Viriconium, page 49
Retz began to tremble. In the distance he heard the old man say, “There is no need to be frightened.”
“It’s alive,” Retz whispered. “Mammy Vooley-” But before he could say what he meant, another scene had presented itself.
It was dawn in Viriconium. The sky was a bowl of cloud with a litharge stain at its edge. Rain fell on the Proton Way where, supported by a hundred pillars of black stone, it spiralled up towards the palace. Halfway along this bleak ancient sweep of road, two or three figures in glowing scarlet armour stood watching a man fight with a vulture made of metal. The man’s face was terribly cut; blood and rain made a dark mantle on his shoulders as he knelt there on the road. But he was winning. Soon he rose tiredly to his feet and threw the bird down in front of the watchers, who turned away and would not acknowledge him. He stared out of the tapestry. His cheeks hung open where the bird had pecked him; he was old and grey-haired, and his eyes were full of regret. His lips moved and he disappeared.
“It was me!” cried Ignace Retz. “Was it me?”
“There have been many Viriconiums,” said the old man. “Watch the tapestry.”
Two men with rusty swords stumbled across a high moor. A long way behind them came a dwarf wearing mechanical iron stilts. His head was laid open with a wound. They waited for him to catch up, but he fell behind again almost immediately. He blundered into a rowan tree and went off in the wrong direction. One of the men, who looked like Ignace Retz, had a dead bird swinging from his belt. He stared dispiritedly out of the tapestry at the real Retz, took the bird in one hand, and raised it high in the air by its neck. As he made this gesture the dwarf passed in front of him, his stilts leaking unhealthy white gases. They forded a stream together, and all three of them vanished into the distance where a city waited on a hill.
After that men fought one another in the shadow of a cliff, while above them on the eroded skyline patrolled huge iridescent beetles. A fever-stricken explorer with despairing eyes sat in a cart and allowed himself to be pulled along slowly by an animal like a tall white sloth until they came to the edge of a pool in a flooded city. Lizards circled endlessly a pile of corpses in the desert.
Eventually Retz grew used to seeing himself at the centre of these events, although he was sometimes surprised by the way he looked. But the last scene was too much for him.
He seemed to be looking through a tall arched window, around the stone mullions of which twined the stems of an ornamental rose. The thorns and flowers of the rose framed a room where curtains of silver light drifted like rain between enigmatic columns. The floor of the room was made of cinnabar crystal and in the centre of it had been set a simple throne. Standing by the throne, two albino lions couchant at her feet, was a slender woman in a velvet gown. Her eyes were a deep, sympathetic violet colour, her hair the russet of autumn leaves. On her long fingers she wore ten identical rings, and before her stood a knight whose glowing scarlet armour was partly covered by a black and silver cloak. His head was bowed. His hands were white. At his side he wore a steel sword.
Retz heard the woman say clearly, “I give you these things, Lord tegeus-Cromis, because I trust you. I would even give you a power-knife if I had one. Go to the South and win great treasure for us all.”
Out of the tapestry drifted the scent of roses on a warm evening. There was the gentle sound of falling water, and somewhere a single line of melody repeated over and over again on a stringed instrument. The knight in the scarlet armour took his queen’s hand and kissed it. He turned to look out of the window and wave as if someone he knew was passing. His black hair was parted in the middle to frame the transfigured face of Ignace Retz. Behind him the queen was smiling. The whole scene vanished, leaving a smell of damp, and all that could be seen through the rents in the cloth was the plaster on the wall.
Ignace Retz rubbed his eyes furiously. He jumped up, pulled the old man out of his chair, clutched him by the upper arm, and dragged him up to the tapestry.
“Those last things!” he demanded. “Have they really happened?”
“All queens are not Mammy Vooley,” said the old man, as if he had won an argument. “All knights are not Ignace Retz. They have happened, or will.”
“Make it show me again.”
“I am only its caretaker. I cannot compel it.”
Retz pushed him away with such violence that he fell against the sideboard and knocked the tray off it. The cats ran excitedly about, picking up pieces of food in their mouths.
“I mustn’t believe this!” cried Retz.
He pulled the tapestry off the wall and examined it intently, as if he hoped to see himself moving there. When it remained mere cloth he threw it on the floor and kicked it.
“How could I live my life if I believed this?” he asked himself.
He turned back to the old man, took him by the shoulders, and shook him.
“What did you want to show me this for? How can I be content with this ghastly city now?”
“You need not live as you do,” said the old man. “We make the world we live in.”
Retz threw him aside. He hit his head on the sideboard, gave a curious angry groan, and was still. He did not seem to be dead. For some minutes Retz lurched distractedly to and fro between the window and the wall where the tapestry had been, repeating, “How can I live? How can I live!” Then he rushed over to the lectern and tried to wrench the steel eagle off it. It would be daylight by now, out in the city; they would be coughing and warming their hands by the naphtha flares in the Tinmarket. He would have a few hours in which to sell the bird, get a horse and a knife, and leave before the bravos began hunting him again. He would go out of the Haunted Gate on his horse, and go south, and never see the place again.
The bird moved. At first he thought it was simply coming loose from the plinth of black wood on which it was set. Then he felt a sharp pain in the palm of his left hand, and when he looked down the thing was alive and struggling powerfully in his grip. It cocked its head, stared up at him out of a cold, violent eye. It got one wing free, then the other, and redoubled its efforts. He managed to hold on to it for a second or two longer, then, crying out in revulsion and panic, he let go and staggered back, shaking his lacerated hands. He fell over something on the floor and found himself staring into the old man’s stunned china-blue eyes.
“Get out of my house!” shouted the old man. “I’ve had enough of you!”
The bird meanwhile rose triumphantly into the air and flapped round the room, battering its wings against the walls and shrieking, while coppery reflections flared off its plumage and the cats crouched terrified underneath the furniture.
“Help me!” appealed Retz. “The eagle is alive!”
But the old man, lying on the floor as if paralysed, set his lips and would only answer,
“You have brought it on yourself.”
Retz stood up and tried to cross the room to the door at the head of the stairs. The bird, which had been obsessively attacking its own shadow on the wall, promptly fastened itself over his face, striking at his eyes and tearing with its talons at his neck and upper chest. He screamed. He pulled it off him and dashed it against the base of the wall, where it fluttered about in a disoriented fashion for a moment before making off after one of the cats. Retz watched it, appalled, then clapped his hands to his bleeding face and blundered out of the room, down the narrow staircase, and out into the courtyard again. He slammed the door behind him.
It was still dark.
Sitting on the doorstep, Retz felt his neck cautiously to determine the extent of his injuries. He shuddered. They were not shallow. Above him he could still hear the trapped bird shrieking and beating its wings. If it escaped it would find him. As soon as he had stopped bleeding he backed shakily away across the courtyard and passed through the arch into a place he did not know.
He was on a wide, open avenue flanked by ruined buildings and heaps of rubble. Meaningless trenches had been dug across it here and there, and desultory f
All through that long night he had no idea where he was, but he felt as if he must be on a high plateau, windy and covered completely with the dust and rubble of this unfamiliar city. The wind stung the wounds the bird had given him. The dust pattered and rained against the fallen walls. Once he heard some kind of music coming from a distant house-the febrile beating of a large flat drum, the reedy fitful whine of something like a clarinet-but when he approached the place it was silent again, and he became frightened and ran off.
Later a human voice from the ruins quite near him made a long drawn-out ou lou lou lou, and was answered immediately from far off by a howl like a dog’s. He fled from it between the long mounds of rubble, and for a while hid in the gutted shell of a cathedral-like building. After he had been there for about an hour, several indistinct figures appeared outside and began to dig silently and energetically in the road. Suddenly, though, they were disturbed; they all looked up together at something Retz couldn’t see, and ran off with their spades. While this was going on he heard feet scraping around him in the dark. There was a deep sigh. Ou lou lou sounded, shockingly close, and he was alone again. They had examined him, whoever they were, and found him uninteresting.
Towards the dawn he left the building to look at the trench they had dug in the road. It was shallow, abortive, already filling up with grey sand. About a mile away he found a dead man hidden by a corner of masonry that stood a little over waist high.
Retz knelt down and studied him curiously.
He lay as if he had fallen while running away from someone, his limbs all askew and one arm evidently broken. He was heavily built, dressed in a loose white shirt and black moleskin trousers tied up below the knees with red string. He had on a fish-head mask, a thing like a salmon with blubbery lips, lugubrious popping eyes, and a crest of stiff spines, worn in such a way that if he had been standing upright the fish would have been staring glassily into the sky. Green ribbons were tied round his upper arms to flutter and rustle in the wind. Beside him where he had dropped it lay a power-knife from which there rose, as it burned its way into the rubble, a steady stream of poisonous yellow motes.
They had taken off his boots. His naked white feet were decorated with blue tattoos which went this way and that like veins.
Retz stared down at him. He climbed onto the wall and looked thoughtfully both ways along the empty road. Whatever place the old man and the bird had consigned him to, it would have its Mammy Vooley. Ten minutes later he emerged from behind the wall dressed in the dead man’s clothes. They were too large, and he had some trouble with the fish head, which stank inside, but he had tied on the red string and the ribbons, and he had the knife. By the time he finished all this, dawn had come at last, a lid of brownish cloud lifted back at its eastern rim on streaks of yellow and emerald green, revealing a steep hill he had not previously seen. It was topped with towers, old fortifications, and the copper domes of ancient observatories. Retz set off in the direction the trench-diggers had taken. SHROGGS ROYD, announced the plaques at the corners of the demolished street: OULED NAIL. Then: RUE SEPILE.
That afternoon there was a dry storm. Particles of dust flew about under a leaden sky.
THE LUCK IN THE HEAD
Uroconium, Ardwick Crome said, was for all its beauty an indifferent city. Its people loved the arena; they were burning or quartering somebody every night for political or religious crimes. They hadn’t much time for anything else. From where he lived, at the top of a tenement on the outskirts of Montrouge, you could often see the fireworks in the dark, or hear the shouts on the wind.
He had two rooms. In one of them was an iron-framed bed with a few blankets on it, pushed up against a washstand he rarely used. Generally he ate his meals cold, though he had once tried to cook an egg by lighting a newspaper under it. He had a chair, and a tall white ewer with a picture of the courtyard of an inn on it. The other room, a small north-light studio once occupied-so tradition in the Artists’ Quarter had it-by Kristodulos Fleece the painter, he kept shut. It had some of his books in it, also the clothes in which he had first come to Uroconium and which he had thought then were fashionable.
He was not a well-known poet, although he had his following.
Every morning he would write for perhaps two hours, first restricting himself to the bed by means of three broad leather straps which his father had given him and to which he fastened himself, at the ankles, the hips, and finally across his chest. The sense of unfair confinement or punishment induced by this, he found, helped him to think.
Sometimes he called out or struggled; often he lay quite inert and looked dumbly up at the ceiling. He had been born in those vast dull ploughlands which roll east from Soubridge into the Midland Levels like a chocolate-coloured sea, and his most consistent work came from the attempt to retrieve and order the customs and events of his childhood there: the burial of the “Holly Man” on Plough Monday, the sound of the hard black lupin seeds popping and tapping against the window in August while his mother sang quietly in the kitchen the ancient carols of the Oei’l Voirrey. He remembered the meadows and reeds beside the Yser Canal, the fishes that moved within it. When his straps chafed, the old bridges were in front of him, made of warm red brick and curved protectively over their own image in the water!
Thus Crome lived in Uroconium, remembering, working, publishing. He sometimes spent an evening in the Bistro Californium or the Luitpold Cafe. Several of the Luitpold critics (notably Barzelletta Angst, who in L’Espace Cromien ignored entirely the conventional chronology-expressed in the idea of “recherche”-of Crome’s long poem Bream Into Man) tried to represent his work as a series of narrativeless images, glued together only by his artistic persona. Crome refuted them in a pamphlet. He was content.
Despite his sedentary habit he was a sound sleeper. But before it blows at night over the pointed roofs of Montrouge, the southwest wind must first pass between the abandoned towers of the Old City, as silent as burnt logs, full of birds, scraps of machinery, and broken-up philosophies: and Crome had hardly been there three years when he began to have a dream in which he was watching the ceremony called “the Luck in the Head.”
For its proper performance this ceremony requires the construction on a seashore, between the low and high tide marks at the Eve of Assumption, of two fences or “hedges.” These are made by weaving osiers-usually cut at first light on the same day-through split hawthorn uprights upon which the foliage has been left. The men of the town stand at one end of the corridor thus formed; the women, their thumbs tied together behind their backs, at the other. At a signal the men release between the hedges a lamb decorated with medallions, paper ribbons, and strips of rag. The women race after, catch it, and scramble to keep it from one another, the winner being the one who can seize the back of the animal’s neck with her teeth. In Dunham Massey, Lymm, and Iron Chine, the lamb is paraded for three days on a pole before being made into pies; and it is good luck to obtain the pie made from the head.
In his dream Crome found himself standing on some sand dunes, looking out over the wastes of marram grass at the osier fences and the tide. The women, with their small heads and long grey garments, stood breathing heavily like horses, or walked nervously in circles avoiding one another’s eyes as they t
“They’re killing one another!” Crome heard himself say.
Without any warning one of them burst out of the melee with the lamb in her teeth. She ran up the dunes with a floundering, splay-footed gait and dropped it at his feet. He stared down at it.
“It’s not mine,” he said. But everyone else had walked away.
He woke up listening to the wind and staring at the washstand, got out of bed and walked round the room to quieten himself down. Fireworks, greenish and queasy with the hour of the night, lit up the air intermittently above the distant arena. Some of this illumination, entering through the skylight, fell as a pale wash on his thin arms and legs, fixing them in attitudes of despair.
If he went to sleep again he often found, in a second lobe or episode of the dream, that he had already accepted the dead lamb and was himself running with it, at a steady premeditated trot, down the landward side of the dunes towards the town. (This he recognised by its slate roofs as Lowick, a place he had once visited in childhood. In its streets some men made tiny by distance were banging on the doors with sticks, as they had done then. He remembered very clearly the piece of singed sheepskin they had been making people smell.) Empty ground stretched away on either side of him under a motionless sky; everything-the clumps of thistles, the frieze of small thorn trees deformed by the wind, the sky itself-had a brownish cast, as if seen through an atmosphere of tars. He could hear the woman behind him to begin with, but soon he was left alone. In the end Lowick vanished too, though he began to run as quickly as he could, and left him in a mist or smoke through which a bright light struck, only to be diffused immediately.
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