infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror fiction
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

Dusk

a short story
by Jack Deighton

It was broad-limbed Artelmin who first voiced the doubt. Artelmin the proud.

"We cannot survive here," he said, warping his feasils to shape the words, channelling the wind through with deft strokes of his nether blinds. "The sun no longer provides for us all. We block each others' basking in our struggles for the failing light."

"But what else can we do?" Shiazu asked, her feasils atwitter. "Where else can we go?"

"We must follow the sun," he said, simply.

A chill settled on me as he uttered the words, a premonition of loss. None of my forebears as lorekeeper had ever contemplated such a thing. My outermost feasils almost trembled at the thought of it. Yet mindful of my responsibilities, I restricted them to a single twitch.

"To where?" I asked. The rustle and swish of a concerted folding of the group's blinds formed a backdrop to the question. My unease was evidently widely shared. "The sun has not gone," I added. "It rises and falls as it always did."

"But ever nearer the horizon," Artelmin argued. "And for a shorter time each day. If we follow it west we may catch it in its fall, have the benefit of a full day's light again. Be restored to our former estate."

He swept his blinds roundly in a gesture that encompassed us all. Sturdy Fenroth. Poor lopsided Bertellon, whose oft-retold encounter with a fangwin had stripped his feasils all down one flank. The wily Shiazu, adept in the luring arts. Hooglis, with his blinds formed into that strange brush on top. Stolid Krugg. The younglimbs, feasils held to rigid attention, not daring to interrupt in such an argument. And Valatha, my dear Valatha, rootlimbs curled just so in that way I found irresistible, whose blinds were sublime, whose shimmering feasils spread in a perfect arc.

"We are not as we were," continued Artelmin. "We spend our days bickering, jostling amongst ourselves for a few meagre rays of light. There is no future for us here. We must follow the sun."

"But this is our home," I reasoned. "Lorekeeping holds no hint of any other browsing ground. This is where we belong."

"Yes, yes!" a chorus of rustled whispers assented. The agitated flickerings of feasils attested to the unease amongst the group. Artelmin's was an awe-full proposal. Most of us were eager to grasp at any reassurance.

"There were good times here once," I argued. "There will be again. The day's length has always changed with the season. This is only a more pronounced variation. Things will surely soon return to their proper state."

"That was before the new sun," Artelmin said. "Before the change."

Instantly I sensed the mood alter. Feasils drooped in apprehension as individuals sought to shut out the unwelcome implication. Blinds sagged on all sides as the air of dejection rippled through the ensuing silence.

As Valatha too succumbed, even I was touched by the contagion, withdrawing deep within myself, blinds drawn down tight in an instinctive reaction to threat.

The new sun, for so long an expanding glow in the night sky, is all but gone now. I can barely detect a residual trace whenever the clouds of night part and the empty skies draw away my precious warmth. It had promised much as it drew near, of perpetual days and boundless drafts of energy for our feasils to absorb at will.

All sad illusion. Soon, as mysteriously as it had arisen, it began to fade, having reached barely a quarter of our true sun's intensity.

But by then it had set those strange wandering suns of the night whirling into crazier dances against the sky, and somehow altered the normal seasonal balance between night and day into something new. Something strange and terrible.

I suppose I should be grateful for small mercies. The true sun still rises each day and rolls along the horizon, warming my fibres for a few precious hours before it slowly sinks again and I must retract my rootlimbs, draw down my blinds and fold my feasils about me against the cold. I am still able to convert enough life giving energy to delve into the earth, to scrabble amongst the crevices in the underlying rock, seeking out nutrients and the surface meltwater which forms by each afternoon. My feasils may be pale imitations now of their former gaudy glories, may look faded and draggled, as if pest-ridden. My rootlimbs may no longer be so sensitive to the conditions beneath my four basal stalks; but they still function. I strain enough sustenance to last me through the static hours; the long hours of darkness when all my senses seem to fade to black and white. I am still alive; if only just.

And it could be worse. At least the fangwen no longer roam the plains. With my grouping dispersed, drawn one by one somewhere over the horizon by the uncertain prospect of greater sunlight and richer pickings further west, I would be an easy target for any of the once troublesome beasts which remained. But I have sensed none of those sharp-toothed, mournful-voiced creatures for many seasons now. Too many seasons to keep count.

Likewise, I have no knowledge of those of my grouping who have gone west. Nor of the other groups which on glorious sunlit afternoons used to dot the plains with shimmering pools of colour as blinds were outstretched, feasils spread wide as an allure to poach potential partners from other groups, or sometimes (oh, happy decadent days) purely for the pleasure of it.

The plains are empty now, the pallid, dispersed light which does fall on them reflecting only from bare rock or sparse scrubgrass. For all I know I may be the last of my kin.

I receive but poor reward for my daily basking. I struggle to feel replete, even under the afternoon sun. It is strange how, at such a low angle in the sky, the sun looms so large: yet its warmth seems as nothing compared to the splendours I recall from my youth. Then, each day seemed a carefree stroll from one browsing patch to the next - with hardly ever a need to spread my blinds to their fullest extent to catch its bounty.

So much has disappeared since the change, not much of it for the good.

Artelmin was first to leave. A particularly fierce storm had just subsided and the dulled disc of the late afternoon sun was creeping through the departing clouds when he declared his intent.

"I have endured enough," he said. "There is nothing for us here but endless storms and a cold chill in our fibres. I will leave now before it is too late, alone if necessary; and follow the sun. Should any of you wish to accompany me, I will be grateful for the company."

There was a moment of silence as the group absorbed the finality of his announcement, some sage folding of blinds in acceptance of his decision, a few whisperings of anguish.

"What say you, Borellan?" he asked me. "Will you accompany me?" For that brief moment I thought his manner might have held an air of uncertainty, even pleading.

"You know I cannot," I told him. "A lorekeeper stays always with his kin." Then he was Artelmin once more, rustling his blinds decisively, angling his feasils to express understanding and regret.

"Then I will take my leave," he said. "Those who decide not to follow my path I hope to meet once more in the Great Browsing Grounds Below."

At this, Shiazu began to rustle and twitter, shimmering her feasils in a simultaneous expression of distress and coquetry before falling on him in a flurry. Perhaps embarrassed by her unseemly display Artelmin quickly disengaged himself from contact.

Hooglis and I dipped blinds with him, my tips touching his in a formal farewell. Valatha embraced him in a suitably decorous fashion.

Artelmin saluted us all in turn, even down to the smallest younglimb - a thin and reedy specimen, deprived of sufficient energy and consequently lacking in growth for her age, but nonetheless delighted by the compliment. The contrast between the two - one still strong and full of vigour despite a few ragged edges, the other pale and etiolated, barely able to function - was, I am sure, a contributory factor to the subsequent exodus, praying on the minds of those who witnessed it, speaking more eloquently for Artelmin's case than any words of his could.

Artelmin paused only a moment to see if anyone would join him before lumbering away with a jerky gait, front rootlimbs anchoring in the cracks in the rocks, the tops of his blinds swaying heavily as he brought his rear stalks forward, rootlimbs trailing, to set base for the next step.

He seemed to make slow progress at first, pausing at times to replenish his energies, his spread blinds curiously dark against the lowering red sun. But all too soon he was lost to a dot in the wide expanse of the western plains.

The weather has settled into a new pattern. The wild storms, ferocious, unpredictable - whipped up out of nothing, or so it seemed - no longer rage as they did. They have been replaced instead by a long, bitter wind spiralling continuously out of the north and east, too often laden with flakes or balls of ice. A wind which never ceases, day nor night, which ruffles my feasils in their daily attempts to trap the solar warmth, mocks their efforts to maintain my body temperature during the long dark nights, which has no trace of heat, which fills my weary fibres with a cold dull ache. Which dumps its frozen loads on my feasils, ripping and tearing at the strands; batters my rootlimbs so that I have to retract them, reducing the precious time I have for browsing.

Where is the rich, warm, cleansing rain that used to fall so joyously in its season, ridding our feasils of the accumulations of dust that dulled their shine, filling the cracks and hollows of the land to overflowing, leaching out essential food elements from the soil and rock?

The next day Shiazu prowled the browsing grounds, pestering first Hooglis, then Fenroth, proceeding at length to the younglimbs, hoping to flatter them with her attentions.

Me she did not approach, correctly assessing my bond with Valatha was too strong. In the end she turned to Bertellon, shimmering her blinds at him shamelessly, bewitching him with attentions he had long since forgotten. By late evening their interlocked shadows beckoned to us from their position partway to the horizon.

A few more left over the next days, during the lulls the storms allowed us. That trickle was soon to broaden to a flood. On one dark day of glowering clouds and howling gales, fully half of the remaining group set off in pursuit of better pastures - even Krugg, the least likely of deserters - driven before the wind like so many discarded feasils.

I grow steadily more tired. Sometimes it seems as if time stands still when I hang my blinds in the sunlight, the constant wind ruffling my limp feasils as I attempt to take in the elusive warmth. No longer can I simultaneously move nimbly among the rocks as I do so; there is too little energy to be had. I spend my days greedily absorbing as much as possible and it is still a pitifully small amount. All too quickly the arc of the sun's circle dips below the horizon and I must make my mad dash to meet my body's demands, stocking up sustenance, drinking in enough moisture to last through the long, icy night and scarcely warmer morning ahead.

If it were not for the regular nightly accumulation of clouds I doubt I could survive. Despite their cargoes of snow and ice they provide a blanket of sorts against the cold, cold sky. In their absence only the prickle of feeling from the many tiny suns of the night - too weak ever to fuel my needs - counteracts the loss of heat from my exposed feasils. After such nights it is late indeed the next day before I recover sufficiently to spread my blinds. Two in succession may be the end of me.

The saddest departure was Valatha's. It still pains me to recall our final embrace when, entwined rootlimbs anchored deep into the rock, our blinds came together and, hidden within the folds, I extended my plins into her carpla and shuffled off the gifts-of-life, savouring her sweetness for the last time. Though we both knew there was little chance of issue from such a union, her season not being due, it somehow felt the only way to honour the end of our long relationship.

"Why must you leave?" I implored her, feeling the weight of her impending departure throughout my limbs.

"I have stayed too long for all the good it has done," she replied. "The days grow ever colder, the sun ever lower in the sky.

"I am afraid, Borellan," she continued. "Afraid that if I do not leave now, I never shall. Afraid that if I remain here, my fibres will return too soon to the earth from which they sprang."

My blinds sagged with the thought, for I could not agree. "Let others do what they will," I said. "I did not quicken under a wandering sun of the night. Nor, I trusted, did you. Think well, Valatha. This is where we first took root, grew up as younglimbs together, shared our first embrace."

Her feasils shimmered in distress, but their cruel angle was a message in itself. They were turned away from me. In all the years I had known her, I had never seen them held so.

"I have thought, Borellan," she said. "Look around you. Artelmin had it right; there is nothing left for us here. Can you not see that? Why do you cling so stubbornly to what is clearly lost? Beyond the western plains there is at least hope. Here there is none beyond the prospect of an early death. I feel it in every fibre. Even through the bitter chill its rank odour fills my pores whenever I take breath."

I had no reply. What reply was there? I too had felt the sense of rot and decay, suffered the cold embrace of the encircling gloom, desired a more kindly light to pluck me from its clutches.

But my life had been spent on this one small browsing ground. I knew of little else. I could not share her belief, her hope. All that I could think of was to endure. Even though all the light I had ever known was dying, I had no faith that salvation could be found somewhere over the horizon.

"Go, then, if you must," I told her, and sensed her flinch. In remorse - I could not bear her to think ill of me - I added, "And take my blessing with you," to help ease the pain of parting.

The angle of her blinds altered in response. I shuffled hesitantly towards her. We matched tips awkwardly, moving slowly to a fuller union. Our intertwined limbs in the end became racked with convulsions of sorrow rather than pleasure. Finally she extricated herself gently from the embrace and turned to follow in the rootsteps of Artelmin, Shiazu and Bertellon; Fenroth, Hooglis, Krugg and all the rest. She did not look back.

I stood, my sad blinds outstretched to catch the dying light, and watched her shadow, in a miserably elongated distortion of her perfect shape, extend eastwards back to me, across the plains.

I have felt the urge for her many times since then, my plins aching with the weight of unshed gifts-of-life, but there has been no Valatha to receive my bounty. I doubt, too, that she would still embrace me with that old fervour. My plins are dry and shrivelled now, my dishevelled feasils a poor invitation to a union.

It seems it is I, who held to the ancestral browsing paths, who have been the most deluded. It was not enough to torture my soul that the others should leave, especially my poor sweet Valatha, but now my steadfastness in remaining has been mocked, and most cruelly. I never thought to see life bring forth such bitter fruit.

Today the full arc of the sun did not rise above the horizon. The perpetual wind threw a blanket of cloud over the sky for much of what little daylight I was granted, and chilled my fibres anew with its frozen cargo, but a tiny wedge of the disc remained always beyond my senses. A thin wedge, true: but tomorrow it will be thicker. Today, from the sun's pathetic rise to its final set, like too many days past, has been but a long, slow dusk compared to the full glorious summers of my youth.

Were those golden years the greatest delusion? It is hard to remember them now, with the daily struggle to survive uppermost in my thoughts. Sometimes it seems that they are only a dream, of a different life in some strange place of the imagination, yet at others they are bright and clear in my mind's perception, a softly glowing vision of better days in times past.

But I must shake myself free of all such thoughts. I have more pressing matters to consider.

The western plain lies before me in all its emptiness. I must draw down my blinds against the fall of night and prepare as best I can for the long journey (to what nameless destination?) that tomorrow I must start across it.

I suppose I must travel in hope. Who knows? I may once more meet with Valatha.

I have come upon an eerie place; made worse by the murkiness of the light. Weird shadows seem to lurk in the gloom cast by the cloudcover. My senses are plagued by transitory miasmas conjured from the swirling mists.

I cannot be sure whether my lumbering progress towards the sun is succeeding or not. Whenever the clouds part the furthest extent of its disc remains always tantalisingly beyond the horizon. But at its fullest it seems no smaller, as far as I can tell, than when I set out.

Each "morning" I wait with impatience for its heat to warm my fibres, hoping to lumber as many extra steps forward as possible before the meltwaters form in the late afternoon and I stop to browse. Without the daily thaw I would find it harder to break into the frozen land, lose more precious time.

To my surprise the soil here is good; and there is little beyond scrubgrass to compete with me for nature's bounty. Once the ice has melted, my rootlimbs can roam freely in the quiet earth.

But each short day's journey is ever more wearisome, my active moments are taken up with absorbing the sun's rays, or pressing ever forward, or finding food. I have little energy left over for reflection, nor for remembrance, the sacred duty of the lorekeeper.

I have lost count of the days. The western plains are long behind me, the scene around me now is one of desolation.

The soil is poorer here, a bare covering on the underlying rock. Any sustenance it provides is hard-won. Were it not for an intermittent few misshapen hummocks which provide a richer fare I might not have survived this far. There is something increasingly familiar about those shapes. But their lines are distorted, worn away by erosion and decay. I have no time to ponder the mystery; I must move ever onward if I am to catch up with the sun.

I have made no progress for several days. Despair has held me locked and unable to function. My only motions have been the reflex raising of my blinds to catch the brief day's light and the involuntary shudderings of my outraged body.

Ah, that curled rootlimb! To my horror and disgust it made me realise that I have been feeding on the decaying bodies of my dead kin.

Which of those shapes was Artelmin, I wonder, which Hooglis? Have I been feasting on the remains of Shiazu or poor Bertellon? That stout one there, is it Krugg? The taller one beyond, Fenroth?

It is a good thing to enrich the soil, to return dust to dust, and eventually to feed the goodness that was in your fibres on to your descendants, to give younglimbs you have never seen a solid start to life. But there is a time to such sombre feastings, a due season. Not now, so soon after the deaths, and without the proper ceremonies. I was too close to those who have fallen to face the thought of what I have done - albeit unknowingly - with any equanimity.

The rootlimb was unmistakable. It could only be Valatha's. Dear Valatha, whose feasils shone the brightest of us all.

Why have I alone been spared, when the brightest and best of us are gone?

I stagger on. Daily, I follow the sun, wending my way ever westward in forlorn anticipation of finding the sunlit pastures we all set out to reach spreading at last before me. But that land of promise lies as far away as ever. My quest, it seems, will never end.

The true sun still hugs the horizon, making a mockery of my efforts to catch up with its decline and fall. At night, whenever the clouds part, I scan the skies in constant hope of finding another new sun swelling there, that might restore order to the swirling chaos left by its predecessor. But it is a useless longing. Visitations like those are beyond rarity. Nothing will bring back the halcyon days of memory.

What dreadful sin did we commit that we should have been subject to this fate? In our delusion we accepted the coming of the new sun with joy. None of us saw in it the seeds of our destruction.

Those dreadful mounds are long behind me; the memory of Valatha's rootlimb a reproof and inspiration both. To keep travelling, in constant battle against the interminable chill wind behind and the ever retreating sun ahead, is the sole tribute I can make to the vain efforts to survive of Valatha, Artelmin and the rest.

The winds still wail incessantly, like a continuous chorus of demented fangwen. Occasionally one howl will stand out from the rest, more mournful, more full of regret, as if a fangwin is truly near and on a hunt. But surely none of those once most-feared of beasts can have survived where we did not. And yet, I almost hope for it. How fitting it would be if I should, at the last, provide sustenance for at least one of my poor fellow creatures.

The days of my life wear down in the same exhausted, dulled routine.

With every dawn the creak as my blinds fan slowly outwards, feasils spreading wide to catch the feeble light. The all too few hours hanging in the sun - an agonising effort barely worth the reward. The scrabble amongst the rocks and soil in search of food and water. The short day's journey into night, scrambling slowly towards the setting sun.

And, at the close of each slow dusk, a drawing down of blinds.


© Jack Deighton 2005, 2007.
This story was first published in Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction edited by Neil Williamson and Andrew J Wilson (Mercat Press, 9.99, 304 pages, paperback, August 2005, ISBN: 1841830860).

Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction edited by Neil Williamson and Andrew J Wilson

Order online using these links and infinity plus will benefit:
...Nova Scotia from Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Elsewhere on the web:


Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:
sf@infinityplus.co.uk

support this site - buy books through these links:
amazon.com (US) | amazon.co.uk (UK)


top of page
[ home page | fiction | non-fiction | other stuff | A to Z ]
[ infinity plus bookshop | search infinity plus ]