God is dead. The deity, who was wont to call Himself the Creator, out walking along the steepest trails of the Clara Lux, carrying a pale white cloak under his left arm with which to cover Himself, was looking for a right spot to deposit His seed; and, upon finding such a spot, took a snap to stretch his cloak out and, in doing so, lost his footing and fell 19,000 feet to His death.
Mount Wilhelmina, wound in a raw cocoon of ocean mist, stood impassive as the Creator tumbled through sightless reaches of pure white cloud. His body spun with the frantic effort of His limbs to grab hold of some stray precipice; He would reach bony fingers elongated in fright toward what appeared a nearby ledge but was actually an image thrown from either above or below by the play of light within the mist, and in reaching would shift His weight so as to thwart His balance with each grasp. Over and over God rolled reaching out to be saved. It never occurred to Him to command His body to be still.
"Help me! Help me!" He cried, sensing the great shafts of stone piercing the deep canyon into which he hurtled drawing nearer each second.
He had come here to mate with His bride. He was naked. He tested each piece of ground with His toes for its suitability. Where it was unsuitable He passed water to show His contempt. He swore He would get a new bride, for this one - like all His others - had come to bore Him; each season it grew more mountainous and less like the soft lovely Wilhelmina He had created. He would have gotten a new bride long ago had He not gone one day to the Isle of Magic only to find it deserted, every house boarded up, every field parched into an etching of bounty, every lake slimy with unmoving waters, every forest overgrown with rotted vegetation, every creature turned to bone, every hillside charred, every stream covered with hardened rock; and, in the center of it all, a gaping hole a hundred miles across, a hundred feet high, red and steaming in the center just beneath a thin crust of stone, hissing like a great nest of vipers. Nothing remained to be taken away and made to serve God's ends; nothing to steal here. The volcano had exploded. All was gone.
Unable to coax another bride from another island, as He had, with spells and magic devices, Wilhelmina from Satan's island, God resolved to make the best of what He already had. Scowling, cursing the Magicians and their hideous island, He returned to His own kingdom, with its ghostly mists upon the shore, its deep channeled river carrying silt a thousand miles into the ocean, its jagged peaks, its lush green valleys, its rich moaning deserts, its crumbled dwellings.
Man was gone for good. Not a living thing but God had dwelt on this continent for a thousand ages. When the last sinner had been chastised, when the dark skinned Hill People had all died out, when the last of the blue-eyed children had been put to the sword, when the last of the brown-eyed warriors had died of old age, when the last of the desert people had disappeared forever - and God searched everywhere but could find them nowhere - and when the last of the first people to ever live here had been devoured by the great silent sharks which swam the currents of the Luxor, their fins like sailing masts leisurely pursuing an afternoon outing: when each of the tribes of man had died out, been killed off, or simply vanished, that was the end of humanity. No one ever came again, not in all those eons. No one existed who might worship God.
He grew lonely, this great deity. He mated more often with his brides now, though He found distasteful their behavior in submitting so shamelessly. They would crouch down into ravines, they would purse their lips into rings of feathery green bushes unkempt and voluptuous, or they would pulsate and give off deep sighs whenever He drew near; and when He became naked they would all but leap in His face and begin stroking Him on down to His feet.
"Whores!" He began calling them. He would whip them whenever they became too vulgar in their appetite for this, their husband's being. They would whimper and grow still until He was ready to mate.
"Now!" He would cry out. "Stroke me now!" And they would obey. But it satisfied Him only momentarily. What He sought, and deeply craved, was a place of purity, of goodness. His wives had grown jaded in their appetite; their bodies had witnessed too much of the world's sinful ways, they became temptresses, their flesh was wanton. God sickened of their lasciviousness. "You are no better than Satan's whores!" He chastised them.
I must find a place untainted by evil, the deity resolved. A place where lilies still grow; where the mist carries no soot; where the grasses are new green; where the rock is golden; where the rest of the earth has never been and shall never be seen. Then He remembered: there was such a place, He had once seen it, long long ago, a pure, chaste place where no sin had ever entered. Eons ago a great warrior, whose goodness and whose love for his creator was as none other, had so pleased Him as to have been lifted up - by His very hand lifted up - into the heavens tucked away on the side of Wilhelmina. He remembered it: the lilies, the gold, the sprig of new foliage, the iridescent fogs encrusting it, hiding it from the rest of the earth. It was where He followed the warrior to, where He had seen this worthiest of all men go down on his knees in prayer and in thanksgiving. And He remembered it; and He sought it out.
"It was to the left," God surmised. "But no: more to the right. Yes, the right." So He went right. "And near the pine cone shadow Wilhelmina casts just before sunset, a shadow shaped like a falling cone, and at whose base there were great pines, distant and verging on purple beneath the ember sky, but very distant; and in the shadow's apex grew a mound of lilies. There was a fold of earth-covered rock, and gold vein inside this rock. But where was it? Where was it?"
For a millennium God searched the body of His queen for this enchanted place. How could it be so hard for its creator to find? He wondered. No mating along the way gave Him any satisfaction.
"I hate this place," He sat down one day and muttered. And as He spoke, just as if His words had, like a magic key unlocked a piece of earth from its time and place, across a deep chasm it open to him, this vista He had so long sought. A mile away it stood revealed: Heaven, its beauty like a wail reaching out to entice Him near. He longed to leap over the chasm. But He thought better of that plan; instead, He got up and made His slow way along the slippery spring trails etched into the face of His bride. So much winter thaw had spilled down the mountain that the trails all glistened under the sun, and even the moon revealed a moist sheen.
"Go easy William," God cautioned Himself. "Your snot-nosed bride will be the death of you if you are not careful!"
The deity labored many months to make His way across to where purity awaited. "Ah! Sweet goodness!" He mused every step of the way. He had to brace Himself against the wall of sheet rock ascending a thousand feet to the top of Wilhelmina to keep, many times, from losing His footing. "You are cold to your husband," He would say as He leaned up close to the mountain; a damp chill seemed to seep through the rock. "Are you dying?" He asked His bride. "Is that what accounts for your coldness?" He had meant it only as a joke.
At last a morning lit up heaven to Him, but only for a moment. Just ahead lay the beautiful spot God had spent a thousand years seeking. A ray of light from the mid-morning sun just clearing the mountains cast a momentary beam into the gentle mist which encased this place, then quickly shot past the fog and into the chasm. God had quick eyes though; He had seen the outline of lilies highlighted through their mist. He knew He was upon it now. A few more steps would bring Him to it. He heaved a sigh, part of relief, part of triumph, and took the final steps.
He saw up close the lilies. Reaching out, He ran His fingers along the golden underside of overhanging rocks. A white glow sprang as if from the lilies to surround Him. God stood in the middle of paradise, haloed within the mist, invisible from outside. He could see nothing beyond the periphery, nor did He try to. His cloak, which He had removed and carried under His arm, He now shook to its full expanse so as to throw it over Himself as He went deep inside His bride's golden womb. It whirled on the air above His head. But it got caught on something, a nearby limb or something, He could not look around to see what it was, His cloak blocked His view; so He tugged - hard, very hard, He tugged, to free it from its hold.
"Damn you!" He cried, and tugged again.
At last it snapped free. But on the air it now caught, and snapped again, and again, and even again, borne by the movement generated in its fibers by the initial convulsion over and over upon itself, spinning round God's head, spinning Him around with it, propelling Him step by whirling step nearer, ever nearer, the precipice, until at last a great gust of wind sheared it from the fog and into the mighty updrafts arising from the chasm. These winds pulled it so heard that God felt His feet leaving ground. For an instant He stood airborne, crying "See me! See me world! See me!" Then the air folded over the cloak and began, where before it had pulled upward, pushing down upon it until it started to fall. And once the descent began, it could not end until its appointed time, having first to fulfill certain obligations to the nature of existence, God or no God holding it up.
"Help me! Help me!" A faded cry from thousands of feet below. Then silence.
When the fog cleared from around paradise, revealed was a covering of bones. Almost everywhere but on the mound itself where the lilies were growing were bones, an endless scattering of bones, piled high in places almost to the tops of trees. In the skeleton hand of one still intact arrangement reaching as if from a gravestone was clutched a sliver of fabric.
The fog never returned; it hovered a thousand feet above this sacred place but never descended. It remained as if watching, or guarding, but reluctant to caress again, as it once had, this ground, blocking the light from any direct reach, allowing only a diffuse rendering of daylight and, at sundown, the rays of light to angle their way beneath it, and this only for a few moments until the massive outer wall of mountain forced darkness from the sky onto the ledge. At dusk, as if shutting up for the night, the smooth red sky streams were put out, and a haze, more impenetrable than any fog, arose to seal this place shut.
The halo just before twilight drew two wanderers to this lonely spot: a man and a woman. They stood watching and feeling the glow first angle in, as if a shooting star, then expand like heated rock to cover the bushes, the trees, the wild lilies, and to smear iridescence over mounds of fine white sand, all that remained of the piles of bone strewn everywhere.
"What place do you suppose this is?" the man asked his companion.
"A sad place," the woman replied.
Is it there for us? they both wondered, but said nothing until the place could be better taken in. They walked about, as much sensing as inspecting. Coming to the edge, they looked down and, for an instant, saw illuminated, from a slanted beam of twilight on the bottom, a body, intact, naked, with a cloak clutched in one hand which lay stretched out above its head; and, beside it, another body, naked too, lying in similar repose. Then the shaft of light vanished. They drew back from the ledge and, turning, looking around again, observed the rest of the light disappearing, as if a red-gold fog trailing off into the night. It grew dark quickly. They would have to remain here until morning, these trails too perilous to negotiate in the dark. Neither of them knew where they were headed; only that it must be up - as far away from beneath the earth as they could move. They had just come from there. Escaped from there. And though they carried tales in their souls of terrible places, with treacherous turns, and deadly adventures all around, still they preferred whatever mystery might lurk above to the awful reality below. They knew, in their deepest memories, of deities who, in competing to outshine one another, laid waste to entire races of humans; of great monsters who savaged the earth to satisfy their bloodlust; of warriors cutting young boys open that rituals might be observed; of freaks being buried alive for the amusement of carnival onlookers; of gentle beings taught how to burn their brothers in wooden baskets; and they knew of great magicians, of a wondrous line of witches, of fabulous spells, of mountains levitated a thousand miles over open sea, of whole islands exploding, of oceans washing ashore, of searing swirling winds which swept the very sands away from the desert. They knew of all these. Yet they chose to come here, to this world above ground, full of peril and murder. They chose to leave their perfect world, below ground, for this hell. Their majestic, sparkling City, filled with the safety of warm glowing light - abandoned...for this.
* * *
A white luminescence, as if from a capsized star, spread over the gently rounded edges of metal cylinders which stood at regular intervals throughout the City, interspersed among the myriad buildings. Spaced exactly seventy feet apart along the intersecting thoroughfares, these objects were made of a lustrous metal, like burnished aluminum; were seven feet in diameter, seven feet in height; and each had, extending from a black disk on top, outward from the center, seven tentacle-like spokes of a darker, heavier metal; on each spoke were seven thousand sharp prongs standing like quills in regular rows. From each cylinder a kind of humming came forth, every once in a while emitting something like a muffled wail. They stood back from the street, unlike the buildings, which all jutted to the very edge. There were no sidewalks. The streets were all seventy feet wide, all composed of textured stone, a kind of cement into which a few very fine hairline cracks had become inter-woven. All was regular and orderly, except the buildings, which appeared to have proceeded from an infinity of designs; eventually they too revealed themselves the products of repetition, each design repeating itself every fourteenth building: the eye could take in no more than that at any one sweep, therefore the illusion of infinity.
Some buildings were ornate: porticoes with columns, garlands, cornices, slanting roofs; others were stark and square and flat; and in between a well regulated variegation of the two extremes. Every building was quarried of a pure white stone. No trace of decay could be seen, neither soot nor scar nor rust; no stain of weather, no etching as of winds pumping raw sands against the facades, no grime, no smear of any kind. Only the purest white.
Above the City extended a huge rock dome gathered into stratified folds which made it appear like the topside of a brain inverted concave to convex. This dome too was a pure white, and might easily have been mistaken for a cloud cover. Light seemed trapped in misty layers, especially at the center, where its arch was greatest, like pearl clouds rolling in over top of one another. Another illusion of luminescence.
All the light came from below, and all the light arose to catch the dome as if holding it in place. Where it came from was everywhere; it seemed to be within the walls of the buildings, within the paving underfoot, a part of the very life of the City. The City appeared to be the sky's only support, luminescence the tension feeding constantly the overhead canopy. One might suppose the sky would fall should ever the light go dark, fall slowly with a gradual wane, quickly with a sudden black out. Wherever its immediate source, this light was born deep inside the metal cylinders, for they were generators; taking raw materials, they created light, which they fed, along underground cables, in the form of pure energy, to every part of the City. This was the network of arteries illuminating the buildings, the streets, the City; in turn upholding the ceiling of stony clouds. Perpetual light shone here; perpetually the great underground cavern housing it all kept together. No one need ever fear the crushing weight of earth, or the impact of wind, or the dark of sky or the roar of gathered rain. Not here.
"Who lives up there?" the child asked his mother.
"I don't know," came the reply. "Maybe no one does."
"Why is it so big then?" the child wondered.
"It needs to be, I suppose."
"I think someone lives up there," the child concluded. "I think he's shaped like a cocoon, so he can fit inside the fat clouds." The child thought a minute. "Are they clouds?" he asked.
"They're like clouds."
"Did you ever see real clouds?"
"No, no one has. But long ago, before they came here, our ancestors looked every day up into the sky - the real sky - and saw the clouds float by."
"They moved?" the child asked in amazement.
"Yes, always. They never kept still, like these clouds."
"They would break apart. Everything had to keep moving up there or perish."
"Will these perish?"
"No," the boy's mother replied. "Here it's just the opposite. Here, everything keeps still. Here, to move would be to perish."
"But we move!"
A strange look came over the woman's face, as if a terrible secret had suddenly made itself known, the kind of secret one hopes that in keeping can be prevented from ever becoming real.
"Yes," she admitted in a frightened voice, "we move."
Everything eternal was still here, exactly the reverse of above. Decay and death were attributes of motion here, not of stillness, as above. Decay and death would eventually set in wherever there was movement, here in the City of Light. Only those things which never moved remained immortal here. To be stuck fast was, here, the first criterion of life, to go from place to place the harbinger of death.
"Come along," the mother told her child, "we must go home."
Together they hurried along the street until coming to a huge building, one of the plain buildings, an apartment house in the middle of a street, near an intersection. Beside it stood a metal cylinder; the woman shuddered going past, as if it were a beast in a compound which might spring upon her and her child. Momentarily, the mother and child disappeared into the building.
All was as white inside as out, as much of light as of material. The walls forming the long corridor were bare of ornament, bare of any means of lighting, any fixture, any kind of vehicle through which a circuit might pass; yet there was light. Everywhere along the corridor it spread evenly, this white pallid glow, casting shadows neither from nor on whomever passed through. The walls were like ceramic, except to the touch; they had an almost spongy feel, and almost seemed to give when anyone pressed against them, as the children always took time to do.
"Please don't do that," the boy's mother advised.
"They feel funny. It's a weird feeling, like spider webs," the boy explained, then moved on.
No matter how often or how vigorously they were pushed, they never gave, as sponge would; they retained solidity, they resisted all hands. Neither did they show any mark from having been handled. No one was ever seen to clean them, yet however many children's hands poked, touched or ran along their perimeter, no smear ever appeared. Once a child tried writing on them with crayons - a bright red one in his left hand, a deep blue one in his right. Nothing happened, no mark was left, yet the crayons were dented just as they would have been had the marks taken.
The floors too were spotless. No shoe ever scuffed their pale white sheen. The children had tried, but never succeeded, just as they had made a failure of marring the ceiling, against which they had hurled shoes, toys, even food - ripe pomegranates, nectarines, pears, even tomatoes, each to no avail. It had become almost an obsession with them, especially at "The Times."
They always knew, the children, when one of their playmate's family had disappeared - they sensed it even before they missed the child at their gatherings. Weekly they gathered, by some unstated prearranged compact. The day of their gathering varied week to week, but each child, without anyone having said, always appeared at the appointed day and hour. Rarely did they come together twice in the same week; when they did - when they felt an overpowering urge to congregate - they knew. It was one of "The Times." And there would always be one of the children missing, and he or she would never again be seen, nor their family. No one ever saw anyone leave though. Occasionally a new family would move in the very day of such a gathering; the children always wondered why, or how they knew to turn up just at that time.
"Why do you speak of spider webs?" the boy's mother asked. "We have no spiders here."
"We dreamed them," the boy said. "They're great big, and have eight legs, and huge fangs, and they spin webs just like people weave cloth, thread by thread. And they trap little children and eat them up!"
"Who dreams these things?"
"We all do."
The corridor went the length of the building. Seven feet wide, there were no doors, no windows, no cracks, no slits; down the center of the building, everyone living here had to walk, until finally coming to a chamber which took them up to where their apartment was. This was the only way in or out of the building. The children speculated the existence of hidden passages, dark cold rooms, underground dungeons, narrow winding stairways, and all manner of secret compartments, peepholes and the like; nothing had ever been seen though.
"I don't like these dreams of yours," the boy's mother said. "They remind me too much of...my own dreams."
The boy looked up at his mother in awe, as if a great bond had just been established between them. "Does father dream too?" he asked.
"I don't know," his mother replied. The boy resolved to ask his father.
Getting into the elevator at the rear of the building, the woman and her son were taken to the sixth floor, where they lived. Another corridor had to be traversed, this time toward the front of the building; it too was white, it too had walls of a subtle sponge-like texture, it too was bare of ornamentation. At various intervals were doors, leading to the various apartments on this floor. Halfway down the corridor, they came to their apartment. The door was already open; and when they entered, they found the place bare. All their belongings had been removed. There was no such thing as eviction here in the City of Light; no one paid rent, no one therefore ever failed to pay; nor was anyone troublesome to his neighbors. Their place of lodging was theirs for life.
"Father!" the boy cried. His first reaction had been of alarm, then he grew eager. The woman continued staring, her glance indiscriminately taking in the bare surroundings and the man standing in the center of the room, no evidence of modulation in her eyes, as though the absence of belongings and the equally unexpected presence of her husband were, if separate parts, of one order.
Perceiving his wife's bewilderment, the man said "I was told to leave work early and come home." This only accounted for half the phenomenon; the other half - the vanished belongings - was as great a mystery to him as it was to his family.
"Leave work?" the woman repeated in disbelief. It was unheard of for a man to leave work before four o'clock, even if there were occasional rumors of inexplicable departures from the everyday routine. Such occasions were referred to simply as "Those Days." The man, still troubled by his wife's bewilderment, attempted an elaboration.
"I was sitting, in my chair, my back to the far wall, as I always sit," he explained. "I'd been there since eight. We were all seated, facing each other. I face an empty chair ever since the man from across town left early last month. Some of the men had dozed off - the same ones who always do. I could hear their snoring. We all could. Then the supervisor came in, walked up to where I was sitting, stood a moment in front of me, then tapped me on the shoulder and said 'Go home.' I go up - my hands were still in my pockets, I find it more comfortable seated that way, I don't get so restless waiting for the day to be over. I got up. Then I came here. The place was just as you see it. Everything is gone. Walking home, I thought I was being followed, but I saw nothing. I think I may have had a vision. I remember walking along and suddenly looking up. There seemed to be...things...crawling...in and out of the sky. Many-legged things. Ugly things, very dark. I passed no one in the street. I stopped only once, halfway home, to look up at a building, similar to ours, but smaller, and all boarded up. The boards were the color of rust. All boarded up - and didn't people used to live there?"
This tale of boarded up apartment houses struck a responsive chord in the boy. He grew excited; his heart beat faster; he longed to speak. But he could not. He had pledged himself to silence - he and the other children in his building had all sworn never to reveal any of their exploits, or their suspicions, or their discoveries.
He had seen buildings all boarded up, so had the other children, in their wanderings through the City. But he had promised not to tell anyone. It was not that the children were forbidden to roam, only that they wished a private world, filled with private knowledge, which the others - the adults - could not share. Neither would they reveal anything else they had discovered in their wanderings. The boy thought of them now, though, these many discoveries. They had seen a broken cylinder once; it was split down its front, and, in its interior were what appeared to be bones. Another time they had seen a much smaller tear in another cylinder, barely a crack, and, seeping out, a thick red liquid, like blood. They had watched in terror, fascinated with their fantastic notions of what these things signified. Once they imagined they heard screams coming from a whole street full of cylinders; as far as their eyes were able to make out these dim lustered things, they fancied cries coming from them, modulated by the scale of distance, until, from the last one of the visible series, barely a hum reached their ears.
None of this was ever reported to anyone. Each of these incidents had come at one of "The Times," and this made them even more fabulous, more to be kept secret. Yet now the boy yearned to tell his parents; he sensed some fateful connection between these incidents and the present circumstance. It felt to him as though it were crucial for his parents to understand as much as they could; and to understand, they must have as many facts at their disposal as possible. But his loyalty to his peers won out. He said nothing; his agitation, which his parents right away noticed, was taken as having arisen from the present circumstance only, and valuable knowledge was lost.
Nothing had yet been said regarding what would happen now that all their belongings were gone. All three assumed, as a matter of course, that they would be provided for, that either the missing goods would be found and returned or else replaced with new. People's needs - for food, clothing, shelter, light, warmth - had always been met. Not even the most ancient stories spoke of a time when existence had been hard, when scarcity prevailed, when people perished for lack of necessities. The City had been found just as it was today, everything already here, and working. It was told how, in antiquity, two of their kind had happened upon this bountiful place after many years of wandering a great continent. They had been driven from their home upon the desert sands; they had crossed what seemed to them endless plains - flat or else gently rolling land dotted with low prickly green bushes and occasionally a withered tree whose bark had begun to crack, whose leaves were not to be seen, even on the ground, whose limbs hung like paralyzed arms kept up only by mechanical means. Years of searching for a place to live, to settle and begin a new life, had yielded nothing but these inhospitable plains filled with dried river beds, some coated with a crystalline grime, some bleached salt white, some parched into cracked clumps, and a few still muddy where a trickle of water still remained. There were no deep pools, no wells, no grassy oases, no indication of underground reservoirs. Nor was any animal life evident. Dry, dead and barren, these plains, and endless into the horizon. Till at last they came to an opening in a hillside. A fast approaching storm had broken, so they entered, having to stoop to get inside. Thunder, rain, wind and lightening surrounded them, seeming to force them deeper into the hillside. A terrible wind came in the wake of a gigantic streak of lightening whose thunder shook debris loose from above. Like a train moving so fast its motion absorbed its very appearance, this wind wormed into the hillside, caught hold of the two travelers who had sought shelter and, howling as fitfully as a wolf beneath the full moon, carried them deeper and deeper along the tunnel until, coming abruptly to a hole, they tumbled in. The wind retreated. The travelers fell and fell, endlessly it seemed to them, down a narrow shaft the sides of which they reached out and touched, vainly attempting to alter their descent. At last they ceased falling; they had landed, and, contrary to their every fear, were unharmed. They expected every bone to be shattered, so they hesitated to move. It was very dark; and, wanting to reach out to one another so as not to have to call, they found their courage to move their limbs. They had landed close by and very quickly found one another; they knew by touch who they were. They embraced. Then, slowly, they got up and began walking away. Suddenly everything was lit, as if a switch had been thrown. Before them lay a vast underground City, clean to the sight, and of a pure pale aura which made it seem as if everything they saw had been cut from clouds and set into pre-existing molds, and when the clouds had hardened the molds were broken, releasing shapes of white wisp. They named this place, there and then, the City of Light. It had existed, evidently, since the start of time, awaiting only the proper moment to reveal itself. They wondered how everything kept lit: as they lived their lives they wondered; as they brought new life here they wondered; and as, many years after their advent, they shut their eyes in final sleep, a lifetime's wonderment crept from their lungs and disappeared into the strange lighted world they had finally left to become a permanent presence.
A thousand generations had passed and still it was wondered how this underground City kept itself lit. No one stated the question; it was not handed down as ancient tales are handed down parent to child. Yet everyone asked it, never having heard it asked before. To themselves they asked it, the children at "The Times" repeating it to the speeded rhythms of their hearts, the adults on "Those Days" aware more keenly than ever of its reverberation inside their minds, no one stating it outright. Everyone's secret, this question, here, in this world of plenty, where all was provided; and, suddenly, inexplicably, for a family living on the sixth floor of one of hundreds of apartment buildings, all was taken.
"Has it never happened before?" all three - the man, the woman, the child - wondered. None of them could answer. Silently they sat down on the floor, just inside the doorway, and waited. All three stared about their empty room, with its white soft seeming walls and ceiling; its gray floor, and its one window, opposite where they sat, from which, whenever they tried to look, they could see nothing. Something always appeared to be beyond - presumably the City below their floor; but, as they drew near to look out, whatever was there began to grow faint, becoming fainter the closer they came until, their faces against the window pane, there appeared to be nothing at all outside. They never spoke of it though.
Once, the woman had been looking in a mirror, a small one she held in her hand. Something - she forgot what, now, as she recalled the incident - had brought her bedroom to the living room. Her mirror was still in her hand. The moment's crisis, or whatever it had been, over, she lifted the mirror to return inspecting her features. Her eyes shifted from her face to fix upon the window. There, in the mirror, she saw a gaping hole where the pane had been; and, just outside, a deep white cloud whirling like a funnel, pieces of white smashing like chunks of ice against the empty place where the pane should have been. Terrified, she lowered the mirror and stood a moment before getting up the courage to turn and face the window. When she did, it was as it always was: perfectly normal, a window, beyond which, vaguely, seemed to live the City. Again she lifted the mirror, again the swirl of white; she lowered it, again the window. She never mentioned it though.
Suddenly the door flew open. All three were in terror. "Who's there?" they all asked. There was no answer. Then they heard a whirl just outside which seemed to come closer; and, as it approached, became a hiss, traces of whirling still remaining as an undertone. None of the three dared move. The woman thought of her mirror, and of the strange thing she had witnessed outside her window. Slowly, bits of white - like tufts of moistened cotton, yet more insubstantial, as if one could put his fingers clear through without resistance - flew from the doorway into the room. Then more and more of them, as if they were scales being shed by a snow lizard. They whirled about the room as is possessed, crashing at random against the wall, the ceiling, the floor, and sailed, or seemed to sail, in and out of the window. The three terrified occupants had to maneuver themselves constantly to prevent being struck by an odd chip of cloud. Constantly they kept a vigil to avoid the streaming objects.
While their attention was diverted, a much larger swirl of cloud, from which pieces still flew, entered the room. A walking thunderhead, pure and white outside but, deep in its interior, gray, growing in shades to what appeared the darkest, deepest night imaginable at its very core. It filled the doorway, and pushed forward; no matter how much of it got in, more seemed still outside. Soon it filled the room; from it, cloudlets still broke away to fly everywhere, to strike all about the room, to divert the three occupants. This large clouded wind advancing, expanding, fogged the entire room. Sight was impossible within.
The child first sensed something monstrous engulfing him. He cried out to his parents. "Save me! Save me!" He reached, and his reach was met, but only for a moment, Then he felt his hands slipping away from those of his father and his mother who, on either side, had hold of him. They too felt their grasp releasing. They each cried out his name.
"William!" they cried.
"Save me!" the child kept calling, over and over; each cry grew fainter than the last. Finally, they could hear nothing but the hiss surrounding them, with its moaning whirl tucked within. It seemed to them as if noise itself had tumbled inside-out. And they wondered if a sound wave had carried their son off. But said nothing.
They reached for one another, but each had gone. Each was alone. No longer were they within their empty room of fog, but inside a metallic cylinder. They knew it was one of the strange small objects stationed everywhere in the city. They could see nothing; but they felt. All about them were what had the texture and implacability of hard metal spikes. And, feeling down toward the cylinders' bases, they discovered the spikes attached to rounded belts with the touch of sandpaper. They too began crying out to someone to save them.
A sound, as of a switch, followed their cries. The belts began turning. The spikes began moving. And drawing nearer with each rotation. They could not move, neither the man nor the woman. Then, suddenly, everything stopped. The motion, the rotation, the grinding sounds all ceased. And for a split-second, in their place, something snapped. Then all was quiet. And the cylinders split open: the one the man was in, the one the woman was in. Each stepped out. And looked around. Their eyes caught one another's. They had been encased seventy feet apart. They ran to each other. They embraced. Then they remembered they were husband and wife, part of a family. They had a child. In the confusion they had forgotten. They stepped apart, looked into one another's eyes, spoke the same thought.
"Where is he?" they asked. They began searching. The storm which had collected them, and had somehow taken them from their home and left them inside these ruined cylinders, seemed to have dissipated. All was again calm beneath the web-white sky. Everything was once again its true shape and stillness; the things here - buildings, streets: all things - ceased their turmoil. In a flash everything had returned to normal, just as, in a flash, as they had felt themselves transported to stand inside cylinders, even without their having moved from where they were seated, this man and woman, everything had appeared, through the almost impenetrable cloud which had absorbed them, to be caught as in a maelstrom and whirled into shapeless masses of darkening cloud, whole buildings tumbling into the ground then, as if steam, rising up toward the overhanging sky, only to descend again into yet another buoyant form. All was chaos and flux. And all the people - for they too could be seen, almost touched - all the people were as ghosts, and some could be sensed clear down to their skeletons.
Now it was calm, and reality had reestablished itself. All was as it should be, except, passing in every direction as the man and woman hurried forward, backward, and side to side frantically searching for their child, the two cylinders stood cracked and wrenched at their seams; visible within, as teeth in a sudden strong light, the spokes gleamed outward: this the only sign that anything out of the ordinary had ever happened.
The boy could not be found. Not in front of, or beside, or behind any building. Not hiding in the shadow of a cylinder - only these cylinders, of all things in the City, cast shadows. Nor could he be found inside any of the buildings. They went and stood throughout the City and called to him, but there was no answer. In desperation, as a final if hideous effort, they began searching the cylinders themselves. They could not get any of these now frightful objects open, not even the worn ones with cracks, into which they could peek and almost reach a hand but not wrench open. Most of the cylinders seemed intact. "Perhaps," they thought, "some are older than others, or more used." But then - they dared not ask - how were they used? what was their purpose? and what was inside? and the spikes or the rollers: what were they for? or their turning? or their approach? What did it all mean?
"He wouldn't be in here," they said of the cylinders, even as they searched and banged and wrestled to get them open.
"Nothing is free," spoke an outcast. They had neither seen nor heard his approach and were startled.
"Go away from us!" they cried. But he would not obey. Always the outcasts obeyed - but he would not. He simply nodded. In a moment he spoke.
"Now you are as us," he told the man and woman. "Having survived, you cannot return to your own kind. They will not have you. You two are outcasts now."
"No!" they cried. "We are not!"
"To the others you are," the outcast replied. All three were silent, then the outcast spoke again. "Do not look for your child. As a child myself, so long ago, I too was taken up, with my parents, and my brothers and sisters. I too was swept by a great wind into a cylinder. I too survived. The rest perished. I had been placed in one which, like yours, was old, and used up, and could not grind. I too searched. I too believed myself still one of my people. I too was approached by an outcast - there are more of us every day as the cylinders grow one by one worn and used. I too tried to chase him away. I too, in time, came to accept, as we all must. Your child is dead - eaten by the machine to keep this place alive; his energy - the energy of his living body - has been torn from his bleeding flesh to help feed the lights, the City, the sky, the wind, the universe. He is no more. And you, survivors, are outcasts. So come; join us; and be chased away by those who have been spared the ordeal, those who chance passed by and left to go on living, among the privileged. Come. Join us."
They started in horror. They would not go.
"We are not outcasts!" they cried. "We will find our son: he is among our friends. Not dead. Not eaten by a machine. We will find him!"
The outcast shook his head sadly. "Do as you must," he said. "We have all spent our turn doing the same. We will be here when you are ready to take your place among us. You need not seek us out, we will find you. Until then, peace be with you." He disappeared after taking barely a dozen steps. He seemed to have vanished into the very walls of the cavern, where it was dim, almost a shadow. Neither the man nor the woman could recall ever having noticed this dark place before. The more they looked, wondering where he had gone, the more familiar the place became; a moment more of staring and they could see forms moving beyond the shadow. This terrified them. They hurried home.
There was their building. They started to go in.
"Go away!" came a shrill cry from within, followed by more cries. "Go away!" Familiar voices.
"We are your neighbors!" the man and woman cried into the dark interior of the building. They said their names.
"Go away!" was all the reply they received.
"We are seeking our son!"
"Is he here? Has he returned?"
They started to enter despite the cries for them to leave; but they were suddenly struck by things: by shoes, by hats and by pieces of adornment hurled at them, and by belts lashed out at them. Eventually they were driven back. Next they went to the man's place of work, but encountered the same hostility. As if in a daze they again wandered the city, by degrees, if unconsciously, working their way back to the shadowed wall of the cave, where they were met once again by the outcast.
"You have returned much sooner than any others," he told them.
"We did not mean to return," they replied.
"No one means to," the outcast said in a compassionate voice. "But we are forced to it. Our friends will no longer have us. We carry in us a shadow, each one of us, which, perceiving, they become frightened of, and chase us away. They sense that we know the truth of this place, and they cannot endure that knowledge. Come: join us now, and be told everything we have over a lifetime discovered."
The outcast led them into the shadow. They passed through the wall of the cave into a dim chamber which reeked of decay. They began gagging.
"You will get used to it," they were told.
"What is this place?" they asked.
"It is life."
"No: back there is life!" the man and woman insisted.
"Back there is illusion. Here is reality. Here is the heart of existence, with its stink, its filth, its rot! The others - those who survive - cannot know what life is. They know only the tricks of wind and fog and light, the pleasing shapes assumed by swirling matter, the fresh aroma conjured out of damp walls and murky pools, the soft glow put forth by spikes in metal cylinders which mangle the screaming flesh of our loved ones. These are the things they know as life. We have seen deeper."
The new outcasts seemed reluctant to accept these ideas. On their faces was not only disbelief, but contempt, as if the outcast were somehow creating what he described, not simply describing it. He sensed the cause of their reluctance.
"Come," he said, "let me show you." The others - all the outcasts living within what appeared to be the very walls of the cave - moved aside, revealing a secret passage. Their movements were stiff, too formal for flaccid limbs which seemed, when not moving, to be nothing but sleeves on their cloaks. They looked as if they could not hold themselves upright for long; their bodies, at rest a soft loam-like flow of flesh, had grown taut and might snap if they did not relax again soon. Once the outcast, the man and the woman passed, the others returned to their cloth-like state, to stand motionless and breathe in the dank air.
The passage stood at an incline; at first it descended sharply, so that it required great effort for the three wanderers not to lose their balance. Then gradually it leveled out; and, as it did, it widened from the constricted passageway where walls were so close the wanderers' shoulders touched against them in places.
"We are below ground," the guide explained. "We will traverse the City, and as we do, we can look up and see everything as it really is." He motioned for the journey to resume.
A corner was turned, and suddenly the passage disappeared into an immense underground chamber, eight feet high and covering the entire breadth and width of the cavern. In the distance, vaguely, on all sides, it terminated in what seemed to be walls, but walls which seemed to move and flicker like flame.
"What is this place?" the man and woman asked. "Is it hell?"
"No," replied the guide. "It is the base on which the earth sits. The fires you see all around generate the winds which in turn condense to form the thing you called a City."
"City of Light."
"Yes: City of Light. Now you see the source of that light. Come, let us go to where you once lived."
For perhaps an hour they walked the chamber. Its floor was like bone, and, above, a kind of mold covered the ceiling. Finally, the guide stopped and pointed up.
"We are standing under it," he said.
Looking up, the man and woman beheld the inside of a great funnel cloud. They cried out in fright.
"Help them!" they cried, for they could see their neighbors trapped within the clouded gray layers.
"They are not aware of where they are," the guide explained. "To them, they are at home, in their apartments, no more than this."
"Let us move on."
They had gone but a few steps farther when both the man and woman again cried out, this time in great anguish. Above them, wrapped tightly in what appeared to be spider's webbing, and stuck through with a hundred fangs, was the mangled body of a boy. What was left of him was white like the beautiful light which shone everywhere above ground. From here, they could see up into the cylinder which had eaten him. They knew it was their son. They could only turn away and moan until it was time for their guide to lead them from this place.
"Come," he said. "You have seen enough of life for one day."
That their steps were retraced, that they ascended the same narrow stairway which had led them underground, that they re-entered the dank dungeon where the outcasts dwelt, that they were given a place to stay, that they were seated upon a filthy green mat of fungus, and that they were handed a bowl of foul smelling vegetables for their dinner: they were oblivious to all that went on around them. The hideous remains of their son absorbed their entire consciousness; nothing else could get in.
"You have become one of us," the guide, in a soft voice, told them. Turning to the rest of the outcasts, he said "They have joined us."
A thousand heads slowly nodded. Each head was filled with exactly the kind of image which had taken over the minds of the newest outcasts, this man and woman seated on moss eating rotting food. Only the guide was able to function, only his mind had managed to free itself of the painful image. The rest were trapped, and could only nod in vague understanding.
The man and woman looked up from their eating. They asked simply "Why?"
The guide now told them each what each of the others, in turn, had been told - what had sealed the minds of these outcasts ever more tightly about that most horrible image until it had become their only mental activity, the sole content of their lives, for each had suffered the loss of a loved one too, had been taken to look up at the mangled remains, had succumbed to the horror.
The guide looked them in the eyes. "Chance," he replied to their question. "Pure blind chance. In time the cylinders wear out. The forces here which generate the winds, and which at random select the next victims to be sacrificed to the production of light, are unable to distinguish which cylinders work, which do not. There may be a thousand which do not work, or there may be but two. Chance alone dictated that you would end up inside two which did not work, your son in one which did. There is no more to it than that."
Never had anyone questioned further. This, the hardest of all truths, had always shut the minds of those encountering it forever to the outside world. Something always happened deep inside their eyes. But, looking down at the man and woman, the guide saw no such activity. Their eyes remained living, and questioning.
"What will happen when all the cylinders fail?" they asked. No one had ever asked anything more of the guide. He found himself uncertain of the answer. The question, to be answered, required him to look into the future; and, upon reflection, he found nothing to guide him.
"I do not know," he said, turning away with downcast eyes. He knew why everything was as it was. He assumed it would always be. He did not associate the gradual attrition of the cylinders with an inevitable changing of the order of things. How could things change? Yet if the cylinders provided the energy which kept the universe alive, and if they all gave out - how could things not change? Slowly, inexorably, the dilemma worked its way throughout his thoughts, taking over more and more of his mind until, at last, as with those of his fellow outcasts, his mind sealed itself shut about that which it could not resolve. The outside world was cast off to him forever.
The man and the woman, seeing his perception destroyed by a dilemma, became again aware of their surroundings. The foul stink of the place caught again on their senses, and the rotted taste of their dinner sickened them. They threw their bowls away. Then they arose. They took courage from the very hopelessness of their plight. From the horror of its meaninglessness they found strength. They looked each other in the eyes and smiled.
"We will leave this place forever," they spoke, as if speaking the most solemn marriage vows.
Together they walked out of the dungeon, and passed through the beautifully lit streets of the City, and went wherever there was a place which might let them out. Our ancestors had found the entrance, they reasoned; let us find the exit. They searched - and would have searched forever - until, at last, just ahead, there it was: the way out of here. A narrow passage led to the surface. Ugly things crawled everywhere, in and out of rocks. But the man and the woman were not deterred. They climbed onward. They saw all the hideous little creatures shaped like the inside of the cylinder which had eaten their child, and they felt afraid to continue, afraid of what would await them; but they kept going, no matter what. Then a swift light swept everything else aside. They felt as if they could take hold of it and pull themselves the rest of the way up. Behind them, suddenly, everything went dark; but they did not notice, their eyes were fixed upon the surface, which now they could see, just ahead, caught within a great brightness which made the aura of the City a pale insignificant flicker.
* * * *
The devil had gone up the mountain. His soft radiant skin glistened beneath the noonday sun. Poise and beauty were conveyed in his every movement. Golden hair fell to his shoulders to settle against muscles almost aglow with life. He was naked. From his loins his exposed sex gently curved almost to his chest, and his testicles, full of seed, clung to his thighs as if to rest a moment. His need was great, yet nothing existed in this world any longer which could satisfy it. He had roamed the entire configuration of land and sea but could find nothing suitable to his urge. At night he wailed beneath the moon; his need gave him no rest. Designed for sensuality, he found nothing sensuous. By day he scavenged old graveyards, hoping for some corpse not yet rotted; but there were none. Only skeletons. He even climbed down the deep hot shaft of the great volcano which had erupted to destroy all life, his aim to come upon the sea gods. But they had hardened into rock; the volcano had entered their cave beneath the sea, lava flooded them, they had been sealed shut in ovens conforming to their shapes. The devil tried chipping the hardened rock away, but could not. Again he set up a mournful wail. Everywhere he went was the same story; death and decay had robbed him of a mate. His sex grew more engorged each day. He feared it would burst.
"I will go up there," he finally resolved, "where my beauty was regained. It is a place sacred to me."
He had busied himself for an eon wandering the world seeking to reclaim his tree, the tree where God had buried his mutilated body. The tree had been cut down, rent apart for its lumber, scattered to all parts of the world. Eventually it was all reclaimed, the final pieces - the planks of a table shut away inside a cabin beside an old woman's skeleton - taken back to his island and rejoined to the others. From them the tree was reconstructed. The sight, and the feel, of it aroused him. He went out to seek relief; but all life had been destroyed.
"I will go up the mountain," he said as he stood at its base. He began his ascent. When he reached the summit, and the ledge where his body had collected its missing piece, he walked to the edge. And looked over. And began laughing. Uncontrollably he laughed. There, below him, was the body of God, flattened upon the piercing rocks. He could not stop laughing. Soon his muscles grew slack from so much joy. His whole body shuddered as if the world had began gyrating wildly. He lost his balance, and fell over the ledge, laughing as he descended. He landed beside God; and, for the brief instant before life left his body, he looked over toward his enemy; and winked an eye.
For a thousand years their bodies lay side by side on the rocks at the foot of the mountain, till one day two shadows above looked down and saw them. A man and a woman, silhouetted against the evening sky, stood on the ledge watching the bodies disintegrate into a fine powder which a wind caught hold of, carried upward, and deposited on the mountain top.
A shimmering cloud hovered above where the two figures stood. Light penetrated almost to its center, making it a golden gauze fluffed and held in place by the updraft.
They looked up, these two, and saw the cloud. They saw its glistening edges, and they saw its impenetrable interior. They were frightened by the one, but reassured by the other. Then, turning toward each other, they smiled, and took one another's hands, and let their eyes meet.
"Life must not die out here," they both said in voices of solemn vow. "From us, will come a whole new world."
The sun was beginning to disappear beneath the horizon; it gave a reddish glow to the mountain. The sky was turning dark.
The fog began to descend.