An Inhabitant Of Carcosa (1886)

For there be divers sorts of death — some wherein the body remaineth; and in some it vanisheth quite away with the spirit. This commonly occurreth only in solitude (such is God’s will) and, none seeing the end, we say the man is lost, or gone on a long journey — which indeed he hath; but sometimes it hath happened in sight of many, as abundant testimony showeth. In one kind of death the spirit also dieth, and this it hath been known to do while yet the body was in vigour for many years. Sometimes, as is veritably attested, it dieth with the body, but after a season is raised up again in that place where the body did decay.

Pondering these words of Hali (whom God rest) and questioning their full meaning, as one who, having an intimation, yet doubts if there be not something behind, other than that which he has discerned, I noted not whither I had strayed until a sudden chill wind striking my face revived in me a sense of my surroundings. I observed with astonishment that everything seemed unfamiliar. On every side of me stretched a bleak and desolate expanse of plain, covered with a tall overgrowth of sere grass, which rustled and whistled in the autumn wind with Heaven knows what mysterious and disquieting suggestion. Protruded at long intervals above it, stood strangely shaped and sombrecoloured rocks, which seemed to have an understanding with one another and to exchange looks of uncomfortable significance, as if they had reared their heads to watch the issue of some foreseen event. A few blasted trees here and there appeared as leaders in this malevolent conspiracy of silent expectation.

The day, I thought, must be far advanced, though the sun was invisible; and although sensible that the air was raw and chill my consciousness of that fact was rather mental than physical — I had no feeling of discomfort. Over all the dismal landscape a canopy of low, lead-coloured clouds hung like a visible curse. In all this there was a menace and a portent — a hint of evil, an intimation of doom. Bird, beast, or insect there was none. The wind sighed in the bare branches of the dead trees and the grey grass bent to whisper its dread secret to the earth; but no other sound nor motion broke the awful repose of that dismal place.

I observed in the herbage a number of weatherworn stones, evidently shaped with tools. They were broken, covered with moss and half sunken in the earth. Some lay prostrate, some leaned at various angles, none was vertical. They were obviously headstones of graves, though the graves themselves no longer existed as either mounds or depressions; the years had levelled all. Scattered here and there, more massive blocks showed where some pompous tomb or ambitious monument had once flung its feeble defiance at oblivion. So old seemed these relics, these vestiges of vanity and memorials of affection and piety, so battered and worn and stained — so neglected, deserted, forgotten the place, that I could not help thinking myself the discoverer of the burial-ground of a prehistoric race of men whose very name was long extinct.

Filled with these reflections, I was for some time heedless of the sequence of my own experiences, but soon I thought, ‘How came I hither?’ A moment’s reflection seemed to make this all clear and explain at the same time, though in a disquieting way, the singular character with which my fancy had invested all that I saw or heard. I was ill. I remembered now that I had been prostrated by a sudden fever, and that my family had told me that in my periods of delirium I had constantly cried out for liberty and air, and had been held in bed to prevent my escape out-of-doors. Now I had eluded the vigilance of my attendants and had wandered hither to — to where? I could not conjecture. Clearly I was at a considerable distance from the city where I dwelt — the ancient and famous city of Carcosa.

No signs of human life were anywhere visible nor audible; no rising smoke, no watch-dog’s bark, no lowing of cattle, no shouts of children at play-nothing but that dismal burial-place, with its air of mystery and dread, due to my own disordered brain. Was I not becoming again delirious, there beyond human aid? Was it not indeed all an illusion of my madness? I called aloud the names of my wives and sons, reached out my hands in search of theirs, even as I walked among the crumbling stones and in the withered grass.

A noise behind me caused me to turn about. A wild animal — a lynx — was approaching. The thought came to me: if I break down here in the desert — if the fever return and I fail, this beast will be at my throat. I sprang toward it, shouting. It trotted tranquilly by within a hand’s-breadth of me and disappeared behind a rock.

A moment later a man’s head appeared to rise out of the ground a short distance away. He was ascending the farther slope of a low hill whose crest was hardly to be distinguished from the general level. His whole figure soon came into view against the background of grey cloud. He was half naked, half clad in skins. His hair was unkempt, his beard long and ragged. In one hand he carried a bow and arrow; the other held a blazing torch with a long trail of black smoke. He walked slowly and with caution, as if he feared falling into some open grave concealed by the tall grass. This strange apparition surprised but did not alarm, and taking such a course as to intercept him I met him almost face to face, accosting him with the familiar salutation, ‘God keep you.’

He gave no heed, nor did he arrest his pace.

‘Good stranger,’ I continued, ‘I am ill and lost. Direct me, I beseech you, to Carcosa.’

The man broke into a barbarous chant in an unknown tongue, passing on and away.

An owl on the branch of a decayed tree hooted dismally and was answered by another in the distance. Looking upward, I saw through a sudden rift in the clouds Aldebaran and the Hyades! In all this there was a hint of night — the lynx, the man with the torch, the owl. Yet I saw — I saw even the stars in absence of the darkness. I saw, but was apparently not seen nor heard. Under what awful spell did I exist?

I seated myself at the root of a great tree, seriously to consider what it were best to do. That I was mad I could no longer doubt, yet recognized a ground of doubt in the conviction. Of fever I had no trace. I had, withal, a sense of exhilaration and vigour altogether unknown to me — a feeling of mental and physical exaltation. My senses seemed all alert; I could feel the air as a ponderous substance; I could hear the silence.

A great root of the giant tree against whose trunk I leaned as I sat held enclosed in its grasp a slab of stone, a part of which protruded into a recess formed by another root. The stone was thus partly protected from the weather, though greatly decomposed. Its edges were worn round, its corners eaten away, its surface deeply furrowed and scaled. Glittering particles of mica were visible in the earth about it-vestiges of its decomposition. This stone had apparently marked the grave out of which the tree had sprung ages ago. The tree’s exacting roots had robbed the grave and made the stone a prisoner.

A sudden wind pushed some dry leaves and twigs from the uppermost face of the stone; I saw the lowrelief letters of an inscription and bent to read it. God in heaven! my name in full! — the date of my birth! — the date of my death!

A level shaft of light illuminated the whole side of the tree as I sprang to my feet in terror. The sun was rising in the rosy east. I stood between the tree and his broad red disk — no shadow darkened the trunk!

A chorus of howling wolves saluted the dawn. I saw them sitting on their haunches, singly and in groups, on the summits of irregular mounds and tumuli filling a half of my desert prospect and extending to the horizon. And then I knew that these were ruins of the ancient and famous city of Carcosa.

Such are the facts imparted to the medium Bayrolles by the spirit Hoseib Alar Robardin.

###


—by Ambrose Bierce, first published in the San Francisco Newsletter, December 25, 1886

Beyond The Nightingale Floor (§.03)

Continued from §.02


Haru and Ayumu left the unconscious Daichi to his pergola and Kumiko to the wood and made way to the south, down the lower mountain region which swiftly flattened and let out into a hilly expanse where the forest grew more thickly and mist was heavy in the air. Insects swarmed thick and loud and Haru grew increasingly vexed by their continual incursions.

“We shouldn’t have let that bastard be,” Haru snapped after some five miles in silence.

“Too much trouble. We’ve places to be.”

“Aye… but…”

Ayumu turned from his companion and examined the land before them. The southern trail widened and swerved off to the right. Ayumu swiftly stepped from the path and cut into the forest.

“Where are you going?”

“We should stay off the road. There could be other slavers.”

“You think Daichi and Kumiko have confederates?”

“Possibly. Even if they don’t, they certainly have clients.”

Ayumu furrowed his brows and folded his arms as a startling thought occurred to him. He withdrew the map he had purchased from the town on the other side of Sōzō-ryoku from his inner coat pocket and unfurled it, running his right bandaged finger across the intricately drawn mountain ridge from north to south until his digit rested upon the base of the southern-most tumulus, proximal to where they currently stood.

“The only major listed settlement hereabout is Uchū Castle and the hamlets surrounding it.”

Haru turned to his companion, his visage dark with concern.

“Fools we are—we’re headed to a slaver camp.”

Ayumu folded the map and returned it to his inner coat pocket.

“If Lord Tenchi did indeed send those two rogues to intercept travelers upon the road, then surely, proceeding to the castle is foolish. If, however, they were merely denizens of the keep, servants perhaps, seeking to transcend their status, or interlopers with no roots in the region, a reward might well await us.”

“That’s sensible. Still, I don’t like it. None of it.”

“You are too fretful, Haru.”

“Perhaps it is that you are not fretful enough.”

*

C. H. Christie’s The Oyster Pirates (1973) | A Review

“Barton masterminded the deal. He knew a lot about the oyster business. But that was all he knew.” — The Oyster Pirates, Adam, March, 1973, Vol. 54, No. 4

In shuffling through old archives I recently stumbled across Adam Magazine, a curious mixture of erotica, corny comedy sketches and pulp fiction. The stories were of mixed quality, but one of them, entitled, The Oyster Pirates stood out to me.

The plot, like the prose, is simple: Doyle, a down-on-his luck prawn fisher is approached by a “enthusiastic” oyster dealer and refrigeration mechanic named Barton, who offers a singular proposal to sail with him to the island of Toraki Island in search of a “special kind of oyster” which are “as big as a saucer.” Barton asserts they’ll fetch a pretty penny in Sydney.

There is just one problem.

Fishing on the island of Toraki is illegal.

Doyle is hesitant. Barton, however, proves too persuasive and the two agree to split the profits 50-50, and together with Doyle’s friend, Smiley, a “raw-boned half-caste” of Aboriginal origin, set off upon the Esmeralda for the isle of Toraki.

When the trio arrive, Barton strikes up a deal with the local chieftain. In accord with their deal, the chief lets out some of the men and women of his tribe. With a massively expanded labor pool, oysters begin swiftly piling up. However, things quickly sour, when Barton, soused, chastises the chief’s son, slandering and physically abusing him. Doyle objects but Barton pays his partner no heed. Weeks pass and the trio assembles a mighty haul, which they estimate to be worth some $10,000.

Adam_v54n04_1973-03.Kenmure_0000.jpg
Cover for the issue containing ‘The Oyster Pirates,’ depicting Barton, Triki and the chief’s son, at the tale’s spectacular and penultimate climax.

Doyle is pleased and when the refrigeration unit in the ship’s hold becomes unreliable, suggests they return and cash in on their adventure. Barton, drunk, declines, declaring that he wants “a full load.” Doyle then suggests his partner “lay off the booze” because he was treating the natives “too rough” which enrages the blonde oyster hunter. Barton tells Doyle to “go to hell,” and beats Smiley over the head with a bottle after discovering the Aboriginal had been sneaking sips of whiskey, nearly killing the poor man. Doyle, furious at this fresh indignity, demands they depart to seek medical attention for Smiley, but again Barton declines and having paid for the entire trip, has Doyle and Smiley wholly within his power.

The next day a native frantically approaches Doyle and points to the jungle, but lacking the linguistic proficiency, is unable to tell him what is amiss. Doyle heads to the jungle for the stories penultimate climax and finds Barton, in a drunken fit, attempting to force himself upon the beautiful native, Triki. She attempts to resist the oyster pirate but he easily overpowers her. From behind, the Chief’s Son creeps in from the foliage to the left, spear in hand, seeking revenge for his previous humiliation at Barton’s hands. Doyle shouts a warning and raises his rifle at which point the girl, Triki falls into the water as Barton whirls, pistol in hand, thinking Doyle the threat. Immediately thereafter, from the water of the nearby river, a hungry crocodile emerges, imperiling the beautiful woman.

Doyle is faced with a impossible choice: Shoot the chief’s son, shoot the crocodile or shoot Barton. He shoots the crocodile, saving the woman, as the Chief’s Son kills Barton with his spear.

Doyle buries Barton there, on Toraki isle and, with Smiley, returns to civilization.

The big oysters prove to be a sensation in Sydney, just as Barton had predicted.

Adam v54n04 (1973-03)_0025
Illustration of the deadly crocodile, eventually slain by Doyle.
Adam v54n04 (1973-03)_0026.jpg
Illustration of Triki in the perilous river.

I really enjoyed the tale, which faintly reminded me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and Polanski’s Nóż w wodzie (1962).

Like Heart of Darkness, the story sees men of civilization venturing into untamed lands where mysterious natives dwell, but yet never tips-over into strict dichotomizing of either the old paradigm of civilized vs savage (for the upkeep of civilization mandates savagery), nor the new paradigm of industrial exploiter vs noble primitive (to dispel this Rousseauian myth one need only take a cursory survey of the prehistorical archaeological record of our ancestors), nor ever engages in finger wagging moralizing, which, even when in competent hands, has a damping effect upon the pacing of a plot as a mechanical necessity.

Like Nóż w wodzie, the story centers on the conflict between its two male leads: the noble, if not particularly heroic, Doyle, and the ruthless, power-mad Barton; though, unlike Nóż w wodzie, the source of their disputation is not a woman, but money. Greed, or perhaps, more accurately, the inability to moderate desire, forms the central theme of the work and acts as the catalyst for the spectacular set-pieced showdown of the climax; for if Barton had simply heeded Doyle’s suggestion, he’d have escaped the retribution of the native. For Barton, however, he could never have enough, not enough money, social control, sex or alcohol. Ruin, a invariable outgrowth of his disregard for the Paracelsusian formulation; sola dosis facit venenum.

“The dose makes the poison.”

 

 

The Silence & The Howl | Part 14

§.14


“I thought that… maybe I could come over.”

“You can’t come to the house.”

“Why not?”

“Because Rich kicked me out.”

“What? Why?”

“It doesn’t matter, he’s made up his mind. Its good to hear from you, Bluebird,” he replied flatly, unsure if he even believed his own words.

“Wait, what happened? Are you OK?”

“I am doing the same as I always am.”

“Where are you?”

“Andy’s place. For now.”

“Andy? Isn’t he that guy from work, the bald one?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s a junkie.”

“Used to be. He’s a good man.”

“Aren’t you worried?”

“No.”

“What happened, Harmon, why would he do this.”

“I wouldn’t give him a cigarette because he wanted me to admit that everyone was a liar. But I’m not. He didn’t believe me. Became prickly about it. So did I. That’s it.”

“But you were going to start a band and…”

“Nothing I can do. I tried talking to him. No use. Some people, no matter what’s done for them, will never reciprocate, will never take the full measure of their relationships until long after they’ve turned to dust.”

He was talking about her as much as Sprawls but he restrained himself from making the fact explicit. She might not come over then.

After a beat the woman responded, her voice shaking a little.

“I think you’re right about that.”

“You know where Andy lives?”

“No.”

He gave her the directions and they set a time and then she said she had to go but would call later, when she was on her way. He hung up and wondered what he would say to her. What could he say, knowing of her perfidy?

There had been too many words already.

The time had come for acts.

Oniria

By Iliana Vargas (translated by Toshiya Kamei)

§


A seahorse poked his bluish snout out of the window.

She asked him if the icy air tasted like plankton and foam.

He soaked his antennae in the coffee she was drinking and drew a cloud of jellyfish on the table.

Electricity in the eyes, she said.

Transparent riddles on your tongue, he said.

She flew after the cloud.

He blew his snout and tattooed in the window a green dream talisman in which Earth gave birth to another planet, and while it was in labor, it guffawed so brutally that with each jolt it expelled lots and lots of humans and other undesirable beings, offering them to the fiery jaws of the universe.


§

Iliana Vargas was born in 1978 in Mexico City, where she still lives today. She is the author of the short story collections Joni Munn y otras alteraciones del psicosoma (2012), Magnetofónica (2015), and Habitantes del aire caníbal (2017).

Do They Play Chess In Heaven?

For as long as he could remember, Jerome Buckle wanted to be a king. “One day,” he told the moon, “I will be a king and I will promote you to the rank of sun.” He read every book about the dark and middle ages he could get his youthful hands on, supplied by his grandfather and, shortly, came to learn of chess. He felt instantly drawn to the aesthetics of the game and endeavoured to learn its peculiar mechanics, the better to extract its mysteries. He played game after game against his grandfather, losing every time. Even after perpetual defeat he refused to give up and one day he took his grandfather’s king, knocking it off the board with a triumphant “ha-ha!” His grandfather smiled and nodded stoically and congratulated the boy and then picked up the chess-piece and placed it gingerly back upon the board.

“That was very good. But you shouldn’t gloat if you win.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize either.”

“Yes, sir.”

On his eighth birthday he came to understand the futility of his desires; he would never be a king. President, he decided, would suffice. He wondered if they let presidents wear crowns…

A month after his birthday, his grandfather didn’t come home from work at the car plant at the usual time. Some hours later a woman came by who Jerome had never seen before, round-faced and cold-eyed. She curtly told him her grandfather was very ill and that he had to go to the hospital. “Cancer,” she said.

Three months later Jerome stood in the city hospital before his grandfather’s bed. He was confused. He didn’t recognize the person on the bed until they spoke.

“Jerome… come here.”

The stranger on the bed held out a long, withered hand. Beckoning. Death himself made corporeal. Jerome knew then that it was his grandfather, this shrunken husk of man, filled over with tubes, lips bluish, bloodless and crusted and even still couldn’t bring himself to move.

A month later he stood over his grandfather’s coffin, fighting back tears. Those tears turned to rain which he watched out the window of the orphanage that had become his new home. He didn’t like it there. No one knew or cared to play chess. Failing to find a worthy opponent he resolved to play himself and spent every sunset and rise at the tiny little desk set up for him in a chair far too large for his tiny frame, clinking the small wooden pieces of his grandfather’s chess set across the board with tactical precision and judicious forethought. He beat his late grandfather and he beat himself and shortly he had a new opponent in Catherine, the cold-eyed woman who had picked him up and driven him to the city hospital. He was told she was to be his guardian. When she walked through the door and knelt before him at his desk he was silent for nearly a minute before he turned and spoke.

“Do you know how to play chess?”

She said she did but that there was no time to play games and, obediently, he went. He followed her until they were at the door of her car and then took off running. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing be he didn’t care for the orphanage nor the woman who was to be his guard and keep.

She let up a howl. He paid no heed. By rise of sun he found himself in the park where his grandfather used to take him. Two old men moved to a table. They were playing chess. Their weathered faces palled by whorling puffs of smoke, eyes cheaply sunglassed against the midday glare. Buckle walked cautiously up behind the pair, like a hunter stalking prey, the sound of his sneakers muted by the gently swaying grass. Aromatic and teeming with a horde of things unseen, nameless and skittering.

“You play?”

Buckle froze behind the aged willow tree he was peaking round. He was confused why the old man with the orange cap, the shorter of the two, would be asking his opponent if he could play the game when it was clearly already underway.

“You play, kid?”

The old man inquired again, without turning. Buckle was momentarily taken aback. He considered turning and running, but the man’s kindly tone implored him to stay. Belatedly, he moved fully out and around the tree and stood before the table. Neither man, looked at him. They were focused on their game.

“Yeah. I’m not very good though.”

“Course not. You’re – what?”

“Eight, sir.”

“Polite for your age.”

“Try to be, sir. Looks like you’re winning.”

Finally, the man with the orange cap looked up at the boy and smiled faintly.

“I’d better. Running out of time.”

“Sir?”

The old man with the orange cap paused considering his next words carefully.

“Cancer. You know what that is, kid?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I got it.”

The man with the orange cap smiled wider, revealing crooked teeth, and puffed on his pipe, staring down his friend with triumphant expectation until the tall man shook his head.

“You wily sonnofabitch.”

“Checkmate, Frankie.”

“Damn it. Good game, Joe.”

Joe shook his friend hand and then looked to the kid.

“Hey Frankie, you mind giving up your seat?”

“Sure. Here kid, take a load off. I’m gonna go grab a coffee.”

Buckle took the tall man’s seat and folded his hands on his lap as the old man took a puff on his pipe and looked right and left and then back to the kid.

“Where are your parents?”

“They went out to eat.”

“They don’t mind you being out here?”

“Nah.”

“You wouldn’t be lying, now would you?”

“Nah.”

Buckle moved his leftmost pawn up a square as a bird swooped down from the sky and began pecking furiously at the ground. Shortly, the avian withdrew a long, thick, wriggling worm, took a few hops and fluttered off into the breeze.

The old man took his turn and then leaned back and followed the child’s eyes.

“My names Frank. Whats yours?”

“Jerome.” He was focused on the board, on the shimmering wooden forms. He imagined them alive and rattling steel and roaring as they trampled their foes beneath their ruthless, clattering heels.

They went back and forth, back and forth until at last the old man won. Buckle looked down at the table, ashamed of his inferiority.

“Hey, don’t look so glum. You gave me a run for my money.”

Buckle looked up and when he did he didn’t seen an aged-ruined man in the twilight of his life, but a mighty warrior, clad in shimmering male. He nodded to the old man. He was right. He had given him a run for his money. A storm began to brew and the willow whipped up a song whereupon the boy looked off into the gathering outer dark and thought of his grandfather.

“Mister, you think they play chess in heaven?”

The old man thought on that a moment and then shook his hoary head.

“Gods only play with dice.”

Todesregel Isle (Part V)

Villavic sat upon a large flat stone before the crackling fire, his lean body hunched, chin upon his entwined and roughened fingers, knuckles rough as sand. The rock-sitter’s tatterdemalion companions told him their tales; of their lives and loves and losses and how they were swept into the scouring-purge for mechanical heresy. After they had finished the waif came up to Villavic and laid her head upon his lap and closed her eyes. He ran his fingers through her hair and watched the light play across the cave walls like Togalu Gombeyaata. When the wind died down and the snow stopped half the travelers moved from the cave carrying their sacks of flour as their stomachs ached with hunger and the sky darked with encroaching thunderheads. Led by Gunter, the forging party endeavoured to find any clean-looking water-source beyond the marsh which shrouded the outer bounds of the forest like a giant moat.  Their quest came to an end after eight days trudging through snapping ferns and ruddy shrubs through the discovery of a small river that cut in a wide arc to the northeast of the cave. They fanned out over the silt-strewn and rocky ground of the beach in search of food. Desire and pain subsuming their somas as they rutted through the melting snow and filth, skittering over the crackling earth-skin like pale and malformed crabs. Some licking the stones. Others consuming the moss and lichen, where eft and vole eschewed those looming, odd-angling shadows and slipped out of all sight. Failing to find anything  else to eat, other than bitter leaves and poisonous berries, they mixed the flour with water and ate it with great rapidity. Shortly thereafter came fits of pain, aches of the stomach, inflammations of the lung. Dysentery and other ailments. Another snow storm blew in and forced the forgers to scurry into a small burrow that looked to have been vacated by a family of deer. Within the week, half the men had died and when Gunter returned to the cave only five followed with him and they ragged and sickly. They found the cave barren save a large lizard which raised up its head and blinked and then scurried off into the abyssal lower dark. Gunter swore and collapsed against the cold, stone entrance, crying and moaning like a wounded animal.

“We’re all going to die here. We’re all going to die.”

The Barkeep looked to the giant of the man, curled fetal at the cavern’s maw-like threshold, rocking like a fitful child and shook his head sadly. For a long while words escaped him and then he mustered the syllables that slow frothed from his starved and insensate brain.

“Maybe. You don’t know to a certainty. Ain’t no use cawing bout it.”

“They’re all dead. They’re all dead.”

“We don’t know where Villavic’s group went but I don’t see any bodies. Don’t see any blood. Here or outside. Unlikely they’re dead. Villavic’s sharp and Derrick is right capable of defending the gals. I knew him slight. Before the purge.”

The three young men who accompanied them conversed amongst themselves and when The Barkeep turned to them they fell silent. They looked worried.

The Keep didn’t like the look in their eyes. Greedy and feral. They had been those who had kept to the outer edges of the crowd when all the prisoners had landed and been freed. They’d always kept to themselves and seldom spoken. He wondered if they were brothers. Their features bespoke as much.

Garth, the evident leader of the youthful trio began babbling as Gunter continued to moan.

“What are we going to do? We… We’ll starve if we kept at it. If we don’t do something. You saw… saw what happened to those that drank from the river. Died. Shit themselves to death. Water. Its poison. This whole fucking island is poisoned.”

Suddenly there came a hideous cry and following it a rusted machete. Gareth screamed and dropped to his knees as the brand sliced into his skull and continued to scream as its wielder withdrew the weapon and then brought it down again and again and again.

Todesregel Isle (Part IIII)

Gunter’s wrathful howls briefly filled up the ambit of the creaking, frost-laden wood where the bodies of the dead lay like flowers from some other world of mescaline dream, swiftly swallowed by a snowstorms ceaseless churning as the survivors of the wael made for the cave, found it and huddled about in the middling-dark, scratching about for a fire. Villavic proved most proficient in the construction of a blaze and was consequently looked upon as a momentary savior as a light blossomed beneath his deft and dirtied hands, stiff-moving against the chill. The waif hunched beside him like a lost dog, her wide, coffee-grass eyes fixed upon the flames and her hands upon her knees. Even Gunter was momentarily bewitched by Villavic’s sorcerous generation and ceased his cursing and watched a while until Villavic asked Derrick to free the pugilist from his shackles. Derrick did so and Gunter thanked Villavic and asked why such solemnity afixed all faces and where to the rest of the party had gotten. Villavic suspected the boxer already knew but set himself down beside his small, smoldering fire and explained.

“They’re dead.”

“All?”

“All but those here.”

“Fuck.”

“Had you been successful in routing the women from the cave, they’d have died,” Villavic gestured to the waif, “She would have died. Do you understand, Mr. Gunter?”

“Aye. I think I might have gone a little mad.”

Villavic stifled a laugh, “Only a little?”

“Aye. I’m sorry.”

For a while, all were silent and contemplative as the wind ranged between the branches of the trees like the tortured souls of all those that had died there’neath. The barkeep, who sat opposite Villavic, finally broke the silence, his voice low and hushed and filled with the uneven trembling of fear.

“I can’t stop thinkin’ bout that skull. Out there. In the marsh.”

“What do ya think coulda done something like that?” Derrick asked to no one in particular, his eyes fastened to the fire. The barkeep shrugged. The crone spoke up then, emerging from the shadows at the far edge of the dancing light, “This place is cursed.”

“Ah, hell, woman, stop saying that.” The barkeep ejected with frustration. Villavic noticed a rising tension in the group, now but thirty in number, a paralyzing sense of uncertainty and terror. The old woman’s arcane pronouncements would only act as a stimulant. He thought it was prudent to intervene. No survival without general purpose and no general purpose without general knowledge.

“Alright, settle down, now. We’ve a bad enough spot of it without working ourselves up any further.”

The young woman, Ericka, turned towards Villavic where he sat in the middle of the cavern, beside the fire on an odd-shaped rock liken to a throne and there was venom in her eyes and tongue alike.

“My husband is dead.”

“He is. Losing your focus and letting your emotions overtake you will only increase the likelihood that you will join him. I have known many a couple and, given this knowledge, I can induce that he would, were he still with us, want you to survive. Don’t you?”

The woman feel into silent weeping as Villavic rose, stretched and took stock of the back of the cave, opposite the entrance, where the flour had been stashed. Then he removed from a hidden inner pocket in his jacket a small, leather-bound journal and a mechanical pen and set himself backdown upon his rock.

“Tell me your names.”

“Why?” Inquired the barkeep.

“Because, if we all die, it would be helpful for whoever finds us to know, all the better to circumvent a unmarked grave.”

Todesregel Isle (Part I)

The wind hissed and twined like ethereal snakes above the taiga. All was silent save the cawing of crows who high-circled the heads of the prisoners on the creaking ferry and they one hundred and twenty in number, all chained and over-watched by guards who moved pendulously, left to right, machine guns at-the-ready, eyes masked by helmet-dark. One lit up a cigarette and watched a pack of crows tear an eagle from the sky without comment or concern.

No distinction was made nor given to that swelling fearful mass of fletynge flesh, all similarly garbed in gray, tattered wool, white bands of incrimination upon every arm, distinguishable in the failing light due only their size and pallor. Though all fettered shook with the chill casting off the water like the spirit of death, none dared raised their voice in protest to the bandless sentries who stalked the deck like clockwork toys.

Gregor Villavic starred at the chains about his wrists and ankles and followed them to their source in the side of the ship. If the vessel capsized there would, for the prisoners, be no escape. He turned and watched a pale boy look to his arm band and thought of his ragged little body eaten by fish, bloated by wave-churn and parasites. The child whispered that his armband reminded him of his mother’s tablecloth and that it had been tied too tight by the guards. He asked if Villavic would remove it. The man shook his head and leaned against cold steel of the ship, “If I try to take it off, they’ll shoot us. You know why this is happening. Why they put that on you?”

The boy shook his head.

Villavic nodded, more to himself than the boy and arched his back to view the island, fast encroaching. The isle was small and uneven and covered in mist and strange jutting tors that looked like the ferne halwes to a deity beyond all reckoning. When the ship made landfall the guards ordered the prisoners up and set a plank and disembarked and loosed their fleshy cargo on a rock outcrop just beyond the shore as the wind tore above them like an insane curse. The guards threw them four bags of flour and told them that should they try to leave the island they would drown and should they not, they’d be shot by the villagers on the land surrounding who were under orders from the regional regime.

An old woman wailed and began to cry like as the women and the waves lashed the shore and soiled the sediment with foam like the blood of some cthonic beast and then receded as a strange bird loosed a howl as if in welcome.

Villavic stood up straight and addressed the crowd, “I know none of you. Not your names, nor your religion or from whence you came. None of that matters now. All that matters is cooperation. You there,” He pointed to a bald middle aged man missing an eye and most of his front teeth.

“Derrick.” The bald man replied flatly, his glassy eyes flicking to Villavic and then back to the prison ship as it ghosted into the mist and vanished from sight.

“Derrick, you look fitter than most, can you help me carry the flour.”

The bald man nodded.

“Good. Lets try and find a place to sleep. Somewhere further inland.”

The women weren’t listening and the old crone sobbed and hugged herself, muttering a prayer under her breath and rocking back and forth.

“What is her name?”

Derrick shrugged. A reedy waif spoke up with suddenness.

“Olga, sir. She doesn’t speak yer tongue.”

“Do you speak hers, girl?”

The waif nodded and addressed the crone who nodded solemnly and said a final prayer and rose awkwardly, so weak with fear and the depredations of the crossing that she could barely stand. Villavic gestured for all to rise and shortly the crowd was brought under his control and he lead them from the southern shore to the north, up a steep incline which flattened out into a filthy marsh, coated at every turn with skeletal brush and reeds the bones of animals. Up went a wail as the crone fell to her knees in the filth, making a sign that was unfamiliar to all but the waif and she gasping with terror the whole of her pallid frame. When Villavic followed their gaze he cursed neath his breath.

Laying in the muck before the women was a human skull, slick with blood.

Derrick and an old man with a long gray beard sided up to Villavic as the waif led the crone away from the horror.

“That poor soul was hewn to pieces. Hair and flesh still cling to it. Whatever killed the man, they did it not long ago.” The old man intoned grimly.

Villavic surveyed the settling dark apprehensively and responded flatly.

“Whatever or whoever.”