a short story
It is autumn and the forests burn with the sun's stolen flame. Once there were as many people as there were trees. Now there is one.
She walks down the mountainside, breath steaming and curling before her in the brittle air. A shapeless bag rests across her back and her clothes are plain, functional. Her pace is swift, yet comfortable, the long, ground-eating lope that comes from many years of travel. Her face is a flat, emotionless expanse. It has been a long time since life walked its bitter plains.
Rocks clatter beneath her feet as the ground sheers away beneath her and she half-slides, half-falls, the rest of the way. She lands softly in a cloud of dust and stands still for a moment, looking out across the soon-to-be-sleeping world. The thought of a sigh eases past her lips and she turns her gaze back to the trail, does not look away again.
She has walked this land for an eternity and more. Always looking, always seeking. A way to fulfil her promise. Never finding. The Tower of Silence is full of forlorn and misplaced hopes and she knows that she will never replace them. She has taken them all now. And all have failed.
Night closes quickly around her and soon she is walking by the light of the moon. It is the same to her.
Her footsteps take on a hollow ring and she stops, blinks, looks down at the ground, sees the glimmering stones of white that once paved a city like so many others she has visited, so many others in which she failed to find that which she sought.
Something that might have been a laugh fills the blackness. But there is no humour in it, only a sad irony. She reaches up a hand to her bag, strokes the material, soft and pliable from many years of use. A beloved familiar in a land devoid of any other.
She moves on, eyes alert for any movement. Old habits die hard. The ruins rise high above her now. Empty, broken windows, shattered walls, bent and crooked posts, all that is left of a race that thought itself better than it was, better than it could ever be. Stars cough and choke behind the claw remains, stone murdering a sky it had once, so long ago, venerated. She feels the bag growing heavy on her back, remembrances of past and future lives.
A sound echoes through the emptiness. High, mad. Her head turns, zeroing in with none of her earlier detachment. Her stride lengthens, becomes a jog, a run, a sprint. If she were not so tired, perhaps her eyes would sparkle, her breath come a little faster, as it is she barely flickers a lash.
She rounds a corner. Hollow, rusted containers roll and clatter away from her slapping feet. Loud in the silence that has swallowed the sound that drew her here.
She sees why.
Two old men, deformed, skin mottled and sagging, hands knobbed claws, eyes dark holes, stand poised over a small creature, a creature that lies motionless before them, waiting for their hands to descend.
She keeps running. She has seen their kind far too many times. The old, old men. Senile, deranged, lustful, greedy. They have murdered a world for their sins.
She skids to a halt; they look up, eyes slits beneath folds of skin. For a moment, no one moves, eyes study, brains work, then she looks down at the creature at their feet.
Her gaze snaps up. The old men back away. Something about her scares them now. Maybe the memories of a thousand other of their kind speak to them of the fate that awaits them.
She turns to the creature on the ground, picks it up, slings it over her shoulder and walks away.
The two old men totter out into the middle of the street. They stare after her. Wind whistles through them, cannot be bothered to toss their stick-like hair.
Her pace is slower than usual now that she carries a burden. She had thought they were all gone, but this creature, and those old men back there, prove that even she can be wrong. She moves the creature around to her chest as she walks, to better see it. She cannot decide what it is. It seems human in form, yet its limbs are small, scrawny even, its skin mottled black and white, its eyes too big, bearing no iris, just endlessly contracting and widening pupils in a sea of white.
It regards her solemnly, round, smooth head bobbing loosely with her movement. She returns it to her back where it fastens small arms around her and seems content to stay.
She makes a fire that night, just because she has someone with which to share it. She puts the creature on the ground and wraps it in her coat. It will not do for it to catch a chill before she reaches the Tower of Silence. She has not been there for a long time now. She wonders if the birds will remember her. She scarcely remembers herself these days.
She sits down across from the creature, wondering if it will begin to cry for food like all the others, but it does not, merely sits and stares into the flames.
After a while this behaviour disturbs her, though she cannot say why, and she moves closer to the creature, looks into its strange eyes for the answer.
It blinks when her face replaces the fire and begins to wriggle. She almost backs away.
An arm emerges from the cocooning coat, springing exuberantly into the air before sailing gently down to touch her cheek.
The eyes glisten, the skin around them crinkles, the mouth beneath grimaces.
"Look." The creature's hand turns her head with surprising strength. "Can you see them dancing in the fire?"
She looks. Thousands of flames lift their hands to her, sing to her, leap for her.
"It's alive," the creature's melodious voice comes from behind her. "It always has been."
Snow greets the resumption of their journey. Early. Too early. The land shrinks beneath its icy touch. The mountains sadly surrender to the featureless mask, the trees hold close to leaves that can no longer shelter them. It has been this way for a long time. She remembers vaguely the slow, endless turn of seasons, the comforting familiarity. Lost now in a time that changes with the blink of an eye.
The creature sits, silent again, on her back, next to the bag, humped beneath her winter cloak, fingers sharp as the wind digging into her flesh.
She feels neither. A memory of last night's flames keeps her strangely warm.
Her boots imprint her presence on the snow; here and there she spies the skitter-splayed marks of birds, the large, deep pits that promise a deadly predator. But nowhere does the poignant sole of humanity mark the earth and she stops for a moment, turns around, casts her gaze over the solitary trail she has created, sees the snow spiral down, already covering it over, erasing her presence as she has erased so much already.
She reaches for the creature, pulls it from its place, sets it on the ground, begins to walk again.
The creature looks at the snow with wide eyes, as though it has never seen it before. Then its eyes crinkle and it bends over, plunges inviolable hands deep into the grainy wetness. Returns with its prize.
Something thuds wetly against her neck, drips steadily under her cloak, dribbling down her back, tickling her. She reaches up a hand, touches the ball of melting snow already falling apart between her fingers. She is confused, looks up at the sky. Large flakes of tattered cloud float downwards. None are like the balls she has found.
Another hits her; she hears a shrill, excited cry, the creature bounds past her, white balls flying from its hands. She ducks, looks down at the ground, looks for a long time, sees the marks, the human soul, where the creature has gone, pulls her cloak more closely about her and follows.
The creature is stronger than its small frame suggests, but still she thinks it wise not to travel through the night. The Tower of Silence is close. Perhaps they could reach it that same day if they continued, but she has waited a long time for this and one more day will not hurt. She does not build a fire this night. The snow has stopped for now and the creature does not seem to feel the cold. Besides, she has already learnt that lesson.
She walks across the top of the crag they climbed today. Sits at the very edge, stares out over a land encased in brilliant sheens, sweeping curtains of snow growing drunk on the moon's light, greedily intensifying, shimmering, blinding. Yet all she can see is the darkness in between.
The creature pads softly to her side and sits. It does not speak for a while and she forgets it is there.
"You can see the whole world from here."
She regards the creature from a corner of her eye. It moves closer, lays its head in her lap, looks up at her out of vastly dilated pupils.
"Can't you?" It lifts a dappled hand, points randomly. She looks again, afresh.
The world spreads before her. She can see for miles. All glows for her. She can indeed see it all. For this is all that is important. This that surrounds her now. Holds her now. Cradles her now.
She lays a hand on the creature's head. Feels its life pulse eagerly beneath her touch. Returns her gaze to her world.
Their journey is almost at an end. The Tower of Silence looms before them. The creature is fascinated by it and runs on ahead. She wishes she does not know what she knows. That those old men have infected her creature, that it is dying even as it embraces life, the only one she has ever found, and she struggles against what she must do as the creature climbs the side of the circle and she reaches up and spins the Tower of Silence once more.
A watery sun watches her gather. The birds still circle. She wonders if it is a sign. She wonders if the tears she sheds are also a sign.
Two old men crest a rise and stop in sudden fear and wonderment. A vast structure lies before them. A circle with walls as high as the mountains they have travelled to get here, to follow the woman who took their prey. They look at one another, then back at this behemoth. As though by some unspoken agreement they start forth at one and the same time and soon are climbing those walls, voices high and cackling, reason long since absent from minds that have destroyed so much.
It takes them a long time. Wasted limbs wave and flap, ragged clothes tangle and trip, but soon their fingers fold over the top and they heave themselves up.
She stands in the middle, a lone hub, and laid out around her are millions of skeletal spokes, human bodies, bones dead, bleached and pitted, limbs outstretched, sacrifices in silence.
The two old men scream, hands held to their eyes, not wanting to see, not wanting to know, it is what they have done, all their fault, the endless death, and her laughter is bright as the vultures swoop down and tear them apart, dead flesh that walks, useless, forever.
She knew they would follow her and now it is over and her job will soon be done. Of the billions of bones she carries only a few in her bag. Her precious creature, sole lover of life. She has planted futile others, but she thinks that this time, this time it will be different.
© Lauren Halkon 2001, 2002.
This story first appeared in Strange Pleasures edited by Sean Wallace (Cosmos Books, 2001).
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