Beast was first published in the magazine Odyssey, and is reprinted here by special permission of the author, John Grant. Copyright © 1997 John Grant. Further reproduction, in any form or by any means--electronic or otherwise--is expressly forbidden without prior permission of the copyright holder.
Warning: Some of the content of this story may be objectionable to some readers. We strongly encourage our younger readers to seek parental guidance before continuing to read this story.
As expected, Almatria, King of Sanjran, sent his daughter Cimara to me for a certificate of her virginity preparatory to her betrothal to Prince Genon, eldest son of Xilon, King of Debreia, whom if all be well she shall wed within the year. She arrived this morning - a pretty little thing, deliciously flat-chested and squint-eyed, all ringlets and blushes and ribbons tied in unexpected places - so I debauched her for much of the day, then gave her her certificate as well as the obligatory nuptial present for the happy couple. Decided against the incurable clap, as being passé, and the demon-seed, as merely tiresome; settled for cold feet at bedtime for both the newlyweds - in perpetuity, naturally: all the best curses last for a lifetime. I'd allow a few years at most before Sanjran and Debreia are at war.
After she'd gone I ate, drank, wenched and ordered a couple of flayings for the morrow. And so to bed . . .
And that's precisely where I'm going to go now, scribe, so pack up your quills and your scrolls and be gone from my sight. I've had enough of everything for the day, but most especially talking to you, my faithful amanuensis. Tomorrow
For now, leave me alone with my bottles and my thoughts, and pray on my behalf to the nonexistent god or goddess of your choosing that I'm not troubled by dreams tonight.
He goes, surrounded by a swarm of musty smells--hot sealing-wax and powdered ink-block, stale parchment newly brought from a dusty cellar--and the heavy door closes behind him, bellying the drapes around the walls. I watch the blank door as his footsteps rattle away down the corridor. Only after he's exchanged a brief word with the guard posted unnecessarily at the top of the stairs do I begin to relax, puffing out a long gust of air and brushing the front of my lavish tunic as if I hadn't already removed supper's crusts a hundred times before.
It's late, and the night is empty except for a thousand stars and a scimitar moon as I lean against the windowsill, breathing the cold, rank-smelling air. I wish I felt tireder. Once upon a very long time ago I might have found my mind exhausted at the end of a day like today--except, of course, that all those aeons ago I wouldn't have had a day like today.
And no scribe at the end of it to jot down my musings, with his crablike hand curled around his quill and his face all wrinkled with concentration and the tip of his tongue poking between his lips, and his reluctance to look up and gaze upon my face. In those days my thoughts weren't of much interest to anyone except myself--and even then, to be honest, still not much. It was only later, after things had changed, that people and all the other mortal beings of the World's Dross began to expect me to keep a diary of my doings, so that after my death a stuffy scholar can piece together the story of my life--changing it, in that very act, into something new, something that will be as much his as mine.
After my death? . . . I should be so lucky.
This is the time of day that I like the best: the early part of the night. The castle is quieting, the last pots have been jangled in the kitchens and emptied in the latrines, and the horses in their stables are silent except for occasional snickered equine confidences. Most of the guards are in their beds, their armour just a heap of empty metal shapes on the floor, so I won't have to listen to their mindless clanking until the morning. Sometimes there's a scream from the dungeons, but I try to discourage that sort of thing after dark. In an hour or so the vampire bats and the owls will be out and the dragon will be a-roar, warning off trespassers and benighted travellers, and the thunder-and-lightning spell will give its diurnal chuggety-chug as it gears itself up in readiness to split, if required, the ebon into a billion humming fragments; I hope in the nameless name of the Darkness that it won't be needed tonight. I wish, as I wish every time that I'm allowed to be on my own, that I could dispense with these appurtenances of evil and power but . . . well, they're expected of me. They come with the job.
It's a bloody stupid place to build a castle, one would have thought, here beneath the looming slopes of Starveling-stage. Castles--especially castles for things like me--should be stark against the skyline, their grim, angular walls bleakly staring across all of the surrounding countryside, both a statement of unconquerable might and a reminder of the power of their lord's rule . . . not to mention a defence against any who should ignore those unsubtle hints. But the builders of this castle--my castle, Starveling itself--must have been ignorant of the symbolism of tyranny, for they constructed its walls of white marble, and set the edifice in the middle of what, although now just a weed-strangled wreckage, was then a thriving city. When I realized their error, some time after I took up residence, I had my minions stain the walls dark with filth and blood, but I never got round to moving the castle as a whole to the top of Starveling-stage, which is surely where it belongs. Maybe one day . . .
No. The Dross is accustomed to Starveling's being where it is. So, more importantly, am I.
But from Starveling-stage's high plateau the views would be so breathtakingly good . . .
A guard enters. His face looks white and nervous.
Is there anything else that the Master requires before . . . ? he begins, his voice the thinnest twig on the branch as the mounting breeze warns of tempest.
NO! I bellow. The tapestries beat against the walls with the force of my shout. I have told you all to leave me alone for the night! The guard's face eases: by giving vent to my wrath I have fulfilled his expectations, reassuring him. Do I have to cast you blockheads to the tormentors before you learn to heed my commands?
The pretty pallor comes back to his cheeks. He salutes me with a limp hand and is gone.
I grin, though there's hot moisture pooling at the sides of my mouth. The threat was empty, as he knew. If my power were less absolute I would not be at liberty to exercise it so sparingly as I do. Power brings with it the freedom to advise and cajole.
Solitude. Oh, yes.
Sometimes I wonder if it's perhaps, everything considered, all actually worth it for these precious times of solitude. Loneliness I'm inured to; solitude is my luxury.
I breathe a shroud of curling whiteness and put the first of the night's heady-smelling bottles to my lips.
It's funny how one's mind forgets some of the major details of the past and yet can conjure up the apparent trivia with such vividness, producing mental scenes so rich in every detail that it seems you're no longer just remembering them, you're reliving them. Perhaps there is some use in my having a scribe, after all: I could call for him now and order him to search all through the scribblings of his predecessor until he could calculate precisely which year it was, counting back from the present, that saw the change in me. But I'll leave him to his slumbers or his doxies or, if my suspicions are correct, his catamites. I don't want anyone with me now.
Besides, if my memory serves me right, the first thing I did after his predecessor died was to burn all that he'd written. It was as if I were casting off the burden of my past. Just for a moment, I felt like a new-born child all over again--which was a curious sensation for me to feel, come to think of it, because of course I never was a new-born child in the first place.
I wonder what it's like--being born. Perhaps I'll ask the inkfingers about it in the morning. The trouble is, him and the rest of them'll likely all be too tongue-tied with their terror to be able to give me a straight answer, for fear of incurring my wrath. The rack or the white heat of the tongs would make 'em describe it for me, of course, but I'd never know for certain if it was the truth they'd told or just some wild imagination babbled out to try to make the pain stop.
Stupid creatures, mortals. What makes them think that pain ever stops?
I can remember who brought me into being. He was a man who had been blinded at the behest of the cruel woman he loved--blinded already to her cruelty by his love for her, of course, but now she'd had her soldiers seize him and burn his eyes away. He was thrown naked out of this very castle, and sent to walk the World with nothing for his companion save his despondency and his sightlessness. He never spoke to me about what it was like, those first few weeks, begging people he could no longer see for rags with which to cover himself and food to put in his belly; but from the way his hands used to shake whenever he was not-talking about it I can guess it was misery. Must have been. And yet I can't, to be honest, feel any true pain on his behalf, because if it hadn't been for that distress then he might never, from the pits of his isolation, have created me.
I was closer to him than any human being had ever been--closer, indeed, than any human being could ever be to another. I was dearer to him than a lover, or even a child. Lovers often say that they are of one soul, but in our case it was actually true: we were of one soul. His soul. There was enough inside him of whatever fabric it is that souls are made of to fill not just himself but also my own clumsy, unspirited husk. He had conjured the conception of me from his own dreamings and the matter of me from the earth and the air around him, from the waters of rivers and the fire of sunsets, but a soul for me was not something that could be magicked into existence: he had to tap off some of his own soulstuff and pour it into me.
I was too stupid to be grateful.
In fact, in those days I was too stupid for anything much. It's easy enough to talk in the abstract of feeding off someone else's spirit--a gift gladly given, but a one-way flow of psychic nutrient however you choose to look at it. It's quite another business actually to live that way. Had it been possible for him to give me all the soulstuff I required in a single great dollop, and there an end of it, I might have found my own, independent wits far earlier. As it was, he was the primary and I the satellite, with the centre of rotation being inside him. There was a constant flux of soulstuff through me, none of it ever seeming to stay still long enough for it to congeal in place and become me, my exclusive property.
Because of my soullessness, my master declined to give me a name--and, indeed, I had no name for myself. Some of the children we met called me Piggy , because of my appearance; I answered to their calls of Piggy but I didn't regard it as a name--merely as a descriptive tag, hung from me by string. I was just . . . my master's beast.
I saw things in a haze, events rushing by outside me, rarely seeming to impinge upon me directly. I hadn't then learnt the knack of ordering my perceptions to make events occur in a steady and logical progression: I hadn't discovered how to impose the arrow of time upon my experiences. Past, present and future were all interchangeable for me; I had no fixed present, no sensation of now . It is an ignorance that I might often wish I still possessed.
I can remember some things from that period, however, although whether any of them hold or held any significance is something that I guess at rather than judge. Somewhen and somewhere I met the cruel golden woman who had blinded my master, and she tormented me, too--perhaps torture and slaughter were all that she ever did--so that pain filled my universe without beginning and without end. She had her minions nail me to a board and mutilate me until my body was so damaged that my master was forced to withdraw his soulstuff from it. Later--it must have been later--I was in my body again, knowing my identity only because of that fact, and I discovered that he had taken those mutilations, and all the agonies that came with them, to himself, rendering me whole once more.
I loved him sacred sevenfold for that act of love.
And then there was the time of his going. All of this was very muddled in my potpourri mind, you understand; but I can recall as my first moment of proper mental clarity the instant that the golden woman plunged a dagger into his throat, wounding him mortally. She left him for dead, but he wasn't yet quite dead. Enough of his soulstuff remained attached to his fleshly self for him to direct its departure. We were in the corridor of a lushly furnished hotel. (Don't ask me where the hotel--or even the idea of a hotel--came from. It was all wrong, except that it was only afterwards I realized that--at the time, as awareness seeped into me in perfect synchrony with the seepage of life out of the gash in my master's throat--the hotel was just another part of the jumble of my existence.)
He put part of his soulstuff into a flawed gem, a stone gewgaw, and the rest of it he donated in perpetuity to myself. Maybe I've got that the wrong way round--maybe I was the primary recipient of his essence, and the jewel merely took the overflow (because I was of course a much smaller receptacle for soulstuff than my master)--but I think it likely that what he gave me were the leftovers from what he imparted to the gem. Certainly, as his eyes glazed, I got the impression that, however great the love he had for me, his solitary true companion, the stone was more important than I was. In my more cynical, self-hating moments--and there are a lot of those--I think that maybe he gave me only enough soulstuff to ensure the survival of the gem. Through bubbles of blood he told me where to take it, and I did so; only then did I start grieving for him.
The World was falling apart around then. Even as I left the emptied body of my master, lying sprawled and gruesome on the garishly carpeted corridor floor, even as I felt my own, independent consciousness settling into position, so that events around me were becoming ordered into a rationalized progression--even then I could see that this dissolution was happening. Great swathes of the past were fading away like ancient ink, and being written over in a fine strong hand, so that no trace of them remained. Wherever I looked, the artefacts of humankind were fragile and cloud-edged, their permanence eroded: their existence had become strictly provisional, so that at any moment a whim of the departing World might not only render them as if they had never been, but make that in fact the case. The only rule was constant change; the only thing of permanence was transitoriness.No. I lie. People, too, had a permanence--a permanence of soul, however much they changed superficially. People and presumably other sentient creatures--because I was now vain enough to describe myself as sentient. There was a difference, though, between us. I was aware of all the changes that were going on, but it seemed to me that my human counterparts were not. I would see the same person changing in costume, role, skin-colour, age and sex--even from dead to alive and back again--all within the space of seconds. Sometimes people disappeared; sometimes they seemed to pop into existence out of nowhere yet be totally unsurprised by this event. It took me a long while to realize that their lack of concern came about because they had no cognizance of any such change: as the past altered, in detail and in total, so did their memories of it. The person who, in my unsouled perception, had abruptly changed from a priest to a harlot knew nothing of it, because in her/his own mind s/he had always been a harlot.
More than that, the World around that person had, so far as s/he was concerned, always been, if not identical to the way it was now, then at least rationally different: the myriad of altered versions of the World each came with an entirely self-consistent history, an evolved past. That was why, however much a person's appearance and past might vary with each second, the person was, at the most fundamental level--the level of the essence--unaffected.
Such inferences came to me some while after, because I was more preoccupied with the many changes that were going on in me. In giving me so great a deal of his soulstuff, my master had also given me much of his mannishness. Over a period of days my tail retracted into the base of my spine and my trotters forked into inelegant fingers and toes and hands and feet. My hindlegs grew and swelled until I was walking upright on them. The coarse hairs all over my porcine body remained, so that even to this day I am bristled everywhere; my ears likewise stayed pointed and large, and the tusks of my lower jaw still thrust themselves erectly from the sides of my mouth. But my face flattened, my crudely moulded snout became an almost bone-like beak, and curly hair grew over the dome of my head and around my chin. In a dim light I looked like a caricature of a man--but that was much more like a man than I had looked before, and so it satisfied me.
Not my eyes, though. The first time I looked at myself in a mirror I saw that they were still wild eyes--the eyes of a forest boar. I would have recoiled from the wayward ferocities I saw displayed in them were it not for the fact that they so much formed a part with the feelings that surged through me of strength and vitality and virility (I use that word advisedly). I had the appetite of ten in those early days, yet if anything I grew leaner: my body was a steel-ringed barrel rather than a flabby tub. And my rampant appetite was not solely directed towards food and drink: I wanted--I had--to gorge myself on every aspect of my new-found existence. I ran, I swam, I roared, I spoke (despite the protests of unwieldy vocal cords), I slew, I fucked . . . oh, yes, there was a lot of fucking for me, because in my new form I found myself the proud possessor of a sprightly mannish phallus, by whose responses to sensual stimulation I was in turns fascinated and devoured. Women, men, creatures of farm and field: all became my partners in sexual congress during my modulation from swine to something manly. Days went by during which it seemed I scarce withdrew my tireless member from some damp receptacle or other before popping it blithely into the next.
The giddy times slowly ended. There was no moment of conscious decision--just a gradual realization that I could gain greater pleasure from talking with someone than tupping them . . . or at least from talking with them beforehand. I fell in love with words--fleshlike words, spoken in my own rough voice. My vocabulary increased exponentially, both driven by and driving the ecstatic pleasure I discovered in creating complex artefacts out of verbs and nouns, sensually subjunctive forms and wilfully playful gerunds. They inspired my thoughts to greater and ceaselessly greater heights, and in return my thoughts drove my vocabulary ever outwards into the as yet unexplored terrains of the language. The synergy of this generated more energy in me than I had ever imagined existed: I felt it as heat, as if my very being were aflame. Every sensation was an act of learning for me, something that could be classified and stored away and correlated with all the millions of others in the library of my mind. I had great, universe-weaving and universe-destroying notions which I built upwards and all around me in brightly flashing networks, only to discard each of these objects of beauty as insouciantly as if it had been a piece of coloured wrapping-paper, crumpled through use and thereby deprived of its function.
In a way, I suppose that this orgy of words and ideas was really no different from the fleshly splurge in which I'd earlier indulged myself.
And it, too, came to its natural end.
With everything--or almost everything--in a state of perpetual flux and decay, the yen grew in me to find some rock of stability to which I could cling. I required there to be in my life some representation of human endeavour that would retain its form during the dissolution of the World. Like a child who can tolerate all sorts of changes in life, I needed something as omnipresent as a favourite rag doll to trail around behind me.
It was then that I thought of Starveling, which had always been the navel of the World. Once it had been my creator's palace--his and the cruel golden woman's--but with him dead and her presumably fled, then it seemed rightful to me that I should be the successor to the ownership of that vast pile. And who could contradict me? I was ripe with the sap and juices of my own virility; I seemed to be more thoroughly present than anyone else around me. I felt as if I had been stamped right into the core of the World; however much its gossamer peripheries and their denizens should be shredded away into nothingness, I would certainly . . . remain. With that strength of mine, I had no conception that anyone might contest my desire to take up what I saw as my rightful inheritance: Starveling.
In the event, I was to be proven right about that. My error was in forgetting that it wasn't just the inhabitants of the World who were losing their own reality but also the World itself. I had conceived myself simply taking ship and horse to Starveling--a perhaps tedious journey, but an unexceptional one, and over ground that would be in essence familiar to me.
That wasn't to be the case. The World that its inhabitants had always known was being not just manipulated but destroyed--something so obvious that, to me in the middle of it all, it was easy at first not to realize it. The bulk of the World--both material and more importantly spiritual--was being sucked into a furnace, to be melted down and then reconstituted into something else entirely. What that could be, I had and have no knowledge: I think that it's likely impossible that I ever could have knowledge of it. But here and there in the disorganized shards being left behind could be found foci of stability: myself, for one, because my soulstuff was inextricably conjoined with my physical presence (or perhaps--as I sometimes think when too many bottles of booze have darkened my reflections--perhaps simply because I wasn't clever enough for my soul to be wanted as a part of whatever new thing the molten detritus of the World was becoming). It was my intuition--one that was to be borne out--that Starveling would prove to be another such focus, another seed around which the Dross could crystallize. On my journey to the site of Starveling there would be no familiar landscapes, no well trodden terrains, no fixed mountainslopes and long-eroded river paths. Instead I would find a new and fantasticated land, a land founded upon illogicalities and populated by well forgotten dreams, a scenario of transience that I, by my very passage through it, would witlessly make coagulate into reality. Had I had any control over this process--had I not been so stupid as always not to notice until immediately afterwards that this was what I was doing--I might have rightly thought of myself as a god. As it was, I saddled both the recrudescent Dross of the World--and, more pertinently, my continuing self--with a motley agglomeration of human folk-fancies, and much more. Much worse.
But, as I say, I was too stupid--too brute-stupid--to know what was going on.
Imagine the scene. I'd crossed the Sea of Hollows into Albion without much incident, save the lack of a ship: I had walked the waters, unknowingly turning that tract of choppy sea into, forever, a tract of choppy land; in Qazar I'd slept in the wraith of an inn, hearing the spectral cries of past seagulls as I pulled gossamer blankets over my head in the dawn, anxious for an hour's more sleep. I'd strolled along the old winding road, now a rippling bridge that disappeared underfoot behind me. I'd come into a nameless village and almost passed through it before realizing that there had been something different about it as I'd approached. I looked back down the single street, then forward along the ethereal bridge, then back again.
Yes--where all ahead of me was grey-limned, as if probable rather than actual, the hamlet had displayed, from the moment it had first appeared in my vision, a hard-edged definition. And the colours: they were brighter, like those seen through a raindrop. Near to me was a bush of green. A dog, yipping from one doorway to another, was marked in stark black and white. Over there was a wall of good red-brown brick, and projecting from it was an inn sign painted in all the colours of the rainbow but much more substantial than those. Greater contrast could hardly be imagined between all of these and the subtle gradations of grey to which I'd become accustomed.
Intrigued, I retraced my steps.
I pushed open the tavern door, appreciating the splintery feel of its wood against my fingertips. The scent of spilled beer came to me--something that had lacked from the inn in Qazar. Sconced torches around the walls made the polished tables gleam. Behind a trestled bar an oaf in an apron beamed.
I gulped. Ale!
The oaf made no movement as I entered, nor as I ambled in his direction. Stooping, I scraped up a wayward shadow from the floor and squeezed it until it became a purseful of coins; then I leant against the bar.
A jug of your best, I said. And be snappy about it. I've a beastly thirst from the road's length.
Still he didn't move.
I raised an eyebrow, having learnt this gambit from a dockside trollop in Llandeer.
Not a twitch from him. Still he leered doorwards, as if anticipating some new entrant.
I reached out and shoved his shoulder. It was like pushing against a cliff-face.
He's fixed, said a voice of warm beeswax behind me. He's mine.
I turned to look at the speaker. It had been my impression that the oaf and I were alone in that place, but for some reason my eyes had glid past the table in the corner by the window.
I made him, added the figure sitting there.
I was speechless. I had seen the beauty of the golden woman, which my own maker had believed to surpass all. My own soul, inherited from him, had modified that judgement, but as yet not greatly: I thought I was more perceptive of beauty in other beings than he ever was, but then that is what we all believe of our own tastes. I had seen the loveliness, too, of mountains and skies--of musical notes and a graceful equation--yet I had experienced nothing that could be compared with the beauty of this . . . being.
I cannot say man or woman , for it was neither, and both; I cannot even say with full certainty that it was a human being, or a mortal at all. Instead it was a confluence of radiance into fleshly form, yet I sensed that the flesh would be of feather-lightness--like a cake that has lost the characteristics of its eggs and flour and become a fluffy thing with the will to float on the room's draught. In my first glance I observed the being by means of all my senses, overloading them. And yet I cannot pinpoint the root of all this being's brilliant beauty. It is a truism to say that some sights are too fair to be captured in words, but the individual by the window was, I believe, too fair to be captured even in sight--certainly I can conjure up in my mind's eye not even one morsel of what made it lovely.
Yet I can still focus--as clearly as if I confronted it now--some of the being's attributes. The overwhelming sensuality, for example. That may appear an odd observation to make of something that was by its very nature asexual--indeed, in many ways seemingly aphysical. Even the experience itself was paradoxical: I found every cell of my body to be sexually vibrant, yet my member remained unaroused. And I can still see bits of the being, like its light-white face and the clear yellow-green of its feline eyes. Oh, yes--one more thing: its head was capped by a copper-colour fuzz, like a halo.
But all of this, so powerful as it may seem, was ephemeral beside one other thing. I've noted before that, in the times after the dissolution of the World, I felt myself to be more truly present than anything else in the Dross. Facing this luminous being, I knew that I was in the company at last of something else with that self-same proerty.
Come and sit down, said the entity. See, your ale is already set here for you.
And sure enough it was: a stoneware tankard topped with foam. The polished table had, I could have sworn, before been empty of anything save the being's reflection.
We must talk, it said. You and I. I have decided that it shall be so.
Talk . . . I said with a tongue of cloth and teeth of rubber. Us. I was sitting opposite my interlocutor, my beer halfway to my mouth; either I had been carried to my chair by ensorcellment or, as seems in retrospect more likely, I had been enchanted in a less magical fashion by the being's beauty.
You have a name? I continued, bringing myself under control. My past had, after all, taught me the importance of names.
She chuckled--the chuckle made me think of her as a she, although in a way that was divorced from the surging sexuality in which her presence bathed me--she chuckled, I say, and eased back in her seat. More names than your mind will hold, she assured me, unreassuringly.
My mind is humble, I agreed, though it will hold more than I've yet tried to put in it.
Again she laughed, though her laughter didn't hurt me. Your own name is Piggy, she said, a fact that I know because I know everything there is left to know here in the Dross.
The ale tasted as good as it had looked. I had drunk half the tankard down, and still it was full.
There was much more to know when the World was here, I said.
So wistful you are, Piggy, she said, reaching forward and taking my free hand in hers; her touch was like the soft underbelly fur of a kitten. It made me tremble. There's no need to mourn the passing of the World, you know, or to look on the Dross as inferior just because it's been left behind. Both are as real as each other. The Dross's malleability is a quality that the World might envy, if it were so wise.
I found her words oddly unconvincing. It seemed plain to me--still does--that she was not of the Dross, but was saying all this merely to comfort me.
But let us not talk on such things, she suddenly said, though in truth I had talked very little at all. She released my mitt and folded her fingers neatly, moving them covertly against her palms. I have brought us together here so that we may play a wagering game--a game that'll determine not only the future of the Dross but also your rôle in it.
I've never gambled, I said, I wouldn't know how to begin.
It's easy: I'll show you how.
She ceased whatever she had been doing with her fingers and unlaced her hands, spreading them out with their palms towards me.
Here are the cards we'll play with, she said.
I could see no cards but, as she fanned her hands, I slowly began to realize that there were indeed cards there. Though no rectangles of pasteboard flew from one hand to the other, a flurry of sensations did. She stopped the flow, and deliberately laid out a single empty space on the table between us.
You observe? she said negligently.
And I did. The card portrayed a man being crucified. I felt the nails being hammered into my wrists and ankles--just as I'd felt them so long ago in the disordered period of my existence.
A constellation glistened in the night sky, its five main stars like punctures through into some fierier creation.
And here, a last time.
A home burnt as I watched it, the occupants' screams heavier even than the smoky air.
Give me the cards, I said.
She sorted them quickly and passed the pack to me. My fingers closed around a handful of nothingness--but what nothingness! Here was the stuff of lifetimes. In a tidal wave of emotions, I was being all simultaneously birthed and slaughtered, the latter in several ingenious ways. I knew famine and plenty, gaiety and gloom, triumph and humiliation
I put the deck down with a shudder. All this from holding merely the cards' edges.
Your cards are too . . . strong for me.
She smiled. Only if you're touching them direct, dear Piggy. If I handle them on your behalf, you'll be all right.
She gestured towards the window beside us. Moments ago it had been mid-afternoon, but now it was just past sunset, the time when the deep-blue twilight seems to make the air thrum.
The evening's the time for gambling, she said, not the day. There was a green eyeshade on her forehead that I'd not noticed before. A cigar curled blue smoke from a stone ashtray by her elbow.
She shuffled the cards and then spread them out rapidly in front of her, in four neat rows. I waved my hands above them to check my first impression--that they were, as it might be, face-down. True enough, no created emotions jangled through me.
A simple game, she said, taking a draw on her cigar. As simple as a game could be. All you must do is point at a card, and it becomes yours. I take the card immediately to its right--or from the left-hand end of the next row, should there be none to your card's right on its own row. Those are the rules.
But what am I trying to achieve? I said. How will the winner be determined? I leant forward urgently, my elbow almost knocking my alejug over. What are the stakes?
I'll tell you that after we play. Now come on, hurry up: I can't tarry here forever.
But you could cheat! I protested.
D'you think I would? She raised her eyes, and stared directly into mine. Hers were corridors leading to places I knew I'd never be able to go, yet yearned to. I knew, then, that if she indeed gulled me it would bring me greater delight than if any other adversary had played me fair.
The seconds passed.
Well, that's settled, then, she said at length. Now, my friend Piggy, waste no more time, but select your first card.
I pointed one out at random--I don't know how I knew where each one lay, but I did. She flipped it towards me, and it landed between my elbows, face-up.
I am a young woman. The enemies of my husband have pegged me out naked in the desert sand and hacked my breasts away. The biting insects have found the source of the warm sweet smell, and are feasting on the stumps; I can feel the tickling legs of thousands more hurrying up over me belly. The sky is full of men's faces, sweating as they jeer at my screams . . .
I raised my head dizzily to look at her face. She smiled lightly. I felt sick. My coarse-haired chest throbbed.
Whose pain did you feel? she said.
Hers. Hers, of course. Only, it's mine, now, as well.
Didn't you feel the pain of her tormentors?
No! I slammed my hand on the table, so that my tankard danced. I hated--hate--them.
They were human beings. The cards tell no fictions. They were in pain. Have you no compassion for them?
She nodded, and picked up her own card. From the far side of the table I could catch only a whiff of it. A child was being ripped from its mother's stomach and dashed against a wall. This time I could not hold back: I turned away and retched. The vomit vanished before it reached the stone floor.
When I looked back at her she was regarding me impassively, squinting through the smoke from her cigar. Putting it down, she blew a couple of perfect smoke-rings.
You must, to stay in the game. Surely you've realized that by now.
Maybe humans can take this sort of stuff, I said, but I'm not a human. I'm just a lowly beast.
But your master's beast. He infected you with his humanness. You grow daily more human. It was humans who did these things--not once, but hundreds and thousands of times. Can't you rely on your human part enough to stomach it just the once? Come on, Piggy--give it one more try.
It was true, what she said: though I was merely a beast, a segment of me aspired to the mannishness of my master. I shrugged her my acquiescence.
The next card flittered to the tabletop in front of me.
They manhandle me, screaming and fighting as I am, through the narrow dusty streets to where a priest awaits me beside the leaping flames. I don't know which I dread more, his absolution of my sins or the searing, man-sized griddle they've erected over the fire, the air boiling above it. He doesn't look me in the face, but mumbles his words so low and fast that I can barely hear them through the logs' spits and the breaths of my captors: all I learn from him is that the Creator determined the colours of skins with some good purpose in mind, which it is not my prerogative to question; my love was a dirty and forbidden thing, best scorched from men's memories. Then they throw me on my naked back on the red-hot metal . . .
My forehead was resting on my arms. I was weeping. The card had gone, though I had no knowledge of her having taken it away--perhaps, rather, those accursed cards just died when their function had been fulfilled. The still-lingering pain of my frying was a trivial inconvenience compared with the misery I'd felt when at last I'd recognized--truly recognized--the inevitability of the fact that these fellow-men of mine, fellows yet self-proclaimed forever strangers to me, were going to cast me onto the griddle, and watch me cook.
What do you feel for them? she hissed at me.
I didn't raise my head. I hate them with a hatred I didn't know I had, I said. I want to treat them as they treated me: I want to watch their flesh scorch as black as mine, before the fat runs off and the bones are revealed. And even then I want their agonies to continue. I want their dying memory to be of my pissing on their faces.
Look at me, Piggy.
I obeyed, my neck creaking in protest. Her face, as pure as a babe's, shone clearly through my smeared vision.
What of the priest? she said.
He most of all. The worst I would reserve for him.
Didn't you pity him?
I began to laugh, painfully, through my tears. It was answer enough.
Piggy, she began, laying her hand on mine again--this time I shook it off.
Your guise, I said, is one of virtue, yet what your vile cards reveal of your imaginings shows you to be possessed of a greater evil than I've known to exist.
I told you before, Piggy, those are no imaginings of mine. The cards cannot invent, merely recall. Those are true memories of human deeds.
They're fantasies! I said, rearing back from the table. They're your own nightmares--or, worse, maybe to you they're not nightmares at all.
Believe what you will, she said blandly. She puffed her dead cigar back alight, then gazed down at the cards in front of her. She picked up the one to the right of the space where my last had been.
Again I was troubled by a leaking vestige from her card. A man was thrown into a bath of acid. Fumes rose angrily. He would take a time to die.
True stories, she said, looking up after a while. Human deeds.
No! I roared. Fancies--sick fancies!
Can't you find memories like these amid your once-human soulstuff? She frowned slightly, to show me that her inquiry was a sincere one. Didn't your master hear of such things? Even witness them? Certainly he did.
I remembered yet again how the priestesses belonging to the golden lady had nailed me to their board. They had shown neither compassion nor compunction. But that was different: I had been only a beast, not a human. Surely they would not have . . .
And then I saw, both through my own tangled memories and the clearer traces of my master's, some of the things that humans had inflicted on other humans, back when the World had been with us. But harshness of that kind was not possible in the Dross, not among the ghosts who were its people.
Or so I'd believed before now. Now I saw the potential flaw in my judgement of such matters: the fact that, not being human myself, I was ignorant of the human experience. For a few seconds I felt guilt about those I'd murdered in my sport--but then I thrust the notion away. There was enough of human soulstuff in me to know that my earlier instinct had been the correct one. The Dross, being chaotic, has not attained such cruelties as the World knew--just their enactments, for the human beings peopling the Dross are only wraiths, their sensations of pain and pleasure merely paper thin. Maybe it will change later, but now, while the Dross is still young, you can set a person ablaze and they feel no more agony than if it were a picture of them you'd lit. The passions of humans are dilute. How can there be cruelty when the victim suffers so little? To be sure, the folk in my torture chambers scream lustily--but that is because they adore the drama of it, of occupying centre stage. Even their deaths are of little genuine consequence to them, for they're only a fraction alive.
Those are old sufferings your cards recollect, I said. Old crimes. The deeds that took place in the World are less than dreams to us here in the Dross.
She smiled sceptically. That thought will make your next card easier for you, she said, flicking it towards me.
The sounds of blood and excrement and the stench of screaming fill the world. The men came to our village this morning, arriving as if from the sky, they were so sudden. They dragged us all--save the women and girl-children, for whom worse awaited--around the hill to the forest of stakes they'd secretly erected. I'm one of the last to be raised until the sharp wooden point can be slotted into my rectum . . .
No! I bellowed yet again, standing up, throwing the table and all it bore clean through the window. Beyond anguish now, I was a flame of rage. I reached out a hand to throttle my adversary.
She was no longer before me. Instead, she was over by the bar, straightening the position of the grinning oaf there, as calm as if she were attending to housework.
You'll not harm me, she said over her shoulder, so don't waste your effort.
I let out a truly bestial cry.
A poor loser, she observed. How human.
Had I had a sharpened stake to hand . . .
You've lost the game. It might have been the other way around.
I merely snarled at her. She settled the mindless figure to her satisfaction. The eyeshade was gone, as was the copper cap of hair--her head was egg-bald. Her eyes were dancing with mirth, as if pain were jest.
And now it's time to settle up the stakes, she added, materializing a stool and perching on it. You've lost because even a moderate amount of pain was too much for you to tolerate. I had hoped it would be otherwise.
What stakes? I growled.
Your rôle in the Dross, of course--did I not intimate as much?
I shook my head, aware as ever of its clumsiness.
Come, calm yourself and sit down beside me.
I shook my head again. Tell me, I commanded.
She shrugged: clearly she was not much concerned by my roughness. Any universe must have its Principles of Good and Evil, she said. That's more than theology: it's a truth. If they're not there, they'll in due course be manufactured: they're required. It's as valid for the Dross as for anywhere else, which is why I came here, to seek out two individuals who could adopt those posts. But all I found --and here she nodded her head forlornly-- was yourself, Piggy. The humans have been leached by the loss of the World, and the animals likewise. Only yourself, neither human nor animal, are still altogether here. You may not wish it, but you're the Dross's sole spirit, its genius. Sole. Are you sure you won't sit down beside me? We're friends again now, are we not?
Have it your own way. She intertwined her fingers and stretched her arms, looking at the backs of her knuckles. It had been my desire that you might be divisible, so possibly giving to the Dross its twin but opposed Principles--yet you are far better integrated than your origin would suggest. And then I thought that at least you might be fitted to become the Dross's Soul of Good; the prospect of the Dross stumbling along for a while without an Evil Principle to hate dismayed me less than it should have, I confess. But, alas, you showed in our card game that you're unqualified for the task.
I told you before, I said, I'm just a humble beast. You cannot expect too much of me.
Perhaps you are far more than I expected, she said quietly, and for once her catly eyes looked soft. It depends on how you look at it. Whatever the case --with a dismissive wave of a small hand-- it's the inescapable truth that you're incapable of carrying the burden of human pain that a Principle of Good must bear. Even a small fraction of it came closer to destroying you than you yet realize.
I am glad I cannot stomach your twisted nightmares, I said.
In a way, I'm glad, too--glad for you. Her eyes were saying otherwise. Softly she added: But they weren't dreams.
Then what of me?
Another sorrowful smile. It's obvious, surely? You must become the Dross's Principle of Evil, must you not?
But . . . My crudely moulded hands were all that I could see. The sausage fingers flexed of their own accord. I had accepted my humbleness, my insignificance in the scheme of things, my baseness--yet until this moment I had never thought of myself as being particularly evil. Nor particularly good, come to that--neither. Now I saw myself as not even granted the virtue of insignificance: I was vile.
You're not vile, she said, plucking the word from my thoughts. Do not see yourself as so. And neither are you evil--rather, you're too virtuous, Piggy. A less meritable individual than yourself might have borne the burden of pain with insouciance, might have laughed their way through my simple trial. A Soul of Good must either be infinitely compassionate or completely heartless. You showed yourself to lack the degree of charity to have pity on the tormentors the cards brought to you; yet you were not heartless enough to contemplate dispassionately the sufferings of their victims. In all the universes, I know of no Principle of Good who has come to the post through compassion: all have hearts of stone, and would not survive otherwise. Piggy, stop weeping like this: is it not a fine thing to be, to be more virtuous than a god?
It didn't seem to me so: was I not less, even, than a human?
Come here. She said; this time it was no request. Stop weeping. Likewise. Sit down.
At last I looked up from my hands. Quite predictably--I say that with hindsight, of course--we were in a great dining-room, like one of those that had become so popular in the later days before the World deserted us, and even a little after, until they were dissolved by Drosshood. No, it was huger by far than any of those could have been: the furthest wall ahead of me was a hazy patch, almost too small to be seen; small clouds lurked in the mouldings of the ceiling, far above. Waiters with horns and arrow-head tails and grins like that of the tavern's oaf sped up and down the length of the hall's single table, at whose head sat I. At the very most remote end from me, yet seemingly no more than touching distance away, sat the beautiful entity.
She smiled and raised an empty glass, then drank the air from it. At her signal, the other diners down the sides of the table straggled to their feet--white bibs and black lapels and stupid little ties and elaborated bodices and oh-what-a-plunging-cleavage-that-tart-has-dear and all--and raised glasses charged with something more spiritous than mere air. Red, but not like blood.
They were cheering. Half a million cheers or more. They were gulping their liquor back. Half a million of them--it was almost as deafening as the cheering had been.
Drink, Piggy! called the being.
Yes--drink! came the bawl from omnes. Drink! Hail to you, our Gloried Soul of Evil! All that sort of human guff.
I would drink up if I were you, dear Piggy, whispered the being in my ear, even though she was kilometres distant. You'll find it'll help. These formal affairs are such a bore. And, as an immortal--oh, did I forget to mention that?--you have an eternity of them facing you.
Like my tankard in the tavern, so my glass here.
And some time later I awoke and found me there on a cold hill side.
Who knows who she--it--was? That she was not of the Dross was obvious, and much that she said persuaded me that she was not of the World, either. And who gave her the permission to visit this curse upon me? Or was she herself the highest authority?
Not here. Not any longer. There is but one Highest Authority in the Dross, is there not? Even I dare not deny myself in that.
Yet . . . yet, while I have lost that ridiculous humbleness I once felt towards humans--or, more precisely, towards the human soul and all the marvels I attributed to it--still I do not know but that I wouldn't go down on my knees before her, if that were what she desired me to do. Like I once might have before my maker, as his dutiful, adoring, infinitely inferior beast.
Despite the fact that, as the Dross's appointed Soul of Evil, I'm no longer a beast.
I am Beast.
I've cheated the system, of course, as I think I was intended to do. The Dross could do worse than having me--rather than anyone else--as its Principle of Evil and so, however I'm tempted to find a final relief from the loneliness and the pain, I take very great care of my life. To judge by the mess that the humans are making of the simple task of creating a Principle of Good for themselves, they'd make a real shambles of replacing me as their Soul of Evil--a loud ugh! to the thought! I've walled myself away here in Starveling, which I've transformed through brutal measures into a remote and impregnable castle, and the guards who shield me die in imaginative torment should I indicate to their officers even the vaguest, most unjustified scintilla of suspicion that one of them might not have my personal welfare as his highest priority. After all, while their pain may not be fully pain, as mine is, I know that they do not like to die.
Imagine how much worse it might be if I were to be replaced by someone without compassion. Cruel enough for a world that its Principle of Good should be like that.
There are compensations to this miserable existence. I have all that I could ever want by way of fleshly pleasures, and I find some joy in the exercise of my tyranny. If only rarely, sometimes I can distinguish that transcendent music which the more artistically minded of the dying make a part of their screams. And I gain some satisfaction from knowing that, in a backhanded fashion, I am indeed serving the Cause of Good.
But all of these are trivial rewards, save one, already adverted to and here easily enough delineated.
There was a time when I was ashamed of myself--ashamed of being Beast.
I feel nothing of that now.
By contrast, I am proud to be Beast. Indeed, let me shout it so that the rafters of Starveling ring: I am proud to be Beast!
(Starveling: a castle built of winds and rains . . .)
I am glorious in my own wildness, in my savagery, in my brutality, in the power of my self.
I am a fitting pivot around which all of this battered world, the Dross, the scraps that the World sniffingly discarded as too poor and inconsequential for its infernally fastidious consideration . . . I am the pivot around which all of the Dross must perforce turn.
I am not only the Soul of Evil, I am this world's soul.
I am the driving force that keeps the Dross alive.
I am Beast.
Let me bellow it again, in a voice so drink-thicked and rejoicedly guttural that it is impossible for anyone save myself to understand my power-hallowed words:
But . . .
I am unhappy as the echoes fade.
Drunk, I guess.
Time for bed.
For a moment the empty bottle is invisible, and then I hear it shatter on the flagstones below.
Lone Wolf © TM Joe Dever 1984-1999.