I recently finished a short novel, along with a book of prose poems. And so, what better way to celebrate literary fiction and poetry than by posting a series of Sci-Fi stories over the next two months?
The one below, Tribute, came to me as an image in a dream. For the most part, whenever I try to transform dream imagery into a story, it doesn't work. This time, though, I woke up, put down the image, wrote the outline a couple days later, and the story was finished within a week. (That's rare for me. Usually short stories tend to take an inordinate amount of time from conception to finished product.) The story is about fate - among other things. I ended up liking this world so much that I wrote five more stories that take place on this particular planet, all featuring the desert carrion bird, the scoryax.
This story was first published in Interzone, the UK's longest running Sci-Fi magazine. The illustration below, by Richard Wagner, was featured with the story.
Mother told me that there is always a beginning before the one we believe came first. She said that before we were spinners of sun and dust, we were weavers of starlight and dust. Before that, we wove the black space between stars. How that is possible, I don’t know. She said she sometimes had quick flashes of memory from that time: when light was the same as song; and song a tunnel of gas creating space out of nothing...
None of it ever made any sense to me. How could it? This high cliff overlooking an endless plain is my beginning place. I was born here. Every day of my life I have looked down at the hundreds of journey shells scattered among the burrow brush: spiral towers of cartilage, hard as stone; unmoving, unmovable; beaten by the constant flying dust. What remains of my kin are inside those shells, dreaming their thousand year transformation. I cry out to them in my mind, but they do not answer. Can they hear me? I never knew any of them. Mother was the only one of my kind I ever knew. And she is gone.
At night, while the shadow lizards move among the rocks up here, scuttling crack to crack, I study the stars and try to imagine beginnings inside beginnings inside beginnings. It is easy to say but impossible to conjure in the mind. Mother said we came floating out of the night, onto this plain. Maybe the knowledge of our true beginnings comes after I dream my new body into being inside my journey shell.
Every morning I open the serrated edge of my mantle to the sun, swing it in an arc the way Mother showed me, gather in the flying dust, and mix it with my blood. I spin and I spin, but nothing ever comes of it. Is the heat of the sun meant to bake the dust and blood together, transform my outer flesh into shell? I don’t know. Nothing is known beyond her insistence that I always angle my mantle halfway between the horizon and the sun. “Always keep to the center between the two,” Mother said, over and over. I know now that she kept repeating the same things in her last year because she knew she would not be able to finish her teaching.
But there is so much I do not remember.
“Gather the sun and dust,” she said. “Turn...and the shell twists itself,” she said. She also said: “We are these beings and we are not these beings. We are our mantles, glistening with blood in the sun, drawing in dust, but the form keeps changing, always changing...”
What form my kind is destined to take after our dream is done inside the shell, I don’t know.
When she died, her great body slumped over the shell that was only half-completed around her, mantle stretched out in the dust. Her body was too great for me to move and so I stood vigil on this cliff for days, weeks; forced to watch her body rot. It didn’t take long for the scoryax to find her. At first, they came out of the sky in twos and threes, easy to chase off. But entire flocks followed and I couldn’t keep them off her.
How I hated them, still hate them...
This time, they say it was a beast, a great beast. Herders on the plain west of the city saw it emerge from a vortex of sun and dust (whatever that means). The beast made its way into the city and began rampaging through the streets, tearing people apart, smashing windows, doors, roaring like a sand storm. I was not in the city when it happened – I was at a retreat on Mount Uron in the Ephne Mountains – so I cannot comment on the accuracy of the reports. One thing cannot be denied: something terrible happened. I have seen the damage with my own eyes, heard the cries of those that lost loved ones.
This disaster could not have come at a worse time. The chancellor has always been weak, barely able to control his rival Nes Dānem – but now there is no stopping him. Dānem and his cousins on the council have turned the catastrophe in their favor, claiming the beast was an incarnation of Kaayem, the destroyer, the thousand armed god who is destined to eat the world at the end of days. They have pulled this Kaayem-god out of texts so ancient that even I have had trouble deciphering them.
Kaayem was supposedly worshiped during the first dark age of this city. Dānem and his kind now claim they are a part of a secret society, made up of certain ruling families, who have always sacrificed to this god. They have sacrificed to keep the city safe, they say. They have sacrificed for the greater good, they say. Ah, but now the story is that the worshipers have become too few in number and so cannot complete the amount of sacrifices needed each year to quell the god’s thirst for blood. Thus, Kaayem was forced to manifest, gather the proper tribute that has long been his due.
I keep telling the chancellor that this is an old, old tale; that the fear reigning after a catastrophe usually leads to repression, terror, lies. I talk and talk – to no avail.
Do I believe a beast actually rampaged through the western quadrant of the city? I have read things in the archives that are equally as incongruous, equally as absurd. In the third century of the Kores Era I found many reports of hundreds of thousands of horses stampeding across the eastern plains, from the Torrents to the Ephne Mountains. This happened long after horses were said to have died off. And after the stampede, no trace of the horses was ever seen again. In the second millennium of our own age there is a report of a rain of shadow lizards; lizard upon lizard falling from an empty sky, onto the roofs and streets of the city. And only last century, at the close of the period called Loura, also known by some scholars as the Age of True Sight, when scholarship and science reigned supreme, there were numerous reports of colored lights dancing in the sky to the north, dancing sometimes directly over the capital city, accompanied by the sound of distant voices, singing in a strange tongue. These examples are only a few of the many mysteries I have come across in my studies.
What to make of these strange accounts? They obviously cannot be corroborated, proved. What I find curious, though, is their frequency in the records. Their frequency is the only thing that has kept me from dismissing it all as the fancies of ancient, unenlightened scholarship; from a time when history was myth, flights of a wild imagination.
Still, despite our advances in science and true sight, I am willing to admit that there are many things in this world that the mind simply cannot fathom or explain. When encountering such mystery, I feel it’s important to simply let the story sink into the mind and leave it at that. What’s the point of judgment? Why jump to an immediate ‘yes, I believe’ or ‘no, that’s false’? It is like looking at the stars at night: we know how they exist – but why? Silence is the only answer sometimes.
Silence certainly helps to see the stars more clearly.
But my musings are from an older time. I have spent too long in these stacks, speaking with the dead. Out in the streets there is a frenzied desperation to find some solid explanation for the catastrophe. People want a cause, something to blame. They want protection from the chaos of the world.
There is no protection.
Beast or no beast, Dānem now has what he has always desired – a sure doorway to power. Can anyone else not see this? Sometimes I suspect that Dānem may have been responsible somehow for the catastrophe. He can’t possibly believe in Kaayam, can he? Kaayam piety is only about power. Dānem has always wanted the city in his fist. Why? I have never understood people who crave power. Maybe there’s something missing inside them, some hole they are seeking to fill. Does he think that if he has control of the city, he will eventually gain control over his own fear, maybe even over his own death? I have seen this sort of pattern before in the archives.
If Dānem succeeds in wresting control from the chancellor – and he will – these musings will be declared blasphemy. I have seen where Dānem’s lies lead: swarms of young men, marching through the street late at night, punching the air with their fists, shouting Kaayem’s name. I fear for all the lives to come, all the lives that will be wasted on the rack of fear, persecution, and blood sacrifice. It has happened before. It’s all in these archives: reports, files, journals, court narratives. It is the story of the great wheel, turning, ever turning...
I know I cannot stop it. But I will still try. How can I not?
Not long after the scoryax picked Mother clean, the new creatures appeared. They came out of the south, out of the sun and dust, at dawn. That first time I was too fascinated to be scared, watching them cross the plain towards my cliff dwelling. There were three of them that first time; one large, two small. But even the large one was no bigger than the size I must have been was when I was born.
Was it an adult and two children of their kind? I do not know.
They entered a canyon to the west. I waited in the heat and glare, abandoning my daily attempt at turning around the center to gather sun and dust, desperate for another glimpse of the creatures. The hours flew by as I tried to imagine what they were, what their purpose here was, and if they were working their way up through the canyons to my cliff top dwelling. Did they know I was here? If they approached me, what would I do? At sundown I sighted only one, the large one, heading back out onto the plain, and watched him disappear into the mirage of heat rippling off the valley floor. Two had been left behind. What were they doing right now?
There was fear. There was exhilaration.
At twilight, under the cover of shadows, I climbed down off the mesa, made my way into the canyon they had entered. It had been a long time since I’d ventured off the mesa (Not since Mother had died – and so, in the dim light, I kept mistaking boulders and spikes of stone for her body.) I found the two left behind curled against each other. They were strangely shaped, and small, so small, smaller than I had imagined; the size of shadow lizards straight out of the shell. And yet their eyes were like Mother’s, like mine.
One of them made a sound. Nothing in my life had prepared me for that sound. A terror swept through me. And sorrow. I tried to speak with them. I asked them who they were, why they were there, but when I did they both cried out. The pain waking off their cries was so overwhelming, I fled. Back up to the mesa. The seven moons swung back and forth across the horizon, stars appeared, and I did not know what to do.
Was this pain their language? It tore my nerves, bringing me back to the day Mother died. It was as if they were calling up Mother’s death, drawing it out of the surrounding boulders, the burrow brush. What were they trying to say to me? Were they telling me in their own language the story of Mother’s death? But they were not there. I was there.
I slept and dreamt of Mother. She was trying to speak to me, from out on the plain, shimmering in a mirage of heat. I moved across the desert floor as fast as I could, but the faster I moved, the faster she receded, always keeping the same distance away. What was she saying? Was she telling me the secret of how to create my journey shell? Eventually the sound changed, barely audible through the wind and dust, into the language of the tiny creatures speaking in their pain-tongue. I woke, went to the edge of the cliff.
“Stop!” I screamed. “You must stop!”
Who was I speaking to?
Had the creatures given me the dream? The next morning I went back into the canyon to plead with them to leave, to return to where they came from, that this was not the place for them; that their presence, their language, was interfering with my ability to remember how to make the journey shell.
They were dead.
Had they come here to die?
Later in the morning, the scoryax came. I could see them spinning above the canyon from my perch atop the mesa, next to the ruins of Mother’s shell. The shadow lizards would wait until the birds had had their fill, then pick at what was left of the carcasses.
When I mastered the courage to return to the canyon, the creatures were nothing but cartilage; white cartilage against red sand. What had they been trying to say to me? How am I to know? I have been left with so little. Would Mother have known what to do with them? She never mentioned these creatures. She only talked about the stars, the space between the stars.
I am Lont The Ferryman. I have been entrusted with ferrying the tribute through the spinning dust and light of Beauty’s Door to Kaayem’s Realm for the past thirty two years. To my sorrow, this is the last time I will perform the holy service. It is not my decision. I do not want to retire. I have not yet had the privilege of looking upon the face of God, and this pains me. Why He has hidden himself away from me all these years, I do not know.
The way of God is the way of mystery.
For two hundred years – ever since the coming of Kaayem in the form of a beast – Ferrymen have crossed to the other side with tribute children. There were some Ferrymen that never returned. And there were some who returned five, ten years after they walked through Beauty’s Door, claiming to only have been gone a day. Many of the devoted saw this as a punishment of some kind, retribution for some ritual not performed correctly on the other side. But was it? It could be that Kaayem extended their life out of gratitude.
The way of God is the way of mystery.
There have been some Ferrymen who crossed over who claimed to have seen His Beauteous True Face, and so became sanctified, attained sainthood. Stone busts of these saints line the corridor to the first Kaayem shrine inside the city council chambers. Lying awake in my cell, the night after my last journey to the other side, I slipped into sacrilege, wondering – were some of them lying? Were they all lying?
When you pass through Beauty’s Door there is nothing but a roar of spinning dust, sand tearing at your skin, a blinding flash, and then you appear on a plain that closely resembles the plain west of the city. But it is not the same plain. This plain is scattered with huge structures, their symmetry resembling nothing so much as giant sea shells – the same smooth twists, striated with various shades of brown and red – casting long menacing shadows. I have often wondered: are they tombs, or are they eggs? I have believed them to be one, then the other; but lately, I have come to see them as both at the same time.
Are they the progeny of Kaayem? Can God have progeny? There is no God but Kaayem. Mysteries.
It is a long walk across the plain, through the blinding dust, through a maze of low lying shrubs – black-leaved, black-thorned – towards the Place of Beauty Rites deep inside a box canyon. The children cling to my robe, wince in the whirlwind, and I struggle with them, around the deadly shrubs, across the plain.
The Place of Beauty Rites is a barren place: boulders, rock walls, and bones; the bones of all the children given to Kaayem. The children do not struggle, they never struggle; they sleepwalk across the plain because they have mercifully been given a sedative before we crossed over, during the final ablutions in the council chambers. At the Place of Beauty Rites I give the children their last drink of water. This water is drugged, too, putting the children into a final sleep. After they close their eyes, I intone the catechism into the flying dust, then depart, working my way back across the plain to Beauty’s Door, and through.
When during all of this does one have time to see the face of God? (And yet, there has been a smell sometimes, a smell like the sea. Is this the smell of God? Does he lurk nearby when I am intoning His Name, watching me? Can God have a smell of the sea?) So no, I have never seen the face of God. But I have consistently done my duty. I have nothing to recriminate myself for. I have lived a holy life.
Can a man really survive the face of God?
The council has been impatient for me to see the face of God. Belief in the sanctity of the city council is faltering. They need a Ferryman to bring back news of a holy terror, a beauteous terror, seconds away from destroying the city again. I tell them that there is nothing I can do. Would they like me to lie that I’ve seen His True Face?
I look into their faces and know that they do.
They claim to be privileged with special knowledge given to them by Kaayem Himself – that their will is the will of God – but I know the truth. I am a Ferryman. I travel between worlds. I worship the One True God, not the will of the council. No member of the council has been to the other side. The council members are council members only because of their wealth, nothing more. That, of course, is an ancient story.
Kaayem doesn’t care about wealth. I and I alone, for the last thirty two years, have brought Him what He truly desires. I have experienced the terror of crossing over. I have done this ten times. What do the councilors know of terror? What do they know of the questions that ring through the body of every Ferryman every time we cross over: Will I return? If I return, will I return in my own time? Will Kaayem take me into his realm this time, devour me? This terror has strengthened me.
What do they know of sorrow? I am the one who looks into the eyes of the children as their eyelids flicker and drop. This sorrow has strengthened me.
What do they truly know of ritual? I am the one who intones the catechetical in the flying dust: “In the year 12,841, out of the sun and dust a beast appeared, wearing the bones of our children...and this God was Kaayem...bathing us in blood, revealing our ignorance, prophesying the end...in order to lead us to the worship of the one God, Kaayem...”
What does the council know of any of this? The councilors are children. Let them do what they will. I will not lie for them. I know the truth: that we are all Kaayem’s tears.
How long have I been going through the motions, swinging my mantle in an arc under the brilliant sun, catching the dust, mingling it with blood, and weaving nothing? I am still naked, ignorant; and tired. No shell, no knowledge, no hope. And all the while, they come and they come, leaving their small ones to die in the same barren canyon below. Then they sneak back across the plain – furtive, fearful creatures – fleeing into the sun and dust.
I used to believe there was a purpose to all things. Mother spoke of our journey, weaving the black space between stars, building fires in the void; how we were the shapers, the weavers, creating patterns. I would look up into the night sky and see how I was a part of everything. And I would stare over the cliff edge of this mesa and see meaning in the great spiral sweeps of the journey shells scattered across the plain.
But now I know there is no purpose, no meaning, in anything. There is only the cartilage of the dead creatures lying in the canyon below, bleaching in the sun.
For so long, I have been descending into that canyon, desperate to speak with the creatures left behind, to find out what they want, why they come here, what it has to do with me. But the stench of their terror has never abated and quickly drives me away. “Why did they leave you here?” I shout at them as I flee. “Why do they keep bringing your kind here?” They have the same eyes as mine, so why can’t they see this is a place of death?
Mother said the great shells on the plain are places of birth, of beginning. But I have been here so long and nothing has changed. Those shells will always remain silent, as the stars remain silent. There is no communication between the stars and this canyon. There has never been any communication between me and the tiny creatures that are left to die in the canyon below. They scream and scream and then they finally close their eyes and sleep and dream. Their dreams follow me all the way back up to the mesa top, filling the night around me: images of blood-hungry creatures hunting, hunting, desperately hungry for something they can never have; afraid of death, worshiping death. So many menacing shadows, so much fear. After one or two nights, the dreams finally dissolve and I know the creatures are dead.
When I return, I always find their bodies entwined. Was it a comfort to have someone there to hold in the final moments? What difference did it make? They died and their deaths are as purposeless as mine will be. Oh, Mother, I am tired, so tired. I know now I will never weave a journey shell because there never was a shell to weave. My body is growing older and older, getting slower, and yet I have no more knowledge than I did when you died. I am a child in an adult body.
And these shells, these towers out on the plain, what are they really? A beautiful story told to give me hope, to help me continue. But it was a lie, wasn’t it? There is only the void.
There is nothing left for me here now, Mother, and so today I braved the canyon and scraped the children’s cartilage off the sand, brought them up here and began to weave blood and dust and cartilage. I cannot weave a shell, Mother, but I can weave a hard skin out of the remnants of these sad creatures. Tomorrow, at dawn, I will travel out to the place of flashing sun and spinning dust, and follow the blood-hungry creatures back to their terrible world. And I will make them suffer for what they have done.
There is no purpose…and so I will create my own…