This week the tale of Randolph Carter continues with an inquest into our hero's disappearance from the waking world, in which the mysterious Hindoo, Swami Chandraputra, reveals what he know about Carter's journey Through The Gates of the Silver Key...
Bryan Carrigan returns for another brush with the weird, in a story about The Last American Unicorn. Todd Nelsen offers a cautionary tale concerning the perils of unbridled Appetite, Joseph J Wood has a post-apocalyptic short story about moral choices amid the Ruins. Ayame's Love reaches its 22nd canto with an apparent reconciliation between Anton and Ranzo.
We continue to play chicken with the blasphemy laws by publishing Rob Bliss' Trinity Triptych, which features a return of his hermaphroditic, transvestite Satan. Meanwhile, in The Initiation of Lantos, Sun-Man and Judy Blue experience life outside the dome. In Varney the Vampyre the mob return to the hall but are dispersed. And in After London, Felix sails onwards across the Lake.
THROUGH THE GATES OF THE SILVER KEY by H P Lovecraft and E Hoffmann Price
In a vast room hung with strangely figured arras and carpeted with Bonkhata rugs of impressive age and workmanship, four men were sitting around a document-strewn table. From the far corners, where odd tripods of wrought iron were now and then replenished by an incredibly aged Negro in somber livery, came the hypnotic fumes of olibanum; while in a deep niche on one side there ticked a curious, coffin-shaped clock whose dial bore baffling hieroglyphs and whose four hands did not move in consonance with any time system known on this planet. It was a singular and disturbing room, but well fitted to the business then at hand. For there, in the New Orleans home of this continent's greatest mystic, mathematician and orientalist, there was being settled at last the estate of a scarcely less great mystic, scholar, author and dreamer who had vanished from the face of the earth four years before.
Randolph Carter, who had all his life sought to escape from the tedium and limitations of waking reality in the beckoning vistas of dreams and fabled avenues of other dimensions, disappeared from the sight of man on the seventh of October, 1928, at the age of fifty-four. His career had been a strange and lonely one, and there were those who inferred from his curious novels many episodes more bizarre than any in his recorded history. His association with Harley Warren, the South Carolina mystic whose studies in the primal Naacal language of the Himalayan priests had led to such outrageous conclusions, had been close. Indeed, it was he who - one mist-mad, terrible night in an ancient graveyard - had seen Warren descend into a dank and nitrous vault, never to emerge. Carter lived in Boston, but it was from the wild, haunted hills behind hoary and witch-accursed Arkham that all his forebears had come. And it was amid these ancient, cryptically brooding hills that he had ultimately vanished.
His old servant, Parks - who died early in 1930 - had spoken of the strangely aromatic and hideously carven box he had found in the attic, and of the indecipherable parchments and queerly figured silver key which that box had contained: matters of which Carter had also written to others. Carter, he said, had told him that this key had come down from his ancestors, and that it would help him to unlock the gates to his lost boyhood, and to strange dimensions and fantastic realms which he had hitherto visited only in vague, brief, and elusive dreams. Then one day Carter took the box and its contents and rode away in his car, never to return.
Later on, people found the car at the side of an old, grass-grown road in the hills behind crumbling Arkham - the hills where Carter's forebears had once dwelt, and where the ruined cellar of the great Carter homestead still gaped to the sky. It was in a grove of tall elms near by that another of the Carters had mysteriously vanished in 1781, and not far away was the half-rotted cottage where Goody Fowler, the witch, had brewed her ominous potions still earlier. The region had been settled in 1692 by fugitives from the witchcraft trials in Salem, and even now it bore a name for vaguely ominous things scarcely to be envisaged. Edmund Carter had fled from the shadow of Gallows Hill just in time, and the tales of his sorceries were many. Now, it seemed, his lone descendant had gone somewhere to join him!
In the car they found the hideously carved box of fragrant wood, and the parchment which no man could read. The silver key was gone - presumably with Carter. Further than that there was no certain clue. Detectives from Boston said that the fallen timbers of the old Carter place seemed oddly disturbed, and somebody found a handkerchief on the rock-ridged, sinisterly wooded slope behind the ruins near the dreaded cave called the Snake Den.
It was then that the country legends about the Snake Den gained a new vitality. Farmers whispered of the blasphemous uses to which old Edmund Carter the wizard had put that horrible grotto, and added later tales about the fondness which Randolph Carter himself hid had for it when a boy. In Carter's boyhood the venerable gambrel-roofed homestead was still standing and tenanted by his great-uncle Christopher. He had visited there often, and had talked singularly about the Snake Den. People remembered what he had said about a deep fissure and an unknown inner cave beyond, and speculated on the change he had shown after spending one whole memorable day in the cavern when he was nine. That was in October, too - and ever after that he had seemed to have a uncanny knack at prophesying future events.
It had rained late in the night that Carter vanished, and no one was quite able to trace his footprints from the car. Inside the Snake Den all was amorphous liquid mud, owing to the copious seepage. Only the ignorant rustics whispered about the prints they thought they spied where the great elms overhang the road, and on the sinister hillside near the Snake Den, where the handkerchief was found. Who could pay attention to whispers that spoke of stubby little tracks like those which Randolph Carter's square-toed boots made when he was a small boy? It was as crazy a notion as that other whisper - that the tracks of old Benijah Corey's peculiar heelless boots had met the stubby little tracks in the road. Old Benijah had been the Carters' hired man when Randolph was young; but he had died thirty years ago.
It must have been these whispers plus Carter's own statement to Parks and others that the queerly arabesqued silver key would help him unlock the gates of his lost boyhood - which caused a number of mystical students to declare that the missing man had actually doubled back on the trail of time and returned through forty-five years to that other October day in 1883 when he had stayed in the Snake Den as a small boy. When he came out that night, they argued, he had somehow made the whole trip to 1928 and back; for did he not thereafter know of things which were to happen later? And yet he had never spoken of anything to happen after 1928.
One student - an elderly eccentric of Providence, Rhode Island, who had enjoyed a long and close correspondence with Carter - had a still more elaborate theory, and believed that Carter had not only returned to boyhood, but achieved a further liberation, roving at will through the prismatic vistas of boyhood dream. After a strange vision this man published a tale of Carter's vanishing in which he hinted that the lost one now reigned as king on the opal throne of Ilek-Vad, that fabulous town of turrets atop the hollow cliffs of glass overlooking the twilight sea wherein the bearded and finny Gniorri build their singular labyrinths.
It was this old man, Ward Phillips, who pleaded most loudly against the apportionment of Carter's estate to his heirs - all distant cousins - on the ground that he was still alive in another time-dimension and might well return some day. Against him was arrayed the legal talent of one of the cousins, Ernest K. Aspinwall of Chicago, a man ten years Carter's senior, but keen as a youth in forensic battles. For four years the contest had raged, but now the time for apportionment had come, and this vast, strange room in New Orleans was to be the scene of the arrangement.
It was the home of Carter's literary and financial executor - the distinguished Creole student of mysteries and Eastern antiquities, Etienne-Laurent de Marigny. Carter had met de Marigny during the war, when they both served in the French Foreign Legion, and had at once cleaved to him because of their similar tastes and outlook. When, on a memorable joint furlough, the learned young Creole had taken the wistful Boston dreamer to Bayonne, in the south of France, and had shown him certain terrible secrets in the nighted and immemorial crypts that burrow beneath that brooding, eon-weighted city, the friendship was forever sealed. Carter's will had named de Marigny as executor, and now that avid scholar was reluctantly presiding over the settlement of the estate. It was sad work for him, for like the old Rhode Islander he did not believe that Carter was dead. But what weight had the dreams of mystics against the harsh wisdom of the world?
Around the table in that strange room in the old French Quarter sat the men who claimed an interest in the proceedings. There had been the usual legal advertisements of the conference in papers wherever Carter's heirs were thought to live; yet only four now sat listening to the abnormal ticking of that coffin-shaped clock which told no earthly time, and to the bubbling of the courtyard fountain beyond half-curtained, fan-lighted windows. As the hours wore on, the faces of the four were half shrouded in the curling fumes from the tripods, which, piled recklessly with fuel, seemed to need less and less attention from the silently gliding and increasingly nervous old Negro.
There was Etienne de Marigny himself - slim, dark, handsome, mustached, and still young. Aspinwall, representing the heirs, was white-haired, apoplectic-faced, side-whiskered, and portly. Phillips, the Providence mystic, was lean, gray, long-nosed, clean-shaven, and stoop-shouldered. The fourth man was non-committal in age - lean, with a dark, bearded, singularly immobile face of very regular contour, bound with the turban of a high-caste Brahman and having night-black, burning, almost irisless eyes which seemed to gaze out from a vast distance behind the features. He had announced himself as the Swami Chandraputra, an adept from Benares, with important information to give; and both de Marigny and Phillips - who had corresponded with him - had been quick to recognize the genuineness of his mystical pretensions. His speech had an oddly forced, hollow, metallic quality, as if the use of English taxed his vocal apparatus; yet his language was as easy, correct and idiomatic as any native Anglo-Saxon's. In general attire he was the normal European civilian, but his loose clothes sat peculiarly badly on him, while his bushy black beard, Eastern turban, and large, white mittens gave him an air of exotic eccentricity.
De Marigny, fingering the parchment found in Carter's car, was speaking.
"No, I have not been able to make anything of the parchment. Mr. Phillips, here, also gives it up. Colonel Churchward declares it is not Naacal, and it looks nothing at all like the hieroglyphics on that Easter Island war-club. The carvings on that box, though, do strangely suggest Easter Island images. The nearest thing I can recall to these parchment characters - notice how all the letters seem to hang down from horizontal word-bar - is the writing in a book poor Harley Warren once had. It came from India while Carter and I were visiting him in 1919, and he never would tell us anything about it - said it would be better if we didn't know, and hinted that it might have come originally from some place other than the Earth. He took it with him in December, when he went down into the vault in that old graveyard - but neither he nor the book ever came to the surface again. Some time ago I sent our friend here - the Swami Chandraputra - a memory-sketch of some of those letters, and also a photostatic copy of the Carter parchment. He believes he may be able to shed light on them after certain references and consultations.
"But the key - Carter sent me a photograph of that. Its curious arabesques were not letters, but seem to have belonged to the same culture-tradition as the parchment Carter always spoke of being on the point of solving the mystery, though he never gave details. Once he grew almost poetic about the whole business. That antique silver key, he said, would unlock the successive doors that bar our free march down the mighty corridors of space and time to the very Border which no man has crossed since Shaddad with his terrific genius built and concealed in the sands of Arabia Pettraea the prodigious domes and uncounted minarets of thousand-pillared Irem. Half-starved dervishes - wrote Carter - and thirst-crazed nomads have returned to tell of that monumental portal, and of the hand that is sculptured above the keystone of the arch, but no man has passed and retraced his steps to say that his footprints on the garnet-strewn sands within bear witness to his visit. The key, he surmised, was that for which the cyclopean sculptured hand vainly grasps.
"Why Carter didn't take the parchment as well as the key, we can not say. Perhaps he forgot it - or perhaps he forbore to take it through recollection of one who had taken a book of like characters into a vault and never returned. Or perhaps it was really immaterial to what he wished to do."
As de Marigny paused, old Mr. Phillips spoke a harsh, shrill voice.
"We can know of Randolph Carter's wandering only what we dream. I have been to many strange places in dreams, and have heard many strange and significant things in Ulthar, beyond the River Skai. It does not appear that the parchment was needed, for certainly Carter reentered the world of his boyhood dreams, and is now a king in Ilek-Vad."
Mr. Aspinwall grew doubly apoplectic-looking as he sputtered: "Can't somebody shut the old fool up? We've had enough of these moonings. The problem is to divide the property, and it's about time we got to it."
For the first time Swami Chandraputra spoke in his queerly alien voice.
"Gentlemen, there is more to this matter than you think. Mr. Aspinwall does not do well to laugh at the evidence of dreams. Mr. Phillips has taken an incomplete view - perhaps because he has not dreamed enough. I, myself, have done much dreaming. We in India have always done that, just as all the Carters seem to have done it. You, Mr. Aspinwall, as a maternal cousin, are naturally not a Carter. My own dreams, and certain other sources of information, have told me a great deal which you still find obscure. For example, Randolph Carter forgot that parchment which he couldn't decipher - yet it would have been well for him had he remembered to take it. You see, I have really learned pretty much what happened to Carter after he left his car with the silver key at sunset on that seventh of October, four years ago."
Aspinwall audibly sneered, but the others sat up with heightened interest. The smoke from the tripods increased, and the crazy ticking of that coffin-shaped clock seemed to fall into bizarre patterns like the dots and dashes of some alien and insoluble telegraph message from outer space. The Hindoo leaned back, half closed his eyes, and continued in that oddly labored yet idiomatic speech, while before his audience there began to float a picture of what had happened to Randolph Carter.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
THE LAST AMERICAN UNICORN by Bryan Carrigan
Sebastian rolled down his windows and the cool night air slapped him awake. It was late and he was tired. He’d been half-tempted to stay the night at Betsy’s--more than half-tempted once she started doing that thing with her tongue--but Mr. Lohengrin had made perfectly clear what he’d do if he caught the two of them going at it again. Betsy had teased his belt, slowly working its buckle loose. His whole body tingled. Her touch had been electrifying. She wanted it just as badly; the trick was not getting caught. The truck vibrated beneath him, Sebastian’s eyes snapped open, he realized he’d let it drift over onto the rumble strip.
He cranked up the radio. Guns and fucking Roses, Creedence Clearwater Revival, a little Mellencamp: it was like the guys at 104.7 were conspiring to play all of his favorite tunes. They knew it was just a matter of time. Betsy would find an excuse to sneak out of the house on Saturday. He’d meet her at the DQ. They’d park behind the bowling alley. He’d be gentle. She’d want it rough and dirty. Sebastian caught a flash of white in his headlights--he stood on his brakes and cut the wheel--too late. He felt the truck shudder and come down hard on its axle. He bounced his face off the steering wheel. The truck skidded to a stop in the drainage culvert along the side of the road.
Sebastian gingerly probed his nose. Blood leaked out like he’d opened a spigot. He wadded up his t-shirt and tried to use that as a compress, but he could hear bone and cartilage grinding together and knew that it was broken.
He’d hit a horse. It was lying in the road, still breathing, but obviously in a great deal of pain. He had broken two of stallion’s legs. "Oh god, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry." The horse lifted its head and looked right at him. Sebastian felt as though the horse were looking right through him, as though it could see everything that he was and everything that he would be. He hoped it understood that it had been an accident. He hadn’t meant to hit the beast. He would have swerved if only he’d had the chance.
And then he noticed its horn.
Sebastian turned the radio off and drove the rest of the way home in silence. His brother was already asleep. Sebastian woke him up and gave him a rough overview of everything that had happened.
"You wrecked my truck?" Gareth said.
"It was an accident, we have insurance, and you’re kind of missing the point," Sebastian said.
"You wrecked my truck and you bled all over the upholstery?"
Sebastian drove him back to the scene of the accident. He had moved the beast off to the side of the road and had covered it with the blanket he’d packed in case Mr. Lohengrin had let him take Betsy for a drive.
"Subtle," Gareth said.
Sebastian uncovered the creature. "What do you think?"
"I think you killed a horse," Gareth said. "Good job. Now no girl is going to want to sleep with you."
"Look again." Sebastian waited. He had already decided they’d do the Today Show and Good Morning America. Nobody watched CBS. They’d ‘donate’ the specimen to the Smithsonian. But he made mental finger quotes around the word donate, because he was damn sure they were going to get paid.
"You asshole," Gareth said.
"It was an accident. I swear. You know me. I stopped fishing because I couldn’t stand the idea of putting a hook through a worm."
"We can’t tell anyone about this, Sebastian."
"Why the Hell not?"
"Because no one will believe us, that’s why. We’ll be the punch line to a joke. A couple of small town, redneck hillbillies who thought they could pull one over on everyone by gluing a fake horn to a dead horse. I mean, shit, think it through. If Besty knew you killed a horse, she’d never speak to you again. If she found out you killed a unicorn--a real, live fucking unicorn--she’d . . . I don’t even know what. But I’d imagine your balls would end up in her purse and not in a good way."
The adrenaline rush wore off. Sebastian wanted to close his eyes, wake up the next morning, and find out that none of it had happened. "What do we do?"
"What’s this we crap?" Gareth said. "This ain’t my problem. But if I were you, I’d get a saw, cut that horn off, and hope to God no one looks too closely at the carcass."
Sebastian drove his brother back to the farm and got the tools he’d need. Heat lightning rippled across the sky and a hazy fog had settled in over the valley. Sebastian sweated through his shirt on the drive back.
He didn’t want to think about what he was going to do. He could see his tire tracks and there was blood on the asphalt, so he knew he was in the right spot, but there was no sign of the animal. The ground was soft and muddy. He found a set of tracks that were clearly hoof prints, but they disappeared after a dozen yards. It was as though the unicorn had gotten up, stretched its legs, and vanished.
He couldn’t believe it. He was sure that it had been dead, that he had killed it, and it just walked away as though nothing happened. Gareth was right: no one would believe him, not even Betsy. The only proof that he had was the damage to the front end of Gareth’s truck. Gareth insisted that Sebastian pay cash for the repairs. He said there was no way they could submit a claim saying that the damage had been caused by a mythological creature. Even if their insurance agent believed them, it was force majeure and not covered by their policy.
APPETITE by Todd Nelsen
There he was. Jason Archer. He trotted down the school steps like he owned them, just like a prize thoroughbred. Sandy, blonde hair, blue-eyed, tan, muscular. When she looked at him, a funny feeling crept up in her stomach. It made her weak to look at him, sick even.
Oh, and that smile of his, that gorgeous, gorgeous smile.
What a cutie, she thought, just too perfect. She could just eat him up.
"Look out, fat-so!"
Sarah blinked and turned, just as the young skateboarder came hauling ass down the walk. She hadn’t seen him, but when she did,
"I said, look --!"
But it was too late. They both went down in a grip of white arms and legs, spilling to the pavement below. Luckily, the skater managed to leap off his deck moments before contact, slowing himself in the process, a smart move on his part. If he hadn’t, there may have been some serious, physical damage exchanged between them - maybe enough to warrant a visit to the school nurse or even a trip to the local hospital. Still, the skater’s quick reflexes didn’t lesson the severity of the collision in his eyes. He’d just taken a spill, an unnecessary one at that.
And that was an insult, a blow, to both his reputation and pride.
"Why don’t you look where you’re going, you fat cow?" he said, picking himself up and his board. A grinning, fiery skull was painted across the bottom of it.
Sarah gathered up her schoolbag and looked around her. Some of the other students had begun to stare. The words did not bother her; she’d been called worse. But when she took a furtive glance back to the steps, her face grew a hot red. Jason Archer, the most popular boy in school, star quarterback of the football team, had stopped walking and was standing at the bottom of the steps, also staring.
"What gives, huh?" the boy with skateboard said. "You deaf? Or just fat and stupid?"
She already knew what was coming. She’d been down this road a thousand times since starting the new school. They weren’t going to let this go. A force had been set in motion and once started, would now take its course. It couldn’t be stopped. If she had been one of the pretty ones, like some of the other girls, they might let up, but not this time.
Not for a fat girl.
Not for her.
"I-I’m sorry. I didn’t s-see you," she said.
A few of the other skaters wheeled up and were hopping off their decks, gathering around. One, who had his hat flipped back over his head, took one look at her, gave her a playful sneer, then reached out for her schoolbag, as if to take it.
Another boy, seeing the fun in the game, joined in.
If she had been pale before, she grew paler now, her eyes wider and more round. She could feel her heart racing. Her breathing took on an apprehensive tone, high and strained.
"Don’t--" she said, hugging her satchel in both arms. Though it contained just a few schoolbooks, paper, a pen or two, and an old sweater - nothing substantially important or that couldn’t be replaced - she knew if any of the boys got their hands on it, she would never see it again. And what right did they have to take it? They didn’t have the right to it, she thought.It was her satchel. She had done nothing wrong to them. It was a misunderstanding, a mistake. Besides, they shouldn’t have been skating on school grounds to begin with. Still the hands came. Four of them. Six. Eight. She could feel them on all sides of her… and laughter; she could hear their laughter. Not just the boys with the skateboards but the entire schoolyard now.
They were all watching her… and they were all laughing.
"It’s mine, I said! Mine!"
"Mine!" one of them mimicked. "Mine!"
"Leave me alone!"
"Leave me alone!"
She sat down on the sidewalk, on her hunches, rocking herself back and forth, her long hair falling over bent knees and closed eyes and cradling her bag against her chest. She was waiting, hoping they would just leave her be and go away. In the back of her mind, she knew how she must have appeared to them, which was exactly how she looked to herself: like a fat, hopeless, pathetic slob. She felt trapped. Suffocated. She couldn’t breathe. She was on the verge of panic and barely holding on.
Oh, God, much more of this, she thought, and she knew she’d lose it. She’d go insane.
Where was the principle? A teacher? A janitor? Anything.
Then in some faint vision of hope, she opened her eyes and looked back to the steps, back to what she had seen before. And it was there she caught a glimpse of something terrible, something awful. It was what she dreaded the most. Through the blur of their arms and legs, she watched as Jason Archer, beautiful, blonde Jason Archer, star of the football team, pointed and jeered and joined in, nearly bent over, beside himself in laughter.
No, her mind pleaded. Not him! Anyone but him! Not my love!
Again, she closed her eyes, squeezing them tighter, so tight her eyelids and forehead hurt with the strain. The hurt welled up in her like a volcano, like her insides would burst.
It was too much for her, too much to bear.
Sarah "The Moose" began to scream.
"Hey, watch where you’re goin,’ will ya!"
"I’m sorry. I didn’t see you," she said.
She stumbled out of the street and back onto the curb and the sidewalk, the cabbie nearly hitting her as she crossed the intersection. It was late afternoon. Though the incident at the school had been nearly over an hour ago, tears still stung her eyes and wet her cheeks. With her head down, she hadn’t been watching the blip blip turn of the streetlights and crossed the intersection too soon.
She’d almost got herself clobbered.
What would the news have read? Poor, ugly, fat girl run over by cab driver on 5th and Simms? Unloved, unwanted, and near despair? Why did it have to be so hard? Was it this hard for everyone? She could see the obituary now, probably unnoticed near the bottom of the page. Disappointing, pathetic, even comical. She knew she wouldn’t be missed by any of them. Not even her own parents. She was an outcast, a freak. If anything, they’d laugh her right into the grave.
Quit crying, you stupid baby, she said to herself. It could be worse.
It could be worse… couldn’t it?
The principle had been called. Miss Burton, the science teacher, heard the yelling from the open window of her classroom and bolted downstairs. But by the time she’d arrived, the incident was over. Still howling, and grass in her hair (one of them had taken to throwing it at her, once he realized she wasn’t letting loose of her bag), Sarah was escorted up to the school office and repeatedly asked the names of the boys who’d accosted her.
"Tell us, Sarah. We can deal with them. Otherwise, it will just keep happening. You don’t want that, do you?"
But Sarah knew it would keep happening, whatever she told them. A force had been set in motion, and once started, there was no stopping it. She knew if she did tell, it would only get worse on her from here on out. They may have teased her because she was different today, but nobody, NOBODY, could tolerate the company of a rat.
"I don’t know them," she said quietly, her head down.
"Would you like us to phone your parents?"
"No, they’re not at home." It was a lie, of course. "I’m fine. I just want to go home."
And they let her go, just like that, never bothering to say that, yes, it was like this for everyone else. In fact, that they had visits like this from many of the other students, each and every week, even from some of the pretty ones, some incidents much, much worse than Sarah’s.
But Sarah wasn’t stupid. She wouldn’t have believed it. She knew the truth. It didn’t get any worse than this. It couldn’t.
She’s on a seafood diet. When she sees food she eats it. She’s so fat, she leaves footprints in concrete. She has more rolls than a bakery, more chins than a Hong Kong phonebook. When she ran away from home, they had to use four sides of the milk carton to find her. Roll her in flour, man, search for the wet spot.
Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.
It was something only a fat girl would understand:
Even when she thought nobody was watching, Sarah was often conscious of the way she walked. It wasn’t in her thighs, as people thought, as much as it was in her belly; carrying the extra weight around was a real chore, as any overweight person could attest. To not wobble, she had to concentrate. And to concentrate, she had to be constantly aware of her larger size. Forever vigil.
It wasn’t easy.
She wanted to feel normal. She wanted to feel like everyone else. She wanted more than that even; she wanted to be pretty. She wanted to be like the girls who ran laps in gym class, climbed ropes, jumped, and were asked out on dates. When some girls were wondering if their shorts or skirts were too tight, Sarah was worried about her underwear: granny panties, she called them. When the prettiest and most popular were trying out for cheerleading and volleyball, Sarah went home and read, gorged herself between meals in front of her computer and television.
Sarah had seen every, existing episode of True Blood three times. She had read Stephanie Myer’s Twilight series, twice, including the spin-off novella, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, and the first, twelve chapters of the, as yet unfinished, Midnight Sun, which had leaked over the Internet a few years before.
Oh, yes, Edward Cullen was a cutie.
He was hot.
During the summer, Sarah grew particularly depressed and downtrodden. She dressed heavy, not to keep warm but to cover up. This did wonders for her personal hygiene, which always felt out of her control. Sarah hated summer. She hated everything about it. She hated the heat. She hated the insects that clung to her skin. She hated swimming. She was once asked to a pool party, and she spent the entire time outside of the pool, in blue jeans and a lounge chair, her swimming suit wadded up in a plastic bag, having "accidentally" been left in her mother’s car.
She turned the corner of 6th and Blake Street. There were two ways to go from here. The first, was a short cut that would take her down a long alleyway, between 6th and 7th, between streets. It didn’t cut much time from her commute home, but it did save her some, not that she was in any real hurry (she already knew, unless the school phoned, she wouldn’t be telling her parents about the incident earlier that day). The second, was a straight shot up Clarkston and was her usual route. It passed Ende’s Neverending Bookstore, a barbershop, a liquor store, an Irish pub named The Lucky Cue, a sandwich shop, and other, assorted businesses. It was her usual route because it was safer, though longer, in the end. Today, however, she didn’t feel like playing it safe. Christ, after all that had happened? Why bother? Besides, it was too loud, too warm, too overwhelming. It felt like they all knew and were staring:
"MOOSE. MOOSE. MOOSE," the streetlights said.
So she chose the alley, thinking the silence there would be comforting, even consoling, after the incident at the school.
A solitude seldom found in the inner heart of the city.
And just as she suspected it would be, the alley was quiet, deafeningly so. As if it had always existed this way, cut off from the hurry up and buzz of the world. It ran for nearly a quarter of a mile, from end to end. Garbage bins, large and stiff boxes the size of Toyotas, lined its length and sat full and ready to be emptied. Windows of various apartments and residences rose high above, coupled with ladders, steel porches, and landings. She imagined if it had been many years before, she would have seen clotheslines, spanning the alley’s width, stretched from building’s edge to edge. But those were different times, then. Now residents popped 50 cents into a machine and relied on oversized dryers to remove the wet from their damp clothes.
Always moving, always changing, such was the way of world.
Suddenly, Sarah stopped.
A cold shiver ran up her spine.
It was too quite, she thought. Now she looked back to the street she had just left, little more than a few yards behind her, with all its noise and bustling eyes, and considered taking the longer route home, instead.
Then she decided against it. The wobble, the heat, the stares, perhaps, is what did it. She could certainly live without all that right now, for sure. Or maybe it was just simple, girlish pride.
Whatever the reason, she continued on, into the shadowy alleyway between 6th and 7th.
Besides, what was the worst that could happen to her in broad daylight?
Ahead of her, she didn’t hear the sounds of their skateboards until she was nearly on top of them. By then, it was too late. As if they’d been waiting for her all along.
"Look what we got here! A moose!"
She was shocked at the sight of them; so very few of her classmates lived on this end of town. Not that it would have mattered much; she didn’t have any friends.
"That’s no moose, Harry. It’s a goth-o-potamus!"
Sarah grimaced. She didn’t understand why some of them called her that! It bothered her. She wasn’t Goth! Sure, she may have been overweight, but she didn’t even wear black. She seldom wore make-up. Just because she read vamp books (very popular vamp books, she was quick to add) didn’t make her Goth. It meant she was keeping up with the times, that she was cultured. And what was wrong with that? Since when was it ever a crime to try to fit in? Sarah had spent most of her young life feeling different, out of place.
She wanted to fit in.
It was the boy with the hat that had spoken, the same boy who had thrown grass in her face earlier. Though Sarah was sure the group was larger before, there were just three of them now, and all three, she remembered. In the alley, it appeared they had built a makeshift ramp out of boards, broken cement, and a garbage lid. They were taking turns leaping off it, one after another, performing skateboard tricks. They reminded her of monkey’s, wild animals, and she was a little scared: without a principle or teacher around, she knew this could go bad on her, especially if they thought she’d told, which she hadn’t… but if they thought she had… she could be in a lot of trouble.
She put her head down, and with a firm hand on her school bag, she continued walking forward, trying to ignore them (or, better yet, hoping they’d ignore her). It was a tactic she often used at school, and it usually worked.
Most of the time.
"Where you going, Sarah?" the boy said. "Not going to say hi?"
The fact he knew her name surprised her. She didn’t know his. Why would she? It wasn’t as if they were friends or anything. He planted himself firmly in front of her, blocking her path, his skateboard tucked beneath one arm. She could see he was smoking, which surprised her, too. None of the boys, herself included, were over fourteen years of age. Fourteen, in her mind, was the age of a kid, not a tough ruffian who smoked cigarettes, talked like a sailor, and treated little girls like hookers. When she tried to walk around, another boy stepped forward. When she went the other way, the other. In moments, all three had her surrounded.She stole a quick glance behind her, and her heart sank like the Costa Concordia. The street she had left was barely visible now. She’d never make it, even if she ran; it was just too far.
"Think she told?" one of them asked.
"Nah," another said. "She be fat but ain’t got the guts to talk."
This chortled a laugh.
"Leave me alone," she mumbled beneath their laughter, trying to step past them again. "Pick on somebody else, will ya?"
The boy in the hat heard it, and he frowned, like he’d just tasted something bad. Everything in his face said, what gives you the right to talk back? What makes you think you have the right to do that, huh? He took a drag from his cigarette, and looking into that face, Sarah started to squirm. Come to think of it, she didn’t like the look on any of the boys’ faces. She could read cruelty written all over the features of each of them. These kids were animals, not children, raised by parents and guardians who didn’t care about them, who didn’t care if they stayed out, all night even, smoking cigarettes and riding skateboards. Away from the school, they were without any restraint. No principle. No teachers. No law. There was nothing stopping them now.
Yes, this could get bad, really, really bad, she thought.
A smile crossed his lips, as a thought occurred to him, and she saw how yellow his teeth were. It wasn’t a pleasant smile. He put out his cigarette on the pavement, with his toe, just like an adult would, and leaned into her. Too close, much too close, she thought. Above them, the sky was turning a deep blue; it was just hours from turning to sunset.
Soon the sky would be black.
"I say, we punish her anyway," he said.
"But I didn’t tell," she persisted. "I didn’t!"
When Sarah was born, they had to evacuate the planet.
If Sarah went on a diet, the starving nations of the world would have enough to eat for a whole month.
NASA satellites orbited around her… The army used her panties as a parachute… Magellan tried to sail around her, twice, and got lost…
"No, I won‘t do it."
Two fat girls were walking down the road, and the bus came. One says to the other: "Is it my turn to ride today?"
"Eat it. I said, eat it!"
He put his hand to the back of her head.
Seriously, though, you’re not fat, just big boned.
Bubba-da-boom! Bubba-da-boom! Bubba-da-boom! Earthquake!
When you play hopscotch, do you say… Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Pennsylvania? Or is it Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming?
His hands pressed firmly to the back of her neck. On the ground, a bright wad of chewing gum. Where once there had been laughter and teasing, there was silence. The other, two boys held back, watching the struggle between them. It was a contest of wills. The hunter and the hunted. The bully and the bullied.
Eat it, Sarah.
I won’t. You can’t make me.
What the children didn’t understand, however (and they were just children), was that they weren’t bound to it, anymore than blood was bound to the flesh or flesh was to bone.
Things come apart. Nothing is. Everything does.
No? Okay, try this another way.
A year before, Sarah had visited her cousins in Florida, USA. She was excited to be seeing them. She hadn’t since she was 4, maybe 5, years old. But when they saw her, and realized what she had become, the happy reunion she’d expected took a turn. One morning, her cousins, in fits of laughter, "hog-tied" her with rope and stuck her in their closet. They then went off to play C-boys & Injuns in the yard, leaving her there, forgetting about the girl in the dark.
And when they didn’t return, Sarah waited some more.
Finally, getting lonely, and a little cross, she decided she didn’t want to be in that closet anymore, so she simply… walked out.
Yes, that’s right.
Walked out. Just like that.
"Hiya, cousins! Remember me? What ya playing? Can I join in?"
When they returned to inspect how she had done it, they discovered the ropes broken, the closet scarcely hanging on its hinges.
She’d beat through that door like soft butter.
It scared the living piss out of them, of course.
None of her Florida cousins teased her after that, and despite the heat, Sara admittedly had a pretty good time in Florida after that, too.
C-boys & Injuns. Monsters in the dark. Eat the fucking chewing gum, Sarah.
No? Try this.
There’s a tug of war contest at school. They do it every year. Sarah is twelve, and for the first time in her life, she is chosen to take part in a game with her peers. In fact, they choose her FIRST. Why? Because her team will WIN by a landslide.
No? Try this.
Sarah wants to watch her favorite television show. Her mother says it’s too late and time for bed. In a fit of rage, Sarah tosses the television across the room and threatens to light the house on fire.
No? Okay. Have it your way.
A fat girl walks into a bar and says…
Sarah pushed with every ounce of strength her body could muster. Her legs and calves, having supported her growing weight for years, forced back the boy’s hold on her neck like a hydraulic floor jack. She grabbed his wrist with both hands and yanked, throwing her body into it.
The boy bucked, buckled, and she heard a whimper, followed by a loud snap.
"Stop!" he pleaded. "I give! You’re hurting my arm!"
Slowly, she reached out and grabbed him by the hair, pulling him to the pavement.
"Am I?" she asked, unconcerned.
The other children (and they were just children) watched on, astonished, afraid to move, afraid of the monster that’d come to life before them.
She narrowed her eyes up at them, a cold, dark, unfriendliness in those eyes, and said: "You better run, fuckers. You better run like you have a pair."
And they did. Because they knew she meant it. Forgetting their friend and leaving him to her like syrup is to pancakes, like hopscotch is to Alabama, like…
BEAUTY IS ON THE INSIDE.
The words fumbled at the backdoor of her mind and hung there. Sarah snorted. That was just bullshit, she thought. Plain bullshit! She’d NEVER been beautiful. NEVER. Inside OR out. Sarah wasn’t stupid. She knew the truth. It didn’t get any worse than this. It couldn’t. They were liars to say it could be otherwise. Dirty liars! She would beat this boy badly. She might even kill him, if no one came along to stop her. How is that for beauty, huh?
And when they asked her why, because they always needed a why, she’d say…
She was the reason they’d invented double doors… She had more pounds than the Bank of England and more rolls than a pastry truck… Because Jason Archer, star of the football team, had never loved her, never noticed her, and never would…
If she had been one of the pretty ones, she might have let up, given the poor kid a break.
But not this time.
Not a chance.
"Your turn," she said. "Eat."
RUINS by Joseph J. Wood
‘Do you want me to tell you about your great-great-grandfather one more time?’
My son couldn’t answer. He was lying underneath a blanket, coughing and weeping softly. The rag we had wrapped around him was doing nothing to stem the bleeding and his blood was moving across the gravel, creeping like an insect, stop-start movement. Grandfather was sitting in his wheelchair. Its wheels, without tyres, buckled and with broken spokes, had been worn useless by the desert of rubble and debris.
‘He was leaning against a wall,’ my grandfather continued unprompted, ‘smoking a cigarette and looking out at the city the way people look out at the ocean. Amazed by its vastness, by its rolling eternity. Knowing that somewhere on the other side it ends and knowing that even if you squint and look hard enough you’ll never see all the way across.
‘And he heard a noise like your spray paint can in the fire that time. He heard it way off in the distance. It made him jump like you do when something shocks you, made his heart gasp and his ears prick up. So he looked to where he thought the sound had come from.
‘And he saw all the trees shaking and all the leaves, he noticed they were coming towards him. Like a wave of leaves coming toward him fast. And then he saw the buildings, saw that they were coming apart from the top down, the way sand dunes are deconstructed by the wind.
‘He had to fall to the ground and hold his head in his hands as the bricks smashed into the building behind him. The leaves dragged against him but luckily none of the bricks hit him. It started to rain a thick black rain, dense with ash.
‘When he stood up the building behind him was gone. The city was gone. And he still couldn’t see all the way across but he had seen how the city ended.’
I could hear them despite the distance I was keeping. I couldn’t bear to be close. My father had died protecting me. Now my son was dying because I couldn’t protect him. I’d returned to him too late. I’d even shot the man who’d got to him, as if that would make a difference now. As if I could cheat something. Like it was some kind of apology.
Now I was thinking of shooting myself. Another apology. But then Grandfather would be left with nothing and they’d get to him as well and then how would I apologise for that?
My father had died saving me from them when they’d got to me. I was twenty-seven years old. I should have been able to take care of myself, not rely on my father. I’d got him killed. And my son, twenty years younger than I was when they’d got to me, was dying. Because of me. I’d got him killed.
He had heard the story that Grandfather was telling countless times before. He didn’t understand the references to the ocean or the sand dunes. We had shown him once by piling some of the thinner rubble next to our mess tin, which we filled with water. And we blew on the water to make waves and we blew on the pile of rubble to disrupt it.
I wanted to take him to the beach. I’d wanted to since Grandfather had started telling him the story. Or at least, since he’d been old enough to understand the words. But there was always something more important. Find food for us all, ammunition for the rifle, medicine for Grandfather. Find shelter, hide. Protect.
So now I watched the shards of my family. The dying elder, the dying child and between them the space left by a dead man. I was holding the rifle by the barrel, the butt on the ground, like a strut. A support. Help. It hadn’t helped much. Hadn’t supported us. I leaned on it and it took my weight.
When the weather’s clear like today, you can hear the wind coming from miles away. I saw the dust shimmer on the horizon and watched it come towards us like a wave. Stones crackled against my boots and pinged off of the wheelchair.
I noticed that the weeping had stopped. The coughing was less consistent. I didn’t realise I had started walking until I had almost reached them. Grandfather was asleep, his head resting on his chest, rising and falling slowly. Every breath he took was punctuated with a wet cough before he exhaled. My son wasn’t moving at all.
His eyes were open but not looking. His mouth was open but not breathing. I took a couple of steps away and, leaning on the rifle, threw up. It was disgust that pushed the vomit out; I felt relieved that the waiting was over, that I didn’t have to hope any more. Something moral inside me couldn’t handle that and had to get out.
I left the rifle leaning against Grandfather. He would put it to good use; he’d use it to defend himself one way or the other. He’d use it to stop them getting to him.
I walked forward. The distance was my destination. Keep that in mind, I decided. Keep heading to the distance and don’t stop.
AYAME'S LOVE by Thomas C Hewitt
Locating Anton was typically hard
as he was, as ever, obscurely placed;
obscurely occupied as though on art.
With concentration engraving his face
so his features compressed into thought’s scars
as his fingers delicately embraced
and leaves from branches were pried apart
lain in a basket with still softer pace.
The eyes that perceived the sequence had guessed
that it was repeated out of madness.
They were wary as they approached Anton;
other leaves lay on the ground they fell on
as Ranzo nervously held them downward
in fear of response when his words were heard.
Ranzo cleaned his throat to ask a question
to the man he had sought to bid farewell.
He had him found near the old man’s garden
acting as if in the trance of a spell.
A cautious beginning begged his pardon
and wondered about the basket he held;
then patiently waited for a response
with wonder at what the answer would tell.
Anton pulled his mind from out of his daze
and arranged the expression on his face
so that it displayed a kind of patience
that Ranzo had never before witnessed.
His words had a surprised chirp to them
as if they were reunited friends.
"This tree is common to this area
yet none grow near the towns that I trade in
and I may be able to sell these leaves
to the lovers whose eyes are filled with glints
as tokens of affection and receipts
for passionate times as the sunlight dimmed
and moments they have already received
but still are eager to receive again."
Ranzo spoke again to question Anton
about the privilege that he had won
and the reason he chose not to remain
with the woman for whom they both had raced.
The woman who had been the reason why
Ranzo had approached to bid his goodbyes
"She never was mine to take," said Anton.
"Nor, if you chose to stay, would she be yours,
it is best that you and I should move on
and return to the lives we had before.
You are happiest hearing the crowds' want
and I am happier when I am not poor.
All that I have learnt in this is not
to ask for things that I cannot afford.
I need more attention than I can give
and wealth is the only way I get it.
Ayame is less naive than we are,
she sees that our shine is not of the stars.
And, through her I learnt this ounce of the truth
that you and I should grow to learn that too."
With his mind already set on leaving
Ranzo accepted Anton’s words with ease
and asked if he could accompany him
sensing there was an opportunity
for them both to benefit from the trip.
He offered to repay Anton’s money
by the performance of acrobatics
in any towns they met on their journey
and in this way he could find his way back
on to more friendly and familiar paths.
Anton said he would decline the money
unless it was split by them evenly,
and he could raise interest in Ranzo’s shows
so they could grow wealthy as they walked home.
It took them three months to return to Peres
the place were they had first made acquaintance.
The first news of Clarissa Anton heard
was she had settled with a poorer man
who had taken her as his only care.
That man paid them more than other people had
for the tokens of love Anton sold there.
As he left the market stall two friends laughed
at his back as he returned to the girl
that Anton thought he knew best in the world.
And at that moment Anton realised
that he couldn’t have less care if he tried.
When two days later all the leaves were sold
he and Ranzo moved wealthily onward.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
TRINITY TRIPTYCH by Rob Bliss
Satan was wearing his favourite petticoat, white as an albatross breast with labial red trim. His buckle shoes, mirror black, accentuated his slender, tapered feet. A ruffled bonnet haloed his albino-wan face, his yellowjacket-stung button mouth, and his scimitar-lashed specked eyes. He held his shepherd’s staff high and straight.
Skipping along the sheep path, Satan tra-la-la’ed merrily to himself, then stopped his shoes in the dust. He turned to ensure his charges were keeping up.
A bedraggled flock followed. Nary a sheep to be proud of, but Satan harboured no pride in his deep heart. He loved his flock for what they were: stained, crippled, spotted, some partially blinded by disease or thorny accident, others deaf as belltower church mice. Festering sores on limbs, wool chewed to expose red and purple muscle, hoofs split and cracked. A few sheep had been shoed, jagged hob-nails bent and twisted, digging into hooves, some shoes hanging on by a single nail and dragged by each hobbling step. (Satan had often been taken for a ride by tradesmen.)
His tribe followed their shepherd, throats warbling out hellish voices which sputtered drowning in smoky phlegm. Satan, naturally, looked on the bright side: no guilt-plagued priest would opt to sacrifice a single member of Satan’s brood.
Satan’s heart tore when he saw the pain inflicting his flock. He knelt to peel crust from the eye of one sheep, a favourite, cooing soothing vowels into its tag-torn ear, kissing it on the crown of its scabbed head, then letting it hop happily away as best it could. Another had a leg set between two sticks. Satan checked the knots in the twine that tied the sticks to the limb, then delicately patted the sheep’s back, avoiding the sores, telling it that the snapped bone (healing at odd angles, balls of pus like liquid ankles dotting the animal’s leg, leaking through sores like sulphurous molasses to get atop the beast’s hoof) was looking much better and would soon be as good as new.
Satan wiped away a tear after turning his flushed visage away so that the flock wouldn’t see him weep. He stood. Nostrils flared, chest expanded like a frigate bird’s, as Satan inhaled breath and strength to carry on. He hummed a jaunty tune, though without skipping along the jagged path, until the music became an amnesia flogging away his sorrow.
Leaning against a large stone ahead on the path was a man. The stone stood taller than he, allowing him to lean his whole body back, head arched up, eyes closed as he felt the sun’s heat dry the sweat running down the sides of his neck. The stone cooled him. He leaned, arms crossed, one knee bent, sandal sole pressed against the stone. So still was the man that Satan would’ve thought him dead had he not been leaning in an upright position.
Wrapped in the man’s left hand were two keys: one silver, one gold, linked by an iron loop. But the man’s hand was large enough, fingers fat with a sunburned band of a lost ring, to envelope the keys, hiding them from Satan’s vision.
Satan stopped at the man and smiled. And waited. The man did not open his eyes, nor acknowledge Satan’s presence in any other way. Sheep crashed into Satan’s calves and into each other. Three sheep dropped to the ground. The one with the splintered leg kicked its three other legs in a vain attempt to stand again, until it got tired and lay panting, puffing dust up to layer its mouth and nose. Other sheep wandered off after detaching and reorienting themselves from the collided line; some to urinate against the rock, others to lick sustenance from the stone, re-hydrating their tongues with salt and iron.
Satan twisted where he stood to make a mental picture of where each sheep wander off to, doing a quick idiot savante count, ensuring no sheep was too injured from the crash. He couldn’t bear to gratuitously fantasize about putting a sheep, or any animal, out of its misery. "Euthenasia ain’t just a river in Asia", he liked to quip. He had never been to Asia. Asian didn’t believe in him. Satan didn’t believe in geography.
"Hello, friend," the man spoke, eyes remaining closed, words emitting between unmoving lips.
Satan thought at first that he was hearing a disembodied voice, but assumed that wouldn’t be happening again, not in the middle of the afternoon. So he turned from perusing his flock to smile again at the unmoving man.
"Hi, there," Satan chirped. "My name’s Satan. I’m a shepherd. These are my sheep. They’re hungry so I’m taking them on a long aimless forced march into the wilderness until food magically arrives." Satan stuck a fingertip between his thick, luscious lips as he scanned the visible remnants of his flock. "That’s Dancer, that’s Vixen, that’s Hortense von Hottentot, and there’s Moopsie and Poopsie and Boopsie– they’re not triplets, some people think they look alike but they all had different mommies – and that one – oops, he just popped out of view, but he’ll be back, just when you least expect him – that’s – "
"Fuck me!" the man yelled. "Anal fuck my holy Christ!" He kicked up a leg. A sheep was peeing on the stone, but the man’s leg got in the way. He kicked the sheep in the eyes. It coughed a baa of phlegm, and scrambled off, getting caught in a bramble bush, having, now, limited vision.
"You kicked my sheep!" Satan cried, stamping his shepherd’s staff against the earth, brushing a matte of dust over his shiny shoes.
"The fucking thing pissed up my leg!"
"Well that’s cuz you weren’t moving. He thought you were part of the rock."
The man glared at the sheep with hatred as it tried to untangle its head from the bush. He kicked it again, pushing it further into the thorns.
"I should crush its fucking head in!" the man said to no one.
"You will do no such thing," Satan countered. "He’s a good boy. He’s only got one eye!" Satan blinked away tears as he watched the sheep struggle. The sheep shat in panic. "Maybe that one’s gone now too." He tightened his lips into a rigid kiss at the man. "Why did you have to be such a big meany? Using curse words!"
The man ignored Satan’s jibe, only just now fully absorbing the bonnet and petticoat, putting it in context to presumed gender and profession.
"What are you supposed to be?"
Satan tilted his head like a dog. "I’m Satan, I told you."
"You don’t look like a Satan."
"You can’t tell a book by its looks."
"Wait. Are you Satan, or a Satan?"
"For the umpteenth time – I’m Satan." The shepherd’s staff smote the dust.
The man scanned the being before him from buckles to bonnet.
"Don’t get all pissy. You just look more like a pederast’s wet dream."
"Well maybe I am," Satan retorted. He crossed his arms around his shepherd’s staff, stuck out his tongue, and spun on a toe to put his back to the man.
The man tucked his chin into his neck, eyes cloaked by black caterpillar eyebrows as he glared at Satan’s back.
"You don’t even know what a pederast is, do you?"
Satan spun back to face the man, chin high, lips kissing cloud. "I know you are but what am I?" His uplifted nose dared the man to answer.
"Well . . . ," the man began slowly. He glanced at one sheep sniffing and licking the freshly dropped feces of another sheep, then back to Satan " . . . I may be a pederast – nothing wrong with it, a boy needs a mentor . . . but I’m not enough of a fabulist to work you into any of my scenarios." The man tilted his eyes up, only now noticing the thick matted black hair on Satan’s forearms. "Though I know a couple guys who could . . . work you . . . "
Satan, oval hairless nostrils high, answered: "I don’t make monkeys, I just shave ‘em." He spun away.
The man’s mouth gaped, anaconda, as though he was forcing a regurgitation that wouldn’t emerge. His eyes were full of sand.
"Wha. Wha. Cah? Where did that come from?" he finally belched. "What’s that supposed to mean?"
"Homosayswhat?" Satan deftly rebutted over his shoulder.
"What?" the man said, tripping into the trap.
Satan tittered, held a dainty finger to his plump lips. The man focussed on Satan’s fingernails, glossy black with pinprick stars.
"Oh!" The man epiphanized. "You’re Satan!"
Satan lowered the drapes of his eyelids and glared into the man’s enlightened smile.
"You’re as dense as a virgin," Satan embossed, then stuck his tongue out of the corner of his mouth while shaping his lips into a zigzag.
The man nodded his head backwards, neck arched. "No, no, I get it." He inhaled as though stepping out into a dewy morn. "I’ve been looking for you." He opened his hand. "Like these?"
Satan peered, arms crossed like crossed arms, over the fleshy rims of the man’s fat palm. "What’re those?"
"Keys to the Kingdom."
"I already have a kingdom. Gran-mama says it’s deep within my depthless heart."
The man cleared his throat, kept the keys showing flat on his palm. He made a mental note to count each time Satan glanced down at his hand during his speech.
"What if I told you with these keys you’ll be able to conquer and control over half the world, known and unknown, for over two thousand year?"
Satan stared, an eyebrow aslant, waiting for more details, for a money back guarantee, for re-sale value.
"I guarantee it," the man vowed. He counted thirty-seven glances from Satan’s eyes to the keys so far. "You’ll control people, nations . . . you’ll get to kill and eat who you want, rich and old, poor and young, male and black, female and white." His eyes left Satan’s hypnotised mouth.
The man looked up the path. One myopic sheep had been stopped by the shadow of a thin tree, waiting for the shadow to lead the way. A second sheep stood, halted by the drooped, half-chewed tail of a sheep in front of it, which was staring at a tree’s shadow.
The man trolled an eye along the path, up the petticoat, to the wet mouth of the shepherd. " . . . you can have all the sheep you want. Good ones. The elite."
Satan perked awake, forehead shining with greasy dew, lips thinned by a smile of doubt and expectation.
"For real and for true?" his enlarged watery eyes, Japanese manga, asked.
"Thousands, millions of sheep. You will be the shepherd of shepherds. Across vast plains will your sheep stretch. With nary a wolf to eat even the smallest, weakest, oldest . . . " the man spat into the dust as he watched a sheep licking a dry stone " . . . stupidest piece of walking meat . . . sheep."
"We don’t like wolves," Satan said, puckering his pouting mouth at a runt lamb for a few moments, then relaxed and waited for the axe to fall. "Do we, Mr. Moopsie?" The lamb looked up into a sky of petticoat, warbled with its thin tongue, jutting out and up like a curved knife, sounding almost human.
"But you gotta do something for me," said the man.
Still pouting, Satan kept his chin down but eyes raised to the man’s glare. "What?"
The man held the keys by the iron ring, looked at the lamb burying its head in petticoat clouds, licking his lips.
"Give me the little one."
"Mr. Moopsie!" Satan dropped to his knees, huddling over the lamb, hugging it and petticoat frill to his breast. "You can’t have Mr. Moopsie. What are you going to do? Eat him?"
"Nope. I’m gonna take good care of him. Raise him as my very own." The man arced an arm across the landscape, and down the path already trotted upon. No sheep were within his scope. "Look at this bedraggled herd you’ve got. They’re broken down. Can’t use ‘em. Even the meat is inedible."
Satan quickly cupped his hands over the lamb’s ears. He whispered to it. "It’s okay, Mr. Moopsie. Not for little lambs ears to hear. Don’t be scared." But the lamb still trembled, cocooned in the body of Satan.
The man shook his head, rubbed his eyes clear, took a long look at Satan who was kissing the woolly crown of the lamb’s head.
"So . . . ," the man began, " . . . you are Satan . . . as in Prince of Darkness or Evil or . . . general badness?"
Satan shot the man a stern eye lashing from his crouched position. "How could you say a dirty word in front of Mr. Moopsie?"
The man threw up his hands, looked to the sky. "I need to inhale some burning hemp or something." The keys, looped around his fingers, dangled in the sunlight. He jingled them to divert Satan’s attention away from the lamb.
"The keys for the lamb. My best offer. You’re getting a steal."
Satan stood his full four-foot-one height, held his hands behind his back, stared at the keys. A hand shot out in a swing, but the man snapped them into his palm and wagged a finger at Satan.
"Ah ah ah – bad little devil."
Satan looked down between his legs. The lamb had ventured out, licked a bug out of the air, licked a pebble, ate that too.
"You’ll take good care of Mr. Moopsie, you promise? Bathe him and brush him and give him kisses?"
"You betcha. He’ll think he’s died and gone to Heaven."
Satan gazed into the dusty black mirrors of his pigeon-toed shoes. Without looking up at the man, he said, mouth barely opening. "Mm-kay."
"I said okay. Give me the keys."
"Get the sheep over here."
Satan gently, yet forcefully, pushed the lamb’s bum toward the man.
"Go ahead, Mr. Moopsie. Go with the nice man. He’ll take good care of you. You be a good little lamby. Satan loves you. Never forget that."
The lamb spoke and stepped in a crooked line forward, which both Satan and the man interpreted as the lamb’s freewill to change masters. The man picked the lamb up in the cradle of his arms and flicked his wrist, tossing the keys to Satan. Satan caught the keys by slapping his hands together, as in prayer, in mid-air.
"So now what happens?" Satan queried.
"Whatever you want to happen."
"Like three wishes? What if I wish to have Mr. Moopsie back?"
"No, not like three wishes, you fuckin’ git. I’m not a genie. I’m real."
"What’s your name?"
"Simon. Or Peter. Or Simon Peter."
"How come you got three names?"
Simon Peter carried the lamb behind the large rock, away from Satan’s view.
Satan stood, glassy eyes fixed on the keys. He scanned the horizon of yellow dust and short grey grasslands. A town of mud huts lay in the hazy distance.
He wandered away from his flock, which was scattered across the plain. Satan wondered what the keys would open, fingering them in his petticoat pocket, clinking them in time with his dragging footsteps.
He could only dream that they would open the souls of Mankind to receive Satan’s undying kindness and love. That would be awesome. His penis hardened a little, and his vagina grew a tad moist, his clitoris throbbing thrice.
Simon Peter set the lamb down on its feet and he pinned it in place with a broad, thick hand against its small back. He peered around the rock, watching Satan stroll away lonesome down the path, waiting until the shepherd was tiny in the distance. He inhaled the vast plain, the white dots of scattered sheep, some falling over and bleating until they exhausted their raw throats, others standing obediently facing stones, shrubs, shadows and clouds of winged insects floating in chaotic swarms just beyond their noses. The sap of infection milked from their unfused limbs as they stood, tolerating pain in their stasis, their only hope some strong but uncontested leadership to lead them, if only just before death, to milk and honey, to medicine and food, to a soft bed of straw. Then, as a first and final act of will, they would permit, invite, death to rest beside them. Miles down an uncut road, years that only led to drooling amnesia, so that, as with a child, death would regain its slither and catch them by surprise.
Simon, who was also called Peter, turned his attention back to the lamb, feeling himself blissfully alone. No one, not even a god, to witness. He stroked the wool back. The lamb blinked slowly and bleated softly. To Simon it sounded like the coo of pre-pubescence. Its tail wagged, then stopped, then wagged a little more.
"Are you ready, my little lamb? Simon Peter, who was never Peter Simon, but then only Peter long after, whispered. He yanked his tattered robe from under his knees, bare skin, calloused, digging into dust and pebbles. He gathered the hem in a fist, raising the cloth, feeling the warm breeze on his exposed, rigid loins. "This will hurt. But I, too, sacrifice a part of myself as I give you life." Stroking the wool back, so tiny, so soft. The lamb tried to turn its face to its new master, but Simon Peter cupped splayed fingers over the animal’s skull, holding its head to point away. "Without pain, we cannot learn. Without pain, we cannot become. Without pain, we cannot feel pleasure. All is done in the name of the Lord. God of man and beast alike."
He shuffled forward on his knees to touch himself to the animal.
With a thrust, the lamb screamed.
On a farther hill, within telescopic view across the treeless plain, stood a white horse. A man named Jesus stood behind the horse, an Arabian stallion, one hand on its haunches, another hitching up his robe to above his waist. He wore boxers. With a tongue lolling from a corner of his mouth, bitten in place, he danced where he stood, trying to build enough momentum to leap.
He leapt, one hooking leg higher than the other, half up the horse’s thigh, but the tail arched to bar his way. His nose punched the horse’s ass, and he slid to the ground.
Jesus pulled himself to standing, looked across the plain, heard the prolonged screaming of the lamb, and tried again. This time attempting a side-saddle. Failed attempts at hoisting a leg onto the horse’s back resulted in Jesus kicking a sandal into the horse’s ribs. The horse kicked back, but Jesus swiftly stayed at its flank.
He twisted the white mane in his fist, simultaneously hopping and pulling himself up to lay like a sideways saddle of man onto the horse’s back. The stallion danced spinning. Jesus held on, face pressed against the horse’s whalebone ribs, flies edging the rims of his nostrils, as he kicked a leg over to straddle the equus back. He crouched low, breathing in the hair of the mane he clutched.
The horse didn’t like having the Son of God on its back. It reared high, bellowing its staccato equine laugh, nostrils flared, eyes lolling to their whites. Jesus squeezed the horse between his knees, dug his sandal heels into its belly, laid his cheek against the neck of solid, trembling muscle, prayed in a mumbled whisper to soothe the beast, but its arrowpoint ears heard nothing but the thunder of its hoofs bludgeoning the ground into torrents of dust.
Only when it began to snow did the horse calm. Silent flakes of geometric ice fell to dot the faces of horse and Christ, melting at the touch of warm-blooded skin. Snow on the eyelashes of the horse gave it the sensation of false sleep. It blinked slower and slower as it stood, feeling the soft blanket of cold descend over its body.
"I’m coming, Mr. Moopsie . . ." Jesus sleepily mumbled, a pearl of drool webbing a corner of his mouth as he nestled his nose into the soft mane. The beat of the horse’s heart sent Jesus into sleep, an echo muted and warmed by the thick muscle as it resounded beat by beat into the shell of Jesus’s ear.
The snow fell, miraculously, in so specific a spot, high on a lone bald hill. This was enough to dampen the screams of the lamb.
The lamb screamed itself hoarse, thin pink tongue laid flat between its teeth, throat burned thick into muteness. It stood in submission, its body pummelled from behind, beyond sight. Trees and bushes hid its rape, aged with a premature season, leaves rusted into a vibrant rainbow, which fell to layer the ripe earth. The lamb lied down.
Simon, sometimes Peter, felt his thighs tremble, muscles taut, as he panted, mouth in a snake gape, the whites of his eyes blanking his stare, hypnotized by the lamb’s body beneath.
He had not ejaculated, so his penis was still hard in his hand, yet waning like a serpent sagging to strike its stunned prey. He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth, tried to suck in more saliva to coat his dry tongue. A breeze cooled by a distant patch of winter threw his hair to one side, erasing the part in the middle of his skull, exposing strands of grey. He looked into the wind, squinting, eyelids closing to relish the cool on his sweating forehead, hair slicked to skin like threads of oil.
Leaves blew in a twisting eddy, an infant tornado, lethal only to the miniscule, over the lamb’s heaving back, covering it in patches of colour. Smell of decayed leaves, sweetly dying, brought fresh air and calm to Simon Peter’s lungs. He sat on his heels, sagged at the chest, back humped, red wet mouth open to let air enter and exit him.
He patted away the leaves on the lamb’s back, crunched a handful, brought the scent to his nose, let the leaves fall, brushing his palm clean on his dust-soiled robe.
Eyes wide across the horizon, the dust-grey land around him, clouds low to the land, he said to no one but himself:
"There are no virgins left. I need a swan."
Satan’s face burned, reflecting the fire he built, fuelled by ripped swatches of petticoat ("No sackcloth. Alas, my finery must do."), burned down to a handful of small flames circled by ash. Before the fire extinguished of its own accord, Satan put a hand into the warm ashes and drew black lines down his eyelids, smeared ash palms across his cheeks, blackened his lips.
"What have I done? My best friend. Mr. Moopsie, I sold you for this promise." He held the keys in a trembling hand, let them fall to either side of his palm. "I am evil. I have become death. Destroyer of myself. My friends." He stared with lidless eyes into the glowing coals. "I have bought nothing, to sell all. A merchant of souls, soulless. To wander the Earth, buying and selling, taking and receiving, a trade route along which all must pass to exist." He spat black spit. "No man can live without selling himself, without buying flesh . . . all are whores and cannibals." Smoke inhaled into his lungs. He felt no burn; merely exhaled a plume. "I am become Man."
He turned from the fire to sit, sagged like an infant abandoned after a bomb has burned all but him. Eyes to the ground, to his ash-black fingers, to thoughts that spun and could not steady their spin into rational ideas. A haze passed his glass-blue eyes.
His throat swallowed thickly.
"I must go on. Just stand. Rise. And walk."
He did. A young man quickly aged, arms as crutches against the earth to raise his legs, hands pressed down against his knees to straighten his back. Standing, the iron link between keys looped around a hooked finger, he stepped forward. One step. Feeling his hips, the spread of his feet, a second step. The rise and fall of his torso, shoulders weighed like balances, the swing of his arms following the beat of his tread.
As each foot left the ground, grass as green as emerald sprouted. Each hoof-shaped patch of green dotted with minute flowers, the growth quickened from buds like tight green fists to flowers splayed wide with petals burning with electric colours.
The earth sprouted with a riot of life everywhere Satan was sure to go.
THE INITIATION OF LANTOS by John Douglas Hoyland
They were walking alongside a river. They did not know how long they had been walking for. Besides, it did not seem to matter. They followed their guide through green fields and pastures where trees of countless shapes and flowers of a myriad of colours thrust forth from the rich earth. Some time later, when old Sol was at his highest in the blazing, bright blue sky, they sat down together by the riverbank.
Words surfaced in Judy’s thoughts like ripples on the surface of the water gliding by them. She spoke them out loud. "The Lord is my shepherd. He maketh me lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul." "Strange words," remarked Sun-Man. "Where do they come from?" "I don’t know," said Judy. "They just seemed the right words to say at this moment in time." "But what do they mean?" asked Sun. "Who is this Lord? What is a shepherd?" "I don’t have any answers," Judy replied. "The words just come to me and I feel the need to speak them."
They both sensed that changes were taking place. They were being drawn out of themselves. They were becoming aware of stirrings and cadences of sound and silence. This was more vital than anything they had experienced through Pod. Judy revelled in these changes. Sun was only aware of just how uncomfortable they made him feel. How he craved for the safety and solidity of life back in the dome. There his life had seemed certain. It had been routine but it had been safe. Out here there were too many unknown hazards. He did not know where the next step he took would take him.
They sat still and watched the river passing them by. Judy leant over the riverbank and scooping water between the palms of her hands she brought it to her lips. Oh, the water was so cold and so sweet and so refreshing. She gulped it down in long, lazy mouthfuls. She had never felt a craving like this before. This thirst, not just for the water but for everything this world seemed to offer. It was like a dream and one from which she never wanted to wake.
They were tired after their walk and soon both of them drifted off to sleep. Sun lay on the grass, his lion-like head resting heavy on his toned arm. Judy sat beneath the branches of a tree and resting her head on the warm bark she closed her eyes, hearing only the sound of the water as it caressed the riverbank. It was singing its own tune to her. It was like angel strings, vibrating in the cool breeze that now moved the leaves shadowing her face. Sun lay troubled in his sleep, searching, desperately searching for a path back to his former life in the dome, while Judy dreamt only of Lantos and the path for her led onward into unknown regions of undiscovered splendour.
They had both decided to push on. "We need to get some answers from Lantos when we find him," declared Sun. Judy agreed. She however wanted only to join Lantos in order to share this new life with him. He was slowly becoming the centre of all her being and she was drawn towards him as if he were the magnet of her own life-force.
Everything for her had a soothing effect as if the centre of her being had been sedated. There was a calmness in all her movements from the way she walked and talked or even how she stands. She observes everything. She hears everything. There is a deep richness to the day she cannot quite put in words. There is nothing more wonderful than this; to be here, in this place, at this moment in time. She is afraid to close her eyes lest she miss out on the smallest detail of this life, pulsating around her.
From the riverbank there is a flash of wonder as a bird flies down from a branch and ascends with a sliver of flickering silver scales in its beak The bird rises in the air and flies away with a controlled blur of wings. Ripples move on the surface of the water and strange dark objects are inches beneath the surface in a strange surreal world of green fronds and crystal shallows. She has been enchanted. A spell has been cast over her and somehow all things seem mysterious and magic. It has brought something a live in her she has never remembered before. Her dim, dark, distant, childhood.
Reaching deep within, dim sounds and smells drift from centuries of time past and surface in her wandering thoughts. She had often asked herself what it would be like to have memories. Is this what it means to remember? There is a confusion of light and scattered images and then faces appear from out of the void. She is lying in a darkened room. The only light visible is that from a lamp dispersing the deep shadows of the room. She hears a voice and it arises also out of the darkness. She does not understand what words the voice is speaking but there is a comfort and safety in the tones the voice projects. She could lie here forever listening to these sounds. There is a richness and a glory to such sounds. She looks up to the face that looks down to hers with such love and devotion in the light that shines from those watchful eyes.
She travels on further. She is older by so many years. She can count them on all her fingers. It is her birthday. She is ten years old. She is sitting at a table covered in food. There is a large cake at the centre of the table. It is her birthday cake. There are her mother and father. There are her two sisters, she can recall their names now. Marjory and Jane. Marjory has the face of an angel. Bright blue eyes surface from long blonde curls of silken hair. A smile that radiates like the light of the moon. Jane is quieter, more observant. Squirrel like eyes peer out of a shy, slender face. She is so happy. She wishes this day could last forever.
The river of time moves on. She is a young woman now. She is with her first love. His name is William. She burns a candle for him. When she is near him her flesh ignites into a passion.. She relishes each tender touch and kiss. They sit on a bench in a park, late at night and watch a crescent of moon in a star-filled sky So this is what it means to be in love. She believes they will never part. It is their destiny to be together, forever. He is her life, her heart, her reason for being. She cannot imagine a life without him.
The world falls away and she is alone. The sun has melted rivers of ice. Towns and cities have been washed away. Millions of living souls have gone in the great burn-up. The end has come quickly and much of the earth has withered away. All the greenness has gone and there is only dry shrub and desert. They are safe within the dome. All that was has gone. Nothing remains. And then there is Pod. He will show the way. He is their prophet, their guide to a better, brighter, safer future. All around the tall towers of gleaming glass and steel arise in the dark heart of Lon Cit. Judy is one spark, one thought, one pulse in all this ceaseless never-ending stream of constant light.
She is back now on the riverbank. Sun-Man still sleeps. Yet even in his sleep she senses he is disturbed. She lays back and rests against the great trunk of the tree. The river sings its song and sunlight filters through branches and a canopy of green shadows. So she has travelled this far to this place. And to think of the world we had and how we threw it all away. Why do we never count the cost until it is too late? Maybe, she thinks to herself, there is a way to get back home again. To find a way back to the garden.
They have been walking for days now. They stop and rest when they feel the need. Sun finds food for them. Often it is berries, bright red berries from a bush of ripe fruit, hanging heavy on the branch of a tree. When it is cold at night they gather wood and make a fire. Sun always stands with his back to the flames. He has some dim and distant memory of having been here an eternity ago. He knows with his back to the fire any danger must come toward him. He does not know where this threat will come from. He only knows he is alert and prepared for anything. This is the first time he has felt comfortable in this strange world.
Judy watches him as he stands, staring out into the visible darkness. "Come and sit down. There is nothing out there," she implores him. "You never know in this place" Sun tells her. "You just never know." "Just what in Pod do you think is out there?" she asks him. "The future is out there. Our future. My future, and I don’t like the look of it. I don’t like not knowing what the next moment may bring."
For Judy this is all part of the adventure. Not knowing where the next step would take you. Sun-Man needed certainty. That today would be like yesterday and then tomorrow. Judy did not want to know. She wanted to leave the familiar trail and head off into the unknown. It made her heart beat with excitement. All the dark possibilities that might lie out there, somewhere, on the boundary of the unknown. Life seemed more worth living now than it had ever done under the sanctuary and safe sterility of the dome.
There is a flash of light in the sky. It is a falling star. "I wish I may, I wish I might, see the first star I see tonight." Strange words that Judy speaks. Yet they seem ancient words, from another time and another place. She looks up as all the stars appear one by one and the full moon glows brighter than ever. She feels herself at the centre of all being. She is poised on the brink of some new understanding as if she were a foundation stone in some new way of being. The world and all its possibilities are as limitless as an ocean.
Yet she also feels humbled by all this. It is all so overwhelming .She is one drop of blood, one tiny island in an uncharted region of space. She sees herself from where the star is. It is as if she is not even there. She has no substance or form. She is the mirror image of one tiny star stranded in the universe.
She wonders where Lantos is tonight and if he too is looking up at such a glorious night. What is he thinking tonight? Is he alone or does he dream of me? She asks herself. "Does he yearn to be near me?" Her need for Lantos grows stronger, moment by moment. "I must find some trace of him soon." She speaks her thoughts out aloud. "Will we find him?" she asks her ever watchful companion. "Will we ever find him?" "Oh, we will find him," he answers her. "Somewhere out there we will find him. If I am certain of nothing else I am at least certain of that."
They set off early. The sun was barely up before they had set off on their travels once again. They were becoming more as one with the land around them. They had left long, lush green fields behind them and were walking through trees. So many types of trees that Judy had no names for. Long tall trees with thick branches and dark green leaves. Trees whose bodies twisted and writhed like living spirits. Each tree had a voice of its own and was a presence that intruded upon her thoughts. If she only listened hard enough she believed she could hear them speaking.
The river was some distance off now. Yet she could still hear the waters as they forged their way through each valley. She lifted up her eyes in amazement as they walked on, up or down hill, mile after weary mile. There was a surprise in every turn or bend in the path they followed and her heart was brimming over with so much joy. She had never felt like this before. It was as if she were seeing things for the first time.
Sun-Man is forever wanting to push on. He detests it when they have to rest or Judy calls him and brings his attention to some tree or creature she is seeing. "I don’t want to see these things," he tells her with a cold anger in his breath. "I just want to find Lantos so that we can head on back home." "Can’t you just look around and enjoy the moment? Why so restless, oh wind-grieved ghost?" For Sun it is as if every step he takes is on burning sands. He cannot rest. He can find no peace or sanctuary in any place they find to shelter. Demons are at his back and he can feel their burning breath. He must move on, must ever keep moving onward or be damned.
He is better at finding food. This is more from necessity than anything else. There is a gnawing at him that never goes away and nothing seems to fill. As much as he eats he still feels hungry. There seems no way to quell this burning hunger. It is all consuming. There is a void at his centre he can never fill. So he eats all the time. Cramming berries in his mouth. Biting off huge chunks of fruit. Washing them down with rivers of water. He thinks he will drink a stream dry. Then he falls like a floundered fish, his stomach so full he believes he will burst at his seams.
The dam of his emotions was becoming harder to contain. He is so angry at times. What had he done that he deserved to live like this? Back in the dome he had never felt the need to question. Life had been so much simpler back then. Now his life without the old routines made no sense at all. What did he hope to achieve now? Where was his life taking him? He yearned for the old analgesia of his past life. Now each new day laid him open to new dangers and he did not see the point to any of it.
Around him the forest moved in closer. It was slowly becoming a prison from which he longed to escape. He is always on edge as if waiting for something to happen. There were strange sounds that he could not locate. There were glimpses of sudden movements and ghostly shapes that emerged and then faded into the gathering darkness. The air seemed heavy and tactile with fear and wild surmisings. Branches cracked and creaked in the cold breezes and fruit, ripe and heavy, fell to the forest floor, with an ominous dark, dull thud.
For Judy this was an enchanted place. Here was magic, and mythical creatures beckoned to her. All about her, life was awakening from a long dormant sleep. Her mind is clearer than it has ever been before. Sometimes she forgets to eat and drink and has to remind herself to do so. She forgets herself in the moments of pure being. She is content just to be. She does not feel the need to search for any answers. If they come, then they will come of themselves. It is as if she is being renewed.
All that had been dead for so long was slowly resurrecting, reaching out roots, recalled to life. New leaves were bursting into bud, twigs were stretching out like growing fingers eager to reach the dim light There is a freshness to colour and sights and sounds .The sharp smell of pine needles and the intoxicating flavours of branches and thickly growing grasses create a heady mixture that assaulted her senses.
At first it was absolute darkness and she could not see her hand before her face. Then, as the stillness set in, she saw faces and sensed the presence of other life-forms. They too moved and lived and breathed in this realm. Slowly she was able to distinguish each sound that called out to her. Before she had been unable to see the wood, save as some gathered force. Now she could see each tree and each branch and every twig that thrust forth.
Her dreams had been dark oceans of devouring unease. Now they were becoming tapestries of sound and vision. Names came to her, often as she sat still and silent. It was as if they came from another world. Crack Willow, Poplar, Hornbeam, English Oak and Ash. It was a strange kind of poetry. She sang the names out loud as if she could summon them by an act of enchantment.
She had dreamt of a strange bird one night, standing like a sentinel on a lone branch, its large luminous eyes like tiny coal-black moons glowing in the velvet aether. She had woken and behold this strange creature was there, calling out with a broken, spectral melancholy cry. ‘Hoo oo oo’ ‘ hooooo oooo.’ "Why, it’s only an owl," she told herself. She found a comfort in the sounds it made and called back to it as if she had been calling out to a kindred spirit. Then the large, tawny bird shook an enormous round head and again called out as if waiting for her to answer it. Swiftly the bird unfurled speckled rounded wings like phantom sails and dropping from it’s perch veered off deep into the gathering gloom. "It is like my soul," she whispers to the night winds. "It is forever seeking for enlightenment in this dark world. Forever voyaging and yet never knowing where this voyage will lead."
Sun-man stumbles across a trail. "Lantos has been here before," he tells Judy. "I can smell his presence." They have left the forest now and are following the river again. The river is wider and more turbulent than ever. The banks are wide and steep and there are rapids and white foam and perpetual motion. There are gathering clouds, massing on the horizon, and a raw energy in the air. It is like waiting for lightning to strike.
Sun is obsessed by the thought of finding Lantos. He is controlled by these urges and cravings that never end. It is like having an itch he can never seem to scratch. He is hungry all the time. He is thirsty all the time. His emotions swing back and forth, from fear to anger, from suspicion to hate. It is an emotional rollercoaster and he has no control over such powerful forces that tear and twist his body and his mind. He longs for a return to the old status quo, to his controlled existence back in the dome. To the days Pod and being one with all the hive mind.
He detests this solitude. He cannot tell what Judy is thinking or feeling. He is cut off from her in a way he has never been before. He is a prisoner of his own intolerable thoughts. He cannot see the point in all this seeking and constant self-examination. He does not feel the need to search for any meanings. "What good does it do?" he asks Judy. "What purpose does it serve?" "I want to be more than I am," she tells him. "I want to get off the wheel and forge a new path." "Pod, this is all nonsense and a waste of matter," Sun bitterly remarks. "Pod provided all and yet you are turning your back on our old life. Soon as I find Lantos I am heading back home. I am going back to the old ways and I am going to put all this foolishness behind me."
Judy does not understand why he is still so set in his ways. "Back there," she tells him, "it is as if we were all living a lie. It is like I have been sleeping and dreaming my time away and now I feel more awake than ever. I find more contentment and happiness in a moment here than I ever did back there." "That is heresy," Sun barks. "You have fallen from grace and will be disfellowed from the fold. We are all Pod's children. He is the true light and we are all witness to his ways."
Judy cannot fathom his obstinacy. Why is he talking to her like this?. She never had him down as a blind believer, simply following the rest of the flock. It annoys her that he cannot set out on his own path to self-discovery. Any compassion she shows him is flung back in her face. "Can’t you see, I don’t want his truth? I want to find my own truth. Nothing back there ever felt true," she tells him."What do you mean?" Sun ask her suspiciously. "Back there we had it all. Pod provided for all and asked nothing in return." "Maybe that is part of the problem. Whatever Pod gave us never seemed to be enough. Besides I am not a child. I think it is about time I grew up and did my own thinking."
Judy is aware of a calmness she has never experienced before. It is as if she has become seperated from her old, dead past She looks back at her old self and she sees a ghost and all her days seem empty, futile and without purpose. She is setting her own lights now and beginning to see things as if she is seeing for the first time. "I am beginning to understand why Lantos left. He is searching for his own answers just as I am searching for mine. Don’t you have any questions you want answers to?" Sun guards his face. He does not want her to read the resentment he harbours in his heart. He wants so much for there to be an end to all this mess. He will search every inch of this world in order to seek Lantos out. He provokes me, he tells himself, he has turned my world upside down. If I ever do find him, he tells himself, I am sure going to make him pay. Pod knows I will. He does not know it yet but he has murder in mind
They have not spoken for days now. Sun emits the occasional grunt but other than that he keeps himself to his-self. Judy has learnt to let him be. It is easier that way and besides she is discovering so much about herself. If she tells Sun about this, she knows he will only reproach her with words of scorn and hate. She feels sorry for him. He is so consumed by hate. Even feet away she can feel the bitter wrath of his breath.
The sky is blood red and leaves thick scarlet stains like ribbons of death that twist and turn on the turbulent waters of the river. The banks are flooded from time to time and the soil is thick and heavy and clings to their feet as if to drag them down. The air is heavy and dense and they find it hard to get their breath. Judy sees everything; the thick wet grass heavy with morning dew and the buds that are bursting out upon every branch and twig, the clumps of bright heather and wild flowers that surface from deep beneath the sodden soil, the valleys that meander for miles and the mountains far in the distance.
There are presences that have followed them for days. Late at night Sun-man has sensed dark shadows emerging from trees and distant hills. They hang on the fringes of his peripheral vision, just out of reach. They are a dark menace to his thoughts and his dreams are of dark faceless creatures that seek him out. Their names are Anger and Envy, Malice and Cruelty, Greed and Hate. If he cannot confront them or contain them they will tear him apart.
They stop to rest and to eat. Eating is more important than ever for Sun. He cannot stifle his desires and hunger tears at him like a ragged wolf . Why can he not kerb this insane yearning, this greed, this desperate need? No matter how much he eats he is always hungry. He can never satisfy his hunger. When he sits to rest his legs ache and he always feels weary as if he is weighed down with some heavy burden on his back he cannot lay down. When he tells Judy this she laughs and tells him he should change his name to Christian. "Who in Pod is that?" he snarls. "I think it was someone always seeking salvation," she tries to explain.
The problem, she feels, is that Sun-Man seems to relish struggling in his own slough of despond. "Why can you never see hope?" she asks him. "It strikes me you are always immersed in darkness and hopelessness. Cast off those bitter thoughts and strive to be happy." Sun has no use for these vague romantic wanderings. He wants a world of mathematical certainty and precision. "Dreams are for fools," he tells her with acid contempt, "and happy. What is so wonderful about being happy? Striving for the deals, making the profits, acting not thinking. This was the wealth of life for me. These are the schemes that gave my life sense. And now they are all gone."
Judy cannot fathom why Sun yearns for the old life. He cannot let go, she tells herself. He has become a slave to his beliefs. She has feed herself from her old life."I don’t even need Pod anymore," she declares, quietly to herself. "I have no need of false prophets or gods to provide a purpose in my life. I can seek my own direction." She marvels at her own arrogance. "It comes from spending so much time with Lantos," she tells herself. "Some of his splendour has rubbed off on me."
Sun-Man chews his food thoughtfully, turning it over in his mouth. There are monsters brooding in the corners of his mind. He is afraid to release them lest they tear down the barriers that contain him. What wild beast will he release if he relaxes his guard? What destruction will follow and what blood will he spill? He sits and his hatred of Lantos grows, and slowly and surely he maps out what he will do.
That night, while the two of them are asleep, they come. Judy awakes and she knows there is danger. She can smell fear and something she has never confronted before. Fear of Death. Then a black shadow emerges in front of her. It stands there in the cold green moonlight. It is immersed in darkness and light, the outlines of the body suit clinging like a skin. The head of the figure is encased in a blank red mask. It reminds her of a picture of a devil she had once seen in some old book that Lantos had once shown her. Lantos had given the figure in the picture a strange, almost romantic name. Lucifer, he had called it. The shape still stands there, then looks behind and seems to wait. Seconds crawl past like an eternity of sand filtering down a never-ending hour glass.
She reaches out for Sun-Man but he is not there. Then she sees him, standing like a statue, yards away as the first of the creatures approach. They are inside some kind of a cave. They stopped there late last night. She had thought it was pretty. Sun had said it was a safe place to shelter. There are broken shelves of rocks and ledges around them and some shattered stumps of ancient trees. Within seconds there are several dark figures approaching from all directions. Some have emerged from walls of lime and rock. Others have surfaced from fractures in the cave floor. It is like watching an old cerebro movie.
Time is slowed down and Sun-Man goes into game mode. He has been here before. It is one of the games he has played back in the dome. This may seem like a game but this time the stakes are higher. This time he is fighting for real. This time he is fighting for his life.
One shadow leaps high in the air. Sun meets him, legs extended and strikes the shadow with a sudden thrust of his fist, square in the chest. There is a bone-snapping crack and the dark figure falls backwards onto a glittering shelf of shale. The shadow seems undaunted by the blow and throws itself forward again, counterattacking with a sharp kick to the groin which he barely deflects. A sudden chop to the throat and the dark shape falls back again. Now the shadows are all over Sun. Then it seems Sun fragments himself into multiple images and he is fighting off all assailants at once. Where there had been only one figure of himself, now there are seven. One image carries a large curved blade which he slices in cutting arcs. Another figure wields a large laser gun and fires with precision, laying down bursts of explosive fire. Each version is armed and alert.
He is at the centre of action and he is battling every shadow. The cave floor lights up with green bursts of flame and scorched earth and one assailant grabs his chest, which explodes outward. Another self dodges to one side as a shadow dives past. At the last second a bow fires a bolt of blue which transfixes a dark shadow through the back and pins it to a rock wall.
Sun is leaping and his other selves are engaged in combat with more than six separate shadows. Sun is getting a taste for this. He marvels at his own relish and his blood-lust as he grabs another dark figure from behind and with a sudden twist snaps the neck like a lock. He is unable to measure his own strength and has torn the head off the neck and torso of the shadow. The shadows appear to have no face beyond a blank mask they wear.
One by one the fragments of himself tackle each shadow. One figure blocks and hits out at the side of his head connecting with a crack. Sun swings around in a wheel and kicks out knocking the figure back into the trunk of a tree. One of his selves gives a phantom high five and swings a blade, slicing off the arm of a shadow. All of his separate selves are now engaged in combat.
The odds seem in favour of the dark forces that are beginning to multiply. Finally Sun himself thrusts his right fist deep into the earth and sparks flash from his fingers and a bright shower of light radiates out and burns every shadow to an ashy residual patch. Instantly all his mirror images converge and he is back as one again. Judy has watched all this. She is horrified by how easy it is to stand and watch. This measure of violence feels almost contagious. She leans over and vomits the contents of her stomach onto the dark earth.
Sun-Man goes over to the one silent figure sprawled on the cave floor. He bends over the fallen figure and stares into the blank mask. What lies behind the mask? "Let’s see just what you look like," he growls. Just before he rips off the mask there is a sudden sense of unease and all the hairs on the back of his neck are standing on end. He removes the mask and Oh, Pod, what is this? The shadow he has been fighting is more familiar than he thought. The dead face is a mirror image, a reflection of himself. "Oh, Sun-Man," Judy cries out with shock and disbelief. "It’s you. The shadows you have been fighting are you."
Someone or something had sent these shadows of Sun-Man into this strange world. To seek them out. To stop them in their search for Lantos. His fears and nightmares had fragmented and now haunted him daily. Had he defeated them or would they come back to confront, to battle with him, once again?
Judy was horrified by what she had seen. So much anger and darkness. So much blood had been spilt. What had opened up this breach in her old friend’s psyche? If it could not be confronted and defeated would it tear them apart? She looked up into Sun-Man’s face but as hard as she tried she could read no answers in his countenance. She dared not speak of what she had seen that night for fear it would open up the wounds that were barely beginning to heal on his body and deep in her mind. He was badly bruised down one side of his torso. He had never experienced pain before. She bound up his ribs. He was agitated and anxious after the battle. He rested for a while, sleeping most of the time while she watched over him with a patient, observant mind.
Then they left the cave behind them They had been walking dry deserts devoid of life for days. Hot and dry her companion never ceased to thirst. It seemed that when they had given up all hope them as if by a miracle some oasis of green would appear with springs of clear fresh water and fruit hanging heavy from the branches of fertile trees. Signs and symbols seemed to suggest that despite all the adversities they faced some greater power was looking out for them. Sun growled and spat out bitterly it was mere luck.
It was then they caught their first glimpse of the ocean. The smell came first followed by the taste of salt. The sand ran down into a bay sheltered by palm trees. The surf crashed on the rocks and against the cliffs. Judy was filled with awe. How far did the ocean stretch and where did it end? She wandered down to the water’s edge and looked far out over the blue expanse and it seemed never-ending.
There anchored in the bay was a ship, with masts and sails. It must be for them she told herself, perhaps it will take us to Lantos. On the prow of the boat was carved one word. ‘Further.’ Was that where she would take them? The ship was so perfect, like a painting. If she moved her hand she could disturb the wet paint and the vision would mix in with all other colours and forms. She held her breath and it was as if she were transported to another time, another place, when the days had been longer, and strangers still voyaged on this uncharted map of life in search of adventure. Then they had dared all for something; they did not know what they might find.
It was while she stood there floundering in her own lost sea of thought that Judy saw a small rowing boat, tied up to a tree, on the far side of the beach. It had not been there a moment before. It arose before her like a word on an otherwise blank page. Surely this was a sign. The two of them stepped into the boat and rowed out into the bay. Minutes later they were standing onboard the ship, its sails unfurled flapped in the breeze. Sun stood at the wheel and the unknown beckoned as they sailed off into an uncertain future. "Pod knows where we are heading," he told Judy, "but we have a good wind behind us and are sure to find something sooner or later." Neither of them knew it but they were sailing towards their destiny. Only one of them would be coming back this way again, but which one of them only the future would tell.
The waters were calm with only brief flavours of a breeze, now and again. They could see the ocean floor as if it were only inches away. The ship seemed as a mote of dust floating on a vast deep ocean. Strange sea birds followed in their wake and called out to them with strange melancholy cries or landed on deck and stared at them with cold bright eyes. They had flown over so many strange corners to this world. "If only they could speak," Judy implored. "Pod, don’t wish that on them," was Sun-Man’s sarcastic response. "Leave them as they are, poor dumb creatures. They at least will never suffer as we will suffer."
Judy could not fathom this core of pain he harboured. It immerged from fathoms deep from his innermost being like some waking monster. She was afraid to question him about it lest she should wake his wrath and feel the full heat of the tempest of wrath that consumed him daily. He carried with him his own pillars of fire and smoke and they erupted hot passionate ashes from the fires of his perpetual heat. Rivers of lava streamed from his blistered skin and his breath poured from him in a thick hot, heavy mist. She feared to burn if she stood to close to him.
"Why are you so consumed with hate?" she asked him. "I can feel it from here as if a burning light consumes you. Let go of it before it becomes your own funeral pyre." "You bring me out into this world and ask me that," he looked at her as if his scorching gaze could penetrate her body. His words were icy flames that ignited his breath. "My world has been turned upside down and here there is no sanctuary for me. Not till I find Lantos and I can return to the old life. And what if there is no way back?"
"We could be happy here. We could make this world our home and forget what we had. You could put roots down here, Sun," she implored him.
"You, maybe, but not me. The old life will never let me go. I must go back whether it turn out to be my salvation or damnation. There is no other place for me on this world or the next." She was moved by his words. She felt so much compassion for him. He was stuck in one place, not being able to leave such thoughts behind or move on into new pastures.
Why was this so? She had relinquished her past self. It had slipped from her like a disposable suit of clothes. She was more alive here than she had ever been before. Yet Sun was dead. Something vital had died at the core. Sure he moved and spoke and breathed. Yet he had no more vitality, no more life-force than a dead computer chip. There was no spark to him. When he looked around he saw only a flat and dull, lifeless screen, and so many questions which he longed to leave unanswered. These mysteries offered her so many promises of things waiting to be. She yearned for the light while he seemed to hide in the shadows.
For Sun-Man all this held no appeal. Unlike his name he was a creature of the darkness. He did not seek enlightenment. He did not crave to be other than what he was. His animal existence was enough for him.. He would shut himself down if he could and go back to his old automaton days. He had been content, then, to be an unthinking robot. Life had been so easier and so less complex. He didn’t care about the immortality of his soul or where his journey took him. He wanted the unquestioning guidance and sterile safety of his life back in the dome.
Just then the sails quickened and the whisper of a breeze lifted up the waves as the ship began to move. "Oh, Sun, can’t you feel that. It’s like poetry. I can hear words and they come to me. Listen! Can’t you hear them. They are in the wind and in the waves." She stood silent then, animated by the words that came to her in her dream-like state and stood transfixed held by the moving magic of the spell she heard--
"The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew;
The furrow followed free.
We were the first, that ever burst
into that silent sea."
"Oh Sun. It is Lantos. He senses our presence. He knows we are near and he is calling out to us." She stood before the prow and looked far out into the dim eternal distance. "We are coming, Lantos," she called out. "We are coming." Sun hoped desperately that Lantos could not hear her call "Better for him if he were deaf," he talked to himself and his words echoed in his own ears. "My arrival spells his demise. Watch out, Lantos. Watch out, for the hour of thy Death approaches. Then you will dream, dreamer that you are, but you will wake no more."
The ship sailed on as if drawn by some great invisible magnet. Each dawn brought them closer to their journey’s end.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
VARNEY THE VAMPYRE ascribed to Thomas Preskett Prest
THE STRANGE STORY.—THE ARRIVAL OF THE MOB AT THE HALL, AND THEIR DISPERSION.
"You will find that the time which elapsed since I last saw you in London, to have been spent in an eventful, varied manner."—"You were in good circumstances then," said Mr. Chillingworth.—"I was, but many events happened after that which altered the prospect; made it even more gloomy than you can well imagine: but I will tell you all candidly, and you can keep watch upon Bannerworth Hall at the same time. You are well aware that I was well to do, and had ample funds, and inclination to spend them."—"I recollect: but you were married then, surely?"—"I was," said the stranger, sadly, "I was married then."—"And now?"—"I am a widower." The stranger seemed much moved, but, after a moment or so, he resumed—"I am a widower now; but how that event came about is partly my purpose to tell you. I had not married long—that is very long—for I have but one child, and she is not old, or of an age to know much more than what she may be taught; she is still in the course of education. I was early addicted to gamble; the dice had its charms, as all those who have ever engaged in play but too well know; it is perfectly fascinating."—"So I have heard," said Mr. Chillingworth; "though, for myself, I found a wife and professional pursuits quite incompatible with any pleasure that took either time or resources."—
"It is so. I would I had never entered one of those houses where men are deprived of their money and their own free will, for at the gambling-table you have no liberty, save that in gliding down the stream in company with others. How few have ever escaped destruction—none, I believe—men are perfectly fascinated; it is ruin alone that enables a man to see how he has been hurried onwards without thought or reflection; and how fallacious were all the hopes he ever entertained! Yes, ruin, and ruin alone, can do this; but, alas! 'tis then too late—the evil is done. Soon after my marriage I fell in with a Chevalier St. John. He was a man of the world in every sense of the word, and one that was well versed in all the ways of society. I never met with any man who was so perfectly master of himself, and of perfect ease and self-confidence as he was. He was never at a loss, and, come what would, never betrayed surprise or vexation—two qualities, he thought, never ought to be shown by any man who moved in society."—
"Indeed!"—"He was a strange man—a very strange man."—
"Did he gamble?"—
"It is difficult to give you a correct and direct answer. I should say he did, and yet he never lost or won much; but I have often thought he was more connected with those who did than was believed."—
"Was that a fact?" inquired Mr. Chillingworth.—
"You shall see as we go on, and be able to judge for yourself. I have thought he was. Well, he first took me to a handsome saloon, where gambling was carried on. We had been to the opera. As we came out, he recommended that we should sup at a house where he was well known, and where he was in the habit of spending his evenings after the opera, and before he retired. I agreed to this. I saw no reason why I should not. We went there, and bitterly have I repented of so doing for years since, and do to this day."—
"Your repentance has been sincere and lasting," said Mr. Chillingworth; "the one proves the other."—"It does; but I thought not so then. The place was glittering, and the wine good. It was a kind of earthly paradise; and when we had taken some wine, the chevalier said to me,—
"'I am desirous of seeing a friend backwards; he is at the hazard-table. Will you go with me?'—I hesitated. I feared to see the place where a vice was carried on. I knew myself inclined to prudential motives. I said to him,—'No, St. John, I'll wait here for you; it may be as well—the wine is good, and it will content me?'
"'Do so,' he said, smiling; 'but remember I seldom or never play myself, nor is there any reason why you should.'—'I'll go, but I will not play.'—'Certainly not; you are free alike to look on, play, or quit the place at any moment you please, and not be noticed, probably, by a single soul.'
"I arose, and we walked backwards, having called one of the men who were waiting about, but who were watchers and door-keepers of the 'hell.' We were led along the passage, and passed through the pair of doors, which were well secured and rendered the possibility of a surprise almost impossible. After these dark places, we were suddenly let into a place where we were dazzled by the light and brilliancy of the saloon. It was not so large as the one we left, but it was superior to it in all its appointments.
"At first I could not well see who was, or who was not, in the room where we were. As soon, however, as I found the use of my eyes, I noticed many well-dressed men, who were busily engaged in play, and who took no notice of any one who entered. We walked about for some minutes without speaking to any one, but merely looking on. I saw men engaged in play; some with earnestness, others again with great nonchalance, and money changed hands without the least remark. There were but few who spoke, and only those in play. There was a hum of conversation; but you could not distinguish what was said, unless you paid some attention to, and was in close vicinity with, the individual who spoke.
"'Well,' said St. John, 'what do you think of this place?'—'Why,' I replied, 'I had no notion of seeing a place fitted up as this is.'
"'No; isn't it superb?'—'It is beautifully done. They have many visitors,' said I, 'many more than I could have believed.'
"'Yes, they are all bona fide players; men of stamp and rank—none of your seedy legs who have only what they can cheat you out of.'—'Ah!'—'And besides,' he added, 'you may often form friendships here that lead to fortune hereafter. I do not mean in play, because there is no necessity for your doing so, or, if you do so, in going above a stake which you know won't hurt you.'—'Exactly.'
"'Many men can never approach a table like this, and sit down to an hour's play, but, if they do, they must stake not only more than they can afford, but all their property, leaving themselves beggars.' 'They do?" said I.
"'But men who know themselves, their resources, and choose to indulge for a time, may often come and lay the foundation to a very pretty fortune.'
"'Do you see your friend?' I inquired.—'No, I do not; but I will inquire if he has been here—if not, we will go.'
"He left me for a moment or two to make some inquiry, and I stood looking at the table, where there were four players, and who seemed to be engaged at a friendly game; and when one party won they looked grave, and when the other party lost they smiled and looked happy. I walked away, as the chevalier did not return immediately to me; and then I saw a gentleman rise up from a table. He had evidently lost. I was standing by the seat, unconsciously holding the back in my hand. I sat down without thinking or without speaking, and found myself at the hazard table.
"'Do you play, sir?'—'Yes,' I said. I had hardly uttered the words when I was sorry for them; but I could not recall them. I sat down, and play at once commenced.
"In about ten or fifteen minutes, often losing and then winning, I found myself about a hundred and twenty pounds in pocket, clear gain by the play.
"'Ah!' said the chevalier, who came up at that moment, 'I thought you wouldn't play.'—'I really don't know how it happened,' said I, 'but I suddenly found myself here without any previous intention.'
"'You are not a loser, I hope?'—'Indeed I am not,' I replied; 'but not much a gainer.'
"'Nor need you desire to be. Do you desire to give your adversary his revenge now, or take another opportunity.'—'At another time,' I replied.
"'You will find me here the day after to-morrow, when I shall be at your service;' then bowing, he turned away.
"'He is a very rich man whom you have been playing with,' said the chevalier.—"
"'Yes, and I have known him to lose for three days together; but you may take his word for any amount; he is a perfect gentleman and man of honour.'—''Tis well to play with such,' I replied; 'but I suppose you are about to leave.'
"'Yes, it grows late, and I have some business to transact to-morrow, so I must leave.'—'I will accompany you part of the way home,' said I, 'and then I shall have finished the night.'
"I did leave with him, and accompanied him home, and then walked to my own home."
"This was my first visit, and I thought a propitious beginning, but it was the more dangerous. Perhaps a loss might have effectually deterred me, but it is doubtful to tell how certain events might have been altered. It is just possible that I might have been urged on by my desire to retrieve any loss I might have incurred, and so made myself at once the miserable being it took months to accomplish in bringing me to.
"I went the day but one after this, to meet the same individual at the gambling-table, and played some time with varied success, until I left off with a trifling loss upon the night's play, which was nothing of any consequence.
"Thus matters went on; I sometimes won and sometimes lost, until I won a few hundreds, and this determined me to play for higher stakes than any I had yet played for.
"It was no use going on in the peddling style I had been going on; I had won two hundred and fifty pounds in three months, and had I been less fearful I might have had twenty-five thousand pounds. Ah! I'll try my fortune at a higher game.
"Having once made this resolution, I was anxious to begin my new plan, which I hoped would have the effect of placing me far above my then present position in society, which was good, and with a little attention it would have made me an independent man; but then it required patience, and nothing more. However, the other method was so superior since it might all be done with good luck in a few months. Ah! good luck; how uncertain is good luck; how changeful is fortune; how soon is the best prospect blighted by the frosts of adversity. In less than a month I had lost more than I could pay, and then I gambled on for a living.
"My wife had but one child; her first and only one; an infant at her breast; but there was a change came over her; for one had come over me—a fearful one it was too—one not only in manner but in fortune too. She would beg me to come home early; to attend to other matters, and leave the dreadful life I was then leading.
"'Lizzy,' said I, 'we are ruined.'—'Ruined!' she exclaimed, and staggered back, until she fell into a seat. 'Ruined!'
"'Ay, ruined. It is a short word, but expressive.'—'No, no, we are not ruined. I know what you mean, you would say, we cannot live as we have lived; we must retrench, and so we will, right willingly.'
"'You must retrench most wonderfully,' I said, with desperate calmness, 'for the murder must out.'—'And so we will; but you will be with us; you will not go out night after night, ruining your health, our happiness, and destroying both peace and prospects.'
"'No, no, Lizzy, we have no chance of recovering ourselves; house and home—all gone—all, all.'—'My God!' she exclaimed.
"'Ay, rail on,' said I; 'you have cause enough; but, no matter—we have lost all.'—'How—how?'
"'It is useless to ask how; I have done, and there is an end of the matter; you shall know more another day; we must leave this house for a lodging.'—'It matters little,' she said; 'all may be won again, if you will but say you will quit the society of those who have ruined you.'
"'No one,' said I, 'has ruined me; I did it; it was no fault of any one else's; I have not that excuse.'—'I am sure you can recover.'
"'I may; some day fortune will shower her favours upon me, and I live on in that expectation.'—'You cannot mean that you will chance the gaming-table? for I am sure you must have lost all there?'
"'I have.'—'God help me,' she said; 'you have done your child a wrong, but you may repair it yet.'
"'Never!'—''Tis a long day! let me implore you, on my knees, to leave this place, and adopt some other mode of life; we can be careful; a little will do, and we shall, in time, be equal to, and better than what we have been.'
"'We never can, save by chance.'—'And by chance we never shall,' she replied; 'if you will exert yourself, we may yet retrieve ourselves.'
"'And exert myself I will.'—'And quit the gaming-table?'
"'Ask me to make no promises,' said I; 'I may not be able to keep them; therefore, ask me to make none.'—'I do ask you, beg of, entreat of you to promise, and solemnly promise me that you will leave that fearful place, where men not only lose all their goods, but the feelings of nature also.'
"'Say no more, Lizzy; if I can get a living elsewhere I will, but if not, I must get it there.'
"She seemed to be cast down at this, and she shed tears. I left the room, and again went to the gambling-house, and there that night, I won a few pounds, which enabled me to take my wife and child away from the house they had so long lived in, and took them afterwards to a miserable place,—one room, where, indeed, there were a few articles of furniture that I had saved from the general wreck of my own property.
"She took things much less to heart than I could have anticipated; she seemed cheerful and happy,—she endeavoured to make my home as comfortable as she could.
"Her whole endeavour was to make me as much as possible, forget the past. She wanted, as much as possible, to wean me away from my gambling pursuits, but that was impossible. I had no hope, no other prospect.
"Thus she strove, but I could see each day she was getting paler, and more pale; her figure, before round, was more thin, and betrayed signs of emaciation. This preyed upon me; and, when fortune denied me the means of carrying home that which she so much wanted, I could never return for two days at a time. Then I would find her shedding tears, and sighing; what could I say? If I had anything to take her, then I used to endeavour to make her forget that I had been away.
"'Ah!' she would exclaim, 'you will find me dead one of these days; what you do now for one or two days, you will do by-and-bye for many days, perhaps weeks.'—'Do not anticipate evil.'
"'I cannot do otherwise; were you in any other kind of employment but that of gambling,' she said, 'I should have some hope of you; but, as it is, there is none.'—'Speak not of it; my chances may turn out favourable yet, and you may be again as you were.'
"'Never.'—'But fortune is inconstant, and may change in my favour as much as she has done in others.'
"'Fortune is indeed constant, but misfortune is as inconstant.'—'You are prophetic of evil."
"'Ah! I would to Heaven I could predict good; but who ever yet heard of a ruined gambler being able to retrieve himself by the same means that he was ruined?'
"Thus we used to converse, but our conversation was usually of but little comfort to either of us, for we could give neither any comfort to the other; and as that was usually the case, our interviews became less frequent, and of less duration. My answer was always the same.
"'I have no other chance; my prospects are limited to that one place; deprive me of that, and I never more should be able to bring you a mouthful of bread.'
"Day after day,—day after day, the same result followed, and I was as far from success as ever I was, and ever should be; I was yet a beggar.
"The time flew by; my little girl was nearly four years old, but she knew not the misery her father and mother had to endure. The poor little thing sometimes went without more than a meal a day; and while I was living thus upon the town, upon the chances of the gaming-table, many a pang did she cause me, and so did her mother. My constant consolation was this,—
"'It is bad luck now,' I would say; 'but will be better by-and-bye; things cannot always continue thus. It is all for them—all for them.'
"I thought that by continuing constantly in one course, I must be at land at the ebb of the tide. 'It cannot always flow one way,' I thought. I had often heard people say that if you could but have the resolution to play on, you must in the end seize the turn of fortune.
"'If I could but once do that, I would never enter a hell again as long as I drew breath.'
"This was a resolve I could not only make but keep, because I had suffered so much that I would never run through the same misery again that I had already gone through. However, fortune never seemed inclined to take the turn I had hoped for; fortune was as far off as ever, and had in no case given me any opportunity of recovering myself.
"A few pounds were the utmost I could at any time muster, and I had to keep up something of an appearance, and seem as if I had a thousand a year; when, God knows, I could not have mustered a thousandth part of that sum, were all done and paid for.
"Day after day passed on, and yet no change. I had almost given myself up to despair, when one night when I went home I saw my wife was more than usually melancholy and sad, and perhaps ill; I didn't look at her—I seldom did, because her looks were always a reproach to me; I could not help feeling them so.
"'Well,' said I, 'I have come home to you because I have something to bring you; not what I ought—but what I can—you must be satisfied!'—'I am,' she said.
"'I know also you want it; how is the child, is she quite well?'—'Yes, quite.'
"'Where is she?' inquired I, looking round the room, but I didn't see her; she used to be up.—'She has gone to bed,' she said.
"'It is very early.'—'Yes, but she cried so for food that I was obliged to get her to sleep to forget her hunger: poor thing, she has wanted bread very badly.'
"'Poor thing!' I said, 'let her be awakened and partake of what I have brought home.'
"With that my wife waked her up, and the moment she opened her eyes she again began to cry for food, which I immediately gave her and saw her devour with the utmost haste and hunger. The sight smote my heart, and my wife sat by watching, and endeavouring to prevent her from eating so fast.
"'This is bad,' I said.—'Yes, but I hope it may be the worst,' she replied, in a deep and hollow voice.
"'Lizzy,' I exclaimed, 'what is the matter—are you ill?'—'Yes, very ill.'
"'What is the matter with you? For God's sake tell me,' I said, for I was alarmed.—'I am very ill,' she said, 'very ill indeed; I feel my strength decreasing every day. I must drink.'
"You, too, want food?'—'I have and perhaps do, though the desire to eat seems almost to have left me.'
"'For Heaven's sake eat,' said I; 'I will bring you home something more by to-morrow; eat and drink Lizzy. I have suffered; but for you and your child's sake, I will do my best.'—'Your best,' she said, 'will kill us both; but, alas, there is no other aid at hand. You may one day, however, come here too late to find us living.'
"'Say no more, Lizzy, you know not my feelings when you speak thus; alas, I have no hope—no aid—no friend.'—'No,' she replied, 'your love of gaming drove them from you, because they would not aid a gambler.'
"'Say no more, Lizzy,' I said; 'if there be not an end to this life soon, there will be an end to me. In two days more I shall return to you. Good bye; God bless you. Keep up your heart and the child.'—'Good bye,' she said, sorrowfully. She shed tears, and wrung her hands bitterly. I hastened away—my heart was ready to burst, and I could not speak.
"I walked about to recover my serenity, but could not do so sufficiently well to secure anything like an appearance that would render me fit to go to the gaming-house. That night I remained away, but I could not avoid falling into a debauch to drown my misfortunes, and shift the scene of misery that was continually before my eyes."
"The next night I was at the gaming-house. I went there in better than usual spirits. I saw, I thought, a change in fortune, and hailed that as the propitious moment of my life, when I was to rise above my present misfortunes.
"I played and won—played and lost—played and won, and then lost again; thus I went on, fluctuating more and more, until I found I was getting money in my pocket. I had, at one moment more than three hundred pounds in my pocket, and I felt that then was my happy moment—then the tide of fortune was going in my favour. I ought to have left off with that—to have been satisfied with such an amount of money; but the demon of avarice seemed to have possessed me, and I went on and on with fluctuating fortune, until I lost the whole of it.
"I was mad—desperate, and could have destroyed myself; but I thought of the state my wife and child were in; I thought that that night they would want food; but they could not hurt for one day—they must have some, or would procure some.
"I was too far gone to be able to go to them, even if I were possessed of means; but I had none, and daylight saw me in a deep sleep, from which I awoke not until the next evening let in, and then I once more determined that I would make a desperate attempt to get a little money. I had always paid, and thought my word would be taken for once; and, if I won, all well and good; if not, then I was no worse off than before.
"This was easy to plan, but not to execute. I went there, but there were none present in whom I had sufficient interest to dare make the attempt. I walked about, and felt in a most uncomfortable state. I feared I should not succeed at all, then what was to become of me—of my wife and child? This rendered me almost mad. I could not understand what I was to do, what to attempt, or where to go. One or two persons came up, and asked me if I were ill. My answers were, that I was well enough. Good God! how far from the truth was that; but I found I must place more control on my feelings, else I should cause much conversation, and then I should lose all hope of recovering myself, and all prospect of living, even.
"At length some one did come in, and I remarked I had been there all the evening and had not played. I had an invitation to play with him, which ended, by a little sleight of hand, in my favour; and on that I had calculated as much as on any good fortune I might meet. The person I played with observed it not, and, when we left off playing, I had some six or seven pounds in pocket. This, to me, was a very great sum; and, the moment I could decently withdraw myself, I ran off home.
"I was fearful of the scene that awaited me. I expected something; worse than I had yet seen. Possibly Lizzy might be angry, and scold as well as complain. I therefore tapped at the door gently, but heard no one answer; but of this I took no notice, as I believed that they might be, and were, most probably, fast asleep. I had provided myself with a light, and I therefore opened the door, which was not fastened.
"'Lizzy!' said I, 'Lizzy!' There was no answer given, and I paused. Everything was as still as death. I looked on the bed—there lay my wife with her clothes on.
"'Lizzy! Lizzy!' said I. But still she did not answer me.
"'Well,' said I, 'she sleeps sound;' and I walked towards the bed, and placed my hand upon her shoulder, and began to shake her, saying, as I did so,—
"'Lizzy! Lizzy! I'm come home.' But still no answer, or signs of awaking.
"I went on the other side of the bed to look at her face, and some misgivings overtook me. I trembled much. She lay on the bed, with her back towards the spot where I stood.
"I came towards her face. My hand shook violently as I endeavoured to look at her. She had her eyes wide open, as if staring at me.
"'Lizzy,' said I. No answer was returned. I then placed my hand upon her cheek. It was enough, and I started back in great horror. She was dead!
"This was horror itself. I staggered back and fell into a chair. The light I placed down, Heaven knows how or why; but there I sat staring at the corpse of my unfortunate wife. I can hardly tell you the tremendous effect this had upon me. I could not move. I was fascinated to the spot. I could not move and could not turn."
"It was morning, and the rays of the sun illumined the apartment; but there sat I, still gazing upon the face of my unfortunate wife, I saw, I knew she was dead; but yet I had not spoken, but sat looking at her.
"I believe my heart was as cold as she was; but extreme horror and dread had dried up all the warm blood in my body, and I hardly think there was a pulsation left. The thoughts of my child never once seemed to cross my mind. I had, however, sat there long—some hours before I was discovered, and this was by the landlady.
"I had left the door open behind me, and she, in passing down, had the curiosity to peep, and saw me sitting in what she thought to be a very strange attitude, and could hear no sounds.
"After some time she discovered my wife was dead, and, for some time, she thought me so, too. However, she was convinced to the contrary, and then began to call for assistance. This awoke the child, which was nearly famished. The landlady, to become useful, and to awaken me from my lethargy, placed the child in my hands, telling me I was the best person now to take care of it.
"And so I was; there was no doubt of the truth of that, and I was compelled to acknowledge it. I felt much pride and pleasure in my daughter, and determined she should, if I starved, have the benefit of all I could do for her in the way of care, &c."
"The funeral over, I took my child and carried it to a school, where I left her, and paid in advance, promising to do so as often as the quarter came round. My wife I had seen buried by the hands of man, and I swore I would do the best for my child, and to keep this oath was a work of pleasure.
"I determined also I would never more enter a gaming-house, be the extremity what it might; I would suffer even death before I would permit myself to enter the house in which it took place.
"'I will,' I thought, 'obtain some employment of some kind or other. I could surely obtain that. I have only to ask and I have it, surely—something, however menial, that would keep me and my child. Yes, yes—she ought, she must have her charges paid at once."
"The effect of my wife's death was a very great shock to me, and such a one I could not forget—one I shall ever remember, and one that at least made a lasting impression upon me."
"Strange, but true, I never entered a gambling-house; it was my horror and my aversion. And yet I could obtain no employment. I took my daughter and placed her at a boarding-school, and tried hard to obtain bread by labour; but, do what would, none could be had; if my soul depended upon it, I could find none. I cared not what it was—anything that was honest.
"I was reduced low—very low; gaunt starvation showed itself in my cheeks; but I wandered about to find employment; none could be found, and the world seemed to have conspired together to throw me back to the gaming-table.
"But this I would not. At last employment was offered; but what was it? The situation of common hangman was offered me. The employment was disgusting and horrible; but, at the same time, it was all I could get, and that was a sufficient inducement for me to accept of it. I was, therefore, the common executioner; and in that employment for some time earned a living. It was terrible; but necessity compelled me to accept the only thing I could obtain. You now know the reason why I became what I have told you."
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
AFTER LONDON by Richard Jefferies
CHAPTER XV: SAILING ONWARDS
When Felix awoke, he knew at once by the height of the sun that the morning was far advanced. Throwing off his cloak, he stood up, but immediately crouched down again, for a vessel was passing but a short distance from the shore, and nearly opposite his encampment. She had two masts, and from the flags flying, the numerous bannerets, and the movements of so many men on board, he knew her to be a ship of war. He was anxious that he should not be seen, and regretted that his canoe was so much exposed, for the bush by which he had landed hid it only from one side. As the shore was so bare and open, if they looked that way the men on board would hardly fail to see it, and might even distinguish him. But whether they were too much engaged with their own affairs, or kept a careless look-out, no notice appeared to be taken, no boat was lowered.
He watched the war-ship for nearly an hour before he ventured to move. Her course was to the eastward, inside the fringe of islands. That she was neither Irish nor Welsh he was certain from her build and from her flags; they were too distant for the exact designs upon them to be seen, but near enough for him to know that they were not those displayed by the foreigners. She sailed fast, having the wind nearly aft, which suited her two square sails.
The wind had risen high during the night, and now blew almost a gale, so that he saw he must abandon for the present his project of sailing out upon the open water. The waves there would be too high for his canoe, which floated low in the water, and had but about six inches freeboard. They would wash over and possibly swamp her. Only two courses were open to him: either to sail inside the islands under shelter of the land, or to remain where he was till the breeze moderated. If he sailed inside the islands, following the northward course of the merchant vessel he had observed the previous evening, that would carry him past Eaststock, the eastern port of Sypolis, which city, itself inland, had two harbours, with the western of which (Weststock) it had communication by water.
Should he continue to sail on, he would soon reach that part of the northern continent which was occupied by the Irish outposts. On the other hand, to follow the war-ship, east by south, would, he knew, bring him by the great city of Aisi, famous for its commerce, its riches, and the warlike disposition of its king, Isembard. He was the acknowledged head of the forces of the League; but yet, with the inconsistency of the age, sometimes attacked other members of it. His furious energy was always disturbing the world, and Felix had no doubt he was now at war with some one or other, and that the war-ship he had seen was on its way to assist him or his enemies. One of the possibilities which had impelled him to this voyage was that of taking service with some king or commander, and so perhaps gradually rising himself to command.
Such adventures were very common, knights often setting forth upon such expeditions when dissatisfied with their own rulers, and they were usually much welcomed as an addition to the strength of the camp they sought. But there was this difference: that such knights carried with them some substantial recommendation, either numerous retainers well armed and accustomed to battle, considerable treasure, or at least a reputation for prowess in the field. Felix had nothing to offer, and for nothing nothing is given.
The world does not recognise intrinsic worth, or potential genius. Genius must accomplish some solid result before it is applauded and received. The unknown architect may say: "I have a design in my mind for an impregnable castle." But the world cannot see or appreciate the mere design. If by any personal sacrifice of time, dignity, or self-respect the architect, after long years, can persuade someone to permit him to build the castle, to put his design into solid stone which squadrons may knock their heads against in vain, then he is acknowledged. There is then a tangible result.
Felix was in the position of the architect. He believed he had ideas, but he had nothing substantial, no result, to point to. He had therefore but little hope of success, and his natural hauteur and pride revolted against making application for enrolment which must be accompanied with much personal humiliation, since at best he could but begin in the common ranks. The very idea of asking was repugnant to him. The thought of Aurora, however, drew him on.
The pride was false, he said to himself, and arose from too high an estimate of his abilities; or it was the consequence of living so long entirely secluded from the world. He acknowledged to himself that he had not been beaten down to his level. Full of devotion to Aurora, he resolved to humble himself, to seek the humblest service in King Isembard's camp, to bow his spirit to the orders of men above him in rank but below him in birth and ability, to submit to the numberless indignities of a common soldier's life.
He proceeded to launch the canoe, and had already placed the chest on board when it occurred to him that the difficulties he had encountered the previous evening, when his canoe was so nearly lost, arose from his ignorance of the channels. It would be advisable to ascend the hill, and carefully survey the coast as far as possible before setting forth. He did so. The war-ship was still visible from the summit, but while he looked she was hidden by the intervening islands. The white foam and angry appearance of the distant open water direct to the eastward, showed how wise he had been not to attempt its exploration. Under the land the wind was steady; yonder, where the gale struck the surface with all its force, the waves were large and powerful.
From this spot he could see nearly the whole length of the strait, and, gazing up it in the direction he had come, he saw some boats crossing in the distance. As they moved so slowly, and appeared so broad, he conjectured that they were flat-bottomed punts, and, straining his eyes, he fancied he detected horses on board. He watched four cross, and presently the first punt returned, as if for another freight. He now noticed that there was a land route by which travellers or waggons came down from the northward, and crossed the strait by a ferry. It appeared that the ferry was not in the narrowest part of the strait, but nearer its western mouth, where the shores were flat, and covered with reeds and flags. He wondered that he had not seen anything of the landing-places, or of the ferry-boats, or some sign of this traffic when he passed, but concluded that the track was hidden among the dense growth of reed and flag, and that the punts, not being in use that day, had been drawn up, and perhaps covered with green boughs to shelter them from the heat of the summer sun.
The fact of this route existing, however, gave additional importance to the establishment of a fort on the shore of the strait, as he had so long contemplated. By now, the first punt had obtained another load, and was re-crossing the channel. It was evident that a caravan of travellers or merchants had arrived, such persons usually travelling in large bodies for safety, so that the routes were often deserted for weeks together, and then suddenly covered with people. Routes, indeed, they were, and not roads; mere tracks worn through the forest and over the hills, often impassable from floods.
Still further satisfied that his original idea of a castle here was founded on a correct estimate of the value of the spot, Felix resolved to keep the conception to himself, and not again to hazard it to others, who might despise him, but adopt his design. With one long last glance at the narrow streak of water which formed the central part, as it were, of his many plans, he descended the hill, and pushed off in the canoe.
His course this time gave him much less trouble than the day before, when he had frequently to change his tack. The steady, strong breeze came off the land, to which he was too close for any waves to arise, and hour after hour passed without any necessity to shift the sail, further than to ease or tighten the sheets as the course of the land varied. By degrees the wind came more and more across his course, at right angles to it, and then began to fall aft as he described an arc, and the land projected northwards.
He saw several small villages on the shore, and passed one narrow bay, which seemed, indeed, to penetrate into the land deeper than he could actually see. Suddenly, after four or five hours, sailing, he saw the tower of a church over the wooded hills. This he knew must indicate the position of Aisi. The question now came, whether he should sail into the harbour, when he would, of course, at once be seen, and have to undergo the examination of the officers; or should he land, and go on foot to the city? A minute's reflection assured him the latter was the better plan, for his canoe was of so unusual a construction, that it would be more than carefully examined, and not unlikely his little treasures would be discovered and appropriated. Without hesitation, therefore, and congratulating himself that there were no vessels in sight, he ran the canoe on shore among the flags and reeds which bordered it.
He drew her up as far as his strength permitted, and not only took down the sail, but unshipped the mast; then cutting a quantity of dead reeds, he scattered them over her, so that, unless a boat passed very close to the land, she would not be seen. While he had a meal he considered how he had better proceed. The only arms with which he excelled were the bow and arrow; clearly, therefore, if he wished an engagement, he should take these with him, and exhibit his skill. But well he knew the utter absence of law and justice except for the powerful. His bow, which he so greatly valued, and which was so well seasoned, and could be relied upon, might be taken from him.
His arrows, so carefully prepared from chosen wood, and pointed with steel, might be seized. Both bow and arrows were far superior to those used by the hunters and soldiery, and he dreaded losing them. There was his crossbow, but it was weak, and intended for killing only small game, as birds, and at short range. He could make no display with that. Sword he had none for defence; there remained only his boar spear, and with this he resolved to be content, trusting to obtain the loan of a bow when the time came to display his skill, and that fortune would enable him to triumph with an inferior weapon.
After resting awhile and stretching his limbs, cramped in the canoe, he set out (carrying his boar-spear only) along the shore, for the thick growth of the firs would not let him penetrate in the direction he had seen the tower. He had to force his way through the reeds and flags and brushwood, which flourished between the firs and the water's edge. It was hard work walking, or rather pushing through these obstacles, and he rejoiced when he emerged upon the slope of a down where there was an open sward, and but a few scattered groups of firs. The fact of it being open, and the shortness of the sward, showed at once that it was used for grazing purposes for cattle and sheep. Here he could walk freely, and soon reached the top. Thence the city was visible almost underneath him.
It stood at the base of a low narrow promontory, which ran a long way into the Lake. The narrow bank, near where it joined the mainland, was penetrated by a channel or creek, about a hundred yards wide, or less, which channel appeared to enter the land and was lost from sight of among the trees. Beyond this channel a river ran into the lake, and in the Y, between the creek and the river, the city had been built.
It was surrounded with a brick wall, and there were two large round brick towers on the land side, which indicated the position of the castle and palace. The space enclosed by the walls was not more than half a mile square, and the houses did not occupy nearly all of it. There were open places, gardens, and even small paddocks among them. None of the houses were more than two storeys high, but what at once struck a stranger was the fact that they were all roofed with red tiles, most of the houses of that day being thatched or covered with shingles of wood. As Felix afterwards learnt, this had been effected during the reign of the present king, whose object was to protect his city from being set on fire by burning arrows. The encircling wall had become a dull red hue from the long exposure to the weather, but the roofs were a brighter red. There was no ensign flying on either of the towers, from which he concluded that the king at that moment was absent.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK