Book: Black Wings

Previous: Pickman’s Other Model (1929)
Next: Engravings

Donald R. Burleson


Donald R. Burleson's short stories have appeared in Twilight Zone, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Terminal Fright, Cemetery Dance, Deathrealm, Inhuman, and other magazines, and in many anthologies. He is the author of three novels, including Flute Song (Black Mesa Press, 1996) and Arroyo (Black Mesa Press, 1999), and of the short story collection Beyond the Lamplight (Jack o'Lantern Press, 1996). He is a leading authority on H. P. Lovecraft. Among his critical works are H.P. Lovecraft: A Critical Study (Greenwood Press, 1983) and Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe (University Press of  Kentucky, 1990).

e dwell forever in realms of shadow. Strangley complacent, we wander through our weary days as if we understood the texture of our world; yet in all truth we see with the eye of the worm and hear with the ear of the stone, and comprehend nothing. Our understanding is a skimming waterbug that tastes only the surface of a fathomless black sea, while reality, a frightful abyss of ocean-bottom horror, moves silently and darkly through depths beyond our reach, inscrutable, and mocks our ignorance.

  Dreams try to tell us things of which we otherwise would know little, purporting to lend a semblance of clarity to our minds, yet I cannot even say when my own dreams, my strange and ever-recurrent night visions, began. "Dreams," I have said, but these visions, I now realize, have constituted one single pervasive dream running like an insane but oddly persistent thread through my life.

  I recall waking in childhood with a sense of some striking impression that I could not quite remember, though when the dream came again and again over time I gradually managed to retain more of what I had seen. There seemed to be a consistent pattern to these dreams, but as the vision slowly gathered form it was not relief I felt at being able to remember, but rather a puzzlement as to what these still elusive fragments might mean. It had to do with some forsaken spot in a vast and sun-baked desert, but beyond that I could not be sure of much.

  For a time during my adolescence the dreams became less frequent, and in fact I thought I was outgrowing them, too busy with life to concern myself with insubstantial matters. In time the dreams seemed to cease altogether. Growing to manhood in my native Providence, Rhode Island, I settled into mundane but adequate employment at an insurance company and bought a pleasant old house in Benefit Street, expecting to spend my days in simple contentment. I whiled away my evenings reading Proust and Baudelaire and Shakespeare and sometimes strolling along the ancient streets of the city and thinking quiet thoughts. I was at peace, satisfied with my life.

  But then the dreams began anew.

  I awoke very late one autumn night and struggled to retain a grasp on the ebbing tide of memory as the dream started to slip away. What had it been? Undeniably, it was essentially the vision of my childhood years, though rather more detailed this time. I remembered now a vista of vast and sprawling desert, where great brittle tumbleweeds, like aimless creatures on some distant planet, careened across the arid sand, and spiky yucca leaves and cactus blades pointed skyward in the blinding sun. Behind the scene there seemed to be a kind of subtle rumbling or humming, but I could scarcely be sure; and soon these half-remembered impressions faded, and I fell asleep again.

  The next evening the dream was back, and when I woke I lay in the dark thinking about what I had seen. And heard, or almost heard.

  Again, the sun-blistered sand had stretched away in all directions, dotted with standing sentries of cholla cactus and great angular yuccas and ragged bunches of mesquite. A warm wind had stirred the yellow earth, and a grumbling suggestion of sound seemed to hover just too low to be heard clearly. But for a moment it had resembled a low-pitched voice, a voice that seemed to be saying something like "Gwai-ti." I could recall no more than that.

  Unable this time to sleep again, I walked for hours in the silent streets and felt oddly disoriented. The familiar façades of colonial New England houses with their fanlighted doors and small-paned windows only seemed to make me feel more oddly displaced, as if it were unclear which was reality, the well-known sights of Benefit and Jenckes and College Streets or the windswept desertland of my dream landscape.

  I had lived in Providence all my life. I had never seen a desert, except occasionally in photographs. What did I know of cholla cactus or yucca plants or mesquite, or of boundless purple skies— the memory of them came back to me—skies unobstructed by city buildings, vast skies overlooking colossal oceans of sand? Yet I did seem to know of these things.

  At work I sometimes found myself staring off into space, preoccupied with the enigma of my dream visions. I began to wonder where this desertland really was, if indeed it really was anywhere. Then when a work associate returned one day from a vacation in Albuquerque, and when I listened to his accounts of the region, it was suddenly and inexplicably clear to me that the desert vistas of my dreams were real, and were to be found somewhere in New Mexico. I really had no way to know that, yet I felt sure I knew.

  As time went on, the setting of my dreams became more focused, but I found that this made the dreams more rather than less disturbing, as I could scarcely imagine how I came to know ever more particular detail about a locale of which I should have been wholly uninformed. I had never traveled any further west than Columbus, Ohio, and the American Southwest was only patches of color on a map to me; yet these desert visions were unsettlingly familiar in some surreal way.

Under the glare of a dazzling sun I was looking down at my body—a body now surprisingly brown and muscular and clad only in a sort of rough cloth around the middle—and wondering if I were going mad. How could this be me? As I bent forward to see myself better, locks of long, silky, raven-black hair fell across my eyes, and it was only when I brushed these locks from my face that I glanced up to see the unfamiliar yet somehow oddly familiar figure standing near me on the warm, cactus-dotted sand. He was a medicine man, with a wizened face nearly hidden among a nest of lizardlike wrinkles out of which peered two dark eyes that seemed to hold the secrets of centuries. He was puffing at a great long clay pipe, sending jittery little clouds of gray smoke out upon the warm air, and as he puffed the pipe he shook a turtle-shell ceremonial rattle and intoned the words—incomprehensible to me on one level of consciousness, but faintly familiar on some other level—the words of an ancient ritual song. He turned as he chanted, sending the smoke and the cryptic words first in one direction and then another, finally coming all the way back around to face me, and as his timeless face turned again in my direction, the final words of the song took form in my mind: "Gwai-ti, Gwai-ti." I awoke with these impressions still fresh in my memory and walked far into the night hours trying either to understand the sounds I had heard or to dispel their memory. I paused among the great black gravestones in St. John's churchyard off Benefit Street and tried to collect my thoughts, finally rousing myself and making my weary way back home with no desire to sleep again. After reading awhile I feel asleep nonetheless, and, so far as I can remember, did not dream.

  Taking the next day off from work, I made an appointment to speak with someone who I suspected might possibly be able to tell me something about my mystery: Professor Carlos Armijo at Brown University. His field was the anthropology of the Southwest, and I had heard him lecture once. I doubted that my nocturnal visions would mean anything to him, but it was worth a try.

  I found Professor Armijo to be a soft-spoken and pensivelooking man of middle age, comfortably ensconced in a nest of books and professional journals in his office at Brown. Describing the overall nature of my dreams, I felt increasingly foolish having allowed myself to think there might be any real point in taking up his time with my account, and I barely mustered the courage to mention the nonsense syllables that had become part of my nocturnal visions of the desert, so that I was mightily surprised at his response.

  "I have heard these syllables before," he said in a soft Spanish accent, "in connections that make them difficult to account for in the dreams of someone unacquainted with the cultures of the Southwest. Even scholars conversant with those cultures would for the most part find the words unknown to them. I only know of them myself because I am a specialist in, let us say, some of the darker aspects of Southwestern lore."

  I was intrigued, though in a way unsure how much I really wanted to know about the origins of an expression having arisen for no discernible reason in my dreams; perhaps Carl Jung was right in theorizing that we all possess a Collective Unconscious capable of tapping into profound shared realms of being, archetypal realms, unknown to our conscious mind yet at some level connected to a sort of reality. "Please go on."

  Professor Armijo looked out his window for a moment, evidently collecting his thoughts. "For centuries there was a kind of obscure cult among certain Native American shamans of Arizona and New Mexico," he said, "involving what seems to have been the worship of an ancient god unknown in the mainstream of American Indian tradition." He paused, rather dramatically, and not without cause, it seemed to me. "That god was apparently known as Gwai-ti."

  I felt my breath catch at this revelation. What did I know of this? What did I really want to know of this? Nothing—yet I had undeniably dreamed the name.

  "Very little is known," the professor went on, "about this cult or its god, as the whole subject has always been shunned among such few American Indians as have ever even heard of it. Even at places in New Mexico like Nambé Pueblo, where there are very dark and long-standing traditions of Southwest-style witchcraft, in my researches I have found only one shaman who admitted to knowing of the god Gwai-ti, and he spoke of the matter only with reluctance and, I might add, with obvious distaste.

  "I gather from his disjointed accounts that Gwai-ti is supposed to have existed from the beginning of time, and to have come to dwell under the earth, showing itself only on rare occasions to hapless souls. There are stories of human sacrifices made from time to time by renegade Indian priests having no standing with the proper spiritual leaders in the region, most of whom, however, regard the supposed activities of the renegade priests as fabrications."

  I was struggling to make some sense of all this. "And the name? Frankly, I thought it sounded Chinese."

  Professor Armijo nodded. "I have had some interesting discussions with people in comparative linguistics here about the name Gwai-ti. Indeed there are words within the phonology of Chinese that sound like these syllables. I am given to understand that there is a word gwai that means something like 'strange' or 'monstrous.' There is a word ti that means 'body' or 'form.' And of course ethnologists theorize that Asian peoples migrated in prehistoric times across the Bering Strait into North America, but on the other hand there are virtually no discernible linguistic traces of Asian vocabulary in the languages of Native Americans."

  "How do I know the name?" I asked.

  The professor shrugged. "Perhaps you have heard it somewhere and have simply forgotten."

  I made ready to leave, thanking the man for his time. "You're right, I must have heard the name somewhere."

  But of course I knew that I had not. Except in my dreams.

A few nights later the dreams began to take on an even more anomalous character.

  One night I seemed to crouch in shadows watching some vile convocation in which a semicircle of strangely painted priests chanted: "M'warrh Gwai-ti, h'nah m'warrh Gwai-ti, ph'nglui w'gah Gwai-ti." Another time I thought I was looking across a great desert plain in a wash of moonlight, with a distant ring of mountains in the background almost beyond the limits of vision, and watching what at first I took to be a swirl of blowing sand. Before long, though, this impression resolved itself into a young Indian girl running, screaming, flailing her arms in terror. In the inconsistent fashion of dreams, my view of her was suddenly closer than before, so close in fact that she filled my entire field of view. Somewhere I could hear a deep thrumming sound, like the bass tones on a pipe organ, and a voice—it was like the old shaman of my earlier visions—a voice that chanted, in some language known to me in the dream: "She was chosen, we had to send her." And in the next instant a great hungry darkness seemed to close around the screaming girl, and she was gone, and the thrumming died away. I awoke drenched in perspiration, and fancied I could still smell the pungent aroma of sagebrush. I was afraid to go back to sleep.

  But of course the next night I did have to sleep again, and saw this time a tall, narrow stone in the sand, with ancient petroglyphs carved upon it like runic inscriptions from a bygone age, and I heard again the somber thrumming in the ground, and glimpsed unclear suggestions of movement in the wan moonlight, and only just made out a murmur of the name Gwai-ti before the scene grew grainy and faded away altogether.

  It was only a matter of time before I could no longer resist the nameless urge actually to visit New Mexico. I must long since have decided, unconsciously, that whatever unthinkable confluence of realities might have brought me into an awareness of that other world so unlike the waking world of my mundane life, I had to see, in objective truth, the setting of my dreams. I had no idea, of course, where exactly in those vast desertlands my visions might have originated.

  Nevertheless, I found myself on an airplane one day, landing in Albuquerque with that odd sense of the unreal that one feels upon first visiting a place about which one has only read. Or dreamed.

  I rented a four-wheel-drive vehicle at the airport and drove east and then south. While I had no notion where I should be going, I felt no reluctance just to let my instincts guide me. Threading my way through the foothills of the Sandia Mountains and finding my eyes charmed by occasional glimpses of earth-colored adobe walls and coyote fences, I made my way out into open desert, where distant, majestic mesas stood timeless beyond endless plains of waving prairie grass and nodding islands of mesquite and sagebrush and spikes of yucca. Given my motivations for visiting this land so different from my native New England, I had rather expected the desert to be redolent of subtle dread and unease, but I found myself gathering altogether different impressions.

  The place was beautiful. There was nothing sinister about the dizzyingly vast expanse of turquoise sky, the stretches of chaparral, the blue-gray mountains in the distance, the great deep arroyos snaking across the land, the tranquil mesas stretched upon the sandy plain like serene grazing beasts. I scarcely knew now what I had expected, but what I had found was a land of enchanting beauty and peace.

  As I drove through this desert pageantry, I wondered aloud that I had ever allowed myself to think that there could be anything spectral or bizarre about this region. I felt more at ease than I had felt for quite a long time, and I reflected that I had been foolish to be disturbed by my odd but essentially harmless dreams. Even those nonsense syllables, so coincidentally similar to some name from obscure Southwestern folklore, were surely something about which I had no need to concern myself.

  The sun was beginning to go down behind the purple mountain ranges in the west, and I marveled at the beauty of the desert sunset, wherein the sky exploded in a riotous display of color that would surely challenge the brushwork of even the most gifted artist. Somewhere south of Corona I found myself on a smaller, more crudely paved road, and continued to delight in the incredible vistas of cholla cactus and undulating stretches of sandy earth, where the pointed shadows of yucca and mesquite began to splay themselves out upon the plain in the waning light of the sun. I reminded myself that soon it would be getting dark, and I would need either to return to Corona or go on to Roswell or Artesia to find a room for the night.

  But first I felt in the mood for some more exploration; there was something addictive about this landscape.

  I turned off onto an even smaller road and bounced along in a cloud of dust, feeling, with a certain pleasure, that I was further from human habitation than I could ever recall having been. After a while the road became a rock-strewn, primitive path where even the rugged vehicle I had chosen found it tricky to proceed. A darkening expanse of chaparral lay all around me, and now for the first time since my arrival I began to feel, in spite of the thrill that the newness of the place imparted to me, a certain suspicion that there could be something a little spectral about this land after all. But still I felt fascinated, and a little disinclined to head back to populated areas just yet.

  At length the passable road, at this point merely a vague predominance of rock over cactus and mesquite, played out altogether, and I stopped the car and got out and walked ahead into the twilight, picking my way carefully and once pausing to watch the dusky form of a rattlesnake sidle off into the gloom, its warning rattles reaching me as a paper-dry burring on the evening air. Clearly, one had to be careful here, and the sight of this reptilian reminder was sufficient to suggest to me that indeed it might be time to turn back.

  But I thought I saw something in the distance that I wanted to examine at closer range. It was something vaguely familiar, though the light was very uncertain now.

  Stepping carefully over snake holes and prickly clusters of cactus, I made my way to a large standing stone that protruded from the sandy soil like a somber finger pointing at the darkening sky.

  And I could not believe what I was seeing, in stark actuality now, rather than in the vagaries of dream. This simply could not be, but it was. Its ancient Indian petroglyphs still faintly visible in the dwindling remnants of light, the stone was undeniably the sinister monolith of my dream-visions back in Providence.

  Providence, now infinitely far away in another, saner world.

  Heaven help me, this was the place of my dreams.

  I have no idea how long I stood there, unable to wrest my gaze from the dreadful stone, before my mind registered something else.

  A sound. A low, insistent thrumming in the ground, like the bass notes of a great pipe organ.

  And then—that other sound.

  Two syllables, in some voice of the mind or some real physical vibration, I could not tell which—two syllables upon which I must refuse to dwell.

  The impressions that followed are what I must especially resist thinking too steadily upon, if I am to retain what sanity remains to me.

  In the uneven light of a chalky moon beginning to spread its radiance from between black, scudding clouds, I thought somehow that the sandy plain on which I stood became—what shall I say?—lower, indented, subtly concave, while the shadowy line of the horizon rose slightly in contrast. Perhaps my unconscious mind understood before my reasoning self could do so, for I broke and ran, hoping that I was headed back toward the car, which was invisible from here. Stumbling and falling headlong, I scarcely felt the cactus and the stony soil rend my clothing as I fell and ran and fell and ran again, trying to block from my ears those reverberant tones that must have been rising in pitch all along, those notes that murmured "Gwai-ti, Gwai-ti," from subterraneous regions of which I dared not allow myself to think.

  I had the sensation that a great chasm was opening to receive me, and that in another moment it would be too late, and I would be gone, and no one would ever know what had happened to me. The whole scene seemed to churn itself up into a kaleidoscope of nightmare impressions, a blur of sand and tumbleweed and stone and muttering sound and frowning sky, and I ran and ran, choking on clouds of dust and terrified to look back over my shoulder. It was only when I was driving frantically back up the dusty, rocky road that some corner of my mind registered that I must have reached the car after all, before whatever came for me had time to close upon its prey.

  I spent the rest of my trip moodily walking the populous and well-lighted streets of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and I took an airplane back to Providence, Rhode Island.

  Now when I walk down Benefit Street and stop to look at a fanlighted doorway or watch a sleek gray cat make its serene way along the ancient brick walkways, I realize that it is possible for consciousnesses beyond the common grasp to reach across unthinkable gulfs of time and space and fasten upon the unwary dreamer. I know now that, whatever some may say of dreams or of imagination or of the fanciful nature of such mythic creatures as the vile cannibal-god Gwai-ti, I came within seconds, one night in the desertlands of New Mexico, of dropping into the primal ravenous mouth of that horror from my dreams.


Previous: Pickman’s Other Model (1929)
Next: Engravings