|Print | Back|
The God Down the River
Every seventh day we all went to worship a God that never answered, which struck me as
odd, given that a perfectly lively one lived just down the road. Why not ask him for help with our
problems? "Because he's evil, is why," said the baker's boy. He looked at me like I was an idiot.
Chances are good that I was an idiot, but back then I figured I was the smartest person in the
world; children usually do, despite all evidence to the contrary. "Evil how, exactly?" I figured it was important. "Nobody's ever seen him do anything." But we all saw him, certainly, as much as the grown-ups tried to pretend he wasn't there. That took some doing on their part. Our town wasn't long on distractions. No theater, no
music-hall, no train station; we were dimly aware of a king somewhere upriver, but on a good
year they didn't even bother collecting the taxes. There was only the land and the long wheat,
golden in summer and sometimes even in winter, such were the mildness of the days. The
bushlands are a warm country. So when you stood in one of those flattened fields, it was hard to miss the Old God's
Mountain, looming by the side of the winding river. We called it a mountain, but this was mainly a
matter of contrast; I remember a year when surveyors came out from the capital and had a great
long argument with the mayor about whether it was tall enough to make the grade. The argument
got settled when the mayor gave the strangers money, after which they left awfully quickly. My
mother told me to forget I saw anything. This was not the first time I noticed the stubbornness of
our folk, but it was my introduction to the concept of bribes. "So when we pray," I asked the priest, "Isn't that a bit like bribing God?" "Entirely different," he said, his neck fat quivering. Our priest's chins were measured in
multiples. It made him ugly, but I liked him more for it. It made him feel honest. "So then why do we bother with all the litanies and the novenas and the sevenday
services?" We were in the Temple. Angels and saints and an inscrutable pastel divinity peered
down at us from the ceiling. I studied the floor. It was my job to study the floor. I got paid nickels
by the hour to scrub it, on weekends. "When you're young," said the priest, "You pray for what you want. When you get a bit
older, you pray in thanks for what you have." He laughed. "Just in case someone decides to take
it away." I thought about that for a while, scrubbing a damp cloth over an especially uncooperative
speck of dirt. Eventually I heard the sound of laughter, outside. I raised my head and peered out
the window, towards the banks of the river. All I saw was the blue-white gleam of the sun shining
off water. "That's the seventh time you've had a look," said the priest. "Are you expecting something
on the boat?" I wrung out the washcloth, for what good it did. The water in the bucket had long ago
turned an unpleasant gray. "Something like that." He picked up the bucket. "I'll finish up here. Heavens know I need the exercise." I didn't need to be told twice. I tore out the door, barely remembering to speak a word of
thanks. The smell of summer earth was in the air, dusty, the grass yellowed by the heat. I passed
ten brick houses and the wide wooden awning of the alderman's store, then dodged one horse and
two farmers on the way. You could forgive my hustle. The future was coming down the river. I meant to see it. "You're late," said the baker's boy, whose name was Dian. He still wore his apron. Flour
dusted his hands. "A whole ten seconds later than you," I said, shielding my eyes as I peered upriver. "It's
not here yet, is it?" Dian shook his head. "Not yet." We weren't the only people there. A quarter of the town must have turned out, thirty plus
people all ambling to the banks of the river. They didn't know about the coming marvel; they were
just there to pick up the post. It only came twice a month, and it served as a fine excuse to skip
work. "How long do you think we've got?" "Five minutes." That from the schoolteacher. Tibelde. She all but towered over us boys. A
wide-brimmed hat shrouded Tibelde's face, flowers pinned to the side. She held a pocket-watch, a
truly rare piece of engineering in our part of the world, and one that she never missed an
opportunity to show off. Some ferryman had given it to her a year back, and she was either too
clever or too naive to work out what the man had expected in exchange. The man had been too
embarrassed to insist on taking it back. "At least, if they're on schedule, but they never are." Dian and I played cards to pass the time. I was terrible at cards, but clever enough to stop
before I lost all my hard-scrubbed nickels. Soon everyone's posture shifted, and I knew the boat
was drawing near. It came first as a shadow, a dark shape in wavering water. Moment by moment
it resolved into clarity. The barge sat low in the water, drawn down by the weight of its cargo. Ten ropes lashed
that cargo in place: A great iron hulk balanced on great iron wheels, with lines and levers
accentuating the curving edges of its shape. A cylindrical stack rose from it like the mast of a
sailing ship, but this was a thing meant for land. Dian gawked. "What is that?" "It's a locomotive," I said, clenching my hands into fists. Dian wasn't the only one who noticed. An old white-haired farmer shook his head. "So
that's a train." "That's not just any train." I pointed. "That's a genuine Maghiel Ironworks stormflier. It
gets forty miles per hour even in inclement weather. It can pull a train ten cars long up an inclined
grade. There's only eight of them in the world, and they're sending this one down to Cilica on the
coast to start a whole new network. There's already a hundred miles of track in the county, and
when they're done there, they say they're going to connect Cilica to the capital. There's talk a line
might even come near us." "Isn't any sense to it," said the farmer, spitting off to one side. "River's always been here,
river'll always be here, and the river doesn't have to be replaced every couple of years like train-tracks. All that noise and smoke; who needs it?" I needed it. Ever since the first time I saw the image of a train in the paper--a wood-block
print by Jocasta--I was fascinated. I read both books on machines in the schoolhouse and ordered
two more besides. I knew all about the action of a coal-fired engine, all about the right-of-way
laws, and who the biggest carriers were in our country and the next. I was going to be a
conductor. Someday, I was going to own a rail line. This was, of course, nothing I said out loud. Instead I suggested: "It's a decent line of work, if you don't own a farm." "No security in it," said the farmer. "They'll just replace it with some other thing. But food
and water? That's not going anywhere." "I bet I'd be good at it," I hedged. It wasn't him that answered. "If you want to work trains," said Tibelde, "You're going to
need to apply yourself more in your studies. Mathematics don't come easy to you, and you'll need
numbers to pass an academy exam." Getting into an academy felt approximately as distant to me as having a family. I was
young enough to not even care about the fact that Tibelde was a beautiful woman, something the
other boys were beginning to notice. "Deliveries," shouted the ferryman, over the edge of the barge. "Two packages! Six
letters! And one visitor!" The last bit drew a murmur from the crowd. A visitor? In our town? The man wore a city-style longcoat, tassels on the shoulders, like soldiers wear. His beard
had grown wild from long travel with few stops. He spent a while with one foot on the prow,
staring up towards the Old God's Mountain. A row-boat pulled alongside the barge, to take on all the deliveries. "Don't like the look of that fellow," said the farmer. "What's a drifter like to find out here?
I wager he's trouble." As it happened, he was right.
by J.P. Sullivan
Artwork by Dean Spencer
Every seventh day we all went to worship a God that never answered, which struck me as odd, given that a perfectly lively one lived just down the road. Why not ask him for help with our problems?
"Because he's evil, is why," said the baker's boy. He looked at me like I was an idiot. Chances are good that I was an idiot, but back then I figured I was the smartest person in the world; children usually do, despite all evidence to the contrary.
"Evil how, exactly?" I figured it was important. "Nobody's ever seen him do anything."
But we all saw him, certainly, as much as the grown-ups tried to pretend he wasn't there.
That took some doing on their part. Our town wasn't long on distractions. No theater, no music-hall, no train station; we were dimly aware of a king somewhere upriver, but on a good year they didn't even bother collecting the taxes. There was only the land and the long wheat, golden in summer and sometimes even in winter, such were the mildness of the days. The bushlands are a warm country.
So when you stood in one of those flattened fields, it was hard to miss the Old God's Mountain, looming by the side of the winding river. We called it a mountain, but this was mainly a matter of contrast; I remember a year when surveyors came out from the capital and had a great long argument with the mayor about whether it was tall enough to make the grade. The argument got settled when the mayor gave the strangers money, after which they left awfully quickly. My mother told me to forget I saw anything. This was not the first time I noticed the stubbornness of our folk, but it was my introduction to the concept of bribes.
"So when we pray," I asked the priest, "Isn't that a bit like bribing God?"
"Entirely different," he said, his neck fat quivering. Our priest's chins were measured in multiples. It made him ugly, but I liked him more for it. It made him feel honest.
"So then why do we bother with all the litanies and the novenas and the sevenday services?" We were in the Temple. Angels and saints and an inscrutable pastel divinity peered down at us from the ceiling. I studied the floor. It was my job to study the floor. I got paid nickels by the hour to scrub it, on weekends.
"When you're young," said the priest, "You pray for what you want. When you get a bit older, you pray in thanks for what you have." He laughed. "Just in case someone decides to take it away."
I thought about that for a while, scrubbing a damp cloth over an especially uncooperative speck of dirt. Eventually I heard the sound of laughter, outside. I raised my head and peered out the window, towards the banks of the river. All I saw was the blue-white gleam of the sun shining off water.
"That's the seventh time you've had a look," said the priest. "Are you expecting something on the boat?"
I wrung out the washcloth, for what good it did. The water in the bucket had long ago turned an unpleasant gray. "Something like that."
He picked up the bucket. "I'll finish up here. Heavens know I need the exercise."
I didn't need to be told twice. I tore out the door, barely remembering to speak a word of thanks. The smell of summer earth was in the air, dusty, the grass yellowed by the heat. I passed ten brick houses and the wide wooden awning of the alderman's store, then dodged one horse and two farmers on the way.
You could forgive my hustle. The future was coming down the river. I meant to see it.
"You're late," said the baker's boy, whose name was Dian. He still wore his apron. Flour dusted his hands.
"A whole ten seconds later than you," I said, shielding my eyes as I peered upriver. "It's not here yet, is it?"
Dian shook his head. "Not yet."
We weren't the only people there. A quarter of the town must have turned out, thirty plus people all ambling to the banks of the river. They didn't know about the coming marvel; they were just there to pick up the post. It only came twice a month, and it served as a fine excuse to skip work.
"How long do you think we've got?"
"Five minutes." That from the schoolteacher. Tibelde. She all but towered over us boys. A wide-brimmed hat shrouded Tibelde's face, flowers pinned to the side. She held a pocket-watch, a truly rare piece of engineering in our part of the world, and one that she never missed an opportunity to show off. Some ferryman had given it to her a year back, and she was either too clever or too naive to work out what the man had expected in exchange. The man had been too embarrassed to insist on taking it back. "At least, if they're on schedule, but they never are."
Dian and I played cards to pass the time. I was terrible at cards, but clever enough to stop before I lost all my hard-scrubbed nickels. Soon everyone's posture shifted, and I knew the boat was drawing near. It came first as a shadow, a dark shape in wavering water. Moment by moment it resolved into clarity.
The barge sat low in the water, drawn down by the weight of its cargo. Ten ropes lashed that cargo in place: A great iron hulk balanced on great iron wheels, with lines and levers accentuating the curving edges of its shape. A cylindrical stack rose from it like the mast of a sailing ship, but this was a thing meant for land.
Dian gawked. "What is that?"
"It's a locomotive," I said, clenching my hands into fists.
Dian wasn't the only one who noticed. An old white-haired farmer shook his head. "So that's a train."
"That's not just any train." I pointed. "That's a genuine Maghiel Ironworks stormflier. It gets forty miles per hour even in inclement weather. It can pull a train ten cars long up an inclined grade. There's only eight of them in the world, and they're sending this one down to Cilica on the coast to start a whole new network. There's already a hundred miles of track in the county, and when they're done there, they say they're going to connect Cilica to the capital. There's talk a line might even come near us."
"Isn't any sense to it," said the farmer, spitting off to one side. "River's always been here, river'll always be here, and the river doesn't have to be replaced every couple of years like train-tracks. All that noise and smoke; who needs it?"
I needed it. Ever since the first time I saw the image of a train in the paper--a wood-block print by Jocasta--I was fascinated. I read both books on machines in the schoolhouse and ordered two more besides. I knew all about the action of a coal-fired engine, all about the right-of-way laws, and who the biggest carriers were in our country and the next. I was going to be a conductor. Someday, I was going to own a rail line.
This was, of course, nothing I said out loud.
Instead I suggested: "It's a decent line of work, if you don't own a farm."
"No security in it," said the farmer. "They'll just replace it with some other thing. But food and water? That's not going anywhere."
"I bet I'd be good at it," I hedged.
It wasn't him that answered. "If you want to work trains," said Tibelde, "You're going to need to apply yourself more in your studies. Mathematics don't come easy to you, and you'll need numbers to pass an academy exam."
Getting into an academy felt approximately as distant to me as having a family. I was young enough to not even care about the fact that Tibelde was a beautiful woman, something the other boys were beginning to notice.
"Deliveries," shouted the ferryman, over the edge of the barge. "Two packages! Six letters! And one visitor!"
The last bit drew a murmur from the crowd. A visitor? In our town?
The man wore a city-style longcoat, tassels on the shoulders, like soldiers wear. His beard had grown wild from long travel with few stops. He spent a while with one foot on the prow, staring up towards the Old God's Mountain.
A row-boat pulled alongside the barge, to take on all the deliveries.
"Don't like the look of that fellow," said the farmer. "What's a drifter like to find out here? I wager he's trouble."
As it happened, he was right.
"He'll be staying with us," my mother said. I could hear the stranger dusting his clothes outside.
It was more than I could take. "Do you even know who he is?"
"No," she admitted, putting dinner on the table. Corn and milk and two kinds of carrots. It wasn't what you'd call a feast, but it got the job done.
There were a lot more jobs that could stand to be done. Father left to join the army four years back and there was just too much work for one woman to do. He sent money, but there was less of it sometimes than others. So the paint was peeling and the candles were the cheap kind that smelled, but it was still home, and we owned it ourselves.
"Actually, I know a little," she corrected herself. "His name's Arno. He needed somewhere to stay, and we've got a spare room, and he's paying money plus chores. The alderman read his papers and said he got an honorable discharge after the war, so he's no ragamuffin drifter. And you're going to be nice to him."
I resolved to do no such thing.
Eventually Arno came inside. Sometime since the morning he'd shaved his beard down clean. Unfortunately, that left the bottom half of his face paler than the top.
"Mightily appreciate your hospitality," he told my mother, without meeting her eyes or mine.
"There's food if you want it," said mother.
"Appreciate that, too."
So he sat and he ate. Mother said words of grace. Arno bowed his head, but he didn't speak another word all through dinner. I stared into his hollowed eyes and wondered what I saw there. Weariness, I decided. A man run down.
Soon enough he went up the leaning stairs, early to bed.
When I woke up the next morning I saw him out mending fences.
Arno worked hard, I'll give him that. Only took him two days to get the whole fence done, and he moved on straight away the same day to fixing the well that fed our fields. He was polite, with city-bred manners. Best thing I could say about him was that he didn't snore.
Except that was the strange thing: I wasn't sure he slept at all. Sometimes that week I'd get up at night for water and hear the boards creaking up above my room.
"Sounds like a fine man," said the priest, in the voice of someone looking for a reason to think otherwise.
I pointed at the scriptures laid up on the lectern. "You read us that story about the polite man with secret vices."
"I also read the story about the virtue of giving kindness to strangers," he said, trying to believe it. He gazed out the church window then, hands folded across a large stomach. "Listen, boy."
I wrung out the wash-cloth. I knew he was working hard to choose his words.
"Your father's gone. So he can't look after your mother. That makes you the man in your house." He breathed in. "That means you've got to look after her. If that man Arno does anything untoward, you can trust me. You can come tell me right away. Do you understand what I'm talking about?"
I didn't understand the specifics, but I was wise enough to have the general idea. I didn't say so out loud. Luckily, the priest didn't make me. It was enough for him that I heard him speak.
"I bet he's a murderer," said Dian, at school. I read about trains in the paper; Dian read about crime. "Red Reinhardt and the Bayode boys got knocked over by the kingsmen this spring after they tried to rob the crown bank. They didn't catch 'em all. If he was a thief that skipped town around then, by now--"
Tibelde rapped his knuckles with the ruler. "Page sixty-four, Dian. Unless you want to spend your whole life reading about greater men than you, I suggest you lay off the gossip and lean on the books."
One week passed. Another night came.
I lay there in bed, thinking about what the priest said, about what Dian said. The house was quiet, but I knew I wasn't the only one awake.
I imagined Arno up in his room, sharpening knives he bought with stolen money. Every time the boards creaked, I gripped my blanket tighter, wondering what he thought about, in those dead-of-night hours.
So I was still up when the moon hit its peak, full enough to cast white light across the fields. Awake long enough that my mind went to a place worse than thieves on the run: I wondered if my mother was getting tired of waiting for father to come back, and that she was ready for a different man around the house.
Arno's door creaked open. I heard it stick against the frame; he forced it through.
Soon his feet clunked on the boards. I heard them echo down through the timbers. They bounced across the kitchen, to the foot of my bedroom door, hollowed out by distance. One step at a time, they came, heavy.
Booted feet, I realized. He wasn't up for a minute's walk. He needed soles for whatever he was doing.
So I got up, too. I took a match and held it to a candle, until it burned with thin grey smoke and I smelled its acrid oils. The candlestick weighed heavy in my hand when I pushed open my door.
I near bumped into Arno as the base of the stairs. My surprise was every part of it a ruse. "You're up late," I told him.
He looked at me, dark circles under his eyes. The soldier's coat hung off his shoulders, his arms not even put through the sleeves. He gripped a satchel, heavy with who-knows-what. He didn't say anything, only stood there at the lowest step, little pinpricks of candlelight dancing in his eyes.
"Your ma told me you like trains," he finally said.
I felt my stomach go hollow, like he was searching for my weakness.
"I worked a train," he told me. "In the war. Big one. A Stenhauer Seventeen. You know about those?"
"They make them out west past Ohau," I said. "Old, but sturdy. Made to last fifty years."
"Last a hundred, if you treat them right." He came down the final step. The board groaned with the changing pressure. "I worked repairs. I was good at it. Could lay down fresh track with bullets flying overhead. Stenhauer's the best train in the world."
"My father took me to Cilica once when I was a boy." I don't know why I told him. "I saw one there." I was maybe four years old. I still remembered every second--the way the steam roiled out of the stack, the way the pistons pumped the wheels.
"You're still a boy," said Arno, words that bothered me like they bother all boys. "No need for that face. Being a boy's good. It's a cruel world." He rummaged in his pack. "You got to stay a boy as long as you can."
I watched the satchel. What was in it? Knives? Poisoned vials?
He pulled out a small pin. It was old bronze, gone green with age. The lines of a train's wheel converged on its center, intersecting behind the design of a bird's wing.
"They gave these to engineers." He put it in my hand. "Always brought me luck on the tracks. Maybe it'll help you."
"Why would you give me this?" I imagined it burning in my palm. "It's yours."
He shrugged. "I got another one. Take it, boy. And don't ask me any more questions."
"Why are you up?"
"Outhouse," he said. And then he slipped out the door. It was a believable lie.
Except I lived there, and I knew better. I watched him through the slatted window and I saw the way he went. Not to the fields, but down to the river, away from town, and I felt certain he was up to some kind of mischief.
I aimed to find out what.
Thirty minutes later I was still on his trail, hastily dressed and wondering what had got into me. I stayed way back, far enough that he was just a speck at the horizon. More than once Arno looked over his shoulder, perhaps wary of being followed, but I was short and I didn't have to bend far to hide in the tall grass. More to the point, I was dressed dark. The buckle on his satchel gleamed with reflected moonlight. All I had to do was follow the glimmer.
Where was he going? I had to know. Some meeting of thieves, by moonlight? Would he bring the kingsmen down on our town for harboring criminals?
What I hoped was that he meant to drift on, as drifters do. If he rambled right out of my life, I'd be happier for it, but I had to know for certain. So I got dirt on my cuffs and grass marks on my trousers, crouching and creeping after.
I realized soon enough that I wouldn't be able to make it home before the sun came up, not unless I turned right around. But I was in this for the long haul.
He wasn't headed across the river. He wasn't headed down to Cilica. Instead he followed the course of the riverbank, while night birds and moonlit insects thrummed over the rushing water. On and on he went.
All the way to the Old God's Mountain.
No one went up the mountain. There was a god on that mountain. Curious as I might be about that god, I knew better than to actually go. The Church would send tougher men than our priest if they heard any town-folk went up there.
"Do not speak to him, do not look at him, and above all else, do not visit him," my mother had always told me, in that Very Serious Voice that grown-ups are at times obliged to use. "Evil lives on that hill. Don't risk yourself for nothing."
Even as a child, I noticed that she left her proscription just a hair's breadth open. Not for nothing, she said, and I was clever enough to mark the nuance. So what would a man climb the hill for?
Maybe I was about to find out.
Arno reached the very foot of the hill, where the dirt began to rise above the endless plain. Once he took the first step, he didn't look back. His heavy boots carried him past spindly bushland trees and craggy windswept rocks. The higher he got, the lower I crouched, fearful that he would look back and see me. Why fearful, I couldn't say. That far up the hill, there's no way he could have recognized me, let alone caught me if I ran.
Somehow, I felt party to his trespasses. Wrongness gnawed my conscience.
The Old God's Mountain was in two parts: His part, and our part. You knew at once where one part became the other. You could see it. Along the lower path, the trees were baobab and bushwillow, with fat trunks and spindly branches. Bush-country trees. Above, the peak was like a foreign garden. Maple and mahogany, cedar and redwood, all lance-leafed greenery to crown an earth bedecked with flowers.
Arno lingered at the threshold, too far away for me to read his face.
Then he stepped across. I lost him amidst the trees. For half a minute I didn't breathe.
When I finally raised my head, the back of it touched the barrel of a gun.
Moments went by. The gun didn't fire.
"If you're one of the bank robbers," I said, "I'm really, really sorry. I didn't mean anything by following. I just wanted to know where he was going, and--"
A hand shoved me into the dirt. I struggled for a few moments, but the hand was strong, and all I accomplished was a strain in my muscles.
When I stopped, that hand patted me down, top to tail. It checked pockets and places in between. Just the one hand--even if I couldn't feel it any more, I knew the other still held the gun.
"Please," I said. "Don't shoot me. My mother couldn't take it." I wasn't excited by the prospect, either.
The gunman hushed me without speaking a word. He clicked his tongue, just so. Slowly, repeatedly. It sounded almost like a kind of speech, as one might command an animal. Soon he hauled up on the back of my shirt, until I regained my feet. I didn't dare look back.
Something cold and metal pressed the back of my neck. Not the gun. It felt like jewelry, small and round. One more tongue-click, and then silence.
Wind whistled before the gunman spoke. "You're just a boy from town." His voice was no accent I'd ever heard before. Exotic to my ear, a drawl with strange emphases.
"That's right," I said.
"You work for that priest."
He wasn't asking questions, but I answered like he was. "That's right."
"He's a good man. A true believer--always rare." A pause, and then: "Turn around."
The gunman was the blackest man I'd ever seen. His nose was broader than I was used to, his pate shaved bald. Wearing a dark black cassock, he seemed to blend into the night. He cradled the gun in both hands, an old-model matchlock rifle, its stock accented by a silver filigree that made it the brightest thing about him. The necklace hanging from his neck was the same color, but tarnished. He said: "You can trust me."
The thrill running through me said otherwise.
"We'll have to kill that stranger," said the gunman.
"What do you mean, we?"
"You're not with him, are you?"
"No. No! He lied about where he was going. I--I had to see where."
"Good instincts," said the gunman. He took a crouching step apart from me. Low to the ground, he watched the summit. "Look there."
I saw two shapes near the hilltop. One was Arno. The other was a god.
I'd seen the god before, but never this close. Stars marked his silhouette, a mantle of pale dots all through the shape of him. Maybe five hundred feet up, he was as clear to my eye as the nearby blades of grass. Man-shaped, as some gods are, but more.
"Stranger's lost to us," said the gunman. "Our God's powerless, up there. Not even He can protect His children from a rival." He settled his pack on the ground and lay down prone.
"You'd kill him just for going to speak?"
"Maybe that's what he meant to do. But what he meant doesn't matter. The old god's caged, but he's still a god, boy. It's his mountain. That fellow up there, we can't know what's been done to him. He could come back mad, or come back a monster." The gunman pulled back the hammer on his rifle. "I've seen both."
"We'd know if he was different," I insisted. "Who are you, anyway?"
"Bandile. A Watchman."
You heard about watchmen. Church-trained killers. How long had he been living near our town?
Bandile asked, "You read the paper, boy?"
"We get the monthly gazette."
"You heard about mister Autry."
My blood ran cold. "The ten-time killer."
"He went to see a god, too. Where he lived, they called it the Old God's Grotto, but it was the same story. He wanted divine intervention over some fool thing. He got his help. But the god that lived there thought it fine sport to plant a seed in Autry's mind. It filled him with hungers. And a mad strength. All alone, he killed four kingsmen. But that wasn't the worst of it."
I felt tightness in the skin along my arms. "What was the worst?"
"He didn't even know. Even on the gallows, Autry didn't remember what he'd done. Didn't know how he'd been changed. The god laughed at the forgetting of every death."
So that was it, I decided. Arno wanted power to free all the other thieves and killers.
Light burst bright on the mountaintop. For a moment it made me night-blind. I shielded my face, groaning. "What was that?"
"A miracle," said Bandile, grim. "Open my pack, boy."
In it were knives, poisons, and more.
"Get the fire-stick," said Bandile.
"The what?" I realized: "You mean a match."
"He's coming," said Bandile. "So I'm going to give you a chance to prove you're not with him."
"I don't want to kill anyone!"
"I can't take my eyes off him, not even for a moment. If he's turned unnatural, that's all the time he needs to change. All you need to do is light my gun."
I looked at the slender match. A rock would serve for striking. I reached for one nearby.
"Not yet," hissed Bandile. "He'll see it."
Arno descended. He whistled as he walked, a spring in his step. At the base of the trail, he stretched his arms up towards the moon. The light of it shone down on him. He laughed, and laughed.
We waited a long time until he moved.
"Now," said Bandile.
I struck the match against the rock. The flare felt like lightning in the night.
"Oh!" Arno smiled, not quite seeing us. "Who's there?"
The fire caressed the match-cord until it smoldered. Bandile sighted down the smooth length of the barrel, both eyes open.
He pulled the trigger. The noise near deafened me.
The shot was true. Down Arno went, surprised almost, vanishing in tall grass.
We heard him for a while, dying. Noises that weren't words.
When they stopped I tried to go look.
Bandile stopped me. "Not yet," he said. "What's dark doesn't always die easy."
So, with a rare oil, he set the body burning. Flames ate flesh and hair and put a foul stink into the wind. I couldn't tell you if it was the stink of evil or just the stink of man. Bandile didn't elaborate. He just sat and watched. Not once did he look up from his vigil, even while he loaded another shot and poured the powder down the barrel. I had a long time to think about what we'd done.
By sunrise there was only ash and bone. Only after testing his silver necklace against the skull did Bandile relax at all. "Take this to the priest in town," he told me. I wasn't sure what he meant, until he thrust Arno's satchel in my hands. Soot marred the strap. "I'll see your family gets Church money for your help."
It wasn't much in the way of help. Why use me at all?
Maybe he feared the townsfolk were the sort to mistrust a man for reasons of color. Or maybe it was just his way of taking pity on a boy.
Regardless, so intent was he on the body, and what evil might be born from it, that I don't think he ever took a full accounting of the things inside that satchel.
I certainly did. But not right away.
Instead I looked to the top of the mountain. The god who wore starlight in his coat now wore sunlight in his hair.
So far away, I couldn't tell for sure. But I think he looked at me.
I think he was smiling.
"Ghastly business," said the priest, looking through the satchel. "You're sure this is everything?"
"Yes," I lied.
"Well, there isn't anything in here what's strictly illegal, except goldenspice, and half the county partakes of that on festival days, anyway."
I stood with crossed arms. "Why didn't you tell us?"
He held a bottle up to the light, muttering something about 'phlogistication.' "Tell you what?"
"Why didn't you tell us there was a killer living just outside of town?"
"There's three of them, actually," said the priest, shaking the bottle. He seemed let down when nothing happened, and moved on to the rest of Arno's effects. "They work in shifts. Did you think Bandile never sleeps?"
It wouldn't have surprised me.
"Everybody knew about it. Just no one talks about it. The Mountain's a dangerous place. It needs the watching. Thus, Watchmen."
"You should have told me."
"It's my job to tell you about God. For lapses in more worldly education, blame Tibelde. Or maybe your mother."
My mother spent two days withdrawn, her eyes distant. I had to make my own dinner. When the Church money arrived, Arno's death suddenly became easier for her to take. It was more coin than father might send in a season.
So it would be new paint and fresh seed stock for us, but I was more intrigued by my own prize: Arno's journal.
I should have given it to the priest. But I had to know the truth. Why would a man go up there?
Most of the entries were bland. Times of travel. Thoughts on food and landmarks. Nothing mentioned crime; if I took him at his word, he'd been a day laborer at an ironworks.
Just when I meant to give up, a folded note fell from between the final pages. I read the title with an excited dread.
To He That Might Find Me Dead
I worked with four men in the war. They came from four different corners of the country. Together we drove a train across the darkened coast of Ohau. We fought with soldiers and we fought as soldiers, against ten princes and their ten thousand men. I was never supposed to fight. A repairman, that's what I was meant to be.
But when we got to the front they put arms in my hand and they told us they couldn't spare a body from the fighting. We fixed train-tracks in ambushes, under fire. Every time we lost a man.
We were closer than brothers: I never stood alongside my brothers and heard my death whizzing by. But those four men died. One by one, each one passed, and I kept going.
More men took their place, and more men died, and I was still there, still working.
Every time I've smiled since, part of me wonders why it was me that had the luck.
There's gods in dark places, a man told me. Gods that could bring them back, if only I had their bones. But the war-dead were all buried by the enemy, together in one great jumble. My dead brothers? I could never find them. And the Watchmen would hunt me down.
He gave me a word. The letters of the word were WHNHW.
With that word, he said, the god would have to help me.
So I'm still going to the mountain. I'll see what help I can get.
If I can't get them back, then maybe the god can help me forget.
--Arno Nickel Drost
I stared at the ceiling, muttering the word with strange letters, puzzling out how it was meant to be pronounced. I fell asleep with the book weighing down upon my chest.
I drowned, but not in water. I drowned in dead fish.
I felt their scales against my skin. Slimy. Abrasive. Their tails flopped. Their fins shook. All around me were small, gasping mouths. I clawed upwards through a dried-out sea of bream and musselcracker, fighting for air, fighting against the bite of shellfish with a razored edge.
When I claimed the surface, all I saw was an endless desert, my chest halfway buried in the sand.
I woke to sunlight. Not all that I dreamed remained in the night.
Drawn by some instinct, I headed for the river. All along it were the people of the town. Children scuttled around the banks, while farmers and townsmen stood and shook their heads.
Dead fish clogged the riverbank, most unmoving, some few twitching in a long, stubborn dying. Some of our more enterprising folk tried to identify the freshest of the bunch, perhaps to cook that evening, or to preserve in salt. They found few enough specimens. It all smelled of decay.
I could not shake an irrational feeling that I was responsible.
"Apparently," said Tibelde, under the shadow of a parasol, "It's all to do with trains."
I stared down the river. "How could a train do this?"
"Something about the railway they're building down in Cilica. They sent a fellow in a boat out to warn everyone downriver, but by then it had already happened."
"Was it an accident?" You heard about bad things getting dumped in water. Maybe coal?
"They weren't long on specifics. But I have ideas." Tibelde had, of all possible things, a tea-cup. "Test the water."
I wasn't sure that was a good idea, but Tibelde was no fool, so I kneeled by a stilled fish and filled the cup. Hesitant, I raised it to my lips.
"It tastes like the ocean." Salt water. The river fish couldn't breathe.
Tibelde nattered on about railway construction. I think it was her way of dealing with the strangeness. "They must have made some horrible mistake with digging through the estuary or the salt-spires off the coast," she concluded. "If we're lucky, meltwater from the Cilica mountains'll wash it all through in no time."
If the fish couldn't drink it, we couldn't drink it, either. "What if we're not lucky?"
She peered towards our mountain, down the river. "Then we'll have a very interesting summer."
Two dozen townsfolk lined up outside the alderman's store to pull their ration from a lonely well. At first we didn't think anything of using our well-water on the crops, but that summer we suffered an unkindly sun. Nor did we appreciate quite how much water we usually pulled from the river.
Then one day farmer Heinrich pulled up buckets filled more of clay than water, and what water there was poured out a silty grey. Meetings were held. Rations were declared.
As the alderman put it, sacrifices must be made. But people did not take kindly to them.
"Looks like another scorcher," said Dian, holding up last month's gazette above his head.
I did the same thing. Its shelter made the heat that little bit more bearable. My lips felt perpetually dry. The skin had started to peel around my nails, in thin translucent strips. Worst of all, I smelled like saltwater, because I'd made the mistake of trying to bathe in the river. No one was fool enough to use their ration for a wash.
It was never supposed to have lasted this long.
I asked him, "Do you think it could be a curse? Something the old god did?"
"He can't leave the mountain," said Dian. "All the old gods are locked away forever. That's why the prophet died."
I didn't really appreciate a lecture on theology, seeing as I was the one who worked at a church, but it was too hot to argue. I imagined salt pouring out of the crevasses of the mountain, or bubbling from the caverns underneath, in retribution for when the Most High turned the cities of the bygone deities to pillars of the same. A train-track through those lonesome spires--they should have known it was a fool's endeavor.
"We got to dig new wells," somebody was saying. "Should have done that the first day."
"River gets much worse, the well-water'll be tainted, too."
"Then we'll have to move. And we'll still owe the bank for the land."
Mutters were a constant. Everyone had things to do. No one wanted to be there. But no one expected violence.
It came with a crack. All the mutters stopped.
"I got four girls," breathed Heinrich, barely audible, but more dangerous than a scream. "And you're telling me I only get the one bucket?"
The man by the well couldn't answer for the pain. His arm bent strangely at the elbow, and I saw something white there that never should have showed.
The priest stood in between, staring Heinrich down. "Everybody gets one bucket a day. That's more than enough for everyone. We all voted."
Heinrich was big enough to pull a plow all by himself. Muscle and fat, beard always wild, and now the eyes, too. "They're all growing, my girls. They need water. They need food. How am I supposed to keep them healthy if I let my crops bake in the sun?"
"We have to make do," said the priest. "I know it's hard. But the prophet went through worse."
For a moment, it looked like Heinrich would hit him, too. But then the priest turned his back, and filled the bucket from the well.
Heinrich took it. He almost looked chastised. Almost. "That man'll need a splint," he said. "I know how to tie one."
"I'll do it," said the priest. "You go see to your girls, instead."
My mother shook her head at the news. We sat beneath our newly brightened walls. "We had a famine when I was a girl," she said. "Blight took all the corn crops and there wasn't enough grain to go around. The famine made people do mad things. You had to do them, to survive." She was filing her nails. "The best folk didn't."
I stared at her. "You survived," I said.
She stared at me. "Don't blame Heinrich," she said. "Blame the fools on the railway."
"If we had a railway," I said, defensive, "None of this would matter. They could ship us all we needed in two days and nights."
"If wishes were fishes," mother began, but she never got all the way there. We were interrupted by the bell at the outside gate.
Visitors did not often come unannounced. "Probably Dian," I said.
Mother parted the shutters just enough to peer. "No," she said. "It's Heinrich."
I realized I was gripping the dead man's journal. When did I pick it up?
"Evening, ma'am," Heinrich hollered from the porch. "Might I beg a moment's indulgence?"
That was fine language from him, and my mother trusted it no more than I did. "We're busy with the chores," she said. Lest I disagree, she fixed me with a dangerous glance.
"Happy to help you," said Heinrich. "If you'll help me, that is."
I crept up to the window. Heinrich was down there, all right, and he'd brought his teen-aged son out with him. Both of them had lumber axes, and the bushlands had few enough trees.
"We heard you got a well on your property," he said, talking to the door instead of us. "Now, seeing as there's but two of you here, we couldn't help but think you might be able to spare some water. We'd be duly grateful, make no mistake."
My mother rummaged in the drawer. She moved a cloth aside and I saw metal's glint beneath. "The well's not working reliably, and shallow besides. That drifter never finished with the repairs."
"Come now," said Heinrich. "I had the courtesy to ask. I could have just gone right up and helped myself."
"Well," said mother, holding her cloth-wrapped parcel. "Might be I can spare something."
So she went to the kitchen and grabbed the bucket we'd been using. Half-full, but that was half a ration more than Heinrich would have had, otherwise. She made me stay upstairs while she took it to the door.
Heinrich didn't thank her. "That's it? That's all you can spare, with just the one boy? I've got five children." He drew his shoulders back, to accentuate the difference in height between them.
Casually, my mother let drop the cloth that concealed her weapon. It was a hand-sized crossbow, no bigger than a matchlock pistol. They called them heartpiercers. It was the sort of thing you only heard about in penny dreadfuls, held there by some femme fatale with a perpetually unbuttoned collar. I found it more odd for that reason than for the thought that my mother might be dangerous. What boy isn't afraid of his mother's wrath?
A lonely farm-wife's wrath, on the other hand, is rarely reckoned among the foremost fears dwelling in the hearts of men. Heinrich was now obliged to consider this an oversight.
They stood there a while. Heinrich took the bucket, then took a step back.
"Don't come asking again," she said.
"If I come again," said Heinrich, "I won't come asking."
I dreamed of a man on a mountain with sunlight in his hair. He watched currents of salt flow through his fingers. The currents became an avalanche.
It buried our town. It choked all the rivers of the world.
"I'm going to the mountain," I told Dian, after school.
"You can't do that," he said. "There's killers out there!"
What was I supposed to tell him? I'd never told anyone about my dream of the fish, and so talk of a worse premonition would at best get blamed on sun-stroke. "I can see where it's going," I told him instead, gesturing at the brick buildings in town. "Everybody's going to act worse and worse until they do things they'll regret. I've got to fix it."
We both looked to see if anybody was listening. Tibelde didn't even have the energy to bother--she just sat at her desk and fanned herself, dry and weary. "Four days," she muttered. "Four days until the relief barge." Another well had gone dry that morning. Rations cut to half.
"The railway should fix it," said Dian. "Or the Church."
"The railway's not coming, because we're not their customers," I told him, though it pained me to say it. "And who knows if the barge is bringing water. Who knows how long it'll be before the next one after that. Look, just make sure people know where I went if I don't come back, all right?"
I'd say it was a stupid plan, but in truth I didn't have one. Panic was in me, and rashness born of heat. The stupidest thing was trusting Dian to keep his mouth shut. I didn't even get halfway to the mountain before the Watchman found me.
Bedile looked less frightening in the day. A face that seemed pitch-black before was now a paler brown. At his back was the mountain, framing his shoulders; in his hand was the matchlock, cord coiling above the pan. He looked like a mountain himself, or at least as hard to move. How had I missed him in the open field?
"I'm good at my job," was his only explanation. "Turn back, boy."
"If the heat gets worse," I told him, "we could all die." I pointed at the mountain. "The god's responsible. I know it."
"Let's say that's true," said Bedile. "How will you make him stop?"
I could try Arno's magic word.
"Maybe you'd go and ask him nicely?"
"I need to go up there," I told him. "I just need to talk to him. I can stay on the safe side of the line."
"If you go, I have to kill you when you come back." Weakness showed in his eyes, just for a moment. "There's almost nothing I haven't done in the name of the Lord," he told me. "But killing a child is not one of those things. Don't make me make that confession."
He didn't back down. Soon, without warning, my knee gave out from under me. I fell into the dirt. Time blurred all together.
But it was no god's curse. Just the sun. Thirst had made me weaker than I knew. When I got my head on straight again, Bedile was gone, and I held a canteen that I'd never seen before.
That should have been the end of it. But I was stubborn. And the long walk home gave me plenty of time to plan.
"You didn't go," Dian said, relieved, when I showed up in the bakery. As far as I could tell, no work was getting done.
I knew from long experience that Dian liked nothing more than news of a crime in progress. "Someone's already been up there," I told him.
"No way." He leaned over the counter, far enough to nearly topple. "Who?"
"Heinrich," I breathed out. "I heard him talking. He sent Arno up there first, but since Arno failed, he's going next. He's going to ask the god for gold. Said he'd do anything to be a rich man."
Bedile and two other men in black cassocks showed up with their guns out at sundown to surround Heinrich's farm.
I knew I could rely on Dian not to keep his mouth shut.
In fact, I baited my trap better than any of them knew. It didn't take long before they discovered Arno's journal, left beside Heinrich's tapped-out well. The Watchmen locked down the whole farm, whispering about how they'd bring in a Confessor to learn the truth.
I had, however, removed the journal's reference to a particular word.
And so after dark, I slipped out of town, undetected.
The god was waiting for me.
He stood at the border of his mountain prison, where the trees grew tall, heedless of the sun. Silvery currents played about his garments, old-style robes in all the colors of a darkened sky. His face matched no race of men, too perfect, too symmetrical. You could have laid a mirror down the center of his nose and seen no difference on either side. That evenness felt stranger than the light.
He didn't speak.
I couldn't, either. Too busy panting. Walking uphill is hard enough without being parched.
"Whatever you've done," I finally managed, "You need to stop it."
He merely tilted his head.
"We could all die."
He looked skeptical.
No answer was forthcoming. Instead, with fluid grace, he gestured to the line in the earth that separated his world from mine. He pointed at his throat, pointed at where the wall might be, and shook his head.
"Your voice won't carry past?"
He nodded, patient.
Instinctively, I stepped back. "I'm not coming over," I told him.
He shrugged, and sat. I hadn't noticed the chair. Or the table. In fact, I wasn't sure they'd been there before. It was the logic of dreams, in the way that everything can change but have been that way all along. So it was with that table, set as for a prince's feast, with ten kinds of drink. The god poured water for himself, crystalline blue. And then more for me.
"You'll need to do better than that," I rasped. "I'm not stupid."
The god shrugged, and drank. He smiled. Just a little. I'm sure he meant for me to see it.
"So you're saying you didn't poison the water?"
He shrugged. He mouthed something, something like, Who Knows?
This, I could tell, would get me nowhere. But I had one weapon, and I meant to use it. I took up a stick and traced letters in the dirt. Upside-down, so the god might see. Only halfway through the writing, I saw fear on that divine countenance.
A fear that turned to anger, when the letters lay finished.
The letters were WHNHW.
The sight changed him. Lines of age spread like fissures from his brow and eyes. A great weight settled on his shoulders, soon bent, as though from rheumatic pain. His clothes darkened, the cuffs marred by dust and ash. The perfect face lay ruined. Or was it just truth revealed?
There was no table, no water. There never was. In its place was a god's abiding hate, and my own fear at what I'd done.
"The book said if I had your name, you had to help me."
He nodded, grim.
"But to take your help, I have to cross over."
He nodded, slower.
"Then--then I command you not to hurt me. D-do nothing to me without my permission!"
He shrugged, and nodded a third time, long-suffering.
But how could I trust him? I needed a way to prove he was in my power. I imagined myself a god, trapped, but with a god's pride. What would I hate more than anything?
"Bow down," I told him. "Kneel in front of me."
I thought I could hear a hissing when he curled back his lips. Yellowed teeth showed there.
But he kneeled. Fighting it every inch of the way.
And so, thinking myself a fool, I stepped into the god's demesne.
His voice was aged, as from too much whiskey. "May I stand?"
It was such a plain thing to ask. I almost laughed. But I felt like if I laughed, I'd cry, too, and it would be too much indulgence to waste that water. So I said, "You can stand."
He stood with a god's own dignity. "I anticipated that you'd come," he grated. "I anticipated you'd be problematic. I didn't anticipate that you'd have my name."
So is that what the letters signified?
I hadn't asked that aloud. Coldness fluttered in my bones. How did a name grant power?
"A god is infinite. A name is fixed."
I asked, carefully, "How is it . . . pronounced?"
He spoke. It was more than sounds. It was shapes and colors and the scent of windswept pines in a summer storm and then the crash of thunder rolling too loud above the plain and the ear-ringing aftermath and lo the death of small things in the forest and lo the cold night in winter when wind comes cruel from the east.
I choked. "I . . . I might need to . . . practice that, a little."
"Language," said the god, "Is limiting."
I listed off to one side, shoulder planted into a cedar, for support. "Fix the river," I told him. "Right now!"
The god's smile was too kind. "I can't."
"What do you mean, you can't? You ruined it in the first place!"
"Men ruin many things without any help from God."
"Then tell me how to fix it."
"You can't. Nature must run its course. That is the law of the Most High. Consequence. And the yoke of awl-straight time. Both are as irresistible as my name."
"Some kind of god you are," I told him, hands curled to fists. "What good are you, anyway?"
"What I cannot do, I can see. Would you like to see your father?"
My nails pressed against skin. Danger, said my gut, danger. But my mouth said, "Yes."
"You might like seeing him less than you believe."
Not a chance of that, I felt certain. "Show me," I demanded. "Right now."
We walked higher, to a depression in the mountainside. Still water pooled there, reflective like a mirror. And on the surface small ripples spread, in which I saw no longer my face but one more aged. A man in uniform, burdened with gear. No gun--too expensive for common guardsmen--but rather a crossbow weighed his back. Older now, but familiar. I knew the lines of his face and the crooked divot in his nose.
I did not know the woman that was with him. She was beautiful, dark, and young--closer to my age than his.
"He feels guilty, of course," said the god beside me. "He shouldn't spend so much money on a paramour, but nor can he abide to be all by himself in the capital. Even less could he afford to buy quarters suitable for your whole family. All the city's land is in the hands of covetous rentiers. He doesn't make enough money to do right by her, or by your mother, and so every day he hates himself the more for failing both." He exhaled. "He does not even know about the drought."
The surface of the water shook from the droplets falling off my chin. One at a time they dropped, splish-splish-splish. "Tell me about the barge, then. Is water coming?"
"Oh, no. Not at all." The pool shifted. I saw a barge, foundering. Then beached at river's edge. Folk with pitchforks held down the boatman while they took from it all the supplies it carried. "The folk at Hatter's Ford were somewhat less assiduous than yours in digging wells. And they, like your good friend Heinrich, took what they were not granted."
"We needed that water," I said. "We've almost run out!"
"And that," said the god, "Is why I sent you such a potent dream. I touched Arno. You touched his journal. And so you touched me. A link most tenuous, but solid enough for the purpose."
I was only too aware that I matched wits with something older than I had years to reckon. "You said you couldn't help. So why bother?"
"Because I am bored." He relished the word, like most exquisite catharsis. "Bored of this flat, arrow-pointed world. Once, I weaved lives in manifold time. Now, imprisoned, I cannot even spin a cloud."
"The Most High gave the world to men. You refused to obey. That's why you're locked up."
"And I imagine, should the Most High deed your town to all the fish flapping on the riverbank, you would just nod and smile," he declared, thinned lips stretched out wide. "Visitors entertain me."
"Well, here I am." I scuffed the grass. "And off I go. People need to be warned."
"Now you're overlooking something," said the god, casual as can be. "I can't help them. But you can."
I liked his smile not at all.
"I can give you power. And you can take that power with you."
"Like the power that made Autry a killer?"
"A little like that," he confessed. "But without the murder."
"I don't believe you," I said.
"Then," said the god, "I suppose you'll die of thirst. Perhaps like that ancient poem, where the soldiers of Thondel opened their own veins to sup upon their blood, so maddening was their need. Poor Tibelde. She was going to become an excellent poet. Poor Dian. That bakery was going to make him rich. Your poor father. When your mother dies--"
"I'll do it," I said. I stood up from the water. "But only with conditions."
"Oh," said the god. "A negotiation. That is interesting."
I asked for the speed and strength to reach Cilica in a day and a night. I'd run to the next barge, take one of the great oversized water-barrels, and run all the way home again. I'd leave it in the center of the town. No one would be the wiser about what I'd done. A miracle of God, they'd call it, only off one capital letter from the truth.
But I asked that he do no more. And in two days, that all trace of his touch would vanish.
"Your terms are clever," said the god.
Soon, the mountain glowed with the radiance born of miracles.
At the base of the mountain, I tested my newfound strength. The light had restored all the vitality that the sun had burned away. I felt like I could do anything. Would I run fast as lightning? Would I lift a boulder single-handed? A tree beside me seemed a likely target, and I braced my hands on either side of the base and pulled.
And got nowhere.
Maybe I'd highballed it. I tried for a branch, instead. At the very least, I'd easily be able to pull myself up.
But I couldn't.
In test after test, I failed. I had no more strength than any boy my age. I'd been fooled, mistaking mere health for some supernatural boon. How reckless--how stupid--had I been?
Cursing myself, I tripped over something in the plain. I hit the ground hard, my palms scuffed near to bleeding. Worse, I felt a gut-wrenching nausea, a pressure roiling in the depths of my stomach.
I tried to stand, but my foot was caught. My guts tensed all the more when I saw my shoe stuck fast between rock and bone.
A man lay there dead, bones bleached a white that looked colorless in moonlight. The tension in my belly tightened into knots, and I convulsed with a shuddering gag. I felt bloated. Swollen. And it was getting worse, fast.
Sometimes, when you're sick, you hope to throw up, just so it's all over. I didn't feel that way, then. I felt certain that if I gave in, something terrible would happen.
But I was only human. I retched. And what came out wasn't fluid. It was some kind of vapor. Like mist, but denser. Almost cloudy.
I choked and coughed, struggling to empty what was in me. I exhaled through nose and mouth, but no matter how much I forced from my lungs, it felt like twice as much pressed against my gorge. I strained with all the muscles of chest and diaphragm, until needles of pain drove achingly into the tiniest bands of tissue around my ribs, down to the small ones which even doctors might pause to name. It felt like my bones were bending outward. I began to worry that I'd rupture, that I'd spill out some creature to blight the world.
I would be untouched, I'd told the god. I'd never specified anything about the world.
So on it came, that miasma, pouring from mouth and nose and eyes. I felt heavy with it, even as it left, like a whole cloud came forth. I cannot say how long it lasted.
But soon, soon it ended. My head cleared enough to see the cloud coalescing. Like a snake it arced across the landscape, twin currents that caressed the ground. The cloud turned solid, and then heavy, until it formed two fine rails of iron.
On those rails was the finest train I'd ever seen.
It was no design I knew, all mirror-polished steel. Steam hissed out the stack.
"All aboard," came a voice from somewhere inside the cars.
Still sprawled on the ground, I looked up towards the engine.
The conductor turned his face toward me. Not his eyes. He didn't have any of those. And yet that lack didn't slow him down. His teeth showed through his lips, bright, pearlescent. "My," he said. "We've got our first passenger of the evening."
I'd have buried my head in the dirt, if I thought I could hide from that face. I croaked, "Me?"
"Oh, not you," said the conductor. He held a pocket-watch made all of bone. "Not you at all."
A man sat up beside me. He rose from the skeleton in the dirt. He wore a coat like they wore in the old days, with ruffles and lace and fine brocade. There was no wound on him. But the coat lay ruptured, above his heart. "Feels like I've been waiting ages," he said.
"You have," said the conductor. "We're running very slightly behind schedule."
I feared the ghost might step on me. Instead he stepped through me, and cold went with him.
He was not the only specter.
They came from all about the mountain, and some, damp, from the bottom of the river. With slow and dragging steps, they made for the compartments of the train.
I struggled to avoid the conductor's missing eyes. "What is this?"
"This is a train," said the conductor.
"You know what I mean!"
"It's a train for the dead, my boy. Like the river-boats of old. And so many folk have died here, over the years. It's only right to take them home. We're going beyond Cilica, all the way down the river." He leaned out the window. "You're a little young. But you could come too, if you wanted."
I shook my head so hard I strained my neck. The movement turned my eye to the final passenger. I recognized him by the tassels on his coat.
It was Arno.
He stood at the entrance to the foremost car, holding onto a metal bar beside the door. Pale eyes stared across the wide-open dark, never once blinking.
I asked the conductor, "You're taking them all to the other side?"
"Every one. These folk held faith with the god-on-the-mountain. Your church's heaven won't be waiting for them." He grinned a rictus grin. "And I'll be making a few extra stops along the way."
I stammered, "W-where?"
"A little town just up the river. We'll be parking there. They'll all be dead soon, after all."
This was nothing like what I'd asked for.
"You asked for strength and speed. What's stronger than a train? What's faster than a train?"
Perhaps I should have been more specific.
"This is much more interesting than whatever heroics you had in mind. Stand clear of the rails, boy; we're about to get underway."
I watched Arno finally duck inside. He gleamed as if in moonlight, even through the window.
And there was the seed of an idea.
"You're just the conductor," I told him. "Where's your engineer?"
"Well," said the conductor. "I don't see him yet, but I'm sure he'll be along in a moment."
In my pocket, I grasped a tiny circle of metal. My fingers trembled as I drew out the bronze pin, decorated with wheel and wing. "Your engineer," I told him, "Is right here."
"Well, now!" The conductor held out his hand. "They don't give those to just anybody. Why didn't you say so before?"
"I decide where we stop," I declared, while he helped me aboard that phantom train. "I decide who we take on."
"Of course," said the conductor. "Of course. Welcome aboard. We're so honored to have a real, live man in charge."
Man, he'd said. I could play the part. "We're going into town. But we're not waiting. We're making our pick-up tonight."
The cab was a mess of dials, valves, and levers. Brass and iron crowded all the space. Reading about trains was one thing; knowing how to operate one was quite another. Worse, I saw no firebox door. How could an engine move without fuel?
I knew, I realized. I knew everything. It had all been slipped into my mind, every last knob and widget. I'd only needed to be brave enough to step inside. "We're going," I told the conductor.
So we went. The whole train hissed as it began to roll; the iron vibrated with the firing of the pistons. The wheels turned against the tracks--loud--louder--clack-clack, clack-clack, the train's great weight gliding along either rail.
We must have reached eighty miles the hour. Not even today does a train reach such speeds. The plains flew by, a blur of night-muted color, until suddenly we rolled into the center of the town. I nearly braked too late; the train screeched to a spark-showering halt that ought to have woke the dead.
But it did not wake the town. Not a door opened. No one came to investigate the peculiarity of our locomotive. Only one man moved through the town, but the sight of him made me duck beneath the window.
Bedile. If he saw me like this, surely he'd kill me.
I craned my neck, watching him as directly as I dared. Gun slung over his shoulder, he tromped past the alderman's store, straight for the track.
He stepped right over it. His feet moved with preternatural grace to avoid every possible touch of track.
"It's not a train for the living," said the conductor. "No waking soul can see it."
"I want them on board," I told him. "Every last one of them."
"You might regret that, when we get where we're going."
"We're going to Cilica, aren't we?"
"That's the next stop."
"Then get them on board."
The conductor pulled the whistle's chain. It sounded more like a fog horn than a train's whistle. A low, reverberating moan emanated from the depths of the engine. Windows rattled in the town; I could even feel shaking in my teeth. Pressure hammered the walls of my skull. Only when it pattered against the floor did I realize that the fluid leaking from my nose was blood.
The townsfolk did not wake. But they came, regardless. Doors slammed open one by one. From dark interiors shambled sleepwalking families. Their feet shuffled shoeless across hard-packed earth, all dressed in nightgowns, or sometimes less. The farmers from the outlying homesteads took longer. I saw Tibelde, hair in a sleeping cap. Dian, shirtless. My mother, still dressed. And even Bedile with his gun, befuddled, hypnotized by the power of the mournful whistle.
The conductor checked his watch. "I believe that's everyone," he said. "Shall we be off?"
I leaned out the window and took in the buildings of the town. They were never beautiful, even if the country sometimes was. But I had a feeling that it might be a long time before I saw them again. "We're off," I said.
The train groaned and the wheels turned. Mounting speed carried us down the spectral track, faster than any train I knew. I paid little enough attention to what lay before us, or even the strangeness of our unliving passengers. Instead I watched the river bend and turn, while we drove straight ahead, skirting far from its curves. For an instant I glimpsed the golden eye of a bat owl clutching fast to the branch of a lonely tree.
We left the bushlands behind, and barreled into the thorn-tangled veldt. Acacia trees leaned all to one side, as if to bow before the glory of the train. For an instant, I forgot everything, and felt only the speed of the engine, and the noise of the passing track.
Stranger things awaited beyond the veldt. Like the crooked fingers of some subterranean deity, the great salt spires rose to a level with the waning moon. Some said they were once the towers and palaces of the faithless. And if you looked at them long enough, their angles and wind-marked crags seemed almost to show the signs of weathered balconies and windows. But in the dark, it could just as easily be a trick of the eye.
There was no trick to the fact that one of them had crumbled. Years of calcified salt had tumbled, pulverized, and poured out in a long and steady disintegration. Even now, half of its upturned weight seemed to bury the riverbank. There were small houses and makeshift scaffolds all around it, and torch-light flickered in the night.
"They had the fool idea to dig a train tunnel through the spire," said the conductor, his insubstantial arm resting upon the cabin wall as he looked toward the site. "And all their work to fix it has only made it worse."
So there they were. The people responsible. But I couldn't find it in me to be angry. Instead I turned a valve and urged the train to greater speed.
We pressed on. On to Cilica, the coastal jewel. The city lay nestled near a sandstone massif, its tiered structure dotted with cultivated greenery. A massive waterfall graced its highest districts, and a thousand lights flickered to ward off the dark. Even the stars overhead looked dim, such were their brightness. Into the very heart of the town, across flagstone streets.
In the shadow of the grand cathedral's buttressed heights, the train came to a stop. Residue both like and unlike steam hissed into the air. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you would please gather your things, we've reached out first stop."
One by one, still sleepwalking, they ambled from the train. They made surprisingly orderly rows, there by a humble fountain.
"Thank you," I told the conductor. Why had I been so frightened? "Thank you so much. They're going to be all right, aren't they?"
"Oh, yes. They'll all awaken, so soon as you and I leave."
I opened the cabin door. "Then there's no time to waste."
The conductor put his arm in front of me. "Where are you going?"
"Leaving," I told him.
He smiled with too-white teeth. "Oh, I didn't mean you'd leave that way. Our work's not finished." His arm swept wide. "Look at all these unquiet souls. They need to reach their own salvation." A single finger, hazy, pressed against my collar. "And you're the man that's going to take them there. After all, they need their engineer."
I wrenched forward, leaning for the door. He was faster. Fingers grasped my shirt, hauled me back towards the ground. I made another reach, but the door slammed shut before me. All of its own accord.
I shrieked. A boy's shriek, frail and high. The conductor laughed, long-suffering, with a shake of his spindly head. "Come now," he said. "It's not so bad, where we're going."
I twisted to one side, rolling halfway to the cabin's other door--the one leading to the other cars. I ran back through the train, past the befuddled faces of umbral passengers. With every step I took, another window locked, another door stuck fast. But still I ran, faster, thundering for the very backmost car.
"A train needs its engineer," said the conductor, slowly walking, yet never far behind. "It's what you wanted, isn't it?"
Not like this. Never like this. I came to the final car, and tried the final door. The knob warped and changed in my hand, twisting into a flattened plank of iron. Nothing that could be turned.
"Come now," called the conductor, one car distant. "You'll hold up our schedule."
There was only one passenger in that car with me. Arno. He stared at me with open, confused eyes. They fell upon the pin, now attached to my ruffled collar.
"Arno," I called to him, as though he could help me.
His voice was soft. "Who?"
"Arno!" I gestured at him with either hand. "You! You're Arno."
"What a queer name," he muttered.
"I read your book." I realized I was yelling. "Your stupid book, where you complained about the price of food in Ohau. About your friends that died! About the engine you ran, the tracks you fixed. You're Arno!" And this is all your fault, I wanted to say. But hadn't I just made the same mistake as him? "Don't you remember?"
"My friends," he murmured. "I remember them."
"They're waiting for you," I nearly breathed, hating myself for the words. I tore off the pin, and put it in his hand. "At the very end of the line, they're waiting for you. You just have to make sure the train arrives."
His fingers squeezed around the pin, until ghost-pale knuckles whitened all the more. "I'm an engineer," he remembered. I turned my head to look for the conductor.
But the train was gone. The track was gone. And I was standing in the middle of a church-yard square.
I walked to the fountain. I looked at the people of my town. I knew with the dawn, I'd have to find my father. Yesterday, I'd have done it with a boy's optimism. Tomorrow, it would be a struggle of a different kind.
But for now I squeezed my mother's hand, and waited all through her slow awakening.
Under ecclesiastical review, the curious incident of a translocating rural town was investigated at length. Much credence was given to the power of prayers from an especially devout parish priest, vouched for by a trio of Watchmen. Only divine intervention, surely, could have resulted in the relocation of so many acutely dehydrated people.
A miracle of God, they called it.
I offered no testimony, and received no punishments. For twenty-odd years now I've managed Therin Steel, youngest of the railway guilds. Lately, I hear of sightings--a peculiar train, always on the less populated lines, always after dark, making unscheduled trips.
Nonsense, I tell them. Folktales and fairy stories, imagined by lonely night watchmen. The rational man could never believe in such a thing as phantom trains.
And yet one day, out along the darkened coast of Ohau, I found a large and unmarked grave. An irrepressible intuition aimed my steps toward it. There, glinting in the dirt, was an aged engineer's pin.
It's in my top desk drawer, though I frequently resolve to be rid of it. Since I took it, on some new-moon nights, I swear I hear the whistling of an engine.
On those nights, I dream of an endless railway, and the god who waits astride its end.
|Copyright © 2023 Hatrack River Enterprises||Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com|