'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 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]

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