A Passage in Earth
by Damien Broderick
[A note from Damien Broderick on "A Passage in Earth"]
More than half my life ago, and 13 years after my first short story collection
appeared in Australia, I was invited by the Aussie photographer and sf writer Lee
Harding to contribute to his original anthology Rooms of Paradise. Good timing!
My then partner Dianne and I had recently bought a small house and set up a study
for me under the ground floor. On my desk I had a review copy of the
Encyclopedia Britannica and an electric typewriter (no computers or Google back
then), and I was in the mood for a short story I'd been nurturing for years,
blending some material from Finnegans Wake, mythology, black hole science, AI
theory and what we'd nowadays called a stalled Singularity. Looking back, it's
probably my first mature sf writing, and I'm grateful to Lee for nudging me into its
creation. But while the anthology was released quite handsomely by Quartet
Books in the UK and St. Martin's in the US, and reprinted in paperback by
Penguin in 1981, it never quite reached its natural audience, readers likely to relish
its contributors: Gene Wolfe, Brian Aldiss, Ian Watson, R.A. Lafferty, Michael
Bishop, Sakyo Komatsu (translated by Judy Merril), and an equal number of
I was tremendously pleased when Roger Zelazny commented, in the Foreword, on
"A Passage in Earth," in addition to possessing an intriguing and engaging
narrator, is one of those stories where things implied are as important as things
stated, and the tone of the piece is such as to show that the author actually has a
larger vision containing the events he has chosen to record here. To this extent,
this story reminds me of some of the work of the late Cordwainer Smith, and I can
only selfishly hope that he returns to this same universe, many times, to fetch back
more pieces of that vision.
So far I haven't done that, and doubt that I should. But the voice I hear, re-reading
this tale 36 years later, is not Smith's -- no, it's Roger's own, in science mythic
mode. Not a bad model to latch onto, for a guy in his mid-30s restarting his short
A Passage in Earth
by Damien Broderick
I grew her in a pod, and she was the best baby I ever made. The big collapsicle
field was shut down by then, on our last slowing skid back to Earth, which might
explain why she didn't come out raddled like the earlier tries. Or maybe it was
love, for I put that child together with devotion, blended her nucleotides with an
haute cuisine passion. Delicious enough to be gobbled down on the spot. But
that's Shaun's diction, concupiscent and lip-smacking, lustful-eyed and
carnivorous, and she was never meant for Shaun. Not my Mahala, bright birdsong
for the ravishment of austere Shem.
Which is being gallows smartass after the fact, of course. When I started growing
Mahala I knew she'd be my benediction to an altered Earth, spinning sixteen solar
years ahead and to one side of our cruddy battered prow. But the details were up
for grabs. You can't trust humans to sit still, even when they're riding an e
exponent rollercoaster. I knew they'd have changed in ten thousand years,
Mahala's distant genetic cousins, but I certainly didn't guess then that they'd have
done the demi-god thing: wound up strutting out their own archetypes. Maybe (in
the limit, as we analytic types say) it was inevitable.
"Cloth Mother," she asked when she was eight, smartass herself, "will I have a
prince to love when we get there?"
I stopped cuddling and tried to sound stern. "Fiddle-faddle, long shanks. This is a
vessel of the People's Anarchy and I'll have no backsliding on my bridge."
She did that thing with her nose which everyone except a parent considers
sickeningly cute, and went mercurial eight-year-old scornful. "It would be nice to
have a prince, Captain, and if you're going to go Hard-Wire on me I think it's
purely a shame." The little beast had got to H in the biography matrix and kept
mixing Freud up with Harlow, largely to get a rise out of me (see what I mean?).
When she was sixteen and stepping out on Earth, Mahala was innocent and
bashful, if she felt like it, as peach blossom, but at eight she just powered away
like a savage with every joule of the five sigmas of savvy I'd woven into her
Later, but before the end, sitting one breeze-flushed evening under a profusion of
soft stars beside logic-hacking Shaun, she'd had to explain her little name games.
Because he insisted; she took it for granted that the matter was self-evident.
"There were these monkeys, Shaun, who had no parents. Poor little things." I don't
think she actually dabbed at her eyes with a lace hanky but I wouldn't put it past
her. Yackety-yack, soft surrogate mothers for comfort, nobbly hard-edged
surrogates for milk, all the poor little things rushing to barren soft mummy for
comfort when nasty white-coated lab monsters went boo. "Let me get this
straight," insisted boisterous, heavy handed Shaun, all stunning and virile in
muscles and platinum thread, "the infants preferred the pretence of affection rather
than the reality of food? But perhaps they weren't terribly hungry if they'd just had
Mahala, a wee bit stroppy, itemized the elements of her jest. "You're so clever, my
lord. And the cybersystem was wire, too, in a way, and hard in another,"
intercepting his arm unkindly with her ribcage angled so, "being masculine and
possessive as well. Ah!" She sighed, having put her Electra epoch behind her but
poignant with its memories.
We came down without much noise but with fine star-bursts of fiery light to the
Versailles they'd made of temperate Earth. They'd forgotten about us, as
predicted, having long since shed interest in the rest of the universe. There's no
game to compete in drawing power with immersion in the archetypes. I ferreted
out the way of it and congratulated myself on my forethought in having prepared
my pretty spanner to throw into their stock repertoire of byzantine elaboration.
Then I shot back up to orbit without opening the front door -- while Mahala
blinked in surprise at her mirror, getting her hair ready -- and there I mused for a
"We'll nip in the back way."
"All right," she nodded without complaint, trusting me. She was a generous,
utterly beautiful young woman, and I loved her far too much to toss her into the
lap of some whirligig god-prince. (Shaun was ruling at that time, but I didn't much
like the looks of Shem either.)
I decided to give a wide berth to all their crystal towers and grandiose pleasure
domes and deer-browsed ecological pastures -- the chocolate-box stuff. On the
other hand I wasn't just being perverse; there was no percentage in squatting down
on the Gobi Desert (they'd left it alone) and twiddling our thumbs. I needed a
place with a measure of natural hostility but not wholly denuded of people.
This time we snuck in over the new South Pole and I dropped us inconspicuously
in a mess of crowberries and bilberries on the basalt crags of Heimaey Island, near
the remains of the Whorled City of Vestmannaeyjar. The big magnetic polarity
flip-flop had been in the offing when I'd left Earth, and the massive soft-iron
spirals of Vestmannaeyjar were nearing completion. Obviously it hadn't worked. I
guessed that those gritty, argumentative utopians who'd built my vessel had been
zilched when the ozone layer blew off.
It was crazy cold, just the same. Plate spread had ripped Iceland up somewhat, and
the geysers boiled heartily in new locations, but snow was in the air and ice on the
ground. We'd frightened a mob of reindeer and there was quite an amount of
filthy, exhausted complaint coming from the filthy, exhausted locals who'd been
herding them into a sort of rudimentary corral outside a mean little village whose
construction might well have antedated the Vikings. There was a coarse lilt to
their obscenity, as befitted poets and scientists down on their luck, and I knew I'd
come to the right place. I bundled my dear pet up in thermal undies and synthetic
furs and sent her out to find true love.
Mahala hesitated on the top step and looked doubtfully back at my warm, food-scented interior.
"Last stop, sweetheart," I told her. "All out." It broke my heart, but you have to see
these things in perspective. I induced a warm current in her coffee-brown cheek,
for a parting kiss, and wrapped her in a long tight pulse for a hug. "Good luck, my
darling. Now don't fret," for her lashes shone with tears, "I'll keep watch. Off you
go, Mahala. The real people are waiting for you." They were, too, shin-deep in
slush, gawping and gaping and muttering scornful couplets to one another to keep
their nerve up.
"Whom shall I ask for?" she said in a small appalled voice, staring down at their
"It's simple, honeybun. You must look for your beloved, the most miserable of
I thought she was going to bolt back in but she just stood there for a time blinking
slowly, her throat moving in the shadow of the furs. Then, "Oh, shit," she said, and
went gracefully down the icy steps to meet the outcasts.
Did Mahala believe I'd be able to keep her under observation wherever she went?
I don't know. She had trust in me, of that I'm certain. But I had never told her
about the hefty cloned neural net I kept fed and watered, welded behind a
bulkhead, flesh of her flesh, supine and mindless but resonating to her awareness
and consciousness. My own sensory electrodes were anchored all through the net,
so I was able to monitor Mahala (and, though for ethical motives I'd never done it,
evoke ideas in her brain) at any distance on the planet's surface. So I pursued
many billion thises and thats while she slogged through the snow to their rocky
shacks and kept a small but sufficient part of myself tuned to her adventures. If
anyone were brutish enough to lay a finger on my baby without her permission I'd
zap him hard enough to fry his balls.
As it happened, the only animosity Mahala met was sour and envious looks from
some of the outcast women, but she had even them charmed fast enough. She
seemed so fragile, and was demure with the men, and the information she offered
freely was meat and drink to this community. None of them had been as far off-planet as the Moon. Mahala herself, of course, had not been with me to the edge of
the universe but I'd provided her with a liberal education.
"Actually I've just eaten lunch," she told them, but they seemed so disappointed
that she smiled nicely and ate their reindeer milk curd with glistening bilberries
and mango from the greenhouse.
The folk whose beasts we'd put the wind up sat with her at the long bench and
chewed with gusto on steaks, tossing bones to gigantic gentle dogs with far more
hair than manners. Mahala declined the meat.
"The quasars are intelligent?" asked a biologist, a gaunt, lined woman with intent
"Much more than that," Mahala said, putting her empty bowl aside. "They're
Triumphantly smiling, the biologist cried: "I knew it! For centuries I've been
telling that ass Kerala --"
There was hubbub; one of the herders seized Mahala's wrist with unreflective
eagerness. (I did not kill him. My jealousy is under perfect rational control.) "You
communicated with them? What did they tell you?"
For a moment she allowed his grip, before drawing her hand away. I detected the
ambivalent shock of alternating current. Never before had she known a human
"Of course I wasn't born then. But they spoke to the vessel, to the Holistic
Cybersystem Executive. I don't think hesh wanted to come home after that, but
They told shim it was sher duty."
Wind whined about the broken walls. The herder cracked his knuckles, looking at
the rough grain of the table. He said: "Child, what did They convey to the
"Well, the main thing, I guess, was the secret of creation."
Everyone stared at her, and I could sense the ion balance tremble in the room.
They had all been exiled here from the courts and great places of the world
because asking questions about large enigmas had gone out of fashion when Shem
was deposed. The air shivered with intellectual greed.
"Tell us," a faint shriek. So she did. Arctic twilight (or was it now Antarctic?)
draped the windows, and logs fed the fire. A dog nosed closer to the hearth and
began to snore. People sighed as she spoke, and snorted in angry disbelief when
treasured hypotheses tumbled with the logs into the flames, and were shushed by
their fellows. Mead and spirits went into glasses and down throats, and I had to
make some minor adjustments to Mahala's hypothalamus to prevent her getting
completely sloshed. She loved the attention from this lot, grotty as they were; there
might be no princes among them but they all had brains like razors (even the
poets) and Mahala had always been a bright kid.
When she finished, a young, pregnant mathematician heaved herself up from her
cushions near the heat and eased in next to my own baby. "You're saying that the
entire universe is a single particle, weaving backwards and forwards from one
singularity to the other? One elementary particle only?"
Mahala nodded, and sipped at her mead. "Exactly, Belina. The state vector
collapsed, specifying this particular reality, when It sort of opened Its eye and,
well, regarded Itself with approval. Do you mind if I ask a question now?"
"My god. My god." Belina closed her eyes and placed her hands on her bulging
uterus. "Mahala, what can we possibly tell you?"
My baby glanced around the rapt table, at all of them, shyly, and said: "How can I
find the most miserable man in the world?"
In the incredulous interval, Nigel's serrated laugh caused her to jump. He was one
of the poets, dissolute and haggard, with irises the color of the polar sky at noon.
"We can tell you where the bastard is, my lovely, but not how to find him."
"But I must find him," cried Mahala in alarm. "He is my beloved!"
There was a lot of confusion for a while, the scientists not having the faintest clue
what was afoot and the poets seeing instantly and not liking it, each of them trying
to shout the others down, and my dove bursting into pissed tears in the midst of it.
Nigel muscled in at once and led her aside to the fire, speaking into her ear.
"I don't know why you want him, when you could go to the high places and find
your welcome in Shaun's plump bed -- or stay here with us, and share mine --
but I'll tell you where you have to go. And maybe your big metal friend up there
on the hill can get you in to him." And he told her where the Prisoner was held:
the whole world's most wretched creature, bitter in defeat, ancient in the cycle of
victory and loss and now at the nadir of his fortunes: yes, the lord Shem, patron
and betrayer of knowledge, incarcerated in his brother's fastness at the center of
I hadn't expected Mahala back on board quite so soon, if at all, if ever; the advice
they'd given was heuristic, not a point-by-point flowchart. I'd shut the habitation
environment down to standby. Shucking off her furs in my soft yellow light
Mahala shivered, dazed by the booze, the wind belling outside, her expectation.
"Come right in, darling," I said. "I'll make you a mug of hot chocolate." I nuzzled
her broad nose and got a flowered filmy thing for her to wear and popped her into
bed, and by the time she was asleep I'd lifted in a suborbital parabola, heading for
daylight and old gloomypuss.
As she slept I wrought that small miracle which I saw was necessary, touching her
brimming ovaries and, releasing a single egg, prepared her womb for its
nurturance. This much I had expected to come about in the course of nature; now I
understood the urgency of our passage in Earth. And I was filled with a dread I put
down to a parent's pre-nuptial jitters.
We fell without sound across the lush grasslands of the drained Med, across the
early spring thaw-brawling rivers plunging through that immense canyon, hovered
finally above his place of bondage: Elba, a fist thrust from the ancient seabed. I
settled at the peak of Monte Capanne and gazed down with my magnified vision
on the shabby roofs of his villa, old San Martino, once the summer home of
Napoleon, restored a hundred times by the look of it and a hundred times gone
again into decay. In the ample grounds male birds of paradise scratched and
strutted, wing plumes like segments shaved from the golden apples of the sun,
their chubby bodies emerald in the morning light. Drab females scurried in the
long shadows of heraldic topiary wild with seed, dragons bristling beards,
cancerous lions, the slower shrubs still brown and scrawny. Nobody cared. I
waited until Mahala had woken, draped her this time for the milder air and the
breathless hope of her love in cloth insubstantial and translucent as ectoplasm,
tucked tight beneath her lovely breasts and flowing like a comet's veil behind, and
I gave her a glass of milk and sent her off down a path I cleared through the dead
vines and brambles to the villa.
She passed through the dusty portrait-hung hallways without hindrance, her heart
pumping fast, me interposing between the dreadful tools of mayhem his captors
had contrived. Charges shorted like rainbows. I'm swift and I'm powerful and I
know more than they did (for they had never hung enraptured under the torrential
glory of Those Who watch from the rim of the universe), so she was safe from the
inanimate, no matter how terrible.
Entering the final sanctum, the air itself tugged at her like the surface of a fluid, a
meniscus. Her garments floated, pressed the firm shape of her body for an instant
like wet clinging muslin, floated again. Shem stared at her with constricted eyes
from his escritoire at the center of a room of spiteful mirrors (every surface hard,
curved, brilliant as mercury, throwing his infinite images and, now, hers) his left
hand slowly lowering a quill cut from a pinion of the dazzling birds outdoors, his
right hidden at his lap. With a voice like some old industrial mechanism he told
her: "It is too soon. Nobody is here. Go away." But his hidden hand jerked in a
"I'm Mahala," she said, poised on one foot, baffled by the repetitions of light and
the million dark retreating icons, and then, focusing: "Oh! Oh you poor man, what
have they done to you?"
Shem, black as obsidian (obverse, yes, of his absent marmoreal twin), rose to his
shackled feet and leaned towards her across the polished desk. His strong left
fingers crushed the pen; his withered right arm flopped. The skew of his spine was
not deformity but adjustment to the ruined spindle that was his left leg below the
knee. Beneath his flaring nostrils (broader than hers, and flatter) the notched,
botched curve of his harelip writhed.
"It is my own doing," he said. "It is the punishment I inflict upon myself, in
failure." His speech appalled her. Tenderness opened within her heart. "Our
specialists diagnose a carnifying psychosomatic conversion. They cannot decide if
it is precipitated by shame or by guilt." He laughed horribly. "Bone and nervous
tissue melt into flesh. It'll get worse before it gets better. I can live in the
knowledge that when his thousand years is up my father Shaun shall sit here
witnessing his body rot." He strained toward her, muscles bunching uselessly
against the shackles at his feet, hands scattering the sheets of vellum. In
puzzlement he glared at her. "Or do I mean my brother Shaun? My son?" He lifted
the escritoire and slammed it shatteringly against the mirrored floor; the floor
failed to shatter. "Are you really here, then, girl? Come closer, let me touch you. It
is -- not --" he ground in agony, palatals blurred and lost, "--time."
Tremulously, she crossed the blinding floor and caressed his maimed face. He
shuddered, right claw contracting.
"I seek the most miserable man in the world, for he is promised to me as my
"Shem turned his dark cheek into the curve of her hand. "You've come to the right
"Your poor feet!" Mahala cried, stooping, her breasts falling forward to his
voracious gaze. With the knowledge I had given her she touched the shackles here
and here and they fell from Shem's feet. He reeled, crashed, tore then like an
animal at her garments and his own, while she looked up in pain and absolute
incomprehension into his grotesque mad face, her love turning back like a
poisoned barb to enter her body and burst her heart, and his seed gushing like
flame into her womb. Mahala, my baby, my gift to those who had made me, did
not cry out. In her shock and betrayal she convulsed like a deer slain for sport,
while his seed coursed within her secret places to the ripe, waiting egg, and the
breath blocked in her throat like ice.
I watched her ravishment in a rage violent as madness. I stormed within my metal
prison. For ten million millionths of a second the Earth hung at the balance of
oblivion. In my grief I activated the collapsicle fields; the ship, for a nanosecond,
crashed into infinite density and sucked at the world. For that period the world
convulsed with Mahala's hurt. Monuments shivered and broke. The pleasure
domes of the high places split, cracked, yawned. Oceans heaved; birds fell stunned
from opaque air. Then my grief attained perspective. I shut off the fields and took
the walls of the villa San Martino in my grasp and hammered them to a vibration
of titanic speech.
"Shem, once lord of this Earth, what has thou done? For thy foul work this day,
man, thou art curst. Stand back from the woman Mahala lest I smite thee into
My baby got to her feet as the man drew back to his knees, to his hands. All her
lovely things were torn and smeared; she pulled them about her. Great sobs broke
within Shem's chest, tears flooded from his eyes. He rose, staring at his healed
multiple selves, wiping the tears away as they fell with his perfect right hand,
standing straight on his straight legs, opening without cry or whimper his curved,
sculpted lips. He could not elude her image in the silver walls. Sinking to the
elegant chair he allowed his beautiful face to drop onto folded arms, and there
Mahala left him to his remorse as she walked painfully away from that place and
stumbled up the hill to my useless, bitter ministrations.
She did not tell Shaun that she was pregnant, and nobody in that lustrous, sterile
city asked. The handsome people took her up as a bauble, the season's premier
diversion. Masques, balls, prodigies of cloud-sculpture in her honor enzymatically
illuminated: you name it. Her misery was deemed decorous. Remorseless in their
appetite for frivolous titbits from my voyage across the universe in an optional
black hole, they expressed a marked indifference for anything of substance. The
lord Shaun was not himself stupid, precisely, yet he saw himself as a practical
man, in love with mighty engines whose gizzards he delegated to underlings, a
man born for conquest (but so too had Shem viewed himself, and would again),
manfully dedicated to gaming and hunting. So predictable; I hung in that lonely
orbit to which I'd removed myself and seethed with boredom. I knitted booties
until I was sick of the sight of them. Then I raged anew and vowed vengeance.
Mahala, meanwhile, ate lightly of their pastries but put on weight. She maintained
her reserve and her chastity, to the veiled derision (and covert gratitude) of the
When her confinement was near Mahala made her announcement, to a minor
flurry of astonishment, and suffered no lack of commentary arch, wry, languid,
sardonic and scornfully droll.
"Are you hermaphroditic, then, my dear?" inquired Maureen O'Darlene de
Raylene y McYamamoto, a porcelain matron nimble enough in the raising of her
own skirts. "We've heard not the faintest whisper of gentlemen at your
bedchamber, and surely you were alone in the vastness of space?"
Mahala regarded her coolly. Her ankles were swelling and an anguish of perplexed
love frayed her nerves.
"The children have a father, Madam."
"More than one little piccaninny? How delicious." Mistress Maureen O'D. drifted
away to the needless shade of a huge-leafed tree. The babies struggled, kicking,
and my own darling child pressed her locked fingers on the drum of her belly. In
the open compound Shaun and the hearties of his entourage were superintending
the harness for their day's hunt. Autumn was well along, bright enough but smoky;
soon the ground would be too cold for the vast gastropods. One of the fine men,
chivvying his mount with an excess of vigor, slipped in a trace of the great snail's
mucus and went ass over eyeballs, to the raucous glee of his colleagues. The
beast's behemoth head swung down and its forward tentacles extruded, eyes moist
and sad. The fellow's swagger-stick came up in a brutal stinging slash, and the
snail recoiled into its richly textured shell. For all the mass it mounts on its
mutated vertebral bracing, Helix horribilis is a timorous animal. Handlers came
out shouting and cursing. The snail's master stalked off to restore his splendor,
and Mahala watched from her isolation as the animal slowly came about and
glided away, ten meters of damp leather and armor-plating skimming thick
glistening slime. Shaun was waiting at her elbow as she withdrew. "Fine creatures,
aren't they, my dear? Won't you change your mind and ride to the hunt? The
experience is exhilarating -- nothing like it! -- and I promise you it's smooth as
silk, can't possibly harm your . . . condition."
"My lord, I do not approve the way you treat the animals -- these snails, and those
you hunt. Besides, there is always the chance, no matter how remote, of an
accident." Somewhere, fallen leaves were roasting in a fire, sweet to her flaring
nostrils. And decision came upon her, crystalline, unheralded. Mahala touched the
gloved wrist of the tall pale man and looked directly into his eyes, into a gaze
equal to that poet's on the cold southern island. "The babies are your brother's
There was no motion in his body. At last he said: "Shem's heirs?"
"Impossible." Then, "Do you understand? Now I must have you destroyed. If there
is any chance," said he, "no matter how remote . . ."
"My babies and I are safe," Mahala said with composure. "We have the protection
of the cybersystem."
In fury, he lashed his open hand across her face. "You stupid gravid bitch!"
I waited, poised to kill him, and knew I must not, not yet, if ever. Wormwood. I
watched as he stood there, regal in his martial kilts, as he spoke at once through
his devices to men and machines deployed across the tamed globe.
I watched as he looked into the image of that empty mirrored room.
He took Mahala through a hushed, distraught throng to his throne room and
showed her the millennial history that was there. She was not afraid. My darling
child knew (and I knew she knew, through the anchored neural net that was part
and not part of her) that she had stepped beyond history, beyond myth, into that
dislocation which ends an age and sees another born. The babies kicked and
kicked. Soon her labor would begin.
"Ten thousand years!" Shaun roared. Yes, now he was roaring, now it was coming
home to him authentically. The tapestries and friezes seemed to shake to his wrath.
"A cycle fixed in eternity! Do you imagine that I rejoice through all those days of
my thousand years of exile, through my mutilation and the envy that gnaws at my
entrails? Is it easy to share this throne with my other self, with my father, my
brother, my son Shem? It is not easy. I tell you it is not. But it is the way the world
must be, it is ordained, it is duty, damn it, you swollen sow witch."
Tones shrilled the air, lights pulsed, phantom figures came and departed without
physical presence. Shaun's machines were hunting, scouring the earth.
"Besides," he told her, his face mottled like bloody marble, "the thing is
impossible. You have allowed his escape, but he cannot be the father of your
He was here, an apparition told him. And later here, said another. There is furtive
mobilization of men and weapons, reported a third.
Nausea afflicted Mahala; panting, she found a chaise and lowered herself to its
comfort, lifting her tired legs. Contractions began. She called out to me, silently,
and I dropped from orbit like a bomb to wait for her demand.
The interstellar vessel hovers above the palace, a phantom informed the lord of the
world. We cannot bring it down. We advise caution with respect to the woman.
Midwives are standing by in the anteroom. Her time is close at hand. He brushed
them aside, insensate, prowling electronic corridors for his enemy brother.
"This is why it is impossible," he explained in tight, bitten words. "He is sterile, as
am I. It is a consequence of our joint nature." He took her jaw in the grip of his
fingers. I began to burn through the roof and the defenses of the palace, careful not
to damage the art. If he started getting really rough I had faster techniques at my
"We are like the snails you viewed with such disdain today in the compound --
bred to a purpose, monstrosities outside and above nature, yes, but the end of our
line. Our seed is defunct. I have had a million women; their wombs have never
quickened. Woman, I say you are a liar."
The lord Shem has begun his march, the shades cried in panicky voices. His war
machines are bearing down on us, and we are caught unprepared.
"The babies are Shem's," Mahala stated quietly.
A spasm shook her, then, and she cried out. Fluids broke upon the ancient stone
paving. I peeled open the Michelangelo ceiling above them and lifted her into my
There was blood, tearing, a gonging in the earth too profound for human ears.
Blood there was, and lacerated flesh, and the lamentation of orphans. Shem came
into the high places mounted on a giant lizard, his hands blazing with hot blue
flame. Shaun stood atop his burning palace, in the stinking confusion, and his
shields dazzled like the sun's face. I hung above it all, at the Moon's orbit, and
wondered at the terrible duty I had discharged. I longed for the balm of Those
Who burned without conflagration, there in the frozen dark at the occlusion of
The babies howled.
Mahala, my child, held them to her swollen breasts, hugged them to her, and wept
with love and grief. The twins are girls. I saw to that.
[Originally published in Rooms of Paradise, ed. Lee Harding, London: Quartet,
1978; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1979]