David Niall Wilson
One Off From Prime
The walls of the shelter were dingy and gray. The paper was white, or had been white. Too many hours stuffed in the bottom of Angus’ bag had dampened the sheets and marred their sheen. Most of the pages were empty, windows and doors to places the words hadn’t yet taken him; even doors need a new coat of paint now and then – a hinge, or a knob replaced. Angus’ paper, as his mind, remained unhinged and without knobs or slots, collecting flecks of dust and smears of sweat and blood.
He wasn’t alone in the room, but he might as well have been. Angus stood adrift in a whirling miasma of images and words so thick they obscured the bland walls and walking, talking worlds that orbited him.
A thin, wisp of a woman sidled up sneakily and glanced sidelong into Angus’ vacant eyes. She eased along the table, trailed her bony fingers over its surface and watched with bird-like intensity for any reaction. Angus didn’t flinch. The woman’s dry, pale lips curled into a cruel grin. Like a striking snake her hand darted past the sheet of paper Angus held flat on the table and gripped the strap of his old, green duffle bag.
There was a blur of motion, and the woman screamed. Between her fingers, gouged into the surface of the table and quivering, stood Angus’ pen. It didn’t touch her skin, but it prevented the sliding of the duffle across the table. The plastic shaft of the pen was shattered, but the inner plastic tube and the ballpoint were intact, quivering from the impact.
Without a word, Angus worked it free of the table. The woman fluttered back and away. She sputtered words that died in strangled bleats of sound and a yellow mist of spittle. Angus paid no more attention to her departure than he had to her approach. He stared at the paper in front of him and willed the words to stop spinning and sort themselves. He had to capture them and bind them to the paper to get them out from in front of his eyes and behind his ears.
He thought – no, he knew – that there was one word among them that could set him free, if only he could unravel the rest and place it properly. He vaguely remembered others who had once helped with the placement, but though he knew there had been three, he couldn’t recall names or faces.
None of those around him saw the words. They saw a thin, emaciated man of thirty or so years with thick black hair that dropped over broad, muscular shoulders, their strength belied by thin, protruding shoulder blades. They saw wide eyes that stared at everything except what was directly in front of them and long, slender fingers perpetually wrapped around a pen, or a pencil, or a paintbrush.
One time the counselors found Angus in the alley behind the shelter with a piece of charcoal in his hand. He’d covered half the back wall with a single long, rambling sentence.
A young woman, thinner still than the insectile Angus, stood midway along the wall, reading. Her slender, beak-like nose was pressed so close to the wall that its tip was black from accidental encounters with charcoal and brick. Her hands were filthy from trailing along behind. She wore thick cats-eye glasses that slid down her nose and had to be pressed back into service every few minutes. This action streaked her face with more of the charcoal.
When the counselors led the two back inside she looked ready for a combat raid, camouflaged and intense. Angus looked confused and on the verge of saying something he couldn’t quite remember. He’d written it down, but she’d caused it to blur. She’d taken the words into her pores or her skin and the ridges of her fingers. The counselors took the charcoal, and by the time anyone thought to try and read what Angus had written, the words had faded and smudged.
Angus didn’t remember the wall. He remembered that there had been words, but not what they’d been. He remembered the young woman’s face. He remembered the dark swatches of charcoal embedded in the pores of her skin. He remembered her expression, and her eyes. He’d wanted to reach out, brush his fingers over her cheeks and drag the black, dusty smudges back into the proper order. He’d memorized her features in an instant and imagined them covered in letters, the words merging to one long statement encompassing everything he was unable to say. He thought she was more beautiful without the words, but had no way to be certain.
Now he stared at the blank paper, clutched the shattered pen and tried to bring her face into focus and transfer it to the page. He imagined the lines of letters, like soldiers, or the bricks on a wall. His lips moved, but before he could record the wispy words they slipped away and new ones took their places, always a step ahead. His hand trembled, but he didn’t touch the pen to the paper.
The girl sat in the corner of the room, huddled in a severe chair of hard wooden slats. She clutched her knees to her chest and her chin rested between them. She gazed in unwavering concentration at Angus’ profile. She saw the paper clearly, and the pen. She knew the tremble in his hand and the nervous shake of his head. She’d seen both so many times they’d become a part of her.
She didn’t have to huddle in the shelter. She didn’t have to watch this skinny man stare at his paper and chase the words flitting through his head. She had a home, and a name, a family who wondered where she had gone, and friends – acquaintances, really – who noted the empty spaces she would have filled in their own small worlds. But none of that was real. They knew the thin, wispy shell of her, but her connection to Angus was much deeper. Given time, she’d fade from their minds as surely as angus’ words had faded from the alley wall.
Angus knew she was there. He felt her. He sat, and he tried to imagine the lines of her face on his paper, but he refused to turn and watch her watching him because it was no good. The face smudged with charcoal had been cleaned. The words, if they were still there, were hidden too deeply for him to recapture. If he looked at her now, the earlier image of her would dissolve, and be lost. He would still have her eyes, of course, and that was a temptation. They were eyes that had watched him without guile, and without judgment. They were hungry eyes as eager to see him find the order in the words, or behind them, as he was to provide it. They had seen the words, if only for a few intense moments.
Others watched, as well, but not for long, and not with much interest. An old Italian man in a faded army uniform shirt covered in colorful patches shuffled by. He looked like an ancient, rotting parody of a boy scout. He wore two pairs of pants and had a variety of odd items tied to his belt, protruding from his pockets, and slung about his neck. His hair, which would have been a fine blend of white and gray had he bathed, was dark and greasy and clung to his liver-spotted scalp in sparse patches. The man glanced over Angus’ shoulder at the blank page and snorted.
“Shouldn’t write it down,” he said. His voice was weak and formed of shrill, reedy tones that shattered in the air like thin icicles. “They’ll read it. They’ll know. Never write it down.”
Then he shuffled off with his hands covering his pockets as if afraid the things he carried would leap out and escape. Angus didn’t look up. He sat with his hand hovering over the page expectantly.
Some spoke as they passed. Some stared at the paper, or at the back of his head. Some made faces behind his back and then walked on. A tall black man walked around to the far side of the table, directly across from Angus and stared down at the point where the pen had slammed into the tabletop. His lips moved constantly. Now and then his shoulder dipped, or he shuffled his feet. His hips swayed to music no one heard.
He leaned in and inspected the table. A small pile of dust and shattered plastic circled the point where Angus had slammed his pen into the wood. The black mans studied it. He cocked his head, checking perspective, and then seated himself in a chair. Angus didn’t look up. The black man reached into his pocket and pulled out a small pouch. From this he extracted a razor blade. The cold steel glittered like fire in the dim light, catching stray flickers from the bare, yellowed overhead bulb that illumined the room. It was the kind of blade used by artists and carpenters, braced on one edge with a rounded shield to protect the fingers.
The man’s hand darted out. He smacked the blade loudly on the table and drew it toward himself. The razor swept the plastic shards and dust across the surface, his fingers nimbly dropping and dragging, scooping the remnants into a pile. He was careful and he missed nothing. When he had it all in a heap in front of him, he raised the blade and chopped at the pile.
Everyone in the room except Angus, and the girl, looked up sharply. The man brought the blade up, and down, up and down; his fingers flew and quickly pulverized the larger shards of plastic, cutting them to dust, reshaping the mound, and cutting again, each run through making a finer powder. No one in the room spoke. The black man’s lips never stopped moving, but if he spoke, there was no sound to accompany it, and if he was answered it was not from within the room.
When the plastic was reduced to glittering dust, the man stopped and studied it. He drew the blade through the center, split the pile, and then split those piles. He cocked his head again. His shoulder dipped. He squinted with one eye and shivered, as if a particularly beautiful rhythm had rippled through his long, lanky body. The ripple ended at his fingers and they danced.
When he was done, there were six lines on the tabletop. Three of them were broken lines. Each of the six lines was of equal length; all were perfectly parallel with one another. The man carefully returned his blade to its pouch, rose from his chair, and did a careful quickstep in place, dropping his hip and throwing his hand out to one side. He turned and walked away.
Angus looked up. The girl rose, came to stand beside him, and stared down at the lines.
Behind them, the door to the room opened and the world poured in. The sudden shift in air pressure sent the dust whirling off the table and away, erasing the trigram.
A voice called out, “Angus Griswold?”
The room they put him in was white-walled. The table he sat at was covered in white Formica. There were windows, but they were the kind that was only transparent in one direction. On his side, they were mirrors. Angus stared at one for a long time, intrigued by the lines of his own face staring back at him. He wondered briefly if, on the far side of that mirror, the words made sense. He had the odd sensation that he recognized himself, and then it was gone.
They had the girl too. She was in another room. He felt her presence, though he hadn’t seen her since being closed off. He hadn’t seen anyone, in fact, since a very stiff-backed young man in a white jacket had brought him a white cup. He half-expected it to be filled with milk in the colorless void, but it was coffee. Angus loved coffee, but he hadn’t touched it. He wasn’t afraid of being poisoned, he was concentrating. The room was white, but the coffee was dark, like the words, and it distracted him. He watched the white walls and day-dreamed that ink might sweat out through hidden pores in their surface and flow into words and phrases.
In another room, not so bright, and not so white, the girl sat. On the desk in front of her was the remnant of a day planner. The spine had cracked and worn away and the pages were loose. She kept them bound in a pair of large rubber bands she’d stolen from the post office.
She glanced up as the door to the room opened. A tall black man in a dark suit entered, closed the door behind him, and crossed to the far side of the desk. He took a seat and placed a folder on the table in front of her. His eyes were dark brown, so dark they seemed black, and she saw that the cuticles of his fingers were meticulously groomed. He steepled his fingers.
She glanced up at him. He wore thick framed glasses. The wrinkles at the corners of his eyes looked as though they might be accustomed to humor, but in that moment his gaze was flat and serious.
“Why am I here?” she asked.
“I think you know the answer to that.” He replied. “I am Mr. Johnson. You don’t know me, but I believe you are very familiar with a former associate of mine, Mr. Griswold. You may also have heard of my employer, Mr. King.”
“I don’t know anyone named Griwsold,” she said.
“His first name is Angus.”
She didn’t answer.
“Do you have any idea what Angus did when he worked for us, Miss Prine?”
Her head jerked up. She had not known that they were so close to knowing her name. She smiled, but she tucked her head to hide it, and she didn’t answer.
“That’s unfortunate. It seems that Mr. Griswold has also forgotten.”
Johnson fell silent for a moment, then flipped open the folder on the desk.
“Angus Griswold was a financial analyst. He was very good at his job. Possibly too good. He and his team had the task of scanning pages and pages of computer data and…anticipating.”
“I think that’s the best way to word it. Angus had a way of seeing a very large amount of data at once. This ability of his allowed him to anticipate trends, predict problems, and circumvent inefficiency. One thing my company loathes beyond all else, Ms. Prine, is inefficiency.”
A sharp jangle of sound cut off his reply. Johnson slid a thin cell phone from his pocket.
She watched his face, but his expression never changed.
“You’re sure,” Johnson said. “Four hours, then? I see.”
He flipped the phone closed and turned back to her.
“There’s not much time. Mr. Griswold has been working on something very important for a very long time. He indicated to us that he’d discovered something big – something profound. That knowledge could prevent a very large disaster from taking place, and Mr. King is very interested in obtaining it. Mr. Griswold told us the nature of the disaster, and even gave us a rough idea of when it might take place. Unfortunately, we did not immediately see the importance of what he told us, and at that point his behavior had become…unstable. The file he left behind is incomplete. The single data point he failed to mention before disappearing into the streets was how to stop it.”
“He doesn’t know,” she said. “He’s been trying to figure it out. He believes that he will be able to write it down.”
“How do you know?”
“He wrote it on the wall. I read it. It was too much to take in at a single reading, and they came and took us away. The words were gone, smudged and ruined. I had them…but they slipped away.”
“Do you remember?”
“No. Not all of it. I’ve written some of it down, but it’s not perfect. There was a design.”
“Six lines. It was a trigram, like in the I Ching. I drew it.”
She fumbled at her ruined day planner. Her hands shook, and she had trouble spreading the pages. When she found it, she slid it free and turned it to face Johnson.
“What is it?” Johnson asked.
“It’s a Hexagram. I looked it up at the library. It means Obstruction. Stagnation.”
“He wrote this?”
She shook her head. “No. He caused it.”
Johnson stared at her a long moment, then made some unspoken decision.
“You have to help us. There is not time to explain the entirety of what is at stake, so I will be brief. I believe that you understand a lot more than you let on.
She held her silence.
“If we do not find the answers we seek, a few tiny calculations in a very large algorithm will return bad data. At first, no one will see. It won’t even matter. Over time, the errors will multiply. There is a critical point after which, even if we were to discover the original error, nothing we could do would halt its progress. That error is embedded deep in the database behind the world’s largest finance and credit system.”
“What can one tiny error do?”
“One error is incorporated in a thousand calculations, the results of which will fuel a hundred thousand more. The integrity of the data will be compromised within minutes. When the world gets the first hint that we do not have control of the system – that their millions of dollars are suddenly in question without even a good direction to point their finger, there will be anarchy. Mr. King believes that within only a few moments, automatic fail-safes and security protocols will shut down everything.”
“Everything?” she asked. “Surely there are backups? Contingencies?”
“Also corrupt. We do not believe we will be able to pinpoint the entry point of the error. We believe it is possible that Mr. Griswold can, or already has and has forgotten. We believe, in fact, that he’s been trying to put what he already knows in words that others can understand. Even if we found the error and returned the system to its current state it’s likely trust and confidence will have eroded sufficiently by that time to cause worldwide panic.”
“Where is he?” she asked.
“He is safe, for the moment. As safe as any of us can really be.”
She stared at Johnson for a long moment.
“I need to see him.”
“He needs to remember. He believes that I can help. He won’t look at me, and I think this is
because, in his mind, he will either find what he is looking for in the lines
of my face, or will find that it is lost forever, and he’s afraid.”
“I see,” Johnson said. “We will give him time, then. The room we put him in is one giant blank canvas. The walls are made of dry-erase white board. The windows are mirrors. The table is white, the floor is white. Soon he will be given markers. We have, at the best estimate of those who have an inkling of what Mr. Griswold has seen, about four hours. If he can’t write it down before then; if we get so close to the deadline that there is no hope, I will take you to him. You may be that hope.”
She continued to stare at him. Johnson remained unruffled.
“Coffee?” he asked.
She nodded, and then looked away, trying to see through the walls to where Angus was seated. She had visions of her own, had been having them since the first time she laid eyes on him so very long before. In her dreams, the angels warned of fire. They warned of destruction. Each of them wore a very large, ticking clock on a golden chain, and the clocks were winding down. In those dreams, men worshiped idols made of shifting symbols and scrolling numbers, falling away to dust.
Johnson slipped out of the room without a sound. The door closed behind him and she stared at it, just for a moment. He had not hesitated, or fumbled with the knob, but she knew it was locked. Less than four hours. The room didn’t even have a clock.
Johnson stood behind a row of three chairs. The chairs faced a bank of huge monitors across which columns and patterns of numbers shifted and scrolled. Each screen was divided into terminal windows, and different events triggered flashes of color. In the chairs, a young Asian woman, an old gray-haired man, and a boy of about sixteen sat. On the backs of their chairs, the names Meshe, Shad, and Abe had been scrawled across white nametags. They watched the scrolling numbers, working keyboards, trackballs and a bank of peripheral controls without once glancing away from the screen.
Johnson wanted to question them, but he knew that either they would ignore him, as per their instructions, or he’d likely cause a new set of problems by his interference. When Angus had worked with them, there’d been a fourth chair. Mr. King had removed it when the prodigal walked out.
Johnson watched the numbers for a moment, but they meant little to him. When they had been sifted down to spreadsheets and balanced equations, he’d understand them well enough. In their current raw state, it was beyond his ability. That was fine – it wasn’t his job. His job was to be certain that the numbers did balance. In the upper levels of the company, they joked that every transaction since the beginning of time flowed across those screens – that the Templars had kept records, and the Egyptians had been meticulous
The woman, Meshe, gasped suddenly. She didn’t stop working her controls, and she didn’t look away from the screen, but he knew that she’d caught something. Her distress passed, and he knew it couldn’t be what Angus had seen. These three were very good. There had once been more than two dozen “watchers” working in shifts, and they had all been good. None of them had borne Angus’ singular gift – or his neuroses. Now there were only three, and though Angus had spoken to them before leaving, none of them could find the fault, though they would no doubt remain vigilant.
Johnson turned away and left the room as silently as he’d entered. He headed down a brightly lit hall and entered a glass-doored office at the far end. An elderly man, grey at the temples glanced up from where he’d been scouring reports on his desk.
“What has he said?” the man asked.
“Nothing. He’s confused and barely coherent. The girl isn’t much better. I think it’s time to put them together and see what comes of it.”
“It’s our last shot. If they can’t get it back in time…”
“I know,” Johnson said. “Don’t think I haven’t considered walking out, buying a bunker in a survivalist camp and stocking up. We haven’t got much time. For all we know we don’t have any time at all. We have to try it now.”
“Take her in,” the man said.
Johnson turned, hesitated, and looked back.
“It’s been good working with you, Ezekiel.”
The older man smiled. It was a fleeting expression that looked lost in the patchwork of stress-fractures that made up his face. Then he turned back to the papers, and Johnson slipped into the hallway, closing the door quietly behind him.
When the door opened, Angus didn’t look up. The girl entered, and the door closed behind her. She sat opposite him at the table. He stared at the white surface, refusing to meet her gaze.
“You wrote it down once,” she said. “In the alley. You wrote it down, and it was all there.”
Angus twitched, but did not look up.
“I knew you’d get it. I knew you’d find the words. It’s why I watched, and why I read. “
“They’re gone.” Angus said.
She shook her head. She rose, circled the table, and stood directly beside him, but still he did not look up. She reached out and stroked his cheek. He didn’t pull back, but she felt the inner struggle. He quivered as if unable to decide whether to press into her fingers, or to lean away.
“The words are not gone. If they were gone, you’d be at rest. They are there, buzzing and crackling with energy, and you need them to stop. We both need that. The world needs that. You started it, and only you can finish it. It’s up to you.”
She stepped behind his chair, pulled it gently away from the table, then slid around and straddled him. With one hand on each cheek she raised is head until he stared directly at her.
“It’s time,” she said.
Angus shivered, but he didn’t look away. She leaned closer, and her features blurred. At the end, he saw her lips, red and moist, and criss-crossed with tiny veins that shifted and rearranged. They kissed and those crooked, wretched lines clarified. Angus pulled back, just for an instant, but she held him fast.
His mind flooded with memories. Lines of figures flashed past on mental monitors so fast it should have been dizzying, but he already knew them. He felt each ripple and saw the tiny bugs nibbling away at the heart of the pattern.
He was vaguely aware when she began stroking her hips up and down. He rose to meet her and wrapped her in his arms. He was so close. He had walked so long in a world that buzzed and whirled that the clarity was painful. The haze beckoned. He itched to hold his pencils, or a piece of chalk. The white walls streamed with row after row of symbols and numbers and he wanted to fill them in and trap them. He felt her unbuttoning his shirt and then the hot touch of her flesh and then…he let them go.
Johnson and Ezekiel stood before a huge video monitor. On the screen, Angus stood, disheveled and coated in sweat, before one of the white walls. He held a dry erase marker in his hand, poised. Behind him, the woman lay back across the table, spent. It was difficult not to stare at her; something in the aspect of her pose gave her a sensuality her street-urchin attire and schizophrenic actions had hidden. She did not look at Angus, but instead stared back at them through the monitor, as if well aware her naked flesh was on camera and reveling in the attention.
“My God,” Ezekiel said. “Who is she?”
“You know who she is. You know what she is. What neither of us knew was how profoundly … real … she would turn out to be.”
“She calls herself Prine?” Ezekiel asked absently.
“I think we may have been mistaken. It sounded like Prine, and we have assumed that to be correct, but upon closer examination of the original document, I believe she is called…Prime.”
“It’s her last name?”
“It’s her only name.”
“Not exactly, but…wait! He’s writing.”
On the screen Angus reached out with the marker. He started drawing horizontal lines. After only a few seconds work the hexagram was complete. “Obstruction”. He stares at it, and then turns.
“There is no new flaw in the numbers,” he says.
It’s not a question, but it’s directed to the girl.”
“Of course not.
There is only the one flaw. You
knew this once.”
“I know it again,” he said.
He dropped the marker on the floor and it rolled under the table. He walked to the table and lifted her to a sitting position. She smiled into his stern gaze. Angus leaned in and kissed her, and then turned toward the cameras.
“Numbers are pure,” he said. “The system by which you calculate them is a language, and it is the closest to perfection man may ever come, but there are flaws. There have always been flaws. You have built a world on numbers, filled in the cracks when the foundations shifted, and applied new paint, but the central flaw was always there. It’s eaten at the foundations since the first dollar was saved and reinvested. It’s the root cause of all the tiny cracks I patched for you, and the thousands more rising to the surface.”
“Tell them aboutSchrödinger’s Cat,” she said.
He turned and frowned at her, and then the frown cracked into a crooked smile.
Ezekiel turned and started to ask Johnson a question, but Johnson held up a hand. He focused intently on Angus.
“I spent my life looking for flaws in the perfection of the data. No matter how many times I found and fixed a problem, the imperfection screamed at me, and I had to go on. All I was doing was plugging holes in a sinking ship. There was never any perfection to mar, only a crumbling façade.”
Johnson stepped back from the monitor. Behind him a red light began flashing slowly, and then another. Alarms sounded. Ezekiel turned and glanced at them. He touched Johnson on the shoulder, but Johnson shrugged him off.
“It’s too late, Ezekiel,” he said.
Johnson reached out and pressed a button. He leaned down and spoke into a microphone on the desk beside the monitor.
“Angus,” he said.
Angus turned and looked directly into the camera.
“I cannot speak to you,” he said. “I have a message for Ezekiel.”
The old man stood very still. Johnson turned to stare at him, and then pressed the microphone button again.
“Ezekiel is here.”
“Now is the time, old friend. You must remember. Mr. King and his minions have built this false idol of greed and gold, this mountain of numbers. You know what will happen should it crumble, and yet, the choice remains yours. Worship, or be taken by fire.”
“Your name is not Angus,” Ezekiel said. His voice was soft, as though he was forcing memories from somewhere deep inside.
“What are you talking about?” Johnson said. He shook Ezekiel hard. “What do you mean he isn’t Angus? Who is he?”
“Call the main office,” Ezekiel said, ignoring the question. Get Nebbu…get Mr. King on the line. Tell him … tell him that we choose the fire.”
The blinking lights and alarms lit the wall behind them like a holiday celebration. Johnson ignored them. He stared at Ezekiel, and then turned back to where Angus still stared through the camera and into his soul.
“Who are you?” Johnson asked. “Who, in God’s name, are you?”
“Names are only patterns,” Angus replied. Then he smiled. “I am many, and I am one. I would tell you that I am the way, the truth, and the light, but she – pointing at the girl – would tell you I am Hermes, or Mithras, or Odin, and she cannot lie. It does not matter who I am. What matters, and what has always mattered, is who you are, and what you will become.
“The numbers have failed. In the beginning, there was the word – and that is all there has ever been. Plurality is divisive. Heaven isn’t a chord, it’s a single, pure note. Go, and learn to sing.”
The monitor went dark. Power in the building flickered, and then dropped. For a long moment auxiliary power tried to kick in and bring it back to life – and then died. Ezekiel had gone. Johnson’s sifted through unfamiliar memories. He thought of the three in the other room, staring at blank screens that had been filled with numbers only moments before. He mouthed their names, and almost laughed.
“Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego,” he said softly. How had he not seen?
It didn’t matter. Without a backward glance he turned, left the room and the building and walked out into the world. Behind him the monitor blinked to life without external power. Angus and Prime stood, wrapped in a tight embrace. Dark flecks danced up from the floor, peeled off the walls, and began to whirl. The flecks grew, diving and dancing through the air until they enlarged to numbers, and words, letters and symbols. The cloud whirled faster and darker until the room was obscured by a tangle of dark images and shifting patterns.
And then it was gone. All that remained in the room was a battered spiral notebook and a number two pencil. On the top sheet, the Hexagram symbolizing “Obstruction” had torn down its center. On the streets beyond the building, men and women stepped out into bright sunlight…so bright, it burned.
Work is well underway as A Midnight Dreary passes the 30,000 word mark. I’m sort of doing Nanowrimo this year, in that the book will pass 50k before the end of the month, but it will be much longer than that. At 30k I have only just reached the beginning of the three separate threads that will bring all the main characters, Donovan and Edgar Allan Poe from my novel Nevermore, Bullfinch, and a new O.C.L.T. member heading to New Orleans to meet with Copper and Alicia from my novel Darkness falling, and Amethyst, Cletus J. Diggs, and old Nettie headed into the Great Dismal Swamp.
This novel, probably the most complex and ambitious of my career, will draw firmly together the adventures of the O.C.L.T. – Donovan DeChance and his world, Cletus J. Diggs and Old Mill, North Carolina, and the open strands left (read that as surviving characters) from Darkness Falling… At least two versions of Poe stories from a very different perspective, one well known and one obscure – multiple continents… world building.
One thing readers have asked for is a fleshing out of the character Amethyst, Donovan’s love interest, and this novel will not disappoint. There will also be revelations in the odd and discordant career of the Not Quite Right Reverend Cletus J. Diggs…
The cover art was purchased from a Russian artist, Konstantin Korobov… the cover design is by David Dodd…
More updates to follow. There is an excerpt from this book titled MASQUERADE available along with several of my other works, including the entire novel “Heart of a Dragon,” first in this series.
Bloody Knife & Morning Star
By David Niall Wilson
Bloody Knife watched from his pony as the Calvary trooped by. Their uniforms glistened in the sunlight, and their weapons gleamed with the promise of glory and death. They were confident, and you could feel that confidence in the air, an aura that reached out from the golden haired demon that led them to permeate the entire column.
As guide, it was the Indian’s place to lead the way, but for the moment he only sat and brooded, watching as the spirits spoke to his soul. Custer turned once, nodding in his direction, an almost imperceptible acknowledgement of his presence, his part in the grand scheme of what was to come. Bloody Knife did not even twitch in response.
They called this golden-haired one “The son of the morning star.” It was appropriate. This was the dawning of great moments, new beginnings. The twilight and the birth of dreams. As the last of them glided by, a gaudy painting of arrogance and naiveté against a backwash of blue sky and the rising sun, Bloody knife dug his knees into his mount and slid off along the side of them like a shadow, leaving them in a small cloud of dust and making his way into the ravine ahead. His mind was focused, his concentration centered on what was to come.
It had been a chance meeting, a meeting destined by stars and dreams. Bloody Knife had been leaning against the railing beside a tavern called “The Smoking Gun,” idly sipping at his private bottle of whiskey and letting his mind wander. The bottle was as much for show as anything. Although he never drank to excess, it was a good idea to let those around him believe it to be his custom. There were reasons for everything he did, patterns shifting about him that only he could grasp.
It was such a pattern that had placed him there, just so, when his destiny had marched by. Golden hair flying in the stiff breeze, shoes shined and blue uniform so brilliant in the sun that it seemed to glow with its own, inner light, General George Armstrong Custer moved with the confidence of arrogance. He barely shifted his gaze toward Bloody Knife, but the sudden narrowing of his eyes, the slight hitch in the perfection of his stride, gave him away.
In a voice calculated for the proper volume, he spoke to one of his two companions. “I have come here for a purpose, gentlemen,” he announced. “The heathen Sioux are rampant, and it seems a strong hand is in order. Of course, they shall present no real threat to a well-trained regiment, but still, they seem to be proving difficult.”
Bloody Knife turned his own face away, still listening, but not wanting them to know it.
“You don’t know them red devils, sir,” the sergeant trotting along at his side puffed. “They’re slicker than shadows in them woods.”
“Rubbish,” Custer dismissed him. “Fighting men, trained properly, are the match for any situation, especially one involving uncouth savages. I expect to have this matter resolved soon, and to be called back to more important duties in the east. Let’s get some food, then we’ll talk about those guides…I’ll be needing to get through the ‘Black Hills,’ as you call them, as swiftly as possible.”
“Yes sir,” the man replied. He said no more, but in the tone of his voice, and the stiffening of his shoulders as he moved through the tavern door in his commander’s wake, Bloody Knife read worlds of doubt. This man knew. This man had met the peoples of forest and plain, had seen the light of his own death burning in their eyes. The other was a fool, but there was something more.
Letting his senses stretch, feeling the voices of the ground beneath him and the birds that floated in the skies above blending with his consciousness, he searched. There was an aura nearby, an aura of strength and purpose, an aura of power. It emanated from the interior of the tavern, and it brought a darkness, a dulling of the sight, such as he’d never experienced.
Calling out within the great mother’s spirit, he reached for her children, the spirits gone beyond, reached for their thoughts, for their aid. He could hear them speaking, just beyond the questing tendrils of his own mind, but he could not make out their warnings. All that would surface was an image, a glowing nimbus — a face — obscured by a green fire. It was surrounded by a mane of bright, golden hair, and from within it echoed the loneliness of a shattered spirit.
Shivering, Bloody Knife brought himself back to the present. He looked about himself, re-orienting his senses. Nobody had seen him in his trance-state, but it would not have mattered. He still held the whiskey bottle tightly in one hand, and they would have assumed what they believed to be the obvious.
That had been the beginning — the trail that wound back to the mother spirit, the path to inner light. It had been the moment he’d dedicated his life to reach, suffering the abuse of his own people, the contempt of the whites, and the scarring of his soul to achieve. It had been a moment of rebirth.
Slipping around the corner of the doorway, he’d stolen a last glance at the man, Custer. He’d scanned the handsome features, the arrogant tilt of the man’s head and the polished dignity of his demeanor. He was the one, there was no doubt. Never had he felt the spirit of those who would desecrate the land so intensely.
Within “The smoking Gun,” General George Armstrong Custer felt the weight of intruding eyes on his shoulders and spun his head quickly to the door. It was empty, but he would have sworn, had he not feared being considered insane, that the lingering image of a man’s form shimmered in that space. A dark man, an Indian. A heathen. The notion that such a man might pose a threat to an officer and a gentleman was ridiculous, and yet he felt a sudden chill. Shaking it off, he returned to his drink, and his plans.
As he rode out of the town and made his way toward the outskirts of the surrounding forest, where he would meet with the soldiers and secure his position as guide, Bloody Knife let his mind slide backward, leaving the mechanics of riding to the instincts of both body and horse, freeing his senses.
As a young man, life had treated him poorly. Half Sioux, half Ree, raised in a Sioux village, the taunts and challenges had been twice those imposed on the other boys. He had been beaten, whipped, stoned, chased and mocked, all with little time for respite. If it hadn’t been for certain events in his twelfth year, he might never have survived.
The tribe he’d been a part of was guided by the wisdom of a ancient, wrinkled shaman named Speaks With Spirits. It was to this man that his mother had taken him when, cut by a hail of stones from the other young men of the village, his head had bled profusely. The man had treated him without comment. At the time, Bloody Knife had been known as Running Dog, a name neither he, nor his mother, were pleased with, but which his father had insisted upon. Bloody Knife had known that the others of the village were behind this, that his father was secretly ashamed to name his son in this way, but there had been nothing he could do.
“Leave him with me,” Speaks With Spirits had said, and his mother had left immediately. The old man’s words were the law, and his powers were feared by all.
Bloody Knife had been in too much pain to give his fear much thought, and he’d followed meekly behind as Speaks With Spirits led him into his lodge. He’d known that others watched, and that tongues would already be wagging, but he’d been beyond caring. No one would think to harm him as long as he was in the presence of the shaman. He only hoped that the old man himself was not planning anything horrible.
Turning to him solemnly, Speaks With Spirits had gestured that he should be seated. He did so, looking about himself carefully, trying not to stare at the odd array of charms, potions, and animal parts. It was impolite to be curious, but impossible not to be.
Speaks With Spirits returned a moment later with a skin filled with some sort of liquid.
“Drink,” he said simply. “Drink, then sleep. Tomorrow, we will talk.”
That was all. Bloody Knife, then known as Running Dog, turned up the skin and took a long swallow of something syrupy, sweet, and then suddenly bitter. It had taken every ounce of control he could muster not to spit the foul stuff back up, but he had managed it, handing the bag quickly back to the old man, whose eyes were crinkled in sudden mirth.
And he had. Not a normal sleep. Long, deep, but filled with dreams — a journey such as he’d never known. Animals spoke to him first, blue-black ravens and otters with sleek fur, rabbits and bears — eagles. He listened as they spoke, and they flitted about him, surreal and insubstantial, whispering things he only half-heard, messages and instructions that would not stick with him, but that had re-emerged at various moments later in his life.
There had been men and women, as well. Their features, at first blending and shifting in and out with those of the animals, were insubstantial. They would coalesce, then disperse, then return in different patterns, confusing his mind and rendering it impossible for him to place them, one voice with one face. They were all voices, all faces, joining with him and teaching, communing with his own spirit and welcoming him in.
Speaks With Spirits was there, and yet he was not. His voice came first, chanting, rhythmic and powerful. As the sound went on, a warm glow flowed in and through him, and there was a subtle shift. The faces drifted away, flitted less often over one another’s features. It was Speaks With Spirits, one face, one voice, and his message was the only one that made it through, the only one not lost in the barrage of vision and confusion.
“You are chosen,” the voice had filled him, owned him. “You have the ears that spirits can reach, the eyes that can see beyond the veil. The great mother spirit of the earth rushes strong through your veins. What is mine, is yours. My gift now joins with your own, my life and destiny and yours are bound.
“There were powers before the Sioux, powers before the peoples of plains and mountains, before the whites and their fire-sticks, before even elk and deer. Our mother is the first, the greatest. The journey must be made back into her arms, the ascension to her realms. Your feet will take that path, your spirit will share the way with mine.”
There had been more. Much more. He had learned of spirits and the wisdom they could bring. He had learned of the earth, and of those who would desecrate her, removing the visions — silencing the voices of the spirits. All of this and more, and all in one, long vision.
Then he’d awakened to madness. He was wet — cold and sticky, and rising he found that he was coated in blood. Looking wildly about himself, it had registered that he was still in the lodge of Speaks With Spirits. The old one sat, legs crossed, above the position where he had lain. His head lolled at an odd angle, and the blood had run from the jagged cut at his throat down to pool on the ground where the boy, then Running Dog, had lain.
He rose numbly. There was a knife on the ground . . . dropped from Speaks With Spirits’ hands. The blood was pooled around the knife as well, and he reached out slowly, picking it up and staring at it in disbelief. He had slept. All he had done was to drink that foul potion, whatever it might have been, and …it was the manlan.
The voice, not exactly a voice, but a thought that was not wholly his own, had snapped out to fill in the gap in his knowledge, the name of the potion. He trembled. The manlan, vision drink. His mind filled slowly with a list of ingredients, a procedure he’d never known, a knowledge beyond his years and mind.
There were voices outside the tent as well. White Elk and Bear In Woods were calling to Speaks with Spirits, and they were impatient not to be answered. They prepared for a raid, and they needed strong medicine to guide and protect them.
Without thinking, or without thinking “himself,” the boy who was then Running Dog passed through the door of the lodge into the village beyond and stood, staring at the men. He held the bloody knife in his hand, still, and he stared at them with eyes that were different than those he’d worn before. Strong eyes. Pure and old. Wise.
“It is a bad day for a raid,” he said softly. His voice carried, despite the lack of force behind the words, and his eyes did not waver. Though the questions, the anger, and the disbelief warred within their eyes, White Elk and Bear in Woods turned on their heels and walked away. Others saw him, and they saw the knife. They whispered among themselves, but they did not come forward.
Speaks With Spirits had been powerful, old and wise in the ways of spirits and demons. If he was now dead, and this boy had killed him, then there was a power in him, as well. He was Running Dog no more — his identity branded into his soul as surely as the blood stained his hands.
He had walked slowly to the tent of his family, and he had taken up his weapons and his belongings without speech. His mother only stared, but his father — unwilling to face what was to come, turned and walked from the lodge without a backward glance, refusing to acknowledge his son further. It did not matter. There were new teachers within him, voices that came and went with the winds, energies and powers that beckoned from far lands and long roads.
He’d mounted his pony and turned to leave. There had been a tug on his leg, and he’d turned, almost, but not quite, swinging the knife. It was his mother, and her eyes were clear and proud.
“You must go to the Ree. I will follow soon. You must go to the lodge of my father and tell him who you are and what has happened. You must not return here.”
He nodded. It had been a beginning. He had never belonged with the Sioux, not truly, and now he knew that Speaks With Spirits had not, either. The old man had been of ancient stock, holder of secrets that made the eldest memory of the tribe seem the prattle of children. Now he was the guardian. The spirits spoke to him, Speaks With Spirits among them, and he had a destiny.
As the line of soldiers disappeared behind him, Bloody Knife swerved his mount and headed it off at a gallop along the valley, not leading them into the battle ground, as expected. Custer had other scouts — they would assume his death, which was in any case inevitable. He had one last trial — one last part to play.
He let his finger stray to his belt and the tiny silver horseshoe pendant he wore there. It was the only ornamentation he allowed himself. He would not dress as a Sioux — there was too much hatred, too much pain. He would never truly be Ree, despite his mother’s admonitions that me must stay with her, and with that tribe. Neither was he white. Nevertheless, he knew the power of talismans, and in the work to come, he’d invested greatly in the power of this one — one truly believed in by those he would stand against.
He was of the spirit. Symbols meant little to him, except in the powers they could contain. This horseshoe was the mirror of that worn around the neck of Custer’s subordinate, Major Reno. It would form the link — it would be his bridge. Custer would never believe in anything but himself, and in that power he believed all too much. Reno was different. He had seen defeat, had stared death in the eyes and lived with the haunting echo of that image for years. The spirits knew him by sight.
There were no trumpets to fill the air this day, despite Custer’s bravado. It was a bold plan, large and far-sighted in implication and implementation. He knew the odds, even as he disclaimed that there was any possibility of defeat. He believed that he had the answers, and that belief was a strong weapon, in and of itself.
He believed in Bloody Knife, as well. That was the fatal flaw. Every great plan has its weakness, every leader his Achilles heel. Bloody Knife had led him through the fabled holy black hills of the Sioux nation untouched. He had been there, breathing secrets and twisting dreams, since that day outside “The Smoking Gun.”
The Sioux hated Bloody Knife. Custer had no idea how deeply that hatred might run, but he felt it. His mind did not allow for the chance that the hatred was not reciprocated. The world was a steady procession of straight lines and set angles for the general. A man hated, a man loved, there was no middle ground, no gray area.
It was not Custer that Bloody Knife fought. It was not the Sioux. It was what each stood for in this senseless war. Change. Desecration of the land. Ignorance of the spirit of the land that provided all they needed, and ignorance of the mutual respect that could preserve this. Custer would not stop at the Sioux. He would not be happy until he had proven himself superior in intellect and battle to every “heathen savage” in the west.
The Sioux would not bend, but they might break. There was pride in them running deeper than sanity, in many cases, honor that shamed the whites they fought at every turn, but to no avail. They did not listen to the old ones any longer, though they venerated them. They did not seek to raid, or to count coup on their enemies, then to return to home and hearth for bragging rights. They sought destruction, annihilation. They were no different in this than the whites, and that was what Bloody Knife hated.
He slipped into a small copse of trees, and he pulled his mount to a halt, sliding off and kneeling quickly. There was not much time to work. He drew a small circle in the dirt, seating himself in it and pulling free the bag he wore at his side. From this he drew several herbs, which he sprinkled onto a pile of leaves and small twigs. After lighting them with flint and stone, he took free the small silver horseshoe from his belt and held it before him, closing his eyes and waiting for the sweet smoke to waft up and about him.
He could feel them gathering, the spirits of those who had gone before, the animals who had led him to an understanding of the land, wise men and warriors, mothers, daughters, and behind them all the whispered breath of the mother herself, the ultimate dream calling to his soul.
He concentrated, breathing deeply, pulling his essence within and redirecting it. His focus was the glinting silver horseshoe, the memory of golden hair and glistening steel, the whooping, rage-filled cries of the warriors as they mounted.
He had come to Sitting Bull in his dreams. While wrapped in the warm embrace of his three current wives, the Chief had seen victory. He had ridden as a demon through the lines of his enemy, counting their dead like the flies on a buffalo carcass and screaming his name to the skies. Victory and battle were the only visions the Sioux would respect in those days of horror and hatred, and Bloody Knife had provided them. The Sioux would ride.
Custer had been different. Bloody Knife had never feigned good will toward his employer, often being openly disrespectful. It was a ploy to gain respect, one that had worked. His prophecies had helped Custer on innumerable occasions, but never had they been offered directly. Always, he had made comments from the side, suggestions to the wind that were overheard and implemented. The battle to come was based on such comments.
“I had a dream,” he’d told another scout, aware that Custer listened nearby. “In my dream, there was a hill — a hill I know. It was the Little Bighorn, you know this place?” The guide had nodded solemnly. “I saw that hill run red, and from it, many spirits rose. They wore the colors and paint of the Sioux, and above them, burning bright, was a star — the star of the Morning…”
There had been more, and he had seen the effect of his words in the other’s eyes. Custer never said a word, but it was that very evening that he gathered his subordinates and planned to take off, with his own regiment, to the hill of the Little Bighorn. He outlined his plan carefully, and his eyes were nearly fevered with thoughts of victory and glory.
The smoke carried Bloody Knife up through the trees, up to where the fields beyond were visible, up to where the touch of the sun was a caress on his soul. He could see the hill in the distance, and he could hear the sounds from where the main force of the troops, led by Major Reno, were engaged, held in position, by huge numbers of the Sioux.
He could sense those forces pulling back, and he knew it was about to come, the battle was on. Custer would soon mount the hill, and Reno would begin to close in from the flank with his cavalry. It might be enough to turn the tide. It might change the vision. It could not be so.
The image of the horseshoe grew until it was a giant, panoramic view that super-imposed itself on the sky. He looked within the silver, looked beyond it, and he saw Reno, saw the man give the order to move and saw the lines begin to form behind him.
The spirits answered Bloody Knife’s call. They slid from tree to tree around the Major and his forces, rising from the earth, dropping from the trees. Always they were just out of sight, but they caught at the peripheral of each soldier’s vision, snatched at the sensitive ears and eyes of their mounts, grabbed at the strings that bound their hearts to their courage and plucked, bringing a trembling to the very air itself. Danger. Death.
Reno’s eyes were taking on a far-away, empty glaze. He saw the land before him, and yet he saw a different place. He saw his men, but they were not the men of that moment, but the men of another place, another time. Ahead his men saw the Unkpapa village and the line of Sioux warriors descending on them. Reno saw a road. Ahead was the fleeing form of a single man, “The Grey Ghost,” John Singleton Mosby, and he felt himself drawn into the vortex of that moment, reliving the madness.
He’d confronted the fugitive in a small town, chased him out onto the road, and victory was at hand. Then the bullets had begun to fly, from the trees, the bushes, raining down upon the road like hail. All around him his men were dropping, dying, screaming, and ahead the “Grey Ghost” laughed, flying into the face of time, dragging him through the blood and bodies of the fallen.
This wavered in and out of his vision along with the village, the advancing braves, his men. There were other Indians there as well, rising from the ground to stare at him in hatred, to stare through him, then to disappear. He raised his hand, screamed for a halt, for a dismount. He could feel the charge of the enemy as they approached, and yet he halted.
Skirmish lines were quickly formed as his men, staring stupidly at him as if he were a mad man, did as he ordered. They set themselves in a defensive posture, and they waited, leaving the plan, the General, and history to sort it out.
Reno leaped from his own horse, running madly about the lines, giving orders, some that made sense, others that were gibberish. He lost his helmet in the madness and picked up a stray straw hat, wrapping a cloth about his head as though to emulate the very savages they fought. Foam flew from his lips, and still he stumbled about. They could not die. He would not let them. His men would not die at his hand again.
Bloody Knife called to him, then, seeing that they would not advance, and he stopped still, listening to the air. Without further thought, he spun and ran to his horse, leaping back to the saddle.
“If you would save yourselves,” he cried, raising his arms high above his head as his horse pranced nervously, “follow me.”
The major turned and fled, and his men, one after another, slowly at first, then in force, followed. They were in a confusion, and the Sioux warriors falling upon them like an avenging tide took full advantage. They dragged the soldiers from their mounts, impaled them one after another in the constant barrage of arrows that blurred the air with shafts and feathers, death and screaming pain.
There was no chance. There was no hope, and with that black tide at his heels, the major fled to the trees, where Bloody Knife awaited him. The scout had risen. About his neck, he’d tied a starred bandanna that Custer himself had given him. He’d donned the bear-claw and clam-shell necklace of the Sioux shaman, carried at his side all these years, carried with secret pride and open pain. He stood alone in a clearing, sending his mind out to Reno and calling him forth.
The spirits whispered of the blood. The Little Bighorn ran red, and the blood was not of the Sioux. Men died, screaming and tortured, Indian children played with the wounded, stabbing and cutting, cat-calling and hounding. To a man they would die, their blood returning to replenish the land. The battle would make no difference in the end, but for that moment, that glorious moment, the last that Bloody Knife would know on earth, there would be a cleansing. There would be a return to what was animal in man, what was natural in nature.
As he stood, Reno roared into the clearing, eyes crazed and spittle flying from his lips. Seeing Bloody Knife and recognizing him, somehow, he leaped from his saddle and ran forward, dropping the reins of his mount and nearly stumbling to his knees.
“What has happened?” he cried. “Why are you not with the General? The attack, it is over — lost. We cannot break through. Why . . .”
There were a million questions swirling in the madness of the man’s eyes. Bloody Knife would have liked the time to explain himself, to teach what he had been taught, to pass on this legacy of responsibility, but it was not possible. It was time.
Even as the echo of the gunshot rang through the forest, he felt the hand of the mother’s spirit reaching out to draw him home. He saw the earth swirling away beneath him, felt the release as he broke free — broke into the realm of those he’d shared with so often, felt their embrace as they accepted him into the one whole, the spirit of the earth mother, Gaia, the purity of essence without form.
Major Reno staggered into the trees and somehow found his mount. He’d seen the eyes behind that gun — Sioux. They had followed him, even here, and they had shot Bloody Knife before he could answer. The major reached up slowly, running a gloved hand across his face. The Indian guide’s blood had spattered his features, his uniform, imbedded itself in his hair.
One moment the man had stood before him, the next his head had just exploded. Nothing. Where there had been eyes, eyes awash in wisdom and answers lost, there was a mist of red and pain. No screams. No staggering, bloody corpse. The body had dropped, headless, and Reno had run. Again.
In the distance he could still hear guns, screams. A momentary vision blotted the sight of the forest and he saw a hill, running deepest red, overrun with feathered hair and screaming, savage faces. There were no blue-shirted warriors on that hill, no cries of victory or glory. Only the red.
Mounting up, he headed back out of the trees and back toward safety at a full gallop, already planning his explanations. There would be no mention of ghosts, there would be no mention of Bloody Knife or visions of blood-soaked hills. There would be no glory. He had made history — history and glory are not synonymous. His head hung low, he rode to destiny.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Once, long ago, I was keynote speaker at a writer’s conference in the Lehigh Valley up north. I didn’t really know what I was going to talk about. I felt a little overwhelmed, because, at that point in my career, though I’d sold several novels and a handful or two of stories, I wasn’t sure I had the experience to speak on a subject that would prove useful. Then…I started talking (it’s a recurring theme…). What I talked about was the fact that my ideas don’t just come to me. Often – I live them. I told them this story – it didn’t happen exactly as I wrote it, but it was closer than reality should have allowed. The house – the church – the guy who looked like Charles Manson… so much of this I did not make up. Then I wrote in my buddy Wayne Allen Sallee – who was present that weekend, a weekend where I’d come to author Elizabeth Massie’s house for something we called Pseudocon – a writer’s retreat of sorts – a gathering of friends that I have to this day, though at least one has passed from us. Many of these people are authors I now publish. All of them have influenced my life, and my work. If you go to Waynesboro, VA and turn between the two silos and see a house with a car in the front yard – radio playing – beside an old church. Think twice before you ask for directions.
You Lookin’ For Herb?
It was getting dark, and the road ahead was fading quickly to shadows. Dave looked about himself nervously, hoping against hope that he’d see something familiar, something that would let him know he was on the right track. For about the thousandth time that hour, he cursed himself for forgetting to bring Beth’s phone number.
The Virginia mountains were no place to be lost at that time of night, especially when the only landmarks you could remember that might make everything all right were three giant grain silos off to one side of the road, and you could barely see the side of the road. It was not starting out to be the best night of his life.
In the seat beside him, Jo was squirming uncomfortably, trying to look unconcerned, but not doing a very good job. She was taking it like a real trooper. It was their first time away together, and they hadn’t been dating that long. His first fear had been that she’d be furious, and that their weekend would be ruined, all by his own ridiculous mistake.
The roads that turned off to either side were all numbered with identical signs. He knew that the road he needed was eight hundred and something, and since he couldn’t make out a thing along the roadside, he opted for the one that seemed to ring a bell. 813. It might not be the right one, but it was a place to start.
“I’m sorry about this,” he said, turning to Jo with a lopsided grin. “I can’t believe her phone is unlisted!”
“It’s okay,” she said, returning the smile, if a bit nervously. “Is this the road?”
“I’m not sure, but it looks familiar. If this isn’t it, we’ll come back out here, make our way into town, and I’ll figure something else out.”
She nodded, and he drove on down the dark, deserted road, paying close attention to the many potholes and the steep ditches. She had offered up her car for the trip, even letting him do the driving, and he had no intention of taking advantage of that trust.
On either side they passed farm houses, some showing lights, others seemingly deserted. Nowhere was there a sign of life or a familiar landmark, and after a couple of short miles, he had to admit that he was lost.
Just as he’d begun to look for a place to turn around and head back the other way, he spotted one last house on the right side of the road. There was a car parked in the front yard, its door open and the dome-light on.
“I’m going to pull in and ask whoever that is for directions,” he said with relief. “It looks like they just got home!”
Jo didn’t say anything, but he noticed that she was gripping the armrest on the door tightly and her lips were compressed in a very, very poor imitation of a smile. It didn’t help that there was an old abandoned church in the lot across the way from the house.
He stared at it, realizing almost immediately what seemed out of place. There was a “FOR RENT” sign on the door! A church for rent, and it came with its own small cemetery out back. Swell. How many gods could be in the market?
He pulled into the driveway behind where the other car was still parked, and he turned off the ignition.
“Wait here?” he asked.
Jo didn’t look enthusiastic about being left alone, but it was obvious that she’d rather be near the ignition and the gas pedal than walking into some strange country homestead and chatting up the locals. That was fine. Alone, he could hurry it along, find out where that damned road with the three silos was, and they’d be on their way. Once they’d finally reached Beth’s and gotten settled in, he was certain things would be fine. At least he hoped they would.
Crossing the unkempt yard quickly, lips twisted in a friendly smile, Dave approached the car. It was obvious now that, though the door was open, the dome light and stereo on, the occupant of the vehicle had no intention of getting out and going inside. Judging from the two flat tires on the closest side of the vehicle and the flowers growing up through the fender in front, it was more of a home addition than a vehicle these days.
Just as Dave was beginning to think that maybe Jo was right, maybe they would be better off just finding the place on their own, an arm slipped out from the car’s shadowy interior to dangle loosely over the door, which was slightly ajar, and a face appeared in the window.
If he hadn’t known the man was in prison, and that the idea was ludicrous, he would’ve sworn that the face belonged to Charlie Manson. Long, greasy hair dangled past thin, emaciated shoulders, and the eyes that stared out from the shadows of that car were feral – like those of a rodent, or some wild predator, gleaming at him through the darkness.
“Yeah?” the man said, and the dry, rasping sound of his voice, followed by a rattling cough, brought things back to reality. It wasn’t Charlie Manson, that was for sure.
“Excuse me,” Dave began brightly, holding out a hand that the other man ignored pointedly, “but we’re looking for the Lindbergh place – it’s a farm near here. I think we must have taken a wrong turn off the main road back there.”
He pointed vaguely back the way they’d come, trying without success to remember just which number turnoff they’d actually taken.
“You lookin’ for Herb?” the man asked, his eyes slightly unfocused. He acted as though he hadn’t heard a word Dave had said, and it was obvious that he was drunk, or stoned, or both. At least Dave hoped he was.
“No,” he answered slowly. “I don’t know any Herb – is he a relative of the Lindberghs?”
The man looked at him as if he were crazy. “Nope, don’t think so. He’ll be here in a little bit, though, you could wait.”
“But I don’t want to see Herb,” Dave burst out, exasperated. “I’m just looking for directions to my friend’s farm.”
“I don’t know these parts too well,” the man told him slowly. “You might go inside and ask – someone ought to be able to help you.”
Dave turned, giving Jo a “what can I do?” kind of shrug, and looked about himself quickly. He saw the church next door, its graveyard pointed directly at him and the “FOR RENT” sign hanging at an ominous angle on the door.
“Shit,” he said under his breath. He thanked the man quickly and headed for the front door of the place, hoping against hope that someone with half a brain would be inside, and that they could get out of this madhouse and back on the road quickly.
Just as he reached up to knock on the door, a breath of fetid air washed across his shoulder, and he realized that the man had slipped up behind him. An odd sound was filling the air – at first he thought it was just his head buzzing with the sudden burst of adrenalin brought on by the man’s sudden appearance – but it was more than that.
A piano. It was a tinny, off-key rendition of some sort of jazz tune, and it was coming from inside the house. Without a word, the man reached around him and pushed the door open, letting the music escape into the night.
Dave coughed quickly, backing up as the scent of the inner rooms hit him. There was a moldy, yellowed sheet hanging from the door frame like a curtain. The place smelled musky, like a huge litter box, or an abandoned barn that rodents had taken over.
Moving ahead of him, and thankfully pushing the nasty, rotting sheet out of the way, the man preceded him inside. With a deep breath, which he held as long as possible, Dave followed. There was a light just to the right – another doorway, similarly curtained to the first. It was from beyond this that the music was rolling forth, much louder now, still filled with so many discordant notes that he knew the instrument must be horribly out of tune.
Parting the “curtain” of the second room, he stepped inside and stopped cold. Seated across the room at a run-down, lop-sided old piano, sat what appeared to be a very greasy Little Richard impersonator. Dreadlocks hung down to shoulder length in back – greased or extremely dirty – and the man’s bony black fingers danced quickly over the chipped ivory of the keyboard. He swayed from side to side slowly, lost in the music – such as it was.
Then, with a sudden lurch, he stopped playing and spun his head over his left shoulder in a single, fluid motion, catching Dave staring and meeting his gaze flatly. There was no emotion in those eyes – no life of any sort, for that matter. No color. They were white, empty, blind eyes. Dave shivered involuntarily and glanced away, but when he gathered the courage to turn back, the pianist was gazing at his own fingers again. Dave couldn’t be certain what he’d seen, but the image of those milky-white orbs strobed in his mind.
“You looking for Herb?” the man asked quickly, not looking back again, or seeming to really care what Dave might be looking for.
Shaking his head, Dave answered. “No. I’m up here to visit some friends, the Lindberghs. They live down one of these roads, eight hundred something. I think the address is 870-B.”
The man continued to stare at him as if he hadn’t spoken at all. “You aren’t lookin’ for Herb?”
Holding his anger in check, Dave started to tell him again what he was looking for, but the first man cut in again.
“I know a guy named Wayne Lindbergh.”
“Great!” Dave cut in quickly. “Where does he live? Maybe he lives nearby, or he’s related?”
“Lived in Richmond,” the man said flatly. “Never been around here.”
Now anger was passing off into nervous fear. This was going from bizarre straight into late-night horror movie reality way too quickly.
“You don’t know where 870-B might be?” he asked, starting to turn for the door.
“This here’s 111,” the man at the piano told him slowly, as if dredging the numbers up from far, far back in the abyss he’d once called a mind.
About 555 short, I’d say, Dave thought. Aloud, he said, “Well, I guess we’ll just go and see if we can’t find it ourselves, then. The road has three grain silos off to the side.” He threw this in as a final hope, but no sparks flew.
“You can try the trailer park,” Manson said, pointing down the road one further than the turn off Dave had already taken. “Someone there can probably help you.”
“Great,” Dave said, backpedaling quickly and pushing aside the curtain over the door. It was time to get out of there and hit the road – quick. Next would come the chainsaws, or the axes.
“You sure you don’t wanna see Herb?” Little Richard asked as he turned away. “He’ll be comin’ by here later …”
That was it. Dave turned and lurched toward the front door, pushing the tattered sheet aside and slamming the outer door open with his palm. Somehow the Charles Manson-looking grease-ball had made his way back to the door at the same time. He leaned in close as Dave barreled out into the night and said, “We are a commune of musicians.”
Right, Dave thought as he hurried to the driver’s side of the car and slammed the door behind himself. Little Richard in there plays the piano, and you play the stereo out front, right?
“Did you find out anything?” Jo asked, taking in the expression on his face and the hurried, nervous movements he kept making as he started the car and backed out into the street.
“We aren’t staying for drinks, let’s just leave it at that,” he said, trying for a grin that never quite made it and turning to concentrate on the road ahead.
He drove to the next road, turned down it and headed toward the lights of the trailer park. Swell. More of the same, he was sure, but he had nothing else to try. In the distance he saw two figures walking down the road, both with hair down halfway to their asses. Shrugging, he pulled to the side of the road and asked about the silos.
“Oh, you mean 870?” the first of the two boys asked. They were both dressed normally enough – rock-group t-shirts and jeans, boots and leather belts. “That’s two roads back, you can’t miss those silos, once you turn off.”
Thanking them, Dave turned around once more and headed back the way he’d come. He found the Lindbergh farm easily enough, pulled in behind the other cars – everyone else, it seemed, had found the place in the daylight – and he and Jo went inside to join the party.
Everyone that was gathered there was a writer or an artist. They were the “Guests of Honor” at Out-in-the-BooniesCON, or some-such thing, a local SF gathering that would begin the next day.
After everyone was settled, Dave told the story of their harrowing experience on the next road down, and Beth’s eyes widened in horror.
“You don’t mean the ‘”Green'” house, do you? God, everyone wonders whether those guys are axe murders, or what.”
“One and the same,” Dave countered. “Not axe murderers, though, I don’t believe. They claim to be a commune of musicians.”
Everyone laughed, and after a few more drinks and a few more stories they all turned in for the night, the old house and its eerie inhabitants all but forgotten.
The convention had ended early, and after everyone had gathered back at the farm, Wayne and Mark convinced Dave to go back to the old Green house.
“Let’s go see those guys, man,” Wayne said. “What’s the harm? A beat-up piano, a few old sheets – maybe we could take a guitar with us and jam?”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Dave had grinned at him in exasperation. He was not kidding. Insane, probably, but not kidding.
So there they were, the three of them, the women having opted for something a bit less adventurous, like horseback riding, walking down the road toward the old house and its neighboring churchyard. Dave wasn’t sure whether he wanted to go there at all, but he wasn’t going to back down if the other two were going.
They made the expected wisecracks about the “FOR RENT” sign on the church, wondering which ancient god would take the owners up on it. Mark did a pretty good rendition of the slinking, clubfooted pace of a Romeroesque zombie, pointing at the graveyard and saying, “New God moved in, made us leave, He did. Said, no Christian God here, no Christian dead here, left us just like that, homeless.”
Dave’s laughter cut off midway through the first chuckle when they rounded the corner. The car wasn’t there. The weeds weren’t even pressed down where it might have been there before. He turned, eyes wide, and just stared at his companions, who were looking back at him like he was the lunatic.
“Maybe it wasn’t this place,” he said dubiously. He knew that it was. The angle on the old graveyard was just as it had been the night before. Moving as if he were in a trance, he made his way to the front door and made as if to knock on it. There was no need. The door stood a few inches ajar, hanging from one broken hinge that was half-rusted through.
Inside the sheets hung, just as he’d said, and he brushed his way past them both in a rush, heedless of the many spider’s’ webs and scuttling things that shot out in all directions as he passed.
The piano was gone, too. There was nothing in the house at all, in fact. Nothing but the smell, which he remembered only too well, dust, and a family of sparrows that shot out the window in a burst of sound and feathers, nearly stopping his heart.
“Telling the tall tales again, eh?” Mark observed, looking around the place and brushing a cobweb off his arm. “Commune of musicians?”
Dave staggered to the window, his face ashen, and stared across the lot outside at the church. Something else was wrong. The sign – the ludicrous, cockeyed “FOR RENT” sign was gone.
Then he heard it. It was faint, at first, winding its way through his senses so deceptively that he thought at first he was imagining it. It was the music, the awful, discordant piano music. The piano was gone, but the music lived on, it seemed.
“There!” he cried, turning wildly to where his friends were examining some dusty relics in the back corner of the room. “Do you hear it?”
Not waiting for an answer, he rushed back out into the yard. The music was louder there, coming from the direction of the old church. There were lights on, too, he saw, coming from the windows between the cracks of the old boards that held them shut. He stopped, his eye caught by a small pamphlet lying on the ground at his feet.
Picking it up, he peeled it apart carefully where the morning dew had glued the pages together.
The First Church of Light and Vision, learn the wisdom of the stars.
There was more, but he couldn’t quite make it out. It said something about the coming of a God, or a savior, or perhaps just a traveling evangelist. He couldn’t quite make out the name. It looked like HE..B. He turned to show his find to Wayne and Mark, but they were nowhere to be seen. Frowning, he returned to the old house, looking carefully through each room. Gone
“All right, man,” he said aloud. “This isn’t funny.” He figured they were outside, hiding and waiting for him, and he was in no mood to play their game. “Let’s just get back to the house, okay?”
No answer. He made his way into the yard again and something drew him toward the church. Maybe they’d just gone over there to check out the music. It could be that the graveyard extended to the other side of the church, that there was another house, which would explain the music. He started forward, watching every shadowy nook where his two friends might be lying in wait, and approached the old church.
As he drew nearer, it became obvious that they had somehow managed to get that piano into the church itself during the night. The music was coming from inside, and, against his better judgment, he moved to the door at the end of the building. There were plenty of cracks in the old wood, he could just look inside and see what was going on for himself.
Before he could bend down to have a look, however, the door burst open. Light flowed out and around him, surrounding him on all sides. Charles Manson stood framed in the doorway, his greasy hair actually combed back and braided and his arms spread wide. Where there had been dull, mindless oblivion in his eyes the night before, now they burned with a strange, wild light.
“I knew you would return,” he said, grabbing Dave’s arm and propelling him inside.
Across the room, Little Richard sat with his back to the two of them, dancing his hands over the keys of the ancient piano. This wasn’t what had captured his eyes, though. There was an altar at the front of the room, and on it a feast – or what appeared to be a feast – was laid out. Mark and Wayne stood there at the table, turning to meet his confused gaze with wide, feral grins. He saw that their eyes were alight with the same odd spark as Manson’s.
Wayne waved to him, and he saw what was in his friends hand. It was a leg-bone – a human leg bone – and the skin was rotted and flayed from it, black with dirt and maggots. As he tried to pull back, retching violently, Mark called out to him, slipping back into the odd, Monty-Pythonesque accent from earlier.
“I was wrong, Davey, so wrong. Herb don’t want the Christian dead to go, we have to get rid of them ourselves!”
As his head hammered to the wild, incomprehensible banging of the piano, Dave heard the doors crash shut behind him. There was another figure behind the altar, taller, darker, blending into the shadows themselves. As the light began to course through him, eating its way to his eyes, he felt the first pangs of hunger, and he moved forward, moved to the combined beat of piano and stereo – the car had somehow been parked to the left, behind the pews, and Manson had resumed his seat.
As he reached for a rotting hand, he began to wonder. He wondered what instrument he would play.
This story and many others are available in my collection: The Call of Distant Shores – many of the stories in that book, including the title story, are born of vivid memories.
This is a short story I wrote many, many years ago. A friend recently saw a horror movie about the suicide forest beneath Mount Fuji in Japan… that is the setting of this story. This is not a horror story. I have no idea what kind of story this is, but it is one of my favorite things of all I’ve ever written. I’m sharing it here now…
For Kay Reynolds, whose book of haiku written by Kamikaze pilots helped me to do this… and for Brian A. Hopkins, who was the editor I wrote it for.
YOU ARE JUST LIKE GODS…
Myoshi felt his foot slip on the slick, moss-covered rock, and he gripped the rocks above him more tightly. The sharp lava stone cut into his fingers, but he regained his balance and remained very still, letting his breath and heartbeat calm. The sun rose slowly, warming his back as he climbed. Birds cried from the rocks above, and from the depths of the trees. Myoshi brushed his fingers across his brow, wiping away the sweat.
Fuji rose above him, grim and imposing, but no more so than the formidable drop behind. Myoshi had begun his climb at first light, and he had made good time. On his back, his school book bag bulged with supplies. There was a souvenir shop at the edge of the forest, but he’d wanted to avoid prying eyes.
He carried some well-packed fish and rice, and two small packets. One was his school work, graded and banded carefully to be saved and shown to his parents. The other was a packet of letters. Letters from Myoshi’s grandfather. Letters Myoshi’s father had kept, wrapped carefully in rice paper and bound with a silken ribbon. Letters that one day would be missed.
The mountain leveled off for a time, and Myoshi was able to walk normally, sweeping his gaze along the trail that wound up and up until it was lost among trees and clouds. It was a wonderful day for a climb.
Far below, beyond the ocean of trees that was the ancient forest of Aokigahara, school was in session. Myoshi’s father had been at work for two hours, and his mother would be home, cleaning and organizing. Nothing in their small, neat apartment was ever out of place. Myoshi’s father would not have permitted it, and his mother would do nothing that shamed her in her husband’s eyes. Perfection. Myoshi yearned for that. In everything he did, he fell short.
In school, his mind wandered. His grades were not bad, but neither were they good. In Myoshi’s household, mediocrity was not an option. Other children excelled. Some were athletes, others could calculate in their heads faster than Myoshi could press the buttons on his calculator. Myoshi could write, some, but even in this he fell short in his father’s eyes. His marks in penmanship were less than satisfactory, and his grammar was erratic. His teachers said he lacked focus and discipline.
Myoshi’s grandfather had known about discipline. He had understood about being different, as well. It was all in the letters. Letters written by a man who died before his own young son could bring home grades, or books of letters. Letters that were Myoshi’s father’s one link to the past. A fragile link, built of memories half-forgotten and fantasies long rehearsed. Myoshi had heard those fantasies. He had met his grandfather through his father’s words. He had seen the glint in dark eyes, and the shining leather of the uniform. Myoshi had heard the roar of engines as great birds of war took flight.
“You are just like the Gods,” Myoshi breathed, “Free of earthly desires…”
He slipped under the umbrella of tree-limbs and continued up the mountain. His father’s voice echoed through his mind. The mountain slipped away, just for a moment, replaced by white, billowing clouds. The soft cries of birds and the chirping of insects gave way to crackling static. He sensed the others, tightly formed squadron of death, moving as a single unit with the sun blazing above. Myoshi could feel the sweat beneath the flight helmet. He could sense the symmetry of the squadron’s practiced motion. One great bird. One bolt of lightning aimed at those who opposed the Emperor.
“To fly as one bolt
From the crossbow of a
A tree root protruding from the mountain’s rough hide sent Myoshi tumbling, and his mind returned to the moment. He caught himself on both hands, scraping one palm, and fighting the urge to cry out. The weight of the pack pressed him more tightly to the earth. Turning, he seated himself on a rock and caught his breath. The sun was bright, and as he looked back the way he’d come, he saw that the trail had disappeared, the winding course cutting off his entrance to the tree-line completely. Nothing below but the green tops of the trees, obscuring the forest floor, and the rocky peak above rising on a gentle slope above a second line of trees. Myoshi could just make it out, and he smiled.
From his pack, he pulled free a rice cake, and the packet of his graded school papers. Carefully, he unwrapped the bundle, plucking out the sheets one by one. He laid them on the stone beside him, tracing the even lines of his script with a critical eye. He had been doing well on this one. Line after line of formulas strung together in the proper patterns. Then the error. One figure out of place, another line used to scratch the mistake from the paper and the continuation – flawed. Beside each figure, a corresponding red character in the elegant script of his teacher. Corrected. Berated. Imperfect.
Myoshi had done well enough to pass from this class to the next, but with no honors. No fine words from teacher to parent. No pride. It had taken him hours to complete that assignment, painstakingly forming each character. He had wanted so badly to please his father that the old man’s image had formed in Myoshi’s mind. The words, and the stories, and lectures slipped in to distract.
Myoshi traced the scratched out character’s with the nail of one finger. He whispered to himself.
“You are just like gods.”
The figures mocked him. The red letters, so bright in the sunlight, glittered like the eyes of serpents. His father had not seen them. Myoshi had kept the papers, folded and tied. Bound and under his control. He could not control the characters, or the formulas, but he could control their outcome, for a time. The birds did not threaten to expose his secret, and Fuji beckoned.
Myoshi glanced at the second packet of papers. He slid his hand into his pack, stroked the silk bindings, but he did not open the letters. Not yet. He quickly packed the wrapper from the rice cake, and the school work, and rose, turning to face the mountain once again.
“Free of earthly desires,” he said softly.
Free of his family. Free of school, though it tugged at his heart. He would be a disappointment to his father this final time. Myoshi had not missed a day of school in five years. The only desire he could recall in all those years was to please his father. The most wonderful moments of his life had been spent at that great man’s feet, listening to stories of emperors, and wars. Stories of his ancestors. Stories that filled his heart and mind with dreams of other places, and other times. Times and places where he was not a clumsy young boy, but a hero. There were ways for those unworthy of honor to regain it. There were answers to the loss of pride.
The good times with his father had grown fewer and further between as Myoshi had grown older. As the piles and piles of papers, just like those in his pack, had stacked themselves against his future, and his honor, his father’s eyes had grown distant. They still saw Myoshi, but not the same Myoshi they had seen before.
Myoshi rose once more, his gaze sweeping up the winding trail to where the peak of the mountain slipped through the clouds. Eagles soared through the highest branches of the trees, circling slowly. Myoshi screened the sunlight by cupping his palm over his eyes and watched them. The brilliant light glittered on a bit of mica imbedded in the mountain, diamond glimmer nearly blinding him. Myoshi squinted, cocking his head to one side to listen.
He could hear his father’s voice as the mountain faded. Could sense the shift, and welcomed it.
“We watched from the decks as the pilots swarmed to the sky, a black horde, synchronized and dangerous. It was not our time. We were too far from the enemy, and these would return, but they were majestic in flight.
“I remember standing very still on the flight deck, watching them shrink to fly-specks on the horizon, and knowing, when it was my time, that speck would be me. Shrinking to nothing. Here, and then, no more, a bright spark in the Emperor’s eyes – a memory in my family’s heart. Just like the Gods.”
With his eyes squinted so tightly, Myoshi saw the aircraft shimmering against a darkened sky, saw them bank and circle against the clouds. Saw them focus. Eagles. Eagles were like the Gods, as well, but a different sort of God.
Myoshi picked up his things and started up the mountain once more, suddenly eager for completion. He could feel the wind on the wings of the eagles, and that same wind shivering through his hair.
There were not many letters. Myoshi’s grandfather had not served for years in the military, or even for a year. Months, only, and he had never returned. He had not been a precision pilot, nor had he been blessed with the blood of the Samurai. Still, he had soared.
Myoshi had read those letters again and again. He had begged his father’s indulgence to allow him to watch over them. To guard them. He had seen in his father’s eyes the struggle this had been, but those words, those images, were ingrained in his father’s mind. That great man no longer required the letters, and so they had passed to Myoshi, who had cherished them as no other possession.
His grandfather’s penmanship had never faltered. There were no red characters or strike-outs. There were clear thoughts, worded in poetry stretched to prose without loss of continuity. It was his grandfather’s words that inspired Myoshi’s own writing, unworthy as it was. It was the images of his grandfather’s death that stole those words, and distracted him from his own honor. His teacher said his mind wandered. Myoshi knew it soared.
The trees had begun to thin. All that stood between Myoshi and his goal was a ragged backbone of rock. Far above him, farther than he could have climbed in such a short time, patches of snow were visible. The air was noticeably cooler, and Myoshi was glad, very suddenly, that his mother had insisted on the sweater he wore, though it had been too hot less than an hour before.
“The higher you go,” Myoshi’s father’s voice, “the colder it gets. The harder it is to breathe. It is always dark. We don’t fly by day, and those few of us who get to practice at all are very sparing with our fuel. We are not trained to fire at the enemy. We are barely trained to land. It is not expected of us.
“We study the great maps daily. We listen to the inspirational words of our leaders. I have meditated more this span of two weeks, my son, than I have in the last two years of my life. Things I have never thought of become clear. Your mother. Your face, watching over me in my dreams.
“My face reflected
Bright smile, shining eyes, dark
Like the twilit sky.”
Myoshi’s eyes were dark, as were his father’s. He knew that he resembled both men, third generation to bear that visage, first to fail. There would be no medals hanging on the walls of Myoshi’s home. Not unless he inherited them. He would not write wondrous letters to a son yet unborn, telling tales of glory, and darkness, blood and fire.
He stopped again, shielding his eyes and glancing up toward the mountain’s peak. The eagles had roosted, leaving the sun to beat down on a desolate slope. Myoshi planned to be across the ridge and safely on the plateau on the far side before the afternoon sunlight waned. He considered stopping for another snack, but there wasn’t much shade until he crossed, and he wanted to reach the ledge with enough light for reading.
Not that he needed light. Not that every word in every letter wasn’t ingrained in his imagination, every image fully formed and captivating. He stepped out onto the bare stone. The wind whipped up and nearly toppled him from his precarious perch, no longer blocked by the trees. Myoshi fought for his balance, regained it, and took a quick step forward, then another. It was easier once he was moving, and he concentrated on the stone at his feet.
Myoshi did not want to think about the side of the mountain, or the lava fields, obscured by the forest below. He dislodged a tiny avalanche of dust and stone and stopped, waiting for his heart to grow still.
Myoshi thought of Cherry blossoms. His grandfather had often mentioned them, as had his father. One of the other pilots, younger even than Myoshi’s grandfather, had written a poem that Myoshi loved. The haiku, so simple, so profound and complete in that simplicity.
“If only we might fall
Like Cherry blossoms in the spring
So pure and radiant.”
Myoshi contemplated the mountain. The distance to the base. The remaining climb. There were no cherry trees on the mountain, and somehow, he was glad. He didn’t want to think about the ground littered with their petals. He didn’t want to walk over so many great souls.
As the sun warmed his back, and the wind chilled his face, Myoshi climbed.
* * *
The sun dropped fast beyond the horizon, and Myoshi leaned in close, trying to catch enough of the dying light to finish the letter. It was the last of them. Eight, carefully penned slices of life; all that remained of Myoshi’s grandfather. When he had read the last familiar word, he carefully folded the paper, painstakingly matching the folds and tying the ribbon as it had been reverently. Myoshi tucked the bundle under his shirt, close to his heart.
Next he pulled free a single sheet of blank paper, and his pen. It was getting more difficult to see, but it would not matter. There would be no red glaring characters to mar this piece. Nothing to correct. No figures, only a promise. A single promise.
Myoshi wrote slowly as his mind wandered, for once allowing the words to be absolutely his own. He didn’t watch the paper. It was getting too dark for that. He had to depend on his instincts and luck. He knew his teachers would not approve, but for once, he was beyond that as well. He was not writing a lesson. He was writing a history. He was encapsulating his life.
“Since I was very young,” he began, “sitting at your knee, my father, and listening to your stories of grandfather, I have loved the cherry blossom. I read the haiku, and in my dreams, the blossoms grew to men. In the words of those who died gloriously, taking the paths of falling stars to the hearts of their enemies, I found dreams. As I failed in my life, they gave me hope.”
The mountain faded around him as shadows lengthened. The moon had yet to rise, but only the last rose-tinted hints of the sun licked the skyline. Stars glittered like diamonds. Like petals. So many petals.
Myoshi continued to write, but his mind closed out the reality of mountain and paper, the pen slid silently, marking the trail of his thoughts, but not carefully. Not with the painstakingly rigid strokes of the school, now empty and silent, like the mountain. Not with the measured rhythm of his grandfather’s even script. With Myoshi’s heart. He penned each character as it felt, and he paid no more attention to it than he did to the breeze. He mouthed his grandfather’s words and shivered.
“The air was cold on deck. We were allowed only minimal equipment. Nothing, really, to prepare for the weather. If we grew ill, we would find our release. If we were cold, we had but to think fo the flame, and the glory to come. Each brow was covered with a single strip of cloth, white, with the rising son emblazoned.
“I remember last night. I went, alone, to the flight deck. The Oka – cherry blossom – stood before me, silent and empty. I tried to picture the skies, the enemy, the waves. I saw a coffin. I saw an end, and a beginning, etched in flame. My heartbeat quickened, fanned like a flame by the wind as it whipped across that dark, empty deck. I stood there a very long time, and when I returned to my bed, I could not sleep. Instead, I turned to the pen, and the paper, wanting you to share the moment.
“Waves lapped gently at the sides of the ship, rocking us like babes in the arms of our mothers. It is the last night we will spend in the arms of any mother, cradled by the earth. I want to sleep and let it slip away. I want to awaken to that last day as I had so many others. I know I will not. I cannot sleep.
“Now the sun is rising, and my hand shakes as I hold the pen; my heart races. The others have tossed and turned all around me. None found the peace of deep sleep, and those who did sleep are round-eyed with visions and final dreams.
“I will close this now, so that I may seal it and put it in the Commander’s hand. He will see that you get this letter, and the others. Tonight, I die, but part of me lives on. I have a sun, and I am blessed.
“I remember the words of Admiral Ohnishi, by whose grace I have this chance to die so well.
‘In blossom today, then scattered,
Life is so like a delicate flower.
How can one expect the fragrance
To last forever?’
“May I honor you. May I honor our Emperor. May the gods embrace me.
Myoshi’s pen did not stop scratching at the paper as his grandfather’s words ended. He could feel the deck swaying beneath his feet. He wrote on until the paper was filled, and turned, and filled on the opposite side as well before he set it aside, unsigned. Only the weight of the pen held the paper in place against the stone, and the edges flapped in the breeze, like the wings of a great moth, reaching into the moonlight.
The takeoff was rougher than usual. The waves had risen higher, and the deck slanted one way, then the other, great sweeping rolls that skewed the skyline and stole one’s balance. Myoshi blinked, the strobe effect easing his nausea. A thousand butterflies had risen to flight in his breast, and his hands shook like those of an old man.
All around him the roar of engines. Each coughing to life, sputtering drowsily then roaring with barely contained life. Life. That is what pulsed through Myoshi’s veins, pounding so loudly he thought of the surf, and the ocean. The air was cool, but he felt a fiery heat building, felt the glorious binding of man to machine to air as they launched.
The air whipped against his face, and he felt the exhileration, the pure joy of release as the deck/earth/world slipped away. His breath was stolen, and though he fought against that breathlessness, he could not quite force the words past his lips.
Myoshi’s body tumbled, falling freely from the ledge of stone, arcing out from the stone and whirling, head over feet over head again and crashing through the upper branches of the ocean of trees, swallowed whole by the ancient, silent forest.
Far above, the clouds opened for one second, and the silhouette of a single plane was outlined – then gone.
* * *
A group of teenage boys, on a hike, came across bones, picked clean and whitened by the sunlight, slipping through the trees. They turned in horror, ready to bolt, but one stopped.
A packet of papers, mildewed and rotting, lay to one side. It was bound by a single ribbon of silk. Forcing his eyes from the bones, the boy reached out and grabbed the packet.
They ran. It wasn’t until much later that the papers were carefully opened. Most were very old, but a single page of newer script was tied atop the pile. On it, this verse.
“White blossom, broken
stained petal, crimson, gliding
Lost in the moonlight”
Over on Twitter, author Chuck Wendig laid down a challenge (through his blog) to use a random cocktail generator, take the drink that was offered, and write a story (no more than 1000 words) post it in your own space and then link to it in his comments. I got… The Walk Me Down. The recipe for this drink is at the bottom of the story…seems sort of appropriate, I think, on a St. Patrick’s Day… Enjoy.
Walk Me Down
By David Niall Wilson
The bar on the corner used to be run by Sean Macklemore. He was a ruddy, red-faced Irish guy with a big silver tooth front-top-center of his smile. He and Pop had known one another longer than I’d been alive-that bar was my Pop’s second home.
Every morning I walked the two miles to school. Pop worked in the match factory halfway there. Every morning we’d get up and have our breakfast. Pop would read his paper, and I’d shuffle through homework, or scan a comic book while scooping oatmeal and eggs into my mouth. When the paper was read, and his cup was empty, it was time to go, and it didn’t matter if I’d finished eating, or forgotten to put on a shirt. “Come on boy,” he’d say. “Let me walk you down…”
We walked together every day for all the years I was in school, and the first ten that I worked with him at the factory. That’s where I ended up. That’s where we all ended up, those in the neighborhood who didn’t escape straight out of high school into the army, or, for the privileged few, to college. There wasn’t much happening in Random, Illinois in those days.
Then, one day on the line, Pop turned to the man next to him and said something incomprehensible, and keeled over flat on the floor. Turns out he had a bum ticker, sticking and clicking off beat like a confused phonograph needle.
He was never the same, and he never went back to the factory. He still loved that bar, though, and Sean – who had retired and passed the business on to his son, Seamus. He and Pop were like local royalty in that corner booth, but without any subjects.
Every day I walked to the factory, and on the way, after my coffee and the paper. I’d call to Pop, it was our joke – one of the only things that could make him smile, no matter what. I’d say, “Come on, Pop, I’ll walk you down…” Just like he said to me all those years.
The factory got a little seedy. Half the workers were let go. Pop and Sean went on about it – talked about the glory days, the safety regulations that were supposed to be in place, and weren’t. I sipped my whiskey and took it in, but I counted myself lucky I hadn’t been cut with so many others. I still had a job. It paid the bills, and one of those was the bar tab at Macklemore’s…
One night, three whiskeys in, I heard a story I hadn’t heard before. Sean started talking about the factory. I’d sort of wondered why he cared. Pop worked there, but Sean just served drinks. That’s what I thought.
The Macklemore’s had lived in Random for generations, and what I hadn’t known was that Sean’s brother, Liam, was part owner of the factory. The two had gone down different roads after high school. Now Liam had died, and Sean found himself part owner of a sinking ship.
Pop had plenty to say too. No one listened to either of them. Except me. The whole thing got me thinking. Safety regulations were being ignored. The building was declining, and the workers were being let go, one after another as business dwindled. The city – Pop – Macklemore’s – my life. All headed down the crapper like they were stuffed there with some sort of cosmic plunger.
Except, I had this idea. As ideas go, it probably wasn’t too original, but hey. You go with what life gives you. Life gave me Pop, a dead end job, and a friend named Seamus with a dad named Sean. He gave us whiskey. It all gave me that idea I mentioned.
One night I left the bar late. Pop was three sheets in – so was Sean. I left a note for Seamus telling him I’d be back for Pop. Had some things to take care of.
There wasn’t much security at the factory by night. No one broke in – everyone there was looking for a way out. I made it to the storeroom undetected. I’d thought it through. Faulty wiring. A factory full of wooden matches. Sean and Seamus would collect on the insurance, and Pop and I would hang on like leeches for the ride. Maybe I’d learn to tend bar.
Except… Pop and Seamus followed me. They’d had a lot to drink. Too much. They slipped by me in the dark, and if one of them hadn’t tripped and banged into a door, I wouldn’t have known they were there at all. Maybe they didn’t see me either.
I was already on my way out, and those two crazy old bastards were heading into the storeroom. I never found out why. I started back after them, but it was way too late. Smoke came billowing so fast and thick I could barely breath.
I got out alive, and I got back home. I washed and changed clothes, and I headed back to the bar – like I was coming after Pop. All I could think was that the whiskey they’d polished off must have gone up like gasoline – cooked them quick from the inside. Never even heard a scream.
Me and Seamus, we take turns tending the bar now. We don’t talk about the factory, or our Pops. Don’t talk much at all, truth be told. I listen to people tell me their problems, how the town is dying – how the world is going to hell…
That’s another place I think about. I’m getting older…my time will come soon enough. I expect, when it does, I’ll see Pop standin’ there in front of me… He’ll say, “Come on boy,” and I’ll follow. It will be hot, like the factory- like all the matches in creation. He’ll say… “Let me walk you down…”
WALK ME DOWN
1/2 oz Vodka
1/2 oz Triple sec
1/2 oz Rum
1/2 oz Gin
1/2 oz Tequila
1 oz Sour mix
1/2 oz Blue Curacao
Add the shots, 1/2 shots for the ladies. Over ice is best.Mix well.
Meet my series character Donovan Dechance in the first of his adventures. Motorcycles, leather jackets, a young artist with an amazing ability – voodoo – and of course… DRAGONS. Pass this link on. Spend some time reading… This is a chance to try this new series at no cost…
I will write about this book at length, eventually. It taught me a lot about writing. It was one of the last books I wrote “without a net” – meaning I wrote it all the way through with only a vague idea where it was going in the end… I wrote all of my earliest novels that way, and I still do that occasionally, though I am now a proponent of the outline, because for one thing – it relieves stress. Not knowing how a book will end when you are already starting the final chapter is a harrowing experience.
Anyway, the quick history. I wrote a novelette a long while back for a book titled “Strange Attractions” – based on the kinetic art of the lovely and talented Lisa Snellings – who also created the amazing cover art for my novel NEVERMORE – just released. Lisa created this amazing Ferris Wheel … in the cars on that ride, a variety of strange characters took a ride, and each author chose one of those characters to write their story from – to use in any way they saw fit as inspiration. I chose a Harlequin, hanging by a noose from one of the cars. I made it my desktop wallpaper. I stared at it – and then I went on a trip to Washington D.C. – and everything changed.
Like I said, I’ll get into this at length in a later post. The books inspiration came from a wide variety of sensory input over a very short period of time – or at least, the novelette that became the book was born in that fashion – it’s now chapter one. I saw the movie PI. I visited the Holocaust Museum. I got stuck in a subway station, listening to a man play absolutely BEAUTIFUL blues on a saxophone, but never saw the man himself…and I had that image – that upside down harlequin staring at me from the computer screen.
Brandt and the band are among my favorite characters ever, and they may return in a book titled The Bone Witch before too long … I wrote another novel, Ancient Eyes, that takes place very near the final setting of Deep Blue, and I have tinkered with writing this third book to tie those two together…but for now…my book is free. My gift for two days. I hope you’ll download it – I hope you’ll read it – I hope you’ll review it and share it with friends.
I love to tell stories…I just need some folks to read along…
Another thing – you can get the book for free, and then, owning it, get the unabridged Audiobook through the Amazon / Audible whispersync program pretty cheaply. It’s narrated by the amazing Mr. Chris Patton…he brought the band to life.
This story exists because of and – thus – is dedicated to … in no particular order – Brian Keene, Justine Musk, Rain Graves, Mari Adkins, Bailey Hunter and the rest of the Twitter Crowd who believe in rainbows and unicorns…and Zombies. Enough said.
VANACE AND THE CURLY STICK
by David Niall Wilson
The sun was high in the sky, filtering down through the leaves to send light dancing over the leaves and dirt of the forest floor. Vanace paid little attention to this, as he was busy keeping himself upright, having just awakened from far too little sleep and far too much wine the night before. He had at least another mile to go before he’d reach his bed, and even the large, spiral-shafted walking stick he’d found along the way was failing to right his balance for more than a couple of steps.
It was an odd piece, and on any other day, he’d have stopped to examine it at length. The tip was very sharp – so sharp, in fact, that it seemed as if it should break each time it struck the ground. It did not. It buried itself a few inches, even when he accidently stuck it into the root of a tree, and it pulled free effortlessly. In a forest prone to magic, this should have set off warning bells, but on this particular morning all warning bells would have done was make Vanace’s head hurt, so it was as well there was relative silence.
There had been other signs. The clearing where he’d found the thing had been darker even than the lightless forest. No moonlight had penetrated there. He thought he remembered that there was a stone buried in the center of that clearing – a headstone? Who could remember such things? He’d nearly impaled himself on the walking stick in the dim half-light of morning. Only dumb luck had brought his boot against the thing’s base and broken it free of the earth before he staggered onto it.
There was a rustle in the trees behind him, but at first Vanace was unaware of it. There were others in the woods, there were always others in the woods. Most of them were harmless, and almost all of them knew better than to get within spewing range of a drunk.
The sound behind him grew louder, and he was very suddenly engulfed in a cloud of horrifying stench.
“By the Gods,” he muttered. “What in the five blazing blue levels of hell is THAT?”
Vanace plunged the tip of the walking stick into the loamy earth and used it to pivot back the way he’d come, leaning heavily on it for balance. He peered into the shadows and squinted. He was not sure whether he should hold his nose or keep both hands on the walking stick, and he was nearly certain that if the smell of whatever was following him continued, he’d be leaving a large quantity of used wine in the forest.
“Who’s there?” he said.
There was no answer, but a pair of flickering blue eyes watched him balefully from deep within a small copse of trees. He leaned closer, but this served only to cost him in his balance. Only an incredibly lucky half-spin around the walking stick, and dropping to one knee, saved him from falling face first.
The thing in the shadows stomped the earth. Hard. Leaves and dust flew, and at the back of his addled mind, Vanace felt the first stirrings of sobriety…and fear.
“I said, who is it?” he repeated, filling his voice with bluster he didn’t feel. “I haven’t got time for games, and – by the blue fairy herself – you need a dunk in the river. You’ll attract buzzards smelling like that.”
He regretted these last words as soon as he spoke them. Whoever, or whatever, was there was not particularly friendly, and he was in an uncharacteristically bad condition for fighting, or running. Possibly better to make nice and hope it would go on its way.
Branches parted, and something large pressed out into the open clearing. At first he thought it was a large, black horse. Then, as the shoulders came into view, and he caught the drooping, rotting flesh dangling from the left side of its jaw, Vanace found his feet and staggered back.
The dead thing still reminded him of a large black horse, though something was – wrong. Ribs stuck out through ruined flesh on the sides of its chest. Though the blue light flickered in its eyes, the sockets around that light were empty pits. What might once have been a glorious mane hung in ugly patches. The thing stood on legs more bone than flesh, decayed sinew and muscle hanging in strips. Insects buzzed around it.
“Stay back,” Vanace said. He pulled the stick free of the ground and pointed the sharp end at the creature now stalking him, stepping back and trying to plant himself solidly. He cursed inwardly as his legs refused to accept his order to balance properly.
And then he saw it. Dead center in the thing’s forehead was a notch of bone. It protruded from the skull like a gnarled root, or a chipped fence post. Something was missing. In his hand, the long, spiraled stick suddenly felt oily – and wrong. It grew hot to the touch, and he noticed for the first time how old it was, and how odd. The thing stopped as he pointed the stick at it. It pawed the earth and pulled it’s ruined lips back to reveal startlingly intact teeth.
The horn was magnificent, but Vanace had no chance to admire it. As the thing grew closer, he found it increasingly difficult to keep his grip. Without really knowing how he knew, he was certain that if he let go, it would be the last thing he ever did. He gripped the horn with both hands and held it before him, keeping it aimed at the thing’s head.
“I didn’t know!” he cried. “How in blazes could I know? It was just sticking out of the ground…”
If the unicorn heard, or understood him, it gave no indication. It snorted, and foul air rushed from its nostrils, shooting the shells of long-dead bugs into a cloud of debris. It stomped its foot again, and Vanace felt sweat drip down the back of his tunic and trickle down his spine.
He took a step back, and the beast followed. As it moved, shivering its flanks, debris and insects poured out holes in its hide. The closer it drew to the horn, and to Vanace himself, the brighter the blue flames in its eyes blazed.
Vanace knew he should try to run. It might catch him, but then, it might not. It’s body was falling apart. Something in the blue light drew him. Instead of breaking for home, or trying to lead it into the sunlight, he took a step closer, and then another. The horn had grown heavy, like a broadsword, and it was getting more and more difficult to keep his grip. Struggling with every ounce of his strength, he fought the compulsion urging him forward.
It was futile. The closer he came to the thing, the heavier and hotter the horn grew. The tip dipped, lowered, and as he came within a foot of the putrid, decayed thing’s face, it dropped the last foot and drove into the earth. Vanace pressed the base of it forward, angling it toward the unicorn’s corpse. It bowed its head, and, just as it seemed the horn would topple over and drop to the earth, the thing rammed its head into the horn. The base fused with the broken knot on its head. The two did not come together cleanly. It was skewed, pointing off at a broken angle, though solidly planted.
And in that instant, Vanace’s muscles were his own. He turned, waved his arms wildly to keep from falling, and staggered toward the edge of the clearing. The unicorn blew another cloud of insect parts and dust and let loose a rattling, hissing sound that might have been the ghost of a scream. Vanace reached the trees, just as the point of the horn pierced the flesh of his back and drove forward through his heart. Still he tried to run, but though his feet found purchase, and his legs churned, the unicorn paced him, driving it’s horn deeper, and deeper, until at last, spent and broken, he felt the bit of those dead, bony teeth rip into his skin. He tried to scream, but only a gurgle of blood and day-old wine rolled from his lips.
~ * ~
Katrina ran through the forest, searching for Vanace and muttering under her breath. He’d been out late again, and she’d known he would not make it home, but now most of the day had passed, and she was worried. He’d never stayed gone so long. She followed the track of the stream, a shortcut to the tavern he frequented. About halfway to her goal, she stopped still as stone.
In a clearing, across the stream, a unicorn stood, tall and handsome, black coat gleaming in the sun. Its horn was long and spiraled, and oddly it shot out at an angle from the creature’s brow, rather than sitting straight. It turned and started at her, and though the beauty of its visage drover her half mad with unfettered desire, she was unable to choke back a rising scream.
Dangling from that horn was a bit of cloth she knew very well. It was the tunic she’d sewn patches onto only three days before. It belonged to Vanace, and now, as the unicorn crossed the stream slowly, holding her with its gaze, she saw that it held something eles.
The thing watched her with her husband’s eyes…and it was hungry…