MAY 2023, SHORT STORY, 4300 WORDS
He sits, hands on knees, as the warm pyramid of the sun climbs his legs, sifting in through the open window. His back is unbent, and his hair is thick but where once it was black as night water, now it is streaked with grey.
The body on the low cot that lies in the sunless corner of the hut is troubling him greatly. A woman taken in her prime.
Between the immediate buzz of flies, the distant calls from jungle fowl, and the air-dried thunder of surf on stone that is the most distant, there is the repetitive question that deafens him to these others. One that peals out and fills his senses as he looks to the body of his daughter before him.
His eyes avoid the places where pieces of her were taken by the forest and its children. His gaze remains fixed on the flesh that is still firm, the flesh that perplexes him, that has kept him sleepless for hours of the moon’s slow arc, wondering what mighty force keeps her stationary in death as none could in life.
It is not her death that troubles him most. They are a people who live close to death, hear it breathing heavy in the dappled leaves beneath the overstory in a thousand different bodies. All must walk the path, and he knows this even as it saddens him, but this is not the source of his anguish.
What vexes and draws him to this vigil is the fact that the body before him has stopped rotting.
The daughter crouches low in the dark gloss of trail-side vegetation. Leaves painted in oil reflect a lurid sky of burnt umber. This celestial inferno is marbled by streaming clouds that look to be the dark roots of giant things growing far above.
From within the vegetation, she watches a procession of waterlogged travelers walking a path that is worn river-stone smooth by countless feet of passing dead. They carry no marks of war or predators, only the bloat and breath-held choke of the drowned. Their features are strong and similar, their faces dark and set as they walk toward the flickering eye of the gateway set deep in the canvas of the sky to the south.
The portal is the place the dead must go to. It is the crossing point and the mission of all who find themselves in the place of paths.
She sees one of the drowned looking above the underbrush where she hides, looking over the vegetation to the black scalloped sea that lifts above the cliff’s lip and flattens itself into the wall of sky. The dead one’s eyes widen as they focus on the seam of the distant horizon.
Where there should be only cliff and sea and sky at her back, there is something else. There is something approaching. The dead woman looks away and walks more quickly so as not to be lost from the procession.
When they are gone, the daughter rises, fighting the urge to follow them on the path, the urge she feels deep in the back of her teeth as the lodestone of the portal calls to her. But she knows she cannot go. Not yet.
She sees the low tide of underbrush across the path she watches shake and buckle. The daughter sinks back into the foliage, her eyes fixed on the disturbance.
As she watches, the form of a young boy parts the leaves, his skinny legs pushing through creepers. Despite her being hidden, he grins down at her location, and she thinks that his mouth is much too wide and the teeth much too long and narrow. She does not move, but her hand falls to where the handle of her knife once would have been. Its absence is as keen its edge once was.
As he approaches, she notices that his body is filled with red holes that do not bleed. She bunches the muscles of her legs beneath her, ready to strike or flee, but as he reaches the path, his skin shivers and bursts. His body becomes a rippling cloud, plumes into itself, then condenses into a great mass of whining insects. The red nodes of the mosquitoes’ bloated bodies are propelled by wings of veined ash. They disperse into the forest, save one that comes towards her, but she breaks it with the flat of her hand and stands.
She has seen that one before and now knows his tricks. He is one of many that are not the dead but inhabit the world of paths. She knows some of them from stories told by her people, but most are strangers, and though maybe extraordinary, they do not inspire fear in the seized muscle of her heart.
It is the thing that approaches that she fears, the one that fills the horizon with the growing mountain of its body: the one whose head is sunk in the clouds with knees cracking the rolling swells, sending them reeling back into others. She sees it from the corner of her eye, but does not focus on it.
Instead, she looks north up the coast. She sees the black fused vertebrae of the path she has already walked, the path one should only ever walk once. It seems a madness that she plans to walk it again, but then, it is a time for madness with the coming of the beast.
Traveling back to the place of one’s body is strongly forbidden, but she knows no other way. She knows he will be there, sitting with it, and she must speak with him.
She splays her toes against the pull of the portal and begins to walk against it, feeling the air turn to rough pebbles against her skin. She sees others along the way who have stopped and been dragged down into the underbrush, grown entangled with thorned vines and serpentine stalks. She can see them now sinking into the loam, their spirits becoming thin and tattered. Millennial decomposition until all that is left is a fractured husk, a strangled ribbon of voice.
The creatures that patrol the uncombed fringes of the vegetation, those that gave her no notice before, begin to leer. Terrible amalgamations of beaks and scales, bodies long and muscled and many legged. Heads socketed unevenly with wide, rolling eyes. They thrust wrinkled necks from between the vines and blossoms, pull their bodies from the dirt to follow this one who walks backwards. She tenses, not sure what they will do, if they will physically stop her. They crowd and gawk and make noises deep in their throats, but they do not stop her as she walks back.
Back to the cliff of her childhood to speak with her father one last time.
She knows the chances are small, that the dead should not speak to the living, but she must tell him. She cannot guess at the true nature of the thing that approaches from the deep of the ocean, only that it is coming, and that she must warn the people.
The pit is dug and cleared, and the earth from it rests in a cool pile beneath broad waxy leaves that nod in the night’s absentminded wind.
The pit bulges into the earth, an unlit gateway.
The man who was a father kneels, his legs beneath him and a small collection of things he will send to his daughter beside him.
The offerings are illuminated as he strikes sparks from stone: a small jar filled with ointment, a parcel of food wrapped in leaves, a hunting knife with its blade of mountain glass freshly knapped, and a large clay vessel of water.
The kindling at the bottom of the pit catches and begins to smolder. The grey heart flickers, and the brittle sounds of a new fire grow louder as he lends his breath to the flames.
When night winds begin to bend the tongues of flame that reach out of the earth, he knows that the fire is ready. He begins to pass the gifts through the doorway of the blaze.
The parcels and objects disappear, and the fire dims a little each time. Wayfinder, the blade newly made for her, cuts a quick path in the glowing curtains and is gone.
Water is last.
Holding the vessel in both hands, he whispers into the cool liquid.
“I do not know what stops you in your journey, daughter, but my wish is that these gifts from your father give you strength. May they be the water that loosens the log so that it might finish its journey to the world of waves. Where it might come back to us on the tide.”
He watches the liquid’s shifting surface, filled with his message, move between coins of orange flame to the hot silver of the moon.
The night is nearly spent as he lifts and drops the vessel into the flames. Steam erupts from the pit and mushrooms into the indigo of early dawn.
He sits under the sinking parabola of the moon long after the warm smothering wash of smoke has passed over him. As dawn’s orange roots burn back the dark, he walks to the edge of the cliff that stands a short walk below his house. His prayers are fierce and fervent and simple. He wishes only that when he checks the body in the morning, she will have moved forward in her journey.
She is near the cliff, but her body is raw, the bruises black beneath the orange simmer of the sky. She has learned quickly the difficulties in walking backwards. What was once air has become small stones that grate and snag her flesh as she walks against the path.
She stops and pants, relishing the rest for her skin that has softened and split in places, then notices that the wind blows more strongly. The black gloss of leaves and vines shake with it, and carried on the wind there is a new odor.
She wrinkles her nose and looks out into the ocean and stumbles back.
The creature has grown. It is much closer than it was, and she wonders how long it has taken her to get where she stands. There is not the cyclical pursuit between sun and moon to mark the passing of days, and she finds it impossible to tell how long this journey has taken.
Standing on shaking legs, she looks fully on the beast that is still blued with distance, yet fills the horizon from wave to crown of the sky.
It walks on six legs, and its hooves look to be made of the uniformed planking of wood, converging to a prow that splits the water in its slow gait. The legs are gilded trunks covered in silver scales whose chimes carry on the wind.
Although the head of the beast is obscured in the black rivers of cloud and its body is distorted by miasmic discharge, she can see carrion birds wheeling about its bull neck in a slow rotation as small winged specks diminished by its bulk. She watches as one lands and buries its featherless head into the pale flesh showing in patches where the scales are missing. There is also a red glow spilling from the creatures chest, but it is impossible to tell what causes it through the haze.
As the daughter watches, hand to mouth and fighting the urge to empty a stomach that no longer holds food, it steps for a moment, slow and heavy, from the vapors surrounding it. She brings a hand to her eyes as her pupils contract, narrow to pins as they settle on the thing hanging at its chest.
She shrinks back before the two giant bodies of truncated timber, crossed and lashed one to the other, swinging at its neck, held by great dark links that speak to her of the deep earth.
The crossed timbers emanate with a wet, burning light. Wound-red, coal-red, the red of poison frogs and venomous snakes. The red of the panther’s mouth as a final image. Slow flames reach into the space around the object hungrily, as if tasting the air of a new habitat. The great bull neck is chafed raw by the weight, and she wonders briefly why it carries such a burden.
She is so transfixed by the approaching beast that her still heart lifts into her throat as the low shrub besides her shakes. She spins and crouches to face it as the plant convulses, is pulled into the earth—leaves bunched—then flows up and splits, shedding it leaves to reveal a jar of ointment.
To her left, a small vine wrapped about a withered trunk swells like a newly fed snake, bulges, then ruptures, a grey-bladed knife cutting out from its interior to sink into the forest floor, hilt up.
Then comes the container of water and parcel of food, both tumbling from the gaping bowl of a slumped tree.
There are words, too, carried in the shifting water as she lifts the clay jar to drink.
She pauses to listen. Her face splits into a wide smile with the echo of the familiar voice. Low and even and resonant. Tears warm her cheeks, and she chokes back laughter born of pure joy as she listens and is given strength she did not think she had left. The daughter is reminded what she fights for, what stands to be lost if the message is not sent, and the rekindling of this knowledge fills her cold body with a white light.
While she knows he sits vigil over the form she has left behind and that the magnetism between the worlds of the living and dead will not let her near the shell he doubtless worries over, as the fell wind from the salt sea sweeps across the leaves around her, an idea begins to form in her mind.
It is morning, and the firepit is cold. The remnants of the things sent the night before stand in black shards and leaning piles like the charred bodies of shipwrecks.
The father is woken not by the sun or the lightening of the sky as he usually is, but by the croak of a tree frog on the hard-packed earth beside his sleeping roll.
In that time before he opens his eyes, where he still sees the tendrils of the dreaming world shimmering above him, before the blinding tide of wakefulness draws itself like a sheet over that place of dreams, he holds on to the image of his daughter standing on the cliff they shared so often when she was young and he not so old.
He sees her as he saw her in the dream: a young girl, still tuber-fat before the weed-growth of arms and legs. She stands under a sky that blackens and cracks and shimmers like coals fanned by a steady breath.
Her mouth moves, but the words are taken by a foul wind that gusts in from the endless salt waters beyond the cliff and surrounding the dry land of their world. There is another aspect of the dream that is lost to him and is too deeply decayed to draw forward as he moves further from sleep.
The blurred image of a mountain in the sea dwarfing his daughter’s figure—where there should be only waves and water—flashes into his mind, but is gone before he is able to make sense of it.
His heart beats quickly, and there is sweat cooling on his skin. It was not a good dream, but he does his best to keep the vision of her in his mind.
The frog croaks again and he opens his eyes.
When she was a child, she and her father would walk the path from their home to the edge of the cliff below. Once there, he would lift her to his shoulders. Eyes closed, both listened to the wind pouring over the sea, hitting the shore far below and moving through the canopy like an ape, snatching leaves and blossoms as it passed.
Then the climb.
Up the pockmarked cliff the wind would come hand over fist, leaping, its mind full of shoulders, till it reached the lip where they stood and launched itself up into the air in thick sinuous ribbons.
She remembers her hair losing its weight, flying and streaming into the sky as her father staggered and she tightened her grip on him, both at the mercy the four winds, hooting and whooping and calling out into the maelstrom they shared with each other only.
The daughter remembers thinking that the wind is very much like a needle and thread, a weaving thing that can pass through any fabric. If one needed to pass a message, even though a fabric as final as the death shroud, the wind could do it. And what place better to use this needle and thread than where the wind is most powerful?
She turns into the teeth of the pebbled air and begins to walk, thinking how she can bring him to the cliff, to the place of wind where their bond is strongest, that they might talk and feel each other’s company as they once did.
The little tree-dweller sits on the floor looking at him, then leaps, the green spark of its body landing at the edge of the hut’s entrance. He sees there is another there and props himself on an elbow, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
One is not uncommon, but two, and both sitting in the new light of the day, this is a thing he has not seen before.
The two frogs watch him from the entrance and as he rises, they leap out the door in unison.
He ties a cloth around his waist and steps forward into the light streaming through the doorway.
The two frogs sit together in the small clearing about his hut and then, as he steps through the doorway, begin to leap down the path leading from his dwelling to the cliff below.
The man begins to follow the two creatures, his curiosity piqued by their abnormal behavior. As he does so, the path he walks begins to shake the day-dust from images he walked in the land of dreams. Wind rising, its long body tying his own to another. Laughter. And the weight of a another’s body held up into its stream by his arms.
Morning light perforates the tunnel of vegetation before him, painting the dirt pathway in green shadow. It is a pathway that is full of the past. Saturated with the light and sounds of many days.
He knows it well and cannot help but see her little body running crookedly down it to the place where the wind gathers from all directions. A place so consistent in its motion that the mind and body are humbled and stilled, as if both, for a short time, share the breath and body of a vast and endless space. It surprises him that he has not come to this place yet to speak to her.
Her mind drifts, pushed up from the cold flesh of her body by the punishing pain that her backwards walking has caused.
From where she sits, legs crossed on the clifftop, her body’s repulsion is too strong, and she knows she can go no closer to her home. The energy of her spirit is so utterly spent that it is all she can do to sit in place and resist the nauseating pull of the path and portal.
Despite the saw-toothed push of the wind and the gut-wrench pull of the portal, she understands that these things are a necessary safeguard against those spirits of the dead who refuse to go and wish only to inhabit their bodies once again.
Without these forces to keep them from the madness of these spirit’s goals, the world of the living would be a land of horror, the people’s cord cut from the cycles of death and renewal.
Her spirit begins to drag towards the portal, and panic touches her mind. She plants her hands against the stone, knowing that she is spent, that she will not see her father again and that her message will not reach its destination. Despair fills her as she looks up into the path’s tunnel foliage. It is empty. Fatherless.
She does not look at the thing approaching at her back, but feels the heat of its nearness, the building electricity of collision.
She begins to relinquish her hold on the cliffside. The current that rages about her, demanding movement and the passage of her spirit, is warm and right. She squints into this building river of light that fills her with a great and comfortable weariness. It fills her bones with warm sand, and she begins to forget why she ever thought to walk against the path.
Looking to the pathway one final time, she pauses. A figure moves along the path, his gait familiar and his skin exhaling a light the color of oiled wood.
Struggling to rise, she feels a terrible weight as if she had just gathered jugs of water and they rest poled across her back, but she stands and steadies herself, the soles of her feet scraping against stone.
She looks over her shoulder at the thing that comes and draws what she can from it. The leviathan’s stink now clogs the air, and a fell chanting now comes with the wind, emanating from the searing timbers with their wet flame.
One final task before the release.
She must warn him.
The orb and corona of her father comes to stand beside her. She can see the cast of his stocky frame, the curve of his nose and deep-set eyes, though dimly, like a replica of the man made of sand or smoke.
She tries to focus on the wind, to pour her voice into it that he might hear even a whisper of her warning.
She focuses and throws her arms around his neck and does not cry for fear of the energy it will waste, so precious little has she left.
Into the wind she speaks all she can think to say, all the trembling details of the beast, its scales of silver, its unwashed stench, its hoofs of banded wood and bull shoulders hanging with the burning red timbers. She tells him of the hidden head and the carrion birds that orbit it.
She tells him also, at the end, that she misses him greatly. That he was all she could have ever wanted from a father, and that she would wait for him at the entrance to the next world.
She grips the earth with her toes, rooting herself to the place and against the portal’s pull, praying to all who would listen that he will reply and show some sign that he has heard her and will heed the warning.
After a time, he begins to speak.
He feels her now. Thinks he can feel the weight of her wiry arms. Closing his eyes, he pictures her as he saw her standing there less than an hour ago in his dream.
“I do not understand what holds you here, daughter, but I have to imagine that it is by your own will that you still stand the path. Please, continue on your way. To think of you in the place between words brings me great grief. I have seen you in my dreams. I think you wish to warn me of something, but it is not the place of the dead to warn the living. It warms me to think of you stubborn even in death, but you must go now, leave the problems of the living to the living. We all come to the same end, and then, what is worse than death? I will see you again, my daughter. Now give an old man some rest, and go.”
His cheeks are wet as he says these things, but he knows no better way to set her free, and so he stands and watches the rising sun.
She hears what she must from his words and knows them to be right. She turns from him to watch the approaching thing that is now shrouded in steam and clouds, but still she hears the slow thunder of its body moving through the storm, and still the red star of the cross about its neck burns and drips and murmurs, and she can see clearly now things emanating from where the leviathan’s hooves meet the water. Bodies. Thousands of bodies. More than she has ever seen gathered together in life. They fill the surf and pile on the beaches.
She thinks she recognizes some of them, while others are strangers.
She knows it is something they have never faced before, something that will change things beyond recognition.
Her task completed, she gives herself over to the river of light, her eyes tired as they have never been before, she is taken to the portal. She is washed from her bones.
Her father thinks he feels a different pressure, a breath within the wind, pass and go, and he hopes his words have reached her.
His eyes are fading and not as sharp as they once were, but as he turns to go, he pauses, squints, and wonders. Wonders at the three white scars that welt the horizon, sails bulging with the wind and moving slowly towards the shore.