Without – Excerpt 8
April 7, 2011 § 2 Comments
The snow stuck in his long hair, dyed a turquoise blue, and in his tangled red beard more matted than actually curly. He hand a hand over his mouth and chin, straightening the most noticeably tangled patches. It feels like my damn pubic hair. He considered shaving it off even as the wind blew more snow into his face to melt there.
Leaning against the pickup truck, he listened to the low rumble of the engine and looked at the house.
The roof was missing shingles. Some of them he’d kicked off himself, and he could remember watching the flat green rectangles float off into space while he scrambled up from the porch out back, escaping his room to clamber about in the manner he’d imagined for apes and monkeys. Back then he only knew what he’d seen in cartoons or read in paperback about either, and even though he’d since heard the named Fossy and Goodall, he preferred the Tarzan-inspired albino gorilla of his imagination, who spoke English and palled around with a Victorian-era steam cyborg. The Amazing Adventures of Albion Ape and Stephen St George the Articulated Armature, he’d called it in his old notebooks.
He stared up at the fence stained a dark red like Homer’s sea, falling apart now, covered in the vines his grandfather’s father had seeded in the back yard. Those vines were everywhere now, mixing with the tangled rosebushes, everywhere tendrils of plants crawling up the sides of the house, tearing slowly at the fence, while the grass grew wilder than any grass you’d expect to find in a suburb like Cranston.
To either side of the house were well-kept lawns, and large hedges, too, he noticed. It occurred to him how easy it would be to pretend the house wasn’t even there. He’d done it enough times in his life, why should they be any different?
“Hey. You sure about this?” He turned his shaggy head to look at Bishop, who’d recently shaved and trimmed his own hair. If anything, Bishop got neater while he himself felt like he looked like the grass and the vines, overgrown and festering with that decay that prompts more growth. “You know, you cam come back with me now, Thea and I weren’t going to be doing anything heavy today… “
“If it gets us out of here faster, I’ll even volunteer my tante and her Christmas dinner. She’s a good cook, and my sister will be there.” Joe spoke up from the back seat of the truck cab, shivering in the air from the open door.
“Why would I care about your sister being there?”
“I was mostly saying it to remind myself of something pleasant. Jesus, Mary and Joseph I cannot believe you want to go in there.”
“Why not?” The man with no name grinned, a slack grin with little force or humor behind it. “See something you like?”
“Not even close.” Joe risked another look at the house and winced at the site of the plants crawling along it, surrounded in a neon glow of impossible blackness. How anything could possibly glow a lack of color he didn’t understand, even in the strangeness of his personal vision. “Seriously, I don’t know what happened in there…”
“No. You don’t.” A large hand clapped him gently on the shoulder. “I appreciate your concern. But I’m going in there.” He turned again to fix bright eyes on Bishop, ignoring the scowl almost cut into his face. “Thank Thea for me, and take Joe home already.”
“Are you sure about this? I mean… “
“We looked every place we could find. That flea-bag the old woman was renting burned itself to ashes before we got there, she didn’t check any books out of that library we tracked her to in Bristol so there weren’t any records to look at, she didn’t go anywhere else. If she knew stuff about me, maybe it’s in there.” He jerked his thumb back at the white and green building crawling in roses and grapevines. “Whether or not it is, it’s my baggage to deal with, not yours.”
“Okay, fine, pull the manly coping with the past card out, that’s fine. But it’s fucking Christmas. Why not wait until tomorrow?”
“Because I hate Christmas?” His face curled around his smile, his beard arching around it like a carved devil on an antique chair. “Besides, we both know why today’s the day.”
“God, sometimes I hate you.” Closing the passenger’s side door, Bishop walked around the truck while the hiss-thunk of the windshield wipers pushed more snow off of the window. “How are you going to get back? There aren’t buses running today.”
“I’ll get back.” He backed away and waved to Joe. “Have a good day, both of you. Say hi to your grandmother for me, Joe. Or don’t, since I have no idea who she is.” He reached into the bed of the truck and pulled out a metal baseball bat, one of the aluminum ones so easy to find at any sporting goods store. His fingers squealed a bit as he gripped the rubber around the handle.
“Yeah, I don’t feel all that bad about that.” Joe smiled a little, although he wasn’t lying when he said it and they both knew it. Bishop got in the truck and put it in gear, although they both sat there and watched as he walked up to the front door.
“Shit.” Bishop gripped the steering wheel. “I really don’t like doing this.”
“What the hell is this place? It’s… everywhere I look there’s black, not even that horrible grey shit or that weird sick green. It’s even worse than that one place he had us both go in Newport, that college. Why would he want to go in there so bad?” Joe rubbed both hands over his eyes and leaned back in the seat.
“First off, come up front, I’m not a damn chauffeur.” As the smaller man clambered out the door and back in again, Bishop watched the leather jacket disappear as the door to the house opened and closed again. “Second, this place that gives you the crawling bugfucks to look at? It’s his house, the house he grew up in, and even though he never told me what happened in it, he told me enough to know that whatever did happen happened because of him.”
Joe blinked at him several times. Bishop exhaled so hard that it fogged up the windshield despite the dull humming of the heater and watched the grey crawl backwards in a semicircle as the hot air crept over it.
“That’s why everyone around here does their best to ignore the place. We can’t all see the same shit you do, but anyone with a lick of sense and an ounce of soul in their fucking bodies can feel that this place is about as bad as an ancient mansion inhabited once by degenerate aristocrats who walled each other up alive. Which was torn down to make room for a toxic waste dump sunk into the ancient Indian burial ground they discovered lay under the mansion. No one wants squat to do with it, and no one wants to draw the place’s attention, so no one calls the city and says hey, could someone figure out who owns this place and make him mow his lawn and fix his roof the way people love to do.”
Joe looked at the house again. A regular old Cape Cod style white house with vinyl siding and a green roof… if not for the broken windows and the sickening creep of vines that hurt his eyes to look at, it was a normal enough house. He had no problem imagining that it hated him, though.
“Can we get the hell out of here now?”
“Yeah.” Bishop grimaced and worked the clutch and gas. “I suppose we can at that.”
Inside, it wasn’t as he had left it.
The carpet was dusty, and threadbare in places. There were signs that someone had been squatting there for a while, ashes in the fireplace, a few branches torn off of the ragged old fir tree that had been left to rot in the corner of the living room. It did surprise him that the tree had survived as intact as it had. Red and green and silver spheres hung around the green needles of the tree, as did tinsel tracing a jagged path up and down the branches. He glared at it for a long moment, remembered long gone trees and packages wrapped and deposited under them.
Then he climbed the stairs. The basement he’d long since emptied out, and he had no desire to revisit that place. He knew well enough what he’d done down there, he didn’t need to see it again.
“Breaker of the mountain of heaven, serpent of the waters, rival and spoiler of Chuan Hsu, overthrow the order of things, great black dragon.” He chanted to himself as he climbed the stairs, remembering them from that skewed perspective, a child whose head was as high as his knees now, who had needed to take each step at a time. “You who sought Ti and upset the world, shaker of the pillars, father of the flood.”
He stepped on the last stair and found himself in the room his parents had used, had slept in. Even as he felt the rain-dragon coil around his spine he could not stop himself from shivering at the sight of the bed in the corner of the room, the mattress sunken, the sheets yellowed and smelling of recent use. Recent, but not very recent. There was a faint odor in the room he couldn’t identify even though he knew he should. On the wall next to the bed was an old photograph of a woman and a man and a child, the woman with long black hair and a severe face that smiled in a way that offset her predatory look, the man tall and broad with gold hair and blue eyes. The child he didn’t look at.
He walked around the bed, hoping to find what he was beginning to suspect wouldn’t be there. It was, but not as he’d left it, a theme of sorts. The iron-banded oak chest he’d piled his father’s notes into was open, the padlock cut off at the steel loop. The papers were scattered, some on the floor, some in the box itself. His face tightened as he saw that some had been attacked with a yellow highlight marker.
Dropping to his knees next to the box, he pulled the notebook sheets, the old yellowing travel notebook his father had left notes in, and the later binders out and began looking through them.
Much of it was his father’s gentle musings about plants, about farming and growth, the things he’d loved and loved to tinker with. The time spent away from the house in the suburbs on the farm his father had left behind to him… but some of it was not, and the man who found himself nameless and alone in the bedroom of that city house, as they’d called it when he was a child, felt cold in his stomach as he found a section highlighted that he’d missed during his own obsessive searching years before. Crowley argues that Assiyah is the prison world of the Qlippoth, the cracked shells, the world of matter being the world of evil spirits, devils divided into ten ranks or classes. The first two are but formless, shapeless unvariation, followed by a darkness that admits no light. Then follow seven worlds occupied by incarnations of lust or vice, ruled by Samael and Isheth Zenunim (similar to Ahriman and ‘the accursed whore’? I am reminded of the way that Ahriman was trapped in the ‘good creation’ of Ohrmazd, like a pearl around an irritant) – Shades of Malek Tous, the Peacock Lord, master of this world. Agrippa’s argument about ‘virtues in things, which are not from any element’ makes me wonder if this essence could be brought to the surface with the following…
The next page was nowhere to be found in the pile.
This made perfect sense to him. He’d left his father’s papers alone in a deserted house counting on nothing more than the raw malevolence of its presence to protect them, and now, once again he was to be punished for his willful stupidity. He stood up, dropping the papers back into the box, hoping to come back for them if he had time.
Looking up as he stood, he saw what he hadn’t noticed before, which was the room he himself had slept in as a child. The double window he remembered climbing out of on many occasions, the window that lead out onto the porch which allowed a young boy to become Albion Ape, was now choked with plants. Vines had driven their way through the windows, pushing out glass and twisting wood, and were sending tendrils up and down the wall. That didn’t bother him too much.
The sight of two dead people with plants growing down their throats and shoots protruding from what would have been eyes while they were alive, their clothes rotting and shot through with green that seemed to embrace and penetrate them bothered him more. His glance told him that on the floor in front of them was a crude circle made of wax, dribbled no doubt from the candle lying next to it on the floor. The circle was crossed with an X, with circles on the end of each. Next to that lay the crossed shape like two capital A’s in a star of David arrangement, a rough approximation of the symbol of Saturn from another of his father’s notebooks.
He didn’t have long to stare at the scene before the floating shape came around the corner. He knew what it was instantly, a flowing collection of ragged shapes that twisted and pulsated into faces that stretched and deformed the robe that was its self. It was obviously and painfully a ghost or perhaps even ghosts, all that was left of the poor stupid bastards who’d died because he hadn’t been smart enough to burn or remove a few old pieces of paper.
A long thin limb of bone pointed at him.
From that arm blossomed fire, a seeking trail of flames that burst into bloom, seething in air that shimmered in waves between them. The walls and floor burned, as the wave of heat rolled onward to consume him.
Grunting, he dropped to one knee and released the serpent crawling along his spine, felt the hair on his head fan out in a blue curtain as a blast of steam rushed over him, the wrath of the dead thing crashing against the essence of the rain dragon. The heat surprised him. A slithering thing that would like nothing better than to sear away the lining of his lungs, that he had not expected.
Lit by the fire, the ghost stood in all its glory, tattered rags dancing in the tarantella air. The bones of its frame took on reflected radiance from the plumes of flame dining on the walls, the trails of orange and red streaking everywhere there was fuel. Inside the black only made deeper by the shimmering light, two ruddy eyes stared out at him.
He stared back, matching its baleful eyes with his own, feeling the ascending shock of the great black dragon climbing upwards to the heavens. The belt of the leather jacket swung from side to side in the air stirred up by the fire, and the rubber grip of the bat in his hand made soft moaning noises of protest. He stood, and waited for the residue of death to make a move.
It susurrated, the folds of its body twisting, and then the air itself seemed to vibrate and pulse, and it screamed. It was a keening, a howling, a sound that destroyed the remaining glass in the windows behind it, a razor blade dragged across a stone magnified. It fired this wail of pain into the air between it and Nameless so that every breath he took felt like suffering, grinding down on him with the hum of a heart shattering under the weight of its own selfishness, the hiss of regret.
Already on his knee, he ground his teeth together to keep from falling any further, wincing at the sound that seemed to be trying to crack him into shards. His bones throbbed with it. He remembered everything he’d had any cause to regret, from the smallest hurt he’d accidentally caused on the playground behind Eden Park Elementary School to the lurking black water of memory centered in the basement of the very house he was under attack from now.
It was that memory that saved him. The house couldn’t just use some poor dead bastard to make him feel worse about that. He growled, feeling the sound rumble through his chest, forcing a counter to that horrible liquid scream shaking the walls around him. Trying to force him to face a horror he never allowed himself to look away from.
The bat flashed up in his hand as he hurled it end over end, tumbling through the air unbalanced, and as it whirled forward he threw back his head and set free the Black Dragon, bellowing in rage as the serpent of the flood burst from the base of his spine and shot like lightning up to above his navel, through his stomach and heart, rushing through the hollow of his throat to light his eyes and light a halo around his head, dancing like foxfire above the crown of his head.
Around him the air vibrated again, pushing away the screaming and extinguishing the flames licking at the walls and floor, and like a hammer of wind grabbed hold of the tumbling bat and drove it into the bone rictus that leered at him from behind black cloth, shattering and powdering the earthly remains of whatever poor fool had read something he couldn’t unread. The wave of crashing air scattered the dust remains and sent the bat rocketing forward, crumpled by the force of the impact, to crash through the tangle of vines and out of sight.
It didn’t matter. The bat was useless now anyway. He had to get downstairs. He moved away from the bed, his eyes dragging across the now-burned picture, the family eaten by fire, their features erased. Every year time eats you a little bit more.
He ran down the stairs, more leaping than actually running, and into the living room. He wanted to keep running, bolt out the front door and keep going until he was well away from the house and everything it made him remember. He swore at himself and dragged a small dagger, barely even a letter opener, out of his boot and began hacking at the floor. He didn’t know what would happen yet, but he knew something would, that whatever had been called up had to be put down.
It was a hard bit of slashing, made worse by the sweat on his hands and the sounds coming from beneath him. He didn’t even want to think about what was down there, much less to hear it slam heavy feet on the stairs as it came up… the sound of wheezing and grunting and loud sloshing, the smell of unwashed flesh and flatulence coming up the stairs made his eyes water.
He locked them on the colorful spheres and zig-zag lightning flash of tinsel on the tree in the corner of the room, letting himself drift on the image while he carved the ten spheres into the floor itself. Images of that tree combined with the perfect tree, the world-ash, the otz chaim while the merkabah became a sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer, the one-eyed crucified safely behind the reins…gods and monsters and the dead and the birth of the unmade, all danced in his head between the shadows of the emanations of the limitless light.
He panted as the noise got louder and the thing climbing the stairs reached the top, and he knew he wasn’t alone.
“What is the builder’s word? Why did he hang from the tree? What is the draught of the well?” rasped out of a dry throat even as a corpulent mass, gorged on all the fodder it could cram into a mouth that split its ham-sized head, oozed into his sight, filling the doorway. Chuckling, leaving a trail of oil and decay behind it, its bulk barely covered in patchy fur robes which only served to heighten its girth by leaving holes for it to strain against, bits of decay in its matted beard and eyes like those of a starving pig.
It made him want to vomit, to puke all over the floor. He contemplated his own end at those yellowing teeth as it licked quivering lips.
He forced himself to stare hard at the void between the spheres, the abyss he felt inside himself, gaping to swallow him. The place where the hanged man swung in the darkness seeking the word, the void of da’ath staring back out from inside him.
“What is the builder’s word?” He screamed, and the tree at his feet burst into rainbow light, and a fire that burned and did not consume tore up into his body, setting his limbs to quiver and every hair on his body to dance as the glittering light lifted his fear from him.
He was a lone star in the sky, lighting the way.
The creature moving into the room did not hesitate. It could not. It was a creature of hunger, a great dark blot that could never be satisfied. It knew nothing of fear or hate, merely a desire to consume. Chuckling, its body quivering like a bucket of gelatin, it came forward to devour.
In a flicker, Nameless moved, spinning in the air in an arc that drove his boot into the thing’s face from the side, avoiding that gaping mouth full of blunt yellow teeth. Several of them sprayed forth, one twirling through the air to embed itself root-first in the plaster above the fireplace.
The piglike snout crushed against the cheek from the impact and it staggered back, grunting and slobbering, while its attacker hooked a hand into a claw, the claw of the Corpse-Tearer, the gnawer at the root of the tree that is the world and tore that hand through mercury blood and gobbets of suet, spraying flesh and ichor across the floor. Even with its body shredding, the hunger drove it onward and it swung a huge arm forward with enough force to crush bone and liquefy flesh.
The intended target had not stood to receive it. Instead he moved back, allowing the arm to pass unimpeded through the air, and then followed it back in ripping at the neck and throat, tearing away oozing chunks of semi-decayed flesh.
It tried again, reaching out with both hands to try and crush its bulk down on top of him, and he moved to the side and drove his foot hard into the thing’s hip, smiling like he had once in that same room when opening the shiny wrapping on a box liberated from the tree’s watchful gaze at the sound of something cracking. Even as it reacted he moved again, this time to twist his whole body, driving his knee hard into the root of the back where a spine might be concealed by the lie made flesh. More sounds of breaking and cracking, and another kick to the back of a knee sent it wobbling forwards, unable to halt itself.
Behind it, Nameless dropped to a crouch and then drove his shoulder forward into its back, pushing it to fall directly at the searing rainbow light that ascended and descended the spheres of the tree cut into the floor.
The blast of light and heat lashed into him, even as he was infused with the power of the lightning flash himself. Growling, he felt himself burning inside, the sword of fire and his own hate taking over as he slammed his fist into the spine just below the head, the head itself, and beneath the squirming meat and the crackling light of the sigil on the floor the sound of wood cracking and splintering.
The floor gave way.
They fell together, the obscenity in flesh and the burning man, onto the burned remains of the old pool table. It fell apart from the crash, crumpling and cracking apart, tearing as it buckled. As the two of them hit the floor Nameless heard himself screaming himself hoarse and saw his fist crush the back of the Glutton’s head while flattening its face against the old concrete floor.
Panting, he dragged himself to his feet. Flashes of light, sparks, flickers of flame were dancing on his skin and his hair was moving. He could feel the sword of fire in the base of his intestines and crawling along his thoughts, trying to drive out emotion and render him kindling to a great fire, a pyre to reach up out of the body entirely.
Hit the flame, burn a hole in my brain, never be the same… The lyric to a song he couldn’t quite remember haunted him.
He shook his head and focused on a chalk symbol on the floor. He remembered drawing it, the three-lobed burning eye within a five pointed star. To the left of it on the wall was a half-faded incantation to Oannes, crawled over by vines. Above it was the small window that had in the past allowed light to creep into the room, long since grown over with tough red tendrils.
The only light in the room was from him. The thick grey fluid, like cottage cheese mixed with mud, leaked out of the Glutton’s corpse and burned where it touched him. That was something to be grateful for, at least.
He stepped away from the ruin of the pool table. He wasn’t sad that it was gone. He looked over at the old bulkhead that led out of the basement, easily twenty feet away from him, so thickly tangled with plants that he couldn’t even tell what kind of plants they were anymore. It was cavernous and claustrophobic at once, and he grimaced at the sight. Behind him were the wood paneled walls that served to partition off the space, and behind those lay the long-deserted boiler and laundry rooms, where he’d…
He shook his head, feeling sparks between his teeth, and turned on his heel to get away from the room. It was no good. Somehow the ruined mass of meat on the floor had climbed up the stairs, but now the way to them, the long corridor between the rooms that led out of the basement was choked with plants. He stared hard at them. There was no way the thing at his feet had forced its way through them. Which left innumerable other possibilities, and he growled at the effort of thinking about what those possibilities were while the sound of wind through leaves came from behind him.
There was no way there could be wind down there.
He stopped moving, closed his eyes, calmed himself. Listened for a moment to the sound of leaves scraping against stems, felt the desperate urge to burst forth into action and pulled it back under control.
When his breathing was even, he opened his eyes again, and the shimmering light of the sign of an ancient covenant shone forth, a light split into many colors. He saw the vines and branches and roots had closed in on him, tightening in a circle that totally closed off the way up the stairs and surrounded the central point of the room he was standing in.
“You are not expected.” The voice came from all around him. It sounded like petals unfolding, wood scraped against wood, soft stems whipping about, approximating speech yet bearing an intonation that had no bearing on the words, hard and emphatic. “You left us unfinished.”
“I never had any intention of allowing anything like you in the first place. I didn’t even consider you, much less want to finish you.” He saw a distorted shape lurking just behind the dark thicket weaving itself around him, something vaguely female. Very vaguely so, a poor guess at a woman with flaring ‘hips’ and a trunk that ended in hundreds of branches.
“But you cut the first switch.” Again that lack of emphasis, each word spoken with the same speed and tone. “You made the cut in the world that made us ready, you let the implication bleed in. You began, but did not complete.”
He didn’t respond, instead watching the small leaves tremble, noted the thorns on some of the crawling plants… he counted roses, grapes, even distorted birch moving in the depths of the brown and green wall surrounding him. He slumped slightly, crouching on light feet, focusing himself into a point he imagined.
“I want to know why I am here. Those that read the final words did not know why. I asked them. Eventually they stopped answering me. But you were here before I knew… you made the ground ripe. You know why I am here.” The wall of vines wriggled as it spoke, and the parted to allow that face to peer through at him. A wooden face with fronds for hair, green as his had once been with broad veins. A sap coated tongue of tangled clumps slid forth between her needle teeth, scraping along the edge of the face. Her eyes were holes in the woven branches of her face, with closed buds pushing through them.
He knew it was coming. A sudden convulsion and growth lashed out to grab at him, reaching for each limb. He reacted with a uncoiling of his own, grasping and shredding with both hands while moving backward, out of the way of the immediate danger. It might have worked.
It did not.
Unseen by him, the plants had crawled along the ceiling. One thick root dropped down to catch around his throat, squeezing like a wood python, lifting him off the ground. It was very strong, grinding hard along his neck, closing off his windpipe. It took him a second to bring his hands up to rip at it, tear it from his neck.
In that time, a thin shoot burst in a cloud of sticky fluid from the coiled wood and waved delicately in the air in front of his face.
Then it steadied itself and drove forward, plunging into his nose. Bone cracked as it lashed itself into his brain. Hanging in the air, he twitched and screamed, spit and blood dripping down his chin while his hands convulsed against the wood crushing his throat.
“I will know why I am here.”
He did not want to remember.
He did anyway.