Sister Shadow sat at the back of the 56 bus to Whipp’s Cross, smug and snug in her cocoon of filthy, stinking rags. People avoided her as they got on the bus, both because of the smell, and due to the fact that – when she began to mutter gnomically to herself – her voice sounded like the bloated carcass of a deer being dragged through a pile of dead leaves. She sat smiling at nothing, prodding at the rotten stubs of her teeth with her long, strong, barnacle-ridden tongue. She clutched her bag to her chest: it contained a large dead moth, a few scraps of her husband’s grave shroud, and her oyster card.
Sister Shadow settled back into her seat, enjoying the early morning stillness, and she watched what remained of north east London float past the window. Crumbling towers rose from the marsh, along with the odd flickering streetlamp. The road that the bus rattled along was made up of creaking wooden planks elevated from the seething mire by bowed stilts. Far below, dirty-white fish moved slowly and clumsily through the water, as if they were being driven by ancient, senile, half-blind men.
The rhythmic rattle and thud of the bus was strangely soothing, and soon Sister Shadow had closed her eyes and was exploring the shifting red plain that stretched out forever behind her eyelids. And things begin to take shape:
* * *
The plague dog drags its carcass from bed to bed. At night, this is, in the hall with the fire and the smoke. Sister Shadow lurks in the corner. The plague dog is big and his head hangs down, heavy and dripping. His fur rustles like grain in the wind.
Later, the plague dog goes from house to house, paying no heed to the markings on the doors, or the chicken guts laid out in little protective patterns on the front steps. He looks big, but he isn’t really, and he can squeeze through the smallest of gaps.
In the morning the people lay out their dead in neat little rows in the mud, and at midday they birth a big fire at the edge of the village. They stand in silence and watch their dead burn. Sister Shadow is there again; always in the margins.
The butcher Jack – a big, dark, cracked man – notices smoke in the distance. The hall is on fire, and the villagers run back to watch. Sister Shadow dresses herself in smoke and ash and, with embers for jewelry, she follows them back to the village.
The fire is fat and hungry, and none of the villagers will go inside it. The hall is all black and red. The corpses in the upstairs dormitory wake up and scream, and the villagers wince at the sound of their sores popping in the heat. The plague dog is tied to a stake outside the hall, and he paces slowly. His head drags through the mud. Sister Shadow creeps into the hall in her smoky coat, and the villagers watch the fire eat and eat.
The villagers are still there that night. The shrew-like Frieda has brought out soup and bread, and beer and tobacco are passed around. The dying embers of the fire wink like eyes in the woods at night, and Sister Shadow is crouched down in the blackened corpse of the hall. The plague dog nuzzles at her, and her long grey coat drags through the ash and the mud.
“Roll over.” She says. “Play dead.” And her ragged, fire hardened voice creeps up into the night sky, and hauls down the stars. Sister Shadow buries them in the mud and waits for the rains to come.
* * *
The bus stopped, and Sister Shadow stumbled off. Her bare feet made little slapping sounds on the rain-warped boards of the road. She could smell smoke and stagnant water, and low hills rose in the distance beyond the marsh. The stars were still there, suspended below the water; faintly glowing little corpses.
She dropped from the road into the murky water and swam – using a perfect breaststroke – to a little island where a small fire burned. The mud here was red and slightly luminous, as if it was soaking up the morning light. The plague dog was waiting for her, and she drew a rusted chain from within the folds of her rags, and secured it about the dog’s neck. Together they swam back to the road and, content and dripping, they waited for a bus back to the remains of the city.
The bus driver – unshaven and hungover – smiled weakly at the old woman and the dog as they boarded. He coughed wetly, swore under his breath, and scratched absentmindedly at his left armpit, trying to soothe the fat and weeping sores. He drove on and behind him, under the green and steaming water of the marsh, the stars winked out one by one.