Ochre Sepulchre

Hraban Amsler came to the end of the forest path and continued apace. The sparse, charming wood thickening swiftly before him. Ochre and gold. Colors the harbingers of Fall.

He knew the route well and yet felt as if he’d taken a wrong turning. The feeling came unbidden into his mind, though the man knew he had taken the correct path, as he had countless times before.

After several minutes spent vainly attempting to recall his surroundings, he paused in a clearing and looked about, puzzled by the alien peculiarity of the place.

Skeletal branches scrapped the barren welkin as if in the throes of anguished fury and where once there had been stars there was now only ruts of deeper blackness, like scars upon shadow.

There was no wind; nor bird-song; nor cricket cry; nor the croaking of frogs; nor the gallop of deer; nor the skittering of skinks; nor the grunting of boar.

All about were bones and silence and nowhere was the path to Harrohane.

I swore I took the right path. And yet…

Amsler looked down at the watch strapped to his left wrist and muttered a curse. It was later than he expected, though the sun seemed not to have moved at all from when he left the well-worn path. If he didn’t arrive on time he was sure he’d be fired.

Amsler paused and rescanned the forest which seemed to be closing in about him. All about the trunks of the mangled wood were marks of wear, the bark torn and smoothed like deer-sign. He moved closer to the nearest tree, which bore no similarity to any species the man could recall, and bent to the smoothed area about its radius.

They were the marks of hands.

Human hands.

Hands moved by desperate, reptilian fear.

“What place is this?” Amsler wondered aloud, his breath coming cold before him, despite the oppressive heat of the vegetal enclosure. Again when he looked the trees had closed about him, the ground becoming thicker with snaking vines and grasping roots.

“Perhaps I’m dreaming.”

He felt his head as the sky became dark with the leafy canopy, the malevolent foliage drawing shadows upon the ground which danced as if in mockery and obscured the skittering insects which poured forth from flesh-sated soil and spilled like ocean waves against Amsler’s boots.

“Or hallucinating.”

The stalks of the ferns and trunks of the trees were now so thick about the man that the forty-by-forty clearing into which he had stumbled, had nearly disappeared, having now shrunk to the size of a living room.

“What I see, what I hear—this cannot be real, but rather some trickery—of my mind’s construction, or another’s. The marks upon the trees and the bones beneath them attests to the utility of panic. Even if this is some strange, new reality—which I do not believe—to react as my predecessors would prove fruitless. No, this is nothing more than a momentary fit of some kind. I know not its origins, but I know its solution.”

Steeled of mind, Amsler moved loquaciously forth, to a small stone mound in the middle of the clearing and there sat down upon it as branches reached out to him and insects flooded about his boots, exhuming the bones of the wood’s victims with their consumptive fervour.

He closed his eyes and inhaled as the stars, like arrows, fell from the welkin.

“I am unafraid of illusions, truthful though they be.”

When he opened his eyes the wood, and all within it, had gone. In place of the forest, a great sea of ash stretched out before him. The detritus began to shift, revealing a human form, skin cracked and glassy and breathless, and in its hand, a small bronze key, pristine amongst the flat, sandy expanse. Some fifty feet away from the ashen exhumation, a great manse stood out against the starless sky. Amsler observed the door of the house, which, like the key, was also of aged bronze. He bent to the curled corpse and trepidatiously reached towards the artifact.

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

Aedh Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven (1899)

HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.


by W.B. Yeats

The Silence & The Howl | Part 10

§.10


Harmon stood within the melting hall once more. The light in the distance so bright he couldn’t bring himself to look at it. The man from which the centipede had emerged stood once more, bathed in albescent resplendence. Fear quickened Harmon’s pulse as he shaded his eyes and pressed down the hall, compelled by desires he did not understand. When he stood within ten feet of the man he realized that it was not a man at all but a statue of a androgynous human, cast of obsidian or some like substance and it seven feet tall and smooth hewn by impossible skill. The statue’s left arm was elevated, palm facing up, its right arm declined, palm facing down, as if it were pushing in equal measure against the welkin and the earth. Where the obsidian creature’s stomach would have been was a gaping black hole and from it issued forth a ominous skittering that began as a whisper and increased in volume with every step towards it Harmon took. When he stood directly before the statue, within distance of embrace, the sound blared like a war-siren and he fell to his knees with the force of it, screaming as a million voices swarmed upon him, speaking forth in dreadful unison, their words indiscernible.

Loathsome legs, insectal and countless poured from the hole as ears gushed from Harmon’s eyes.

*

“Harmon. Harmon?”

Harmon’s eyes flew open as Lyla shook him. He rolled over in his bed to face the naked woman where she lay, her supple curves blue neath the light of the moon.

“You were making noises in your sleep.”

“I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“Bad dream?”

“Yeah. Keep… having a similar one. Same thing keeps happening over and over again… there are these voices and…”

Lyla leaned against Harmon and gently caressed his still heaving chest, teasing about his nipples and the small patch of hair between them. He pressed her to his breast and kissed her crown whereupon she looked up at him and kissed him upon the lips and slid her hand slowly down his chest and stomach to his slowly swelling cock. Harmon groaned and gripped her right breast in his rough and calloused hand, prompting a little gasp to escape Lyla’s thick, red lips and her eyes to roll and her body to sway gainst his own. Shortly the duo were swept up in passionate embrace and as the woman’s body shuddered neath his own, Harmon kissed her upon her nose and pulled slightly away.

“I love you, Bluebird.”

She said nothing and looked away and drew him closer to her body, forcing him deeper inside. Moaning. Moaning. Moaning. Digging her nails into his back until he bled.

*

The Silence & The Howl | Part 6

§.06


Harmon stood still. Paralyzing terror the whole of his form. The room was dark. A light visible in the distance. White and beckoning. The walls dripped viscously as if composed of oil or some like substance. A figure, human-like and yet not human, stood silhouetted by the albescent radiance surrounding. The man reached out to touch the effulgent entity whereupon, from the figure’s stomach, the form of a great centipedeal creature issued forth as if it had assumed the place of the sapient’s intestines and yet caused no outward signs of vexation to its host. A multitudinous choir lit up that seemed to come from everywhere at once, at first a garbled din, the voices swiftly coalescing and increasing in volume and rendering themselves decipherable.

*

Harmon woke and lay motionless. The afterimage of the dream linger yet in his mind, vivid but fading. It were a commonality of his life as far back as he could remember that his dreams had always been foreboding and filled with malice. Something was always chasing him or watching him, just beyond the plane of all perception. Some people said that dreams were omens, others would say they were the unconscious mind processing repressed or unrecognized memories and desires. Harmon didn’t really care either way. If an omen, it was unclear, if an unconscious wending, it communicated nothing to his higher cognition. Useless. He rose up on the bed and ran a hand through his dark, wild hair, rose and dropped to the floor, stopping his face with his powerful outstretched arms just before it collided with concrete. Muscles bulged and tensed and burned as the man reached the fifty sixth push-up. Fifty more and he rose and showered, shaved and dressed in a black T, blue jeans, gray socks and steel-toed leather working boots. The phone rang. It was Swain. No work due the rain. Harmon said “alright” and hung up. He cracked a beer and sipped it slowly, savoring the heady aluminium and hops-bathed flavors as he ascended the stairs from his room in the basement to the living room where stood his table. In short order, a notebook had been placed upon the table and the scratching of pencil thereupon filled up the house for hour after hour until the sun had risen full above the jagged, bleeding line of the horizon.

Harmon leaned back in the creaking wooden chair and observed his work and nodded with approval. His Bluebird looked beautiful.

The Silence & The Howl | Part 4

CHAPTER FOUR


After the showing ended and the gala closed Lyla, Serena and Harmon walked out of the school and drove down to one of the small, chic cafe-bars which had recently cropped up to celebrate. They set themselves down in the aromatic cedar interior on spotless red booths where shortly thereafter a pretty middle aged woman with a tight T and cowboy boots ambled over and asked what they wanted to drink. The girls ordered microbrewed IPAs, Harmon ordered Milwaukee’s Best. The trio sat in silence, drinking and looking around at the rambunctious patrons, smiling dumbly before Harmon, a quarter of the way through his beer, broke the silence.

“So, how’d you two meet? At school, I imagine.”

Serena nodded, “Yeah, I met her, hm, yeah, it was the first day of class. We had life drawing together. She was really good and we just got to talking.”

“I seen your paintings.”

“What did you think.”

“I thought they were very pretty. Kind of erotic though.”

“Though?”

Lyla cut in, sneering, “He’s a prude.”

“Ain’t that I’m prudish,” he arched his brow, “As you well know. Just that everything is oversexed. It detracts from the sacrality of the act.”

Serena stifled a chuckle and took a big swig of her beer. She found serious use of the world “sacrality” quite funny.

“What does he say when you two are getting it on?”

“Serena!”

Serena puffed up her chest and imitated Harmon’s gravely voice and stolid pose.

“Evening, ma’am, was wondering if ya’ll might kindly undress fer me.”

“Nah. I never ask her too undress. Only orders with me.”

Lyla, embarrassed and tipsy, punched Harmon in the arm whereupon he cracked a grin and threw his arm about her and pulled her close and kissed her crown. Lyla smiled and kissed him back, upon his lips, firm and briskly and he flushed a little, his heart skipping a beat.

“Well, aren’t you two just precious.”

“Don’t know about me. But she sure is. Most precious thing I have.”

Harmon looked to Lyla. For a brief moment, her smile faltered.

*

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.”

Writing Prompts 9/8/18

Theme (by popular vote): Lost in a dream.


Prompt #1

Pulled up through through the clouds, as if by some invisible hand, he was filled with fear and wonderment in equal measure. He wanted to keep flying but he didn’t want to fall…

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Prompt #2

Dreamer, lost in the misty corridors of Forgetfulness, paused to observe a stranger, advancing down from the wide, outer dark. Thoughts spooled round and out of the newcomer’s head like a pluming mask of yarn and once the distance had been closed, he reached into Dreamer’s head and plucked out a gleaming strand of mind.

“Fear here bares the texture of cotton. You’ll learn to appreciate it… in time.”

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Prompt #3

She knew she was dreaming, there was no other explanation for walking woods and floating mice, yet no matter what she did she could not wake. She even tried sitting atop the jellyfish chairs but they refused to sting! She spied a man-faced jackal atop a log and promptly demanded to be eaten.

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