Cracked bones tinkled along the sides of the meat caravan as it drifted down a lay-by at night. Car headlights streamed through brittle tree trunks. Traffic monotonously pulsed past on the motorway beyond, as the caravan turned away from it and moved cautiously to find a shady backroad.
The caravan drove itself, untethered from any vehicle, led by the compass of biological impulse. Cartilage exterior making a scratchy progress, rotten teeth attached to dead nerves and swinging from the roof, scraping a clinking music while wheels of rubberised fat churned the septic road surface.
A sigh escaped in an oesophageal puff as it edged forwards. Worn by travel outside of timeframe, the signals of feeling had been muted by the punishment of planetary conjunction. A warning went up, and the flesh reanimated in a flurry of remembrance before sinking to a state of preparatory decline. For now, the exterior whiffed of butchery.
Deeper into the trees, the caravan swaying on uneven ground, the drone of traffic disappearing with the light too. Starlight lit the way, stroking the flexing musculature of the brackets and consumed windows. The doorway stood out for being pink and fresh, resting like a tongue ready to lick. Trees closed over the road, thicket a chaotic black, twisted stems above poking out supernovas.
A rusty metal barrel burning ahead on the track, flames whipping and rolling high, the stink of bad oxygen plumes reeking all about. Straining ducts in the barrel peepholed a torrent of seething hellfire, the metal itself sustained by the heat, which would eventually amplify and send it to destruction. Drenched in ossified smoke tubers, the caravan edged to a halting brake, rocking to a standstill. Flame illuminated the front and flickered down the facing side, the rest of the caravan lost to the shadow of the darkening road.
A leather-aproned man strode out from the black road ahead, as if the barrel was his. A valley of scars criss-crossed his face, his features mangled by tissue torn, formed to manmade geometry. The ritualistic markings traversed his body, visible as elevated tracks along his bare arms, the pale wormlike lines running to disappear into a faded wifebeater.
He held a gnarled piece of broken log in one hand; a hand oversized and fleshy with rounded muscle, like the rest of him. With a wink he lobbed the log sample into the raging barrel, causing a spiral of fiercely singed sparks to fly in a turbulent whirlwind. He spat and coughed and walked through the disturbed burning cloud until he reached near enough to the caravan.
A low moaning came from inside, faint and dreadful, like an injured animal. The man raised his sweaty arm and scraped it across his face, leaving a sooty smear.
“Knock, knock,” he said, his voice a quiet vibrato, unfitting to his face. He sniffed, taking in the night, and what was to come to him.
The door peeled away, glutinous folds the consistency of luncheon meat curling to reveal a murky hole.
A glint flickered from inside.
Its source poked forwards—a polished metal clamp attached to the exposed brain of a laboratory raised cat. The cat walked on its hind legs, its ginger and scruffy fur thinning around bald patches, some covered in a red rash, some displaying healed curved incision scars. The man fell to his knees and put his palms together, tears trickling along the trackways he’d carved in his cheeks ready for the process.
From behind the cat and out of the throbbing doorway hurried four lab rabbits, pink eyes weeping scarlet trails into their fluffed up white fur. Each rabbit held the bottom end of one of the four legs of a stool, the seat lilting badly as they struggled to balance it. They carried the stool into position, placing it a few feet away from the still flaming barrel. The cat positioned a paw onto the man’s forehead and silently imparted that he rise.
The man got to his feet and moved—hunched and methodically—to place himself onto the stool, his back to the oscillating barrel light. The bunnies scampered to the caravan and hopped inside, squeaking shrilly.
With the raggedy grace of a beleaguered soul, the cat gently climbed the hulk of a man, travelling up his body before settling on the muscly platform of his overdeveloped shoulder. Its eye twitched and its paw-pads tightened around a scalpel. The cat placed its furry front leg firmly onto the man’s face, to at once steady itself and also to obstruct the man’s vision. With great strain it lifted the sharp blade to the top of the man’s head, and forcefully sliced into the scalp a perfect square that framed his entire crown.
A bound saw the cat off the man and over to the caravan, where it leaped inside, for no more than a few seconds, reemerging with a bound, the scalpel swapped for a bonesaw. Now the cat sprang back to the shoulder, ripping the man’s scalp upwards, dislodging the square skin flap, and flinging it into bushes. The new instrument buzzed and hit bone, the man sitting up straight, conscious somehow, the cat’s forepaws busy, leaving the man’s eyes left to convulse in flexing bulges. Dark pupils displayed the spectral languor of his wife, troubled with cancerous blood, drowning in a fate of vampiric victimhood, across the land and in their bedroom and on their marital bed. Illness was draining her away, the gauze of her presence ready to dissolve.
The cat dropped the bonesaw, which sputtered to a stop on the ground. This was the cue for the reappearance of the rabbit parade, and the bunnies rushed forwards once more from out of the caravan, their eyes almost exploding with excitement, between them holding another metal clamp, an exact replica of that attached to the cat’s head, but scaled up to be large enough to fit a human skull precisely. The bunnies shuffled up to the front of the stool and communicated in soft bleeps to each other. In perfect synchronisation they united their efforts and with combined strength launched the heavy metal clamp upwards and into the waiting bloody paws of the lab cat.
With speedy dextrousness the cat installed the clamp, pushing it with a crunch to snugly fit the square void atop the man’s head and cover his bare brain tissue. A short funnel of metal poked erect from his crown, the central area of attachment—the previous purpose of which would’ve been to hook up the test subject to an electrode or injection device, ready for experimentation. The man blinked, trying to assess if his faculties had survived the violent process. He couldn’t tell if his giddiness was a result of the primitive surgery, or of shock and blood loss. In any case, he tried to stand, and felt steadier as a result.
The cat backed off and retreated to the caravan, tentatively keeping an eye on the man until it moved to the door and padded careful steps inside.
Alone, the man stripped himself, halfheartedly trying to wipe the blood that had cascaded his scar tracked arms, but time enough had passed for the dark liquid to turn tacky, so his rubbings were only partially successful. He turned to face the barrel and the black road beyond. High above, the fiercest stars twinkled energetically despite the brightness of the flame. The man chucked his soiled clothes into the barrel, and it again sent sparks into the air, though no smoke followed. He glanced down at his body, wearied from a life of toil, his comforts displayed as a dimpled potbelly.
After consuming the fresh fuel of his clothes the barrel began to die, and he staggered forwards, keen to find a rhythm to his walk, gradually straightening his gait as he strode into the backroad black.
He trampled along, the path familiar, and the darkness filled with enough starlight that he didn’t have to think too much about where to place his next step. At a point between thick twin tree trunks he’d passed so many times before in daytime, he turned and went off the track, and onto a grassy throughway, dipped to a path gouged into the sandy soil, created by years of feet looking for a shortcut.
In no time he emerged from weedy trees and onto an open hill, sweet meadow flowers kept low by grazing animals, every one of the beasts sent to slaughter weeks ago.
All sounds of nature ceased, as if a strange insulation had fallen. No noises from the town drifting up from below like there should be, no nocturnal chirrups to freeze the blood. Only a silence born of static, the pause of the engine building for a breaking point.
He reached the top of the hill, guided in a state not quite conscious, not quite not. A momentous crack occurred somewhere above him, dreamlike and reverberating to create a thrum in the air. A coagulation of hazy electric threads wafted overhead, glowing and tinged blue, curling wraithlike to form a hovering gaseous mass, warmly humming. It descended and he watched the far off stars, and as it touched him it enfolded his shivering skin, engulfing his exterior which slowly accepted a fluorescing pink aura. Once it had covered him, the pink extended to be haloed by an unearthly indigo surround, the hum transferring to his body, no louder than a spirit’s whisper. Like a radiating tin man he awkwardly made his way down the hillside, across the silent scrubby fields, along shadowy roads which trailed to the suburban hinterlands and then up to his own front door.
In the dark he climbed his stairs, the smell of home forcing hot tears, and he entered the bedroom he’d shared with the woman who was his wife, and had been for more years than he’d been a man. He approached the bed, disrobed this woman’s body, keeping her asleep, and then put her back down to rest. The intense pink of him hit her pallor and reminded him of the life she had once possessed, the flush and force she’d shown him, when she could, when her blood carried her towards him and not away. He laid her out and placed himself on her bare body, caressing her, kissing his final breaths into her, until his pink dimmed and she shone an electric godly blue.
Lifeless, he tumbled from her and to the floor, his final twitches the misfiring of a desire for forgiveness entwined with deep satisfaction.
The laboratory animals of the vivisection caravan stirred, sensing that once again their sufferings had born a cure, the cure that had evaded their torturers but had risen in them, the result only experience can bring, whatever the hopes of observation. The cat, and the rabbits, the rats, and the piglets, snuggled into their nests of warm meat, to dream the sunrise and conjure another day to travel the invisible road ready to spread their special remedy to the next poor soul in line.
Rebecca Gransden lives on an island and writes sometimes. She can be found on Twitter @rlgransden and online occasionally at rebeccagransden.wordpress.com