Viriconium, p.29

Viriconium, page 29



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  He strikes himself repeatedly about the face and head. “Dust and hyacinths in my father’s library; dust and hyacinths my proud inheritance!” This litany seems to give him doubtful comfort. For some time he runs in erratic circles in the mud, his neck bent and his face pulled over to one side of his skull as if he has suffered a stroke. Eventually he joins the first figure (who has sat down wearily to watch him) and with much fumbling they raise the woman by her legs and shoulders. Their farting guide, meanwhile, hectors them in a language not heard on earth before or since. He waves a fat, admonitory hand and they must follow; slower than before, up the dip of the long low ridge, sliding into peat groughs and shallow hidden pools, their eyes on their feet and the woman slung between them like a rotting hammock.

  … Imagine that our field of vision is static, and that they have almost moved out of it, creeping across from left to right as the light fades. They crest the ridge. We see only their uncomprehending faces, made tiny and grey by distance, while they see only the city which spreads itself suddenly below them like excavations in a sunken garden.

  A mist drifts over the scene-particulate, sullen, smelling of lemons.

  The throne room at Viriconium, on a cold and desultory afternoon three or four days after the death of the Fat Mam: three o’clock, and the night was already closing in, diffusing through the draughty passages where the old machines muttered and drew about themselves their meagre shawls of light. Methvet Nian: nine steel rings glittered cold and grey on her thin stiff fingers. She wore a cloak made from white fur clasped with amber and iron, and took her chocolate from a rare grey china cup. Her eyes were purple and depthless. Cellur the Birdmaker sat with her, leaning forward a little, his face beaky and hollow in the weak light admitted by the clerestory windows high above. Their murmurs echoed in the chilly air. “We know nothing but that the world is invaded.” “Our fate in St. Elmo Buffin’s hands.” “Nothing seen from the outer wall.” “Great insects, marching south.” The Queen held out one hand, palm flat, to the small blue flames of the fire, feeling an uncertain, transitory warmth.

  Around them the palace was quiet, though not unpopulated. The Queen’s guard had, it turned out, destroyed itself some weeks before in a series of bloody, motiveless purges and episodic defections to the Sign of the Locust: the day after his arrival, Tomb the Dwarf had brought his caravan in from the courtyard, established himself like a nomadic warlord somewhere in the littered outer corridors, and taken charge of the handful of disoriented survivors he found living rough in the guardrooms and abandoned mess halls. It was a situation which suited both his inclinations and his experience. At night the dull ring of his hammer penetrated the intervening walls; he was rearming his little force. During the morning he made the round of his defences-which consisted mainly in barricades constructed from old machinery-or stared from the judas-hole he had contrived in the main gates at the silent “beggars” without. In the afternoons he would knock on the throne-room door and allow Methvet Nian to serve him lukewarm chamomile which he compounded with a violent brandy from Cladich. “I expect an attack soon,” he would report, and another day would pass without event. “It can’t be long in coming.” He was happier, he explained, with something to do. Nevertheless he dreamed a lot, of the lost excitements of his youth.

  Leaving the palace for the city was like entering a dark crystal (especially at night, under the “white pulpy spectre” of the moon); the shape of things became irregular, refracted; sudden astonishing mirages swallowed the Pastel Towers or engulfed the denizens of the streets beneath them. It was as if Viriconium (the physical city, that is, the millennial artefact which sums up a thousand dead cultures) had suffered some sort of psychic storm, and forgotten itself. Its very molecules seemed to be creeping apart. “As you walk,” the dwarf tried to explain after a single clandestine excursion to the Artists’ Quarter, “the streets create themselves around you. When you have passed, everything slips immediately back into chaos again.” Many of the Reborn had abandoned their houses in Minnet-Saba and were making their way north, a trickle of great horses, big-wheeled carts, and vibrantly coloured armour: they carried their strange weapons with care. Down in the Low City the alleys were empty and stuporous-no one was coming out except for coke or cabbage. Outside the palace waited the devotees of the Sign, becoming more misshapen beneath their cloaks and bandages every day…

  In the room at the centre of the palace the light had almost gone. Draughts ran about like mice in the corners. White stiff fingers retreated beneath the fur cloak she clasped about her: “It is so cold this afternoon. On the Rannoch Moor when I was little more than a child, Lord Birkin Grif killed a snow leopard. It was not so cold then. He spun me round by the arms, crying, ‘Hold on, hold tight!’ (That was earlier still.) The dwarf is late this afternoon.”

  “It isn’t yet four. He never comes sooner than four.”

  “He seems late this afternoon.”

  As the clerestory dimmed, weighting the upper air with shadows, and the chocolate cooled in its china cups, the flames in the hearth achieved a transitory, phthisic prominence; and, one by one, like the compartments of a dream, the five false windows of the throne room were filled with a grey and tremulous glow. Against this fitful illumination moved the silhouettes of Cellur and the Queen, nodding murmurous figures of a shadow play. The bird lord’s success in controlling the windows-through which it was possible to see sometimes long lines of insects moving across an unknown terrain-had been only partial. He could turn them neither on nor off. And though three out of five of them could lately be compelled to show some recognizable part of the empire, how these views were selected was not clear to him. Since coming here he had sought:

  Contact with his own machines beneath the estuary at Lendalfoot;

  Views of St. Elmo Buffin’s fleet;

  Some intimation of the circumstances in which Hornwrack and his charges now found themselves.

  Luck had not been with him. This was now to change, but not in a way he could have foreseen.

  The windows were arranged in a high narrow bay which resembled the stern lights of an old ship. The glow in them grew gelid and shifty. In the third pane from the left (for two hundred years prior to Methven’s reign it had depicted the same view, becoming known as the “Pane of Jars” and giving rise to a common proverb) it condensed into three or four muculent lumps, drifting like fish in a polluted tank. After a moment this activity had spread to the four other panes, and a further refining or condensation had revealed the lumps to be the salient features of five deformed heads-or five images of the same head (two of them upside down). The head was in pain. A dark rubbery device had been forced over its nose and mouth. The straps securing this gag or mask cut deeply into the plump flesh of its cheeks, which was of a mouldy, greenish-white colour patched with silvery acne. Whether the expressions that contorted the visible features reflected hope or fatalism, anger or panic, it was impossible to tell. Its eyes, though watery, were urgent.

  For some minutes this apparition struggled silent and unnoticed behind the glass as though trying to escape into the throne room. A psychic gulf of such vastness separated spectre from substance that it seemed to be maintained in focus only by its own desperation, by some debilitating and debasing act of will. It could see Cellur and the Queen and it was trying to speak. Eventually it whispered a little, a syllable like a trickle of vomit in a voice quite at odds with the amount of effort needed to produce it.

  Gorb, it said.

  Its eyes widened triumphantly. Gorb. Cellur and the Queen murmured on. The cups clinked, the day darkened and slipped inevitably into night; thin blue flames danced in the hearth, leaving delicate indelible images on the surface of the eye.


  The head flung itself about, its hidden mouth gaping, until

  “GORB!” fell into the room like a corpse.

  The windows flickered dementedly, shuffling views of the head like Fat Mam Etteilla shuffling the trumps. Cellur jumped to hi
s feet, his cloak knocking the china onto the floor. “It sees us! At last the windows have come to their full function!” (This was a guess: he was still in the dark.) Five panes showed the awful mutated face of the ancient airboatman-left profile, right three-quarter profile. They showed sudden random close-ups of individual features-an ear, an eye, the mask with its proliferating tubes and cilia. Pentadic, huge, it winked down into the throne room. “Is it the man from the moon? Speak!”


  All this time he has been struggling to speak!

  Now at last he masters the language-Benedict Paucemanly with his message from a white and distant planet:

  “Gorb,” he said. “ Fonderia di ferro in Venezia… mi god guv. .. nonarticulated constituent elements… Here lie I in the shadows of the veinous manna, burrowed into the absolute ABRACADAVER of the earth… Earth!-all things are one to the earth… mi god guv im all swole up… Fear death from the air! ”

  He giggled weakly and shook his head. “It’s simpler than that.” He tried again. “In the Time of Bone, in the Time of Dreams, when, on the far side of the moon, I lay like a cheese, blue-veined and with a loop of blue wire for a brain… No. Simpler than that, too “Look, as a young man I flew to the moon. I would not do such a thing now. Something happened to me there, some transformation peculiar to the airs of that sad planet, and I fell asleep. I fell into a rigor, sank without trace into a trance in which I perceived for a hundred years the singing latticework of my own brain. It was a gift, do you see, or a punishment. (I no longer care which, though the question perplexed me then for its metaphysical implications if nothing else.) There, I was no longer a man at all but a theory; I was a thought received with the clarity of a sensation- hard, complex, resonant with proof. I was a crystal set, and I thought that I could hear the stars.

  “I lay on a marble slab in a paved garden among formal perspectives, my naked body citronised by the light falling down from space. At my side a single rose grew like an alum cyst on a long stem. Sometimes it emitted a quiet but intolerably beautiful melody comprising four or five notes on a vanished musical scale. The frozen air filled my mouth. I soon forgot my ship, the Saucy Sal. I communicated with the spare, bony winds of that region, blowing in from between the stars. The moon is a strange place. Up there, shadows fall motionless and subtly awry. It is a nexus. It was changed by many races who tried to come to earth (or to leave it) during the long downfall of the Afternoon Cultures. It is a listening ear. It is an outpost.”

  In the throne-room hearth the small blue flames were exchanged mysteriously for a heap of orange embers. Dark seeped in through the clerestory windows. The dwarf did not come. Outside, the evening wind had brought more snow into the numbed city, hurrying it along as a guide hurries tourists down the picturesque but dangerous streets of some revolution-torn capital. (Streets that would turn later into black and silver geometrical proofs under the sovereign influence of the moonlight.) Benedict Paucemanly whispered like the waves on a distant beach, sometimes audible, sometimes not. He suffered frequent bouts of aphasia. Obscenities, mingled with a dubious lyricism, still made up much of his vocabulary. He still confused the grammar of a dozen old languages with that of a score of invented ones. But the backbone of his monologue was comprehensible. Cellur and the Queen, hypnotised by his awful pentadic image, listened to it and later reported it:

  “The moon, or some secret relic of the Afternoon which still inhabits it, had captured the aviator on his arrival and made him into a sort of ear by which to listen to the populated universe (though listen is perhaps not the word to use). This, we learnt from him, had been a common practice at one time. He was paralysed and placed on a slab. Messages poured through him like a clear fluid. Around him rows of other slabs diminished into the distance, and on them he could see the empty shells of other ‘ears’ abandoned millennia ago when their long sleep turned finally into death. Many of the bodies were broken; they were like hollow porcelain figurines. He found himself able to eavesdrop on the transmissions passing through him, but it was like eavesdropping on Babel. The material universe, it would appear, has little absolute substance. It hardly exists. It is a rag of matter, a wisp of gas, a memory of some former state. Each sentient species perceives the thin evidence of this state in a different way, generating out of this perception its physical and metaphysical Umwelt : its little bubble or envelope of ‘reality.’ These perceptual systems are hermetic and admit of no alternative. They are the product of a particular set of sense organs, evolutionary beginnings, and planetary origins. If the cat were to define the world, he would exclude the world of the housefly in his mouth. Each species has its fiction, and that fiction is to all intents and purposes real; and the actual thin substance of the universe becomes more and more debatable, oneiric, hard to achieve, like the white figures that will not focus at the edge of vision…

  “Ten thousand sentient races populate the stars. All their mad jargons lace the aether. Paucemanly listened, but was unable to answer them. ‘All were distant, dreadfully distant. Their voices were a fading, incomprehensible whisper; a sickening rumour of otherness.’ Thus he lay there on his catafalque: far enough from the human Umwelt to perceive the myriad realities of the cosmos; not far enough to be able to forget his own humanity. This state persisted for a hundred years or a little less, until new, strong transmissions invaded local space.

  “At first, new voices sang to him. This was the first feathery touch of their spiritual envelope or atmosphere. Latterly, he saw them, as a great filmy wing stretched across the cruel lunar meridian. Closer, they were a vast wave. He was soon inundated, sodden with their new ‘reality.’ All other transmissions ceased. The rose which had bloomed beside his slab shattered with a sound of unearthly grief. A fine tracery of cracks appeared in the slab itself. The white gardens fell to dust around him. He was free. In that moment he lost his humanity for good. (But could not as yet attain any other form. The flesh has an inertia.) His broadcasts to the earth were begun too late: by then, the tenuous wave fronts of the new consciousness had brushed the Pastel City, and in its gutters and alleyways and great Houses was conceived the ‘Sign of the Locust’-immaculate and ravishing, a philosophy like a single drop of poison at the centre of a curved mirror, an imperfect intuition of the alien Umwelt and of its implications for our own; the first infection of the human reality!

  “They were insects long ago. They need no vehicles, but slip like a swarm of locusts down the faults and cleavage zones of space (which they conceive of as an extensive empty wasteland littered with the stony rubbish of planets and echoing with their own dry stridulations). Their motives are unclear: instinct-or something resembling it-compels them to search the continuum endlessly for some solution they cannot even define to themselves. Now, that cold passion is in ruins, and they are trying to live on the earth. They were never meant to come down here and build a city. It is their tragedy as much as ours.

  “This was how the great aviator put it to us. Out of confusion he had offered to lead them to the earth. (Who can blame him? Woken from apparent death on the far side of the moon, he had found himself neither insect nor human nor anything he had once been! They were all he had to cling to.) Out of a greater confusion they had followed him. Now-totem or deity or mere interpreter-he was encysted at the heart of their new city, passing his immobile hours in the blue mosaic flicker of his half insectile dreams, involuntary amplifier of the swarm’s Umwelt.

  “ ‘Already it is too late for human consciousness ever to fully repossess the world; the new dream pours out like mist to envelope and mutate it.’ Yet the swarm had been contaminated in its turn: ‘Where once it boasted the horny membranes of the locust, the mantis, or the wasp, now it imagines flesh, skin, hair. It regards itself with horror. It is losing the struggle to maintain its inner vision, its hermetic certainty in the face of the void.’

  “In the grip of this perceptual stalemate the very substance of the planet had begun to fade, stretch, and tear, like an old net cu
rtain at a window in the Boulevard Aussman. If it continued, the conflict between Man and Insect would become nothing more than a jumble of meaningless shadowy events pivoting round a decaying point in space and Time. In areas of major confrontation, matter, in its attempts to accommodate both ‘realities,’ was already distorting, drifting into new forms and miscegenations. New ranges of mountains had appeared in the North; coastlines had taken on new forms, plastic, curious, undependable, draped with a new vegetation which had come up out of the sea along the flight paths of the insects and now assumed a grey, etiolated, mucoid transparency; vast hallucinatory displays filled the skies at night, great shifting modular curtains like the view from a mosaic eye. All this had been added to the minor symptoms already observed-the Sign of the Locust, the rains of lights. In addition, the conflict of two dreams had woken older dreams: the factories of the Afternoon rebuilt themselves fragmentarily in the Great Wastes, producing clouds of corrosive vapour; strangely dressed figures speaking ancient languages were posturing in the streets of Lendalfoot and Duirinish.

  “ ‘The world,’ whispered Benedict Paucemanly, ‘is desperately trying to remember itself… blork… nomadacris Septemfasciata!

  … what a lovely bit of meat…’ ”

  Embers settled in the hearth. The doors of the throne room rattled suddenly, their brass motifs of coelacanths and mermen shifting uneasily in the bluish gloom, and were still. It was the wind, perhaps; or perhaps something had fallen against them. From the passage outside was heard briefly an indistinct groaning; a dull clamour far off; silence. Something was happening out there, but those within were captivated by the wavering pentadic spectre of the old airman, his voice faint and his flesh tortured by the mask which, he explained, was now his sole means of perceiving the “real,” the human, world. Methvet Nian said nothing, but only watched in horror and compassion the nodding of that wounded, debased head, and gently shook her own, while Cellur the Birdmaker tugged his robe tighter round his thin chest and shivered. His head ached with the cold, and with the effort of following that faded cloacal whisper. He had recognized in the spectre’s antics a certain self-consciousness. There was an archness in its winks and gross nods; the narcissism of the confessional informed its breakings of wind.


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