Without – Excerpt 9
April 15, 2011 § Leave a comment
There was no color to the memory. There never was. It came like a dream, because it never came to him outside of dreams even though he could never forget it. There were colors, he assumed, but could no longer prove even to himself.
He remembered the suit he’d been forced to wear. Not forced, exactly. He couldn’t have dressed himself that day. Evvie, who had left him the month before, came back to help him, at Bishop’s request. Together the two of them got him dressed, got his hair tied back, got him to the church.
The church was a huge stone and glass fang pushed up from grassy earth. Even in his grey memory he remembered staring at those lead and glass windows in horror, seeing Christ dragged from one humiliation to another. It had been something to fixate on, and he gratefully took the option.
“Dude, you okay?”
Those three words were a formula. People asked him over and over again if he was okay, or all right, or doing well.
“How are you holding up?” This from one of his mother’s colleagues, a short man with receding hair and a slight paunch who’d helped her sort through various Etruscan and old Roman pottery. His mother had once commented to his father, thinking him out of earshot, that the man… Doctor Rawlins, he remembered briefly… had testicles so large that they were plainly visible even when he wore loose slacks. So he dropped his attention and saw them, plain as day, titanic testicles poking themselves out from his crotch and deforming the corduroy of his pants.
“I’m fine. You have gigantic balls. My mom said so, and she was right.” Someone hustled him away before he could tell the archaeologist that he was afraid the man might have elephantiasis. The idea of this made him laugh so hard that he began to choke on his own laughter, unable to get enough air to breath properly, while hot tears ran down his face. When they put him in a quiet chair in an office somewhere he leaned back and laughed until the tears ran down his head and into his ears.
Eventually he stopped laughing, but the tears continued until someone… again, probably Bishop, because whoever it was managed to lift him by his upper arms… got him out into the Church. Someone was reading a eulogy. It wasn’t the slumped little man with the enormous testicles, which he was thankful for. He didn’t want to start laughing again for fear he wouldn’t stop.
He saw a momentary flash of green.
Then it was much later. A year later. Was it a year later? It was later, anyway. He was sitting in a rotten old chair his father had inherited from his father, a satin upholstered oak monstrosity with demons carved into the arms. He’d supposedly gotten it in Wittenburg. Somewhere in Germany. These were details that slipped away into the grey sludge of the past no matter how hard he thought about them, and he’d had other things to think about. There were no lights on in the cellar save for a lamp he’d brought down with him, a tall floor lamp that spilled a silver arc along the floor, illuminating the metal pool cues laying disassembled in the rack on the wall and the spill of papers he’d scattered everywhere. His own notes, his father and grandfathers, tossed in piles, bound with large black clips or sometimes not bound at all, notebooks and folders and even napkins scribbled on. He’d started with Margaret Hunt’s testimony, moved on to Michael Scot and Flamel, studied the reports of Valentine Greatrakes and Michel de Nostradame and even tried to recreate the bright and ruddy elixir of Raymond Lully. He had nothing for that but burned hands, and a digression into the plays of August Strindberg had been wasted time.
He looked over at the sooty marks in the corner of the room where he’d finally just gone apeshit and burned everything he had written by Strindberg. Til Damaskus, a Dream Play, Inferno has all gone into the fire while he screamed and sobbed and beat the wall with his fists. Nabatean Agriculture had gotten him nowhere. He’d excavated through the piles of books in the bedroom looking for Chinggis Khan and his quest for immortality, or trying to understand Bacon’s Opus Magus. He’d lit upon the idea of transmutation of the inner nature from the Picatrix but had no idea how to use it.
Through all of it he returned again and again to those two metal talismans, those trophies of his parents. He stared at them for hours, resting on the old pool table his father had stashed away for evenings spent alone contemplating new angles, geometry rendered in the solitary crack of ivory against ivory.
Those urns were his grail. Nothing could stop him. Nothing would stop him.
In the end the answer, the final secret didn’t come from any of the texts his father had collected, nor did it come from any of the books he’d dug up in his ceaseless combing of the Athenaeum, the Brown Library, or even the Providence Public Library. Of all places, he found the secret in Stadium Cards and Comics while looking for a present to mollify Bishop for one more week, another pretense at being over what he was not and did not imagine he could be. The last time he’d visited, he’d seen an umbrella he’d bought in London lying against the wall and pretended not to… she wasn’t his anymore and none of his concern. Stadium Cards and Comics, where among the boxes full of old, yellowing issues of Rom Spaceknight there was a stray copy of a comic book adapting a story called The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
Essential salts and human dust.
Essence and dust. It was as if someone came along behind him with a hammer and bashed him over the head with it while yelling everything he’d spent months and months reading in one long scream of words bleeding into each other. Essence, transformed, from dust into life again.
And so, he found himself sitting in the dark in the arc of light thrown by the lamp while a green shadow (green?) clashed across his vision, staring at the urns. Working up his courage, which was a pallid thing, feeling his thoughts reel from extreme to extreme while rage and fear acted like alcohol in his head.
Eventually he pulled himself to his feet, pulled the leather jacket from his father’s closet over his shirtless body to keep from shivering in the unheated cement room, and stalked over to the urns. He quivered to look at them.
Finally he lifted the one to the left, walked to the side of the table, and poured the dust into a pile, careful to keep it as far to the left as possible. He repeated this with the one to the right. Then he withdrew a mixture of salts he’d crushed himself from the bag on the floor, and poured some on each pile of ash in a pattern of rings. Finally, he dusted his hands off and knelt, checking once to be sure the chalk on the walls held the proper sigils… death-conquering Jupiter, the three-lobed burning eye, the intricate sigillium with its stars within stars, the fish-tailed Oannes.
He dropped his head to the floor while a rustle of green curled around the laundry room wall… did that… and kneeling, groaned out the words he’d prepared himself.
“Da’ath, mene, you hang in the void between worlds, the head of you lies in the gulf, the tail of you girds the world… uaaah, uaaah.” His throat went dry as the memory of the words vanished like dust in a gale, the hair all over his body stiffened, sweat trailing down his face to pool on the cold hard floor. A quiet panic stole his voice along with the memory and he knelt face down, unable to speak, as the sensation of ants on his skin increased. His tongue forced itself to move. “I want them back. That’s all. I don’t want power, I’m not asking for wisdom or eternal youth or to fuck Helen of Troy. I just want them back.”
“Not the first time I’ve heard that.” The voice was very quiet, but deep, so deep it almost seemed to be shaking the floor and climbing up into his head through his forehead. “What will you give me?”
“What do you want?”
“What do you have? Pain, but you leak that out for anyone to have. No, you have nothing that interests me. Nothing I want.” A long moment, with his face pressed into the concrete. “You may lift your head.”
“You haven’t asked for my soul.” He lifted his face, wet on the left side from sweat and clammy from the floor. Standing on the other side of the pool table was… was… his eyes slid over it but it resolved into nothing. One second it looked like an old Egyptian tomb-painting of a Ibis-headed man in profile, the next a small boy in a field of fire holding a turtle-shell with strings, and then a staff with snakes coiled around it. Other forms he couldn’t name or understand. Along the edge of his vision he barely noticed a bright green leaf in the well of the bulkhead stairs.
“Your soul? Assuming I could even perceive such a thing, what would I do with it? If I needed or wanted souls, why would I give two back to you in exchange for one? You did want them back, yes?”
“I have no need for souls. I have less need for pain. I do, however, have a great fondness for names. I have many, myself.” The whirling icon was a boy with stars for hair, then a man-like shape with the head of a bull straight from the wall of a cave, and then something that extended past vision and smelled vaguely of wet hair. “I believe I will grant you your request. It will cost you your name. Do you agree?”
He stared at the thing.
“This isn’t going…”
“Did you think this was easy? Your streets would teem with risen dead.” It became the head of a lovely woman in white, who smiled sadly at him before becoming a flat beetle. “If you were not obsessed, I would not have heard you. And even then, I did not have to come. You should work on that. Still, it has been long since anyone has called me, even if you did not know you were calling. I suppose I am… bored. It will be interesting to watch what happens.” A fish with a book in its mouth spun into view before becoming an egg with feet. “Again, I offer you the deal. Give me your name, and I will bring the piles of ash you have laid on this table into life. A life only you will be able to take from them.”
“Why would I…”
“Agree or disagree. I tire of this place, and wish to see if you will satisfy my curiosity. Your name for life.”
“…Take it.” He felt the emptiness in his stomach as it lurched, felt that he might well vomit if he had vomit left to lose. “If that’s the price, take it.”
“Very well. As we agreed. Remember that the life I grant here is within your power to take. And the name I take here is within your power to replace. I wait with great interest to see what you do next.” There was no flash of light, no great rush of air, no display of great power. It was there, and then it was not. Nothing had changed. His face ached from the feeling of cold, rock-hard floor having pressed against it, and he was kneeling in an empty room in front of two piles of ash and salt on a ratty pool table while in the window to his left an errant verdant twig flickered across the glass even though it was Christmas and snowing and…
Then the sound, or something that wasn’t sound at all but which pushed the same regions of the brain, a sucking, popping, shifting that took that empty feeling in his stomach and twisted it with a cold hand. He watched, transfixed, as it happened. He even smiled.
The smile died quickly as amorphous forms swelling out of the ashen piles did not resolve themselves as he’d hoped. Instead, he watched without any real understanding as a human head he’d never seen before grew out of the crotch of a pair of legs that ended in a hand on the left and a wriggling bowl of flesh, like a neck open on both ends for the right. The torso was female, with a strangely bent forearm growing from where the right breast would be and a concave depression completely failing to balance it out, the abdomen covered in a nose, several ears, an eye winking at him from the navel. Arms grew out of its back, no two matching. There was nothing at the shoulders, no head, nothing.
To the right his father’s head with a withered, drooping penis growing out of its forehead rose out of a leg growing from a pair of shoulders. The torso was spotted with fingers, toes, a half-arm growing from the center terminating it a mouth and jaw, half a head. Below the torso seven limbs, two arms and five legs, each ending in feet. One of the feet had teeth instead of toes. It groaned and howled and gibbered out of each mouth, fixed eyes on him that contained infinite sorrow and pain, babbling in noises that were mercifully unlike words.
He leapt back, away from them, as they twitched on the felt. They couldn’t get their limbs to work properly, or weren’t trying to, shifting and rocking where they were. He saw fingernails from the limbs on the back of the one with his mother’s brown eye staring out of its belly rend the felt, claw and then spasm, while the other one bit at the wood with the half-face on the end of the arm in its chest.
This continued for horrible seconds. He watched them move, even though they shouldn’t move. He watched them slide into each other, shove back, crash to the table after attempting to rise. And he knew they would continue to do this. If they could be alive without any sense to their bodies… alive with more eyes, more fingers, more mouths than they’d had when they were alive… nothing could kill them. He wondered, tittering and clamping down on his jaw to keep the sound inside him, who else had been in those urns.
That thought managed to punch through the soothing chill of insanity trying to protect him. The thought reached down past the hollow place inside him where his own awareness of what he’d done lived and reached the anger he’d felt for the past year… the anger he’d shepherded, kept alive against every attempt by friend or lover to reach him and bring him back into the world. The hate at the unfairness of it.
This. I did this. I wasted my life on this. The whole time, I fought and fought to change it, and I was fighting for this.
He grabbed hold of the aluminum half of a pool cue at his side, feeling the weight of it in his hand. First he would fix what he’d done. Then he would visit the mortuary, and have a talk with them about mixing the cremains. He swallowed, wanting to spit but afraid he would never stop throwing up if he did, and looked again at the eyes of his father, which in memory were grey not the vivid blue he knew they were in life. Perhaps it was a blessing to forget things like that.
He screamed and charged, swinging the cue into the side of that head, crushing the skull. The sound of bone and the smell of blood… and the realization that the magic had truly worked, after a fashion, had brought true life back to those horribly mixed ashes… and then just the pounding of the club again and again, crushing bone and pulping flesh wherever he found it. He swung it again and again until finally it fell from slick fingers, deformed into something resembling a question mark, and the top of the pool table was covered in crushed flesh and oozing with blood.
They hadn’t resisted much.
That didn’t help. He growled, feeling hot knives in his head, and then turned to face the creeping vine along the ceiling, a thin green line.
“You wanted to see what happened?” His eyes twitched, flickering like candlelight. “Fire happened.”
He opened his eyes, felt the vine crawling around inside his sinuses and behind his right eye while the woody root around his neck bit into his flesh.
Then he wasn’t flesh anymore at all, as the sword of fire burst free and he burned, burned so purely that there wasn’t a nose anymore for the tendril to violate or a brain to sink into, no throat to squeeze or hands to rip and claw. There was a roaring mass of flames, a screaming man-formed conflagration that raced along whatever it touched, that set green and brown alike to dancing as they withered, like leaves in the grip of autumn.
The creature that had held him in its grasp did not even utter a sound before flames erased her semblance of humanity.
The wooden fragments of the ceiling burned, and then the remains of the floor above. The walls shuddered and smoked, then erupted into tongues of copper and gold chewing at anything flammable. A net of fire raced along the coating of the wires and the shoots wormed through every available crack and cranny. The beams in the walls and the rotten fabric on the furniture and the dry, creosote-reeking Christmas tree… everything felt the teeth of the fire. Everything burned.
While the fire raged on, a mass of pure blue-green flames blasted its way through the green tiles that Albion Ape once climbed across and crashed into the ice-glazed stalks of wild grass in the yard surrounding the house. These flames wrapped around each other in tails of heat and light before slowly condensing, melting the ice and then sending plumes of steam into the air, burning the grass away in a bowl all the way down to bare earth for several meters.
Then they died down, spinning about as they became a body again. He coughed and convulsed and hacked up a plug of blood and snot even as the hole in his sinuses closed over. Healed by the ebbing touch of the lightning flash as it ascended wholly out of him, moaning as the pain in his head refused to retreat. The last of the flames became sooty, dark, and then the smoldering nude body in the dirt became a smoldering clothed body in the dirt, steam and smoke rising around him.
He lay there for as long as he thought he could get away with before dragging himself upright. The flames now raged in the back yard as well, burning even through the ice cover on the unnaturally green plant-life, and the roof caved in while he watched. He smiled at the sight of that.
Then he turned and walked away, fairly secure that no one in the neighborhood would want to tell anyone too much about the person who’d rid them of the house. It was a very small victory. It was enough.
It had to be.