Honiton had continued to run, even after he’d left Esben behind. Having not seen any monnekijn since the Vendelstraat terraces, he took the opportunity to stop among the silent, ruined machinery of the old diamond and oil processing district, and cough up something black.
The thin columns of the abandoned Royal Asscher Palm Company needled into the virid overgrowth like pins on a microchip. A fence beyond the line of the canal marked the division between the edge of Amsterdam, and the endless squat trunks of the European palms. Cream globes of fruit decayed sweetly on the grass, the rain muddling their stench with the ambient sap-smoke.
A single monnekijn whispered down the side of the degraded concrete. It sat for a moment, its fake head cocked on one side. Honiton wished that he’d paid more attention in biology, so that he might have had a better chance of telling where its real eyes were.
It began moving again; dragging its anus, doglike along the coarse rubble at the edge of the canal bridge. Then, as if this were some profane signal, scores and scores of spidery fingers and tails emerged silently from the holes in the walls of the palm oil plant.
The group of monnekijn surrounded Honiton, and simultaneously unfurled their heads in an act of sensual reverse origami. For several minutes, the only movement in the vicinity came from the fronds of their open skulls, vibrating almost imperceptibly in the hot rain.
Honiton straightened up again as best he could, feeling the muscles in his thighs twitch with exhaustion. When it became clear that no attack was imminent, he took a deep breath, adjusted his frayed Lima City ice-hockey cap, and limped forwards. There was no reaction from the monnekijn. He built up to a pained canter, then to a sprint.
They didn’t start following him until he reached the bridge.
Two days previously, Honiton had been hunched into one of the twenty luxurious seats in a Sukhoi Hotbox. He’d been waiting for a West American woman to vacate the aeroplane’s toilet, so that he could pass out and lose control of his bowels in relative safety.
The West American woman had muscled to the front of the queue on the Ghanaian landing pad. Rainwater trapped in the furrows of the pad’s surface had boiled as the Hotbox descended, and the concrete had erupted in a cloud of choking spall. It had messed up her hair, and she’d been back and forth to the toilet picking out concrete chips every twenty minutes. Her son stared balefully at Honiton through the wide gap in the seats.
‘Deje de mirarme,’ whispered Honiton to the boy, and then turned his head to look out of the window when he realised he was being ignored. The beetle-shell bulk of the rear wing VTOL engine stood out, somehow too dark and sharp against the jungle twilight as they circled over Amsterdam Schiphol airport.
Honiton tried to ignore the tangle of fishhooks dredging his abdomen. He passed wind, breathed in the smell of his own gas, shuddered, and reached for his phone. He navigated to a list and wrote ‘fermented papaya’ under the heading ‘IBS’. Making lists usually helped to keep his panic in check.
Back in Manila, Dr. Bayani had explained the meaning of the term vasovagal syncope to him; how his vagus nerve was being stimulated by the symptoms of his irritable bowel syndrome. Assurances from Bayani that these fainting episodes were ultimately benign didn’t stop the concomitant panic attacks.
The image of the aircraft on the seat-screen in front of Honiton was out of proportion; it was stuck on maximum magnification, and the full east-to-west flight path from Ghana to Norway was off the map. The plane appeared to occupy the entire space between Le Mans and Cambridge; a 400 kilometre stretch of palm oil plantations and marijuana boscage. The glowing dots identifying the equatorial city stops that gave the Hotbox its name blurred and coalesced as Honiton drifted into microsleep. Seconds later, the Itabunax withdrawal shocked him awake.
The kid was still staring. The fishhooks began twisting again with slow, precise pressure. It felt, to Honiton, almost as if the boy was somehow psychically responsible.
Honiton picked up his used wooden coffee stirrer, snapped it between thumb and forefinger, and jabbed one of the splintered ends into the child’s chubby wrist. It left behind a thin stinger. The boy sat back, mouth open and taut. He didn’t start bawling until after Honiton had checked to see that nobody had noticed, and had shrugged back at the boy. This had the desired effect; hearing the screams, the boy’s mother emerged from the toilet cubicle, and bellowed, ‘¡Cállate!’
Honiton barged past her, entered the toilet, dropped his trousers, and sat on the pan. He clenched his teeth as he felt his blood draining into his feet. Sparks and chevrons coruscated over his eyes, and he passed out.
An impressionistic dream swam out of the void; Honiton, hidden deep in the jungle womb. Everything was vibrating.
When Honiton woke, his sweat-slick face was sliding over the cubicle door like a curling rock over ice. He was relieved to find that the plane hadn’t landed, that nobody was knocking to get in.
Honiton took the free ferry from the back of Centraal Station to the Nederlands Dok en Scheepsgebouw Maatschappij — the bankrupt Dutch Dock & Shipbuilding Company wharf which had recently been repopulated with a community of artists. Honiton never looked at the art. He’d chosen to stay in a hotel on the NDSM wharf purely so he could avoid the clacking millipede of bicycles that threaded through Amsterdam.
Disembarking from the ferry was a slow process. The boat’s steward wouldn’t let the passengers off until he’d yanked a stowaway family of sloths out from under one of the pitted gunmetal benches. Honiton watched anxiously as the steward handed the creatures to a couple of artists who had emerged from a nearby caravan, and told them to make sure Belgian tourists didn’t punch the innocence off their faces.
Eventually, the ferry ramp opened, but a brainzap stopped Honiton from being able to move. He remained on the ferry with his eyes closed. The ferry drifted back to Centraal, and then again back to the NDSM wharf where he finally found the strength to disembark.
Honiton had tried to explain these withdrawal symptoms to Dr. Bayani just before he completed his contract in Manila; sensations like being prodded in the ear canal with stripped fuse wire. Bayani had nodded and drawn Honiton’s attention to the list of withdrawal side-effects written on the Itabunax’s paper insert. Utak maliglig. Brainzaps.
Honiton left the NDSM wharf, passed by the shipping warehouses with their bright, vapid art installations, and booked himself into the huge docking crane that now served as a boutique hotel. His room was all Kenneth Anger and Disneyland galleon. Black leather curtains and gold hexagons on the wallpaper. A giant scarlet cockerel against the tinted window-wall overlooking the wharf. A flock of papegaai circled outside, audible even through the window, even over the air conditioning that roared like a perforated eardrum. One of them screeched something that might have been ‘Drecksau.’ This made Honiton smile for a second. Listening to the birds’ mimicry was the fastest way to pick up swear words across a wide spectrum of languages.
Honiton opened his bag and retrieved the remaining packets of Itabunax that he’d already stopped taking. He thought about the boy he’d stabbed with the broken coffee stirrer, and quickly flushed the pills down the toilet before the panic attack provoked a series of brainzaps. These were followed by a vasovagal syncope, and further flash-dreams of a subaudible drone vibrating the foliage of an endless jungle.
When he woke, there was a lot of cleaning to do.
‘That animal,’ said Dr. Bayani as he wrapped a blanket around his shoulders, ‘did it make you jealous?’
The heating was broken in the doctor’s Batasan Hills clinic. A snowstorm raged outside, scudding ice across the frozen surface of the Marikina. Honiton shifted uneasily, and hunkered down into the fur trim of his duster. His face formed a complicated expression.
‘The last time you saw her,’ continued Bayani, ‘you said that one of the animals — ‘
‘No, no, no,’ said Honiton, using his hands to mime a brick wall in front of his face. ‘I can’t…find a way in to what you’re — ’
‘Does she still live in Amsterdam?’
Honiton processed this, then shrugged and shook his head slowly. He said, ‘I haven’t spoken to her in fifteen years.’
He still had three weeks of appointments booked before he was due to finish his contract in Manila, and these weekly meetings with his therapist-cum-doctor had started to get weird. He wished he hadn’t described Esben’s coffeeshop in Amsterdam as his home-from-home, or related Esben’s spiel about the original Aemstelledammers. This was a tale normally delivered by Honiton’s friend to new patrons of the Crocus Dart; a tale which appeared to have given Bayani unhelpful ideas.
As Esben related the story, the first Aemstelledammers had travelled west along the Amstel in carved logs. They’d dug dikes to stop the polder flooding, unaware that they were already incubating malaria from the mosquitos and leptospirosis from the snakes. They were in the full grip of fever when they saw the first monnekijn, and logically, they thought that these were tiny, furry humans until the things opened their mouths. Soon after, reports of these Aemstelledammers disappearing tracelessly into the jungle appeared again and again in the histories. When heavy industry was eventually brought in to rip up the jungle and service the increasing need for biodiesel and tocotrienol enriched mayonnaise, further reports of seemingly wilful disappearances began to accrete. Now it was a thing. It was news.
Bayani began to reference the monnekijn and the disappearances wistfully, as symptoms of an undefined but beautiful planetary psychosis. The focus on Honiton’s upcoming trip to Amsterdam seemed, to him, to owe more to Bayani’s growing obsession with reports of social collapse near equatorial jungle perimeters than with his own feelings.
At least, he noted internally, they were discussing his ex-wife this week.
‘No contact with Rozemarijn at all,’ said Bayani, ‘in all the times you’ve been back to Amsterdam to see Esben?’
‘We should have got angry with each other,’ murmured Honiton. ‘We were both too sad. I did get angry later on, but it was too late then. I couldn’t go back. We couldn’t go back.’
He looked down at the mottled reflection of his face in his ice-caked boots. When he did finally meet Bayani’s gaze, he was shocked enough at the doctor’s expression that he stopped breathing. Bayani’s gaze was unfocused, beatific, like a saint considering their own impending martyrdom.
‘It’s as if your wife and the creature healed each other,’ said Bayani, ‘by driving each other mad.’
Honiton checked his pockets, and pulled his cap down over his eyes. He sighed, and said, ‘I think this needs to be our last session.’
As Honiton crossed the bridge and entered the first plantation, the monnekijn followed.
They kept pace, and then began to accelerate past him, flowerlike heads ripping green streaks across his peripheral vision. He tried to reduce his world to the blur of his feet as he pounded along in the dirt, to the trunks of the palm trees as they strobed by.
Minutes that seemed like hours passed, until the unexpected slap of concrete beneath his feet stopped him. He realised with some shock that it was the sound of the otherwise silent animals needling by that was causing him distress, not, as he might have expected, fear for his personal safety.
Something had changed. They were running in the opposite direction, ignoring him.
Honiton straightened up, wheezing, trying to spit the burning sap-tang from his mouth. His head was clear. No panic. No teeth chewing his guts. Just the sound of the creatures flitting by, like tiny nathbakkæ wings on the surrounding air.
They mostly sounded like bicycle wheels, Honiton realised.
Despite everything he’d seen, this was what was making him afraid. The fact that they sounded like Amsterdam’s cyclists whizzing arrogantly by, willing pedestrians to walk in front of them so that they could spill their flat whites and start a fight. As he came to understand this, Honiton’s fear drained away.
He looked properly at the surrounding street, and realised where he was.
It had been prime location ten years previously. A street he’d avoided now for so long, finally cut off from the city proper by the expanding plantations of Royal Asscher. Shells of chalet-style villas baked and broiled in the sun and tropical rain, marooned on a spar of untillable rock. It had become a hub for parked deforestation equipment. Huge yellow articulated vehicles radiated the day’s heat, and hissed with evaporating squall water.
Honiton continued down the familiar street, against the streaming tide of monnekijn which now ignored him completely. He rounded the corner, and looked up at the house he used to live in.
Hot rain spat over the quiet street in the Daageraardcomplex. The Crocus Dart was built into the side of the old socialist labourer estate, the original organic architecture now subsumed under hydroceramic self-cooling walls.
Honiton found the experience of crossing the cycle lanes to reach the shop something akin to starting a fight with twenty people. The cyclists would stop for a family of nine-banded long-nosed gordeldieren, but never for a human. If a gordeldier was only half way across the lane, however, some cyclists would speed up to instill a sense of fear into them. Many gordeldieren had no tails as a consequence.
Esben’s business partner, Arnout, was wiping something sunbaked and crusty from one of the outside tables. He spotted Honiton mincing anxiously through a gap in the bicycle traffic, fingered his thin moustache, and called out for Esben. Esben emerged from the coffee shop with a grin and hugged Honiton fiercely.
Honiton allowed this brief intimacy. As soon as he was released, he repeatedly removed and replaced the Lima City cap on his bald head until he felt safe.
Inside, they sat down near the window on a couple of naugahyde recliners, away from the TV which showed nothing but loops of the National Geographic channel. Today, polar bears were goring each other near Mumbai to a Donna Summers soundtrack. The last time Honiton had visited, Esben had deliberately looped a PETA documentary; phone footage showing a family of nathbakkæ flapping over the Hotbox landing pad at Schiphol. Allegedly, a frequency emitted by the aircraft messed with their echolocation; the clip had showed them flying dazedly into the VTOL engines of a descending plane, and burning instantly to ash.
Honiton explained that he was in bad shape after giving up all his meds. Esben nodded in a peculiar way. In different light, it could almost have been a confused headshake.
‘I’m trying to get everything unnatural out of my system,’ Honiton said quietly, as if this admission made too loudly might get him thrown out. He looked furtively at Arnout, who now slouched behind the bar.
Esben laughed hard and showed his braces beneath his fake looking beard. He looked like a young man who’d been made up to look like a much older person for some sober, dynastic Portuguese TV mini-series. He gestured at Arnout, who nodded, and selected a Junction preroll from a cylinder of stacked joints.
Only the Crocus Dart stocked this strain. Honiton stood and accepted it from Arnout with a mixture of lust and terror. He’d read a lot about it. He girded himself, placed the fat, aromatic blunt in his mouth, lit it with Esben’s whalebone lighter, and took a deep, diaphragmatic lug. The paper was sweet, like the filter of an Indonesian kretek cigarette.
After general decriminalisation across Europe, Amsterdam had poured millions in lottery funds into its biopharming programme. Strain breeders who’d dreamed of retracing the bus ride across the Russian desert described in Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test had all flocked to the city to pick up grants. Still, the largest commercial successes from the initiative had been the medicinal strains. Junction, or Simpasture Junction No.5, was named for an 18th century train wreck in County Durham where it had initially been engineered. It was a sativa hybrid, denatured to a negligble psychoactive strength on emerging from the Rotterdam nursery labs. The effect on spinal and gastrointestinal receptors, however, was described as being profound.
Honiton held the smoke in. His brain didn’t fog. Warm honey dripped over his ribcage. Aged three, he’d cried in victory after triumphing over a knotted shoelace. Now knuckles of taut shoelace were finally loosening inside.
‘You’re still on your meds,’ grunted Arnout from behind the bar. ‘That’s not natural.’
Over the next hour, Honiton relaxed as much as he could. Esben asked — as he always did — whether Honiton had been in touch with Rozemarijn. Honiton pulled an inscrutable face and changed the subject.
Arnout had pottered outside a while back, presumably to scrape more papegaai shit from the tables during a lull in trade. When he began shouting angrily, Esben’s ears instantly pricked up. Honiton instinctively shrank into the naugahyde seat.
‘Just animals,’ said Esben, standing wearily and trotting outside. ‘He gets like that.’
The resinous stink of the cafe hung heavy and stifling for a moment. Then, a dull implosion thrummed through the floor; something profound and terrible happening nearby. Honiton stood up, shaking, terrified.
His guts reacted instantly, followed by his brain which seemed to twist in his skull before snapping back into realignment like a rubber toy released from a dog’s jaw. Some of the other kids in the Crocus Dart looked vaguely at Honiton, annoyed that something or somebody might be about to kill their buzz.
Then, a hoarse, dry series of screams. Arnout’s voice shouting again. The slap of feet on concrete.
Honiton stumbled outside. Behind the buildings, on the horizon, an apocalyptic stamen of black smoke bisected the sky.
Arnout was already some distance away, still running towards a small group of Korean tourists. They were already photographing the explosion on their phones.
Esben was on the floor, trying to get to his feet. A toddler squatted by the thick green chains that hung, heavy and inflexible with paint from the skeleton of the nearby canal bridge. At first glance, both Esben and the small child appeared to be holding bright red ribbons, like lengths of cloth from a maypole.
Honiton tried to focus back on the child. Not a child. Its face was wrong. The planes of its cheeks were pulsing, separating. It unfurled its vestigial head into a vaginal, lime green flower; the same sight that the Aemstelledammers had glimpsed through their malarial sweats as they’d tried to exact their herring toll.
By the time Honiton understood that the red ribbon hanging from his friend’s wrist was skin, and that the single monnekijn was holding a strip which it had torn away, Esben had managed to drag himself to his feet, to grapple Honiton with his good arm.
Then they were running, past the monnekijn, over the bridge.
A sound like like a car tyre popping echoed along the street. Honiton turned to see that the monnekijn had effortlessly crossed the distance to Arnout, and its true jaws — set into its chest — were now gripping his body. It had forced two fingers deep into the orbit of Arnout’s eye, and ripped his cheekbone out.
Honiton felt hot, solid vomit in his mouth.
Soon after, the creatures were everywhere.
Honiton allowed Esben to steer him through the thin, serried monoliths of the Vendelstraat terraces. Monnekijn bodies flung themselves along the iron balconies. Those standing still, or looking down from their windows got it worst. Some of the silent animals trailed smoke. Only the humans made mouth noises: screams, wetness, crushed windpipes, the suck and pop of dismantlement.
‘I stabbed him,’ coughed Honiton, the caustic punch of burning sap now making it hard to breathe. Esben said something that got lost in the surrounding chaos as he wrapped the weird ribbon of torn skin tighter around his forearm.
They rounded another corner. The animals had coalesced into columns of driving, steaming fur. They followed the pavements as if somehow conscious of their purpose, locking into the endless vanishing points of the city.
There might have been police, then. An ambulance, even. People dressed in white loading Esben into the back of a van. People dressed in black, firing cylinders gravid with gas which burned worse than the smoke from the jungle fire. People freezing in terror, getting picked off, one by one. Honiton running, running, running.
Honiton walked slowly round the corner at the end of the street, and looked up at the house he used to live in.
The sun’s disc cut a sharp hole into the black, oily plume of burning jungle, picking out the overhanging roof, the carved bargeboard now coated in sloth faeces, the hemstitched, decorative trusses whittled into hive sculpture by ants.
Fifteen years previously, Honiton had come home drunk to sign his divorce papers, and had found Rozemarijn lolling on the porch of this house. At first he’d thought she had a small child sitting on her lap.
Honiton had told Bayani about this, but never the last two things they’d ever said to each other.
Normally the monnekijn stuck to the edge of the jungle or the plantations, only straying into urban areas via the spur of the Vondelpark, where naive, sunburned Mexicans tried to feed them and lost fingers in the process. This one had been relaxing against her breasts as if drugged. Some of her long black hair had trailed over the closed fronds of its fake head. Its chest mouth had been open, teeth strung with cords of saliva. It had been making a noise from this mouth that he’d never heard before, and couldn’t describe.
Honiton felt the weight of the jungle around him as he stared up at the abandoned house and remembered. Creepers had insinuated themselves over the east wall, as if preparing to grip hard and tear it away. A profusion of dracula simia formed a bright flowerbed around the porch, each set of delicate petals mocking Honiton with mute simian pareidolia. A sea of monnekijn faces rooted in the earth.
The creatures were all around him again, still and calm now that they were away from the city, past the plantations and the hulking yellow skeletons of the abandoned deforestation machinery. Some sat, heads closed, picking at burns on their arms and legs with apparent indifference. Some upside down from branches, faces open in the humid heat like hanging baskets of flowers.
Honiton had read once that feline animals didn’t necessarily purr to display pleasure. Often, they purred when distressed, when trying to soothe themselves or trying to heal. The jungle seemed to vibrate now as it began the slow, vegetable process of regeneration.
He crumpled, pulled off his hat, and dropped it into the clump of dracula simia, so that he could grip his head with both hands as he cried.
‘Why doesn’t it bite you?’ was all that he’d been able to think of to say when he’d seen Rozemarijn that night, the awful creature apparently relaxed and compliant in her lap. She’d looked up at him then. Her face had been dry, but her eyes had still been raw from tears he’d missed.
‘Because,’ she’d said, ‘it knows I’m giving up.’
They managed to stitch the mess of Esben’s arm into something at least the same length as the other, and bundled it up in a sling. A swaddled baby they warned him not to look at.
He turned off the music in the Crocus Dart. Instead of the looped clips of polar bears, he now tuned the TV to the news. He stared at it all day, taking tiny sips from his cold coffee before putting it back on the counter with a shaking hand.
There had been very little global sympathy. Lots of pictures of Bonifaas Von Rompaye were posted on social media. 38 years old, a father of two who laboured on the plantation, seen crying by colleagues but never by his wife. He’d ploughed the big yellow claw of his Fortuyn 843K Feller-Buncher into the forest canopy before the shift had started that morning, and driven until the debris-clogged exhaust had caught fire amongst an acre of flammable orchid cacti. The rain hadn’t made much difference.
The angry, burning troupe of monnekijn had been funnelled along the wide pathway that the Feller-Buncher had cut, up through the plantation, into the city via the Vondelpark.
Just as Esben noticed Honiton’s Lima City cap on the TV — behind the news anchor, discarded amongst flowers at the foot of an abandoned chalet-style house — one of the kids had started complaining in his ear about the lack of music. Esben had shouted at him, smashed his tiny cup, started crying.
A day later, Esben spoke to the police about the hat.
The officer taking notes pulled up a missing persons file linked to the house. Honiton and his wife had lived there before their divorce. When they’d split up, Honiton had vanished, refusing to even engage in the sale and division of the estate.
She never sold it either. She was last seen a month after the divorce, walking purposefully through the palm oil plantations, towards the jungle.