Burnt Offerings: A Short Story

Washing his hands in the toilets of the British Museum, William suddenly came face to face with his own reflection. He was surprised, momentarily, to see just how tired he looked. His eyes were as wan and greasy as fried eggs, and there were enormous bags underneath them, the colour of three-day-old bruises. He was only thirty-six, though he looked and felt much older. He was so tired he felt his eyes closing, but when a toilet flushed loudly behind him, he wiped his wet hands on his jeans and made his way out to the atrium.

Jacob was standing outside the gift shop, his back pressed up against the wall. Ever since he was a baby, Jacob had been a good-looking boy. He had shaggy, blond hair and a soft, indefinite face, the kind you would associate with angels in a pre-Raphaelite painting. His deep, night-dark eyes seemed to eclipse his other features, and possessed a somewhat watery aspect too, as if he was always on the verge of tears. His nose and cheeks were covered in a spattering of freckles. “Like stars,” his mother had told him, “or like sand inside a shell.” But that had been before she had died, before she had left them both alone. He often wondered how much Jacob could remember of her. He was only four when she had died.

Now, Jacob was holding a souvenir map of the museum, marking the things he wanted to see with a rainbow-coloured pencil. He looked up excitedly as William approached.

“Okay, so I thought we’d start with Egyptian sculpture, go through to Assyria and the Ancient Near East, and then we can head upstairs to see the mummies.”

“Right,” William managed.

“The room with the mummies will probably be really busy, so we could always do that first and then work our way back down afterwards. What do you think?”

He shrugged. “Whatever you think best.”

“Okay. I’ve also made a list of all the things I’d like to see, and I’ve ordered them too, just so we don’t miss anything important.”

William began wishing he would stop talking. “All right, Jacob. You go ahead.”

Jacob grinned and skipped off towards a row of marble pharaohs that flanked the next room. William watched him as he went. There was something vaguely effeminate about the way he walked, a certain bounciness that made him think he might be gay.

“Would that be such a bad thing?” his sister Emily had asked him one night.

“Of course not, it’s just… Life would be so much harder for him if he was. He might get picked on – or worse. You read about attacks all the time in the paper.”

This had been partially true – at least, he had thought so at the time. In fact, when he announced he was to become a father, everyone he knew had prepared him for a depth of love so intense it would completely change his life. This hadn’t been entirely inaccurate, but what he remembered feeling more than anything was a profound, almost destabilising fear. He feared for Jacob’s safety – even more so now he was without a mother – yet he also fretted about his own ability to be a good father. He often sensed the other parents watching him with circumspect outside the school, and besides, Jacob coming out as gay would only be more evidence that he had failed him somehow. Perhaps he should be harder on him.

“Come on, Dad,” Jacob trilled as he weaved around a small group of tourists. “Let’s go to the first floor now. We can come back to this room when it’s less busy.”

William nodded, willing Jacob to keep his voice down. His biggest fault as a father, he thought to himself, was just how embarrassed Jacob made him. He was a smart boy, far smarter than William was, but he also lacked any kind of self-consciousness. In places like this, Jacob would take it upon himself to explain, unasked, the importance of what they were looking at, catching the attention of those nearby. People would often smile admiringly at William, as if to acknowledge what a good father he must be – even though it had nothing at all to do with him. Jacob thought he was impressing his dad; in fact, he was only embarrassing him.

He remembered how, when he was much younger, Jacob would save his pocket money to buy a magazine about gemstones. Each issue came with a small tumbled stone, and Jacob would display them proudly on the windowsill of his bedroom. Once, he had taken them to school to show his classmates and had returned home in tears; the boys in his year had all made fun of him. After that, the stones had disappeared from the window, consigned to some hidden place in his room or maybe thrown away entirely. For William, this memory was particularly painful. He told himself it was because he had not been able to protect his son from being teased, but the truth was that Jacob’s refusal to like anything masculine was a source of shame to him, because it only proved how ineffectual he had been as a role model.

They walked through a long room with glass cases attached to the walls. They were filled with shards of broken pottery, stone earthenware, and a few small idols made of soapstone. The sign on the adjacent wall read ‘Ancient Levant’, though William had no idea where the Levant was. He considered asking Jacob, but he knew that Jacob would volunteer the information on his own before long. He didn’t really care either way.

“Oh, look at this,” said Jacob dreamily. “A Babylonian lion made of glazed bricks from the palace of Nebuchadnezzar. He was in the Bible, wasn’t he, Dad? He was the one who saw the writing on the wall. I think Babylon is called Iran nowadays.”

He tried to suppress his embarrassment with a tremendous effort because he could feel people looking at them; he didn’t realise what Jacob was saying.

“Really?” he asked. “Yes, I think you must be right.”

Jacob peered at the label. “It says here that he went mad and lived in the desert for seven years. Some people believe it was a bout of clinical lycanthropy.”

“Yes,” William offered. “Very interesting.”

Jacob smiled up at him, mistaking his disinterest for thoughtfulness. He wandered further into the room, consulting his map to make sure they didn’t miss anything important. William merely sighed. He hated coming to places like this, mainly because each thing that he learned only seemed to expose the gaps in his knowledge. Stopping to read about some dusty old relic would only reveal to him how little he actually knew of the world. It was as though history was an enormous jigsaw puzzle, in which each piece he placed down would only expose to him more questions, more gaps in his understanding. The same, he knew, could be said for Jacob. Every fact he declared would make William inevitably feel inferior, because, truthfully, there was still so little that he had experienced. He sighed again, a little louder.

Jacob, however, was oblivious. He was peering into a glass case, his hands pressed up against the wall. His expression was one of a strange, blank bewilderment, almost like that of a person sleepwalking. William slowly came up behind him. There were, he noticed, two cards attached to the glass. The first read, ‘Ram in a Thicket; 2600 BC; gold, copper, bronze, shell, limestone, lapis lazuli.’ The second was a Bible quote. “And Abraham goeth, and taketh the ram, and causeth it to ascend for a burnt offering in place of his son.”

Inside the case, the object itself was a queer-looking thing. It was all blue and gold, about 30 centimetres tall, depicting an animal caught in a rosebush. Though the label had called it a ram, it looked more like a goat or an antelope, with great coiled horns that stood erect between its ears. William shifted a little closer. The ram’s eyes, made of blue stone, shone as fiercely as two flames, though these had been inlaid at different angles. The effect it produced was that of a crazed, perverse insanity. William felt it was looking through him.

Then, a man’s voice behind them said –

“I wouldn’t get too close to it. They say it’s cursed, you know.”

William turned his head. A man in a blue suit was standing beside them, inspecting the statue through the glass. A lanyard and a set of keys hung from his neck, and a museum pin was attached to the lapel of his jacket. He was tall and overweight, and appeared to be somewhere in his sixties, with so many wrinkles they threatened to swallow the rest of his features. But there was also something indeterminate about his face, something intrinsically forgettable. His skin was a dull and lifeless pink.

“Cursed?” asked Jacob, breathlessly.

“Apparently so,” the man replied. “It was discovered in one of the great death-pits in southern Iraq. Nobody knows what it was used for, but the archaeologists who found it all mysteriously vanished. That’s why they say it’s cursed. It’s been here ever since.”

“What…what happened to them?” asked Jacob.

“Well, nobody knows for sure. They never made it back to England, so most people assume that their bodies are still in the pits. Some scholars believe that they all went mad and shot each other – and all because of that statue too.”

“Christ, there are two of them,” thought William.

Jacob’s eyes never left the statue. “And what do you think?” he asked.

The man opened his mouth to speak but then noticed some teenagers taking photos in the far corner of the room. He excused himself and turned around, following them out towards the stairwell. There was a long, uncomfortable silence. William coughed.

“Bit creepy, eh?” he said, unsure of what Jacob was thinking. In fact, Jacob was quiet for so long that William couldn’t remember if he had actually spoken aloud or not. Then, without warning, Jacob turned to face him suddenly.

“I want to go home,” he said at last. “I don’t think I feel well.”

“But we’ve only just got here. We haven’t even seen the mummies yet.”

“No, I know, it’s just that…” He cast a quick glance at the statue, then back at William. “Please, Dad? I already told you I don’t feel well.”

William gaped at him, trying to account for the sudden change. “Why don’t we find somewhere to sit down? We can get you some water.”

Jacob stiffened. “I want to go home.”

A sudden tension appeared between them. William could feel people looking.

“All right,” he said. “Come on, we can cut through here.”

Without hesitation, William began striding towards the doorway. He wondered if he should take his son’s hand but something stopped him from doing so. Instead he clasped his shoulders and steered him through a series of quieter rooms – the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Ancient Near East. He considered filing a complaint but he knew there was no point. He hadn’t seen the name on the man’s badge. He couldn’t even recall his face. As they passed through the atrium, William looked up at the glass ceiling. He saw a lattice of black beams, like a tracery of webbed veins, and, somewhere beyond that, a number of clouds which threatened rain.

*

They caught the Tube outside the museum and changed to the DLR at Canary Wharf. Jacob was unusually quiet, answering all of William’s questions in flat, single syllables. But when the train skirted over the Thames, Jacob seemed to brighten a little. He raised his eyes and began talking about how the Tube map reminded him of the Tree of Life, with each of the lines relating to one of the ten sephirot. He went on to say that the reason he liked the Tube was because the stations all sounded like magical places – Star Gardens, Desert Reach, The Circle of Baalhamon – and that he had never noticed how some of their names appeared to be spelt backwards. William looked down at him. Had he not known better, he might have assumed his son was joking, but Jacob had never been known for his sense of humour.

“What are you going on about?” he asked.

“The stations. They all have names like –”

“Those aren’t the names of the stations, Jacob. You’re being silly.”

He must have sounded angrier than intended, as a few people turned to look at them. After an awkwardly long pause, Jacob apologised, told him he was tired, and relapsed into silence once again. They said nothing for the rest of the journey.

William and Jacob lived on the second floor of a small Victorian low-rise. Luckily, it was situated less than a minute away from the station, as Jacob was sullen and wan; he didn’t seem to have much energy. Once inside, he muttered something about taking a nap, and William – at a loss to know what to do – said he would wake him up for dinner.

With his day now at the mercy of Jacob, William sat down in front of the TV. He scrolled through news broadcasts and nature documentaries, but the more he flitted through the channels, the more angry he started to feel. If it weren’t for Jacob’s sensitivity, his receptiveness to other people, then they would still be at the museum and he wouldn’t have felt he had wasted his time. He knew it was wrong to think of his son in this way, especially now that he was ill, but try as he might, he couldn’t stop feeling annoyed with him. He settled on the news but found it difficult to concentrate. He realised he was very tired.

He woke up about an hour and a half later. The sunlight, streaming in through the open blinds, cast barred shadows against the wall, and the yellow curtains turned everything a dull and rusty orange. He blinked his eyes, yawned, and then fumbled for the remote. He felt guilty for falling asleep while his son was sick, and immediately began running through a mental list of things to do: check on Jacob, make dinner, charge his phone so he could call Emily. He turned off the TV, watching the screen dissolve to black, but as soon as he did so, he heard voices from the other room. William craned his head. He could hear Jacob distinctly, though he couldn’t make out what he was saying. He spoke urgently and quietly, then he paused and started giggling. There was a long silence. Suddenly, another voice replied to him. This voice belonged to an older man, more spiteful, aggressive, and it sounded through the wall like a low, persistent growling. William jumped to his feet. He began storming out of the living room, but at that moment, Jacob ran out into the hallway and bolted into the toilet, pulling the door closed so it slammed. William, listening closely, had no idea what was going on. He hurried towards Jacob’s room and threw open the door, but there was nobody inside. He looked at Jacob’s phone and computer, but found nothing that could account for the second voice he had heard. Perhaps he had imagined it. He had still been half-asleep.

He made his way out towards the toilet and heard the sounds of Jacob vomiting. The smell hit him almost immediately – a rich, sweet, slightly buttery smell, like raw meat or uncooked eggs. It reminded him of a farm they had been to years ago. They hadn’t realised it was the lambing season, and William had been shocked to see the ewes giving birth, to hear them bleating out in unison. He remembered the pink sacs of flesh, the strings of fat, the bloody mess left on the straw. The memory made him want to faint.

“Jacob,” he said tenderly. “Is everything alright in there?”

He pushed open the door and found Jacob completely naked, slumped haphazardly over the toilet bowl. His neck, back and shoulders were all dripping with sweat, and he was shivering so violently that William thought he was having a fit. There was another long pause. Jacob groaned, sobbed and continued vomiting more forcefully.

William peered into the toilet, pressing his wrist against his nose. Inside, Jacob had filled the bowl with a thick, salmon-coloured paste. It was lumpy, almost congealing, and there was something else within it too – a substance like fur or tangled wool.

“Oh my god, Jacob. Are you okay?”

Jacob turned his head. His face was beaded with pearls of sweat; his lips had turned white and he seemed unable to focus his eyes.

“I think I’m dying,” he said, then started laughing uncontrollably.

*

A few hours later, William decided to call his sister.

 “Well, what did the doctor say?” she asked impatiently. In the background, he could hear her sons all fighting for attention, squealing and shrieking like a drove of pigs. Whenever he called her, she would often stop talking in order to shout at them. William was never sure if she was actually listening, or if she was willing to continue.

“He said that it was probably just a 24-hour bug and that I should call again in the morning if it gets any worse. Oh, and that I should give him some Paracetamol.”

“Well, there you are then. Nothing to worry about.”

“You think so? Emily, he was puking up wool for fuck’s sake.”

He could feel her tense from the other end of the phone.

“Look,” she said flatly. “I know things have been hard for you, and I’m sorry if I wasn’t there for you when you needed me, but you know what you’re doing. You’ve spoken to the doctor and he said it will be fine. Children get sick. It’s what they do.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he managed weakly.

After the phone call, William went to the kitchen to make a sandwich. He knew that there was nothing else that could be done for Jacob, so why did he still feel like he had failed him in some way? Ever since his wife died, William had accepted full responsibility for Jacob, and knew that there was no one else to blame if something happened to him. He tried to think about something else. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing him.

 Once he had finished his sandwich, he checked to see if Jacob was still sleeping. His bedroom was like that of any normal twelve-year-old boy, filled with books and toy dinosaurs, neon stars stuck to the ceiling. He was lying on top of his duvet, mewling softly, sucking his thumb like he did as a baby. He looked peaceful and serene, and William noticed that his face was much less pale than before. He was relieved that the worst was over.

He went back into the hallway, closing Jacob’s door behind him. He wandered around the living room, picking up cushions and putting them down again, dusting the surfaces with his hands. Although it was only half past ten, he decided to go to bed. He wasn’t tired in the least, but reasoned that he could wake up in the night to check on Jacob, or get up early to call the doctor. He went to his room, got changed and turned on the TV.

William’s room, like those of most single men, was both plain and uninteresting, with no discerning characteristics. It had blank white walls and was kept very clean, so that it gave away nothing of his personality. They had lived in this flat for six years now, ever since William had grown tired of being surrounded by his wife’s things. Still, he had never really gotten used to having a single bed, and he often missed the feminine touches that he had once hated – the smell of perfume, the half-empty shampoo bottles in the bathroom, the fresh-cut flowers on the windowsill. Jacob seemed to feel the same way, but despite his effusiveness, rarely spoke about his mother. William often wondered why. Perhaps he could no longer remember her.

Scrolling listlessly through the channels, William soon realised that there was nothing he wanted to watch – only a couple of talk shows, a black-and-white film from the 1930s. Sighing, he turned off the TV and switched on the radio instead, but for some reason, all of the pre-programmed channels had turned to static; he heard clicks, some white noise, a couple of faint, garbled voices. Turning it off, he breathed a sigh and tried to sleep.

That night, William dreamed about his wife. She was crouching in the corner of their old bedroom, hiding her face with both her hands. It was very dark, so dark he could barely see, but as he walked across the room, he found she was choking, gasping for breath. He knelt down beside her and pulled her hands away from her cheeks, but when he did so, her face turned into that of the statue they had seen earlier. Her eyes, now two blue stones, regarded him blankly and unfeelingly, and her long snout was covered in a thin film of mucus. When she opened her mouth to speak, a mass of wool poured from her throat, trailing down onto the floorboards. It was sticky, cold and wet. It reminded him of earthworms.

William woke up suddenly, his heart pounding in his chest. He told himself that it had only been a dream, and took comfort in the old familiar objects of his bedroom, black and immovable in the half-light. He looked at the silhouettes of the wardrobe, the nightstand, the lampshade in the corner, and was relieved that everything was in its place; nothing had changed while he’d been sleeping. He looked at the clock and read the display: 01:38am. He told himself that he should get up and check on Jacob, but as the thought crossed his mind, something moved towards the wall. It was too still, too quiet. Somebody else was in the room.

For a long time, nothing happened. William was sitting up rigidly, his eyes opened wide, trying to accustom them to the darkness. He could see and hear nothing, but then, in his periphery, he saw something move out from behind the wardrobe.

“Who’s there?” he said, trying not to sound as panicked as he really felt.

After a painfully long minute or two, the figure stepped forward slowly, lurching over towards the bed. The digital clock on the wall, which flashed red with each passing second, was now the only source of light; each time it flashed, the figure had limped a little closer. But as it drew nearer and nearer, William could make out who it was.

“Jacob?” he said. “Are you alright? What’s going on?”

But Jacob did not recognise him. He was completely naked, and his whole body was covered in strange, primitive markings – whorled loops, lines and circles. He had drawn black stripes across his face, a kind of savage-looking war paint, and his voice, when he spoke, sounded dim and faraway, like it was coming from somewhere else.

“And Abraham goeth, and taketh the ram, and causeth it to ascend for a burnt offering.”

William reached across to the lamp on the nightstand. At once, the room was flooded with a cold, yellow light. Blinking his eyes, he saw that Jacob held a knife.

“Jacob, it’s me,” he said. “What are you doing?”

For a second, Jacob’s face seemed to change. His cheeks flushed, went dark, angry, blotched with red. His mouth twitched into a momentary snarl.

“And Abraham goeth,” he hissed, “and taketh the ram, and causeth it to ascend for a burnt offering in place of his son. And Abraham goeth, and taketh the ram…”

The words poured out of him hurriedly, urgently, like a kind of incantation. William pulled back the duvet and made to stand up, but at that moment, Jacob leapt on top of him, biting and spitting like a cat, knocking the wind out of his lungs. His body was slippery and wet; William couldn’t hold him down. Before he knew it, Jacob was straddling his chest, pinning his arms down with his knees. He grinned triumphantly, then put his mouth to William’s ear. Panting for breath, he felt the knife against his throat.

“It will be provided,” he said hatefully.

William closed his eyes. He could feel the blade pushing into his neck, into the soft tissue beneath his chin. He couldn’t remember what happened next.

*

Dr Anand was an old woman with kind eyes and a heart-shaped face. She found William in the waiting room, then ushered him into her office. William asked her what had happened.

“Your son attacked you with a knife,” she said softly, sitting down behind her desk. “We found some trauma to your neck, so it looks like you must have passed out.”

“And what about Jacob?”

“Your neighbours alerted the police after hearing some strange noises. They found him lying under your wardrobe. They said he was very scared.”

“And is he alright? Where is he now?”

Dr Anand leafed through some papers on her desk. William tried to hide his impatience, fixing his eyes on her potted fern. His neck felt very stiff.

“Your son is fine,” she said at last, “but he was taken into surgery last night. The doctor inspecting him found some abnormalities. He was taken for an X-ray, and we discovered that he had a large teratoma in his brain, just above the pineal gland.”

William blinked at her. He wasn’t sure if he should tell her that he didn’t understand. Thankfully, Dr Anand seemed to sense his confusion. She smiled at him kindly.

“A teratoma is a small tumour. It’s usually present from birth but we can’t say for sure when this one developed. In the case of your son, the teratoma was benign. We removed it last night and we expect him to make a full recovery, only…”

Her words trailed off into silence. She cleared her throat.

“We found some…irregularities. Teratomas often contain teeth or small bones, but in your son, the tumour contained hair belonging to an animal. We don’t know how it got there.”

William didn’t want to hear any more. As long as Jacob was okay, he didn’t care about the details. He asked her if could see him and she led him out of her office, taking him down a long corridor with many doors on either side. Jacob had a room to himself. He was lying in a hospital bed, eyes closed, with a white tube sticking out of his mouth. He was linked up to a machine which beeped insistently, mimicking his heart beat. Dr Anand pointed to a chair beside the bed, and after waiting for him to sit down, left him alone to be with Jacob.

William watched his son in silence. The markings had all been washed from his body, and it seemed like the events of the night before had never happened, or had happened to someone else. Dr Anand had assured him that he would soon return to normal, but if the teratoma had been there since birth, then surely his whole personality would change now that the tumour had been removed. He realised, ominously, that he was looking at a stranger.

In the hospital bed, Jacob shifted a little uneasily in his sleep.

 

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