Broken

Wernigerode, European Tour 1995

Back view of a woman in a leather jacket facing a brocken spectre


Wendi fought her way free of the dream.

It had been one of those nightmares, the irrational ones that could upset her for hours after waking up. She'd had none since the band had spent a month in Devon the previous spring and she had been hoping that they'd been banished forever by her strange experiences back then.

But no. As familiar as the face of a school bully after the summer holidays, the dark red despair froze her brainstem as she struggled to open her eyes, move her limbs or do anything to escape its grip. There was shape to one side of her and she fancied it was Peter. He was speaking to her but none of the words made any sense. He shook her by the shoulder.

"Hey, wake up. We're here."

She ripped her eyes open. The dream's logic hung about her head in a cloud and a whimpering sound emerged from the back of her throat. Where the fuck was she? None of this made any sense. Shapes moved in front of a blinding white darkness and it was oh so cold. Very cold.

She was sitting in the back of the tour van. The side-door was open, revealing a snow covered car park. Peter leaned in towards her.

"You were spark out! OK now?"

"Hmm." Wendi didn't trust herself to speak, not yet. She unbuckled the seatbelt and jumped out. The snow crunched under her boots and the atmosphere of the dream began to leave her, impotent against the force of such a wintry new experience. The handle of the van bit at her bare fingers as she slid the door shut again. She caught her reflection in the curved glass; under the bright arc lights her purple hair stood out like a flare. Behind her the other members of the band stood, plumes of breath blooming from their nostrils, bundled up like arctic explorers.

This would make a good album cover, thought Wendi, zipping up her leather jacket.

"Sure you don't want your gloves?"

Wendi shook her head and stuck her hands in the pockets of her black jeans. She hated gloves. They made her clumsy, they were a layer between her and the world and she didn't need that. She jogged across to the middle of the car park shedding the last few fragments of nightmare. The still falling snow added an extra layer of silence to the experience. She spun around and looked back at the small group of men standing around the van.

It was coming back to her now. Bass player Sean was a railway enthusiast and when told that their German tour would take in both Hanover and Leipzig had insisted that they stop off between the two at somewhere called Wernigerode where they still had steam trains. As the gigs were on consecutive nights this had meant a very early start. Wendi looked at her watch. 5am. She could still taste the beer from last night. She trudged back to the boys and looked up at them.

"Well?"

Timothy the Tour Manager was fumbling with a map that folded out from the back of an old 80s Michelin Guide to West Germany. Sean turned to her.

"It's just over there, see?"

A low building squatted at one end of the car park. All of its windows were dark.

"No problem, should be OK!" Hans the driver set off towards it and they followed in his wake. Timothy had yet to successfully fold the map back up into the cover of the guide and in the end just rolled the whole thing up like newspaper and shoved the messy bundle inside his coat.

They rounded the corner station building and were confronted with an expanse of railway tracks separated by low platforms. Red lights glared down at them through the fog, accentuating the blackness of the sky above. One train squatted at the farther track, a handful of people standing on the platform beside it. Sean's eyes lit up and he began walking a bit faster, overtaking Hans.

Wendi stepped over the tracks. There were no other trains about and the silence was still overwhelming but she didn't like it. It was wrong. You didn't just walk across the tracks like that.

Clouds of steam rose from the engine at the front of the train. This was what Sean was excited about. It was a steam train, the archetype that always came to mind whenever Wendi thought of trains, despite the fact that she'd never seen one before. The Science Museum in London didn't count, despite how impressive they'd been close up and how small and vulnerable they made her feel, they'd been carcasses, gleaming and polished, mounted as trophies in the hall of the museum. Whereas here...

The engine was dirty and smelly. Dangerous. Sean stopped to admire it but Wendi dodged past him and continued to follow Hans closely. The sooner they had this sorted out the sooner she could sit down again and possibly get back to sleep. Now that the nightmare had evaporated she was keen to resume unconsciousness.

Ten minutes later Wendi climbed up into the carriage and dropped into the window seat in the compartment. The sky was still pitch black. Their destination was the top of the mountain which loomed over the town and yet despite its close proximity the train would take over an hour and a half to get up there winding its way through the foothills and looping around the summit before arrival. Wendi closed her eyes. The others bundled into the compartment and slammed the door. Someone sat next to her, the nylon of their coat hissing against the seat. She didn't care who it was. Her head lolled to one side the cold glass of the window pressing against her forehead. She didn't mind. Now that sleep had been cleared of the infestation it was an alluring prospect.

The carriage shook and jerked as the train pulled off, the sound of the steam engine so familiar to her despite the fact that she'd never heard it in real life before.

The rocking motion and the repetitive sounds became increasingly soporific and even the cold itself was a numbing blanket, wrapping her in anaesthesia. It was always like this on tour, trying to sleep on the move, never truly rested, never unexcited, always looking ahead to the next night and the next, never wanting to go home, wanting more, wanting more, wanting more...

★★★

The reddish brown clay was back but was less suffocating than normal, seen though ice. Wendi could feel it behind her, dragging at the back of her mind but the pure white of the mist in front also had its tendrils about her brain. She shook her head, preventing the old madness from getting a proper grip. She was hanging in the centre of a crystal made from pure light; she spun forever burning her thoughts on the light. The creatures back in the clay were mirrored in the bright mist, anti-shadows that danced before her and tore at her sense. This was a different flavour of fear, as irrational as the recurring nightmares but thrown into sharp relief by the illumination all around.

Come to us, retreat, you don't really want that, give in...

It was the first time Wendi had ever heard any of the nightmare figures speak, but she knew that this was what they had been always telling her, sly lies slipping from their invisible tongues straight into the lobes of her brain that controlled addiction. It would be so easy to give in to the encroaching madness and that is why it was so frightening. Give in and she would be lost forever, the self and persona she had built up over the past quarter of a century swamped by the chaos of the infant mind. That was what these creatures wanted. To succumb to the chaos would be to grant them victory, another mind conquered in their campaign to... what? Wendi didn't know but she did know she wasn't going to give in no matter how wrong reality had become, how upside down and eternal, how she was looking down at a map and the map was her and the idea of borders that had been there forever but had only just appeared, things ancient and old waiting for her not after death but before birth.

Come to us, let us in, so easy to give up give in give up...

She screamed silently at them, kicking out with her boots as she discovered that her arms weren't working. She was going to fall; she was going to fall...

There was a thud and her forehead banged against the glass. She forced her eyes open as the strange interior of the train carriage came back to her, its unfamiliarity banishing the bad dream.

The others were asleep. Nigel was snoring. The window was thick with frosty condensation. Wendi wiped at it with her left hand, the bite of the chill waking her still further. She scratched at the more stubborn of the delicate crystalline shapes which melted under her fingertips.

Outside the horizon was a pitch-black jagged line set against a deep blue.

There was a distant hissing but aside from that and Nigel's snoring she couldn't hear a thing. She clambered up onto the seat and slid the top of the window open, sticking her face out into the wintry gap and breathing in the scent of ice and pine.

The outside world stubbornly refused to reveal any more of itself to her. If anything the outlines of the mountains were even darker. The sky was not so uncooperative. The cloud cover must have cleared since they'd set off as a frighteningly large amount of stars were visible in the deep blue firmament, a sight that sent a wave of goose bumps across her neck and the backs of her arms. The universe. She'd been there before.

Since last spring any otherworldly insights provided by her corvine half had been few and far between. The merging had made her more energetic, more irresponsible and more herself but as a result she'd seen less weird shit than she'd been expecting. She'd tied the persona to the real world rather than it dragging her into the unreal one. Sometimes it felt like one of those false childhood memories that couldn’t possibly be true.

She didn't know how she felt about that. It had been a relief to be free of frightening experiences for a while but as tonight's dreams had shown, they knew where she was. Perhaps the corvine wanted something of her? It didn't feel like them though.

"What is it? What d'you want?" she shouted into the night.

As if in response the hissing increased in volume and the steam engine began moving. Banging her chin on the metal window frame, she pulled her head back in and dropped back into her seat.

The others murmured in their sleep and Nigel stopped snoring. Outside the window the deep blue of the sky lightened almost imperceptibly as tendrils of mist flickered past. Banks of fog clung to the mountainside, dark pools of emptiness that reflected nothing.

★★★

Wendi could have sworn that she wouldn't fall asleep again, but nevertheless was gently rocked back into consciousness by the motion of the train. It was now definitely daylight outside and the train’s motion was less frantic.

Wendi attempted to wipe the window clear with her hand but the condensation had refrozen, the tiny ice crystals now hard enough to scratch the soft skin of her palm. She pulled her shades from her jacket pocket donned them and stood up on her seat again.

The outside was just as cold as it had been the last time she’d stuck her head out of the window but that was the only thing this new experience had in common with it.

It was so fucking bright.

The white blanket of the ground sloped away from her, covered with conical snow covered trees, a Seasons Greetings card brought to life. Above the sky was a pale blue, streaked with thin twists of delicate cirrus.

The train slowed even further; Wendi turned her head. They were about to come to a standstill at the terminus, a chunky grey stone building with a low snow covered platform.

She jumped down from her perch, landing on the wooden floor of the compartment with a thud just as the carriage jerked to a halt.

The engine was hissing with relief at having finally made it to the summit.

The others stirred as Wendi grappled with the handle. The door swung open into the white and she leapt out.

There were only a handful of other passengers on the train and they stayed in their huddles, their little groups; the voices of a couple of tour guides issuing instructions in different languages.

The band hadn’t bothered with a guide although Hans was taking charge. This didn’t bother Timothy; if anything he appeared a little relieved not to have to do anything.

Sean was at the end of the platform examining the engine again while the rest of them trudged through the doors of the visitors’ centre behind the other groups.

Wendi wasn’t in the mood for engines, tourism or gift shops. There was something about the isolation of this place that appealed to her and she was determined to find out what that was and where to find more of it. She carried on walking beyond Sean and found a road that ran past the railhead, up towards the summit where a large TV antenna stood sentinel over the scene.

As her boots creaked through the thick snow she could hear the faint deadened voices of the others drifting across the white expanse of the mountain’s summit; aside from them and the hiss of the exhausted engine she could sense the silence creeping up on her, the wind murmuring secrets in her ear about the expanse of nothing.

The rising sun was at her back as she passed the buildings clustered around the base of the antenna. She was at the peak and the ground began to fall off again; gently at first but increasingly steep just a little way in front of her.

Once there was no one in sight, she stopped, staring ahead at the distant hills, strands of misty clouds above and below her blurring the boundary between earth and sky.

Hold on what was that?

A giant shadowy shape was hovering in the air somewhere between her and the horizon, a figure limned in soft rainbows. The hairs rose on the back of Wendi’s neck - it was human in form. She raised a hand to shield her eyes and the figure mimicked her movements.

The enormous ghost at the end of this tunnel of air and light was her. The nightmarish atmosphere of the dream she’d had earlier began to return.

Wendi stood stock still, but the figure now moved of its own volition, beckoning to her.

Come to us, come to us, come in, give up…

Wendi took a few steps forward and then a few more. The still dark cloud filled valley yawned before her as she approached the edge.

★★★

She was so cold and her arms and legs ached. What had happened? There was a half memory of a slip and a tumble into icy whiteness, of the relentless soft violence of brawling with snowmen, of the world turning over and over and over. Had she slipped and banged her head? 

And had there been something else?

“There she is!” A voice muffled by the cold clean air. Wendi opened her eyes onto blinding blue and white glare. She squinted; a couple of silhouettes moved up there, the contrast against the bright sky reminding her of something on the tip of her mind; of something missing. Something that had happened to her between falling and waking up. Something to do with those dream figures that had appeared before her on the mountain’s edge.

She sat up.  That was a very good point. How far had she fallen? She was at the bottom of a short incline; the marks of her descent clear in the fresh snow. She looked the other way. It was just as well she’d stopped sliding when she had as less than a meter further on the ground dropped away.  She turned onto her front, crawled to the edge and looked down.

A hundred metres of vertical broken rock eventually disappeared behind a tightly crowded forest of pine trees; the snow on their branches turning them into Christmas cake decorations.

Even though she was lying down, Wendi's head spun. She screwed her eyes shut as the snow covered ground on which she was lying seemed to upend itself over the edge. In her mind's eye she could see herself and a portion of snow sliding neatly off the shard of rock as easily as sugar off a knife.

She'd never have said – never have admitted  – that she suffered from vertigo. She'd always been a thrill seeker. But this was too much. There was something about this place, something about the cold that was gnawing into her core. It was more than just cold it was blue and blinding, an oxyacetylene flame of ice that roared at her mental defences. Even as she called on the unhuman part of her mind for help, her consciousness began to fracture. The last thing she heard was the crunch of snow as someone else slithered down the incline to join her.

★★★

The rhythm was back. The rhythm, from earlier in the day. Wendi opened her eyes.  She was back in the train with the boys. In one corner of the compartment Timothy struggled with his map. There was a crackling noise as she moved. She was wrapped in a sheet of silver foil, a space blanket. Peter looked over at her.

"How are you feeling now?"

How was she feeling? Wendi couldn't tell. She wasn't cold anymore and the curious blue-white panic had gone. 

"OK I think?"

"Not woozy any more? The doctor at the transmitter station said there was no sign you'd banged your head."

"Not woozy." Wendi didn't even remember being woozy. Didn't remember anything about a doctor or a transmitter station. "Don't worry. I'm just tired I think. Late night, no bed, early start, and hangover. I'll be fine!" She'd had the occasional blackout in the past due to drugs and drink. On more than one occasion she'd surrendered control of her body to the unhuman side of herself. 

But this wasn't either. It was just missing time. She closed her eyes and thought, the sun – now quite high in the sky – warming her pale face.

Something had happened back there. Before that first awakening on the mountainside, after she'd seen the rainbow edged ghost reaching out to her from the fog. It was eluding her recall, the shape of the memories slipping from her fingers like a handful of ice cubes.

One thing she was sure of. It knew about her now and was after her.

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