor shouted.

Everyone was staring at the sky. Suddenly Graham felt his cheekbone lifting up to a smile, which then evolved into laughter.

“We’ll evacuate this place right now!” the instructor said. Everyone was already running. He grabbed Graham tightly by the arm and dragged him off the lawn. It was getting windy.

“I won’t tolerate this! You are in trouble. What were you thinking?”

“William Tell”, Graham answered, still laughing.

As soon as they reached the sports hall, the instructor grabbed Graham by the collar and hissed “Stop fooling around, buddy! If anybody gets hurt, you’ll be responsible!”

“Sir, do you think I’d have done that if I had known somebody would get hurt?”

“You’re out of the group!” He finally let go of Graham, who was still grinning from ear to ear. “And listen to yourself when you speak. You’re absurd!” The instructor turned around and was about to walk into his office.

“Watch your foot…” Graham said.

“What are you mumbling?” As he turned his head back to Graham whilst still walking, he failed to notice the janitor coming along from his right with the cleaning trolley. A heavy groan followed, and Graham was out through the door. His grin had faded into indifference and he felt how a dark shadow was casting upon his entire face. He headed back to the empty field even though a voice had just spoken through the loud speakers telling people to steer clear of the field or anywhere near it due to the danger of an arrow. The sun was behind the clouds and it was still slightly windy. Further down the field was a small millpond where Bernard’s accident took place. Nobody had dared going near the old oak tree ever since. He remembered that it used to be a place where many used to sit and have their lunch. The arrow landed near the water – head first. When trying to pull it out of the ground, he was startled by a grass snake, which, at first, before he even noticed, had looked like a pile of deer dropping.

He fell on his behind. “Joe-fucking-Strummer…”

He watched the snake move back into its hole. For a second he had to think of Shannon and biomechanoids. Then the snake slithered back out and disappeared quietly into the water. He remained seated and simply stared at the still water. Ever since Shannon left the city, he had been feeling more detached from the world than before. Every now and then she would text him, but he hardly ever replied. She asked whether he had known that her heart would be in pain and she would also text him when she encountered people going through pain, because they reminded her of him. She wrote that if he had been there with her to foretell others’ painful moments, they’d both have lots of fun together. He looked at his phone and there was a new message: “You should come visit me in Devon! I kinda miss our conversations…”

He was trying to remember the last time he was at the millpond and it was indeed two summers ago.

 

 

Graham was taking care of the campfire whilst Jim, Neil and Bernard were drunk and stoned, laughing on the grass. If the fire went out, it would be utterly dark, since it was new moon.

 

“If I had a bow and an arrow now, I would shoot right up into the sky,” Bernard said and the rest carried on laughing, except Graham. Bernard continued, “William Tell never misses anything. He could even shoot God down.”

Graham smoked the rest of the joint without feeling anything, yet. Nonetheless he could still taste the remaining bitterness of the absinthe on his tongue. Bernard had brought some real Czech absinthe from Prague to test out the hallucinations myth combined with marijuana. Graham was not a good drinker and was still sipping at his first glass while the others were already preparing their second.

“Come on, Gray, drink up!” Bernard shouted, and he did.

The flickering noise of the fire sounded like cracks in a brick wall and their laughter was just behind it. His head was spinning, his heart racing. He felt nauseated, every part of him started to work slowly as if he had just awoken from anaesthesia. Then his vision blurred and all he could hear was under-water-talk. Suddenly an uncanny feeling surrounded him when he noticed Bernard’s figure rising. Bernard was mumbling something to him, but all Graham heard now was the flicker of the fire or were those cracking noises? All he saw was a blurred disfigured outline of Bernard’s body.

“Hey,” Graham mumbled as Bernard walked away. “Wait…”

Through his blurry vision he could see that he stopped for a while to listen, but then carried on walking towards the oak tree. He heard the cracking noises repeatedly in his head and tried intensively to concentrate on Bernard. Now he could also hear fractions of Neil’s and Jim’s laughter.

“Bern…!” He wasn’t sure whether he had said it or only imagined it. Through his hazy vision he saw Bernard’s leg disappear underneath the dark branches of the oak tree. That was when Graham began to vomit feverishly into the fire. Now the only clear cracking noises he heard were bones and neck – followed by a splash in the millpond. The laughter had died and the fire had gone out.

 

 

The water was still peaceful; the grass snake hadn’t come back, yet. Graham remembered the day his mother started praying for him desperately, saying that he should never interfere with God’s will. Bernard’s death was God’s will. The guilt will go if you have trust in God, she had told him. Ever since then his mentality, not to mention his cognition, had been under surveillance by something he didn’t even believe in, and yet his mother thought her son was a prophet of pain and was destined to suffer torture twice – except she was wrong. He looked at his mobile phone, uncertain about whether to write to Shannon or not. The area did not change much except that the oak tree was looking a little fragile compared to two years ago. For some reason he felt that he and the tree had something major in common.

“Hey, sorry I’m late,” someone said behind his back.

He got up, turned around and saw Bernard who was wearing a t-shirt with a target on it. The bull’s eye was not red, but black. As they were walking along the field, the colour of the sky had changed to magenta, but neither of them were interested in the peculiarity of the sky.

“It’s been a while, huh? How have you been?” Bernard asked.

“Crap, what else?”

“So as usual then…what’s new?”

Bernard’s enthusiasm and sleaziness revealed something slightly unsettling, especially in association with his entire appearance in that uncanny atmosphere. But yet, it all seemed so ordinary at the same time.

“Nothing.”

“Any girls?”

“There is someone, but…” Graham stuttered.

“What? Are you being a coward again?” Bernard asked.

They walked past a beautiful female ballet dancer practicing in an alley of white spruces. Her curly hair dangled like tinsel.

“You want this madness to stop, don’t you, Gray? You just want to accept the past.”

They were now walking past a tree feller felling an oak tree with an axe. Each hit on the tree equaled the sound of a thunder.

“Bernard, I tried…”

“I know”, he interrupted.

“I could’ve prevented it.”

The magenta sky was darkening to burgundy and the trees, which they were now approaching, were losing more and more leaves. They were playing in the wind, filling the environment with rustling noises. It smelled like autumn.

“It’s ok,” he said. “It wasn’t your fault.”

Graham’s lower lip was trembling. “But I still…”

“No,” Bernard said and there was blood gushing out of the bull’s eye of his t-shirt. But he felt no pain and indicated no kind of alarm. All Bernard did then was smile and held Graham in his arms with the blood still flowing. Graham could feel his friend’s broken ribs pressing against his body.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Don’t carry around a burden that was never yours.”

 

As Graham woke up in the middle of the night, he saw the bright moonlight stalking his room like a madman. He grabbed for his mobile phone to drop Shannon a line, saying: “How about next weekend?”

Then he sat up on his bed and looked straight ahead. He saw that the hand was gradually drawing back the arrow. William Tell never misses anything.

Paula Deckard (c) October-November 2010

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