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The Wind through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novelby Stephen King
In The Wind Through the Keyhole, Stephen King returns to the rich landscape of Mid-World, the spectacular territory of the Dark Tower fantasy saga that stands as his most beguiling achievement.
Roland Deschain and his ka-tet—Jake, Susannah, Eddie, and Oy, the billy-bumbler—encounter a ferocious storm just after crossing the River Whye/i>/i>… See more details below
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In The Wind Through the Keyhole, Stephen King returns to the rich landscape of Mid-World, the spectacular territory of the Dark Tower fantasy saga that stands as his most beguiling achievement.
Roland Deschain and his ka-tet—Jake, Susannah, Eddie, and Oy, the billy-bumbler—encounter a ferocious storm just after crossing the River Whye on their way to the Outer Baronies. As they shelter from the howling gale, Roland tells his friends not just one strange story but two . . . and in so doing, casts new light on his own troubled past.
In his early days as a gunslinger, in the guilt-ridden year following his mother’s death, Roland is sent by his father to investigate evidence of a murderous shape-shifter, a “skin-man” preying upon the population around Debaria. Roland takes charge of Bill Streeter, the brave but terrified boy who is the sole surviving witness to the beast’s most recent slaughter. Only a teenager himself, Roland calms the boy and prepares him for the following day’s trials by reciting a story from the Magic Tales of the Eld that his mother often read to him at bedtime. “A person’s never too old for stories,” Roland says to Bill. “Man and boy, girl and woman, never too old. We live for them.” And indeed, the tale that Roland unfolds, the legend of Tim Stoutheart, is a timeless treasure for all ages, a story that lives for us.
King began the Dark Tower series in 1974; it gained momentum in the 1980s; and he brought it to a thrilling conclusion when the last three novels were published in 2003 and 2004. The Wind Through the Keyhole is sure to fascinate avid fans of the Dark Tower epic. But this novel also stands on its own for all readers, an enchanting and haunting journey to Roland’s world and testimony to the power of Stephen King’s storytelling magic.
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Read an Excerpt
During the days after they left the Green Palace that wasn’t Oz after all—but which was now the tomb of the unpleasant fellow Roland’s ka-tet had known as the Tick-Tock Man—the boy Jake began to range farther and farther ahead of Roland, Eddie, and Susannah.
“Don’t you worry about him?” Susannah asked Roland. “Out there on his own?”
“He’s got Oy with him,” Eddie said, referring to the billy-bumbler who had adopted Jake as his special friend. “Mr. Oy gets along with nice folks all right, but he’s got a mouthful of sharp teeth for those who aren’t so nice. As that guy Gasher found out to his sorrow.”
“Jake also has his father’s gun,” Roland said. “And he knows how to use it. That he knows very well. And he won’t leave the Path of the Beam.” He pointed overhead with his reduced hand. The low-hanging sky was mostly still, but a single corridor of clouds moved steadily southeast. Toward the land of Thunderclap, if the note left behind for them by the man who styled himself RF had told the truth.
Toward the Dark Tower.
“But why—” Susannah began, and then her wheelchair hit a bump. She turned to Eddie. “Watch where you’re pushin me, sugar.”
“Sorry,” Eddie said. “Public Works hasn’t been doing any maintenance along this stretch of the turnpike lately. Must be dealing with budget cuts.”
It wasn’t a turnpike, but it was a road . . . or had been: two ghostly ruts with an occasional tumbledown shack to mark the way. Earlier that morning they had even passed an abandoned store with a barely readable sign: TOOK’S OUTLAND MERCANTILE. They investigated inside for supplies—Jake and Oy had still been with them then—and had found nothing but dust, ancient cobwebs, and the skeleton of what had been either a large raccoon, a small dog, or a billy-bumbler. Oy had taken a cursory sniff and then pissed on the bones before leaving the store to sit on the hump in the middle of the old road with his squiggle of a tail curled around him. He faced back the way they had come, sniffing the air.
Roland had seen the bumbler do this several times lately, and although he had said nothing, he pondered it. Someone trailing them, maybe? He didn’t actually believe this, but the bumbler’s posture—nose lifted, ears pricked, tail curled—called up some old memory or association that he couldn’t quite catch.
“Why does Jake want to be on his own?” Susannah asked.
“Do you find it worrisome, Susannah of New York?” Roland asked.
“Yes, Roland of Gilead, I find it worrisome.” She smiled amiably enough, but in her eyes, the old mean light sparkled. That was the Detta Walker part of her, Roland reckoned. It would never be completely gone, and he wasn’t sorry. Without the strange woman she had once been still buried in her heart like a chip of ice, she would have been only a handsome black woman with no legs below the knees. With Detta onboard, she was a person to be reckoned with. A dangerous one. A gunslinger.
“He has plenty of stuff to think about,” Eddie said quietly. “He’s been through a lot. Not every kid comes back from the dead. And it’s like Roland says—if someone tries to face him down, it’s the someone who’s apt to be sorry.” Eddie stopped pushing the wheelchair, armed sweat from his brow, and looked at Roland. “Are there someones in this particular suburb of nowhere, Roland? Or have they all moved on?”
“Oh, there are a few, I wot.”
He did more than wot; they had been peeked at several times as they continued their course along the Path of the Beam. Once by a frightened woman with her arms around two children and a babe hanging in a sling from her neck. Once by an old farmer, a half-mutie with a jerking tentacle that hung from one corner of his mouth. Eddie and Susannah had seen none of these people, or sensed the others that Roland felt sure had, from the safety of the woods and high grasses, marked their progress. Eddie and Susannah had a lot to learn.
But they had learned at least some of what they would need, it seemed, because Eddie now asked, “Are they the ones Oy keeps scenting up behind us?”
“I don’t know.” Roland thought of adding that he was sure something else was on Oy’s strange little bumbler mind, and decided not to. The gunslinger had spent long years with no ka-tet, and keeping his own counsel had become a habit. One he would have to break, if the tet was to remain strong. But not now, not this morning.
“Let’s move on,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll find Jake waiting for us up ahead.”
Two hours later, just shy of noon, they breasted a rise and halted, looking down at a wide, slow-moving river, gray as pewter beneath the overcast sky. On the northwestern bank—their side—was a barnlike building painted a green so bright it seemed to yell into the muted day. Its mouth jutted out over the water on pilings painted a similar green. Docked to two of these pilings by thick hawsers was a large raft, easily ninety feet by ninety, painted in alternating stripes of red and yellow. A tall wooden pole that looked like a mast jutted from the center, but there was no sign of a sail. Several wicker chairs sat in front of the pole, facing the shore on their side of the river. Jake was seated in one of these. Next to him was an old man in a vast straw hat, baggy green pants, and longboots. On his top half he wore a thin white garment—the kind of shirt Roland thought of as a slinkum. Jake and the old man appeared to be eating well-stuffed popkins. Roland’s mouth sprang water at the sight of them.
Oy was beyond them, at the edge of the circus-painted raft, looking raptly down at his own reflection. Or perhaps at the reflection of the steel cable that ran overhead, spanning the river.
“Is it the Whye?” Susannah asked Roland.
Eddie grinned. “You say Whye; I say Whye Not?” He raised one hand and waved it over his head. “Jake! Hey, Jake! Oy!”
Jake waved back, and although the river and the raft moored at its edge were still a quarter of a mile away, their eyes were uniformly sharp, and they saw the white of the boy’s teeth as he grinned.
Susannah cupped her hands around her mouth. “Oy! Oy! To me, sugar! Come see your mama!”
Uttering shrill yips that were the closest he could get to barks, Oy flew across the raft, disappeared into the barnlike structure, then emerged on their side. He came charging up the path with his ears lowered against his skull and his gold-ringed eyes bright.
“Slow down, sug, you’ll give yourself a heart attack!” Susannah shouted, laughing.
Oy seemed to take this as an order to speed up. He arrived at Susannah’s wheelchair in less than two minutes, jumped up into her lap, then jumped down again and looked at them cheerfully. “Olan! Ed! Suze!”
“Hile, Sir Throcken,” Roland said, using the ancient word for bumbler he’d first heard in a book read to him by his mother: The Throcken and the Dragon.
Oy lifted his leg, watered a patch of grass, then faced back the way they had come, scenting at the air, eyes on the horizon.
“Why does he keep doing that, Roland?” Eddie asked.
“I don’t know.” But he almost knew. Was it some old story, not The Throcken and the Dragon but one like it? Roland thought so. For a moment he thought of green eyes, watchful in the dark, and a little shiver went through him—not of fear, exactly (although that might have been a part of it), but of remembrance. Then it was gone.
There’ll be water if God wills it, he thought, and only realized he had spoken aloud when Eddie said, “Huh?”
“Never mind,” Roland said. “Let’s have a little palaver with Jake’s new friend, shall we? Perhaps he has an extra popkin or two.”
Eddie, tired of the chewy staple they called gunslinger burritos, brightened immediately. “Hell, yeah,” he said, and looked at an imaginary watch on his tanned wrist. “Goodness me, I see it’s just gobble o’clock.”
“Shut up and push, honeybee,” Susannah said.
Eddie shut up and pushed.
The old man was sitting when they entered the boathouse, standing when they emerged on the river side. He saw the guns Roland and Eddie were wearing—the big irons with the sandalwood grips—and his eyes widened. He dropped to one knee. The day was still, and Roland actually heard his bones creak.
“Hile, gunslinger,” he said, and put an arthritis-swollen fist to the center of his forehead. “I salute thee.”
“Rise up, friend,” Roland said, hoping the old man was a friend—Jake seemed to think so, and Roland had come to trust his instincts. Not to mention the billy-bumbler’s. “Rise up, do.”
The old man was having trouble managing it, so Eddie stepped aboard and gave him an arm.
“Thankee, son, thankee. Be you a gunslinger as well, or are you a ’prentice?”
Eddie looked at Roland. Roland gave him nothing, so Eddie looked back at the old man, shrugged, and grinned. “Little of both, I guess. I’m Eddie Dean, of New York. This is my wife, Susannah. And this is Roland Deschain. Of Gilead.”
The riverman’s eyes widened. “Gilead that was? Do you say so?”
“Gilead that was,” Roland agreed, and felt an unaccustomed sorrow rise up from his heart. Time was a face on the water, and like the great river before them, it did nothing but flow.
“Step aboard, then. And welcome. This young man and I are already fast friends, so we are.” Oy stepped onto the big raft and the old man bent to stroke the bumbler’s raised head. “And we are, too, aren’t we, fella? Does thee remember my name?”
“Bix!” Oy said promptly, then turned to the northwest again, raising his snout. His gold-ringed eyes stared raptly at the moving column of clouds that marked the Path of the Beam.
“Will’ee eat?” Bix asked them. “What I have is poor and rough, but such as there is, I’d be happy to share.”
“With thanks,” Susannah said. She looked at the overhead cable that ran across the river on a diagonal. “This is a ferry, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Jake said. “Bix told me there are people on the other side. Not close, but not far, either. He thinks they’re rice farmers, but they don’t come this way much.”
Bix stepped off the big raft and went into the boathouse. Eddie waited until he heard the old guy rummaging around, then bent to Jake and said in a low voice, “Is he okay?”
“He’s fine,” Jake said. “It’s the way we’re going, and he’s happy to have someone to take across. He says it’s been years.”
“I’ll bet it has been,” Eddie agreed.
Bix reappeared with a wicker basket, which Roland took from him—otherwise the old man might have tumbled into the water. Soon they were all sitting in the wicker chairs, munching popkins filled with some sort of pink fish. It was seasoned and delicious.
“Eat all you like,” Bix said. “The river’s filled with shannies, and most are true-threaded. The muties I throw back. Once upon a time we were ordered to throw the bad ’uns up a-bank so they wouldn’t breed more, and for a while I did, but now . . .” He shrugged. “Live and let live is what I say. As someone who’s lived long himself, I feel like I can say it.”
“How old are you?” Jake asked.
“I turned a hundred and twenty quite some time ago, but since then I’ve lost count, so I have. Time’s short on this side of the door, kennit.”
On this side of the door. That memory of some old story tugged at Roland again, and then was gone.
“Do you follow that?” The old man pointed to the moving band of clouds in the sky.
“To the Callas, or beyond?”
“To the great darkness?” Bix looked both troubled and fascinated by the idea.
“We go our course,” Roland said. “What fee would you take to cross us, sai ferryman?”
Bix laughed. The sound was cracked and cheerful. “Money’s no good with nothing to spend it on, you have no livestock, and it’s clear as day that I have more to eat than you do. And you could always draw on me and force me to take you across.”
“Never,” Susannah said, looking shocked.
“I know that,” Bix said, waving a hand at her. “Harriers might—and then burn my ferry for good measure once they got t’other side—but true men of the gun, never. And women too, I suppose. You don’t seem armed, missus, but with women, one can never tell.”
Susannah smiled thinly at this and said nothing.
Bix turned to Roland. “Ye come from Lud, I wot. I’d hear of Lud, and how things go there. For it was a marvelous city, so it was. Crumbling and growing strange when I knew it, but still marvelous.”
The four of them exchanged a look that was all an-tet, that peculiar telepathy they shared. It was a look that was also dark with shume, the old Mid-World term that can mean shame, but also means sorrow.
“What?” Bix asked. “What have I said? If I’ve asked for something you’d not give, I cry your pardon.”
“Not at all,” Roland said, “but Lud . . .”
“Lud is dust in the wind,” Susannah said.
“Well,” Eddie said, “not dust, exactly.”
“Ashes,” Jake said. “The kind that glow in the dark.”
Bix pondered this, then nodded slowly. “I’d hear anyway, or as much as you can tell in an hour’s time. That’s how long the crossing takes.”
Bix bristled when they offered to help him with his preparations. It was his job, he said, and he could still do it—just not as quickly as once upon a time, when there had been farms and a few little trading posts on both sides of the river.
In any case, there wasn’t much to do. He fetched a stool and a large ironwood ringbolt from the boathouse, mounted the stool to attach the ringbolt to the top of the post, then hooked the ringbolt to the cable. He took the stool back inside and returned with a large metal crank shaped like a block Z. This he laid with some ceremony by a wooden housing on the far end of the raft.
“Don’t none of you kick that overboard, or I’ll never get home,” he said.
Roland squatted on his hunkers to study it. He beckoned to Eddie and Jake, who joined him. He pointed to the words embossed on the long stroke of the Z. “Does it say what I think it does?”
“Yep,” Eddie said. “North Central Positronics. Our old pals.”
“When did you get that, Bix?” Susannah asked.
“Ninety year ago, or more, if I were to guess. There’s an underground place over there.” He pointed vaguely in the direction of the Green Palace. “It goes for miles, and it’s full of things that belonged to the old people, perfectly preserved. Strange music still plays from overhead, music such as you’ve never heard. It scrambles your thinking, like. And you don’t dare stay there long, or you break out in sores and puke and start to lose your teeth. I went once. Never again. I thought for a while I was going to die.”
“Did you lose your hair as well as your chompers?” Eddie asked.
Bix looked surprised, then nodded. “Yar, some, but it grew back. That crank, it’s still, you know.”
Eddie pondered this a moment. Of course it was still, it was an inanimate object. Then he realized the old man was saying steel.
“Are’ee ready?” Bix asked them. His eyes were nearly as bright as Oy’s. “Shall I cast off?”
Eddie snapped off a crisp salute. “Aye-aye, cap’n. We’re away to the Treasure Isles, arr, so we be.”
“Come and help me with these ropes, Roland of Gilead, will ya do.”
Roland did, and gladly.
The raft moved slowly along the diagonal cable, pulled by the river’s slow current. Fish jumped all around them as Roland’s ka-tet took turns telling the old man about the city of Lud, and what had befallen them there. For a while Oy watched the fish with interest, his paws planted on the upstream edge of the raft. Then he once more sat and faced back the way they had come, snout raised.
Bix grunted when they told him how they’d left the doomed city. “Blaine the Mono, y’say. I remember. Crack train. There was another ’un, too, although I can’t remember the name—”
“Patricia,” Susannah said.
“Aye, that was it. Beautiful glass sides, she had. And you say the city’s all gone?”
“All gone,” Jake agreed.
Bix lowered his head. “Sad.”
“It is,” Susannah said, taking his hand and giving it a brief, light squeeze. “Mid-World’s a sad place, although it can be very beautiful.”
They had reached the middle of the river now, and a light breeze, surprisingly warm, ruffled their hair. They had all laid aside their heavy outer clothes and sat at ease in the wicker passenger chairs, which rolled this way and that, presumably for the views this provided. A large fish—probably one of the kind that had fed their bellies at gobble o’clock—jumped onto the raft and lay there, flopping at Oy’s feet. Although he was usually death on any small creature that crossed his path, the bumbler appeared not even to notice it. Roland kicked it back into the water with one of his scuffed boots.
“Yer throcken knows it’s coming,” Bix remarked. He looked at Roland. “You’ll want to take heed, aye?”
For a moment Roland could say nothing. A clear memory rose from the back of his mind to the front, one of a dozen hand-colored woodcut illustrations in an old and well-loved book. Six bumblers sitting on a fallen tree in the forest beneath a crescent moon, all with their snouts raised. That volume, Magic Tales of the Eld, he had loved above all others when he had been but a sma’ one, listening to his mother as she read him to sleep in his high tower bedroom, while an autumn gale sang its lonely song outside, calling down winter. “The Wind Through the Keyhole” was the name of the story that went with the picture, and it had been both terrible and wonderful.
“All my gods on the hill,” Roland said, and thumped the heel of his reduced right hand to his brow. “I should have known right away. If only from how warm it’s gotten the last few days.”
“You mean you didn’t?” Bix asked. “And you from In-World?” He made a tsking sound.
“Roland?” Susannah asked. “What is it?”
Roland ignored her. He looked from Bix to Oy and back to Bix. “The starkblast’s coming.”
Bix nodded. “Aye. Throcken say so, and about starkblast the throcken are never wrong. Other than speaking a little, it’s their bright.”
“Bright what?” Eddie asked.
“He means their talent,” Roland said. “Bix, do you know of a place on the other side where we can hide up and wait for it to pass?”
“Happens I do.” The old man pointed to the wooded hills sloping gently down to the far side of the Whye, where another dock and another boathouse—this one unpainted and far less grand—waited for them. “Ye’ll find your way forward on the other side, a little lane that used to be a road. It follows the Path of the Beam.”
“Sure it does,” Jake said. “All things serve the Beam.”
“As you say, young man, as you say. Which do’ee ken, wheels or miles?”
“Both,” Eddie said, “but for most of us, miles are better.”
“All right, then. Follow the old Calla road five miles . . . maybe six . . . and ye’ll come to a deserted village. Most of the buildings are wood and no use to’ee, but the town meeting hall is good stone. Ye’ll be fine there. I’ve been inside, and there’s a lovely big fireplace. Ye’ll want to check the chimney, accourse, as ye’ll want a good draw up its throat for the day or two ye have to sit out. As for wood, ye can use what’s left of the houses.”
“What is this starkblast?” Susannah asked. “Is it a storm?”
“Yes,” Roland said. “I haven’t seen one in many, many years. It’s a lucky thing we had Oy with us. Even then I wouldn’t have known, if not for Bix.” He squeezed the old man’s shoulder. “Thankee-sai. We all say thankee.”
The boathouse on the southeastern side of the river was on the verge of collapse, like so many things in Mid-World; bats roosted heads-down from the rafters and fat spiders scuttered up the walls. They were all glad to be out of it and back under the open sky. Bix tied up and joined them. They each embraced him, being careful not to hug tight and hurt his old bones.
When they’d all taken their turn, the old man wiped his eyes, then bent and stroked Oy’s head. “Keep em well, do, Sir Throcken.”
“Oy!” the bumbler replied. Then: “Bix!”
The old man straightened, and again they heard his bones crackle. He put his hands to the small of his back and winced.
“Will you be able to get back across okay?” Eddie asked.
“Oh, aye,” Bix said. “If it was spring, I might not—the Whye en’t so placid when the snow melts and the rains come—but now? Piece o’ piss. The storm’s still some way off. I crank for a bit against the current, then click the bolt tight so I can rest and not slip back’ards, then I crank some more. It might take four hours instead of one, but I’ll get there. I always have, anyway. I only wish I had some more food to give’ee.”
“We’ll be fine,” Roland said.
“Good, then. Good.” The old man seemed reluctant to leave. He looked from face to face—seriously—then grinned, exposing toothless gums. “We’re well-met along the path, are we not?”
“So we are,” Roland agreed.
“And if you come back this way, stop and visit awhile with old Bix. Tell him of your adventures.”
“We will,” Susannah said, although she knew they would never be this way again. It was a thing they all knew.
“And mind the starkblast. It’s nothing to fool with. But ye might have a day, yet, or even two. He’s not turning circles yet, are ye, Oy?”
“Oy!” the bumbler agreed.
Bix fetched a sigh. “Now you go your way,” he said, “and I go mine. We’ll both be laid up undercover soon enough.”
Roland and his tet started up the path.
“One other thing!” Bix called after them, and they turned back. “If you see that cussed Andy, tell him I don’t want no songs, and I don’t want my gods-damned horrascope read!”
“Who’s Andy?” Jake called back.
“Oh, never mind, you probably won’t see him, anyway.”
That was the old man’s last word on it, and none of them remembered it, although they did meet Andy, in the farming community of Calla Bryn Sturgis. But that was later, after the storm had passed.
It was only five miles to the deserted village, and they arrived less than an hour after they’d left the ferry. It took Roland less time than that to tell them about the starkblast.
“They used to come down on the Great Woods north of New Canaan once or twice a year, although we never had one in Gilead; they always rose away into the air before they got so far. But I remember once seeing carts loaded with frozen bodies drawn down Gilead Road. Farmers and their families, I suppose. Where their throcken had been—their billy-bumblers—I don’t know. Perhaps they took sick and died. In any case, with no bumblers to warn them, those folks were unprepared. The starkblast comes suddenly, you ken. One moment you’re warm as toast—because the weather always warms up before—and then it falls on you, like wolves on a ruttle of lambs. The only warning is the sound the trees make as the cold of the starkblast rolls over them. A kind of thudding sound, like grenados covered with dirt. The sound living wood makes when it contracts all at once, I suppose. And by the time they heard that, it would have been too late for those in the fields.”
“Cold,” Eddie mused. “How cold?”
“The temperature can fall to as much as forty limbits below freezing in less than an hour,” Roland said grimly. “Ponds freeze in an instant, with a sound like bullets breaking windowpanes. Birds turn to ice-statues in the sky and fall like rocks. Grass turns to glass.”
“You’re exaggerating,” Susannah said. “You must be.”
“Not at all. But the cold’s only part of it. The wind comes, too—gale-force, snapping the frozen trees off like straws. Such storms might roll for three hundred wheels before lifting off into the sky as suddenly as they came.”
“How do the bumblers know?” Jake asked.
Roland only shook his head. The how and why of things had never interested him much.
They came to a broken piece of signboard lying on the path. Eddie picked it up and read the faded remains of a single word. “It sums up Mid-World perfectly,” he said. “Mysterious yet strangely hilarious.” He turned toward them with the piece of wood held at chest level. What it said, in large, uneven letters, was GOOK.
“A gook is a deep well,” Roland said. “Common law says any traveler may drink from it without let or penalty.”
“Welcome to Gook,” Eddie said, tossing the signboard into the bushes at the side of the road. “I like it. In fact, I want a bumper sticker that says I Waited Out the Starkblast in Gook.”
Susannah laughed. Jake didn’t. He only pointed at Oy, who had begun turning in tight, rapid circles, as if chasing his own tail.
“We might want to hurry a little,” the boy said.
The woods drew back and the path widened to what had once been a village high street. The village itself was a sad cluster of abandonment that ran on both sides for about a quarter mile. Some of the buildings had been houses, some stores, but now it was impossible to tell which had been which. They were nothing but slumped shells staring out of dark empty sockets that might once have held glass. The only exception stood at the southern end of the town. Here the overgrown high street split around a squat blockhouse-like building constructed of gray fieldstone. It stood hip-deep in overgrown shrubbery and was partly concealed by young fir trees that must have grown up since Gook had been abandoned; the roots had already begun to work their way into the meeting hall’s foundations. In the course of time they would bring it down, and time was one thing Mid-World had in abundance.
“He was right about the wood,” Eddie said. He picked up a weathered plank and laid it across the arms of Susannah’s wheelchair like a makeshift table. “We’ll have plenty.” He cast an eye at Jake’s furry pal, who was once more turning in brisk circles. “If we have time to pick it up, that is.”
“We’ll start gathering as soon as we make sure we’ve got yonder stone building to ourselves,” Roland said. “Let’s make this quick.”
The Gook meeting hall was chilly, and birds—what the New Yorkers thought of as swallows and Roland called bin-rusties—had gotten into the second floor, but otherwise they did indeed have the place to themselves. Once he was under a roof, Oy seemed freed of his compulsion to either face northwest or turn in circles, and he immediately reverted to his essential curious nature, bounding up the rickety stairs toward the soft flutterings and cooings above. He began his shrill yapping, and soon the members of the tet saw the bin-rusties streaking away toward less populated areas of Mid-World. Although, if Roland was right, Jake thought, the ones heading in the direction of the River Whye would all too soon be turned into birdsicles.
The first floor consisted of a single large room. Tables and benches had been stacked against the walls. Roland, Eddie, and Jake carried these to the glassless windows, which were mercifully small, and covered the openings. The ones on the northwest side they covered from the outside, so the wind from that direction would press them tighter rather than blow them over.
While they did this, Susannah rolled her wheelchair into the mouth of the fireplace, a thing she was able to accomplish without even ducking her head. She peered up, grasped a rusty hanging ring, and pulled it. There was a hellish skreek sound . . . a pause . . . and then a great black cloud of soot descended on her in a flump. Her reaction was immediate, colorful, and all Detta Walker.
“Oh, kiss my ass and go to heaven!” she screamed. “You cock-knocking motherfucker, just lookit this shittin mess!”
She rolled back out, coughing and waving her hands in front of her face. The wheels of her chair left tracks in the soot. A huge pile of the stuff lay in her lap. She slapped it away in a series of hard strokes that were more like punches.
“Filthy fucking chimbly! Dirty old cunt-tunnel! You badass, sonofabitching—”
She turned and saw Jake staring at her, openmouthed and wide-eyed. Beyond him, on the stairs, Oy was doing the same thing.
“Sorry, honey,” Susannah said. “I got a little carried away. Mostly I’m mad at myself. I grew up with stoves n fireplaces, and should have known better.”
In a tone of deepest respect, Jake said, “You know better swears than my father. I didn’t think anyone knew better swears than my father.”
Eddie went to Susannah and started wiping at her face and neck. She brushed his hands away. “You’re just spreadin it around. Let’s go see if we can find that gook, or whatever it is. Maybe there’s still water.”
“There will be if God wills it,” Roland said.
She swiveled to regard him with narrowed eyes. “You being smart, Roland? You don’t want to be smart while I’m sittin here like Missus Tarbaby.”
“No, sai, never think it,” Roland said, but there was the tiniest twitch at the left corner of his mouth. “Eddie, see if you can find gook-water so Susannah can clean herself. Jake and I will begin gathering wood. We’ll need you to help us as soon as you can. I hope our friend Bix has made it to his side of the river, because I think time is shorter than he guessed.”
The town well was on the other side of the meeting hall, in what Eddie thought might once have been the town common. The rope hanging from the crank-operated drum beneath the well’s rotting cap was long gone, but that was no problem; they had a coil of good rope in their gunna.
“The problem,” Eddie said, “is what we’re going to tie to the end of the rope. I suppose one of Roland’s old saddlebags might—”
“What’s that, honeybee?” Susannah was pointing at a patch of high grass and brambles on the left side of the well.
“I don’t see . . .” But then he did. A gleam of rusty metal. Taking care to be scratched by the thorns as little as possible, Eddie reached into the tangle and, with a grunt of effort, pulled out a rusty bucket with a coil of dead ivy inside. There was even a handle.
“Let me see that,” Susannah said.
He dumped out the ivy and handed it over. She tested the handle and it broke immediately, not with a snap but a soft, punky sigh. Susannah looked at him apologetically and shrugged.
“’S okay,” Eddie said. “Better to know now than when it’s down in the well.” He tossed the handle aside, cut off a chunk of their rope, untwisted the outer strands to thin it, and threaded what was left through the holes that had held the old handle.
“Not bad,” Susannah said. “You mighty handy for a white boy.” She peered over the lip of the well. “I can see the water. Not even ten feet down. Ooo, it looks cold.”
“Chimney sweeps can’t be choosers,” Eddie said.
The bucket splashed down, tilted, and began to fill. When it sank below the surface of the water, Eddie hauled it back up. It had sprung several leaks at spots where the rust had eaten through, but they were small ones. He took off his shirt, dipped it in the water, and began to wash her face.
“Oh my goodness!” he said. “I see a girl!”
She took the balled-up shirt, rinsed it, wrung it out, and began to do her arms. “At least I got the dang flue open. You can draw some more water once I get the worst of this mess cleaned off me, and when we get a fire going, I can wash in warm—”
Far to the northwest, they heard a low, thudding crump. There was a pause, then a second one. It was followed by several more, then a perfect fusillade. Coming in their direction like marching feet. Their startled eyes met.
Eddie, bare to the waist, went to the back of her wheelchair. “I think we better speed this up.”
In the distance—but definitely moving closer—came sounds that could have been armies at war.
“I think you’re right,” Susannah said.
When they got back, they saw Roland and Jake running toward the meeting hall with armloads of decaying lumber and splintered chunks of wood. Still well across the river but definitely closer, came those low, crumping explosions as trees in the path of the starkblast yanked themselves inward toward their tender cores. Oy was in the middle of the overgrown high street, turning and turning.
Susannah tipped herself out of her wheelchair, landed neatly on her hands, and began crawling toward the meetinghouse.
“What the hell are you doing?” Eddie asked.
“You can carry more wood in the chair. Pile it high. I’ll get Roland to give me his flint and steel, get a fire going.”
“Mind me, Eddie. Let me do what I can. And put your shirt back on. I know it’s wet, but it’ll keep you from getting scratched up.”
He did so, then turned the chair, tilted it on its big back wheels, and pushed it toward the nearest likely source of fuel. As he passed Roland, he gave the gunslinger Susannah’s message. Roland nodded and kept running, peering over his armload of wood.
The three of them went back and forth without speaking, gathering wood against the cold on this weirdly warm afternoon. The Path of the Beam in the sky was temporarily gone, because all the clouds were in motion, roiling away to the southeast. Susannah had gotten a fire going, and it roared beastily up the chimney. The big downstairs room had a huge jumble of wood in the center, some with rusty nails poking out. So far none of them had been cut or punctured, but Eddie thought it was just a matter of time. He tried to remember when he’d last had a tetanus shot and couldn’t.
As for Roland, he thought, his blood would probably kill any germ the second it dared show its head inside of that leather bag he calls skin.
“What are you smiling about?” Jake asked. The words came out in little out-of-breath gasps. The arms of his shirt were filthy and covered with splinters; there was a long smutch of dirt on his forehead.
“Nothing much, little hero. Watch out for rusty nails. One more load each and we’d better call it good. It’s close.”
The thuds were on their side of the river now, and the air, although still warm, had taken on a queer thick quality. Eddie loaded up Susannah’s wheelchair a final time and trundled it back toward the meetinghouse. Jake and Roland were ahead of him. He could feel heat baking out of the open door. It better get cold, he thought, or we’re going to fucking roast in there.
Then, as he waited for the two ahead of him to turn sideways so they could get their loads of lumber inside, a thin and pervasive screaming joined the pops and thuds of contracting wood. It made the hair bristle on the nape of Eddie’s neck. The wind coming toward them sounded alive, and in agony.
The air began to move again. First it was warm, then cool enough to dry the sweat on his face, then cold. This happened in a matter of seconds. The creepy screech of the wind was joined by a fluttering sound that made Eddie think of the plastic pennants you sometimes saw strung around used-car lots. It ramped up to a whir, and leaves began to blow off the trees, first in bundles and then in sheets. The branches thrashed against clouds that were lensing darker even as he looked at them, mouth agape.
“Oh, shit,” he said, and ran the wheelchair straight at the door. For the first time in ten trips, it stuck. The planks he’d stacked across the chair’s arms were too wide. With any other load, the ends would have snapped off with the same soft, almost apologetic sound the bucket handle had made, but not this time. Oh no, not now that the storm was almost here. Was nothing in Mid-World ever easy? He reached over the back of the chair to shove the longest boards aside, and that was when Jake shouted.
“Oy! Oy’s still out there! Oy! To me!”
Oy took no notice. He had stopped his turning. Now he only sat with his snout raised toward the coming storm, his gold-ringed eyes fixed and dreamy.
Jake didn’t think, and he didn’t look for the nails that were protruding from Eddie’s last load of lumber. He simply scrambled up the splintery pile and jumped. He struck Eddie, sending him staggering back. Eddie tried to keep his balance but tripped on his own feet and fell on his butt. Jake went to one knee, then scrambled up, eyes wide, long hair blowing back from his head in a tangle of licks and ringlets.
Eddie grabbed for him and got nothing but the cuff of the kid’s shirt. It had been thinned by many washings in many streams, and tore away.
Roland was in the doorway. He batted the too-long boards to the right and left, as heedless of the protruding nails as Jake had been. The gunslinger yanked the wheelchair through the doorway and grunted, “Get in here.”
“Jake will either be all right or he won’t.” Roland seized Eddie by the arm and hauled him to his feet. Their old bluejeans were making machine-gun noises around their legs as the wind whipped them. “He’s on his own. Get in here.”
“No! Fuck you!”
Roland didn’t argue, simply yanked Eddie through the door. Eddie went sprawling. Susannah knelt in front of the fire, staring at him. Her face was streaming with sweat, and the front of her deerskin shirt was soaked.
Roland stood in the doorway, face grim, watching Jake run to his friend.
Jake felt the temperature of the air around him plummet. A branch broke off with a dry snap and he ducked as it whistled over his head. Oy never stirred until Jake snatched him up. Then the bumbler looked around wildly, baring his teeth.
“Bite if you have to,” Jake said, “but I won’t put you down.”
Oy didn’t bite and Jake might not have felt it if he had. His face was numb. He turned back toward the meetinghouse and the wind became a huge cold hand planted in the middle of his back. He began running again, aware that now he was doing so in absurd leaps, like an astronaut running on the surface of the moon in a science fiction movie. One leap . . . two . . . three . . .
But on the third one he didn’t come down. He was blown straight forward with Oy cradled in his arms. There was a gutteral, garumphing explosion as one of the old houses gave in to the wind and went flying southeast in a hail of shrapnel. He saw a flight of stairs, the crude plank banister still attached, spinning up toward the racing clouds. We’ll be next, he thought, and then a hand, minus two fingers but still strong, gripped him above the elbow.
Roland turned him toward the door. For a moment the issue was in doubt as the wind bullied them away from safety. Then Roland lunged forward into the doorway with his remaining fingers sinking deep into Jake’s flesh. The pressure of the wind abruptly left them, and they both landed on their backs.
“Thank God!” Susannah cried.
“Thank him later!” Roland was shouting to be heard over the pervasive bellow of the gale. “Push! All of you push on this damned door! Susannah, you at the bottom! All your strength! You bar it, Jake! Do you understand me? Drop the bar into the clamps! Don’t hesitate!”
“Don’t worry about me,” Jake snapped. Something had gashed him at one temple and a thin ribbon of blood ran down the side of his face, but his eyes were clear and sure.
“Now! Push! Push for your lives!”
The door swung slowly shut. They could not have held it for long—mere seconds—but they didn’t have to. Jake dropped the thick wooden bar, and when they moved cautiously back, the rusty clamps held. They looked at each other, gasping for breath, then down at Oy. Who gave a single cheerful yap, and went to toast himself by the fire. The spell that the oncoming storm had cast on him seemed to be broken.
Away from the hearth, the big room was already growing cold.
“You should have let me grab the kid, Roland,” Eddie said. “He could have been killed out there.”
“Oy was Jake’s responsibility. He should have gotten him inside sooner. Tied him to something, if he had to. Or don’t you think so, Jake?”
“Yeah, I do.” Jake sat down beside Oy, stroking the bumbler’s thick fur with one hand and rubbing blood from his face with the other.
“Roland,” Susannah said, “he’s just a boy.”
“No more,” Roland said. “Cry your pardon, but . . . no more.”
For the first two hours of the starkblast, they were in some doubt if even the stone meetinghouse would hold. The wind screamed and trees snapped. One slammed down on the roof and smashed it. Cold air jetted through the boards above them. Susannah and Eddie put their arms around each other. Jake shielded Oy—now lying placidly on his back with his stubby legs splayed to all points of the compass—and looked up at the swirling cloud of birdshit that had sifted through the cracks in the ceiling. Roland went on calmly laying out their little supper.
“What do you think, Roland?” Eddie asked.
“I think that if this building stands one more hour, we’ll be fine. The cold will intensify, but the wind will drop a little when dark comes. It will drop still more come tomorrowlight, and by the day after tomorrow, the air will be still and much warmer. Not like it was before the coming of the storm, but that warmth was unnatural and we all knew it.”
He regarded them with a half-smile. It looked strange on his face, which was usually so still and grave.
“In the meantime, we have a good fire—not enough to heat the whole room, but fine enough if we stay close to it. And a little time to rest. We’ve been through much, have we not?”
“Yeah,” Jake said. “Too much.”
“And more ahead, I have no doubt. Danger, hard work, sorrow. Death, mayhap. So now we sit by the fire, as in the old days, and take what comfort we can.” He surveyed them, still with that little smile. The firelight cast him in strange profile, making him young on one side of his face and ancient on the other. “We are ka-tet. We are one from many. Be grateful for warmth, shelter, and companionship against the storm. Others may not be so lucky.”
“We’ll hope they are,” Susannah said. She was thinking of Bix.
“Come,” Roland said. “Eat.”
They came, and settled themselves around their dinh, and ate what he had set out for them.
Susannah slept for an hour or two early that night, but her dreams—of nasty, maggoty foods she was somehow compelled to eat—woke her. Outside, the wind continued to howl, although its sound was not quite so steady now. Sometimes it seemed to drop away entirely, then rose again, uttering long, icy shrieks as it ran under the eaves in cold currents and made the stone building tremble in its old bones. The door thudded rhythmically against the bar holding it shut, but like the ceiling above them, both the bar and the rusty clamps seemed to be holding. She wondered what would have become of them if the wooden bar had been as punky and rotted as the handle of the bucket they’d found near the gook.
Roland was awake and sitting by the fire. Jake was with him. Between them, Oy was asleep with one paw over his snout. Susannah joined them. The fire had burned down a little, but this close it threw a comforting heat on her face and arms. She took a board, thought about snapping it in two, decided it might wake Eddie, and tossed it onto the fire as it was. Sparks gushed up the chimney, swirling as the draft caught them.
She could have spared the consideration, because while the sparks were still swirling, a hand caressed the back of her neck just below the hairline. She didn’t have to look; she would have known that touch anywhere. Without turning, she took the hand, brought it to her mouth, and kissed the cup of the palm. The white palm. Even after all this time together and all the lovemaking, she could sometimes hardly believe that. Yet there it was.
At least I won’t have to bring him home to meet my parents, she thought.
“Can’t sleep, sugar?”
“A little. Not much. I had funny dreams.”
“The wind brings them,” Roland said. “Anyone in Gilead would tell you the same. But I love the sound of the wind. I always have. It soothes my heart and makes me think of old times.”
He looked away, as if embarrassed to have said so much.
“None of us can sleep,” Jake said. “So tell us a story.”
Roland looked into the fire for a while, then at Jake. The gunslinger was once more smiling, but his eyes were distant. A knot popped in the fireplace. Outside the stone walls, the wind screamed as if furious at its inability to get in. Eddie put an arm around Susannah’s waist and she laid her head on his shoulder.
“What story would you hear, Jake, son of Elmer?”
“Any.” He paused. “About the old days.”
Roland looked at Eddie and Susannah. “And you? Would you hear?”
“Yes, please,” Susannah said.
Eddie nodded. “Yeah. If you want to, that is.”
Roland considered. “Mayhap I’ll tell you two, since it’s long until dawn and we can sleep tomorrow away, if we like. These tales nest inside each other. Yet the wind blows through both, which is a good thing. There’s nothing like stories on a windy night when folks have found a warm place in a cold world.”
He took a broken piece of wood paneling, poked the glowing embers with it, then fed it to the flames. “One I know is a true story, for I lived it along with my old ka-mate, Jamie DeCurry. The other, ‘The Wind Through the Keyhole,’ is one my mother read to me when I was still sma’. Old stories can be useful, you know, and I should have thought of this one as soon as I saw Oy scenting the air as he did, but that was long ago.” He sighed. “Gone days.”
In the dark beyond the firelight, the wind rose to a howl. Roland waited for it to die a little, then began. Eddie, Susannah, and Jake listened, rapt, all through that long and contentious night. Lud, the Tick-Tock Man, Blaine the Mono, the Green Palace—all were forgotten. Even the Dark Tower itself was forgotten for a bit. There was only Roland’s voice, rising and falling.
Rising and falling like the wind.
“Not long after the death of my mother, which as you know came by my own hand . . .”
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