'How could the Outsider have chosen such a bungler? ...When had he ever offered a single sacrifice, however small, to the Outsider? Never! Not one in his entire life. Yet the Outsider had extended infinite credit to him... Certainly he would never be able to repay the Outsider for the knowledge and the honor, no matter how hard or how long he tried.' (Gene Wolfe, Nightside The Long Sun)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The sighting of two goddesses

[Previous episode: The god comes down to collect the dead]

Only I am left awake, and the black man, and the sentries Hypereides has set around us and the ships. A moment ago, a lovely young woman left the largest ship, and seeing that I saw her, halted to speak with me. I asked who she was.

She smiled at that. “Why, Latro, my name’s been on your lips half the day. Would you like to see me fatter, with red hair? I can do that, if you wish.”

“No,” I told her. “You are so much more lovely than your picture on the sail.”

Her smile faded. “Yet plain girls are luckier. Ask your little Io.”

I did not understand her, and I believe she knew it; yet she didn’t explain. “I only stopped to tell you I am going to the Great Mother,” she said. “I was her priestess once; and though I was taken from her long ago, it may still mean something to her, if only a little. Because you’ve loved my beauty today, I’ll ask her to be kind to you.”

“Is she merciful?” I asked, remembering what the tall lord of death had said.

Europa shook her head. “Sometimes she is kind,” she told me. “But we are none of us merciful.”

She has walked into the ridge, which opened a door for her. There is another woman on the ship now. I see her pace the deck in the moonlight, as if deep in thought. She wears a helmet with a high crest, like Hypereides’s, and her shield writhes with serpents.

Her face recalls to me the face of Oior, Oior’s face not as I saw it at any other time, but as I saw it when I looked back upon leaving him and saw him bent over the dead bowman. When I had met him on the beach and when we had talked at the top of this narrow ridge of land, his sun-browned face had been as open as the faces of the sailors, though without their vivacity and native cunning, a face as strong and as simple as the face of a charger or a bullock. It was a face much like my own, I think, and I liked him better for it.

And yet when I turned back to look at him as I descended the slope, it had changed utterly, though all its features were the same. It had become the face of a scholar of the worst kind, of the sort of man who has studied many things hidden from common men and grown wise and corrupt. He smiled to see the dead bowman, and he stroked the livid cheek as a mother strokes her child.

I must remember that.

-Gene Wolfe, Soldier of the Mist (1986)

The god comes down to collect the dead

[Previous episode: A funeral on the beach]

My thoughts were still upon the fight on the ridge, and I glanced at the ragged skyline it showed against the stars. A tall figure with a staff stood there with a shorter figure, like a boy, beside him.

The woman who had sat beside Pindaros took my arm. “Come, Latro, it’s time to go.”

“No,” I told her. “You take Io. I’ll come soon. I think this is someone I should speak with.”

She and the black man followed the direction of my gaze, but it was clear they saw nothing. Holding the chain that bound her leg in one hand, the woman took Io’s hand in the other. They and the black man hurried off, followed by a bowman who was not Oior.

Alone, I watched the tall figure come down from the ridge. After him trailed the smaller one, who seemed often to stumble. A light surrounded the tall figure; the lesser one had no such luminosity but seemed translucent, so that I sometimes dimly glimpsed the rocks and trees behind him. Neither cast a shadow in the moonlight.

When the tall figure had come near, I saluted him, calling, “Hail!” By then I could see that his hair and beard were gray, his face stern and dark.

“Hail,” he answered, and lifted his staff. His voice was deep and hollow.

I asked him, as politely as I could, whether he had come for Kekrops, and offered to lead him to the body.

“There is no need,” he told me, and he pointed with his staff to the foot of the altar, where Kekrops had been laid out. I was startled to see that the body was still there; it rose despite its wounds and stumbled across the sand to him.

“You fear the dead,” the tall figure told me, seeing my look. “You need not; no one will do you less harm.”

The smaller figure had left the slope of the ridge; while we spoke, it crossed the beach toward us. It was a bowman dressed like those on our ship, and I asked the tall one if he was the man who had tried to kill me.

“Yes,” he said. “But he will not do so now. Until he is freed, he is my slave.”

“He is a murderer,” I said. “I hope you will punish him for what he did.”

The bowman shook his head. It swung loosely, like a blossom on a broken stalk.

“He cannot speak,” the tall figure told me, “unless you first speak to him. That is my law, which I lay upon all my slaves.”

I asked the dead bowman, “Didn’t you kill Kekrops? Can you deny his murder when he stands beside you?” Now that I must write that, it seems strange. I can only say it did not seem so then.

“Spu killed only in war,” the dead bowman murmured. He held a finger to his eye. “Spu would kill you, Neurian, in justice for him.”

“We must go,” the tall figure told me. “It is not right that they should remain on earth, and I have much to do. I have lingered only to tell you that my wife’s mother sends her to speak with you. Do not forget.”

“I’ll do my best not to,” I promised.

He nodded. “And I will remind you of it when I can. I do not understand mercy, and thus I am as I am; but perhaps she will be merciful to you, and I can learn from her. I hope she is at least just.” He took a step forward, and it seemed to me that he stood upon a stair I could not see. With each step, he sank more deeply into the ground; the sailor and the bowman followed him.

“Goodbye,” I called. And then to the bowman, I cannot say why, “I forgive you!” He smiled at that—it was strange to see the dead mouth smile—and touched his forehead.

Then all three were gone.

-Gene Wolfe, Soldier of the Mist (1986)

[Next episode: The sighting of two goddesses]

A funeral on the beach

The dead man was laid before the altar and a fire of driftwood kindled upon it. Ten sailors who had sworn they had good voices and no blood guilt sang a litany to the sea-god: "Horse-Breaker, Earth-Shaker, Wave-Maker, spare us! Ship-Taker, Spring-Maker, Anchor-Staker, care for us!" And so on.

When they were finished, Hypereides, in full armor with his blue crest upon his helmet, cast bread into the fire and poured wine from a golden cup.

“Third brother of the greater gods

By destiny, Death’s king,

Accept for suffering Kekrops’s sake,

The food, the wine we bring.

He labored for thy brother,

Thy brother used him sore.

Accept a sailor cast adrift,

Beached on thy river’s shore.”

Some beast howled nearby, and little Io, sitting on my right, pressed herself against me. “It’s only a dog,” I whispered. “Don’t be frightened.”

The black man reached across her to touch my shoulder. When I looked at him, he shook his head and bared his teeth.

Hypereides finished the poem in a thundering voice I would not have believed he commanded.

“Yet should the old man slacken,

You’ll find no better oar,

To row such souls as Ocean rolls

Unto Death’s bitter shore.”

“By all the Twelve,” whispered Pindaros. “He remembered the whole of it. I wouldn’t have bet a spit on him.”

Hypereides then cast beans, mussels, and meat into the fire, with other things. Two sailors rushed forward with leather buckets of seawater to quench it. Two more quickly wrapped the dead man and carried him away.

“It was a wonderful poem,” I told Pindaros.

He shook his head. The men around us were rising and drifting back to the big fires nearer the ships.

“Surely it was. See how many of them are crying.”

“They were his friends,” Pindaros said. “Why shouldn’t they weep? May the Gentle Ones snatch you! Poetry must shake the heart.” There were tears in his own eyes; and so that I would not see them he strode away, his chain dragging after him in the sand.

-Gene Wolfe, Soldier of the Mist (1986)

[Next episode: The god comes down to collect the dead]

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Alive and Kicking

Just for the record, this blog is still alive and kicking and I've tons more to post about the mighty Wolfe in due time. Lately most of my blogging energies have been expended at my R. A. Lafferty blog: The Ants of God Are Queer Fish, as I'm trying to write a paper on him for a chapter in a book that may someday see the light of day. At some point, I'm going to outline the Wolfe-Lafferty connection as they were mutually endorsing of one another and were fellow outside-the-box s.f. Roman Catholic literary geniuses. (I say 'were' not because there is breaking news on Wolfe, but because Lafferty died in 2002.) Interestingly, Lafferty and Wolfe are two of the biggest influences on the urban/gods/gothi-comic/mythpunk sort of fantasy of Neil Gaiman (by his own confession—and if you read enough of the works of all three, it’s easy to see).

Some months ago I finally got onto to some more recent Wolfe stuff and read Pirate Freedom and An Evil Guest. Reviews will be forthcoming. There’s definitely gold in both, but on a first read I don’t love Pirate Freedom as much as other Wolfe stuff and I feel mixed about An Evil Guest (though the latter has some really great stuff on a number of levels). I’ve also read some recent short stories—‘Lief in the Wind’ and ‘The Giant’. (I found the latter much better than the former and will comment on them in due course also.) Also, I recently read Wolfe’s essay ‘Scribbling Giant’ about R. A. Lafferty (found as an afterword in Lafferty’s novel East of Laughter).

The Wolfe still howls in my soul if I cannot at present release the lupine from my lips.