Somewhere north of nowhere, past a road fueled by rumor, where merchants but rarely travel and music seems to stretch on forever beneath the sky, a woman walks. In her wake is a train of sycophants—those who traveled here just to seek her, or those who were left here to whither under an endless cosmic array of appetites no belly could contain.
Yet come she does. Out on the parched dunes, far beyond the oldest ruins. The dunes, after all, cannot be bothered to rest on foundations. They eat and eat, savage as wolves and greedy as leeches, gorging on wind and earth alike. They know no names, unlike the hills they consume, and neither does she. She shuns those who ask one of her. She slaughters those who demand one of her.
Such is her right.
Her silence has as much to say as a thousand words sputtered from drunken men. It has turned folk to contemplation, deep in the caves where faith has become a palace only as great as the heart.
“You will only hear her on the full moon,” a caravanner whispers after drinks one night. “She will wear a crown of peacock feathers, and you will know her by the beat of a pellet drum.”
He has never heard it himself, of course. Those who do rarely choose to leave it behind.
North beyond the last tavern, north beyond the final well, north so far the rivers have turned back for fear of being forgotten, the world parches. Wind grinds the skin to pulp, wearing all to gold. Even prayer beads bleach, a bead for each prayer the desert does not hear.
At this point, there is no turning back.
When the desert wears the sun for a mane and walks between rest and sleep, the world loses meaning. A bell that rings, rings on forever, inviting the rain, calling to wisdom, and receiving no answer. In such a moment, it is as wise as any sage.
All that is left to do is to feel the tapping of a heart’s demands. It counts the seconds, minutes, hours, inexorably pressing toward the moment.
A hand closes its fist about the blazing heart of the world and she appears.
Her drumming is a conjured echo of the bell. She is as unquiet as the howl of the wind, and as ancient. Wrapped in skins and cloths dyed as if by iron, she swirls through the contours of her starlight hammered realm. Incantations pour from beauty glowing with the alchemical crescendo of the world, and for once, there is no deceit to be sensed.
About her the hungry ghosts dance in an endless parade, without malevolence or concern. Every strum of the woman’s hands sign words for them, sign voices for them, and it can be felt all the way to that tapping of the heart. It becomes the beat of it, wailing in tune.
For a tick, all is reborn and unborn, a hollowed out train of eyes pouring from the darkness. It stains the world. There is no escaping it. Only then does the drum settle and the woman cup her palm instead to the distant mountain. Her other hand hovers, as if waiting to clap it—but the sound never comes.
It is at this moment one might bear witness to the henna birds on her hands. They circle her, rising into the clouds of her garments, and one cannot be sure where they end and she begins. Other stories tell of men and women that can become birds that fly and fly until they find their hearts’ desire, somewhere in the green that exists beyond the sand. This is the birds’ favorite song when they fly.
Tears track the woman’s face, and she begins to call to ignorance.
“Leave me!” she cries. “Be not shackled by your lust and your hate and your pain. There is peace beyond the limbo. There is magic yet to be found in the emptiness of existence. There is a silhouette of a cage just beyond a rainbow. Tears will rust it. You would break it.”
From the unborn expanse, the ghosts mewl until no line can be found in the sand. The woman sinks, drifting through fog and silence, to the finest dab of dew on the ground. In this light, her garments are a prism, and the faint slants of light make her polychromatic. It just so happens the gesture is a bow to the full moon.
There is nothing for it but to bow with her. The gesture scatters and compels, until there is no chasm between the world and its ghosts. She looks up on approach, waiting for the hiss of self-interest.
But the perch is empty. Love has made another summit, somewhere closer to earth.
She had always wanted to live on the moon. People called it barren, but in its dryness, its isolated streets, she saw endless possibility—untouched, untainted. When she got there, she walked the streets every night, reborn under the reversed sky. She drank in the scents of abandonment and stale, recycled air.
Somewhere off of Main Street and Liberty, though, she caught herself absorbing the rotating waves of the blue satellite above her head. People looked at her oddly, called her out of place. And it was just so cold, here. The moon disappeared from her dreams one night, leaving her in darkness.
It wasn’t so long before she began to dream of living on the earth.
Daniel has never been much of a gardener. Yet he knows what his lover likes. He clears and tills a space near the back fence, out of the way, where people might miss him between all the pot plants and strawberries (the two go well together). When he pauses to breathe and to sweat, he can feel the tingles where she kissed him, like poison ivy spreading, out in the national forest. It’s evening before he can plant her seed, but it doesn’t take long after that.
Drunk on pollen, he could wait all night. Her vines scrabble in the dirt, inch by inch, awaiting their crown of flowers. A dryad can sprout wherever her tree takes root.
(I’m feeling energetic and adventurous for both the weekend and for the newly minted summer, so here, say I, is a most short tale of the fantastical persuasion. Tattoos, rejuvenation and dogs follow. Put it up on your phone or tablet, wander outside, and have yourself a picnic of words!)
Kalesh was somewhat out of his element here. The cool tiles beneath his feet were the closest he had come to home in months, a relief from the pungent, sticky weather waiting to clobber the first stride out the door. Still, it seemed a welcome oppression compared to the utter silence of this room. Stillness was an art he had never perfected and never wished to learn.
Back home, in the well-preserved confines of his native lands, there was never a chance for silence. Everything was about the people—they flooded the air with smells, packed broad streets, filled waves with cobbled ships, ate the trees which hemmed them in, and spat out the ringing tunes of war. Silence, for them, was the demesne of death, and Kalesh’s people spent their whole lives wielding or fleeing from that. They had no interest in rooming with it.
He breathed in the air of Ha Tram Kas. Every now and then, he thought he could still hear it: the steady trickle of droplets that were his life, dribbling out onto the cobbles. Months ago, it had almost brought his steady descent into death’s realm. Morning after morning, he still woke with the phantom pains sorry men said would haunt him until that final day.
Kalesh was missing an arm. It was the final memento of a warlord’s life—a mockery of the path he had always taken to be the only truth. After he had refused to die, his lord had thanked him for his service, and kindly let him go. There was no need for a one-armed warrior in his world.
The tap, tap, tap of a bamboo stick roused him.
A dozen other heads did not so much as lift. They were quiet, complacent—trained in a different path. At their fore, the room’s focus swished her stick around, but remained otherwise jovial, focused, but serene. Everyone here awaited her attentions. Though Kalesh had but limited practice with the language, he had picked up enough to know: not all had come for spiritual reasons; for some, this was nothing more than an expression of art, but all gave the act a spiritual reverence. Their focus was a monk, though as far from one as Kalesh had ever known.
She was young, and fit, and had she been born over the mountains, her parents would have been working ever so hard to see she kept the bloodline going. Here, that did not even seem to enter into consideration.
The bamboo stick rose and fell in fluid motions, dotting skin wherever it dipped. Word on the street was that it was an act of unity between man and earth—that each drop was distilled from some piece of nature, and that by its embrace and a bit of magical aid from the crafter, man was brought closer to nature. Depending on whom he asked, that took the form of protection from violence or spirits, good luck, or healing. It was the latter which caught his interest.
It had also been something Kalesh dismissed as rank superstition, not so long before. A chance meeting with a traveler in the mountains between worlds had changed all that. At the time, months spent wandering wherever his feet carried him meant Kalesh had been down to his last coins and looking for a proper place to drink even those away. Followed by a rock from which to throw himself.
The traveler had stopped him. Literally held him down and forced him to see reason.
“Life takes many forms,” that man had said. “This is not one.”
The man had been covered head to toe in tattoos, all black and white, lending him a balanced, if terrifying complexion that seemed suitably inhuman. He wore no armor, though an axe dangled from his hip.
“I, too, am a soldier. Battles bled me. I have wept with fear at the darkest of thoughts.” His back, Kalesh was shown, was little more than a rictus of scars. By all accounts, he should hardly have been able to walk, let alone clobber him. “Since I took this ink upon my flesh, I have not bled. I have not known a blade’s weight. I am safe as a man can be, led to a path devoid of death.”
It took some time to make a pattern of the scars, but as he had sobered up, Kalesh became aware of the colors linking them, ink mingling with pink flesh to form a bizarre geometric pattern that shifted with each crease of the traveler’s skin. It was like a series of round circles each within the other, all tipped by eight distinct spokes. It dazzled.
“Not all paths are ended by blood. Ha Tram Kas reveals this.”
The man’s words had led him to this temple, which, as it turned out, was a place of pilgrimage in Tajalik—the land which he now walked. Unlike the array of needles and brands which accompanied the art in his own land, Kalesh felt scandalized by the wooden stick the monk waved around here. It seemed so…primitive. Yet if it would bring him bring him back to his calling, if something in the inks or the process could make him the man he had used to be, Kalesh would put up with anything these backward savages could muster.
His head jerked at the bumbling of his name. The person who had knelt beside the monk a moment ago was shuffling out a back way, eyes forward, not meandering. Many had made the point clear to Kalesh: ritual was strong here. One did not look back when the art was done, for in the art was transcendence. A path forward. To look back was to insult the art, the artist, and cling to the past at a time when they were supposed to be reveling in change.
Somewhat nervously, but not unsteadily—he had months of practice at moving now without the extra limb—Kalesh inched forward across the floor. As he looked across the sea of souls between him and the monk, he felt a moment’s hesitation. Sweat actually tickled the back of his neck. He cursed himself for a fool, to come so far only to doubt now. No one looked up. No one examined the foreigner in a strange land. By all reason, he should feel honored this temple was giving him the opportunity to participate in something so far beyond his ken.
The monk was steady at his approach. She smiled absently and extended a hand, though not to shake.
“Kalesha ka?” She repeated. “Khun ca nang kab pohm wela hurushimi?”
As he had seen countless others do before him, day after day, Kalesh took this opportunity to touch his head to the floor two times, grunting only softly at the effort involved. It was supposed to be a moment of prayer and final contemplation. The woman watched it all.
When he was on steady feet again, he met that gaze and inclined his head.
He started, thought better of it, and bulled forward in the woman’s native tongue. The smile widened slightly as he did, until it touched her whole face. Kalesh blushed at that, for he could feel the laughter behind it. This was a fool’s idea.
The woman’s voice switched tack with seeming ease. “Would sit with me, friend?” She asked in his tongue. Startled, Kalesh was certain he gawked, but if the woman noticed, she had the grace to say nothing. The monk gestured to the pillowed step settled beside her bare knees and he, swallowing the last of his doubts, obliged. Kalesh leaned over, back facing the monk, and waited for the bamboo stick to puncture his skin.
Carefully, she pulled the tunic from his back. Then she unhooked his belt and shimmied it down his waist just so. He started to stir with offense at the latter, but either sensing this, or having no need of further descent, the woman ceased the effort. Then her hands floated above him by mere inches—enough to warm, but not close enough to make any appreciable impact on his skin. Kalesh shuffled, restless, uncertain of the purpose of this.
“Bare,” the monk observed. “Tell, what bring you Ha Tram Kas?”
For a moment, he weighed the virtues of lying. His eyes flicked down and settled on his missing forearm, and he reckoned there wasn’t much point.
“I have spent…months with this wound,” he said haltingly, raising his useless limb for emphasis. “I have been told Ha Tram Kas holds the means for revival. Without my hand, I am nothing. A warrior with no weapon to wield. I would have you work your magic, to make me whole.”
The hands moving up his back stilled, hovering. “We are no doctors,” the monk observed.
“I met a man.” He swallowed. “On the road. He told me—he said that he had been wounded, before. That he too had thought that he would die, but Ha Tram Kas helped him overcome. He showed me a marvelous tattoo—”
The woman nodded and her hands fell away.
“Turn so shoulder toward me,” she said. He started to turn his good arm that way, but she shook her head and tapped the other. “Turn.” So he turned, letting his arm hang pointlessly at his side. Tiles dug into him. It made him shiver.
Unlike in his own nation, Kalesh had no control here. There, a man pointed and the artist obeyed. Here, the pilgrims had no means to choose their tattoo’s design or location. It was implied, well before they had ever been allowed to step into the temple, that as this act had no cost, the sole burden upon them was to release the notion that they had control.
When the bamboo stick hissed, Kalesh flinched despite himself. He followed its arc, like a scholar’s quill, as it flicked across his arm. Blood welled at its passing and a strange warmth flushed beneath the thin wound. After each passing, it dipped into a darkening bowl of translucent liquid, then intova separate bowl filled with the actual ink. It had a slightly green tint to it, that ink, putting him in mind of grass waving beneath the spring sun.
In one of the local bars, he had heard that each monk made their own blend of ink. What exactly they used was thus a matter of some conjecture. Some spoke of nuts or berries. Others referenced oils and even venom. All had spoken of it like a stream, though, gently pressed into selected ridges of the flesh. Some surprise came, then, when he saw the monk’s bamboo stick sprouted a grooved metal spike at its end, more accustomed to a stiletto than a workshop.
When he had first arrived, Kalesh had been instructed to bring an offering of incense and local flowers—purple, and rather fragrant themselves. He smelled the former, cinnamon sweet, as the blade whisked lines down his shoulder. He was dizzy by this point, but still had the sense of mind to wonder when the monk had time to retrieve his offering.
The stick punctured him, but never delved too deep. It was exact in its measurements, and though it was difficult to make out through the initial press of blood, Kalesh watched as a dual swirl of infinities began to take on a blade-like shape. At the end of every flourish, the stick tapped the right side of his back, as if to claim his attention.
The monk worked quickly, without pause. She had been doing this for hours, but she showed no sign of fatigue. Even concealed as her lips were behind a cloth façade, Kalesh realized she was lovely, though not in any traditional sense. It was something in the ease she exuded.
She whispered something as the clack of the stick on the cobbles announced its journey’s completion. Kalesh tried to catch a proper look at the end result, but she had leaned over him, and with a gentle effort, blew on the settling ink. Already it dyed the skin. As it healed, he knew, it would overtake the body’s natural knitting.
Out of habit, he flexed his nonexistent hand, but felt nothing answer him. It was impossible to keep the disappointment at bay. In truth, he hadn’t known what to expect.
Desperation made strange dens in the mind’s eye.
“I have settled spirit in this,” the monk said, after. She settled back on her haunches and stretched—the most human gesture he had seen her make over hours of labor. “In time you forget.”
He should have risen and made himself scarce, but in this moment, Kalesh could not work up the effort for ritual. He swallowed hard, staring.
“Does something confuse, friend?”
There was no bile in the asking.
Kalesh replied, “I expected the ghost might leave me. Or my hand might…” He breathed hard with exhaustion. “I do not know what I expected.”
Gentle fingers settled against his elbow, stirring a different sort of warmth. This, too, was something he had not felt in many long moons.
“It is a making thing. All life is making. Is possibility. You must see.”
“And the healing?”
“Like ink,” she said. “It stirs within.”
There was no religious ecstasy, no all-consuming trance. He rolled to his feet, tugging up the bundle his shirt had made while craning to study his tattoo. It was something he had seen etched into a road outside a burned village, not far from this place. When he had inquired, a merchant had told him it was meant to be a talisman against “the black magic of the soul.”
It was not a soldier’s purview to understand. Just now, though, he thought he grasped the meaning. Overhead, the temple’s polished stones yawned into the heat beyond. Nothing echoed. He looked skyward, closed his eyes, and put the stone firmly beneath his sole again.
Outside, the day was ending. It was ambling toward dusk, though that reflected more in the shade the overcast clouds turned, rather than any true vibrancy in the world. It was autumn, and most of the leaves were already gone. Matt Ellenberg downed the last of his oversized caffeine mug, closed his spreadsheets, and waited for the end of day chime.
This election year had been particularly rough. Political ads drowned out all reason and substance on the TV, day and night, from the anchors’ pre-paid statements to the ads themselves placed on repeat. No one yelled, as they used to. No one threw any tantrums. But the insidious thrum of the words which ate so greedily at all sense made that worse, not better. Hours of talk, with nothing to say.
The election was great.
The election was simple.
Thank God above for rendering unto Caesar such a wondrous institution as the election.
When the bell rang and Matt was released from his chair, he joined the cattle press out of the building. Only the last vestiges of sun remained by then—greatness came from those who worked hard, not played hard. They shuffled to their cars, a sea of suits and even a few odd skirts, but they were in too much of a rush for chatter. Matt joined the queue of cars as quickly as he could, which joined the queue of other buildings’ departures onto a flooded highway. He cranked the radio as he prepared for a sit.
After an hour’s crawl out of the city, Matt found himself staring out at the silhouettes of buildings. Among them, a church long closed—his polling place. The computers had already analyzed, totaled, and spat out the election results. There was no need shuffle under the boards and nails and claw up some discarded piece of paper. Their system was too efficient for that.
Similar reasons governed their schedule, since the last election. What need was left for daylight? Idle hands and all that. A nation was made great on the backbone of its workforce. If people didn’t want to spend the day working, they didn’t deserve to eat, and if they didn’t want to eat, they didn’t deserve to vote, because a person who didn’t eat was practically a dead man. Of course it was logical. What sort of an illogical dolt supported people who were anti-food?
Work. Eat. Screw. Sleep. For the children? Even simpler: home school. Eat. Sleep. Or, in the case of Matt’s daughter: Etiquette lessons. Eat. Sleep. This was how great nations were assembled.
At home, Matt slunk inside and dashed off his fabric chains as quickly as he could. He called out, but no one answered—his wife was still caught in traffic, then. Creeping down the hall, hoping for a word with his daughter, he cracked her door just slightly, but found her snores enough to drown all else. Quietly, he clacked the door again and headed back downstairs.
Red numerals on the stove declared it for 9 o’clock. The quickest he had gotten home in a week. He had a whole hour before bed. With a bit of giddiness in his step, Matt lunged onto the couch, spread out, and basked in being able to wholly extend. Then he turned on the TV for the nightly update.
Numbers overlaid state maps behind a man behind a desk. Mr. Schneider, the regional approved anchorman, was all smiles and comb over. As a government authorized voice—journalists, it needed to be said, could not be trusted with facts and figures, for they had the tendency to lie—with computer backing, he conducted the tedious task of transferring raw data to voice based reproduction without adding anything which might be construed as opinion. People tended to feel sorry for him, or not think much about him at all.
After a ritual salute, the man rested his hand carelessly on the desk. He attempted to affect an air of calm.
“Following back and forth as to the merits of border closure, it’s clear that Indiana would have sided with President…”
A key rattled in the lock. Matt looked up and waved at his harried wife, clutching groceries in her overworked arms. Beth stumbled inside and swung the door shut with a heel. When she had finished dropping everything on the counter, she dried her hands on her apron and said, “Didn’t think I’d get home nearly in time.” Then she came over and sat on the floor before the couch, so she could lean her head back into him.
“You’re in time,” Matt said. “Don’t worry none. They’re still doing the Midwest. No surprises there.”
Beth batted him good-naturedly on the arm and kissed his knuckles. “They wouldn’t stop nattering at the grocery about Florida. Kept saying their machines were ripe for hackers.” She rolled her eyes and rested her head on him. “Been saying that for years.”
Not that it mattered, now.
On the screen, the anchor moved brusquely through the Midwest states, ticking one after the other for the incumbent president. It was reassuring to know that, had they been allowed to vote, the computers found that most people would have made the right decision. Matt found his head nodding along with the announcements—dissent in the heartland wouldn’t have been kosher.
“On to the real battleground state,” Mr. Schneider said. “Florida. While immigration changes altered the nature of their economy over recent years, what citizens are left would have voted early and vigorously. The computers predict the cities, still reeling with the violence of previous governments, would have had some discrepancies in voting, but in the rural districts, where polls were open long and without issue, aging members of the constituency would have turned up early and turned the tide. For that reason, Florida seems to have stayed the course. It hasn’t been easy for them, but they have worked hard to make America great again.”
Matt’s fist made a little air pump. Florida had been uncertain. Some of the undesirables were still able to vote there, as the state’s bloated bureaucracy had made it impossible to purge them all in the time between elections. The Feds did what they could, but since they had been cut to bare essentials, there was only so much they could do in the time allowed. Efficient, cost affordable, but slow. Matt could live with that. Apparently, so could the rest of the country.
The lottery of states went on like this almost until the 10 o’clock bell, which would denote the onset of curfew. It was a necessary evil. After the sporadic voting of previous elections, the government had worked tirelessly to round up for jails or deportation those who had no proper connection to the country, but there were always some who slipped through the nets. On the run, with the blue arm of the law on their tails, they tended to be more dangerous than ever. It simply wasn’t safe outside for proper people after dark—no matter how many patrols came through.
Most of America had been through this so many times at this point that they only half-listened to the read-throughs. Matt knew people at work who couldn’t have even told him which way their own state leaned. Disgusting, in his opinion. If one didn’t know what way their state might have been led, they didn’t know the problems they needed to address. The battles still to be fought. Democracy was never safe from those who would take advantage, if given half a chance.
“Seems like they just don’t take their time anymore, you know?”
Matt stirred. “What’s that, dear?”
“The anchors. They don’t give it the flare it deserves. It’s just a straight read. I get the need for objectivity, but they don’t seem to take any joy in it either.” Beth shook her head. “It’s a show. They do still remember that, don’t they?”
He found himself nodding again. He hadn’t thought of it like that. People deserved to be entertained as much as informed.
“Shh. Here comes California.”
That was always the trouble spot. Everyone knew it. Dissenters and squatters, the lot of them. They had actually rioted during the last election, but—thank goodness for those brave men and women—the news had informed them that police heroically suppressed the chaos before it could get out of hand. A few arrests and everyone went home. One fellow needed to be punched on national TV, but as the president liked to say, if you saw a protester, it was only good and right to knock the crap out of them. How else would they learn?
“Some of the girls said Cali was talking about seceding.”
Matt felt the blood go to his cheeks. “Hogwash.”
“It’s true. Mrs. Adams said—”
“Mrs. Adams is an old gossip, and her man’s not even full American.”
His wife pursed her lips and tilted her head. “Pack of crazy fools, but it don’t make them less right.”
“Alright, alright, and what makes them say that? About Cali, I mean.”
Beth chuckled. “Said there were some things going around social media. No deportation without representation or some nonsense like that.”
Oh how he rolled his eyes. California was old-fashioned to the extreme. Not a lick of sense in their heads, and no ability to go with modern times. They still liked to say their economy had been hit, that they had lost people when the deportations happened. Despite all the evidence to the contrary. They were always making things up, trying to weasel out of Federal laws. Just a sure sign the swamp had seeded itself deep there. Some things didn’t drain as quick as others.
Fortunately, those folks didn’t have the guns. Didn’t believe in that right. Well, that sure came back to bite them in the ass.
“He’s almost through!” His wife exclaimed.
After that, there was a long, breathless pause as Mr. Schneider steeled his composure. Then he wagged his electronic notepad in the air with a tired frown. He said, “Well then, fellows. Following that unpleasantness, let’s break it down. California turned out in record lows this year. Amid reports of voter intimidation, vote tampering, and all the like, projections have been enough for the National Guard to be called up to protect citizen interest. Though it turns out that numbers went the opposite way of the rest of the country—repudiating the national drive—I emphasize once again what would have been low voter turnout. There is no reason to believe that California, able to exercise its rights in a free society, without fear of oppression by dissenting parties, would have turned its back on the processes which are daily changing the nature of its economy and society.”
The map lit up, all red, with just that slightest tinge of blue along the West Coast. Numbers skewed the results even further into the scarlet, until the whole thing looked like a blood orchid with only a barest tip in the water. After this, California would be hard-pressed to reach out to other states for support. No one wanted to aid a rebel.
“Well that was exciting,” his wife tittered.
He ran a hand through her hair and kissed the top of Beth’s head. “And you said it was lacking in flare.”
Beth blushed a bit, and batted a hand out playfully. How he loved her. Matt would have been proud to vote for her, as much as for himself. But he understood his place—and he was proud she understood hers as well. Women, in particular, had proven too fickle to be trusted with so great a right. No matter what the West Coast said.
“They’re going to say it wasn’t fair, you know,” Beth said.
He snorted. “Who cares what they say? They’re cheats and liars. You heard the man. Voter fraud. Suppression. All that fascist crap you get when people don’t like what you have to say. Freedom this and freedom that—right up until you disagree with them.”
He scoffed and sat up on the couch. He glanced at the clock and frowned. 10:10. He was going to be tired in the morning.
“Do you think the computers ever get it wrong?”
He was distracted. Matt wanted to be in bed, and lack of sleep made him cranky. “What’s that?” He asked, glancing back at his wife.
Beth had turned the TV off by then, but she was staring at the blank screen as though willpower alone might plant more substance into the flickering box.
She said, “The computers. Do you think it would be different if we actually voted?”
Matt, who worked with computers all day long, found the idea positively scandalous. He had to wonder how his dear wife ever got such a horrid idea in her head. They did it this way so there wasn’t the tension of uncertainty any longer. Simple as that.
“I think you’re tired, and should get some sleep. You know how the girls always wear you out.”
Beth stared a moment longer at the screen, lips curling downward into an approximation of a frown. He hesitated, watching her, uncertain of what to say. Nerves drummed on edge and he marveled how, for the first time in recent memory, his blood pressure threatened to rise.
Then her head shook it all away, and she took his hand in hers. “Shall we?” she asked, and they walked into the darkness without another thought.
Halloween is and has always seen, at least in part, a time to gather around and share some of the things which nibble at our unease. Years ago, Neil Gaiman solidified that with a delightful tradition known as “All Hallow’s Read,” in which writers are encouraged to spread the fear with free tales from the dark for a day, a week, however they want to do it, really…
Last year, for me, that included an ode to the dead. This year, it takes a slightly different tack. The story which follows is unpublished, brief, and just spooky enough, I hope, for Halloween. It’s called “Dusk.”
And if you prefer to have someone read to you by the campfire instead, well…you can also hear my own reading of it at Soundcloud. Just turn off the lights and wait until dusk for full effect.
Dusk. I can hear them in the walls. The chitter of their legs rattles plaster.
Their poison stains the floorboards. My own is still with the fear of it, of the slow wine burn of their drink. They cannot be bated. Everywhere, the traps lay; they ignore them, build new roads into the dust and dark.
Mother takes them for the creak of trees in dead of night. She cannot hear them. Will not hear them. Heavy lies the whispers: do not be afraid, little fly, we just come to play. Can you hear the whispers? The world is walking by.
I weep for the dark, for the shadows of their web. Another moonless night. Do spiders know our words? Because they tell me things. The shameful things brother watches. I hear them scuttle through the laughter of their claims: have you heard what teacher says of his students behind their backs? I don’t want to know, but all the same they whisper.
They weave it into their webs.
I close my eyes to blot out threads winding through the cracks. Breathe in. Breathe out. Drift. They are playing games with me.
Another whisper wraps me tighter. They are here. I am awake, but I will not open my eyes.
Simpering spiders, they say I do not understand. Secrets pour from the walls and their fangs lick my veins.
(Follow along with my reading above, or head into this short story all on your own below…)
Voices echoed in the hills—a low, pleating wail which offered itself to the heavens. It was not pleasant, but their maker was no god of music. The tone deaf were prominent amongst their priesthood, and as was often the case, deaf in tone did not make the volume any lesser fair.
Ancient rites guided them through the flames. There were no sounds before them, only ripples after. The flames, stacked out in exact order days before, obscured their faces from those beyond, but also unnerved the honored guest at their center. It snorted and bleated, twisted against its ropes—a primal premonition, but too young to do anything about it. A white calf for creation—something which might be reborn from the ashes.
At the center of their forest rite, a broad man stepped up to the calf and, illuminated in the dance of shadows, split its skull with a machete. It sauntered this way, then that, and finally heaved to its knees, and further still, until it lay in a pool of its own lifeblood.
In the north, it would have been a sheep. To the west, where the earth cracked and sundered and heaved high into the wisps of sky, goats. And to the south: also cows. Except plural. Because some people simply felt more was better.
As one, all of these people would reach out their hands and raise their voices to beseech the light beyond their own putrescent sparks, and as one, they were not foolish enough to wait for the silence which would greet them.
Rites were simply that: rites, done for their own sake. History was soothing, repetition more so.
The priests of the forest believed this, right up until the moment the sky yowled and quaked as with a waking man, and in the blinded flailing of its fists, a lightning bolt took them clean off their feet. And their feet from their legs. And their legs from their bodies.
Their god told Himself it was high time. These people had no idea how noisy such prayers could be, and He had been putting up with them for centuries. It wasn’t that they had earned His enmity. They were beneath or beyond that. However one chose to look at it.
Lamentations. One might have called it irony, that in their despair, the mass of disaffected devotees prayed still harder to the god that wrought that lamentation upon them. Belief was a hard thing to shake. People hid in it. Wrapped themselves in it like a warm blanket, and it need never do a single thing for them, so long as it gave them something to whisper to in the dark of night. Charity was not in weighing their fate, it was in smashing apart the desperation to which they clung.
The sky darkened and clouds thickened to oil, and their heartbeats drummed with the furor of men who had suddenly lost sight of the world. Wind swarmed about them, and where it swirled, it tore their world to pieces—dust and mortar, bits of bits on the wind, a maelstrom of devastation which ground them all to nothing. To silence.
The time had come to end it.
It was not their fault. They were only human and He was only…an embodiment. Thoughts gave Him form, and mixed in with thought was emotion and He could not help that wrath was an emotion. No less than He could resist the entity which had fanned that wrath.
She thought Him weak.
She thought Him nothing.
Well. Then He would teach Her destruction. There was no flare quite so grand as that, even if the aftermath was quite…mundane.
Or so He thought, until His hurricanes met a wall. Rock surged against Him, His own wind rolled apart, and as all turned in on itself, the waves frosted and burst into nothing. Then She was there, and where all the rest of the world went limp before His fury, She strode forward, completely exposed but undistressed, a boiling wall of fury hotter than the heart of a star. She stood at the center of this new storm, effortless and fair-haired, a simple woman for all else She revealed, no trace of the desire which had borne this madness at the first.
He let out his hands and the storms subsided. He breathed deep of their world and drew the squalls of His wrath away. Yet Her own storms—at the heart of which, He now saw, lay the two halves of a city they had always favored—continued to enwrap Her, as though She did not trust this lull was real. Such distrust was an insult, every bit as palpable as Her rebuke. The very earth boiled with His distaste. She was squat. Broad of hip and muscled as He, and even through the form She held, He could not mistake Her perfection.
“Do my gestures not amuse you, Beauty?” He said.
“Your gestures do nothing more than name you Destroyer. First comes silence, then devastation. These are not the actions of a beast, nor a god, not even one of men—men your actions spawned, I might add, though you’ve not wit enough to care. What would I say of your ‘gestures’? I say they name you a child, oh God, for you have one’s grasp of morals.”
“We make morality!”
He boomed, for He was Creation, and it was He who made all that was and all that could be. It was not childishness, nor cruelty—none of this would even exist without Him to spur it.
Laughter resounded from Her, as though She perceived no threat at all. Then She said, chilly, “You believe, as a child, that you are above everything, and are petulant in your belief that satisfaction comes from the rest of us going along precisely with your way of seeing.”
Beneath His feet, the boundaries of His creations trembled.
“Cease your rambling! Death is the curse of their race. Of all things. Time unmakes all that is made, for so have I wrought it; what is living dies, and knowing this, are they not fools to summon the arbiter of this devastation? What are they to you? They are things, mere things; an accident risen from genuine creation. Let them be done.”
“And ask yourself, without them, what are you?” She challenged, a winter’s lake lodged within her unforgiving eyes. “An accident. A beautiful accident, then. They think, and they weep, and they love, and they believe…in you. You could make them a great creation indeed, but instead you bring them silence, and death, when you think doing so will bring me to you.”
In that moment, He reeled as if struck. There was fury in Her so utterly below the ice, a fuming, chemical chill which told of silences He could only vaguely remember, in a space beyond existence. From the deepest, darkest nothings of existence, created to birth and puzzle such divinities as they.
Drawing from that void, He said quietly, “You came, did you not?”
A laugh answered Him, at once greater than all the words He had put before it.
“I am not your equal, God-of-Men. I am older, I am wiser, and I will be long beyond when the silence consumes your empty gestures entire. I remember the darkness, where some only parcel it a passing thought. Choice. Do you know how beautiful a thing that is? It exists in them, here. Yet now you would take that from them, because you were scorned. Oh, I have come, oh God-of-Men. You have found me, but you shall wish you had not. You were supposed to find me, yet you cannot even find beauty in your own creation. Now, by what is dark and what is light, I tell you true, you shall wish that you had never pined for me. I swear it.”
Oh, She was tall, tall as the tallest tree He had ever wrought, and crimson as the star gods of the eastern sea, and cold for all that, as cold as the vacuous nothing which enwrapped all things, made and unmade. In His sudden terror, He raised His storms anew, but She battered them away and broke through to star shine, and in the brilliance of that light She struck Him down.
“I am a traveler, oh God-of-Men, and I have seen so many worlds, dead, never to be remembered—their gods toil and toil, and for all that they do, they cannot make life. They go mad for the silence. So many have I seen…and you, you do not even see the bounty before your eyes. You are unworthy.”
Lightning seared Him. Oceans swirled and pulled against His legs, and the continents shattered with the impacts of His body. Everywhere, rocks burst into sky and railed against flesh, as volcanoes seared in His veins. An old god, He was, but drained, so drained, from all that He had put into this world and forgotten. To this traveler, older still, displaced, His was a childish power, extinguished with a look.
He clambered against the bonds which devoured Him, cried out to any that would hear Him. But gods have no gods, only the darkness, which reached up to take Him from the world He had made, never to burn or thunder or sing again.
Only then did She smile. And the world began anew.
(Welcome to the dramatic conclusion of the Internet exclusive short story, “In Captivity.” Be sure to check out Parts One, Two, Three, Four , and Five if you need to catch up. Now we ask the final question: what is the difference between animal and man? Because at times, there may only be a trigger between them.)
Here it is.
It’s like—somebody’s had the destiny talk with you, yeah?
Two men sitting at a table. There’s a gun between them. One of them’s got his finger on the trigger and one of them’s fish food. They know it. You know it. It’s just a matter of time.
And here we are. Call it the lonely end. Oh I teach and I preach and I call it good—but it’s not good. It’s never good. It’s never been good.
Because nobody ever acts. I talk and I talk and what do I get? There’s nobody like me. I’m me. You’re you, and look where we are. Here, handing your life over to someone else.
People walk in false securities. Success doesn’t breed success; it breeds an inevitability of failure. We don’t learn anything from success except that something we did worked. Once. Will it work again? That’s what we think we learn, but that’s not it. It comes. It goes. And there we are, wondering, hoping that finger on the trigger will be ours, and that our bodies had the sense to move move move out of the way.
Here we are. You and I. Sitting. And there’s the pistola between us. Oh, I wonder; will they kill him when he gets away? It’s possible. But pirates, call us sensible at least. They are like me in one way: loyalty is when we can gain from the moment. If there’s no gain, there’s no sense in the loyalty. And when I’m dead, there’s no gain in you. Just a silly white boy wriggling his way upstream.
The blood on your hands. Can you take it? It’s the question I never asked. Never ask. I can take it. I took it. And death? It comes for all. I knew it was coming for me the first time I made a head bloom red, fishy. I grew up in it. I thrived on it. It don’t bother me none; death is an old friend. He’ll shake my hand and say shit, what took you?
But there are people. They don’t get it. When you pull the trigger they think it changes them. Well it does. But not the way they think. It’s all just meat and blood and shit, but it does change. I mean, look at dogs—you train them their whole lives on kibble and bits, and they’re the good puppy. The loyal puppy. Give them the hunt. The warm rush of the kill. And there’s no going back. They’ve had the blood-taste, and there it is—the wolf that was. The animal.
You people train yourselves to be puppies. To be something less, and yet more, than natural. Me? I just embraced the other. The real. I didn’t hide behind names and titles and so much air. I did what I did and all the rest was—someone else. Something else.
I don’t know how you got out. I don’t care. It’s good to see. I’d rather it be this than some drugged out pisspot thinking he’s better’n me, yeah? Because I’d be old then. And if I’m old it’s me doing it wrong, you know? Animals—they don’t get the years men do.
So what are you? Animal or man? It’s a thing, Americana. It’s a thing. How you say: hot mess? Ha. Yeah. That’s what I’ll be. That’s what you’ll be. It’s in your eyes, but what’s truth? Guns—they make it easy. Too easy.