Read an Excerpt
He faces northwest, the direction of the unknown
My name is Pellaz. I have no age. I have died and lived again. This is my testament.
At the age of fifteen, I lived in a dusty, scorched town at the edge of a desert. I was the son of a peasant, whose family for centuries had worked the cable crop for the Richards family. Our town was really just a farm, and to call it that lends it an undeserved glamor. Huts upon red dirt; there is little else to imagine. The cable crop, a hardy, stringy, tasteless vegetable, used for everything from bulk food to bed springs, straggled meanly over the parched ground. It did not grow high and its unattractive, pitted fruits burst with a sound like gunfire to release pale seeds in yellow jelly and fill the air with the odor of putrescence. The grand house of Sefton Richards, a stern, northern man, whose reclusiveness was supposed to shelter insanity, squatted against the horizon, far from our own humble dwellings. Every year, ten of us were summoned to the Great House and ordered to whitewash it. Through the windows, we could see that it had very little furniture inside.
We lived in a cruel, bitter, petty country and it was inevitable that we shared many of these characteristics. Only when I escaped did I learn to dislike it. Then, I existed in a mindless, innocent way, ignorant of the world outside our narrow territories and content to stretch and pound the cable fiber with the rest of my kind. I don’t suppose I ever did really think about things. The closest I came to this was a dim appreciation of the setting sun dyeing all the world purple and rose, lending the land an ephemeral beauty.Even the eye of a true artist would have had difficulty in finding beauty in that place, but the sunsets were pleasantly deceptive.
We first heard of what were timidly termed “the upsets” by travelers passing hurriedly through our lands. Nobody liked to stay long in this part of the country, but my family were an affable, hospitable crowd; and their hospitality was difficult to evade. They loved visitors and entertained them lavishly, and it would have taken a hard brute indeed to resist their advances. The trouble had started in the north, some years ago. Nobody was exactly sure when it had begun. Different travelers opined different reasons for its cause. Some favored the specter of unemployment and its attendant poverty; others waved the flag of continuing moral decline; others claimed power plants were responsible by insinuating noxious fumes into the air that warped the mind. “The world we know is disappearing,” they ranted. “Not the final, sudden death we all envisaged, but a slow sinking to nothing.” Squatting in the dirt, I felt none of this would ever touch me. I listened to their tales with the same ghoulish pleasure as I listened to my grandmother’s tales of werewolves in the desert.
It was said it had started as small groups of youths. Something had happened to them. Perhaps it was just one group. Perhaps, once, on a street corner of a damp, dimly-lit city suburb, an essence strange and huge had reached out from somewhere and touched them, that first group. A catalyst to touch their boredom and their bitterness transforming it to a breathing, half-visible sentience. Oh yes, they changed. They became something like the werewolves my grandmother remembered tales of. Spurning the society that had bred them, rebelling totally, haunting the towns with their gaunt and drug-poisoned bodies; all night-time streets became places of fear. They dressed in strange uniforms to signify their groups, spitting obscenities upon the sacred cows of men, living rough in all the shunned places. The final act of outrage became their fornication amongst themselves amid the debris they had created. The name that they took for themselves was Wraeththu. To distraught mothers and splintered communities, this spelt three things: death, rape and darkness. The Wraeththu hated mankind. They were different; on the inside and on the outside. Hungry, baleful fire smouldered in their skins, you could see it looking out at you. They drank blood and burned the sanctity, the security of society, infecting others like a plague. Some even died, it is said, at their touch. But those who survived and joined them were strong and proud. Werewolves really would walk the desert again.
Listening to all this no invisible wind prickled my skin. I never shivered and looked nervously out at the vast stillness of the desert, wondering. One man who came to us warned my father he should chain his sons to the hut at night. We all just laughed. Nettled, the man pointed out that others, families in villages farther north, did just that. No, no-one had actually been taken, but it was only a matter of time. I looked at my brother, Terez, and we rolled our eyes and giggled. The man turned on us swiftly. Death looked Mankind in the face, he cried, and we were too stupid to save ourselves. Would I laugh as the Wraeththu corrupted my body and destroyed my mind? Would I laugh as I watched my mother and sisters slaughtered? I turned away from him, stung by humiliation for a moment. No, not even then did I stop and feel Fate’s breath on our necks. I took out my sharp knife, a cruel little thorn, and declared this was what any of these weird types would get from me, if by some mischance they should wander so far south, and I stabbed the air explicitly. My father smiled. He patted my arm but his eyes were troubled.
After our visitor had gone, my sister Mima asked our father what he thought of these tales. He told her he believed them to be wildly exaggerated. Rumors such as these have been circulating for many years: “Wraeththu they say! If the world sinks, it is not because of them!” Mima and I must have looked unconvinced, so my father smiled. “We are far from the northern cities here,” he said, his voice gentle with logic. “A gang of unruly, discontented boys has grown into a pack of demons somewhere between the minds and tongues of travelers. They think us fools, easily fooled. No, the Wraeththu are the payment we receive for food and lodging. People on the road have little money, but they have plenty of imagination, that is all. We have nothing to fear. It is all too far from us.”
Mima and I walked in the cable fields that evening. Everything was beautifully red and purple, Mima a stunning ravenhaired wraith in the half-light. We talked again of the Wraeththu.
“What would you do, Pell, if they did come here, if just one of them came here…?”
“And I fell under their terrible spell?” I butted in with a laugh.
Mima did not laugh. “You are not quite a man, Pell. You act so young sometimes. I know you would be vulnerable.”
I felt I ought to be annoyed with her. “Mima! I am nearly sixteen years old. I’m really not such a baby. Anyway, they will never come here.”
“How do you know? You can’t be sure.” She squatted down among the cable stalks, her beautiful dark eyes almost wet with tears. Sometimes, she made me ache to look at her, yet I never really noticed girls. I was very backward in that respect.
“Mima, you’re over-imaginative,” I told her.
“I wish you’d believe me,” she said, under her breath. But that was an end to the subject for quite a while.
* * *
The season had changed, and it was a gloomy day when Cal first came to our home. I was sitting in the doorway, sharpening my mother’s knives. The silvery, grating noise I made suited well the warm, clammy air. Nothing could take the metallic taste from my mouth. The skies were overcast, the ground damp and steaming, insects sheltered miserably under the eaves of the hut. He rode in alone on a fine-looking pony. Later I learned it was stolen. I watched him come slowly down the muddy road toward me; past the other huts where other families looked out, past the lithe figure of Mima who was hurrying home through the stream. She stopped and looked at him, inquiry written all over her, but he never looked, just came straight on down to me. He wore a rust-colored poncho, that covered his knees and most of the pony’s back. Suddenly a knife-like depression entered me. The world seemed to change before my eyes. All the huts looked empty and sad, the dampness stung like acid. I think I knew then, in that brief instant, that my destiny had been set. Already the land around me had acknowledged my farewell. Then it had gone, that lightening realization, and I looked up at the rider who had halted in front of me. As he leaned down from the saddle, I noticed he was deeply tanned, with wild, yellow hair flattened by the humid air, and blue, almost purple, eyes. He leaned down and held out his hand to me. I took it.
“I am Cal,” he said and then I knew what he was. I could not hide my fear, my eyes were as wide as a kitten’s.
“I’m Pellaz,” I told him and added rather fatuously, “Are you a traveler?” His mirthless smile told me I did not fool him.
“Of sorts. I’ve been traveling across country for about a week, I think. Time’s gone crazy. I have no money…”
This was familiar ground. At once I offered him the hospitality of our home.
* * *
While we ate that evening, the rest of my family treated Cal with wary respect. They felt he was different from the usual wanderers we encountered. For one thing, his manner seemed quite cultured and he treated my mother and sisters with flattering courtesy. My father, being overseer of the farm, owned a hut more splendid than the rest. Separate bedrooms and a water tap in the wash-room. Because of the weather, my mother had laid out the meal indoors. We sat around a large and worn wooden table, our faces softened by the flickering lamplight, flasks of wine stood empty round our plates. Cal hypnotized us with his voice. I watched him very carefully as he talked. His face was lean and very mobile, emotions flowing across his features like the movement of moths. He told stories exceptionally well and spoke of things he had seen in the north. Everyone wanted to know more lurid tales about the Wraeththu. Only I knew he was one of them: his hands were never still, and I could tell half the things he said were lies. But that was what they wanted to hear, of course. He never told us why he was traveling or where to. He told us nothing about himself. My sisters were especially enchanted by him. He was typical of the strange, fey, yet masculine beauty I learned to recognize as Wraeththu. (That look, so disquieting; it made me uncomfortable to glance at him.) They were very selective in their choice of converts, I presumed. My father asked him about his family. He was silent for a moment, troubled, and then the warmth of his smile moved the silence.
“You are very lucky, sir,” he said smoothly. “Your family are all with you and in good health, and,” (his eyes flicked for the slightest instant at me), “they are all very fine to look upon.”
We all laughed then, and respected his reticence.
Mima and I carried the dishes out to the wash-place after the meal. From the main room came the faint sounds of people bidding each other goodnight. The washroom was dark and we did not light the lamp. Only the special light of the sky spun whitely, palely into the little room as we washed out the pots. We habitually washed up in the dark when it was our turn. It was easy to confide in each other then.
“I have heard folk call you beautiful,” she told me in a vaguely troubled voice and reached with damp fingers for my hair, tracing its length over my shoulder. “Hardly even human, are you…a changeling child.”
I smiled at her, which she did not return.
“There’s something strange about that boy,” she remarked to me, rolling up her sleeves with wet hands and gazing at the dishes.
“Who? Cal?” I answered her without looking up.
“You know very well!” she said sharply and I glanced up at her. In the half-light her eyes were knowing and showed traces of contempt. She looked much older than her seventeen years. I shrugged and attempted to change the atmosphere with a smile.
“Don’t!” she snapped and then, “Oh, Pell, I’m afraid for you. I don’t know why. God, what is happening? Something is happening, isn’t it?” Suddenly, she was young again and I put my arms around her.
“I’m afraid too,” I whispered, “And I don’t know why either…but in a way it feels nice.” We looked hard at each other.
“No-one else knows,” she murmured in a small, husky voice. How lost she looked. She always hated not being able to understand things. Our mother just called her nosy.
“Knows what?” I wanted her to say something definite. I wanted to hear something terrible.
“That boy…Cal. I don’t know. It’s the way he looked at you. He’s barely human; so strange. It’s almost as if he’s finished his journey coming here. Pell, I’m sure of it. It’s you. It has to be you. The stories are true in a way. They do steal people. But not in the way we thought. They’re very clever…I’m not prepared. I have no defense for you…Pell, is it just me? Am I imagining things?”
I turned away from her and pressed my forehead against the window. Was it just Mima’s imagination? I felt numb. My fate was no longer in my own hands, I thought, and I did not really care. I strained to be truly frightened but I could not. For a while the only sound was the clink and scrape of Mima cleaning the pots by herself, until I said; “We have to go back in there.” My voice sounded like someone else.
“You do,” she answered. “But I’m not going to!” Wiping her hands, she started to leave the room in the direction of the small bedchamber she shared with two of our sisters. At the doorway she paused. It was so dark I could not see her properly. Her voice came to me out of the shadows. “I love you, Pell.” Husky and forlorn.
I waited a while before going to my room. Cal had been offered a place on the floor there and when I went in, he was lying under a blanket with one arm thrown over his face. Terez and I slept on an ancient wooden bed that groaned as if in pain whenever one of us moved. Terez had waited for me to come in before he put out the light. We did not speak afterwards, because of Cal being there. Lying there in the muted owl-light I dared not look at him. I knew I would see his eyes glittering in the darkness and if he saw I was awake he might say something. I had to prepare myself. I was feeling scared now. Presently, Terez’s gentle snores came from the other side of the bed. I lay and waited, knowing that if nothing happened now, tomorrow Cal would be gone, no matter what Mima thought. It had to come from me. He would say nothing otherwise.
My right arm lay outside the coverlet. It felt cold and sensitive and cumbersome. For a moment or two I clenched my fingers with reluctance before letting it move slowly by itself toward the edge of the bed. I must have been bewitched. I was normally such a coward. We had laughed at the tales we had heard. Now I wanted to be part of them. I was excited and curious. In my head I had already left the farm and carved a highway of adventures into the wilderness. My hand hit the wooden floor without a sound. What could I do now? Prod him? Wake him somehow? What could I say? I want to go with you. What if he did not want anyone with him? What if he laughed at me? My toes curled at the thought of it.
I lay, tense and still, my mind racing, and, as I struggled with a hundred impressive words of persuasion in my head, he curled his fingers around my own and gently pressed.
I did not dare look down at him and stayed like that for what seemed hours until my arm screamed for release. Until Cal pulled my hand toward him and I slipped weightlessly to the floor. He wrapped his blanket around us and told me where we would go tomorrow.
“At the moment, I belong to no particular tribe,” he told me. “Most of my people were murdered by soldiers in the north. Few of us escaped. I’m making for Immanion. That’s where the Gelaming, a Wraeththu tribe, are building their city. The Gelaming are powerful and can work strong magic. I will take you there. What have you heard about us?”
I could not stop trembling, so he put his arms round me as Mima had done earlier. “Come on, speak, speak. Tell me, what do you know?”
“Only what travelers tell us,” I replied through teeth clattering like stones on a tin roof. I am half dead, I thought. Shriveled by the touch of his almost alien flesh: a wolf in man’s clothing, something beneath the skin. His smell, pungent, alien, stifling the breath out of me, like a cat over the face of a child.
“And what do the travelers tell you?” Wicked amusement. (Here I have a child to pollute, torment, seduce.)
“They said it was a youth cult, and then more than that. Like a mutation. They said Wraeththu can have strange powers, but we didn’t really believe that…They say you want to kill all mankind.…They say you are fearless warriors…that you murder all women. Many things like that. Not all of it is true…is it?”
“How do you feel about women?” he asked abruptly.
“I know what it means to be Wraeththu,” I murmured, hoping that would suffice.
“Answer!” he demanded and I was afraid Terez would wake.
“I’ve never known them,” I spluttered quickly. “I never think about things like that. Never. It doesn’t matter. Inside. Nothing. It doesn’t matter.” I struggled in his hold.
“It will,” he said quietly, relaxing his grip on me. “But not yet, and certainly not here. You will be Wraeththu. Perhaps you always have been, waiting here at the end of the world. You’ve just been asleep, that’s all. But you will wake, one day.”
We lay in silence for a while, listening to Terez rattling away on the bed. For the first time I opened my eyes and looked at Cal. He noticed and smiled at me. I did not feel strange lying there with him. He was like an old friend.
“For now, I shall give you something very special. It is a rare thing among us and not given lightly. You will learn its significance as time goes on. I’m doing it because you fascinate me. Because there’s something important inside you. I don’t know what it is yet. But I know it was no accident I found you.” He leant on his elbow, over me. “This is called the Sharing of Breath. It is sacred and powerful.”
I was nearly sick with fright as his face loomed above me, satanic with shadows. I closed my eyes and felt his breath upon me. I expected a vast vampiric drain on my lungs, pain of some kind. I felt his lips, dry and firm, touch my own. His tongue like a thread of fire touched my teeth. He called it a sharing of breath. My arms curled around his back, which was hardened with stress and muscle. He called it a sharing of breath. Where I came from, we called it a kiss.
* * *
Before dawn, before anyone would notice our leaving, Cal and I went away from the farm. Cal was riding the pony and I walked beside. I have never been far into the desert before and the vast stony wilderness spread out in front of us appalled me. We had filled every available and portable container we could find with fresh water and I had plundered my mother’s larder mercilessly. I asked Cal why we had to branch out into the desert, why we could not follow the road. I did not think anyone from home would come after me. I felt sure Mima would stop them, somehow. Cal only replied that there was only one way to go and we were on it. He seemed to be in a bad mood, his voice was terse, so I did not press him further.
After maybe half an hour of walking, I stopped and looked back for the first time. On the horizon, the Richards’ house bulked huge and desolate against the faintest flush of dawn. I could not see my old home, but I knew that presently Mima would be stirring. Would she know immediately what I had done? That I had realized her fears. I felt a needling pang of remorse. Maybe I should have left her a farewell note, some kind of explanation. Only we two had ever been taught to write; our father had known us to be the brightest of his children. Whatever I could have written for her would have been understood by her alone; a last shared secret between us. But it was too late now. Cal called me sharply. “Regrets already?” he asked cruelly, but his eyes were amused. I shook my head.
“This is probably the last time I’ll see this place. I’ve never lived anywhere else…” I finished lamely and began walking again.
The desert had a peculiar barbaric beauty. Gray rocks rose like frozen dragons from the reddish, stony ground, and sometimes, strange warped plants sprouted rampantly like unkempt heads of hair or discarded rags. Lizards with flashing scales skidded away from us and wide-winged carrion-birds rode the hot air high above. By noon, it was too hot to travel and Cal unpacked a blanket to make a canopy. I was drenched with sweat because I was wearing all the clothes I owned. It was easier to wear them than carry them. The only shoes I possessed were canvas plimsolls, which I envisaged dropping apart after about three days. Luckily, the feet inside them were quite hardwearing. We stretched out under the shade of the makeshift canopy and ate sparingly of the food we had brought; cheese, fruit and bread. All our water tasted tepid and sour. Hungry insects gorged themselves dizzy on our blood.
I was still very wary of Cal. He appeared cheerful and easy going most of the time, but other times he drifted off into tense, quiet moods, when he stared fixedly at the sky. I could only guess at what he might have suffered in the north. Perhaps he had witnessed things I could not even imagine. Northern society had been disintegrating for years. Even we knew that, safe in our far-away farms. The people now had Wraeththu for a scapegoat. I could almost visualize the brutality that must go on in those gray, mad cities. The people must see Wraeththu as perverted wretches sinking further into decay. Perhaps I too had thought that for a time. Panic and fear blinded them to the cleansing fire that Wraeththu could be. From the ashes new things would grow; not quite the same as they had been before the fire. It annoyed me though, when Cal ignored me and angered me when he would not discuss his life with me. He thought I was naive and sheltered, I supposed, and had no experience to console him. At first, I also dreaded any physical contact with him. In the dark, in the middle of the night, his unexpected kiss had seemed a fitting start to my grand adventure. Here, in daylight, things were different. Most of my reticence, I admit, was due to a fear of making a fool of myself. I was not sufficiently bothered by sex to find him either attractive or repellent. I would accept Wraeththu proclivities because it was necessary if I wanted to be with them; it really did not arouse my interest. Perhaps Cal knew this. On that first day, it was as if what had happened in the night had never been. In my innocence I thought I understood the context of Wraeththu sexuality. It was this way or that way; nothing abstract. “Cal is strange, being around him feels strange, because he craves the bodies of his own kind,” I thought cleverly. “That’s all it is.”
* * *
Once the sun had begun its way back to the horizon, we packed up our things and headed out farther into the desert. Far away, bony mountains rose like black spines into the lavender haze. Beneath our feet the ground had become more uneven and sharp stones plunged into my feet through my thin shoes. Cal rode ahead of me, staring into the distance. Annoyance and finally anger gradually unfurled within me. I was carrying a heavy bag of food; my back ached furiously, my ankles were grazed and bleeding and >my skin was rubbed raw by sweat and sweaty clothes. There was no way I had begun this journey just to be Cal’s unpaid servant. Caught up in a storm of selfishness, that was how I felt. Foaming with wrath, I threw down my baggage, which clattered onto the rocks. Surprisingly, Cal reined the pony in immediately and looked at me. I ranted for a while about my discomfort, feeling both hopeless and abandoned. Sheer willpower kept the tears inside me. “Pellaz, I’m sorry,” Cal interrupted me. “Sometimes I don’t think. We will take turns upon the pony. Come on.” Stunned into silence, I sheepishly hoisted myself onto the animal’s back, who immediately sensed an incompetent rider and began tensing its haunches. Cal swung the heavy bag of food over his shoulder and, holding the pony’s bridle, walked beside me.
“You must forgive me for being insensitive,” he told me. “I’ve been alone for months now. It’s easy to forget how to share things.”
I was going through a phase of being uneasy with him, which came about every two hours, and struggled for something to say. Eventually, “Where have you come from?” burbled out. He ran his hand down the pony’s sleek orange neck, his face troubled.
“About ten miles north of your place, I came to another farm. It was huge, expensive. You know—palm trees, verandas, drinks on the terrace, that sort of thing. They were into horses in a big way: and I was in a bad way. God knows what they thought when I lurched into their polite little tea-party! My arm was cut to the bone and stank like a carcase. I was sweating, swearing, hallucinating!” He laughed and so did I, but I did not think it was funny. “God, I was nearly dead,” he continued. “Two days before that I had been traveling on the road with a friend. We stopped while I went into the bushes. We had a car, you know, and a whole tank of petrol. Anyway, I was only gone for a minute or two, but when I went back, the car was on fire and my friend was lying beside it—what was left of him. Raw meat! God! Two men, a woman and a child were watching. They didn’t smile, not anything. But their hands were red with his blood…”
I did not like him talking like this. My heart was beating fast and I wanted him to stop. I did not want to hear any more. It made me nervous and sick. He spoke of the life I had now chosen. I was so fickle; one moment I begrudged his silence, the next I loathed his confiding in me. He did not see me though, did not see my discomfort, just kept stroking and stroking the pony’s neck and carried on exorcising his bitter ghosts.
“I ran and I ran and I ran,” he said, his voice getting fainter, “and I fell, got up, ran and fell again. That’s how I hurt my arm. I can’t remember doing it…” He straightened up and smiled. “Anyway, I was lucky, the fine people at that very white, clean, prosperous farm weren’t prejudiced. They knew I was Wraeththu, but they were only curious. Wonderful liberals. Fools. They cleaned me, fed me, healed me and then, can you believe it, even offered me a job! Decorative as the palm trees, that’s me. It would have been easy to stay, forget who and what I was for a time, but I had to keep going. I couldn’t stay. So I repaid their hospitality and kindness by stealing this very expensive pony—and money. Look.” He burrowed in his shirt and held out a crumpled bundle of paper. Silver stripes in it caught the sun.
“You said you had no money!” I gasped in one of my common moments of pathetic innocence.
“I know,” he said wryly, smiling, and put it away again. “We’ll need money later, really need it. I wasn’t going to waste it.”
After that, the atmosphere between us improved greatly. He had not crossed the gulf, but at least he had thrown me a rope.
* * *
For many days we traveled towards the mountains, conserving our supplies as best we could and resting only when absolutely necessary. We were lucky to find water on several occasions and the pony was content to pick at the sparse vegetation along the way. On the evening of the seventh day, we clambered through the foothills of the crags. Plants were becoming fewer, so we gathered as much as we could carry to feed the pony later on. Cliffs reared black and gaunt in impressive silence toward the darkening sky. Splintered rocks littered the ground, and strangely, brackish, milky pools of water lay in the hollows of them. Cal warned me not to touch it. As there was neither brush nor wood to gather, we could not light a fire when we camped for the night. We huddled uncomfortably under a blanket, too tired to keep going, too discomforted to sleep. For the first time since that first night, Cal deigned to touch me. We sat with our backs pressed into an overhanging rock with the blankets swathed around us. Awkwardly, Cal had put his arm around me, more because he was feeling miserable than because he wanted to hold me, I think. I realized that now I was absurdly disappointed that he had initiated nothing physical between us. It is difficult to work out why I had changed my mind about that. I thought that Wraeththu were on the way to not being exactly human, and it was part of their glamor, I suppose, that forbidden and secret sensuality they shrouded in ritual and reverence. Cal had spoken only briefly of such things and then only dropping meager hints; to test my reaction, I think. He once said, as we lay in a sandy hollow at night, that I possessed a rare and stunning beauty. His words had come to me out of the darkness, I could barely see him, and I had laughed, too loud, immediately, in sheer embarassment.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” I had cried, more aggressively than I had intended, because I felt nervous, and just a little scared. He had smiled in a horrible, sneery way.
“Pell, that’s one thing about you that is unattractive,” he said. “You must know you are beautiful. It is more conceited to deny it. If you think that kind of modesty is becoming, you’re wrong. It’s just pathetically human. When someone tells you you’re beautiful, you don’t have to say anything at all.”
I squirmed in humiliation for hours afterwards, and would not speak to him, but I knew he was right. Mima and I had always thought ourselves superior to all our peers, and not just in looks. But I had always thought it ill-mannered to let people know that. Cal was of a different world. His kind are proud of themselves and because none of them are truly ugly, Wraeththu are never ashamed to admit they are beautiful. Only in a world where ugliness prevails is it a shame to be vain, a cruelty to appreciate loveliness in oneself. Just being around Cal kindled my sexuality. I must admit this worried me. Had I possessed, unknown within myself, the inclination to desire another male? Perhaps I was being subtly brainwashed, and yet…sometimes, when I looked at Cal, out of the corner of my eye, in the evening, in the red light, it seemed a woman stood there; a woman who might have green hair or wings; something strange, unearthly. Sometimes I was frightened, sometimes just confused. Was my mind losing its grip on reality? The heat of the desert…? I was in awe of Cal’s magic; that which I could sense beneath the surface and his precise yet languid movements; his cat-like pride in himself, called to me, softly but insistent, like an enchantment. His eyes mirrored an intimacy long-gone, but it was caught within him for ever. That night, crouched under the gaunt, black cliffs, I longed to touch his face, to make him look at me, instead of the middle distance where old memories replayed themselves on the night, but I could not bring myself to move. My previous life had been cut off and had floated away from me, Mima’s face was fading and her hands were mere wisps that reached for me, but I was still young, inexperienced and frightened. The beast slept within me but I was not ready to wake it.
The next day, we made our way up into the mountains. Starting at dawn, we followed a winding, stony path between the rocks, always traveling upwards. Cal told me he thought that once water had flowed down the mountains and had cut this convenient little road for us. In that time, the desert would have been lush and fertile. People would have lived there. I wondered how long it had been since others had climbed this path. It might have been centuries. The mountains had been attacked by huge pressures. We passed through a canyon, so deep it seemed we walked underwater and, looking up, we could see stars. The sides of it looked as if they had been hacked by a giant axe. Huge, scrawny birds, wheeled high above us in the light, their ragged voices reaching us as mournful cries.
“They are lost souls who cannot give up this world,” said Cal. “They will not pass to the other side.”
I shivered, even though I felt he was joking. “Will we have to leave Red behind?” I asked. By this time, our pony had a name.
“Oh no, it’s not very far now,” Cal replied vaguely. “Look at this.” He had found a fossil in the canyon wall.
A thought struck me. “Have you been this way before?”
My theory of us venturing into territory untouched by man for centuries abruptly evaporated. “Are we near Immanion, then?”
“Oh no, nowhere near.” He was now sorting through some interesting stones that glittered pink and blue along the path. “Look at this. It could be anything.” He held a rough crystal up to me. I was riding the pony more expertly now and it stopped when I wanted it to.
“Cal!” I said with a slight whine in my voice. “Where are we going?” My trousers had ripped at the knees because I had fallen over earlier in the day. While I waited for an answer he thoughtfully licked his forefinger and rubbed the graze on my knee.
“Hopefully, by tonight, we will reach the end of this pass. We will come to what looks like a vast moon crater mostly filled with a rather unpleasant soda lake. On the shores of that lake is a rough little Wraeththu town called Saltrock. It’s been there about eighteen months, and yes, I have been there before. I have friends there. Good friends who have pioneered their way to this hellish spot to build a safe haven. At the moment it’s not much, but it will be…” He was annoyed with me. I can see why now, but at the time I went sulky. “Is that all you want to know?”
I shrugged in the most irritating way I could. Was that all I wanted to know? I wanted to know everything and he told me as little as he had to. I was a willing convert to the way of Wraeththu, yet I knew so little about them. Cal’s alien strangeness had become familiar because I was used to him, not because I understood him.
* * *
By twilight, the cliffs suddenly fell away beneath us and we stood at the lip of what once must have been a waterfall. Two figures, almost completely covered in sand-colored cloth, appeared in our path. They were armed with long knives. I felt as if my heart had leapt into my throat and I jerked Red’s head savagely. But Cal spoke softly to them and they melted away again. For once I held my tongue. A path had been hewn out of the rock to the valley floor. It was narrow and difficult to follow. A strange, acrid stench reached my nostrils as we descended. Only when we reached the bottom did I dare look up. Ahead of us a vast sheet of what looked like molten gold reflected the sinking sun. Steams and vapours coiled and leapt off the surface. Everywhere, grotesque mineral deposits stood like sculptures, the models for which I would not care to meet. The lake was ringed by mountains and not too far away I could see fresh water cascading down the black rock. Saltrock town, a ragged silhouette in the twilight, was lit by flickering yellow and orange fingers of flame.
Someone came to meet us. A thin, rangy horse galloped toward us along the lake’s stony shore. Cal stopped dead. He was smiling.
“Behold exotica, Pell!” he exclaimed, with a grin from ear to ear. He who rode the thin horse skidded it to a halt in front of us. Pebbles flew everywhere. When he leapt from the animal’s back, it was in a wild tangle of flying rags, tassels and flying red, yellow and black hair. (Another reality shift shocked me cold as the sexes mingled. Was this creature male or female, or could it be both…?!)
“Cal! They signaled it was you!” he cried and, with restrained enthusiasm, they embraced.
In the twilight I could just see his amazing, purposefully tattered clothing and incredible hair. If Cal had ever seemed alien to me, there are no words to describe my first impressions of the second Wraeththu I had ever met. A twinge of despair wriggled through me as I waited, small and silent, while they greeted each other. Fumes rose off the lake like ghosts and the smell was making me feel sick. Cal suddenly remembered me. Partly disentangling himself, he said, with a wave of his arm, “Seel, this is Pell. I abducted him from a peasant farm.” (Laughter). Nettled, and feeling this was wildly exaggerated, I moved my head in acknowledgment. Seel assessed me in an instant, fixing a huge, disarming grin across his face. “Welcome to Saltrock,” he said in a way that let me know I was irrelevant. We strolled toward the town. Seel linked his arm through Cal’s and chattered continuously about things and people I did not know. The horses plodded behind. Seel overwhelmed me. He burned with an undeniable dynamism, eclipsing even Cal’s charisma, although he was not as tall. When he noticed I was trailing behind, he decided to make a good impression on Cal. I was swooped upon and wrapped in leather-strapped, metal-studded arms. “You look so tired. It’s not far. Lean on me.”
It pains me to remember what a bad-tempered wretch I was then. The only thing that kept me from shrugging Seel off with a curse, was that I lacked the guts.
Saltrock was my first true encounter with the Wraeththu way of life. I cannot deny it astounded me. I cannot remember what I was expecting, but Saltrock was a real town, or the beginnings of one. Admittedly the buildings were constructed of a mad variety of materials, with seemingly little organization. Some were quite large and made of solid wood, others little more than thrown-together metal sheeting or mere tents of animal hides. Light was provided by flaming torches that gave off an oily reek, hurricane lamps and thick candles. The inhabitants, creatures as startling as Seel, exuded spirit and energy. Many recognized Cal as we passed among them. Everywhere the drabness and disarray was disguised by gaudy decoration. Wraeththu boys of bizarre appearance with painted faces strutted through the crazy streets; some were still working into the night. There was a sound of hammering. All carried guns or knives. I once caught a glimpse of a rusting, flashy car sagging in a sheltered corner and a corral with a high fence teeming with restless horses. Nobody looked at me and the atmosphere, though strange, did not feel hostile.
Seel’s house was a little way out of the center of Saltrock, set apart from the other buildings. It was an incredible sight; a large wooden, gothic anachronism. Only skilled carpenters could have produced such a thing. The doors were not locked. Seel said to me, as yet unaware of the simplicity of my origins, “Sorry, we have no electricity here yet.” Someone, with a crazy, spiked mop of black hair, had taken our horses from us. I had seen the whites of his eyes, like a mad beast, gleaming and the grin he had fleered at me was nothing other than feral.
We went into the house. “Eventually, we’ll get some kind of generator,” Seel continued conversationally, “but it takes time. We have to steal things bit by bit. We don’t have much to barter with as yet.”
The entrance hall was fairly bare, but smelled of clean wood. Stairs led to an upper gallery with doors leading off. Three more doors led off the hall. A boy, who looked a little younger than myself, sauntered out from the back of the house, wiping his hands on a cloth. He was very pale, almost white, with an exquisite pixie face. His head was shaved, except for a long black ponytail growing from the top which fell over his shoulder.
“Flick, where’s the food? Cal’s starving. Get back in the kitchen,” Seel ordered with a dismissive wave of his hand. The boy retreated with a shrug.
“Equality, equality,” Cal said, rolling his eyes.
“Oh, I know, I know. I’m an ill-humoured bastard who should make a living out of slavery,” Seel replied with humor. “If he wants to live here, he works. He’s lazy as fuck half the time.” He ushered us into one of the rooms. “My nest,” he said. We dumped what luggage we were carrying in the hall and followed him in.
“Seel, you Sybarite!” Cal exclaimed with a laugh. Silks and tassels hung everwhere. Lights, suspended from the ceiling in bowls of intricately worked oriental metal, threw out a dim, cozy glow. Perfumes smouldered in corners, exuding a silvery smoke.
“Sit down, sit down,” Seel urged impatiently. He tried to hide from us that he was proud of his home and pleased that Cal had admired it. Cautiously, I lowered myself into a heap of black and gold cushions. Protesting, a Siamese cat wriggled from underneath me and shot out through the door. Incense burned behind me with a perfume so strong it made my head ache, although the soda-stink still burned my throat.
“I’ll get you some refreshment,” Seel told us. Moments later, we could hear him arguing with Flick in the kitchen.
Left alone with Cal, I did not know what to say to him. The last half-hour had passed like a dream. I was dazed. Cal looked awkward.
“Well!” he began, with a pitiful attempt at forced heartiness. “Seel has improved this place since I was last here. He was living in a tent then! What do you think of him?”
He did not look at me when he said it and did not see me shrug helplessly. I was thinking, “Oh God, he’s wishing he hadn’t brought me here,” and decided I knew now why he had never touched me. He had been waiting for Seel. I had a lot to learn.
“Seel’s the top dog around here,” he said. “This place wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for him.” He stood up and walked around the room, examining things. “God, it’s good to be back!”
Seel came back in clutching a bottle in one hand and three long-stemmed glasses in the other. “Champagne, gentlemen?” he queried.
“Seel, how do you get this stuff?” Cal asked him, impressed.
Seel winked at him. “Treachery, corruption and thievery of course, how else?”
He offered me a glass. I had never even heard of champagne and did not like the taste much. It was very difficult not to keep staring at Seel, but he did not seem to mind. He was dressed mostly in thin, torn leather and had the same build as Cal, sleek and fit, and that same shifting male/female ambience. His olive-skinned face was almost inhumanly symmetrical and the almond-shaped eyes were lined with kohl. Inadequacy swamped me. It was inconceivable I could ever feel equal to Wraeththu strangeness, and as fear prodded me sharply, I wondered: “How did they become so alien?” Presumably, most, if not all, had come from humble origins like mine once. Something other than human blood coursed through their veins now, I concluded. A thought that proved uncannily perceptive.
“Colt and Stringer might call in later,” Seel told Cal. “But if you want to crash out somewhere, that’s OK.”
Cal rubbed his face. “No. I’d like to see them again. Just kick me if I drop off.” The wine had got to him. His eyes were half closed.
Seel looked puzzled about something, as if he had only just thought of it “Cal?” A careful question.
“What?” Cal suddenly looked defensive.
Seel’s eyes flickered over me. “I’ve a feeling you’re going to hate this, but what happened to Zack?” It would have taken more than a knife to cut the atmosphere. I cringed in discomfort.
Cal made a strange, hissing noise through his teeth. “Now now, Seel. Not now,” he replied, his voice strained and tired. Never had I felt so out of place. I should not be there. Another’s place, not mine.
“Hell, I knew I was going to regret that,” Seel sighed, smiling ruefully at Cal. He deftly changed the subject, talking with wit and vigor. Saltrock gossip. I did not really hear him and neither, I think, did Cal. Zack. I had a feeling he was the one who ended up as raw meat.
Flick brought us food. I was hungry but still shy and only nibbled at what was offered; chunks of meat cooked in herbs, and baked potatoes. Hot, melted butter spiced with garlic dripped over them. I regretted my throat was closed. Seel kept glancing at me. “Flick, go talk with Pell,” he said, after a while, and turned back to Cal. Flick threw himself into the cushions beside me. He was dressed in ripped jeans and a tattered T-shirt and looked absurdly graceful. He regarded first my mussed plate and then my flushed face.
“Finish your wine. Come with me,” he whispered. “You need some air.”
The wine hit my stomach like hot ashes. The room lurched as I stood up and I bumped into things as I followed him across the room. I was grateful to get out although I was convinced Cal would start talking about me as soon as I was gone. Half-drunk, I could not be sure if I was really there. Maybe it was a dream and we were still in the desert. Soon I would wake and Cal would be staring at the stars, dead people in his eyes.
Flick steadied me and led me out into the open air. We were in a kind of courtyard. Low buildings shambled around its edge and the air stung my tongue anew with the faint acridity of soda. Above us the sky was rich, dark blue, vividly studded with stars. The eyes of the dead. Raw meat. Dreams. To my left the roofs of the buildings were touched with a weak luminescence that rose from the lake. An underground, sulphurous light. My chest was tight with painful, intoxicated misery. Flick hovered like a phantom, watching. I sat down heavily on the sandy ground. I could not contain it. Like a burst abscess my fear and discomfort spurted out of me. I wept and wept, hearing my sobs echo like the cries of a child waking from nightmare. I hated this place. The strangeness, the stench, the outlandishness of the people. They are not people. Something else. I was alone. Cal was a stranger, remote and calculating. I had been a fool to go with him. Why had I not thought of what I was getting into? I could never be one of them, never. I did not trust Cal and was terrified of what might happen to me. Raw meat. Into the soda, into the limepits. Curling up as tight as I could, trembling animal howls shuddered out of me. And then, there were arms around me. Then the warmth of another body, a living thing, dream whispers in my hair. No language I had ever heard. Flick, an unlikely comforter, crooning reassurance.
“Come on, come on, get it all out,” he urged, as if I was being sick.
Through my tears, I managed a bleak laugh. It was the first time in my life, however, that I had wept and not felt ashamed. Flick asked me what the matter was.
“Scared,” I bleated, and all my fears tumbled out, mostly incomprehensible, even to myself. Flick listened patiently, saying nothing, until I had finished.
“Many feel like this at first,” he told me. A wistful smile quivered across his face. “You have given up everything you had, everything you knew. It’s bound to feel strange. Look at it like this: you come to the world of Wraeththu as naked and helpless as a human baby. You will learn, gradually, just as babies do. Don’t expect everything to happen at once. It takes time and there are reasons for that. The Wraeththu are mostly good people. Here at Saltrock they are; you are safe. They will not harm you, especially as you’re with Cal.”
I thumped the ground angrily with my hand. “Cal!” I spat bitterly. “Safe? With him? He doesn’t even live in this world. I hardly know him. My welfare is nothing to him!”
Flick’s face was perplexed. He could not think of anything to say. I thought it was because he presumed Cal and I to be closer than we actually were. “He and Seel are laughing at me!” I announced, hating the petty whine in my voice, but powerless to control it.
“No, they’re not!” Flick answered sharply. His eyes looked hurt. “Why should they?” He thought I was an idiot.
“Because…because I’m nothing, a peasant. I know nothing, and because I was fool enough to let Cal take me away from home…and for what?!” I was so angry I could not keep still. I stood up, unsteadily, to continue my ravings. “Why did he do this? Why did he entice me away with him? I don’t understand. I’m no use to him or to anyone here. I have no skill to offer you. Cal won’t even listen to my questions half the time, let alone answer them. I want answers! What happens next? Where do I go and how do I live?”
Flick would not shout back at me. “You must trust Cal a little more,” he said quietly. “He won’t abandon you, if that’s what you’re frightened of. There’s so much you don’t know. Ignore the fear, it’s nothing. I know Cal better than you. He’s sick. He’s not himself. Give him time.” I shrugged and glowered at the floor. “Look, I can’t tell you the things you want to know, Pell. It’s not my place to. All I can say is that Cal wouldn’t have brought you here unless he was sure you were the right person. You must learn to be patient.” Looking at his face the anger went out of me. I knew I had made a fool of myself, and was thankful only Flick had witnessed it. “You OK now?”
“Yes.” My voice was a sulky mumble. “I’m sorry.”
“Forget it. You’re tired. You’re wrecked. Moan again tomorrow and I’ll break your head.” His smile, so genuine, I felt like crying again.
* * *
Wraeththu; growing. Something great stirring. My perspective was all wrong. Self-centered. I had to learn, or unlearn, my own importance. Only then, could I begin to see. Only then could Wraeththu touch me.
This book is an omnibus edition, consisting of the novels: The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, copyright © 1987 by Storm Constantine, first Tor edition January 1990;