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Pushing the Sky Away (Death of a Blasphemer)

by Caitlín R. Kiernan

The water is gone. The morphine is gone. My knapsack is now all but empty, containing nothing but the memory of useful things, of things that kept me alive. Of course, these winding, endless hallways were not ever intended for anything alive. These granite and limestone blocks were not laid here two and a half millennia ago so that any breathing woman or man would ever find hospitality within the corridors and chambers and antechambers that their union forms. To be sure, I am an intrusion, an interloper in a city of the dead. Though, it’s a passing violation that will soon enough be rectified.

Miles and miles and miles of shimmering green glass.

A tiny sun in my hand.

Fusion, fission in my palm.

I lie here shivering, delirious and feverish within my skin burned first by the summoned fires and then burned again by the Saharan days. I lie here and stare through shadows and guttering torchlight at limestone blocks and gypsum mortar. Occasionally, I permit my eyes to leave the precision of right angles and linger on the jumbled chaos of bones that litters the corridor. So far as I can see, not even the meanest scrap of flesh remains on any of them. Long, long ago they were picked clean, and the ghouls are impressively thorough. A matter of necessity, I would imagine; it can’t be very often that they happen upon even a stingy morsel of flesh; nothing is wasted. Most of the bones have been cracked open for their precious store of marrow, broken by teeth as suited to the task as the teeth of hyenas.

I lie here and stare into the shadows.

The irony is not lost on me, that I’ll die in darkness, fatally wounded by the light. The gods have a sense of humor, no matter how cruel.

She has come to speak to me of the gods and of many other matters. She has come either down from the world Above or up from the world Below. I can’t say which. I haven’t asked, as it doesn’t seem especially relevant. I lie with my head in her lap, my duster folded beneath my head for a pillow. She has olive oil for my cracked lips and my eyelids. Her tending to me is more a casual diversion, I know, than any sort of sympathy or compassion. Ones such as her know neither.

“You’ve come so far to go no farther,” she says, her whisper loud in the silence of the pyramid. “It was unfortunate, your ever having arrived in the desert.”

“I had no choice,” I reply. I’m not sure if, strictly speaking, this is true.

“I know,” she says, whether it’s true or not.

She delicately touches my blistered forehead with her fingertips. Her touch is soothing, even if relieving my suffering isn’t her intent. I’ll never know her intentions; no one ever has, I suspect. I won’t lie, not here at the end. I wish I knew them. Just as I wish I had a few mouthfuls of cool water or another syringe filled with morphine.

“You’re a brash woman,” she says. “Bold and skillful, clever, but brash. To rob the Ghūl of a thing so precious to them as la clé pour les manilles.”

She is unaccountably fond of French, which I hardly speak at all. Perhaps it’s something she picked up from French colonists a hundred years ago. Perhaps she has walked the streets of Paris and Versailles.

Et la griffe de Khoshilat Maqandeli, as if burgling a single treasure were not enough to earn their rancor.”

I will note that it is not the ghouls’ thirst for vengeance that has brought me here. They’ve merely gotten lucky. This isn’t even, I think, some karmic retribution visited upon me for that specific crime, but only the end result of my general hubris.

“The Ghūl stole both,” I whisper. “And I’ve returned the Claw to the Djinn.”

My voice sounds like antique papyrus being torn into strips.

“But only in exchange for a favor,” she says. “Don’t pretend there was anything noble in your motives. Not that your motives are of any consequence to ghouls.”

When the australopithecine progenitors of Homo sapiens still struggled to master the most simple tools, the Djinn and the Ghūl waged a terrible war in the wastes of what geographers would one day name Arabia. The latter were defeated and were cast down into the Underworld at the very threshold of Dream. But not before they’d sacked temples and reliquaries, and so they departed this world with many objects holy to their foes. In exile, at least they could gloat over these small victories. In the vaults below the plateau of Thok, the ghouls hid their plunder, and in time even they forgot what they’d stolen, until a sleeper came among them to thieve from thieves. But in this waking world, the hounds of Pnath may only reach so far and no farther. Here, they are bound to the necropoleis we have provided them, never meaning to do so. They fear the sun, and are loathe even to walk beneath the moon.

“Why did you come to me?” I ask again.

“I was curious,” she replies, predictably, same as each time before that I’ve put the question to her. I have no reason whatsoever to doubt that she’s telling me the truth. Demons have no need to hide the truth from dying women.

“You must have seen the deaths of millions,” I whisper.

“But never the death of a woman who was so audacious as to enter the domain of the Ghūl and rob them, then to insert herself into the center of an ancient feud by bargaining with the Djinn. And then to try and wield the Key of Shackles.” This is the first time she’s named the Key in English. I’d begun to wonder if there were some prohibition against doing so or if the language were simply insufficient to the task.

A tiny sun blazing in my palm.

Molten sand to cool and solidify into miles of green glass.

“I may not have the opportunity to witness the death of such a fool again before Skarl at last stops beating his drum and the silence startles MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ from his slumber to unmake the cosmos.”

The names of gods roll off her tongue like drops of honey casually spilled from a beehive, free of reverence, disdain, or fear. I hear subtle wickedness in such nonchalance.

“And you’ve been sent round to collect the errant child,” I say. “When I’m dead, you’ll take the Key.”

“Of course,” she replies. “You can’t possibly imagine it would be forgotten and left to molder here among your bones. My Lady and Lord have patiently waited half an aeon and more for the Key to pass near enough that they might finally see it restored to its rightful place and its rightful keepers.”

It’s true the ghouls stole the Key of Shackles from the Djinn, but it was the Djinn who, ages before, lifted it from off its hook in the halls of Abriymoch and carried it away from Phlegethos. So, a theft, a theft, and a theft, the procession ending here in the perpetual night beneath the pyramid. It might well have ended anywhere, but all those innumerable might-have-beens are now deftly swept aside by a single actuality.

“I smell death all about you,” she says, pushing white hair back from my forehead and eyes. “I won’t be much longer now.”

“Are you to take me, as well?” I’ve needed hours to gather up the courage to ask this question.

“No,” she says, and I think that there’s a hint—at least a hint—of regret in her voice. “There is a price for your part in this crime. None of the Nine Hells will have you, nor, of course, will Heaven.”

So, my spirit will be set adrift forever to haunt that liminal twilight for all the time remaining to this universe. I’ll be a ghost, denied perdition or salvation.

Her soothing fingertips wander down my chin to my throat, over tissue that would become an ugly mass of keloid scars if I would only live so long that it might have time to heal. She gently touches the glistening shrapnel embedded there, the milky emerald-green flecks of the glass formed by the furnaces of my recklessness. I didn’t even feel the blast that shredded my clothing and peppered my entire body with a thousand scalding bits of trinitite, Alamogordo glass, atomite, forged at ~137˚ Celsius and laced with a mild dose of radiation. Not enough of the Cesium isotopes to be fatal, not in and of itself, at least not in the short run, which is all I had left.

She says that she is dying. She says that she is dying. She says that she is dying, and it has become so tiresome a cadence.

“How much longer?” I ask. There is only so much suffering any mind can endure, and it is becoming difficult for me to comprehend even another heartbeat of this agony.

“Soon,” she says. “Soon. Rest.”

After that Mosaical last pillar of fire rose high about the dunes, when the near perfect stillness of the wilderness had again descended over me, I was much too shattered to complete the work I’d begun. No mortal had ever mastered that Key nor any other from the Sulfur Plane. I wouldn’t be the first. I barely managed to shut the portal again, make the lock, the lover required by la clé pour les manilles if it was to complete its appointed task. A fire rose bloomed, sunrise in the wee, cold hours; metaphorical bow and shank turned and the single rectangular tooth turned the tumblers of the warded lock that had been made, metaphorically, of my soul. Phallic and vulvic metaphors. Hell loves a good metaphor.

One of the ghouls peers into the corridor, a big son of a bitch, all tattered ears and red-brown fur and short muzzle marked by the battles of its long life. They’re impatient for the feast to come. I don’t know why they didn’t just kill me on sight and have done with it when they found me dragging my breathing corpse through the basalt and obsidian canyons northeast of the pyramid. There are so many goddamn things I do not and will not be allowed to understand. I have not arrived in a place of understanding, but of concluding mystery. She looks back at the ghoul, and it frowns and vanishes into the gloom once more.

“Talk to me,” I say. “Tell me a story.”

“You believe you’ve earned that much solace? The comfort of the story from a succubus’ lips?”

“I didn’t say that,” I reply.

“No, that’s true. You didn’t.”

She combs my matted hair with her long, delicate fingers while she tells me two stories, both lays of the five small gods. First, how Kib and Sish and Roon, Mung and Slid, raised their hands and fashioned from the void the eye of the Moon for a Watcher and a silver Comet as a Wanderer and Earth to stand in awe and ponder all creation. And this she follows with the tale of Mosahn—the Bird of Doom—and the Last Day of All. I suppose it’s not inappropriate to the occasion:

“For, when the sleep of MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ is done, shall the thunder, fleeing to escape the doom of the gods, roar most dreadfully between and above and round the worlds and the space between the stars; and Time, the undoer, the scythe, the hound of the gods, hungrily bay to his masters, for he has grown lean with age.”

I gasp in the fetid air stale twice a thousand years. I listen. My stinging eyes make a game of counting the skeletons in the corridor and identifying those I recognize: horse, camel, goat, sheep, jackal, and, of course, man.

  She finishes and leans close, kissing my left cheek. I feel an electric spark arc between her and me. I feel it stab the innermost recesses of my fading consciousness.

“You are ready, Elisheba?” she wants to know, her honey voice tracing the further irony of my name.

“Would you be?”

“No, but that wasn’t the question, was it?”

It wasn’t, but I don’t agree. I’m no longer in the mood to be agreeable. The precipice is too steep, and the vale below is smothered in so absolute a blackness—so absolute that I do not have to be told nothing that enters, during the breadth of all eternity, be permitted exit. I am afraid, and for once I don’t feel ashamed of my fear.

I turned the Key, and the Key turned me.

And I held a tiny sun in my hand.

And the light ate me alive.

And that blackness is the price I’ll pay for my audacity.

The Ghūl, who will very soon now take their sloppy unholy communion of my flesh and bones and congealing blood, mingle just beyond the flicker of the torchlight. Above me, in richly appointed chambers, sleep pharaohs and the wives of pharaohs, and beyond the pyramid the desert wind howls across the vast plateau. Here is what I have earned, an ignominious death in a tomb constructed for kings and queens. A third irony.

“The Key of Shackles will never forget your name,” she says.

Cold comfort.

And then her robes fall away, and she enters me, and nothing now remains of my self but shards that before were miles and miles and miles of shimmering green glass.

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