Pastime by Saoirse Ní Chiaragáin


“You need to want it,” she instructed, her thumb submerged—still but for the occasional flinch.

“And you need to make it yourself.”

Kate watched the pale thumb, nestled within the hole in the desk, and wondered what unseen horrors tore at it. She nodded, though still struggling to understand.

Harmony was considerably younger than Kate. This fact always prompted a sense of apologetic tension in Kate, as though she had to explain herself. All of her colleagues were younger than her. She was fairly certain that she was older than their supervisor.

“I guess that makes sense,” she spoke at last. “I was wondering if it was just any hole. Like...if during sex…”

“No, that’s for sure not a thing,” Harmony said breezily, pulling her thumb from the hole, her demonstration now over.

The thumb was whitened and wrinkled, as though it had been resting too long in water. The nail was missing, the reddened yet shockingly smooth patch of skin that once lay beneath now exposed to the elements. It struck Kate as almost beautiful: something vulnerable to be protected.

Harmony fished a plaster from her purse and wrapped the wound. As she did so, Kate ran a finger around the rough opening in the plywood desk. The hole was dark, stretching somewhere far beyond the other side of the physical surface.

“What is it, do you think?” Kate asked, squinting in the hopes of catching something move within the small darkness.

“I don’t know, really,” Harmony replied, already putting her headset back on.

Kate’s heart sank. She wasn’t ready for the conversation to be over. She still had so many questions. Knowing her time was limited, she quickly whittled down her queries to the most burning. “Is it good?”

Harmony shrugged before answering, her monitor sluggishly connecting her to the next caller.

“It’s different,” came her eventual reply, and with that she resumed the task of manning the phones.

Kate nodded thoughtfully, her eyes returning to the hole in the desk.

Her colleague’s breaks were over. They donned their headsets and worked, dutifully solving the problems of their callers. Kate tried to pull her gaze away from the seductive draw of the hole, placing her own headset over her ears. As the ringing sounded, patching her through to another anxious customer, she caught the briefest flash of movement from within the hole.

A sudden fear rushed through her, leaving an electric thrill in its wake. Heart pounding, she covered the hole with a notebook. While an anonymous voice droned through her headphones, strangely, she felt a rising tide of giddiness.

The rest of the day was spent in a breathless anticipation that, to Kate, felt adolescent. Her pulse thrummed heavily, and she performed her task in constant awareness of the hole. When the end of the day finally arrived, she bolted from her seat without saying a word to Harmony or anyone else.

She had, of course, heard about it long before asking Harmony. Everyone knew about it. Articles and stern-faced news anchors had long warned against the worrying new trend in sensational, paternalistic tones.

At first, like many, Kate was shocked by the stories. More than the mere physical pain of it, she was appalled by the unknown. No one knew what lived within the holes, or why the holes seemed to lead somewhere else. Somewhere subliminal. For the longest time, it struck her as wrong. It betrayed everything she understood about the world.

And yet, gradually, her fear gave way to interest.

Harmony was far from the only person she knew who dug. You could spot them quite easily now. Though still considered inappropriate to dig in public view, you would know the diggers by their wounds: gnawed thumbs, lacerated wrists. Legs sometimes too, though those were easier to hide. Aside from their wounds, they all seemed so normal to Kate. Somehow the banality of them further fanned the flames of her curiosity.

Arriving home, Kate locked her door and took care to test the lock before removing her keys. She did not wish to be interrupted, or worse, discovered. She turned on the lights and pulled the curtains. A sensation flamed in her belly, something akin to shame, tempered with titillation.

She lowered herself to the floor, staring ahead at the bare wall before her. Drywall, she assumed. Soft enough to gouge. She would forfeit her deposit, but it seemed the best place to start.

She gripped her keys within her fist and began to tentatively scratch at the plaster. Had you asked her why—what possessed her to dig—she might have told you that she simply needed something to do. That so many of her nights were spent listlessly scrolling through feeds, or making small talk with abysmal singles in her area, or allowing episode after episode of some story to wash over her in the cool blue glow of her TV screen.

That throughout all of this, she would suppress a dull but mounting panic.

Plaster dust drifted to the floor as the hole widened. Kate realized that she must have zoned out, consumed in her task. Suddenly she saw before her, not a wedge worn into the white plaster, but a dark and gaping hole. An opening whose darkness seemed to whistle with an unfelt wind. She sat back to admire her handiwork.

Fear gripped her once more, and her instincts told her to turn away. To call her landlord in apology and have the abominable thing patched over. Instead, she reached out gently and traced the perimeter. Mounting excitement ate away at her fear, and she teasingly drove her fingers closer to the edge. At this proximity, she felt sure that she could feel the hot, damp breath of something within.

She held her breath and pushed the tips of her fingers into the darkness.

Nothing stirred. For a brief moment, she feared that she had done it wrong. That, somehow, she had found a way to fail at something so simple. She was about to withdraw when, at last, something sharp closed around her fingertips, eliciting from her a high-pitched yelp.

The pain seemed to sear down to the bone. Soon, more closed themselves around her. A pack of mouths, apparently independent of bodies. The teeth— she assumed they were teeth—bore down with a frightening pressure, and she felt sure her digits would be bitten clean away. A clot of panic throbbed in her throat, and she was surprised by the heat of her own tears as they ran streaks down her face.

Almost as though sensing her desire for respite, a new sensation came to the fore—a languid lapping of wet flesh, of what she could only imagine was a tongue. Though the pain persisted, the teeth still working away, the warmth and lazy movement of the tongue seemed to soothe her. So much so that she felt her body slacken from its previous anxiety-racked rigor.

It was some time before she realized that it had stopped and that her fingers dangled in the dark, untouched by anything. Gingerly withdrawing her hand, she examined her fingers with a mixture of horror and elation. The flesh had been torn almost entirely from one fingertip, a thin, grisly viscera barely concealing the bone. The others bore deep, dark cuts, oozing and throbbing. She held the wounded hand to her heart and sank back onto the floor.

She awoke feeling more rested and refreshed than she could ever remember. Easing up with the aid of her good hand, she inspected her cuts. The oozing had subsided while she slept, though the skinned fingertip now stuck painfully to the fabric of her top. Wincing, she wrenched it free, prompting a fresh trickle of blood. She eyed it with a detachment that surprised her. Beneath the curtains, she could see the warm light of day.

Moving to the bathroom, she cleaned her wounds and dressed them. Catching her own eye in the mirror above her sink, she smiled. She felt the warmth of this new secret inside her, something she alone owned.

Working proved difficult with her bandaged hand, but her spirits could not be dampened. Though she winced with each keystroke of her skinned finger, there came a residual flush of endorphins, and she soon found herself relishing the pain. While preoccupied with calls, Harmony nodded in the direction of her makeshift cast with interest. Kate merely nodded, grinning broadly, feeling as though they two were part of an exclusive society.

She was cautious not to overexert herself. When she arrived home, the hole welcoming her with its enticing darkness. Kate fought the impulse to succumb. No, she decided. She would allow her wounds to heal before venturing back. This pain was enough, for now. More could wait. More would come.

Still, it called to her: the dry, soulful wailing of the hidden gales. To distract herself, she lifted her phone and reopened a long-abandoned conversation. Within an hour, she was freshly dressed, primped, and headed to meet Tim.

Tim was one of many boring souls she called upon during her lowest ebbs for conversation, and perhaps the promise of affection. She knew he could deliver on neither, but she persisted nonetheless. The pair had agreed to meet at a nearby restaurant. He was already there when she arrived, mopping the shine from his brow with a napkin while studying the menu. Repulsion jerked within her gut, but she continued her approach.

She endured an appetizer of Tim complaining about his boss, his brother-in-law, and many other men by whom he clearly felt threatened. Not that he would ever admit as much. As he recalled their petty assaults upon his masculinity, his face grew ever redder. It reminded Kate of the flushed, freshly ravaged flesh beneath her bandage. She pressed down upon her wounds discreetly, luxuriating in the renewed sharpness of her agony.

By the time their mains had appeared, Tim was running out of steam. He had apparently exhausted his supply of vitriol and, in its absence, had little else to contribute to the conversation. A pained silence ensued during which Kate busied herself with her food, struggling to control the cutlery with her injured hand.

“What happened to you?” Tim asked, gesturing towards the bandage.

A fresh interest swelled in Kate, and a fantasy of them both sitting before the hole in her wall flashed brightly across her mind.

“Have you heard of digging?”

Tim took a bite of meat, a bead of grease dotting his chin.

“Like in your garden?”

Her face fell. The fantasy abruptly dissolved.

“Never mind.”

Back at her place, she stared at the hole over Tim’s shoulder while he thrusted and panted. It was not passion that led them to fuck in her living room, but her desire to keep the hole within view. She worried that, if they had retired to her room, Tim would later discover the hole while searching for the bathroom. She no longer wanted to share it with him—no longer wanted him to taint it. It was hers, and so it would remain.

Their business done, she politely ushered him from the apartment with assurances that they would do this again soon. He kissed her curtly on the lips, pulling away with an expression of disappointment when she failed to return the embrace. She closed the door before he moved to walk away.

The next day, during her break, she browsed online digger communities and indulged in countless theories of what lay within the holes. None of the stories seemed particularly likely to her. The largest contingent of online diggers believed the holes to be a gateway to some other dimension. If this were the case, Kate considered, then why did the occupants never venture out into our world?

Other, more laughable, theories suggested some demonic presence. This again struck Kate as impossible, as her understanding was that demons demanded far more than to nibble on living flesh. No. By Kate’s estimation, there was something far more innocent about the inhabitants of the holes. She could not adequately articulate this argument, but she felt it to be true. Something in the feverish hunger she experienced the night before suggested a dependence, and perhaps even a gratitude. As she read more online, she found herself growing ever more defensive.

She returned to her desk after her break, brow tight with frustration, unable to shake a feeling of offence. What people were saying about the inhabitants offended her. She felt she could speak on the topic now, and that she was of a privileged few who really knew the truth of the inhabitants. Maybe not the truth of their origins, but certainly the truth of their intentions.

This feeling was further reinforced when, arriving home and sitting once more opposite the hole, she pushed her forearm inside and felt the rush of mouths descend upon her. The ferocity of their attack knocked the breath from her chest, and she found herself unable to inhale for some moments, her face contorting in gasping pain. They needed her, she realized. Whatever they were. And as long as they needed her, she would give herself.

When she came to, her arm was still dangling within the dark nothing of the hole. Removing it delicately, she saw that yesterday’s bandages had been torn away in the feeding. The skinned finger was now entirely bare, just a white shock of bone jutting from the mangled gore of her hand. The hand itself, for the most part, was now naked of skin, and its tortured surface glistened in the low light of morning. Her forearm was gashed so severely that she was amazed that she had survived the night. Surely, she had lost a great deal of blood. The thought occurred to her that, somehow, the inhabitants had kept her alive. Perhaps they could work some grateful magic, blessing those they seemed worthy. This, to Kate, seemed the only likely explanation.

With scant time to tend to her new wounds, she hastily ran her arm under the tap and wound a fresh length of bandage from her fingertips to her elbow, taking a moment to admire the bare bone of her finger. Another secret. A gift from the wall.

She arrived late to the office and rushed to connect to the switchboard. Her dominant hand solidly out of action, she typed one-handed, while her bandaged arm rested impotently upon the desk. Around noon, she noticed that blood had begun to seep through the fabric, and she excused herself to the bathroom to attend to her cuts.

While running her bare arm beneath the cold water of the bathroom sink, she heard the door open behind her. In a flash of modesty and alarm, she shut off the water and pulled her sleeve over her still-wet skin.

“Hey.”

Harmony lingered by the door. Relief washed through Kate to see her there.

“Hey.”

Harmony’s gaze flickered to Kate’s darkened sleeve, where the patch of moisture was gradually seeping red.

“Oh God, are you OK?”

Kate laughed, but Harmony inched closer. She gently raised Kate’s arm.

“May I?”

Kate nodded, and Harmony delicately pulled back the sleeve to inspect the appendage. She gasped, prompting further laughter from Kate.

“What did you do?”

“Just digging,” Kate said, smiling. Harmony understood, she thought. They were sisters in this. But a cool darkness settled over Harmony’s features.

“That looks pretty serious, Kate.”

Shame ignited in her core, and she brusquely pulled down her sleeve, maintaining a straight face though the fabric pulled on the ragged skin. This uppity cunt, she thought. Before this week she would never deign to speak to Kate. Her audacity was an affront.

“You should probably go to a doctor,” Harmony advised.

“It’s fine,” Kate insisted. “I know what I’m doing.”

She couldn’t be certain but, for a second, it appeared as though Harmony rolled her eyes upwards, prompting a flush of anger in Kate. Something sickly turned inside of her, fueled by pain and confusion.

“Just don’t take it too far,” Harmony said, concern shrouding her gaze.

This further irked Kate, who, without thinking, turned and struck the thin bathroom wall with a heavy kick.

No sooner had her foot collided with the wall, pushing through the plaster, than the mouths descended. More of them, it seemed, than her previous encounters. Her face twisted in ecstatic pain, while Harmony looked on, horrified. Kate fell to one knee, doubling over, wheezing and panting while her leg was gored beyond. She lifted her head and smiled at Harmony.

“They don’t really want to hurt me,” she spoke, saliva pooling and pouring from her bottom lip.

She left before the ambulance had time to arrive, hobbling home on her battered leg, her foot a gnarled mass of flesh and bone. People stared openly, but she paid them no mind, the thought of the hole in her living room wall fueling her journey.

Dragging blood and sidewalk dirt across the threshold of her apartment, she closed and firmly locked the door, taking her usual spot in front of the hole. She placed one hand on either side of the opening, her head bowed.

Wordlessly, she begged them for forgiveness. To forgive Harmony and the other diggers. They simply did not know. They thought they had felt it, but they couldn’t have. If they had truly felt what Kate felt, they would know as she did that the inhabitants needed them. Needed them all. That, in the making of holes, they had birthed the inhabitants into a world of relentless hunger and darkness. That, for the sin of this creation, they must all atone with feeding. It was their duty.

Kate knew this. Felt it in her bones. She had never been so sure of anything.

The whispering wind on the other side of the wall’s opening seemed to answer her prayer, and she felt her eyes spring with tears of gratitude. The agony and ecstasy of having her thoughts heard. Somehow, she reasoned, they had made themselves a home within her. Probably during the feedings. Something of them lived within her now and responded to her thoughts in a language of pure acceptance. Receiving her penance, she brought her face towards the hole, pushing her head into its welcoming darkness and warmth.

She did not return to work, nor did she venture outside of her apartment. Her phone continued to ring persistently until the battery died. She resolved not to charge it. They would call in a welfare check, but she would be gone by the time that they did. She told herself that she was not so much hiding from the world, it was that she no longer had any use for it. Stumbling blindly through her home, she found repose once more on the ground before the hole.

When they took her eyes, wrenching them from their sockets in the most exquisite pain she could have hoped for, they gifted upon her a greater form of sight. Though she could no longer see the world around her, the modest dwelling she had inhabited for so long, new visions opened themselves to her in the dark recesses of the wall. They passed along one another, burrowing and overlapping in serpentine coils, their appearance defying all physical logic of the world she used to know.

She could not identify the mouths, for one thing. Even staring, unblinkingly, into the hole while they fed, she could see nothing that corresponded with the sensations she felt. She determined that the pain, the assumption of teeth and tongues, was a translation of some expression she could not otherwise understand. Not yet at least. The pain was their way of communicating and, with each wound inflicted, she felt she understood more.

Her skull was shorn of flesh, a coagulated crust forming over its dark red dome. Both arms were stripped to the bone. By some miracle— their miracle— she still lived. She waited for nightfall, feeling its approach in the temperature of the air. She knew she could find her way to the courtyard, to the narrow strip of grass that passed for a garden, walled off on all sides by her building and three others. The earth, she imagined, would be hard. Likely shallow, a bedrock of concrete beneath. But with her eyes gone, she did not dare to venture further. It would have to do.

A cool stillness signaled night. Through her exposed nasal cavity, she could pick up delicate nocturnal scents, cold and clear. She navigated the dark expanse of her living room, eventually finding the front door. She turned the keys with the exposed bone of her hands and allowed the door to hang open as she left.

As she descended the stairs, she trailed a guiding hand along the wall. The bone against the plaster emitted a soft rasp, tickling the underside of her raw skull. She did not fear the approach of any other living soul. She knew that, somehow, they had devised that she would be alone.

The cold night air stung her open wounds, cooled the heat of the blood. Shuffling forward, her gored feet found the edge of the grass. It was here that she dropped to her knees and began to dig. It was slow work. Without palms, or the grip of skin, shoveling the earth was laborious.

After digging for what felt like many hours, she could sense that her work was done. She stood at the mouth of the hole: a yawning maw cut into the small communal yard. A suction of wind caressed her from beyond its depths. Her bones caked with dirt, she undressed, dropping her clothes to the ground, and stepping naked into the awaiting dark.

In the unending blackness, she was welcomed by a great hunger—at the periphery, at first, gliding snake-like among the opaque shapes she’d witnessed before. Soon, however, it bore its way inside of her. It was excruciating, an emptiness that seemed to echo throughout every inch of her. She could think of nothing else but the hunger.

Then, by some miracle, a hand reached out in the darkness. She swam towards it, guided by an innate need, and latched on. She felt the flesh pulse and twitch beneath her bite. A warmth blossomed within her.

Joined by the twisting, writhing souls around her, she began to feed.

SAOIRSE NÍ CHIARAGÁIN is an Irish writer living in Berlin, Germany. Her feature film script, Consentuality, which was co-written with filmmaker Natasha Waugh is currently in development with Screen Ireland. When not writing, she can be found in a variety of dive bars, worrying.

Artwork by the Novel Noctule team.