He touched one of the apprentices on the shoulder and the man got up and stood on a flat rock near the edge of the clearing. He stretched his arms out horizontally on either side and began to turn on one foot, quickly reacing such a speed that his body blurred, like a top, and he lost the appearance of a man. He looked to be of a lighter substance than the still world around him. I thought he might rise from the rock and begin to float up into the trees. A second apprentice walked over to him and, after some minutes spinning, the figure slowed, returned to its Earthly substance, and fell, sodden with sweat and with eyes closed, mumbling and smiling, into the arms of his fellow. . . .
At night when he couldn't sleep he'd kneel by my bed, put his hand under the blanket and stroke my ribs, running his fingertips in the troughs between them, rubbing the pit where my stomach'd been with the palm of his hand, kneading the hollow from hipbone to hipbone like a baker smearing dough. He said: "Do you want to know what I'm doing?" I said "No." He said: "I'm feeling for your heart." I lay still on my back and let him do it. I wanted to ask him for bread. I was afraid to. His fingers were rough and warm and down through the bones and flesh I could feel him shaking as he wept. Sometimes his tears fell on my face and I opened my mouth. He couldn't see in the darkness that I was drinking them. In the morning he'd take half my ration. . . .
12 April 2006
Thank you Jai Clare for pointing me at James Meek's novel, The People's Act of Love, long-listed for the 2005 Booker Prize. A fine read about imaginary real worlds: Siberia in the early years of the 20th century, a sect of castrates, a prison camp, cannibalism, the Czechoslovak Legion. A taste: