Book: Black Wings IV: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror

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ARTIFACT

 

Fred Chappell

 

Fred Chappell is a distinguished American novelist and poet who has written extensively in the vein of weird and Lovecraftian fiction. His novel Dagon (Harcourt, 1968) was named the best foreign-language book by the Académie Française, and his story collection More Shapes Than One (St. Martin’s Press, 1991) contains several Lovecraftian narratives, including “The Adder” and “Weird Tales.” His novella The Lodger (Necronomicon Press, 1993) won the World Fantasy Award. An omnibus of his weird work has appeared in Centipede Press’s Masters of the Weird Tale series.

 

 

1

 

 

“THIS ARTIFACT IS INCOMPLETE.”

Professor Henrik Olsen leaned forward over the table of our booth and tapped the photograph with his table fork.

“How do you mean?” I asked.

He produced a small, black leather sleeve from his jacket pocket, slid out a magnifier, and handed it to me. “See here on this side? The edge is jagged. It has been broken off.”

I turned the photo about. “You may be right.”

“I am.” He stared at me for a moment with his cool gray eyes. His tone was brisk. Olsen was an energetic, shortish man with a sharply tapered white beard and an eager attitude. His demeanor reminded me of a real estate developer I had known who seemed always to feel he was on the verge on closing a grandly lucrative deal on a project no one else had yet got wind of.

“You’re the expert,” I said.

He pointed again. “Here on the left side, the lioness thrusts forward with bared fangs, as if to attack, But then her form flowing backward morphs into abstraction. We may read these curlicues as hackles of fur along her spine, or as storm clouds or sea waves, symbols to suggest the harsher powers of nature. Then, tucked into the abstraction here and there, are other motifs or attributes.”

I put my speculation timidly: “I thought I saw something a little like an owl.”

He leaned back in his seat and beamed, as if I were a student who had contributed a bright remark in seminar. “That would be correct. The owl is important. There are astronomical symbols too. You recorded the dimensions of the piece. Seven and one-half centimeters long, averaging three wide. Weight four grams. It’s a wonder the carver was able to crowd so much detail into so small a space.”

“I have been poring over it, but it is mysterious.”

“Let us gather our provender to us,” he said. “I hope you will forgive me for ordering for us previously. I thought to save time.” He raised his hand to signal one of the tall blonde servers. The staff here at the place he had called The Low Dive evidently knew him well.

When I had suggested we lunch at the Queen City country club, he demurred. “Anytime I go there, some nice lady spots me and insists that I come to her house to appraise some gizmo she picked up at a yard sale. She’s always convinced that it is ‘ancient Egyptian.’ At the Low Dive, no one speaks of ancient Egypt. The bison burgers are hefty and the waitresses are tall blondes with soccer ambitions.”

“You must be describing Lowe’s Diner on South Main.”

“Yes. If we must be prosaic.” He had hung up.

So here we were, seated in a booth to which there now arrived a young lady of Valkyrie proportions bearing two misted, foaming steins. She smiled at me when she asked, “What kind of dressing on your salad?”

“I like the Italian, but the others are okay too,” Olsen said.

“Italian will do.”

He thanked the girl, calling her Olga, and we touched steins. “Highlander Ale. Local brew.”

“What else can you tell me?”

He leaned and drew his finger along the length of the object. “If it were not broken, the design would repeat in reverse from this midpoint. It has to be symmetrical to serve its purpose.”

“Purpose?”

“It is an object employed by the priest, or the priestess, in performing the rites. I call it an Opener, but that’s just my personal term. It would be rejected by most other archaeologists.”

“Is that why they call you Professor Nut at the college?” I asked. “By the way, I like this ale.”

“You’ll like the burger too. Yes, Professor Nut. And Prof Screwloose and Doctor Daffy, and so forth. I don’t mind. My credentials are sound, my publications well documented, and my on-site researches have been of recognized value. Modesty prevents my continuing in this vein.” His grin was fleeting but engaging. He seemed to enjoy his reputation for eccentricity and I suspected that he encouraged it.

“I attended one of the lectures you gave over at Hillman. You talked about the persistence of very ancient family lines and their distribution around the world. You said this research had drawn you to Queen City, North Carolina, where experts in ancient archaeology do not often alight. You didn’t say which particular families drew your interest.”

“If I mention the clan who call themselves the Choneys, would you be surprised?”

“Not really. Folks have been speculating about them ever since I can remember.”

Olga fetched salads and Olsen pitched into his immediately, munching rapidly. I could not help thinking of a billy goat wearing a tweed jacket and sporting a red bow tie, having at his crabgrass and horse nettles. The professor’s delta of white beard attracted the image irresistibly.

“Would you be surprised if I told you I thought there might be some connection between the Choneys and the artifact in your photo?”

I lifted my stein but set it down without a sip. “Yes. Very surprised. I took this ritual object, as you call it, to be very old.”

He nodded, munched, and pushed aside his empty salad plate. “If it is genuine, I would classify it as Babylonian and date it at 1900 BCE, give or take a few centuries.”

“You think it may be a fake?”

“Most small objects floating single about the world are reproductions. But I have never seen this exact design before, so a forger would have less motive than normally to produce it. I can probably tell when I see the Opener itself and not the picture. We are fortunate that the thing is broken. If it were complete, I might be alarmed.”

“My client would not be pleased to think I was walking around with the real thing in my pocket.”

“Your client?”

“I’d prefer not to name him at this point.”

“Your client is Robert Pasterby the third. Most of those who know him call him Robbie. I’ve met him at a library reception at Hillman. He’s on the board of governors of the college. Reputed to be the wealthiest man in Windsor County. His family is an old one and his landholdings are extensive.”

“Is he a subject of your research?”

“In regard to his connection with the Choneys, yes. And now with the artifact. I need to know all you can tell me. I am not of a prying nature, except in my scientific capacities, but this is an important matter. Your client may be in danger.”

“How so?”

“If you will tell me how you—or he—came by it, I can explain clearly. Otherwise, my explanation will be a muddle. It has to do with an intra-continuum passageway.”

The sandwiches were placed before us, along with a fresh stein for Olsen. Mine was still half full. He went at his burger with fangs bared; he would do a lioness proud, I thought.

“I’ll have to be circumspect,” I said. “I am the Pasterby family solicitor. So were my father and my grandfather. He is my friend as well as my client.”

“Is he a warm personal friend?”

“No, but our relationship extends beyond business matters.”

He nodded, as if he had foreseen my answer.

“The family papers have not been put in order since the death of Robbie’s father. He commissioned me to go through all the family records since the time of his grandfather. In doing so, I found a strange anomaly—”

I broke off, trying to think how to get my part of the story straight. I had not thought I would have to provide a detailed narrative and I wondered how much I was at liberty to say. My last meeting with Robbie had involved confidential information.

 

2

 

That meeting had taken place on Thursday, six days past mid-afternoon, in his handsome office on the second floor of the Pasterby Building on Broad Street. This ruddy brick structure with its tall windows, had been converted some thirty years ago from a private dwelling to house the Pasterby enterprises in brokerage and realty and subsidiary ventures. Despite its capacious size, this room was cozy. An early December wind nudged the windows, emphasizing that quality.

Robbie pushed his magisterial chair back from his neatly ordered mahogany desk and smiled. “How goes the impossible project?” His tone was commiserating and condescending at the same time. He was unaware of the condescension. Pasterbys had been landed gentry for a long time and, though his manner was casual, Robbie’s bearing displayed a patrician cast. Something in his features hinted at dissipation, a visual quality something like the craqueleur in noble ancestral portraits.

I was accustomed to his manner, so ingrained that it would probably be unnoticed by those who had not known him for a long period. We had been school chums many a year past and my father and grandfather had served as the Pasterbys’ private solicitors, so I had opportunity to observe changes in the men. The general demeanor had not altered in three generations. Their tacit attitude was that they were Pasterbys and the rest of us were out of the running. One got used to the attitude or did not. I found it both amusing and mildly annoying.

So the firm of Leveret and Leveret stood as family retainers in the old-fashioned sense, protecting the interests and keeping the secrets of the clan faithfully and scrupulously. I am Leveret and Leveret; that is, I am George Leveret, Jr., the sole remaining partner after the death of my father seven years ago. I keep the old name for the firm out of affection and respect for our twenty-one years of lawyering together and also in acknowledgment that the respectable citizens of Queen City do not like even slight changes in long-established institutions. Leverets go back a long way, as far as the Pasterbys, if one credits the genealogies offered on both sides. I have lately broadened the activities of the firm to include clients and corporations new to the area. Robbie was not entirely pleased with this development but seemed to think that if I had to do business with a parvenu class, that was but another sign of the degeneracy of our time.

“The impossible project?” I said. I patted the briefcase I held in my lap, then set it beside my chair. “Two steps forward and one back—on a good day. But the job becomes a little more likely. I’ve gone through the boring stuff first, property deeds, promissory notes, land survey carts, and so forth. Your father was cavalier in the matter of documents. My secretary is gathering all that up and you will receive it in bits and pieces, large bits and huge pieces, over the next two months. Quite a barrage of paper you fired at me.”

“I shudder to think.”

“Now I’m getting into the more interesting pages. One box contains journals your grandfather kept. Two are in a private code and one of those I’ve managed to decipher, a record of his gambling practices. Quite the poker player was Robert Axelrod Pasterby.”

“Cards and horses, favorite family failings.”

“He didn’t fail too often. If I read his ciphers correctly, he made a few of his poker friends feel the breeze cool upon their nether parts.”

“I’ve heard he was aggressive. Some folks claimed to be a little afraid of him, but to me he was Granddad. I loved it when he would pay me the least attention. When I was a kid no one spoke of his card-playing.”

“One of the journals is not in code. It seems to be a record of his dreams. That surprises me.”

Robbie smiled, as if to show a kindly tolerance for the foibles of his forebear. “We Pasterbys are supposed to be hardheaded men of business, but we have our quirks, just as others do. Granddad had a superstitious streak. I’ve heard that numerology and all that kind of thing influenced his gambling habits.”

“And then I came across a different puzzle. There is another box covered in dark blue velvet. It is in your second lockbox in the vault at First National.”

“Yes.”

“It has a trifling little brass lock I opened with a paper clip. Seth Holloway was with me, of course. One of the bank personnel has to be present when anyone besides the owner is in the vault with the lockboxes.”

“I know what you’re speaking of,” he said. “We called it Aunt Cassie’s Fit. My grand-uncle Harold gave Aunt Cassie a lot of rather expensive jewels. He would surprise her at odd times, not at Christmas or birthdays or anniversaries. One random day he would place a little jewel case by her dinner plate and she would open it to find a necklace or string of pearls—”

“Or an emerald or blood ruby.”

“Oh yes. She was proud of her ‘loot,’ as she called this trove of baubles. No one knew how she finally figured out that every one of these sparklers commemorated an amorous indiscretion by Uncle Harold. They were stopping over at our house at the time and she became violently enraged. She snatched up the box she had ordered made for her treasures and went out onto the porch and flung them away into the front yard just at dark. A double or triple handful. That’s the family story, anyhow.”

“She must have been seriously angry.”

“Angry enough to separate from her husband and take up with some fellow over in Hydesville none of our family had ever heard of.”

“Were all the jewels recovered?”

“Yes. But it took a long time. Years. The children, the servants, everyone kept looking. They found them all. Anyhow, they found everything that matched the inventory my grand-uncle had drawn up for his own use.”

I brought a cardboard folder from my briefcase and laid it on the desk. “His inventory is included among your papers. But there is one piece unaccounted for.” I pushed the folder toward him. “Robbie, have you seen this object before?”

When he opened the cover his face changed instantly. Surprise and puzzlement showed in his expression. Also chagrin. His complexion paled slightly and he drew a quick intake of breath.

At last he said, “I recognize it. I don’t know whether I’ve seen it or not.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think I must have seen it when I was very young, but when I try to capture the memory, it goes away. It goes dark. I was supposed to see it, but I’m not sure that I did.”

“I don’t understand.”

“What time is it?” He looked at the tall grandfather with the old-fashioned pendulum standing in the corner. “Quarter of five. What the hell, let’s have a drink.” He pushed back his chair and went to the big mahogany sideboard with its array of decanters and glasses. “This calls for Scotch.” He poured three fingers into two etched glasses and brought one to me.

“You seem alarmed.”

He paced about before sitting again at his desk. He raised his glass. “Cheers.” His voice was glum.

“Cheers.”

He sighed. “I’m not as superstitious as Granddad and I do not record my dreams. Fact is, I hardly ever remember them. When I wake up at six-thirty I may be able to recall a detail or two, but I can’t put them together. By breakfast time they’re gone from my mind for good.”

“The photo reminded you of something.”

He placed his hand on the folder and took a thoughtful sip of whisky. “But occasionally over the years I keep having one dream. It must have come to me a dozen or so times. It is very real—and yet it is not real at all.

“In this dream I am in the woods. It is not nighttime, but it is very dark. A storm is gathering. I can feel the air growing cooler and hear a scrabbling all around me in the weeds and underbrush. It sounds like squirrels playing about, but I don’t see them. Lots of squirrels. The sound grows louder and louder.”

“That would be frightening. How old are you in this dream?”

He blinked. “I never thought. I’ve always taken for granted that I’m the same age as when I’m dreaming. But now that you ask, I must be quite young because everything looks large. The trees are extremely tall and most of the bushes are taller than I am. But I am more bewildered than frightened at this point. I have to keep walking, or trotting, because I need to get out of the woods. I am supposed to be somewhere, in a certain place.”

“You have to reach a goal?”

“Yes. No. Not exactly. There is a place outside these woods where I’m supposed to be. But it is hard to get there because the ground begins to slope and I have to climb uphill. Hard going. The scrabbling sound grows louder and the sky is getting darker.”

“You say you are bewildered. I would be scared.”

“Then I break free of this grove and there is an open space before me, a big grassy hill with some sort of building at the top.”

“What does it look like?”

“Large. White, I think. It is indistinct. And between me and the structure, whatever it is, stands a statue of a man. Tall and dark and commanding. Then I know that here is the place I’m supposed to be so that I can receive the delivery.”

“Delivery?”

“Something to be given to me. Handed over. Or spoken to me. A message or maybe a thing. I don’t know.”

“Thing? An object of some sort?”

“If I can reach the statue, I’ll know what it is. But that doesn’t happen.”

“Why?”

“Before I get there, when I’m still about fifteen feet away, the statue bursts into flame.”

“Then?”

“It falls to the ground and the fires go out and there is a woman beside it with a cloak around her, flapping in the wind. Her cloak looks like big black wings. I keep on till I reach the fallen statue.”

He paused for a long moment and took a bracing dosage of liquor.

We sat silent until I said, “But this sounds familiar, Robbie. Wasn’t your grandfather struck by lightning in the front lawn of the house? Doesn’t the lawn slope down into the woods there? It’s still pretty much the same as it was in those days. Isn’t his death something you might have witnessed? How old were you when he died?”

“About seven, I think.”

“So this would have taken place fifty years ago. When did this dream begin occurring?”

“I can’t be sure. Maybe twenty years back.”

“If you witnessed his death when you were so young, you would have lost a lot of the details. You wouldn’t want to remember too clearly what took place.”

“Maybe.” He thought. “But that’s not the end of the dream. I ran to the figure and leaned over and looked. It was not Granddad. It was a statue with most of the face blasted away. The statue was toppled over backward. The face would have been looking at the sky. It was a naked man carved from some kind of black stone, holding a white key in the left hand.”

“Key? Would that be the artifact in the photo?”

“Yes.” He took it up again. “This is it. But I didn’t really see it in the hand of the statue. I just saw something white and thought it must be a key.”

“What kind of key? What did it open?”

He frowned. “And then the winged woman in the cloak said, ‘Take it up. Bear it away. Now it is with you.’ But when I reach for it, the dream ends. Each time at that point. And that’s all.”

“Do you grasp the object? Or touch it?”

“I don’t think so.”

I said, “Did you notice that you changed the tense at the last part of your story?”

The cool half smile. “Are you suggesting that I watch my grammar?”

“Perhaps that particular part is most vivid, most urgent in your mind “

“Yes. Perhaps.” He turned the picture upside down and gazed. Then he placed it in the folder and closed the cover. “But I’ve never seen the actual object. How could it get in with the jewelry?”

“I don’t know. I came to ask if I could show this photograph to Professor Olsen. If it really is ancient mid-eastern, he might be able to tell us something.”

He sighed. “I don’t see how that could hurt. I want to see the thing first myself.”

“Of course. And if I find related documents, would it be all right to run them by him?”

“Well—as long as they are not extremely personal. Love letters and that sort of thing.”

“I promise not to share the amorous intimacies of Robert Axelrod Pasterby Number One.”

“See that you don’t. We wouldn’t want the learned professor to die of shock.” He took up the folder, paused, and then passed it over.

“I’ll bring the artifact to your office tomorrow. Is there anything else in that motley heap you’d like to see?”

“Not that I know of. But don’t leave till you finish your drink.”

“I won’t,” I said and kept my promise.

 

3

 

The handsome and formidable Olga was clearing our table and proffering dessert menus. Olsen said, “I hear good things about the key lime pie. I only take coffee for dessert, but I pass the tip along.”

“Thinking to assert myself, I’ll take the pie,” I said.

Olga smiled and departed.

“You were going to trace Pasterby’s connection with the Opener,” Olsen said. “Have you decided what is permissible for me to know? I have no personal interest, except as I am concerned with the safety of the community.”

“You spoke of danger. Is it so grave as that?”

“Yes.”

“Well, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.” After this disclaimer, I unfolded the narrative I had pieced together about the appearance of the artifact amid Aunt Cassie’s cache and the recognition of it by Robbie. I felt free now to relate his dream of the dark trek through the woods, the statue that caught fire, and of the cloaked or winged woman and her baffling words. “If it were more a recollection than a dream, we could imagine that the artifact was found on the lawn by one of the kids and put in with the jewelry by mistake.”

He repeated the phrases: “Take it up. Bear it away. Now it is yours…Is that correct?”

“Those are the words he says the woman speaks.”

“What did she look like? Was she familiar to him?”

“I don’t think he knows. He was very young in the dream, the same age then as he was when his grandfather died.”

“Struck by lightning with the woman in attendance.”

“She was present. I don’t know that she was in attendance.”

“I now request that you go through the Pasterby records and other papers as quickly as possible.”

“Well, there’s a fair amount—”

My pie was placed before me. Accompanying Olsen’s coffee was a shot glass of dark liquid that he poured into his cup.

“This is an urgent matter,” Olsen said. He gave me a keen look. “The woman in his dream who stood over his grandfather when he was killed by the blast was undoubtedly Leetha Choney.”

“Not possible. Leetha Choney is Robbie’s housemaid at the present time.”

“That name, Choney, is a corruption from Italian, something like Braccione or Guiccioni. Probably Sicilian in its recent forms. But the Choney line originated in the mid-east, probably in ancient Sumer, and has spread widely in eastern and middle Europe and has set up habitation latterly in the U.S. and Mexico. They are a private clan, keeping to themselves, except in circumstances where they attach in a speciously dependent role to some local landowning dynasty. The local populace thinks of them as ‘gypsies’ because that term has no real definition.”

“That is the case in Queen City,” I said.

“Well, now for one of Professor Nut’s wild hypotheses.” Olsen smiled, a trace of ruefulness in his expression. “I believe I have been able to trace this particular family branch back to the most ancient times. Not this singular Choney branch itself, but the large kinship or unorganized clanship to which it belongs. They are numerous and the situations into which they fit themselves are similar from place to place. In their relationship to prominent families, they fulfill customary roles.”

“Roles?”

“I can’t say precisely what these are, but they are important in establishing a connection with their ancient gods.”

“Ancient—”

“If you can, please bear with poor, demented Doctor Goofy for a few minutes. My reading of an immense amount of historical evidence suggests that only a few very isolated cultures ever die out completely. Most of them transform, absorbed into later national and tribal cultures. Though amalgamated with these larger communities, they never entirely lose their peculiar characters. These elder remnant cultures are carried from one place to another over the millennia by a certain few clans or families. The Choneys are still linked with one of the oldest of civilizations and its customs.”

“This is not easy for me to conceive,” I objected. “I have had experience in trying to track down scattered family members in regard to legacies of property and money. Trying to find a grand-nephew once removed is a tedious and sometimes impossible task. I don’t see how anyone could trace a family line over four thousand years.”

“You would be looking for a single individual, trying to find primary connections. I need only to find certain large patterns of relationship. Within these large patterns are subsets. I work through these until I come across the most fitting set of circumstances. Then I locate primary subjects, the living descendants of the most ancient lines, and observe what I can. One of the distinctive patterns is that an outsider woman of strong will and mysterious background is insinuated into a respectable family and gains power within it and, finally, over it.”

I pushed away my plate and settled back in the booth. “That particular situation is well known in the South. Do you think it applies here?”

In antebellum days and for some decades following, a plantation owner would occasionally take one of the female slaves as concubine. If the relationship were openly known, this woman would gain real, though illegal, authority. She would give orders to the other slaves, male and female, and become the reigning mistress of the household. The owner’s wife might then desert the farm and retreat to the safety of her own family. Sometimes she would sue for divorce. But the usual case was that the legitimate wife would live on at the plantation and fade away as a personality, ruled harshly by her brutal husband and his shameless mistress. When the husband died, the legal tangles were so complicated they could never be resolved, especially if the slave mistress had borne children by the husband. Without clear property rights declared, the farmlands fell into disrepair, then into ruin, and became east prey for speculators. Dozen of once substantial family farms degenerated into marshes and briar patches.

So this arrangement is disapproved by society. It occasions head-shaking and tongue-wagging and in tacit broad recognition that wrong has been done. But the drama is so embedded in the history of the region that is has been accepted, though with glum silence and averted gaze.

“The situation is not identical with that of Grandfather Pasterby,” Olsen admitted. “Slavery was long gone when the old man came into possession of his holdings. But his position was the same as an old-time slave owner, and institutional habits hang on. The Choneys may not be so economically dependent upon the Pasterbys as they seem to be. I believe they are not, but at first they would have been, for the pattern is set. Each new generation produces a new Robert Pasterby who is supplied by the Choneys with a new Leetha.”

“There are documents to support this history,” I said.

“Some day I must look at them. But now the duty lies with you. If you would please go through as many of them as you can over the weekend, perhaps you could give me an informal report, or at least a sketchy description, on Monday. Please look particularly for any financial arrangement between the two families in which one has gone back on his word and betrayed the other. If we can find that out, we may have gained some advantage. The danger is more imminent than you realize.”

“From what quarter does this danger come?”

“From ancient Babylon.”

His expression told me that I must not laugh. But I could not help smiling. “Is this more Professor Nuttery?”

“Yes.” He drew an envelope from his side pocket. “Here are a couple of offprints of articles I wrote that the pedantic—excuse me, respectable—journals never would publish. The information is solid and I believe my theories are equally solid. If you add them to your already ponderous reading assignment, we may save time—and even lives.”

I took them from him. “Do my best,” I said, “as soon as I can.”

“Be careful. Now you are involved.”

 

4

 

I photocopied the Pasterby documents for my research, secured the originals in the office safe, and carried the copies to my house for the weekend. To pay them closest attention from Friday until meeting with Olsen on Monday, I desired the quiet comfort of my home.

My pair of housekeepers had cleaned and ordered the rooms; they were spotless and cheerful. They had stocked my larder following my list and I had attended to the liquorous necessities. My customary loneliness was to be alleviated by my labors.

I began on Friday afternoon almost as soon as I got home.

Pasterby Number One was the main subject of my focus. His son, the second Robert, was not an entirely colorless person, but he stood well within the long, dark shadow of his parent. He was a competent businessman, though he lacked a strong aggressive nature. Nor did he possess his own son’s, Robbie’s, smiling insouciance and gift of chat. He once described himself as “a hyphen between Robert I and Robert III.” He even allowed the daughter of his father’s Leetha Choney to be installed in his own household. Thinking upon the situation, I came to believe that this arrangement would have been at the father’s insistence. Following the first, the two latter Leethas were darksome legacies.

I was beginning to form an idea of the general shape of this self-involved clan. There was a thick, twine-bound packet of papers recording business transactions with Rast Choney, Leetha’s father. Rast worked in metals, tin, brass, and silver. These skills probably suggested the common notion that he was a gypsy. But he was more than an itinerant tinker; his financial dealings with Pasterby were complex, sometimes hard for me to follow. But at some point he had become aggrieved and the records broke off inconclusively.

I spent only a little time on these financial affairs. I needed, I thought, to look into the more personal pages the grandfather had penned. When I unloaded the Xeroxes from my briefcase, Olsen’s articles slid out. One was “Probabilities of Disruption of Linearities and Symmetry in Parallel Space-Time Continua,” an offprint from Physico-Philosophical Papers, a journal published, according to the acknowledgment note, at Nordberg University in Uppsala. The P-P Papers was not a prestigious publication, I surmised, so this would not be one of Olsen’s more highly regarded articles, like those published in Journal of American Oriental Society and Revue d’Assyriologie. The biographical headnote listed these among his other credits in a rather defensive manner.

The second paper was a résumé of recent historical research about the resurgence of an ancient Lilith cult in Goray, Poland, and the disastrous aftermath. I glanced through it, laid it aside, and went back to the first, hoping to gain some notion of what Olsen wanted me to look for. I began tentatively.

A fair amount of its substance was already familiar to me, for instance, the hypothesis of unbroken genealogical lines originating in Sumer, Akkad, Elam, and the neighboring territories. And here again was his notion of continually recurring patterns of landowner-dependent relationship. His speculations about parallel time continua in which it was possible for ancient Babylon and our contemporary universe to exist simultaneously with several levels of energy-barrier dividing them he had partially outlined in the lecture I had attended at Hillman. In this article he went further, to extrapolate on what might happen if the science of the ancient priests and geometers happened at some points to become congruent with our contemporary scientific discoveries so that the barriers between the continua could be breached.

The most fanciful aspect of this possibility he relegated to a footnote: “One might wonder what would happen in our contemporary society if there suddenly appeared Hanbi, king of the wind-demons, or Ninurta, prince of the Underworld, or Bine his gatekeeper, or Lilit, bringer of death.” This scenario was tucked away in a note overloaded with source references; Olsen seemed to want to camouflage it with apparatus.

He followed the same strategy again in a later passage, answering an imagined objection that these elder gods and occult forces would have no motive to try to force their ways through the gates of twentieth-century civilization. “Some of the gods, as they were conceived, were by nature inimical to humankind and existed only for the purpose of doing it harm.” And again: “It was in character for these gods to extend their domains, to gain territories physical and psychical. They did not reason; they acted out of blind tropisms.”

Olsen’s footnotes embodied the heart of his thesis; the article itself was couched in the usual academic jargon, opacity overlying opacity, festooned with quotations in German, French, and ancient Semitic languages. As I read along, I was uncertain how seriously he intended his readers to accept his exotic hypotheses. Even though he supplied an amount of mathematical reasoning unusual in an archeological article, the parallel-universe notion seemed far-fetched. It recalled to me some of the happy hours of youth when I read devotedly through the pages of Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Jack Vance, and other futurists who dreamed sidewise about the shape of things to come.

On the last page, below the text, the professor had scribbled a personal note to me: “Please do not dismiss these suggestions from consideration. I have evidence that the continua barriers are in danger of being compromised. I repeat—your friend Pasterby may be in danger, along with those connected with him I am utterly serious. H. O.”

If I understood Olsen’s warning as he intended, I must keep alert for similarities, any close parallels, between occurrences separated in time. The household situations of the three Roberts were one example, each of them closely associated with the Choney family that lived on a plot of ground bordering the eastern part of the estate. And each paterfamilias had installed, or allowed to be installed, succeeding Choney daughters as live-in maids. Here were parallels of a large pattern, but the similarities were general and would have occurred in other landowner families also. A more particular event or incident must find its parallel for Olsen’s theories to be strengthened.

 

With these thoughts not very clearly in mind, I turned to the grandfather’s dream journal. In my capacities as appraiser and curator of family papers I have read through a number of such chronicles. The recording of dreams used to be a common practice within a society thoroughly self-involved and with large amounts of leisure time to dispose of.

The dream-journal of Robbie’s grandfather followed the general masculine pattern. The entries were brief and mostly devoid of commentary. Most of the subject matter was ordinary stuff, erotic visions or scenarios of flight and pursuit or public embarrassments. But one dream was recurrent and was noted no fewer than a dozen times.

A typical entry read like the first: “On caravan in a desert land headed toward mtn. Cant tell who is with me. Come to mtn & climb up to cave. Big grave mound or the like. Crawl over and come to steps….”

I made notes on these repeated fragments and was able to piece out a fairly coherent narrative. The grandfather in his dream is engaged in a quest for something he cannot name. In a cave mouth near the top of a mountain in an unknown land is a great hall or other immense space with a black marble table or altar. This shadowy space is ringed with robed and hooded presences, mute and motionless. Upon the marble slab is a pale trough-like vessel, probably carved from alabaster. Inside it lies an object that Pasterby’s dream-self must grasp and bring away to his actual home, his mansion in Queen City, North Carolina. He does not wish to do so but is compelled by the force of another’s will. He stretches his hand toward the vessel—and then awakes. He experiences upon waking a feeling of acute disappointment.

All the accounts of this recurrent dream were pretty much the same until a final one. The last narrative broke off just where the others did, but Pasterby recorded for the first and only time the events that followed upon his awaking.

He woke shouting loudly in terror. Leetha, who was taller than she normally stood, watched him from the foot of the bed with her calm, almond-shaped eyes. Her eyes were enlarged.

He was overcome with anxiety. Where was the object? This last time he had actually laid his hand upon it and brought it away. But his hand is empty. His face is painful. There was a fiery, orange-white, sudden explosion when he grasped the artifact. He must have been singed.

Olsen had told me to look for close similarities, for events that corresponded to one another in outline, if not in detail. I recognized the recurrent dream of his grandfather as the same one Robbie had experienced. The terms were different: The grandfather’s dream took place in an unknown desert land while Robbie’s took place upon his home estate. But the narrative was the same: a quest for an object in a dangerous situation, the urgency of the mission, the climactic explosion, and the powerful sense of loss upon awakening.

Olsen had written in his essay a scientific rationale of how the barriers between the Babylonian continuum and our own might break down. I could not follow the reasoning. If L, the Lorentz group of space-time coordinates, is transformed by the quantum set of vectors, H, a reciprocity is established, so that the continua may mesh, though different energy-level states would cause small but powerful local explosions.

The symmetry that had to be established between the continua was the joining of the halves of the artifact. Somewhere on the grounds of the Pasterby estate lay the missing piece. It came to me now that it would be the office of Leetha to join the parts. The mechanics of the event I would never comprehend.

The other, shorter paper on a historical irruption of the ancient god-figures into Poland caught my eye, but I could make myself read no more.

 

5

 

I had researched now for four hours without letup. The early afternoon showed overcast and windy in the bay window of my study. I pushed the Pasterby materials away from me and rose and paced the worn Persian rug. Some thought was moving about just beyond my consciousness, like a beetle behind wainscoting.

I decided to clear my head with a chilly, brisk walk.

My habitual excursion took me two blocks south on Oakley Street to a small, rock-walled park almost in the center of Queen City. I dressed for the look of the weather, plucked my rosewood walking cane from the umbrella stand, and locked the door behind me.

It was a little before four o’clock and the hour was as cold as its aspect had promised. Three spacious parks lie on the outskirts of town, but Cornwallis Park, small and densely wooded, with neat, winding paths, was the one to which I often resorted to un-clutter my brain of tedious legal details. In spring it was colorful with flame, coral, and white azaleas, an Impressionist profusion along its four borders. In this bleak December light the tree trunks stood stark and unmoving, though the bare top branches whipped in the wind.

Once I entered from the gateway on Oakley and continued the downward path to the streamlet that cut through the declivity, I thought the light was different here than along the deserted street. The dimness was suffused with a whitish orange glow for which I could discern no source of emanation. This was not a steady light; there were motions within it, slow undulations like the rise and fall of yearning energies.

As I continued I heard a rustling in the duff and fallen leaves. It was innocuous at first, and it took it to be four or five squirrels scrambling about. But the sound grew louder and surrounded me and I began to grow apprehensive The noise was not random; it was an organized sound.

I felt a presence of some sort, not as if I were being watched— as if I were being known and had been known from a former time.

My feelings of confusion and dread heightened as I reached the bottom of the hill and paused at the point where a small, picturesque stone bridge overarched the streamlet. Beyond this point, about fifteen yards away, the underbrush left off and opened onto a lawn where children often played. But now from the undergrowth emerged a force of rats. They were gathered into a delta-like formation which grew in size till it resembled a flood; they appeared to be marshaled into this formation by some power of will not their own. The mass of them kept enlarging; there must have been thousands. They were headed away from me, away from the park. If they kept moving in the direction they were pointed, they would enter the downtown area. They poured around an overgrown bend in the stream and disappeared from my line of vision.

I sat down on the ledge of the little bridge and drew deep breaths. Above me stood an old, very tall, black oak. It was a communally beloved object, a great tree that in decades past had sported a wide canopy. In latter years its age began to show and it became hollow, sheltering a large bee colony. This past year the colony had collapsed and the tree had begun to lean. Only public sentiment kept the park crews from taking it down.

Now from the large open crease that ran down the upper third of its length a black-winged creature emerged, twitching its torso as if it were shrugging off an outer garment. But the way its wings were folded about it made it look as if it were an overcoat, oversized and enveloping.

I had seen her only three times before, but I now recognized Leetha with her long black hair and her large almond eyes that shone bright black in the cold dimness. Her features were distorted, the eye-shapes pulled back until they were nearly slit-like, the cheekbones protrusive, the chin tapered sharply. She was almost directly above me, but a thick limb obscured her legs and feet. She leaned forward from the trunk and teetered precariously for a moment. Then she opened her wide wings with their taloned ribs and, with extreme effort, raised them to shoulder height and launched herself into the pulsing air.

Large as she was, she was quickly lost to sight among the naked trees with their intricate network of limbs against the gray and black clouds overhead.

The orange-white light that tinged the atmosphere grew brighter, the white gathering to a crackling intensity. Then it flashed out like an immense arc-spark and subsided immediately to its former degree of intensity.

My face and hands tingled from the eruption, and I lost the ability to see for a good while. When my eyes readjusted I could find no trace of the Leetha-creature with the black overcoat that became wings, with the dark gaze that took my measure unthinkingly.

My knees trembled so that when I tried to stand I collapsed back onto the stone ledge.

The barrier had been violated. Lilithian Babylon was entering my world.

I sat for a space in blank confusion, fearful of the threat of things I could not picture. Olsen’s warnings had made their case. I had better get home quickly, I thought, and rose unsteadily and walking, punching the ground determinedly with my cane.

The park that had been deserted before my arrival now seemed even emptier. No birds sang. The fitful breezes rustled no foliage. All was as still as if time had suspended.

I strode along as quickly as I could. If what I feared had already taken place, there would be no safe haven anywhere in the region, but I wanted to feel to comfort of my house around me. I wanted to boil a pot of Earl Grey tea and sit with it in silence.

But there on my front stoop stood Dr. Olsen. His expression was troubled, his words impatient. “We must go at once to the Pasterby house. Here is my car.”

It sat at the curb with the motor running.

“The barriers are down,” I said. “The continua are joining.”

He nodded curtly and gestured and we hurried to squirm into the car. Olsen put it in gear and pressed the accelerator. His face was pale, his lips tight.

“What can we do?” I said. “The pieces of the Opener must have joined, though I don’t see how it could have happened.”

“Pasterby brought the artifact home with him, did he not? He could not find it when he woke from his dream, but it was close by. Leetha saw it and, without understanding her own actions, brought it into contact with the half she already had in her possession.”

“How did she come to have it?”

“It would have been among the trinkets the enraged Aunt Cassie flung into the yard. Leetha would have found it and kept it as a curiosity. Or her father, Rast, might have recognized and laid it by. He is the unknown figure in the narrative. He harbored ill will toward Robbie Pasterby because of some transaction or other—”

“But we are helpless, are we not? The pieces are joined. The rest is physics, as you described in your essay.”

“There are some possibilities,” he said. “Did you read the other paper on Goray?”

“I did not. My eyes gave out. It seemed to be some sort of historical theory.”

He cut a quick glance at me, then concentrated on driving. The sky was closing in and the streets of the town were nearly empty. On the sidewalk and in the gutters poured a red-eyed stream of rats. Olsen paid them no heed.

“It was no theory. It digests the fullest account that we have of a former breakdown of the barriers. This took place in a shtetl outside Lublin in Poland in 1665. There the forces of Babylon, in the guise of Lilith, gained control and the laws of nature broke down. In the following years over one hundred thousand died, most of them devout Jews whose faith the gods feared and despised. Lilith chose a woman named Rechele as her instrument, a woman very like our Leetha…” He fell silent and shook his head. “This is no time for a history lesson.” He launched us faster along the empty road. The town lay behind us now.

The horizon was continually aglow, orange-colored with a brilliant white central streak. Yet there was no sound of thunder. Like the crazed advance of the rats, this phenomenon too took place in unnerving silence.

“The house is not far from here,” I said.

Olsen strained his torso forward over the steering wheel, as if to impart a greater speed to his nondescript Ford. “Plagues of dysentery and fever,” he said. “A great drought and then drenching downpours month after month. Floods that carried off the children of Goray and the sheep and goats. Continual strokes of lightning against every edifice. Rats. Rats and adders. Insanity”

“The people went mad?”

“They behaved as if they were. That was probably for the best.”

“How—?”

He peered through the windshield at the darkness that wrapped us round like a pall. “Suppose a transcontinental jetliner took off from O’Hare in Chicago and landed on a plain in ancient Mesopotamia. Suppose you were a citizen of ancient Erech and you witnessed the arrival. You would see it as a monster more frightening than any you had been told of in the mythologies, frightening beyond comprehension. A huge, silver, flying creature, as long as the main thoroughfare of your village. It roars like the wildest of sandstorms and is clouded with unbreathable dust. Its flat, stiff wings tremble and spurt flame. Flame leaps out from beneath its tail feathers. Along its belly are holes through which you can see the forms and faces of the people it has swallowed. It shudders and roars like a dozen tempests bound with lightning together.”

“It would be frightening, but I could still reason.”

“You could reason only in your customary terms—which would no longer apply. The existence of the jet plane in your world changes that world. You could not perceive it as it is. You would see it in terms of nightmare and demonic presence. That is how you would try to reason about it.”

“I would have had no forewarning. The Babylonian would have no background knowledge. But you and I are forewarned. We know the history of Lilith and how the goddess came to be connected with our locality. We can still act rationally, you and I.”

He smiled a tight, painful smile. “The airplane would exist very briefly in that place. The physics would be too alien.”

“Physics?”

“The atmospheric chemistry is different. The continuum itself has a different gravitic center from ours; it is held together from a different locus. The magnetic polarities are reversed. Subatomic reactions would be almost instantaneous.”

We had reached the border of the estate, and the turnoff led us alongside a white rail fence toward the grounds of the big house. The landscape was bathed in the orange-white glow that pulsed like the heart of some invisible beast.

Then the car stopped. The motor shut down and the headlights failed. We sat inside a furnace of heatless light.

Olsen spoke with great difficulty. “The Pasterbys are no more. You see Lilith where their great house stood. Do not look upon her face.”

Her face was covered. We were still almost a quarter of a mile away, but she was visible in the electric glow, as large as a mountain crag. Her wings were folded about her, the pennons burning iridescent. Black, yellow, scarlet. Black fire and white fire. Then she began to unfurl her wings, slowly at first, and then in an instant they covered all that part of the sky and the scorched land below.

I looked away so that I would not see her face.

Then I closed my eyes to shut out the gigantic incandescence of her appearance and disappearance. I have seen many photographs of the detonation at Los Alamos. But those explosions were of matter in its particle states. The explosion here was one of time-states. There are no time-particles. This detonation would be without radioactive residue. Its causes must disappear utterly.

Still there was no sound, only the unbearable silence. “Physics,” I whispered.

“Did you see her face?” Olsen said.

“I saw her feet with the mansion in her talons, all crushed to pieces.”

“It is good you did not see. I looked away. I did not see her claws.”

The glow that had lit the world was extinguished. The darkness was palpable, but it no longer breathed.

The motor started now when Olsen tried it and our headlights came on and he brought us along the gravel road at a very slow pace. His face was wet with sweat. I found that I was weeping, making no sound.

“We will discover some remains here,” he said. “The reciprocity must be maintained, the balance between the energies of the continua.”

He stopped and we got out and walked unsteadily across the lawn. Figures lay upon the ashen grass, disposed haphazardly.

Life-size figures of black stone lay here, too many to count. Each was maimed in some fashion, mutilated by the joining of two different states of nature. Feet were sheared in half, arms broken at shoulders, elbows, and wrists. Torsos were shattered. The facial features were twisted in agony, but most of the faces were obliterated. The figures were naked or dressed in hooded robes and I thought these must be the presences that the grandfather had sensed in the mountain-peak cavern in his dream, at the moment he reached for the object in the stone vessel and never knew if he had taken hold of it.

“They have gained their satisfactions, Rast and Leetha and Lilith. When the grandfather broke his agreement, whatever it was, he broke the laws of physics. Lilith has gathered the Choneys to her world in Babylon. These stones on the ground are in exchange, all the Pasterbys that ever lived in the direct lineage. There must be fifteen generations here, at least.”

“It makes no sense,” I said. I touched one stone with the toe of my shoe. It was real.

“Not to us.”

Olsen looked westward toward Queen City, turning his head away from the end of the world. “We must prevent ourselves from trying to understand.”

“To forget?”

He gazed at me with a piteous expression. “We will not forget, but we will come to believe that we have forgotten.”

“That is madness.’

“For us, the only possible sanity,” he said.

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