Priest inspects the chains, pulls each link in through the hole in the door and turns it in hand. When he’s satisfied, he wrenches at the tether hard—Lungfish falls from his seat, elbows jarring into the groove of the stone slabs. This is how Priest checks that the manacles are secured.
“Morning,” Priest says.
Lungfish travels the full length of the leash, back to his place by the window. He knows that Priest doesn’t like him to stand near the exit. The window is wet and cold, and Lungfish presses yesterday’s bruises against it. He brushes the matted straw from his knees.
Priest sniffs and cranes over the privy in the far side of the chamber. He always does this—and concludes, as always, “this could be cleaner.”
“The straw, as well. Sweep it. I’ll bring a fresh supply on my next visit.” This is another typical comment but is not always made. What happens next, when Priest whisks the stool out from underneath the crude bookshelf and clambers up until the tip of his wide brimmed hat is pocketed in the peak of the slanted ceiling, is a constant. Priest already has the Bible open at the chosen page.
Lungfish cannot remember if he has heard this verse before. He understands he is fortunate that Priest never asks, only reads—one hand gnarled on the bookshelf for balance, the other pinching the spine of his leatherbound Bible. Lungfish feigns to listen and turns his face to the damp window to look out on the grounds where his tombstone stands, where nestled in with the dead is an empty grave of an infant named Adam listed as born and died in the same October.
When Priest is finished, Lungfish can eat. The lecture can be hard to endure because Priest brings fresh vegetables and small pieces of game—snared rabbits, the offal from a pheasant. On days without Priest, bread is pushed through the flap of the locked door.
“You’ve been reading natural history again,” Priest says. He is pacing the space afforded to him outwith the reach of the chains.
“Birds of Northern Africa,” says Lungfish, working the meat between his teeth, ever paranoid about biting down on an errant remnant of birdshot.
“Hm. I’d prefer more time spent on your studies.”
Lungfish does not bother to reply. Priest is forever talking about “studies”, but over the years there has been no indication of what the studies are leading up to. As far as Lungfish is concerned, focusing on studies would have him reciting the Bible like one of those talking mynah birds in his more interesting books.
Priest thumbs the spine of an old scientific plate book. He tries to avoid looking Lungfish’s way during meal times. “That said, keep an eye out the window. Autumn still has its migrations.”
“Pipers,” says Lungfish. He tries to picture his own migration, wintering in the African sun. “Some thrushes.”
“Finish chewing before you speak.”
Lungfish drags his meals out. He knows that it has never occurred to Priest that he might intentionally do this for the sake of company—Priest will not leave until the food is gone, probably on instruction from his superiors. But there is only so long Lungfish can delay; in the end, he needs his meals warm.
When he is finished, they reverse their choreography, Priest backing through the door, and once bolted into the safety of the main house, Priest runs the chain links through and releases Lungfish from his manacles.
Lungfish waits. He can hear well enough that Priest has left the stairwell below, but it has always been part of his ritual to wait. Eagerness could lead to his discovery or some other disaster, and Lungfish is the pessimistic sort.
One day the bookshelf will not hold his weight, and he will be completely limited to this room. For now, although it creaks out its complaints, he is able to drag himself upwards shelf by shelf. His arms are well used to carrying his bulk, and where the bookshelf ends his fingers are strong enough to grip the grooves in the castle stone. The main difficulty is his lower body, curled and fused and without sensation—he has fallen before after a kneecap snagged around an edge, and the floor below is not forgiving. He has taken to swinging cautiously, to sling his legs over an obstacle as an anchor. The stretch to the rafters has to be perfectly judged—for a single moment he must propel himself up and seize the wood on the other side of the breach in the room’s ceiling. He tries not to think about it.
His palms hit the beam first, and in his desperation to grab hold, the rest of his body is forgotten. Lungfish has enough time to realise he has succeeded before his chest slams against the cold stone wall and steals his breath. He fights the instinct to drop, mentally recites one of Priest’s Cautions on anger, and begins to pull himself up through the crevice. It is hard on his arms but worse on his lower back, where straining muscles border dead tissue and have to work all the harder for it. There is the temptation to rest as he gets his head and arms over the rafter beam, but he has been caught by this before—and paid for it with a head injury that he found invited further questions from Priest. He reaches back to catch his legs and flip himself up to a stable perch.
He lies there on the beam on his belly and savours the breezes that swirl through the rafters. On wilder days, the wind is still strong enough inside the castle to rock him back and forth, but today is calm, and the sounds are of mild groans in place of the screams that accompanies a gust. After a while, Lungfish inches forward, across the network of beams. Even travelling this route frequently has not lessened his excitement at crawling through the heart of castle life. Some, towards the tapering of the castle’s various roofs, are wet and rotted; others are dry enough to splinter, and he is used to pulling skelves from his ribs after each adventure. He is here for the spaces where the rafters pass over the rooms and their people.
Most of them are women, clad in black and white, who concern themselves with bedding and fireplaces and live in fear of their employer and the castle ghost. Occasionally their superior, a man with skin of varying shades of red, will arrive to demand efficiency of some kind. Lungfish enjoys these moments, as the black-and-white women talk much more on the man’s departure. The man is their version of Priest, Lungfish gathers. He has learned that the women are “maids” and the man is a “cunt”.
There is a certain point, between a disused ballroom and an opulent bedroom, that Lungfish can descend between the walls, into a long forgotten space that consists of nothing but a dusty chair sat to face the tiny cracks that provide glimpses of the bedroom. Lungfish cannot discern the room’s purpose, but it brings him closer to the people, and it takes the maids a long time to deal with everything in the bedroom.
He clambers across the beams, his arms underneath his chest, working his fingers like centipede legs. He has never yet been seen—he is either very good, he hopes, or people rarely look above their own heads, which seems more likely. Descent is more of a problem of logic than it is physical, finding the right angle to seek out the grip points in the stone and working backwards. This hidden room is his alone, the door locked and unopened for years—his space, away from Priest and bibles and hauntings; he reaches the floor and breathes in the dust. On first discovery, the walls had been bare except for the curious scrawling “here I dwell with Onan” above one of the cracks, but Lungfish has improved the space—birds of North Africa fly in coloured chalk around each slant of light black storks trailing their twig legs behind them as they start off towards the riverbank.
“Let me out,” he whispers.
It’s the new line he’s been trying. Before, he had settled on “help me’—and was pleased with it for a long time. The maids could certainly hear it; recoiling and hurrying from every crevice that spoke for Lungfish. Until the younger one had placed her white hand to the stone and whispered “tell me how’, and Lungfish recoiled from the wavering strangeness in her voice and did not leave his bed for so long that Priest said he might starve.
Today, they do not pay attention. Things are happening in their world. He listens and tries to piece together their lives from stolen remarks and references. Impressions of them flicker through the cracks: the hint of a nose, a hand reaching for a fire poker, dust settling on black uniforms.
He loves them, his people.
“Of course,” as Priest says, if he is in good humour, “nothing looks quite like you.”
“Are you coming to the meeting tonight?” says the younger maid.
“I don’t know. Mr Peake says he’ll sack anyone he finds with a pamphlet.”
“I stash mine in my toilet bag,” says the older one. “Men are terrified of looking in there.”
Lungfish is only listening habitually, far more interested in the touch-ups to his chalk drawings. This is always a delicate procedure; Priest will become suspicious if he asks for more chalk while having nothing to show for it. At times, Lungfish returns to his room, opens his Birds of North Africa, and is overcome with a deep disappointment in his abilities to recreate the image. Now he draws back from the wall, considers the storks. He started too ambitiously; he knows. What was intended to be dynamic has come out as flat and badly proportioned.
“It’s all fucking shit,” says the younger maid. “Looking for pamphlets, like they can stop the way things are headed.”
“I read once that people try to behave as if nothing’s happening when everything is.”
“Since when can you read, Ridley?”
“Just fix the bed.”
“See?” says the younger woman. “Exactly my point, I’m fixing a bed her ladyship barely uses and we’re missing the war.” She does it anyway.
Lungfish is fond of these two, as much as he suspects they are fond of each other. He once tried to replicate some of their speech in a conversation with Priest, which got him two weeks of nothing but bread and water. He is lucky that Priest has no interest in novels, because the maids do not talk like characters in novels. Lungfish stops to brush the dust from the chalk’s end. His novels rarely feature maids, when he thinks about it, and if they do the maids are not important. Then again, neither do his novels star noble scions sealed away in the walls of the estate, tormented by ghosts. Lungfish tries for optimism and tells himself he has that in common with the maids, that he is one of them, could be one of them, but the urge to speak becomes too strong.
“I am here,” he says.
The maids pause. The older one, Ridley, recovers quickly and resumes dusting. The younger one looks from wall to wall, and Lungfish recoils. She is going to speak to him again.
“I know,” she says.
“It’s the wind,” says Ridley, and then quieter, “stop talking to ghosts, Kestrel.”
The ghost— Lungfish does not want to think of her. He scales the wall.
The hauntings occur every week or so. Lungfish smells her approach, even when asleep—the harshness of it seeping under the door. It is the smell of peat and alcohol. He knows this from his books, can rationalise it in the aftermath, but each haunting wipes the rationality from his mind. He presses himself against the window, feels it strain under his weight. If it shatters, he thinks, the long drop is preferential to her.
“Adam.” The door shudders under her fists. “Adam. Adam. Why are you still alive?”
He has never replied to her. It could only make things worse, and already each blow brings with it the terror that this could be the one that flings the door open and reveals her.
“Your father...” The noises stop for a moment. She is breathless and slurring. “I had an appointment booked, but your father refused. We couldn’t be seen with such a man. Best to seal ourselves from scandal.”
Lungfish knows this story. As he cowers, his skin sticks and unsticks from the window’s frozen panels.
“The scandal could be weathered. Scandal would be better than this damnable farce.” A bottle clunks heavily to the floorboards. In the thin moonlight, Lungfish sees the spilt alcohol pool under the door. “Why are you still alive? The doctors promised.”
Alive, Lungfish thinks. I am alive, and this is happening to me.
Another voice—a man’s but not Priest. This haunting will be blessedly short.
The man and the ghost argue in desperate whispers, the same argument as always—the man at first pleading for her to “come away” before gradually reaching his crescendo: “you’re becoming hysterical”. The sound of their footsteps retreating down the stairs is frantic and unsteady—Lungfish sometimes wonders if she is pulled by a leash like the one Priest uses on him.
The smell of the spilled alcohol lingers into the morning, and Lungfish stays as far from it as possible.
It is several days before Lungfish feels capable of climbing again. Sometimes, he thinks the ghost’s visits are prompted by his disobedience. He takes the route over the bedroom, but it is curiously unoccupied, as if the maids’ endless work has somehow, impossibly, come to a close. Even the light from the windows seems dimmed.
Lungfish freezes. Someone is in the hidden room. She brushes her hand along chalk birds and mutters to herself, counting individual feathers. She swings a bottle in the other hand, forcefully enough that it whistles empty in the air. It is not a maid. He knows that voice.
For a moment, Lungfish’s instinct to retreat, to recoil, almost costs him his life. He scrambles to keep his place on the beam, and the old wood chips and splinters under his nails. His legs slip out from under him and threaten to drag him down. He throws his arms over, anchors himself with his chin and his armpits, and hangs there, shaking.
She has noticed, of course. At first she merely stares before her eyes track down to his legs. Then she knows him.
The bottle clatters off the wood by his knuckles and smashes on the stone below. Lungfish is already moving as the ghost grabs for her commode. He recognises the name “Adam” in her screaming but not much more. He regains his balance and flees as her commode connects with the wall below, soaking the chalk storks in piss.
He keeps moving, past the abandoned ballroom and towards the muted voices coming from the study.
A skelf snags at his elbow, and he tempers the urge to resent his body. It is the only body he has, he reminds himself. This body. He looks back at his trailing legs. Why are you still alive? That is her intent, of course. The ghost wants him to think on these things. Lungfish squeezes his eyes shut, forcing out her thoughts and replacing them with his. He is here, and he can act as he pleases. Adam is dead and buried; Lungfish is alive.
In the study, Priest is talking to a skeletal man wrapped in a dressing gown and pyjamas. Both men, clutching their drinks, seem under threat from the looming excess of their high-backed armchairs. Lungfish settles on a beam above a taxidermized eagle.
“How is her Ladyship faring?” Priest is asking. “Last week was a rough one, I understand.”
“My wife insists on tormenting Adam after three drinks. Sheer ugliness on her part. They ought to switch places,” says the man in the armchair. Lungfish recognises his voice from the hauntings. The man laughs and adjusts the glass stopper on the decanter. “I’m beginning to think we confined the wrong one.”
Priest dances his fingers on his glass but does not raise it. “It is a difficult situation, your Lordship.”
“It explains a lot, really. Poor breeding stock, her whole line. Adam was inevitable in retrospect. A man lies to you about the traits of his dogs, or horses—you have grounds to sue. His daughter though—Christ help you.”
“Lungf— The boy is surprisingly present, mentally speaking. He does have a good grasp of the Bible by now, and some talent for natural history.”
His Lordship considers this. “It might do to move him to a monastery at some point, under a new name. At the very least, I’d hear less of the help gossiping on hidden rooms.”
Priest places his glass back on the coffee table. He appears to be tired of feigning to drink from it. “Gossip is usually true, in my experience.”
“If that was an ironclad rule, the whole country would be under the revolutionaries’ boot by now.” There is something in the man’s voice that Lungfish does not recognise. He laughs as performance. “Fortunately, loudness is hardly consensus.”
The conversation shifts, and Lungfish is bored by the absence of references to himself. He eyes the bookshelves that line the walls of the room below. He thinks of his own room and its crooked shelf, the books illustrating countries and animals from the accounts of long-dead explorers. If this man is his father, Lungfish thinks, they may have turned over the same pages at some point, even shared the same points of interest. This room below is an aspirational version of his own.
But that is not worth thinking about. He plots the long route back to his room, a journey free of ghosts.
“Why is my father a lord?”
Priest halts mid-Psalm. “What do you mean?”
“Not everyone lives in castles.” Lungfish gestures towards the bookshelf. He’s not supposed to know about the maids. “In books.”
Priest is amused. “Did you think I lived in a castle?”
Lungfish has never thought of Priest’s life; not once.
“Your father is a lord and lives in a castle because he responsible for a lot more than the characters in your books.”
“It’s a lot of space.” Lungfish is thinking of the older maid, who sends money to her family and often mentions that there are ten people living between two rooms. Lungfish is one person and has two rooms, though he did steal one.
“Nature is hierarchical,” says Priest. “Do you know what that means? It’s a pyramid—”
“Like they have in Egypt.”
“Yes they have pyramids in Egypt, be quiet. I’m surprised at you Lungfish. God appoints and anoints his leaders, and each person under that has their similarly chosen role. Your father serves the king, the farmers around this castle serve your father, and so on. The world works because of stability.”
“What if someone isn’t happy with that?”
Priest takes a while to answer. Lungfish notes him glance towards the newspaper he sometimes brings with him. “Everyone prefers stability in the end. No one can stand uncertainty for long.”
“There are too many why’s today, Adam, you’re not a toddler anymore.”
Priest loses interest in talk after that, and Lungfish senses there’s nothing to learn anyway. Something is off in the castle, he reckons. As if they are only pretending to do their work. He thinks of his father again, the false laugh. He is missing something. Each trip into the rafters, his people have let him learn some but not all.
He knows this smell. He has watched the maids tend the fireplace as often as he has eaten meals, but he has never woken to the smell of smoke. Lungfish lifts himself from the bed—there is shouting, rising with the smoke blackening his window. He pulls himself over but cannot make out any figures on the castle grounds through the billowing dark.
He looks to the door. Priest has not been today. It could be a day when food is merely pushed through the hatch and he is free to do as he pleases, but he risks Priest walking in at any moment. He has always avoided climbing in these circumstances. Something cuts through the shouting—a series of thin cracks, like the sound of snapping wood, and screaming. Lungfish pictures Priest, hand stretching towards the door, but he is already climbing the bookcase and Priest will have to miss him this time.
Men and women in green are rushing through the rooms and hallways of the castle. Lungfish peers down at them as they run from room to room throwing open dressers, looking under beds, and smashing wooden chests open with the stocks of their rifles. Lungfish has seen guns before—a man shooting at grouse once visible from his window, and illustrations in his books—but everyone below is carrying a gun and shouting. It is difficult to make out their words, overlapping and garbled commands.
A cheer goes up, and Lungfish heads towards it. The chaos is abruptly stopped as he passes over the bedroom the maids frequent. The red-faced man, the one the women called a cunt, is pulled from a wardrobe. He is not red now but grey, and though the crowd that gathered shouts to him, he does not, for once, speak.
One of the women steps forward and spits in his face. Her voice is low and almost inaudible, but it makes the man respond.
“What?” he is saying. “What?” He keeps repeating this, the word rising in pitch with each repetition, until the woman—and it is Kestrel, Lungfish realises, clad in green—takes a step back, raises her rifle, and his head bursts purple over the white bedsheets with a level of noise that seems impossible. Lungfish flinches and struggles to maintain his balance, his ears ringing. When he recovers, the gunshot’s echo still bounces through the rafters, carrying the memory of the man with it as the crowd disperses, laughing. Aware of the sweat gathering on his palms, he makes for the hidden room. He knows the way, he thinks, he does not have to look down.
The ghost is still in the hidden room. She is crouching by the cracks under the chalk storks, peering back into the bedroom. Lungfish knows the angle well—she will see the dead man’s shoes, pointed and polished. He wonders if she saw the whole incident or merely followed the gunshot. Lungfish hisses through his teeth. He wants her to see—everyone in the castle is on the move, save for her and a dead man.
“Why are you still alive?” he asks her.
“Adam!” The ghost stares up at him, and it is as if the strain of looking up has pulled the flesh from her face, warped in fury. “Adam, tell them to open this fucking door! Adam!”
Lungfish stares down. He cannot quite recognise this furious little creature as the ghost that has haunted his nights for years. He laughs, surprising himself, and her arms drop in shock. He moves on.
In the hallway, Ridley is talking to a man who continually adjusts his cap by prodding the brim with the barrel of his pistol.
“He’s dead, and Kestrel saw to Peake in the bitch’s bedroom.”
“Yeah, I fucking heard that one. Any sign of the woman?”
“She was locked up somewhere a while ago. Think her husband was drying her out.”
“Drag her out from wherever it is. Now’s your chance to find if there really are secret rooms and shackled monsters, I suppose.”
As they leave, Lungfish feels the beginnings of panic as the realities of change set in. He clutches the beam to his chest. His meals, he thinks—he has no way of feeding himself here. He forces the thoughts away, thoughts the ghost would want him to have, and demands something practical of himself. He thinks to his—Adam’s—grave, and the wet grass beyond the coiling smoke.
He begins his descent to the empty hallway before he can reason himself out of it. He must leave the castle. It is a purposeless place now, all hollowed out. When he reaches the floor, he runs his fingers through the soft carpet, feels the warmth cloaking cold stone, looks up at the oil portraits in their worn golden frames. He finds them oddly disappointing, paintings of nothing more than old men glowering.
Then he is moving. He knows enough of the castle to know he must find stairs down to the entrance. He has watched these people for years, he tells himself, he must have learned something.
He takes the turn that is his best reasoned option and finds a rifle barrel swinging to look at him.
“What the fuck is—” The riflewoman trails off, and Lungfish can feel her raking over his unkempt hair, swollen upper body and fused legs. He waits to see her face change, drop into the utter disgust that is typical of the ghost.
But the change never comes.
He takes in the curve of her nose, the hint of a black and white uniform underneath her military jacket. Kestrel.
“Help me,” he says.
The rifle lowers. Kestrel smiles, uncertain. “Tell me how?”
“Need out. Now.”
“Picked a time for it, didn’t you. Have you noticed there’s a lot of guns about?”
That is exactly why he wants to leave, he wants to tell her, but the reality of talking directly with one of the maids has overwhelmed him. The reality of her attacks him.
“I’m Kestrel,” she says.
“I know,” he says. “Lungfish.” His arms are wobbling from the sustained effort to keep his body raised off the floor.
“They called you Lungfish?” There is the ghost’s look of disgust.
The irritation helps him find some conviction. “I call me Lungfish.”
“Alright, Lungfish’ she says. She closes her eyes tightly—she is thinking out the safe route, he realises. “Jesus Christ. Alright. Follow me and don’t get shot.”
He has no time to take it all in, this winding descent over great slabs of stone, towards unknown rooms and hallways. Kestrel keeps her rifle pointed forwards throughout, as if each wind of the stairs could bring forth a new enemy. She’s ensuring no one shoots him, he thinks. It is an odd thought. He is a part of this event. Nothing has ever happened to him before.
Kestrel looks ahead into the hallway. “Lungfish, you know what left means?”
“Yes.” He draws the sound out. He should be grateful for her, he knows, but she’s much more irritating in person. He knows why Ridley always sounded tired.
“Once they pass, head left. It’s a straight line. As fast as you can, straight fucking line to the exit.” She grips her rifle and laughs. “This is so...” She looks at him. “I always knew you were real.”
Lungfish does not know how to formulate a reply to that. “Thank you,” he says.
“Don’t get shot,” she says, “cause they’ll ask me why I didn’t,” and then she is out into the corridor, waving her rifle and shouting, “ladies, I think we have a fucking wine cellar that needs liberating!”
Once the crowd passes Lungfish rushes left, moving fast enough that his belly barely touches the carpet. The castle entrance yawns ahead, and he curses the smoke trail that is clouding out the sight and smell of the pine trees he should be able to see. That he will be able to touch.
Outside is under a bleak grey sky, as if God has forgotten to detail it. It hurts to look at it, it and the silhouetted figures of Priest, shaking, and Ridley.
“But God is with the revolution!” Priest is shouting, “I’m with the revolution!”
Ridley raises her rifle and fires twice. Her expression is the same as the one she wore changing bedsheets. Priest falls to the grass, his innards blooming out from his frail corpse.
He wasn’t with them when they might have needed him, Lungfish thinks.
His father is hanging by his feet from the raised portcullis, his hair dangling in such a way that it would brush the caps of passing revolutionaries. Lungfish notices that his father’s legs have been bound together by rope. A family resemblance, he thinks.
A thick bonfire squats in the grass, the source of the smoke that woke him. He passes it, crawling over burnt fabric and ashen papers, and pulls himself over the low drystone wall into the cemetery. Moss flakes off against his chest and the stone scratches but cannot stop him. He wriggles through grave earth towards the tombstone bearing his name, where he has always supposed to be. He is good, he thinks, at not being where he is supposed to be. From his grave, he looks back at the castle and is surprised to find himself unimpressed. The beauty of the rafters and the cross-sections of rooms are not reflected in the exterior, an ugly grey slab of a building. Its own form of tombstone. He finds his old window quickly—how could he not?—a squat little one, awkwardly protruding underneath the castle eaves. If the maids ever find it, they can have his books. He hopes Kestrel likes them.
Adam’s grave is behind him. Ahead is the pine forest where, emboldened by the castle’s sudden silence, the birds are once again airborne. Pipers, thrushes. Birds of North Africa are safely wintering in North Africa by now, he thinks. Or maybe not. Maybe there is one flown as far off-course as himself, head huddled under wings against the smoke and mist, confined to its perch and waiting for the cold to come. Maybe somewhere in this forest is a lost bird rebuilding its place in nature. Somewhere, it is preparing to live.