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Sign and Body

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The cell door opened.


‘Are you ready to discuss your crimes?’ the gaoler said.


‘I’m not a Memorialist,’ Sherlock said, and the cell door shut again. This ritual had been repeated every day since they had brought him here. He wondered when they’d grow tired of it. Or possibly he would grow tired of it first: he, after all, was the one who had not had water for three days. He thought it was three days. There was no sun, none of the changing shadows cast by the towers of the ruined city, none of the Thing’s beloved nature. He counted time in his head, but he was unravelling, he knew, an increasing percentage of his being made up of the rasp running down his throat and the pounding between his ears. He was, perhaps, not as accurate as he might hope in his counting.


He wondered what they would do to him if they knew he was counting at all. Counting was far too close to Accounting, and was associated with Civilisation. It was not quite illegal in the way that the dark arts of Trigonometry and Calculus were illegal, but it would do him no good at all if they knew about it. And he was thinking words like second and hour which were certainly banned.


He hadn’t lied to them, anyway, they couldn’t accuse him of that. He was a member of an internet, yes, an internet made up of Memorialists, but he wasn’t a Memorialist. He had no desire to scratch out the names of the dead in faltering attempts at Sign amongst the half-buried ruins of the ancient gates from Notting Hell to The Edge Where. Caring about the dead would not bring them back. They were beyond saving. It seemed probable that the same was true of the living.


But the Memorialists had collected memories, and so held in their heads knowledge of the Lawlords and their laws, of the lost Great Table of Elements, and they owned some carefully hidden fragments of Sign they didn’t even understand but recited as pointless prayers to an obliterated world. Sherlock had learned so much from them, but had never grown to like them.


The reverse also held. They would not be coming for him.




If he could only get out –


It wasn’t hopeless. The wrecked city was mostly empty. The thanes of the Thing did not live there, but ruled over it from their farmland hollows beyond, and few others dared stray from the territories they were born into. Sherlock had learned what he could from the Memorialists now, and he would not need to associate with them again or draw attention to himself. He could hide in the ruined gates and work on piecing together the bits of Sign he had collected to rebuild the Great Table of Elements. He was sure he could make sense of it, given time. But time – time was looking awfully short.


There would be downsides to living like that, in hiding, on the run. He would miss the tower he had lived in before, near the ancient gate called Baker Street. Its echoing chambers and damaged brickwork, and –


He swallowed. Best not to think of that, of the way his own voice and that of the tower’s other inhabitant would meld together and echo off the walls when they spoke. He was here, alone. Remembering would only hurt.


The Memorialists, of course, would say that the pain of remembering was an essential part of humanity. They worked at it, had techniques for it. One they called a memory palace: they would take a place they knew and imagine it in stark, clear, physical detail. Once they had it so clear they could tour it mentally without setting foot there, they would imagine hanging the things they wished to remember all about it in the form of pictures.


Sherlock had never felt the need to try. But now –




The cell was dark, though he had managed to smuggle in a candle. The Thing reluctantly allowed the use of candles, though they were discouraged, but they would never allow someone already suspected of deviant activity anything so controversial. He snuffed it out when the gaoler arrived and relit it with flint when she was gone.


In the candlelight, the slop bucket and the identical eight walls of the cell flickered in and out of darkness. But no – they weren’t identical, not really. A scratch, an irregularity, a place rubbed slightly smoother. He reached out his palms to touch them and felt the differences. He did this for hours.


The cell was small, and eventually he was satisfied with his knowledge of it. He was much less satisfied that using that knowledge was a good idea. But something inside him ached, and for the first time he understood why the Memorialists were so afraid of forgetting.


He had been counting for years now. He knew how many different kinds of soil there were beneath the broken towers, and he knew how many visually distinct colours there were in his friend’s hair, and how fast blood from a knife wound across the front of the neck might be expected to pour out, and how many hand movements it took to make his friend’s name in Sign, and he could plot the curve of the smile his friend smiled when they breathed hard together after running through the trembling split-open underbelly of their withering world, and he knew the speed at which his friend’s heart beat when Sherlock laid two fingers very slowly against his wrist, and he thought he knew the exact size his own heart had crumpled to over these last days –


He would not lose all that. He couldn’t bear it. He would have to try and preserve what he could.




He had made a thing once, out of found wood and strings, and taught it to slice against the air and make it sing. That was the first picture he put up in his memory palace, because he wanted to keep the sound the thing made when he finally got it right. He put it right up at the top of the cell: a picture of the stringed thing, the sound attached to it as a picture of a beautiful howling creature.


It became harder after that though, because each thing he hung grew threads that dangled from it. The stringed thing, for instance, grew strands to a time he’d played it and stared out over the place that had once been a city and puzzled over a problem someone had brought him earlier that day. To a time his friend had heard him play it, and to how his whole face had shifted with every sound the thing made. Could Sherlock capture and hang up all of those expressions? He must. If he wasn’t going to see them again –




He left his friend’s name till last, till he had been at work for perhaps days. It was hard to know: he had stopped counting. There were more important things to count.  He pictured the name in large Sign, right in the middle of the cell. He slept curled over it, and felt it warm his limbs all night.




On what might have been the fifth day, they gave him water. He was still himself enough to know that was unlikely to bode well.




He was interrogated by a thane, which struck him as excessive. Surely he wasn’t that important.


Mostly, the thane uttered standard Thing slogans. Language is a snare. Ideas are what you have instead of things. They do not quench thirst or satisfy hunger. They have no power over matter. The warrior who steps through the farm gate stoops and bends his neck and is debased. The world is not made of facts, it is made of rock and wood and water.


They questioned him. As they did not believe in ideas – though they thought in ideas, of course, without admitting it – they tried to persuade Sherlock to speak out by affecting matter. The matter, specifically, that made up Sherlock. This went on for some time, but he was unable to count it properly. Eventually they seemed to grow tired of it, and sent him back to his cell.




Here, near the bottom of this wall – a conversation.


Sherlock’s friend had never approved of his getting mixed up with the Memorialists. Like Sherlock, he did not believe that remembering the names of the dead and Accounting for their numbers would do any good. Unlike Sherlock, he also did not believe that uncovering lost ways of understanding the world was worth the risk of getting caught.


(‘I won’t try to stop you. I know you need to understand things. I know you need –‘ his voice falls to a hushed whisper – ‘ideas. Knowledge. I just – I wish I could keep you safe somehow.’


‘Nobody’s safe here,’ Sherlock tells him. ‘You were safe, out in Far Field doing as your thane told you, and you ran away and came to broken London.’


His friend winces at the name: names are frowned upon, are too close to Accounting. But there is music in the name of the city-that-was, as there is in his friend’s name which took months to worm out of him, and which neither of them has ever said since.


‘Yeah,’ his friend says now. ‘I know. That’s why I’m not stopping you. I get it. I’m no saner than you are really. But I wish –‘ And he falls silent. Sherlock knows why. There is too much in the world to wish different, too much that would have to change before they could nestle, name against name, safe in their tower with danger a matter of choice, something they could shut the door on when they liked.


Their tower has no door; the door was torn away by a summer storm last year. Outside the wind whines softly amongst the brick wastes. Sherlock touches his friend, and thinks his friend’s  name as loud as he dares. There’s a moment when the name in his head rhymes with the wind, and it’s almost like hearing it said.)




No more water for a while again. Sherlock slipped away into his memory palace, where his friend’s arms were not only warm and strong but present, and his friend’s hair felt dry against his forehead, and the world he left behind felt more alive than it ever was in reality.


Here, he was free, too, to imagine, to extrapolate. The cell door in the palace could open to reveal, not a gaoler, but a friend, standing there solid and compact, mouth tipping into a smile, Oh what have you got yourself into you lunatic, yes, something like that – I couldn’t bear it in the tower without you. I came looking. I tracked you down – don’t look shocked, I’m not entirely useless, and I had to find you. I found your internet. They told me where you were taken. I found you, I’m here. I’m here for you.


Sometimes the real door opened. It was getting harder to tell the difference, and Sherlock was working on eradicating those last differences. Last time he’d noticed the shadows beneath the door were a little deeper and more extensive in real life than in the palace. He had fixed it accordingly. Next time the gaoler arrived to try persuading him again, he would see how accurate his image had become. Eventually the palace would be as real as the cell, and then he need never leave.




He knew the palace well enough now that he could return there even while he was being persuaded. Sometimes pain from the outside world would intrude in, but he could usually find some way to include it. There were memories involving physical pain which nevertheless filled him with the bubbles of light and air that he needed so badly to stay himself through this. For instance, on this wall, this one here –


(‘What on earth have you done to yourself?’


‘I had an encounter with some – I believe it’s called barbed wire. There’s a whole field of the stuff, or at least some crushed remnants of it, by Waste Monster.’


His friend’s face creases in the heart-trembling way that it does, sometimes. ‘Don’t call it that. Just say “near one of the ancient gates”.’


‘Then you wouldn’t know where, would you?’


His friend smiles now. Sherlock is always staring at his expressions, wondering how they can do this: the crushed creased ball of worry smoothing itself out, sliding into affection and amusement. Sherlock hasn’t even said anything particularly funny or clever. His friend is simply pleased to be here, talking to him. Here in a tower halfway to shattering, here in a dead city. His friend is a miracle.


‘You could say, “near one of the ancient gates, the one with the smashed silver tiles that line the floor like angry grass. The one where bees have started building honeycomb amidst the rubble. The one I insist on dragging my friend to all the time to observe said bees.”  I think, somehow, I’d have been able to figure out where you meant.’


Sherlock wants to kiss him, then. He often does. But later, he will remember this especially, and not know why. His friend’s face goes soft, so touchable and soft, and he says, ‘Let me have a look at that.’


Sherlock’s friend has no time for most of the forbidden arts, shakes his head gently at Sherlock’s desire to learn about the Tree of Chemik and the Great Table. But he sometimes gets dangerously close to practicing the forbidden skill of hospitality, an old tradition in which the Tree and other arts were used in palaces called hospitals which travelled around the cities performing great feats of surgery. Sherlock’s friend always claims that he uses only methods in keeping with nature, but hospitality is inherently of civilisation and the reputation he has in the local area as a healer of ills would not endear him to the thanes of the Thing, if they were to hear of it.


He touches Sherlock’s injured leg now, and it hurts terribly - )


- it hurt so terribly –


( - but the euphoria of having his friend’s hands on him is so great it obliterates all else. It is as sunlight is to stars, a white hot necessary fire that makes the little flames of blood and broken skin impossible to notice.


Afterwards, his friend’s hands keep smoothing across his skin, over and over, almost as though they too have desired to be set alight with longing.)




He lost count of days. It didn’t matter now anyway; he spent as little time in the cell and as much time in the palace as he could. He made no space in the palace for anything that had happened to him since they locked him up. Soon he would forget it all, and then it would, subjectively, never have occurred.


The cell door opened, and he sighed, very softly out of his parched throat. He was still getting things wrong. He had been looking at the palace door just a moment ago, and it had been smooth all over at the top, but now it was shifting against his eyes, a tiny patch, so small he hadn’t noticed it before, roughening very slightly. Next time he would do better. It was very important that he not be able to tell the difference.


‘Sherlock?’ said a voice. It was a voice he knew, though it had never spoken his name. He looked up.


His breath shot out through his throat so hard it scraped against the dry walls and he hissed from the new, unexpected form of pain. He wanted to say my friend, but he had not troubled to save those words in the palace. They were too obvious. They went without saying or thinking, he had no need to hang them on the walls, they could be found deep in the centre of each and every one of his bones.


He reached, instead, for the name in the middle of the floor of the palace. He had slept close to it for more time than he had been able to count. It wasn’t deep in his bones where reaching it would make his body ache, but painted over his skin.


‘John,’ Sherlock said.


John’s face crumpled. It was exactly like the expression Sherlock had saved in the palace, down to the last detail, and did not resemble it at all. Sherlock would kiss it, he swore to himself. Every bit of it. He would get up and they would walk out of the cell and past the gaoler who was undoubtedly slumped dead or unconscious on the floor outside. And they would step out into the summer storm he could hear raging outside and run till they found shelter or it tore them to shreds, whichever happened first. But first he would take a second they couldn’t spare to kiss each unspeakable atom of John’s face and let the words for them ring furiously in his head. He would take as many seconds as he wanted, and he would count and name all of them.


(‘That was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done,’ John says, laughing.


This is the first time Sherlock wants to kiss the line immediately to the left of John’s mouth, and the first time he wants to give it a name. The two impulses are identical and inseparable. Undoubtedly there is a name for the specific way an especially expressive person’s face can crinkle a little in exactly that spot, or at least there must have been one in the Booming.


Around them, the world withers on. Their hands brush, and then Sherlock knows for sure what he had always suspected: the Thing is wrong. Ideas do have power over matter. The weight of John Watson’s hand swinging against Sherlock’s is multiplied a thousand times by the weight of everything else that might or might not happen between them.


Ideas cannot actually transmute matter, they were right about that. John’s hand brushes Sherlock’s and outside the window of the tower the city is still a splintered smashed open husk of a thing. But ideas do something else, something that perhaps could have been described once when the words were still known.


Their hands brush once more. And outside the window, Sherlock watches the broken, wounded city come desperately alive.)