Prologue: The Merchant

The true prologue to the Crossroads story I begin writing a long time ago and then took offline. The plot and characters of that novella are much more fleshed out now, though it remains to be seen how much of it will end up on here.

Thago is burning.  The river is burning.  The Floating God is burning.  It began with unrest, an uprising among the slaves of the lower barges, made perilous by an attack by the servants of the Two-Eared Crown.  Coincidence, surely.  So the magisters and princes must have thought.  Coincidence, perhaps, they would take to their grave.  But the Merchant knows this was not coincidence.  It was fire, built and kindled and sparked by singed, practiced hands, spread by design and the carelessness of those who saw coincidence in such things.  And now Thago is burning.

With this certainty, the Merchant finds himself in the plaza before the palace which was once a temple.  The northern and eastern launches have been blockaded; the bridge to the trade barges is ablaze, and the flames now lick the palace’s western walls.  The southern dock below swarms with the enemy, and above, the Riversworn guard their trapped princes, awaiting reinforcement that will not arrive in time, hopefully and foolishly unaware that their only path out is through the force massing beneath them.  The Merchant draws his sword and locks his shield to his arm.  His task is impossible but clear: He must somehow give them enough time.

Five race up the steps now.  They are scouts meant to reconnoiter, but they charge anyway, seeing only the Merchant in their path.  Their spears stall upon his shield, and he dispatches them quickly.  One tumbles down the steps, two die to his blade, two are pushed from the plaza to the churned water fifty feet below.  One will drown, the Merchant knows.  The other will be rescued by his countrymen.  But there is little time to dwell on either fate, for a much larger host of soldiers has begun its determined ascent.

Many fall before him–seven more are hurled into the water, fifteen bleed out there on the plaza, nine thrown down the steps collide with eleven climbing, and two more collapse, skulls fractured by the spur of the Merchant’s shield–but the number on the plaza with him continues to grow.  He is driven back to the palace entryway, certainty resolving that his vain gift is reaching its limits.  Then the soldiers fall back.  They open a wide circle as a silhouette crests the stairway behind them.

The Merchant recognizes this one, recognizes the tattered regalia, the scar over his broken nose, the long knife set ablaze by magical gifts twirling in his hand.  This is Brother’s general, the one called Ignigoet, Pyrotechnic of the Left Hand.  It is betrayal then.  The Merchant suppresses a roar and hurls himself at the smirking man.

Their engagement is swift and brutal.  Ignigoet parries the first thrust, catching the Merchant’s shield with his offhand.  They separate.  Ignigoet throws a barrage of knives into the Merchant’s shield.  Then the flames upon them detonate, and the Merchant is scorched and sprawling, and time has run out.

He dimly notices the knife cut his throat as he stares up at the plumes of smoke in the night sky.  The general kneels over him, but the smirk is gone.  His face is impassive, and the burning eyes therein do not belong to Selenus Ignigoet.  The Merchant realizes too late that this is no betrayal at all.

And then he is gone.

Top Image: From Stories, by Rae Johnson

The Thing in the Woods

A rare piece of standalone short fiction.

Art by Tomislav Jagnjic. Yes, all of these titles are real. - Album on Imgur

One day I went wandering, and as the sun got low in the sky, and the clouds turned stormy over my head, I found myself at the edge of the woods.  In clear need of shelter and with no means to build my own, I ventured in.  The dark had only just fallen when I was beset upon by wolves.  They ran me down and bit into my flesh and tore my bleeding corpse apart.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

I returned to the forest’s edge, armed with wits and weapons, and when night fell, and the wolves again approached my camp, I shot the first of them dead, ending the chase before it began.

“You will come no closer!” I shouted after the remainder, confident I was heard, for I felt then the woods’ countless eyes upon me.  Alas, one pair of those eyes belonged to a brown bear, which wandered, hungry, into my campsite, undeterred by my shouts and gesticulations.  My first shot barely wounded it, and I did not get another.  It mangled my shoulder with a swipe of its claw and, biting into my chest, slammed me into a tree until my skull shattered.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

When next I returned to those woods, I brought with me others as eager as I to conquer the brutality of that place.  We came well-prepared with tools and traps and, of course, our firepower, and on account of our numbers–or perhaps the noise we made in our conversation or careless trudging–the wolves did not bother us at all.  It was not until the third night that we came upon another bear, its leg caught in one of the traps we had cunningly placed at the perimeter of our day’s patrol.  Incensed by pain, the beast attempted to charge us, but restrained as it was, it perished in a hail of bullets before crossing even half the way.

My companions and I were in good spirits then, for we had conquered the monster.  The things in the woods–we believed–were no longer any threat to us.  But come morning, we realized a new worry: In our trek into this place, we had taken scant inventory of the movements of the sun above, for it had been obscured by branches and far from the forefront of our minds.  We had little idea of where we were, and there, three days’ journey of indeterminate direction into the undergrowth, we had little idea of how to return.  Moreover, as the days passed, as our aimless wandering brought us no closer to anything we’d seen before, it began to grow colder, and the number of beasts about seemed to dwindle.  And as our supplies grew sparse and our worries thrived, I began to feel more and more as if I were being watched.

It was not an animal–of that I was sure–for I had grown cognizant of the ways in which their presences intruded upon ours.  Rather, it seemed as if the forest itself was watching, laughing, licking its thorny lips in anticipation of the fate which imminently awaited our arrogance.  Such a fate did seem to be waiting, after all: It seemed we would likely starve and succumb to the cold within the week.

I did not starve, though.  Instead, I awoke one night to my companion standing over me, hefting an axe and grinning madly.

“We’re all just animals, aren’t we?  Eating to survive?” he cried out, as much to himself as to me, and brought the axe down.  Not exactly an illuminating thought, I noted as my head split open.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

While I had been glad of my companions in my previous life, it was clear to me that in difficult times, their presence would turn to liability.  So the next time I ventured into the woods, I did so alone, seeking not to conquer their brutality but, rather, their austerity.

Searching closely this time among the boughs and brush for floral details my foregone predatory inclinations might have overlooked, I came upon a bush laden with red berries which were tart to the taste.  I tasted them, then ate my fill, satisfied with my find, but that night I found my bowels so inflamed that when the wolves came, I could scarcely defend myself, and they feasted happily on my viscera.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

Subsequently, I avoided those berries, but, determined to find some sort of sustenance that might supplement my stores in the colder months, I continued to seek out the marginalia which I had previously ignored, accumulating a wide variety of brown mushrooms, white mushrooms, black mushrooms, herbs, fruits, roots, and saps, nearly all of which–I discovered over as many lifetimes–brought about my death in some fashion.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

Much time thereafter, having amassed some knowledge–still hardly sufficient–of survival in those woods, I found myself despairing of my mission, for I could see only more death resulting from further effort.  It was in this state that I spotted, between the thick branches which saturated the forest’s depths, a small shack, firelight in its window and smoke rising from its chimney in tentative wisps.  Bewildered but heartened by the discovery, I approached and rapped on the door.  A disheveled woman answered.

“I beg you: help me,” I said.  “I have searched many years and paid uncountable cost with precious little to show for it.”

“Why do you search?” she asked.  Her face was dull.  Her eyes were wild.  I told her:

“I seek the wisdom to conquer this place.”

“Hmph,” she grunted.  “You are not of this place, then, are you?”

Not waiting for an answer, she invited me in and gave me a bowl of stew which I found hearty and pleasant, though I did not recognize the roots and meats therein.

“It is clear you know much of these woods,” I said.  “Would you do me the kindness of sharing what you have learned?”

“I know these woods.  I fear these woods.  I am a creature of these woods,” she replied.  “I inhabit the shadows between the trees.  I fear those shadows.  I recoil from them in awe and horror.  But you have been away too long, and you have forgotten what casts them.”

“I am not afraid of the dark!” I protested.  “I merely wish to be prepared for what stalks it.”  She cackled:

“You should fear it!  You stalk the dark–you are a beast!  The beasts that survive learn to fear!”

At this, I began to notice a blackening at the edge of my vision and a sharp pain in my stomach, and the old woman donned a crown of bone and antlers which, I realized, had hung on her wall since I entered.  Unable to move, I could only watch as she drew a knife and carved my heart from my chest, and in that moment, I felt what I imagined was an inkling of the horror she had described.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

I reentered the woods immediately, retracing my steps through the brush with new fervor.  It felt then like anger, perhaps righteous indignation that the hag should so betray a traveler seeking aid, but I still retained enough presence to recognize the unsettled, writhing terror beneath it.  The poison and bones and antlers, the darkness that surrounded the woman had rattled me, and I was driven now to respond in the only way I knew.  I came again upon the witch’s shack and crashed through her door and battered her skull to a pulp with the butt of my rifle, and then, my racing heart assuaged that the threat had receded, I went about gathering what I had come for.

I scoured her shelves for wisdom in whatever form: parchments, recipes, jars of ingredients wet and dry that I might recognize, memorize, harness.  I found it, so very much of it, and I spent what felt like lifetimes there in that shack, absorbing what the old woman had been.  I brewed her potions and cooked her stews, and when I had no more of her ingredients left, I went out and gathered them anew, each from a dark and invariably unsettling place.  A day arrived when I sat in that ragged cabin, harrowed and manic and at last satisfied that I had conquered the fierce shadows of those woods, and on that day, I was shaken to attention by a hammering at my door.

I opened it to find an unruly mob, stereotyped to the last man with torches and pitchforks, who wasted no time on pleasantries and attempted immediately to force their way through.  Holding them back for only a moment, I beheld the contents of my shack in the woods–the scattered parchments, the cauldron bubbling with flesh lumps of unsavory origin, the string of dried human hearts I had “gathered” in my most recent foray outside, and, of course, the seven-foot-tall man with the head of a deer who had been with me since I came to this place–and realization overtook me.

“Perhaps I let this all go too far,” I remarked to the deer-headed man as the mob finally overpowered me and burst through the door.  They tied a noose around my neck and dragged me outside.  The deer-headed man followed.

“I think not,” he called after me, a hollow, guttural echo reverberating between the trees.  “You did not go far at all.  You simply fell into a trap.”

As a woman tied my rope taut to a branch, I called back:

“Are you actually talking to me?  Do deer throats even make those sounds?”  I saw him shrug, but at that moment the woman kicked the block out from under my feet, and the snap of my neck cut the conversation short.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

When next I came upon the forest’s edge, I paused, reflecting on the traps I had stumbled upon in my past lives.  Behind me in the light, humanity had spread fearless and far, erecting towers of metal and stone, and now there was little left beside the metropolis, its controlled, sub-rural gaps, and, of course, the woods, still dark, inexorable, frighteningly constant and yet faded, it seemed, from every human attention but mine.  I was still drawn there, but it occurred to me that the injury which so drove me before now barely ached.  Once I had thought to prove myself better than this place, but now, my inferiority a foregone conclusion, I found myself at the edge of the woods all the same.

I was afraid, I realized.  Afraid, of course, of the woods, that I should enter and again be so thoroughly consumed, but that fear which so struck me then lay not before me.  It was behind me, what I fled, the metropolis, the sterile nauseam of “progress” shepherded by system, by vast presences of voltage and industry which needed no longer hide in the shadows between the trees.  They hungered like the woods, would gladly swallow me if I stepped back through their shining gates, but I knew that if I decided to fight back, to rebuff the paper teeth that gnawed my soul, those presences would vanish into aether, and the only blood on my fists would be that of people, innocent of–incapable of understanding–the horrors they comprised.

The presence between the trees, though, offered me a certain courtesy.  It offered me an opponent.

“Escape to the Great Outdoors!” blared a sanitized imitation of a woman’s voice, resonating, discordant, across the woods’ threshold, distorted by trees and what sounded like rattling, corroded tin.  “Exclusive Travel Packages Available Today!”

I was of course uninterested in such an offer, but I had a notion that, in actuality, none was being made to me.  Intrigued, I crossed into the trees.  It was not long before I came upon a clearing, and at its center I found the source of the strange advertisement.

Standing there in the afternoon sun, motionless but hunched, as if paused, hesitating before its next step in a hopeless shuffle forward, was a bizarre and uncanny creature.  It loomed over me, fifteen, perhaps twenty feet tall, with a body resembling an emaciated–perhaps mummified–corpse, overgrown and infested with roots, branches, debris, and a winding, itinerant thread of barbed wire.  The corpse-giant had no head, but where its neck ought to have been, a metal pole jutted from its flesh, wreathed by two strands of electrical cable.  Atop the pole, the wires attached to a pair of siren horns, fastened at asymmetrical heights over the creature’s left and right shoulders.  Its stance was wide, no doubt due to the precarious balance offered by its semi-skeletal legs, and its arms hung lifeless in front of it.

It stood oblique to me, “facing” the woods to my left, but though I found its countenance quite unsettling and feared the consequence of making myself known, I could not help but query:

“Didn’t I read about you on the internet?  You’re someone’s scary story!  You’re a product of civilization!  Why are you out here in the woods?”  With a screech of feedback, the creature’s sirens blared to life.

“Face your fears for a better life!” imported the static-ridden voice of a hip-and-with-it everyman.  “Ask your doctor if Phobilify is right for you!”  Then, with a shudder, the creature turned to face me, taking three halting–and yet somehow violent–steps.  I stared into its faceless, industrial visage, curiosity only barely overcoming my terror, and considered whether I ought to turn and run.

The reaction which instead emerged from my gut was a hysterical giggle, which I quickly suppressed, clamping a hand over my mouth.  But the thought behind it remained: It was ridiculous, wasn’t it?  I knew these woods, knew to fear them, knew that to face them risked my life and my sanity.  I could lie.  I could admit to an astounding lapse in judgment which brought me here, face to face with the darkness in its own home.  But I would not.  I knew, this time, I would not.  I wanted to gaze into the darkness, to see in it not the meaningless void which humanity saw in the woods but something else–something shifting and unknowable–which I hoped, with all I was, still lived in my own heart as well.

And it was funny!  This electo-cryptid before me, this thousandth face of the ineffable thing in the woods, sounding its mockeries, its empty calls for monetizable attention–it was laughing!  And I had a sense, a hopeful suspicion, that it was laughing with me and not at me.

So I stood there, defiant, terrified, giggling, as the siren-headed thing lurched, seized me in its dry, slender fingers, crushed my ribcage in its grip, and though I died, defeated utterly once again by this thing that lived here in the woods, I realized amidst the rush of air from my chest that, somehow, I no longer felt trapped.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

It was many years before I again spoke with the thing in the woods, though in that time my demeanor toward it softened.  I did not abandon my forays beyond civilization; rather, I renewed my vigor, seeking with every opportunity the uneasy solitude I found among the trees, tolerating–or perhaps embracing–the uncertainty of survival which came with it.  I had cultivated a healthy awe for the forces whose sway I navigated there and a healthy fear for the gaze I felt upon me in the night, but even so I was surprised to eventually find others like myself in that place.  We were few, and it took years–lifetimes, even–for us to find communion there, but I was not alone.  There were rare others who found that strange comfort in the unknown’s hungry embrace, who were as well deeply unsettled by the monolithic indifference offered by their fellow men amidst the cities and the streets.  

Together, we were resilient to the forest’s caprice, and in time, we ceased departing it altogether.  We found a clearing–perhaps the same clearing where I had perished to the siren-headed beast, though I could not be certain–and built a town, snug amidst the trees, and we thrived there, going about our lives–and the lives after those and the lives after those–until one day, a man strode in from the woods, hefting a shabby briefcase up to my doorstep.  His breath smelled of charcoal, his shoes worn but uncannily pristine, his perfectly greased hair clashing nauseously with the threadbare, burgundy suit hanging loose on his frame.  He was a traveling salesman, he explained.

“Traveling from where?” I asked.

“Oh, ya’know, hereabouts, thereabouts.  Th’important thing’s what I’m bringin’ to ya, though!”  He knelt and balanced the case on his knee, undoing the clasps as he flashed his plastic smile, and just then, behind his dead eyes, I saw something writhe.  I knew what would be in the case.  I knew it would be like a faraway shelter, simple, familiar in its use, eerily out of place.  It would have some hidden, darker side, a sordid history perhaps, or an old, dusty curse of which the salesman would relay only the slightest rumor.  It would compel me to cling to it, press past the ill fortune it would seem to bring until, finally, the mystery of its existence dangling, tantalizing before me, I would be devoured.  I would almost certainly die, I knew, but it would not be before I tasted the narcotic brine of the unknown, the fear, the horrible something which I had always truly sought.

I knew what would be offered, so I met the man’s stare, looked past him, gazed again upon the thing in the woods whose shadow twisted behind his eyes.  And with the case’s last clasp still fastened, I preempted:

“I’ll take it.”

Top Image: yo bro is it safe down there in the woods? yeah man it’s cool, by Tomislav Jagnjic. I do not own it.

Purchase a Little Piece of Suffering Today!

Coming from here

This is so much later than “this week”, but testing shipping took a hot minute. While work is ongoing on literally everything, we’ve set up a shop! Offerings are limited right now, though we’re working to set up more soon. But still, if you’d like to buy a print and support our work, we’d be very grateful.

Shells of Dead Things

This past weekend, I visited my parents, and in keeping with ritual, timeworn in the considerable period since I left home, I picked up another box of childhood possessions needing allocation between the designations of “keepsake” and “trash”.  In it this time, I found a boardgame, a pre-production copy given to me by its designer (my high-school girlfriend’s father) at around the time of its retail release.  It was a spiny memory, hence my writing about it now.

If the game were a seashell, it would be an unremarkable one, chipped, dull mottled white and brown.  It was a physically clever design, but when all was said and done, it was just a limited set of sudoku puzzles, rendered in three-dimensional, physical space for reasons that I’m not entirely sure were thought out.  Predictably, it had little appeal to the sudoku demographic, and as far as I can tell, there is no longer any way to acquire it.  Like a seashell, it’s just detritus now, washed up on a beach, ejected entirely from its medium of existence.

Also like a seashell, it remains as a reminder of something no longer here.  Game project failures are a dime a dozen–even the best developers have tons of them–but this man never got another shot.  If memory serves, within a year of giving me this gift, his cancer returned from a ten-year remission and took him from his family and whatever projects he might have intended as a second swing.  There’s a true but tired moral here of how life (and its grim consequence) will relentlessly fuck with our best laid plans, but what I felt as I picked up that game was just a strange, calm shiver, a slimy, ephemeral thing crawling up from the sea to remind me that the shell I hold is important, that it once meant something.  

The meaning there is not the same as the moral, and of course it’s difficult to parse.  But even though I can look down at the sand and see the horizon of shells, stark, white, legion at the water’s edge, I know the apparition isn’t wrong.  This one did once mean something, and my own unique ability to remember it suggests it’s worth keeping.

Humanity’s Eyes, Part 4

Continued from here. This will be the final part–I will post a unified version (like I did for the LaSein Account) soon.

I lived in the wet

For a long time

This odd striving place

Where things kept growing

I learned the humans were burning down the last bits of the forest

Hacking off the trunks and limbs of the trees

Killing the furry people who hid behind them

They were very harsh these humans

It was no matter to me

I did not depend upon the trees

I buried myself in the sand and the dirt

The drying of the forest felt good on my thick and chitinous skin

I could smell the humans, the fuzzy creatures, or my marked

From far away. I remained out of sight

Anytime I wanted I could kill a human or two

When they were particularly lingering or loud

The humans cut down the entire the forest some years in

All of the creatures that lived in the trees were dead

My marked humans began to leave

Walking up the mountain, where their scent eventually disappeared

They left me

In this moist and dirty place

And I started to reflect

Upon my life

The old man

And the little girl with the emerald eye

Maybe I had wanted too much from her

From all of them

Though, I don’t know if I had ever wanted anything 

Survival maybe

Gifts maybe

To be seen, to be near

I saw in myself for the first time a sort of softness

Beneath my now granite-like hide

I understood I really did like loving them

My former little group of marked humans

The girl

And love was what it was.

I started to take care of little creatures I found

Letting them live in my hide

Providing them little goodies, food bits, bugs I found

I enjoyed these little creatures scurrying all over my body

Then the mountain came crumpling inward

Like a strange earthquake

A horrifying sight

Dust billowing everywhere

Moaning and twisting of rock

The tops of the peaks came below the clouds

And beneath the clouds they shined like gold

I smelled smells I had never smelled before, along with metal and fresh growing plants.

There was much blood then

Those next days

I smelled much blood

And the tang, the sour taste of magic being cast

Me and my little creatures waited

Burrowing in the sands

Eating, avoiding

Living as we did.

Then I smelled my marked

The ones that had left me so long ago

Sand Lips. But not Sand Lips. A child maybe that had grown

And the unknown scent of something.  Several things, living, but mysterious.

The humans now crowded the top of the mountain

And my marked were walking down

down into the desert

Deep into the heat, the land of no water, 

the land of the dry, the beautifully dry

I walked towards them

These marked and the mysterious others

Me and my creatures were going back to the land of the hot

My true home

And I gave these new creatures little gifts

Just as the girl had done for me

I watched over them.

Not a part of them, but near them

A demon

A crag

A landmass

Sharing its home

Humanity’s Eyes, Part 3

Continued from here.

As the sun grew hotter the days grew longer

The earth became drier

Fewer and fewer plants grew up in the damned wastes that were my home

My odd little collection 

Of marked up little humans

Was suffering

Their people, the older ones, but not too old

Would go further and further into the wastes

Hoping to find and bring back a large cactus

Or find a small pool of water

Or a beast whose blood they could drink

Some of them got hurt when one of those beasts found them instead

The next days I noticed they were packing

Gathering together their little makeshift homes of canvas and bone

Loading them on sleds

They were leaving me

This land of sand and sun

Leaving this waterless pit

As they left, they left behind a final bowl for me

A final farewell of types I supposed

My shovel-like fingers took up the offering and it crunched in my teeth

I felt alone

For the first time in a long time

I wished for their odd presence near me

I missed the giggling screams of their children

Missed the strange noises they made at night

Missed their footprints in the sand

So I followed them

Their stench was lingering long in the desert

Clear tracks.

I didn’t wish them to notice me following them

I don’t know why I cared

But I wished to remain a secret

My long legs and massive arms easily moved through the desert 

I followed them many nights

Just past the point of sight, a day away, no more no less.

The ground became thicker

Moister

Dirt

The bugs were different and disgustingly plentiful

Every little nook and cranny of earth seemed to have a bug inside

It seemed grotesque

My little pack of marked humans came 

To a partially burned forest

With a mountain in the middle that stretched into a thick layer of clouds

And a massive human settlement

that stank like a decaying corpse

Full of humans

Normal humans

The kind covered in crunchy metal and hateful looks

I stayed away from this human settlement

And found the first pool of water I had ever seen since I was a child

A small puddle and I saw my face

Spikes were ripping out of my carapace in hellish angles

My deep seated eyes were even darker yellow than I recalled

My snout was sharply pointed and looked almost like a beak

I was so caught by the look on my face

The look of my face

The look of me

I did not notice the human until they screamed

I turned towards them

They were a quarter my height

An eighth my width

Built like a tree where I was a mountain

They threw a spear at me

Like I was a dog to be killed

They pulled out a small sword and screamed in rage

Their spear hit my outer carapace

Jammed inside

Stuck like a twig

They ran at me with their sword

I lifted my thick shovel like hands

Their sword bit into my wide and hardened fingers

Their sword got stuck in me

They looked down in shock

Up in fear

My hands crumpled around them

Squishing this human’s meat

Pressing their limbs into their body

Picking them up 

I held them in the air, immobile, helpless

Thinking of squishing the blood from their meat

But I instead I held them in front of my flat yellow eyes

They asked me what I was

I said I was the crag

They spoke strange

Bouncy and fluid

But a sound I oddly did not fully hate anymore

They asked me if I would kill them

I looked at their pulpy limbs

Soft squishy face, tears at the brim of their eyes

I said no

If

I looked at the human 

Told him the name Sand Lips

Confusion covered their face

But also recognition

I told them to ensure Sand Lips was safe

Along with the little ones Sand Lips kept

I told them to ensure these marked were safe

Or I would smell their scent 

And I would kill them as prey in the night.

I breathed deep into this human, learned his smell

I stared into their eyes and asked if they accepted the terms of my agreement

He said yes. The fear in his eyes was fresh, moist, and sweet.

I dropped him 

He ran.  

I smiled. 

I had no more hate for humans.  

They were small and afraid.

As they should be.

Part 4 here.

Humanity’s Eyes, Part 2

Continued from here. As before, by Leland.

The next many years were long and harsh

They were also lonely, but I had no idea what that meant at the time

In the beginning I was like a piece of sand.

I blew from place to place

I felt nothing on my insides.

I ate

I drank

I killed

I moved

Life was a never ending cycle of survival

Though my body continued to morph and change

My chitinous ledges grew larger

My fingers grew thicker and harder

I could tear out huge piles of dusty earth

And suck out the soft crunchy creatures that burrowed beneath

I was a moving land mass.

Not a monster

A thing

An object

My hate roiled inside of me

But without eyes watching me

Reinforcing that hate

It began to bake into my bones

But the eyes

The eyes of my mother

Of the only girl to give me a gift

And the smell of that lock of her hair

Was still fresh every time I remembered

I would cringe in those times.

As the years wore on that pain stayed true.

I avoided the smell of humanity

That would drift in with the dusty blasts of air sometimes

I preferred my thick and rigid solitude

As I roamed one day I smelled blood 

Fresh blood

Active blood

Human blood.

I sat on my haunches. Staring into the far setting sun.

I decided to pay back the one act of kindness I had received

And walked towards the blood.

The sun had almost set by the time I descended upon the moving human

One of the grit, the marked, the human rejects I had been raised with, was sliding in the sand.

Legs inert and twitching behind them

Blood staining the sand as they moved.

They had a fierce and hard look in their eyes, dust embedded in their teeth.

They first felt my shadow land upon them

They looked at me

A moving mountain

With my fetid yellow eyes

They showed fear on their face.  Or maybe acceptance.  Maybe denial

Something firm and unrelenting.

I spoke the language of the desert to them.

The words sounded odd and strange in my mouth

They were shocked I could speak

And relieved. 

They said their name was Sand Lips

And they needed to send a message

That the Mukori were coming

To kill the Kamai

Their exhaustion took them

And they fell into the sand.

I looked at the grit. The marked and scarred human. Helpless.  Desperate. Clinging to life over some words they claimed needed to be heard

Heard by someone human.

I stared at this breathing corpse for a while

Thinking of this message

The Mukori, the Kamai, Sand Lips

Names felt strange in the desert

I was a demon, a mountain, a pair of yellow eyes

Sand Lips.

Sand Lips.

I hated names.

I hated these monikers of humanity

I hated them in my ears

In my throat 

Along my tongue

I pounded the desert

Threw a massive boulder, 

Flung a mountain of sand

Trying to throw it out of me

But it was stuck. 

These names 

These filthy human names.

The desert could not take them from me.

For the desert was no home for humans.

Only those filthy human camps could take these names

I screamed

A sound so loud the sky quaked

And the moon cried

I lifted the filthy human over my back

Limp and helpless

A sack of barely breathing meat and pus

I moved my body weight forward

Let my legs press against the earth under me

I loped

Towards the humans

The sickening smell of the humans

I saw their little fires in the distance

The ground under me flew

The cool wind whipped into my eyes

The earth stretched and narrowed and the fires grew larger

I came to the fires, the humans all around, all marked, all cut, all children of the grit.

I crashed into their makeshift home

This little gathering of scarred humans

Humans that were so small

Looking up in terror

Shear terror

I was still a demon 

And they had no idea what I was here to collect

I put down the limp sack of meat from my shoulder

And I spoke those pus-riddled human words

The Mukori, the Kamai, Sand Lips

Told them they would die.

An old human came out

Thanked me

Whatever that meant

Said they knew not who I was

Said they had not seen one of my kind for a long time

My kind

My… kind

Tears began to leak from me

The elder lifted a bowl up to me

Some sticky nectar of the cactus fruit

I ate the bowl.

This was the second human to ever give me a gift

I left

Went back to the dark

To the desert

The sand and the rocks

The moon and the sun

The bugs and the earth

But I continued to smell these humans

And I did not go far.

More humans came

Clanking humans

Loud humans

Humans laden with the pungent, sour smell of relics

I killed these humans, before they could see me, before their eyes could look at me in disgust

Like a pack of bugs they crunched in my teeth

I Split them in half

Popped them like flies

I left them dead there.

They were too loud.

Entitled, angry, and hellishly human. 

Their trinkets smelled sweet

And I ate them 

They powdered in my teeth

Leaving my mouth sour and salivating for days

I decided this part of the desert was mine

And these cut and marked humans

The ones with the sand lips

Could stay in my piece of the desert

And stay they did

Leaving little bowls of cactus nectar out for me

I felt a touch soft towards them

Like a favored rock or time of the day

I would not choose their death

And they grew older and smaller

And I grew larger and larger

Part 3 here.

Humanity’s Eyes

A poem by Leland for Rale.

When I was born I was betrayed

My mother tried to kill me

For I was born wrong

Sickness marked me all over

I was a cur a curse a wanton filth

She thought a kindness was death

She threw me to the desert

But the desert men found me

Took me and raised me

As a second hand slave I was raised

A child of rejection and poverty and begging for scraps

I ran between the stalls of the desert men, not unhuman enough to kill, not human enough to love

We roamed through the desert

I stayed mostly with the children of the grit

Marred and scarred and blackened and raw they would not hit me

As I got older, the sickness that flaked my skin grew harder and tougher

Stranger by far, long thorns grew from me, and my eyes became a fetid yellow

I began to be called the demon.  The demon they whispered, no longer in contempt, but also in fear.

As my muscles grew thick and crusted like a humanoid crab, my eyes began to wander

I hated the world as the world had hated me

But there was one little girl who treated me with kindness

The daughter of the leader of the desert men

The daughter of their sultan

She was a kind girl with a horrible scar on her face from an injury from when she was a baby

She had one eye that was emerald green

She placed bowls of water out at night

I knew they were meant for me

Her emerald eye reminded me of the eyes of my mother

I felt that my mother had killed herself and she had been reborn, 

Now she was here to take care of me like she never had before

I got older and older and I never stopped growing

The other boys stopped growing, but five years later, they stood at my shoulder

Then they stood at my chest

Then they stood at half my height

The fear in the desert men’s eyes grew

Their deep religious belief in the martyr was being pushed

They began to talk about the “Demon among them”

I watched the little girl grow up.

She was beautiful

And kind.

Long brown hair and that emerald eye

My mother’s eye

She started to leave food behind with the water, and flowers, and then a lock of her hair.

I kissed it and nuzzled it and tried to breathe it inside of me

And I would watch her from the corners of my eyes.

As I roamed through the tent filled trading stalls, resting on my knuckles, clawing into the dirt with my back feet.

She came one night

And touched my face

Not afraid.  Not like the others.

She held my face that night

And she cried 

Her one eye pouring sweet and salty tears onto my mountainous, grotesque frame.

The people came the next night.

Her father came the next night

The torches came the next night

They told me to leave.

They pointed towards the desert

The said go anywhere but here.

My humanity had run up in their eyes

They owed me nothing

The savior owed me nothing.

I crawled into the desert

The aching moon at my back

The harsh sun on my face.

I walked through the desert, lumbering like a barge as the heat cracked my skin like stone

I licked rocks for water

I smelled foul nests of bugs using my strange and sensitive nose

I ate the creatures

While I thought of her

My mother reborn who abandoned me again.

As I walked into the heat of the sands

And the ice cold nights

I realized I was never human.

And I no longer wanted to be.

Part 2 here.

Top image: “Hazeen’s Man of the Clouds”, by Rae Johnson

The Nicholas

April 2, 1920  

It was a clear morning off the New England coast–approaching the southerly latitudes of Maine, if memory serves–and though the waves were calm, April’s lingering chill had yet to pass on, crawling, it seemed, up the sides of my boat, around my ankles and settling uncomfortably, like some odious shawl, about my shoulders.  I had sailed north only recently, having spent the winter fishing down in the Gulf, and the swift return to my summer grounds–premature, for a bout of restlessness I now vehemently cursed–had left me as yet poorly acclimated to the northern spring and robbed of any enthusiasm for the productive use of my location.  In my shivering solitude that morning I had cast two lines, and though I’d gotten bites on neither, I was having difficulty mustering the will to bait a third.  I recall it was in that fraught quiescence that I took notice of the irregularity surfacing some forty yards off the port bow.

To my first glance it seemed like jetsam or some other detritus, having the texture of maritime vehicularity without a form I could identify as any particular boat, but as more of the mass emerged above the waves, my befuddlement became something more akin to awe.  My previous confusion in identifying the object, it seemed, had lay in my assumption that its form would be singular when, in fact, it was comprised of numerous vessels and the pieces thereof.  Before me were hulls of dinghies, canoes, fishing boats, shattered boards and beams lashed haphazardly against great sheets of black rubber in a jumbled ellipsoid that, from far off, might have been mistaken for the carcass of some colossal leviathan.  For all the strangeness, though, of this great, nautical garbage heap, I still found myself ill-prepared for the sign that then surfaced on its carapace–glowing red neon, proclaiming it to be The Nicholas–or the concrete suburban front porch, flanked by flaccid strands of potted seaweed, which emerged beneath it.  Even as the door of the porch slammed open, and a ragged man stepped out and hurled a bucket of something foul into the ocean between us, I could only stare, speechless.  Ultimately, it was he who called out to me:

“Aye, laddie!  Watsonismouth?!”

I shook myself awake.  Being then unable to place either the man’s accent or the meaning of his query, I called out as much and motored over on the supposition that proximity might serve to make better order of the situation.

He clarified as I drew closer: “Sonny, let meh ask ya ferst: What’s in ya mouth?”  I might have guessed his previous call had been delivered in some dialect of the British Isles, but now his accent had drifted westward, seeming suddenly more appropriate for a denizen of the Carribean (and, I will admit, suggesting an origin I would never have guessed from his appearance).  Beyond the vagaries of his delivery, though, I was also rather bewildered as to the substance of his inquiry.  My mouth was quite empty, for though I normally partook of a smoke at this hour, I had dropped my pipe somewhere on the deck, amidst the shock of his vessel’s emergence, and had since lost track of it.  I indicated as much to him in my reply.

“No, son,” he clarified in an abrupt Mississippi drawl.  “It’s a mattah of circumnavigation.  We’s tryin’ to get at what’s in ‘eez maouth, an if yer knowin’ what’s in yer maouth, then that’s a tack on the chart, ‘cause what’s in yer maouth properly ain’t in ‘eez maouth, ya see?”

I did not.  I inquired–skeptically, for I was growing increasingly certain that this man was in something of an unpredictable state–as to whose mouth we were investigating.

“Not whosemaouth, son.  ‘Eezmaouth.  Like beezmaouth, if’n ya know the rock, ‘cept withaout that certification of a job done at the utmost pinnacle o’mediocrity.”

The conversation had, at this point, attained the clarity of a bayou, and my only remaining answer was a blank stare.  He shook his head sadly.

“It iss clear to me”–his accent was now that of the Mexican fishermen I’d dealt with so frequently in the Gulf–”dett we fall on fundamentally different sides.  No matter.  Diss iss not a sorpraiss.  Do you haf any feesh?”

Alas, I did not have much in the way of a catch.  I’d trawled no nets since arriving up north, and I’d no plans to do so for a few days yet.  I had a pair of mackerel I’d caught the previous day, but that was it, I told him.

“Oh, don’tcha know dere’s nuttin’ to be ashamed of, young feller.  I’m just lookin’ for a bite ta’eat is all.”

It sounded like Upper Midwest to me.  Minnesotan, perhaps?  It also occurred to me that despite the man’s graying, unkempt beard and repeated references to me as a young man, he did appear, in all other respects, to be at least twenty years my junior.  Befuddled, still, but acclimating to the ersatz temperature of the conversation, I offered him one of my mackerel, which he eagerly accepted, biting–rather aggressively–into the fish’s flesh right there on his vessel’s concrete gangway.  Then, shouting something about “makin’ you rich” through a full mouth and what sounded like an American’s (decidedly poor) impression of an Australian accent, he dashed back through his door, leaving me to the continued ponderance of the monument to madness which was The Nicholas.

In his absence, I began to notice a number of unsettling details lodged in the crevices of its unsound construction: Marionettes, features scrubbed clean by brine, dangled among the mishmash of hulls and rubber, alongside inscriptions and engravings in those surfaces in alphabets I did not recognize even from Dr. Sterling’s texts on the Oriental scripts.  Place to place, I could see protrusions from the rubber that looked like the spiraled horns of narwhals, and just past the threshold of the vessel’s “front door,” I saw hanging vines and foliage as if within were some dark jungle separated by unnatural, great distances from the semi-boreal sea where we drifted that morning in truth.  These items were, of course, in no way sinister, and I had no means of rationally justifying the fear for my soul which I felt there, in silent anticipation of the man’s return, except, perhaps, for the vessel’s unignorable suggestion to me that rationality had ceased, in this circumstance, to be a meaningful boundary.  However, my fear passed unactualized, and the man soon returned, heaving over to me a bulky canvas sack.

“My recommendation,” he said to me, all pretense of brogue or twang gone from his voice, “is that you bring that to an office of the United States Navy.  They will pay you for it.  Or pay you to keep quiet.  Or both.  Please pass on that it arrives to them courtesy of Captain Kneecap.”

With that, he disappeared back across his threshold, and, his door scarcely closed, The Nicholas dropped rapidly beneath the waves, the shock of which rocked my own boat violently.  Once I steadied myself, both physically as well as from the emotional disturbance of “Captain Kneecap’s” presence, I examined the contents of his gift to me.

Inside was something I found appalling, though not to the exception of an urge to examine its nature.  It was a body, headless, human-shaped, though clearly not human, for it was comprised not of flesh but of some metallic substance resembling steel but impossibly light for its bulk.  Between its noticeably elongated fingers and toes was webbing of a material I could not identify, and though they had been torn from it, I saw sheared joints on its arms, legs, and spine where fins might have once attached.

I did not know what to make of the corpse-mannequin, but if the Captain’s words were to be taken with even the slightest skepticism, there was nothing there for me to glean.  I was to be an intermediary in a conversation to which I desired precisely no connection.  Though I hesitated at the thought of the Captain’s promised riches passed over, I threw that “gift” back into the ocean that day.  The Nicholas was perhaps not the strangest thing I have ever seen upon the water, but I hope all the same that I never see her or the Captain Kneecap again.