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The Matriki

At the ends of the earth, in the most extreme and inhospitable climes imaginable, beings so ancient they have become a part of the firmament itself keep a secret council.

I had been told that some of the most barren and arid deserts on planet were located on Antarctica but it wasn’t until I was there, until I began to make my way inland, that I realised how ill-prepared I was, how psychologically ill-equipped I was. The desolation and the emptiness, both were far beyond anything I had encountered and anything I could have imagined. I was following a crudely marked map I had been given in Port Elizabeth, given in exchange for a promise that I would follow the map to its end, and that I would make the trip alone. After three frozen days of hiking I cleared a bluff and found what I had been searching for: The Matriki.

I looked out over powdered snow that frozen harder and sharper than diamonds, over white-blue ice that had never been spoilt by footfall or trace of human interference. The colour was perfect in its constancy, unchanging as far as either I or the eye could see, even where the gentle dips and rises of the land should have cast shadows. Far away, on the crescent of the horizon, the carpet of snow and ice yielded to an equally blank and wan, colourless sky; the difference seemingly one more a distinction of attitude than appearance. Even at that dim distance I got a sense of the Matriki’s scale; far too tall at some thirty or thirty-five feet to be sustained by the spindly forms that were more evocative of something insectoid or arachnid than their overall humanoid aspect allowed.

As I got closer, any direction I chose to look offered the same view at its extremes, only the placement and persons of The Matriki indicated any distinct character to the landscape. Their ranks extended in sporadic groups for almost as far as I could make out, loose gatherings of two to five towering figures, clustered together with a conspiratorial air that was almost certainly a projection of the slight derangement of my isolation. As I walked between them I could hear the rumble of their whispered business, whose import might be tremendous but will nevertheless remain completely secret to me, a language to which I was so other that I could not even begin to fathom it.

The Matriki loomed over me and all around me and I saw their blankness in more detail; slender dark bodies stretched tall with platonically neutral ur-human faces rough-hewn features like axe-made carvings into something that seemed like wood and iron. Too-long arms like taut cables cut, seeming, from the same solid mass as their rangy bodies were pressed tightly against their sides, almost formal. Their bodies tapered down almost to a point at the ankles, improbably holding them bolt upright. Below that they disappeared, fused into the ice and spreading roots that extend who knows how far and how deep... I was somehow struck with, and still remain of, the impression that if one could forcibly pry one of The Matriki from its moorings that the world might crack and crumble, firmament shattering and plunging us into cataclysm.

They swayed rigidly, undulating in no particular relation to the wind, and I wondered if that rigid posture, that deportment that was somewhere between militaristic and regal in its affect, was uncomfortable for them. I tried to determine, whether I was being ignored, whether I would register to them as being something that would register as there at all, and if they even had the capacity to ignore me. Then a creaking; boughs bent close to breaking and metal screaming its strain, sounded behind me. The Matriki to whom I was closest (questions of their agency left me entirely in that moment) had bent at the waist, her arms wrenchingly separated from her sides and brought up to cup my hooded face at a speed which would have been unremarkable in any other living thing.

The hollows of depressions too shallow to be eye-sockets bore into me and I froze; more than the paralysing cold of the Antarctic climate chilling my bones. Her mouth (similarly more an implied artefact of pareidolia than an actual facial feature) was wide open but, animated almost imperceptibly, kept to the same unknowable rhythms that rest of The Matriki mouthed to. I stared into the inscrutable face as I gasped in air, trying to catch the burning breaths that I hadn’t known I was holding. Between blinks I started to see that open mouth not as speech but as a scream, all their whispers becoming, to my ears, a quiet cacophony of endless anguish.

I wanted to run, to get away from the terrible heart-wrenching noise, but I was held firmly and surrounded by fields of The Matriki in every direction. Instead, all the questions I had spilled out in a torrent as I tripped over my words, ran my sentences into one another and babbled in breathless incomprehensibility. If any of the noises that followed were answers, were responses of any kind, I didn’t understand them. My face was released as suddenly as it had been locked in the inhuman grasp and, acutely aware that I didn’t have the luxury of indulging the senseless rage of abandonment and frustration that flared up in a fit of pique, I turned my back and ran. The rage faded after a few steps and I was afraid.

Afraid that I had disturbed something sacred, a delicate and important peace, I left the way I had come, but the fear kept growing. The sound of The Matriki’s wordless speech grew louder, more abrasive, as each one I passed turned their faces downwards to watch me, to watch the interloper leave. I cleared the edges of their communion, their approbation spurring me on to reckless haste, and began to make my way back towards a more typical, more welcoming civilisation. The baying at my back followed me for miles and miles and miles, echoing through me until I was unsure whether it was a sound I could still hear or just the scars of it on my memory.


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