Book: Black Wings

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Darrell Schweitzer

 

Darrell Schweitzer is a prolific fiction writer, critic, and editor. Among his short story collections are We Are All Legends (Doning, 1982), Tom O'Bedlam's Night Out (Ganley, 1985), Transients and Other Disquieting Stories (Ganley, 1993), Refugees from an Imaginary Country (Owlswick/Ganley, 1999), Necromancies and Netherworlds (with Jason Van Hollander; Wildside Press, 1999), Nightscapes (Wildside Press, 2000), and The Great World and the Small (Wildside Press, 2001). He has written the novels The Shattered Goddess (Donning, 1982), The White Isle (Weird Tales Library/Owlswick, 1989), and The Mask of the Sorcerer (New English Library, 1995). Sekenre: The Book of the Sorcerer (Wildside Press, 2004) is a volume of linked sequels to The Mask of the Sorcerer, and Living with the Dead (PS Publishing, 2008) is a story-cycle/novella. He has compiled many anthologies of criticism of horror and fantasy fiction and was the editor of Weird Tales from 1988 to 2007.

 
 
he sits there in the dark, silent, a hard, lean man of truly indeterminate age, like a creature of living stone. If his eyes seem glowing, that is my imagination. No, they are not. 

  He wants me to tell this story, so that I may slough it off.

 

...

 

I wasn't afraid of the dark as a child. No, in fact, I enjoyed it. Where my older sister Ann used to huddle at the edge of her bed with her face as close to the nightlight as possible until she got to sleep, I would, whenever I could, listen to her breathing and wait until she was clearly asleep, and then reach over and remove the nightlight from the wall.

  The dark contained things that the lighted bedroom did not. I knew that even then. I could feel presences. Hard to define more than that. Not ghosts, because they were not remnants of former living people, or human at all. Not guardian angels, because they were not angelic, nor were they in any sense my guardians. But something. There. All around me. Passing to and fro and up and down in the darkness on their own, incomprehensible business, in their own way beckoning me to follow them into spaces far beyond the walls and ceiling of the tiny bedroom.

  Then, inevitably, my sister would wake up screaming.

  When we were old enough to have separate bedrooms, that solved the immediate problem, but it was not enough. My mother would all too often come in and put her arms around me and ask Why are you sitting here in the dark? What are you afraid of? and I could not answer her. Not truthfully, anyway. Because I did not know the answer. But I wasn't afraid.

  Sometimes I would drop silently out the window onto the lawn very late at night, into the darkness when the moon was down. I'd stand there in the darkness, under the eaves of the house, as if the roof provided me with a little extra shadow; in my pajamas or just in shorts, barefoot, and if it was cold that was all the better because I wanted the dark to touch me, to embrace me and take me away into the remote reaches of itself, and if I shivered or my toes burned from the cold, that was a good thing. It was an answer. It was the dark acknowledging that I was there.

  I'd look up at the stars and imagine myself swimming among them, into some greater darkness, to the rim of some black whirlpool that would carry me down, down and away from even their faint light.

  "Are you crazy? You'll catch your death of cold!" was what my mother inevitably said when I got caught. There would be a scolding, followed by hot chocolate, being bundled up in an oversized robe, and eventually being led back to bed.

  Yet I could provide no explanation for my behavior. Mom began to talk about doctors and psychiatrists.

 
 
There are no words, the man in the dark tells me, the ageless man whose eyes are not glowing. No explanations that can be put into words. Never.

 
 
There was a particularly inexplicable incident when I was thirteen and was discovered early one morning by a ranger in Valley Forge Park, twenty miles from where I lived, in the middle of a low-lying area that was half woods and half swamp. It was November and the half-frozen ground crunched underfoot. Here I was wearing only a particularly ragged pair of denim cut-offs, soaked, muddy, exhausted from hypothermia and covered with bruises.

  I couldn't remember very much. There were a lot of questions, from the police, from doctors; and yet another round of bundling the poor little darling up nice and warm and giving him hot chocolate. What I did know was more about how I had touched the presences in the darkness and how they had borne me up into the night sky on vast and flapping wings. But they carried me only for a moment, either because I was afraid, or because I was not ready, or because I was not worthy.

  So they let go, and I tumbled into the woods, crashing through the branches, which was how I'd gotten the bruises.

  Nobody wants to hear about that. I refused to tell.

  It was only after a particularly tearful display on my mother's part that I was allowed to go home at all.

  Oh, I knew what my interrogators wanted me to say. Things were not going well at home, it was true. My father and mother screamed at one another. There were fights, violent ones. Things got smashed up. My sister Ann had bloated up into a 300-pound, terminally depressed monstrosity, who was ceaselessly excoriated by the kids at school as a retard, a whore, and a smelly bag of shit. I got a lot of that too, as the kid brother of same. Ann used to sit up long nights in the bright glare of lights cutting herself all over with a razor, carving intricate hieroglyphs into her too, too voluminous flesh, so that the pain would reassure her that she was somehow still alive.

  She had her little ways. I had mine.

  I was beaten regularly too, usually by my father, with fists or a belt or whatever happened to be handy, but no, it wasn't like what the police or the doctors or my teachers were trying to get me to blurt out. No one had the slightest lustful interest in my nubile young body. I was just the weird and silent kid at the back of the class who had a secret he didn't want to share, who would never make it as a poster boy for child abuse.

 
 
Such preconceptions must be cast aside. Humanity must be cast aside. Sloughed off.

 
 

I met the living stone man whose eyes do not really glow on the night my mother and sister both committed suicide. We will not go into details. Those things must be cast aside. Lives end. My mother, who had been a teacher, and my sister, who wanted to be a singer, terminated themselves. My father, who worked as an electrician when he managed to work, would drink himself to death within the year.

  It is the way of things, which are to be sloughed off, discarded and forgotten.

  That night, relishing both the cold and the danger—it was winter; there was snow on the ground—I went out into the back yard, completely naked. I understood by then that if you are to surrender yourself utterly to the darkness, you must achieve total vulnerability, which is why virgin sacrifices are always naked.

  The stone man, whom I had known only in dreams before that night, was waiting for me. He took me by the hand. His touch was indeed as hard and fleshless as living stone, and yet somehow lighter in a way my senses could not define, as if he were only partially made of material substance at all.

  He led me into the further dark, heedless of my nakedness, because the human body is just one more thing to be sloughed off in the darkness, and of no interest to him. If we are to achieve our place in the whirling darkness beyond the stars, he explained to me, inside my head without words, we must become nihil, nothing.

  He didn't have a name. Childishly, I made up a whole series of names for him, Mr. Graveshadow, Mr. Midnightman, Mr. Deathwalker, but names, too, are to be sloughed off.

  I remember opening the back gate, but beyond that I do not think we walked through familiar places at all, certainly not across suburban back yards and streets, beneath the widely spaced streetlights, the strange, dark man and the naked, pale boy, who surely would have caused some consternation when caught in the headlights of the occasional passing car.

  I wonder if we even left footprints in the snow. I am certain only that we came to a high, dark place beneath brilliant stars and perched at the edge of a precarious precipice, so that with the slightest tumble, not to mention an intentional leap, we could have hurled ourselves off into the black sea of infinity forever.

  The presences gathered all around us. I could feel their wings brushing against my bare back and shoulders like the wind.

  That was when the man who had waited for me all this time, who had brought me here to this place, first taught me how to speak the speech of the dark spaces. Maybe he began with a series of syllables that went something like whao-ao-ao—but it was a howl, high and shrill like nothing I had ever imagined a human throat could produce, a screaming beacon that could reach across interstellar spaces, beyond the universe itself, into the great, black whirlpool at the core of Being. It was so loud. It filled everything, obliterated everything. Did my eardrums burst? Was there blood oozing out of my ears? The body is to be discarded, and for a moment it seemed it was, as in a kind of vision my companion bore me up, surrounded by howling, dark angels, and we hurled through infinities without number until we came at last to a flat and frozen plain, beneath two black suns, and we knelt down and abased ourselves, and shrieked that impossible shriek before a miles-high eidolon that might have had the form of a man, but never was a man. And this thing opened its stone jaws to join us in our song. It spoke, without words, the secret name of the primal chaos that turns in the heart of the black whirlpool, that unnameable name which no human tongue can ever form, nor can any human ear—with or without broken eardrums—ever hear.

 
 
That was almost thirty years ago, I say, uselessly. A lot of water under the bridge since then.

  There no time, the stone man says.

  Indeed, he has not changed at all. If he is truly alive, he does not age.

  You are ready, then?

  Yes. I have done a terrible thing.

 
 
Somehow I found my way back home. I must have arrived a while after my father came home from work, because I discov ered him sitting amid the ruins of our trashed living room, staring at the heavy-caliber pistol on the floor and at the brains and blood splattered all over the furniture and walls. My sister was sprawled head-first down the front stairs. My mother lay right in front of Dad, curled up as if she were asleep.

  He was weeping uncontrollably.

  He never noticed that I was naked and wet and half frozen, or that I was burned where either the stone man or any of the winged ones had touched me. I stank of sweat the way you do when you've shivered really hard. When I tried to say something it came out as a weird, trailing howl. Lights glared and whirled all around the house, blinding me, and the sounds were all strange and distorted, people talking to me at the wrong speed, all growling and distorted, like the voices of broken machinery. Maybe there was blood running down my cheeks. One of my eardrums had burst. I've been partially deaf in that ear ever since. The house was spinning, shifting, and nothing made a great deal of sense. My feet hurt intensely from where they had touched the stars, as if I had been wading ankle-deep in the burning sky.

  In the end, guess what? Somebody really did wrap me up in a blanket like a little baby and hand me a cup of hot chocolate.

  Yes, I did time in institutions after that, in high, red-brick prisons where you have to wear pajamas all day and night in the company of crazy people who think you are one of them, where the bright lights are always on and there is no darkness, except what you can carefully, secretly nurse within yourself, despite the best efforts of so many cooing and clucking Professionals to gently probe you with words and drugs and Get To The Root Of Your Problem. They want you to confess, confess, confess, as relentless as any Inquisition, their pretend-gentleness as insidious as the rack and the thumbscrew.

  Confess.

  Yet I held out. I hoarded my secrets. Eventually, for lack of evidence or lack of guilt or lack of interest, or maybe something as mundane as lack of continuing funds, after many stern lectures about how I was apparently devoid of all normal human emotions, I was cast up at eighteen, an orphan, shipwrecked and alone, onto the shore of the Real World to make my way in it.

  The rest is fraud. Imposture. With darkness in my heart, with my secret cunningly concealed, I gained, at first, marginal jobs and marginal acquaintances, and learned to impersonate a human being, going through all the motions of "normal" life, becoming so convincing in my falsehood that I even managed to marry Marguerite, a much more accomplished person than myself, and to father a daughter by her, whom we called Anastasia, whose name means "resurrection," as in the resurrection of hope.

  But it was all just one more part of my plan. Another part was that we had to leave our native Pennsylvania, and by cunning degrees I eased us into the necessity of moving the entire family to Arizona.

  It spooked them. No doubt about it. A place of vast emptiness, where there are immensities that no one from the East can really comprehend, and you can easily go hundred miles at night between the last gas station and a truck stop, seeing absolutely nothing in between. A little town like Page perched on a hilltop with its stores and green lawns seems like a whimsical speck of paint on an otherwise completely empty canvas. Ten miles down the road can be as barren as the moon. I took Marguerite to see the Grand Canyon by starlight, and she was terrified of its vastness even as I wanted to leap out and swim into its abyss, in which there was no up or down and no distance, where infinity is very close, and at its heart swirls the black chaos whose name may never be spoken.

 
 
You came to me.

I knew the way.

An awakening, into darkness.

Yes. Because I have done a terrible thing.

Then listen.

  And we both listen. It makes no difference that I am partially deaf in the real world, because this is a sound from out of the immensity of the darkness. We gaze down from atop a remote mesa over a desert landscape that stretches off into black nothingness, without the light of a house or a highway or any glow on the horizon to suggest that mankind has ever set foot on this planet— from out of that distance and that darkness, from beyond the squat, round hills that are visible only because they block out the starlight, comes a howling which I have indeed heard before and have never stopped hearing all the days of my life, a sound no human throat ought ever to be able to utter.

  You hear it? my companion asks.

  Yes, of course.

  In such places, in the darkness, we are closer to the outer spheres. Dimensions, gateways, whatever you want to call them, touch.

  Do other people hear this?

  The Christians say it is the howling of a damned soul. The Native peoples, who have been here longer, have other, older ideas.

  We stand in the darkness, gazing into the farthest distance, and for an instant the stars seem to be rippling, as if they're a reflection in a mirror-smooth pond and something has just gone skittering over the surface.

  My companion takes my hand, as he did that first time, in the dark. It is a surprisingly human, tender gesture.

  The howling sound is all. It fills the universe. I cannot hear anything else. I cannot speak or hear, and we two reply, joining an impossible chorus even as the presences close in around us, and I feel their wings beating against me like the wind. Their claws or hands or whatever it is they have tear at my to-be-sloughed-off flesh as they seize hold of us and lift us into the air, off the top of the mesa, sweeping over the landscape, into the stars and the darkness beyond.

  I am still able to touch the thoughts of my companion and converse with him after a fashion that is not speech, except perhaps the speech of dreams. His words form inside my mind, as if they are my own.

 
 
This is my tragedy, I come to understand.

  I have done a terrible thing, but not terrible enough.

  For a while, during the years of my imposture, I didn't feel like a damned soul at all. It was very beguiling. Marguerite awakened within me emotions I did not know I even had. We were happy. When our daughter was born, it was a joy. She taught me how to laugh, something I had not done in a very long time.

 
 
That must be sloughed off.

 
 
I had a life.

  And I lost it.

  Again.

  I have done a terrible thing.

 
 
It is of no matter. Such things do not exist in the dark.

 
 
But what if I can't slough it all off? What if the condition of nihil is only incompletely achieved? What if, in the end, my sin is a very petty and human one, a routine mixture of cowardice and prideful despair?

 
 
Now the stars swirl around us in a vast whirlpool, and then there are more dark dust clouds whirling, obscuring the light, and we pass through, borne by our captors, for I believe that is what they are, the ones to whom we have surrendered ourselves. Once again the ice-plain stretches below us, beneath the black suns, and the enormous stone visage looms before us, and the stone jaws grind and the stone throat howls, speaking the names of the lords of primal chaos, and of the chaos itself which cannot be named at all.

 
 
I have done a terrible thing.

  History, family history, has a way of repeating itself, and the sins of the fathers are visited, etc., etc., but not precisely and not the way you think, because the terrible thing was simply this, that at the end of many long and happy years together with Marguerite, she began to leave me, not because she was unfaithful or wanted a divorce, much less because I blew her brains out with a heavy-caliber pistol or induced her to do the same to herself. More simply, she developed brain cancer, and after the seizures and delirium and withdrawals into hospital wards, where I last saw her hooked up to monitors and tubes like a thing, not the person I loved, who had taught me, quite unexpectedly, how to be human—after I no longer had the courage to visit her or whisper her name, I looked into the darkness once more and remembered all those strange things from my youth, and my companion, my mentor, my friend with the many funny names I'd made up for him and no name at all, was waiting for me as if no time had passed.

 
 
Cowardice and despair. How terribly, disappointingly human at the last.

 
 

Falling down from out of the black sky toward the immense thing that is more of a god than anything imagined in human mytholo gies, I realize that my only crime is that I am a liar, that I claimed to be ready for this journey when I am not, that I have not managed to slough off my humanity at all; that if anything I have suddenly regained it.

  I call out to my companion. I speak strange words, like an apostle babbling in tongues. I ask him if he is my friend, if he has been my friend all my life. I tell him that I have a name, which is Joseph. I ask him his own name, and somehow I am able to press into his mind. I catch glimpses of his life and learn that he was an astronomer who worked in in Arizona about 1910, named Ezra Watkins, and he too has some deeply buried core of sorrow, a secret pain that he is terrified I might uncover and force him to confront before the darkness can swallow him up utterly and forever.

  He draws away from me in something very much like panic, shouting that these things must be gotten rid of, discarded, sloughed off—the phrase he uses over and over again, chanting it like a mantra—and I can feel his immeasurable, helpless, despair as memories of his discarded humanity begin to awaken within him.

  He begins to scream, to make that unbelievable, indescribable howling noise, and for once I cannot join him in his song. From out of my mouth issue only words, like a little boy's voice, not loud enough to be heard, breaking, shrill.

  Consternation among our winged bearers.

  This one is too heavy. He is not pure.

  They let go of me. I am falling from them, through space, burning among the stars, blinded by light, away from the stone god, away from the black suns and the swirling dark.

  I call out to Ezra Watkins. I reach for his hand.

  But he is not there, and I can feel my ears bleeding.

 
 
Maybe my daughter Anastasia inherited my alleged total lack of human emotions, because she disappeared about the time her mother became ill, and I never heard from her again; but I am, alas, a very poor liar, which is my single crime, of which prideful despair, cowardice, and self-delusion are mere subsets, what I have failed to slough off.

  I alone have escaped to tell thee.

 
 
My eyes do not glow. That is an illusion. In the dark, there is no light.

  I wait. I have walked too far in the dark spaces. I have waded barefoot among the fiery stars and the black stars and burned myself. I cannot walk upon the Earth again, but only wander in the darkness, howling.

 
 
The Christians say it is the howling of a damned soul. The Native peoples, who have been here longer, have other, older ideas.

  They're both right.

 
 
Nobody is going to make this better with a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate.

  Now that you have come to me, you must tell the story.

 
 

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Next: The Truth about Pickman