From On the Overgrown Path
by David Herter
1: The Wolf’s Trail
A jolt. A shudder. Sunlight shivering on his eyelids. The perpetual rattle rising to a shriek.
Waking, J––––– wipes his eyes. The cabin’s bench, which hours ago had seemed so plush, is stiff against his shoulders. Through the window, mountains have stepped aside for an alpine valley. The crisp air brings it nearly into his lap—a slope of white cedar leading down to cluttered steep-roofed cottages, with drifts of smoke here and there against the snowy trees.
He yawns to clear his ears.
The Semmering Pass? He remembers the changed route, the different tracks. West, into Austria. But these mountains?
Near the Austrian border?
And this village—an unintended stop?
The shriek: piccolos skirling while sparks rain onto dirty snow. He leans close to the glass. Beech and pine trees whisk past, then telegraph poles, slower and slower, as they reach a snow-covered field at the village’s edge. In the distance, a hermitage of green baize, dwarfed by the mountaintops. Its gold dome, faintly gleaming, suggests Greek or Russian orthodox, an aura of Byzantine modes.
Lifting his arm, the Maestro turns the catch on the window, admitting a sliver of cold breeze and the reverberating ebb of a bell. With practiced ease he withdraws a small brown book and pen from his side pocket, flipping to the latest page. The bell, chiming a second time, is not a hermitage bell. More like those in the Augustinian monastery in Brno, playing the midday angelus.
Swiftly he draws two horizontal lines, all he needs of the stave, then pins the bell’s shy tone, adding three sharp signs to denote A major. Beneath he writes: noon bell. 17/X 1923 Semmering?
The pen leaks. Too impatient to blot, he closes the book: looking out to the colorful cottages, blue, purple, yellow… He shuts the window, leans his forehead to the glass. Betraying less than its seventy years, crowned with vibrantly white and unruly hair, his face now beams with a youthful smile.
To his left—bustling motion down the corridor. Voices passing the partition. The train inspector’s and that of a second man. The inspector responding, placating a passenger who is pursuing him. A flash of aquamarine. Outside, a slowing stutter of tarred poles announces a snow-covered station platform. A square of icy flagstones. Tall narrow shops beyond, with the bustle of roofs and chimneys behind them.
Steam swirls against the snow, and a drift of ash. The train shudders and is still. He looks for a hanging sign, for something to tell him where he is.
Closing the window, he settles back against the cushion, quite warm in his tweed jacket and gray scarf, with the traveling rug—a kindness supplied by his housekeeper—across his lap. So he is able to wait for word to come. Not like those others crowding the corridor.
Had this been a decade ago, under the Dual Monarchy. Or had he been a younger man —
Today, I am content to sit. Especially after the hectic pace of the week. Exhausting days.
His opera Káťa Kabanová in Bratislava, under Zuna’s fiery baton. Better than in Brno or Prague.
The reception at the National Theatre, where he received an honorary degree from the Teacher’s Institute.
And the endless ovations.
Now, he must simply arrive in Prague by the 23rd—fully five days away—to spar with Nebuska at Hudební matice, and to consult with Dr. Brod on the new work, The Adventures of the Fox Sharp Ears.
Across from him dozes the compartment’s other occupant. A grandmother previously from Granica, now from Prague. They had chatted of St. Petersburg before she nodded off, head tipped against her ancient mink stole, lightly snoring. He fell asleep after, in the lull of alpine scenery—this different route, these alternate tracks due to snow.
And a compartment all to themselves…
A habitual citizen of second class travel, J––––– always carries his State Worker’s permit for the additional discount. But this morning in Bratislava he was booked into these prime accommodations. The inspector hailing him—“Maestro!” It seemed the inspector’s wife had brought him to the previous night’s performance. The inspector gesturing to J–––––’s vigorous white hair. “You are easily spotted in a crowd, Maestro!” He offered congratulations on the performance, shaking hands, and J––––– in turn heaped the praise back onto the local opera house—“A wonderful performance, sir! With the fire one finds only in the eastern lands!”
No matter—he was given this first class seat. He had been pleased, yet also abashed at such preferential treatment. Success had come late in life; a childhood of poverty and a full six decades of labor and disappointments had tempered him. The train departed into clouds. He chatted with the grandmother from Granica, who spoke harshly of her homeland even as her love for it shone through, marked in the melodic curves of her voice.
She had fallen asleep. Then he.
And how far have they traveled? In the heights of Semmering? This village, so unlike the Austrian?
Beyond the window a hawk—in a great rush of silver-gray wings—lands on the melting snow beside the car. He watches its bustling steps, listens to its cry.
A greeting? Or does it bid us farewell? He opens the brown book, mentally notating the cry. The first upward note, B, penetrating into the second. He scratches the five-line stave, and dabs three glistening sixteenth notes. Beneath, he writes Semmering? 17/X 1923. Hawk beside the train, adding, in his best imitation of the Hipp’s Chronoscope, duration 0.0085m HCh.
Not wanting to ruin the previous page any further he uses his cuff, carefully blotting the wet ink. Then he tosses the pen to the floor.
When the hawk cries out once more, its voice is mirrored in his book, and on his cuff.
“I have you,” he tells it, quietly, lifting his eyebrows. His smile, accented by the harsh lines life has given him, is softened by the neat white mustache.
“Ja, ja.” Beside him, the door opens with a wrenching squeal. The harried inspector leans in to say, in Czech, "Avalanche on the other side of this pass, Maestro. We are waiting to hear news. Passengers are free to leave the train for one hour, if they wish."
"I think I will sit. But tell me, sir, what is this village? Its name? I wish to capture it."
The inspector, who had professed brief interest in the brown book and its speech melodies (including his own “ticket please, Maestro. It is a formality”) says, “At this moment, I do not know. I will find out.”
Sorry for adding to his burdens, the Maestro mutters “thank you” as the door is closed.
Across from him, the old woman stirs. The exchange has barely roused her. Pale gray eyes wink open. “Sleep,” he tells her, in his modest Russian. “We sit at a station. Unplanned stop.”
She nods vaguely—and off.
A delay. This does not concern him. Pressing his forehead to the window, he searches for the green hermitage beyond a cluster of oak. All is hidden. The hawk, rustling, sharp-winged, takes back to the sky.
He pats his knees. Very well. I cannot sit. A stretch of the legs is needed. The air will revitalize me.
The Maestro lifts the rug from his lap, folds it beside him on the seat. He retrieves his spare pen from the satchel and slips it into his breast pocket next to his visiting cards. He stands. Deciding not to take his hat, he nonetheless dons his fur-lined overcoat, pulls on his black gloves, then gently slides open the door. His stride down the corridor to the exit is short but brisk. He pats under his overcoat for handkerchief, brown book and passport while descending into vivid cold. He smiles at the chill air on his tongue: refreshing as a draught of strong Aloiska water.
A railway station surrounded by Alpine mountains.
Hands in pockets, he stands apart from the others. The wind sculpts his hair in vertical directions, revealing ears with depending lobes pinked by the cold.
His ears hear large.
Listening now to the other passengers, paying less attention to the words—a smattering of German, Czech, Polish and French—than to the tonal modulations in their voices. The upward curl of questions, as they glance here and there. The guttural tones of Germans, lonely in the brittle air.
They are concerned by the delay and are tired—and curious about the village.
We tread timidly, he thinks, like animals venturing out into a clearing.
The air trembling to our heartbeats.
During the trip he had spent little time admiring the view. Instead, he had notated the inspector’s voice, then the grandmother’s as he discussed St. Petersburg with her.
Savoring another breath of chill air, he studies the jagged summits in all directions, the striations of white and blue and gray rising sharp against the pale blue sky, and admits that he did not discuss St. Petersburg so much as jabber like a machine at the poor woman, about Russia as mother of all Slav nations and his memorable journey there some two decades past, long before the terrible revolution.
How he had visited first the zoo, and its open air theatre.
The cathedral of Izak.
Pavlosk and the islands of Yalaquin.
How it all awakened in him a premonition of the future Republic. A Slav state outside the realm of the Austro-Hungarians.
How at the coast of St. Petersburg he had filled a flask with sea water as a legendary Hussite captain had done some four hundred years earlier; and had taken it back to his landlocked country.
Dizzied by the view he brings himself back down to earth.
In the shop windows opposite the square faces peer out, bewildered. As though Pegasus itself has settled onto the tracks.
A group of passengers approaches one of the shops; its sign displays a battered bronze plate. Hands in pockets, he walks briskly after them. Among the crowd he spies the aquamarine coat—an older man with grayish-black hair, who has had enough of bickering with the inspector it seems. He follows the last of them into the café, into blazing heat—a roaring fire, the atmosphere redolent of baking bread and kava. While the others congregate around a central table shouting requests in German, he takes a small table by the window.
The proprietor, in a tattered green vest and striped shirt, nods to the arrivals a little sleepily, offering a toothy smile. He sneaks glances over his shoulder to a plump, dark-haired woman in the back of the shop. She throws off a colorful quilt and sets a smoldering cigar on a butter plate. She has the languid eyes of a gypsy, reminding him of Kamila, his dear one.
Pulling off his gloves, he touches the silver ring on his left hand.
The Germans, meanwhile, are laughing and kicking at something under the table. A gray hen saunters out, scratching at the floor with each step. She clucks, trumpeting the white-stripes on her breast. The Maestro grins at her, taps the table top. “Chick. Here, chick, chick.”
But it is the proprietor who approaches.
“Speak Czech, sir?”
“Yes, I do.” The man nods, somewhat like his pet. His smile broadens. Perhaps he’s glad to have the Germans done with. “Yes. Please, you order, my friend.”
“Are you surprised sir, by your windfall? An avalanche on the tracks, we are told. But good business for you. Kava, please! And a pastry?” J––––– gestures at such imaginary items before him. A cup. The shape of a pastry. “Cherry? Icing on top?” His eyes glitter as he smiles. “Or a biscuit? Any will do, sir.”
“Yes, yes. I have many pastries, my friend. It will be a moment, please.” The proprietor nudges the hen away with his boot, then departs back to his gypsy wife.
There is soon much bustling activity back there.
The Maestro turns to the window.
More passengers have disembarked, but most remain aboard the train. The cars are black and gold against the snowy trees beyond, with wide windows reflecting the sky. Far to the right the engine billows with gray and white steam.
He is perspiring. Noticing a latch on the window, he opens it slightly. He wipes his forehead with his coat sleeve and wonders at their proximity to the Slovakian border—the passengers and this village, cupped by the mountain peaks. When the proprietor returns, bearing a mug of kava, a plate, and a tray stacked with pastries, the Maestro withdraws the brown book from his pocket. “Please, sir, the name of this village?” The proprietor speaks it, the name an enticement, lingering on the edge of cognizance, long vowels and guttural consonants. “Spell it please.” He writes the letters, H, O, Z, R, N, and six more after it. How strange, this cognitive dissonance! “Once more, please.” And after the man performs this task, “And what of the diacritics?”
With a reasonable semblance now carefully lettered he shuts his little book away and chooses a pastry heaped with raspberry preserves and cinnamon. He pays the man 20 Kc, and refuses the change.
“And these mountains? Semmering?”
“No, no. Semmering? No, these are the Carpathians.”
“Ah, the east! The inspector was confused about the detour. And this province sir, what is it called?”
But the others have become boisterous. Their laughter drowns out the proprietor’s response as he returns to the big table.
We rerouted to the East! Much more interesting.
The Maestro lifts the mug, enjoying the heat and scent of the kava in the cold window. Sipping, he glances down at the hen. The bare wood floor betrays its passing here many times, in little tracks and furrows. He drops a bit of the pastry and watches the hen peck at it and gulp it down.
“Here. White-stripes.” He taps the table. “Up.” He nudges the hen with his shoe. He clucks. “Up, chick. Up.” She only stares.
The village has been hibernating. And now we’ve wakened it.
He listens to voices inside and out, then hears, faint on the chill breeze, a golden shimmer.
Leaning toward the window, tipping his ear to catch the breeze, he waits.
Then, more clearly: a golden fall of bright, spangling tones.
He glances out. Then pushes back his chair, stands up, finds the door.
He steps out into the cold.
He has lately finished his opera Fox Sharp Ears without another project at hand. His efforts to secure the rights to Čapek’s latest play—a strange affair about immortality—have been dashed by the author. And so he feels like an empty shell.
An empty shell which yearns for sounds to fill it.
Far overhead the breeze roams the towering peaks, lamenting in tones that wander from bass to treble, rustling the distant slopes of the forest. Not Semmering, but the Carpathians. Distantly, horses clatter along snowy lanes, their shoes ringing when they strike the bare stone; closer, children laugh at play; signs creak as they swing to and fro, while the passengers standing at the station chatter and mill about. A pleasant tableau, with none of the tone chaos of Prague or Brno.
Yet no cimbaloms.
He stands a moment longer. The wind stirs his wild white hair, and flattens his coat to his plump torso. He strides along the row of colorful shops—here a bright pink wall, windows full of textiles; next to it, a deep purple wall, windows full of canned food and sewing implements.
Rising on the breeze a chime, faintly ringing, clanging—the undampened tones of metal strings being struck by small hammers. Ringing up and down, like golden mist trickling in sunlight. Off to his right, down a narrow cobblestone lane.
A cimbalom—or not? The tonal quality is different, thinner. Perhaps an illusion created by the altitude?
Patting his coat for the book, he follows, his shoes hectoring the cobbles.
To a corner, where snow-dusted coal is piled into a mound. Again, the trickling tones; he turns the corner. It’s More an alley than a lane. Snow has been trampled by many footsteps. And paw prints. Dogs.
The smell of charred wood.
Nearby—a voice, singing.
He halts. And for a time he stands there, listening as the voice grows more vibrant. A woman’s voice, a vivid contralto, down the alley, or farther, weaving a tune, a melismatic melody of leaps and turns.
Swirls of blood cut by those distant, misty cimbaloms.
The Maestro shuts his eyes. He tips his head, trying to follow the strange melody—not a strophic structure of Bohemia or the cultured west.
Or even of Moravian modes.
Something of Hungarian, or the Greek, in its style.
His eyes snap open. He strides forward, hurrying along the cobblestones, his shoes nearly sliding on ice. Patting at his coat pocket, he tries mentally notating the song, or catching the meaning of the words. He stops, withdraws book and pen, riffles past the last few day’s worth of little melodies, scrawls three quick staves, and the notes. Blood beats in his ears. Sweat stings his eyes, and he blinks through. The song resists his efforts—these hooks and dabs spidering across the page do not hold it. He hurries forward, losing it in those distant spanglings.
Halting now under cornices of snow-swept stone roses.
Faint laughter. Murmurous—the woman’s voice, as she sings again.
The alley narrows. Whitewashed walls on the left. Mossy brick on the right. Overhead, the sky is cut into long rectangles. Where the whitewashed walls end, another alley looms. An iron bench at the corner, pillowed with snow. He walks past it, follows the alley as it narrows, and the air darkens, as though the soot that stains it has been made manifest in the air, roused by his passage.
He must find the woman, must ask her to sing her song. Must watch her, must hear her—the scasovani which lies at the heart of everything, in the oscillation of her soul, of this village, of the mountain peaks.
Snow falling from the eaves above makes soft plashes in the alley.
The voice promises to appear around the next corner. But he finds only walls at sharp angles. Daylight is brighter ahead. Sunlight playing off the ice, with the faintest of rainbow stains in the corners of his eyes, into which the voice, like a bird, has flown.
Silence, as he turns yet another corner into a tall courtyard. No doors open onto it, only the high walls, in a shape that is neither square or rectangular.
The ground is clear of snow. Cobbles gleam.
And on the wall, a glittering mural.
He stops, rubbing his right eye, the eyelid still pinked by the sty which had bedeviled him since August. Not a mural but small, gleaming tesserae, depicting ancient stone structures, one with a cross jutting up.
In front of it, a faded circle of bronze frames a kneeling figure, around which gathers a crowd. They wear white robes. Winter sunlight beats down from a star-filled sky. Stark shadows, in which the torrent of blood from the kneeling figure’s neck is the brightest color in the scene.
The circle of greenish bronze, like a giant chalice dug into the ground.
Against this, he remembers the cimbalom. And the enigmatic curves of the tune.
Then, lifting over the high courtyard walls: a long low whistle, and the fainter chuff of a steam engine.
Another train arriving?
He turns round, wipes his face with sleeve. Blinking in the sunlight, he strides briskly, only to collide with an old woman. She has wild gray hair, a black scarf tossing at her throat. He drops his book and pen. This old woman seemingly the source he seeks. Apologizing, retrieving his book, his pen, from the warm stone, he smells in her garments the odor of cinnamon and iron—chicken blood.
“Babička.” He straightens. “Your song.”
Her face is wide, unpleasant, marked with smallpox scars.
“Could you… sing again?” He flips open the book, attempts to mimic her song. Her rheumy eyes narrow. She slaps at him, her toothless mouth shaping a response that does not come.
She pushes past him.
And he hears the angelus bell, faint, as though chasing the train engine.
Dizzy, he turns, and moves onward, into the alley—a different alley from the one she had taken, into grayish light, snow drenching his shoulders. The alley ends in another cul-de-sac, and another mound of snow-covered coal. He doubles back and listens to the distant whistle reverberating through the pine forests like the cry of a behemoth.
And finds his way back to the square where only the train’s smoke remains, dissipating above the tracks.
From The Luminous Depths
by David Herter
"God, what is beautiful? Beautiful are chrysanthemums, but beautiful also are the stars, the stars in the sky (especially in my Vinhorady neighborhood). Beautiful it is to sit at the edge of a field near a factory fence above Kralovo Pole and not admit what’s real…”
―Letter from Karel Čapek to Vera Hruzova, Christmas 1922
1: The Brothers Čapek
He tramps down the grand staircase and through the empty foyer, three-legged, breathless, grateful to be free of the auditorium, away from actors repeating line after line of terrible, all-too-familiar dialogue. His cane―arrhythmic, irritating―echoes richly in the galleries behind him, like laughter at his gimpy walk. Brushing aside heavy black curtains, Karel Čapek crosses the atrium and shoves open the outer door with his free hand, stepping into pallid sunlight and frigid winter wind.
Why did I come?
He breathes deeply.
From his pocket he withdraws the cigarette holder, placing it between his lips and gently biting, then returns for the half-Gauloise. The wind nearly snatches it from his hand, but―damn the Brno breeze―he plugs the cigarette firmly into the holder’s cherrywood tip.
His shoulders ache from sitting. Pain radiates down his lower back and right leg, worsening as he fumbles for a match. He tightens his grip on the cane. With his left hand, he flicks his thumbnail on the match head, pulling back as it flares up. Lighting the cigarette’s crumbling tip he inhales deeply, drops the match and stands staring through the smoke, feeling it penetrate to his roots.
His eyes are large, limpid, blue, stranded under a high forehead. His hair, parted on the side and slicked across but for an unruly lick in the back, gives him the air of a petulant child, while the green-checkered suitcoat with padded shoulders, along with the white cane, gives him the air of a dandy.
Smoking, he pauses to sneer at the poster on the wall.
Exhaling through his nose, he thinks, Why? Why did I come?
He turns to the Theater on the Rampart’s pillars and snow-swept Malinovskeho square bustling with afternoon traffic. A tram sparks as it rounds the corner, rounds and careens off down Divadelni toward his hotel, as if to taunt him.
Why? Because Josef asked.
Because a new production was offered, and Josef wanted to design it.
Because I wanted to see Brno after a year away, and Helena.
He draws again on the cigarette.
These streets I walked as a boy. To the Cabbage Market, Spilberk Fortress. To Kapucinske Monastery with its basement full of bones―
―all of it wondrous to the fourteen-year-old Karel, kicked out of middle school in Hradec Králové. Kicked out for joining a patriotic society, sent here to live with his nineteen-year-old sister Helena. Later in life he’d often come of his own free will to visit her, as well as to drop by the head offices of Lidové noviny, the centrist People’s newspaper. But today, there is little reason.
The cloud of smoke hanging over the stairs is torn away by the wind.
I came because they asked. Because that is what authors do, even when they’d rather see a work permanently shelved for better things. I came because―
Something brushes his shoulder. He does not turn to look; he cannot. Gripping the cane more tightly, he anticipates the newcomer’s identity before the familiar voice says, “Couldn’t take anymore, K.?”
Karel smiles, recovering some of his poise. “They’re not to blame, brother.”
“It’s the source material, eh?” Josef steps into view, stout in a gabardine suit, with a dour smile, his wire-rimmed glasses winking in the snow glare. “But not the new design, I hope?” He pats the pockets of his overcoat.
“The design is phenomenal.” Karel draws hard on the cigarette, exhales upward. “Apple chromium et crepuscule.”
“Posh bardo, K.,” replies Josef, then switches from the Čapekian language to the Czech. “You’re giving our director a bleeding ulcer.” He, too, lights up―an imported American brand. His fingers, sapphire-stained, work expertly against the breeze. “Every time you rise so dramatically and stalk out of the auditorium…” He uses a lighter of his own design; a silver, sleek-winged Phoenix brays the flame.
“I should talk to him,” murmurs Karel.
It certainly isn’t the director’s fault. Jiri Kalr is doing a fine, if rather earnest job. Much better today than yesterday. The cast is excellent, and Josef’s designs are among the most striking he has ever produced.
“Your head Robot, K. What’s the fellow’s name?”
“Primus, Josef.” He taps the holder against his chest. “Do you seek to drive the blade in here?” And his stomach. “Or here?”
Josef smiles. “The actor’s name.”
“Bern. Miklos Bern.”
“Mr. Bern was heard to tell his fellows, My friends, this is a prophetic piece, and we have the prophet sitting in the rehearsals! Not a hint of irony in that Robot’s voice, brother! They’re quite taken with you. And most of the youngsters―what’s her name, the one playing Helena Glory?”
“Miss Elizabet Janusova.”
“She and the others know nothing of K. Čapek but your Dialogs with our Republic’s president and your Rossum’s Universal Robots.”
“Not even my little gardening book, Josef?” With every breath, the winter chill seeps back in. “Now you try to depress me.”
“And she averts her eyes like a school girl whenever you speak to her.” Josef walks backward until he stands against one of the Tuscan columns. His thick, graying hair shivers in the breeze. “I’m trying to lift your mood, K. If I didn’t know how unchartable such moods are,“ smiling, scratching his soft chin, “I’d say it lingers from last night, and the dinner conversation.”
Karel shuts his eyes, briefly, and moves his head very slightly left-right-left: an emphatic No. “It’s Brno.” Staring at his empty cigarette holder, he adds, “And it’s how Helena―our Lenča ―plays the protective mother.” He taps the end of the holder. “And yes, it’s those awful lines of dialog. A beautiful production, Josef. Charming actors. But if I shut my eyes, they all vanish but for the words.”
“Helena will always be― Why hello, there! Decide to take the long way into the pit?”
Karel, who had shut his eyes, now opens them.
A spindly black-haired man lugs a violoncello case up the stairs. “Side door’s still frozen solid.” His moustache glitters with ice. “Good day, Mr. Čapek, sir.”
Exchanging irritation for a smile, Karel replies, “Good day.”
“Go in, go in.” Josef gestures with his cigarette. “They surely await the low notes.”
“Only if Pavel writes me more!” The musician pulls open the door and squeezes through.
“Recall that fellow’s name?”
Karel shakes his head. “Never the musicians.”
“Yet you could, brother. You did, when you directed the City Theater. Remember those halcyon days? All of Prague hanging on your awful lines.”
Karel’s face grows longer. “The booze has not left you, I see.”
Exhaling, Josef stares out at a passing tram. “Helena worries. Why shouldn’t she? You come to Brno for the first time in a year and expect her to throw roses?” He shrugs, and in the language that he, Karel and Helena had invented as children says, “Ne Posh Bardo, K. Sans eyewig.“ Then quotes Apollinaire: “Ah la charmante chose, quitter un pays morose.”
Karel absently pats his pocket for the pills, then resists. “You nearly said it. Helena will always be Helena.”
“Look.” Josef gestures with his cigarette at the street. “Here comes our composer.”
Karel tightens his grip on the cane. He squares his shoulders and feels his mood lifting as he spies the stocky, dark-haired figure crossing the snow. “Good.”
“Direct from the shoe shop, as he promised.” Josef sends a cloud of smoke up and watches it disperse. “See, K.? Not all is lost to the whiskey haze.”
Shoulders hunched, Pavel Haas hikes briskly through the snow, his unbuttoned serge overcoat flapping like black wings at his back. A satchel is stuffed under his arm, and he grips something round and metallic with his left hand. The fedora hides his eyes. He’s wearing the same brown tweed suitcoat, vest, flannel trousers and battered wingtips as yesterday, his narrow brown tie carelessly knotted, flapping in the breeze. This endears him to Karel, reminding him of late nights at the newspaper, struggling to meet a deadline.
“Good day, Pavel!”
Trudging up the stairs, Haas slows. His expression changes from fierce introspection to surprise. Smiling, he seems younger than his thirty years. “Karel, good day! Josef!”
“Cold as a scythe, eh?” Josef grins and points to the bowl. “Maestro Haas, you’re baking a cake?”
He holds it up. A steel mixing bowl. “New timbres.” Catching his breath, he adds, “For the…little prelude I wrote this morning.” Pavel’s build―a pugilist’s―belies the artist revealed at the restaurant the night before, at the end of the first full day of rehearsals.
Karel leans heavily on his cane, and offers his hand. They shake. “You were industrious. Josef and I merely returned to our rooms and passed out.”
“Any herbs or Laudanum in that bag?” asks Josef, shaking Haas’s hand in turn.
Long black bangs in the Fairbanks style mask heavy-browed, brooding eyes. Yet nothing to hide that nose, thinks Karel. That august Jewish nose. “My girl wouldn’t allow it. Only music.”
“So there’s a downside to dating a doctor?” Josef casts a sly smile in Karel’s direction. “Nonetheless, it’s the perfect accouterment today. My brother is under the impression that only your music can save this production.”
Karel stows the daggers he was going to throw at Josef. “Maestro, my brother tends to exaggerate, but in this case he is entirely correct.” Karel briefly shuts his eyes and lowers his chin: a bow. “Go inside, please, and bring my tired Robots to life.”
Pavel stamps his shoes, dislodging snow. “It’s an honor, Karel.”
“And tell our director, if you can sneak it in unobtrusively, that I am charmed by this production, and any displeasure he may sense is due to the excessive celebration the three of us undertook last night.”
“No, don’t mention celebrations.” Josef taps ash from his cigarette. “He’d be offended we didn’t invite him. A slap across the face.”
“Then tell him please, Pavel, that my calcified vertebra resist the idea of sitting for long periods. The Faculty of Medicine in Prague call it Čapek’s disease. A brief respite of fresh air and tobacco is required.”
Pavel nods, and offers a sheepish smile. “See you both inside.”
They watch the doors close behind him. They smoke. Josef says, “One day, K., it will be his production we attend.”
Teeth clenched on the cherrywood tip, Karel sighs. “If only that day were today.”
From October Dark
by David Herter
Downtown with its art deco towers, its glazed sidewalks and noisy streetcars was left behind―here in Old Town―for amber street lamps and uneven, moss-grown brick, for lattice-iron footbridges creaking in the breeze, for the creosote and bird-dung reek of Grenton’s neither grand nor famous canals.
Les Deerton walked uneasily, his battered Oxfords teasing at the brick. He mistrusted that brick. He had nightmares of tripping, sliding, otherwise stumbling into the brackish water. Tiles were loose, prone to buckling. Infrequently one kicked an edge and heard it skitter into the drink. Gophers in slimy granite perched on pilasters, waiting for the moment. He clutched his notebook and two of his best pencils. He wore his seersucker and Palm Beach cotton shirt with bow tie, a snazzy striped handkerchief in his breast pocket, and Oxford bag trousers with his threadbare union suit underneath. The day had been muggy, rainstorms until late in the afternoon when the first of the revelers took up their masks and drums near the First Avenue armory. Now the fog was brewing off the docks and slithering into Old Town. Deerton had been told to look for the radio tower atop the Soames Building but couldn’t see more than three stories up. Seagulls hooked the breeze up there, brashly challenging one another. A foghorn boomed its lonely cry, seeking something in the twisted ruins of Old Town but leaving Deerton alone.
He was close to a teetotaler, favoring 7-Up over beer, Postum over caffeine, but he yearned for a shot of the Boss’s illegal booze to calm his nerves. The Hallows’ Eve atmosphere downtown―Mummers swarming down First Avenue, the ghoulish masks on the dockside workers, and even Mrs. Grubach his landlady decorating the hallways with black crepe and devils’ heads amidst the pro-Union bunting―it all compounded the feeling that this, of all nights, was not the best for the Boss to unveil the product to their mysterious customer.
Cursed? Maybe. Or just too foggy and damp and dim for the gears and sockets to be rightly tested.
Deerton followed the Craeger Street canal. Or presumed he did. He’d passed two of the black-lattice bridges, relics of the last century and the fabled fire or earthquake or whatever it had been, and neither had offered a reassuring sign.
Here was a bum passed out along the sandstone quay―snoring beneath a Hoover blanket―but Deerton would never kick a guy awake to ask directions. Best to let him dream. Maybe, like the Boss’s own film star Morpheus Mike, he was dreaming himself off to some prehistoric wonderland where the fur blankets were a tad bit warmer than yesterday’s Grenton Observer pages A1 through A12.
Truth be told, Deerton hadn’t seen a soul for six blocks, where the last of the apple sellers had been hawking his nickelware on the corner of Fifth and Taft. Of all nights, tonight had been busy for that somewhat doubtful trade: limousines floating up to curbside, the velveteen arms of ladies reaching out with a palmful of coins, procuring a bushel to suit the penthouse parties high in the Grenton stratosphere.
Truth be told, he should’ve gone with Tommy. On a mystical level―and Tommy certainly lived there at times―there was no telling what the kid might do with his beloved on the night of her nuptial departure. Deerton was the elder, an august twenty-five to Tommy’s nineteen. On a practical level, there was the effort required to hoist that two-hundred-pound bronze wonder into the back of the pick-up truck and see it safely through the foggy streets. And four eyes were better than two, in this fog.
And there were always nefarious sorts you could encounter, who might be interested in her adamantine and her rubies, if not her scrap bronze. There were rumors―he had always heard them, in the armory mess hall, or at the soda fountain on Delmont Boulevard―rumors of wild animals that lived in the alleys and byways of Old Town, worse than the always-talked-about Grenton gophers, whose stone effigies dotted Old Town, plentiful as seagulls.
The cathedral tolled downtown, its grand bell delivering, diffuse through the fog, the eleventh hour. At each note shuddering across the sundered brick and over the slack water, Deerton hurried his step. He glanced at the hand-drawn map―the diminutive buildings of Old Town and the angled pathways of the main canals, the tall tower labeled Sand-Wich-O-Matic Shop, all of it drawn by the Boss in less than a minute the day before, using his ever-present black Wolf pencil on the smooth back of an exposed picture negative. Deerton was struck again by the mixture of draftsman’s precision and whimsy, a quality the Boss brought to everything he drew, from rampaging saber-toothed tigers to soaring biplanes to a lovely girl in lace.
11:00 read a little signpost, beside the Sandwichomatic. Best not to be late, and therefore the rendezvous with Tommy and his burden at half-past. Nor the meeting with the mysterious customer at midnight.
Though Deerton had doubts about that.
At the eleventh and final toll, the foghorn sounded, an admirable trick of timing, the foghorn lingering, as though warning those of deviltries to come. Harder to detect was the foghorn’s direction. Ahead? Left, right? It might be moving, might be a dinosaur as great as any Charles Knight had painted in his murals. Deerton pictured it, a Pleistocene head and swan-neck of some aquatic dinosaur swimming stately up the broad stretch of the Soames canal. Closer by, pigeons cooed, unseen at the water’s edge. And footsteps? Or the echo of his own, coming back to him across the water. He glanced over his shoulder. His heart began thudding like the Mummers’ drums downtown.
Sure, perhaps the Mummers, or a few Morpheus Mikes, out to frighten him.
Not that he was naïve enough to think there weren’t sinister figures in the shadows. Gin was lucrative business these days. Rum-runners chose sleek, flat-bottomed boats of Indo-Chinese design and rode silent with their heads and their hop-loads hunkered close to the water. More dangerous, these waterways of the Gilded Age had fallen into disrepair. Not only the were the bricks crumbling and the quays riddled with cracks, but the footbridges had rusted through; they infrequently toppled with pedestrians in mid-span, folding deep in the slack green water to become insidious cages, food for the Grenton gophers. The torn bodies of pedestrians were fished out and the news hacks made sure to catch the surprise on the bloated, pasty-white faces.
Deerton reached another footbridge. Like them all, it possessed ornate handrails and a majestic maw reminiscent of the hoods of ebon baby promenades of the last century. Cradle to grave, or some such. The miniature sign poking up from the left-hand rail was rusted through. He discerned Soames Waterway 15, but that might have been his prodigious imagination loosed upon blotches of black and carmine.
He climbed the staircase, which rattled and chirruped first underfoot then along the entire length. He departed the embankment, his hand above the rail but not touching. Following the arch he gazed down into the water and found a naphtha-green glow. It shivered in the water, as though fog pressing down from above had changed the properties of gas and liquid. Deerton halted. He felt an itch along his pomaded part. His bow tie constricted as he leaned forward and studied the glow―it was merely a reflection of the street lamp, but he preferred it before the explanation. He leaned further forward and caught the shape of dusky white immobile in the currents. Not a pedestrian unlucky in his crossing, but a horse, surely. A white horse with wide, startled eyes and a mane the color of pomegranates.
A circus horse.
“Cripes,” Deerton whispered and gazed up at the farther bank, wondering how it came to be here and knowing he had no time for such musings.
He pushed away from the rail, clutched his sketchbook closer to his chest, and continued on.
Deerton was no Grenton native. Six years of residence had worn down the country edges somewhat, though he still gawked at the soaring Heirothwait Tower, the Carlson Onion Dome and other art deco glories downtown. Grenton dazzled him, even in these dire times. Every Sunday he paid his nickel and hopped the elevator up to the Sunshine Deck in the Stokes tower, which until last April 21 had been the third-tallest building in the States. He adored candied figs from sidewalk vendors, rode the streetcars just for the fun of it, and every other Thursday he courted a Darlene Schnoerr at the Empire ballroom. And everywhere, he eyeballed the play of light and shadow, of positive and negative space, of texture and flow in all mediums and classifications.
Buildings shouldered close on either side. One was clearly abandoned, its windows soaped over. A bank, he guessed. On the other side stood a bowery building, its windows used for advertisements and one-sheets, this one urging him: TAKES THE OUCH OUT OF GROUCH. Below were pasted tracts by the miscreant Father Charles Coughlin, ranting about Jewish financiers, international bankers, and Communists. And nobody here to read them. This eerie emptiness, Deerton supposed, was one of the reasons the Customer had chosen this night of all nights. The parties were downtown, uptown, or points east. The gin-runners were busy supplying the booze, leaving only the bums and the seagulls and the foghorn. This was the perfect night for her delivery, their prospect these long six weeks, their debutante ―stepping out into society, quite literally headless.
La Belle Dame sans Merci, the Boss called her. Two-oh-six pounds and five-foot eleven, with only the elegant narrow neck on top, per request. The Boss had designed her, producing dozens of drawings in his swift and immaculate hand, drawings he sent via courier to their mysterious Customer―in Hollywood parlance both “Producer” and “Front Office.” Once the key drawing had been approved, the Boss passed it onto Tommy and Les.
Where Deerton was a practical design man―blueprints for the armature, for the valves and the bladders―Tommy was sculptor and metalworker. He eyed it; he cast it, using for inspiration a 1756 book called Bizarie, all about automatons of fantastical variety. And it didn’t take him long to fall in love with their fantastical Dame, though headless. An aluminum frame with solid-iron ball sockets and joints, and skin of bronze studded with ruby and mother-of-pearl and adamantine and metallic crepe. “Jeez,” poor Tommy had said, “I ain’t carved and cast anything prettier than she, anything with more vavoom, and she don’t have a head.” But La Belle had a cinched waistline you could nearly put your hands around and a prominent bustline. And truth was, Tommy was in love. For the last seven weeks, he had pursued his craft with the zealotry of Dr. Frankenstein. And vavoom, indeed. Head or no, she would have caused a scandal anywhere in Grenton, with her stanchion bosom, with her swelling hips, even in the seedy dives of downtown. And that’s the idea, Deerton supposes. That’s part of this Customer’s requirement, an automaton for a vaudeville show. But poor Tommy. It was in his blood; he didn’t want to give up on it. He had so wanted to give her a beautiful head. He sketched it again and again over the Boss’s detailed drawings and blueprints. In the end, he asked if he could design a hat, at least, an Empress Eugenie soft-shell with a red feather for decoration, such as that worn by Greta Garbo in Romance.
“Sorry, son,” the Boss had said, “but we’re out of the loop when it comes to the neck up.” So she ended at the hollow neck with veins of steel and a nervous system of wires and bladders all waiting for whatever was to go on top.
He hurried his step. It was hopeless; he was going to be late. Yet damned if the fog didn’t part like the great curtains in the Odeon. Damned if the street lamps didn’t flare from amber to bright yellow against the unique outline of the thirteen-floor Soames Building, as sketched on the map in his pocket―its acme sprouting a Marconi antenna so ugly, so unlike the art deco of the day, that some had proclaimed it the loveliest in the city for not trying.
And damned if the entire first floor wasn’t a weightless stretch of plate glass, brilliantly lit, labeled first Soames Building and beneath that Sand-Wich-O-Matic Shop. Who would build a Sand-Wich-O-Matic Shop in these dregs of Old Town? And why would it be open 24 hours a day, all neon and sodium bulbs, stainless steel, and miles of chrome? It reminded him of those clever insect traps hung at parties in the swankier districts, brilliantly lit yet ominously empty, eager to draw in the mosquitoes. And now they’d caught one one in their buzzing lights.
He slinked inside.
Only one booth was occupied.
Even tonight, on the biggest night of the project, the Boss wore his white shirt with striped suspenders―sleeves rolled up―and a black Windsor tie loosely knotted. His tweed suitcoat was draped across the table, the porkpie beside his hand. Unaware of Deerton approaching through the rotating doors, he slouched, one arm along the back of the booth, the other fiddling with well-worn envelopes and the letters he had extruded, letters in a feminine hand that he continually hid from sight and withdrew only when Les and Tommy were elsewhere; letters that Tommy, in a rare moment of snooping, had declared as postmarked Pasadena, from a wife named Hazel, betraying none of the scents of perfumes but more so those of hostility, with madness in the crimped penmanship. The Boss wasn’t reading them, nor did he touch them. Instead, his pen flipped through them forensically, his moody brow beetling over blue, often sad eyes.
As Deerton approached, the Boss looked over, looked up, summoned a careworn smile. His eyes brightened from their sadness, and his aspect changed in the straightening of his shoulders and―most important of all―the lifting up and settling down of the porkpie hat atop those letters, shutting a door on such sadness.
Willis H. O’Brien, age forty-five, late of the Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corporation of Hollywood, half-rose from the seat and gently shook Deerton’s hand, his own surely far too small to have been that of a boxer, which, according to OBie’s own late night tales, he had been. “Howdy, Les.” He smelled of gin and sweat. “Good to see you, son.” He spoke softly, with an air of distraction. “Where’s our Tommy?” From his sloughed-off coat, OBie retrieved an Elgin pocket watch, its cover decorated with a Charles Knight design of a Brontosaurus under a full moon, engraved by the Boss himself.
“He’s bringing it direct from the warehouse, Mr. O’Brien. OBie.” Deerton added, “He knows these backstreets hereabouts, said he’ll meet us direct at the statue in a half-hour.”
“Time for some chow, if you want.” OBie reseated himself, glancing furtively at his hat, and took up the racing form instead.
Deerton dug into his trouser pocket, groped a few pennies and the nickel he had resolved to save until lunchtime tomorrow. What he retained of the $50 a week amounted to heaps of coins arrayed on his bedside table, and even that was not enough to pay Mrs. Grubach the surcharge in addition to the rent. That afternoon he’d snuck into the kitchen during the Linit Bathclub Revue and pried open the ice-box hoping for a heel of bologna; he had been prowling the contents when Fred Allen betrayed Deerton with a lame joke, it seemed, leaving his landlady with enough curiosity about strange noises to investigate her kitchen. He had looked up to find her standing in the entryway, arms folded, her eyes like a south-side Medusa’s. She had given him the dirt in all directions, made threats about kicking him to the street, and luckily the laughter from the Linit Revue had grown uproarious, drawing her back to her radio and leaving Les with his hands empty, his soul chagrined.
“On me, I should’ve said.” OBie rummaged in his vest pocket, he flipped a quarter through the air. Deerton caught it with both his own. “Try the egg salad.”
From Ceres Storm
by David Herter
The ship was full of ghosts.
They roamed the corridors and the sixty-six chambers, transparent people in a bewildering array of uniforms, lavish suits and gowns, decrepit rags. Most were worshipful, some merely courteous, others indifferent, though the majority would at least bow to Daric and wait for orders that never came.
The only relief was found in the music dome, high on the Pyre’s back. Not even Starswarm, so often prowling the lower decks, came up here inside the dome, seemingly open to the stars. Days ago, Daric had carried up black cushions from the couch in his cabin and piled them where the floor met the edge of the invisible field. They were the only furnishings but for the theremin and a box that held his meager possessions: the rose, and the seven strips from the Heliotrope on Mars.
Now he sat as he often did, legs crossed on the matted floor, elbows on his knees, palms cupping his chin. Were he to command it, an ecliptic web would appear, transposed on the dome to mark the local worlds. But what he liked most of all was to simply sit and stare, and feel the lines inside him inform the darkness all around.
He had been aboard for eleven days. The Pyre roamed the edge of the system; the line of Pluto was strongest. To his eyes the sun was remote, nearly indistinct among the stars―strange, since everything he felt on the lines indicated local disaster, warnings that scurried like white spiders, trailing strings of numbers behind. No doubt they referred to Earth and the newly resurgent Storm, but trying to apprehend more, beyond a basic impulse avoid, was like trying to see something that forever stayed in the corner of his eye.
Behind him, someone sighed.
He knew who it was without looking, the floating woman, the only ghost who came up into the music dome. An ancient, like the rest. She had said this was her favorite place.
As before her strange motions caught his eye: a flash of her white arm against the stars.
“I’ve no luck with this.”
He turned, found her floating over the theremin’s black globe, attempting to grasp one of the handles. She smiled, her head slightly inclined. Her dark hair was pulled back, emphasizing the curve of her forehead, her sly blue eyes and dark lashes.
Like the other ghosts she only seemed alive when she spoke or smiled.
“Sculpting the air, that’s the key.”
Her hair was bound with silver wire into a tail that now curled up, over her left shoulder. Her other arm, her legs, floated upward, too, as though she were anchored to the ship only by her hand, and playing at losing her grip.
Today she wore a dress more transparent than the rest of her, in ripples of bright yellow and red.
“You tried to teach me once, remember?”
She raised her hand higher, fingers splayed. As she did her chest lifted, the tips wide and dark against a pale swell―not like Leften Tine’s, but a conical shape, the ancient shape.
Daric looked up to find her smiling.
“You do remember,” she said.
He turned away, and she laughed, quietly. He felt a clotted heat in his chest―anger at himself, he knew, for giving in to a ghost.
She’s not a person, he told himself, not even a soul. Though he could not entirely believe it.
He looked out at the Pyre, at the shoulders directly ahead under the pointed ears. Scattered windows shone, opened by Daric while exploring the ship, in rooms he had not visited since: the court of black marble, with tier on tier of somber, expectant ghosts; the octagonal chamber ranked with roses; or the mirrory garden, where a dozen wandering Darics had searched, wide-eyed, for the exit.
Some of the windows winked with distant ghosts, looking out.
“You once loved nothing more than standing here, a conjurer.” He looked back to find her slowly spinning, her arms brought up close to her chest, legs together. “You would stir the air, and the music would shimmer around us...you once wrote of it, in verse. Something about starlight given voice.”
She was the only ghost who floated.
Maybe this was why he didn’t order her away, for she would go. All of them, even the indifferent ghosts, if nearby, would vanish at his command, reappearing at some other part of the ship,. never leaving entirely.
He had tested it those first few days, then begun to simply walk away from them. But soon, even that seemed a chore, and he began spending most of his time in the music dome, which was open like the Talus to the stars, and where none came but this floating woman, whose name he had never asked.
Daric cupped his chin, shut his eyes. He tried to ignore her, wondering, Where’s Leften Tine? Joom and Sisteel?
If they find me, what will Starswarm do?
Soon after departing Earth, the ship had swept the system, noting all the deviations from a familiar empire―moons missing, moons where no moons should be, strange ring-ships departing Triton. It had brooded, there was no other word. Its eidolon had slipped from the shadows, a panther, dark but for the yellow eyes, padding sullenly past Daric out into the corridor; and he, following a few paces behind, had suggested they wander the edge of the system.
With a flick of its tail, Starswarm had agreed.
Yesterday, Daric had told it they should get information, drinks or matrix, at a place out of the way, and Starswarm promised to search the areas sparse with occupation forces, and had lain down at Daric’s feet and calmly licked its broad paws.
Behind him the woman said, “A disembodied head and hands.”
Daric looked over his shoulder. Her blue eyes were smiling as much as her mouth.
Who was she?
“You can change the color,” she said.
He stood up, keenly aware of her eyes as they roamed his pleated black suit. “Remember? The tab, feel there, on the inner sleeve, the right-hand sleeve.” She reached out, then pulled back. “Press it.”
When he said nothing she added, “Blue was always your favorite. Like the cooling suns, you’d say.”
He almost responded, then walked through her floating arm, to the gray disk that shuddered beneath his boots and dropped slowly into the ship.
He stood now in a corridor whose walls angled to a point overhead. There were no ghosts nearby, though in the distance, where the corridor curved from sight, the old woman stood weaving her basket of straw. She looked up. From here Daric could not see her eyes. He presumed them to be widening in surprise, as they always did. The basket fell from her fingers; she caught it, and stooped, nodding slowly, said, “Good midmorning, My Glory.”
Still nodding, she hobbled out of sight.
Why do ghosts drop baskets?
Starswarm had found it impossible to explain the ghosts, saying they were simply a part of the ship, doing what ghosts did, had always done, aboard the Pyre.
Daric looked at his sleeve, reached in to find a rough patch in the otherwise smooth fabric. At his touch the suit brightened to a russet tone, like rock from home. Curious, he applied various pressures, the suit changing to purple, aqua, leaf green; but black seemed the best, the least distracting when he was watching the stars.
He walked down the corridor to the bathroom, and afterward returned to the disk, and was carried up once more into the dome.
She was gone.
The theremin stood by itself, a black globe atop its twisted metal stand. His first time up here it had activated, crying out at his approach. Now it was silent, turned off.
He walked to the cushions and sat down.
When will Starswarm have the answer?
He lay down, shut his eyes. The familiar lines aglow with numbers and images, just out of reach. The warning, like spiders.
He dreamed, as he often had these last six days, of Myiepa.
Each tree with its high arching branches formed four distinct vaults, joining end to end with the others, blocking the sky with the strange regularity of its foliage.
Daric turned in place, looking down the rows of trunks, the avenues footed with flowing ivy, dotted with white flowers. The dreams always started here: The rows, the trunks a mottled green near the ivy, lightening to silvery brown high overhead. Sometimes it changed, sometimes clearly a dream with Jonas or Penthesilia stepping from the trees, and the trees becoming his garden, full of shadows.
But often the dreams were just of the forest, and the forest never changed.
He began to walk, looking down into the ivy. He wore the pleated suit from the Pyre. The leaves whisked across his black boots, edged with fine yellow hair.
There was always a pang of familiarity. As though home was somehow here, lost from sight but nearby. As though Jonas or Grandpapa were in the shadows.
“Jonas?” Aloud, to summon him, within the dream. “Jonas? Grandpapa?”
All the shadows fled.
He looked up into a burst of light, distant through the trees; a soundless sphere of white light expanding, rank by rank through the trunks to engulf Daric, a white roar quickly fading, gone but for an umbral glow in the ivy, heralding thunder.
It echoed down, tremendous.
A voice said, “Dearest?”
Daric opened his eyes to the stars.
From The Firebirds of Theriak
by David Herter
On Mars, 9452 Anno Eudaemonia, end of the third month, once called October.
And the steppes of lesser Tharsis rise into foothills, into crags and peaks which are surely the Albemuth mountains lost in cloud. An old highway wanders up. Gorse and hay-flower scent the icy air, with a sudden tang of apple fuel as the coach rolls past on huge bubble wheels, grinding the hard-packed white pebbles of the road. It slowly climbs, nose glaring in cloudlight. Its hull is decked with panoramas of the Mythic Age―of the DOGE King’s fight with Pulnicella, of Alissia on her forest world, of Doomed Orfoos and the Mind of Mars, and the Whirlwinds, under which tall red letters proclaim PRAZEEL’S FABULOUS UNCANNY MANIKIN SHOW.
A second coach follows, equally vivid though more decrepit overall, noisier in the gears, trailed by a lone tall figure like a shadow walking upright―their sentry ―and lastly by the wagon of ornate black-and-gold drawn by Pantomime Horses, which is the office of the adept Baron Prazeel.
These are ancient times.
This is All Hallows Eve, a decade before the Heliocracy drones would drop from the sky and begin the reclamation of the world into the hands of the Krater, the Tromon and the Sfericambrii clans.
In his office, Prazeel is at work.
The appointments are compact, tending to the vertical, infused with the puppeteer’s art. Shelves and compartments are guided by wire, catgut and brass rings, and made animate by embedded grids and neurospastos nodes accessible by him alone, with variable fields to affect Promenade and Exody, as well as many nooks for puppet display.
All of it, and the puppets too, now softly rattling.
A visitor―forced to perch on a stool near the door―finds Prazeel hunching over his desk in a cluttered interior that seems to hunch, in turn, over him. Dim screens, here and there, project several jittery views of the outside. A lamp at the Baron’s shoulder lights tousled gray-black hair, a thoughtful forehead, and those famous eyes fixed on the work before him, while lamplight shudders into myriad nooks and crannies where glassy-eyed manikin puppets jostle and grin.
Such it seems to Mac Moontree, who has just climbed up.
“Baron. Word on the shortwave.” He balances himself with the haft of his rifle, not planning to linger. “Caigen enclave’s warring on the local Dogekins, along by the forty-seven.”
Prazeel is intent on his new work, which is a demon with writhing black wings.
Moontree continues, “Caigens. . . said they don’t want our show right now. Suggest we should avoid the area. There’s another road, part of the old Thoris ride. Takes us south-southwest to Oppidum.”
The Baron pinches the puppet’s neck. Wings thrash.
“That sound to your liking?”
Briefly, he glances up: green and gold-flecked eyes, under brooding gray brows. “Did you report this to Corvis?"
“I thought in this instance, Baron, since it means the show won’t happen tomorrow. . .”
Prazeel has lately been at odds with Sieur Corvis, the First Puppeteer, as Moontree understands it.
“Alas, Mister Moontree, the show cannot be easily canceled.” The Baron’s voice, even at this low volume, draws something out of the dark wood around it. “Yet we must try.”
On the desk, the demon mewls and thrashes.
Moontree looks away―to grinning Pulnicella with pointed chin and dangling bells, to white-gowned Ofeelia, to boxy Orfoos with its digging tendrils, and the shadow-form of the DOGE King.
He is Mechanic, not Puppeteer, with lingering superstitions in these enlightened days. Especially towards this newest breed on Prazeel’s desk.
“Desperation brings improvisation, so goes the saying. We’ll have to improvise, I think.” Pinned, the puppet swipes with horned tail at Prazeel’s hand, or so it appears. It defies light but for the tinge of blood on its horns, in nostrils, on forked tongue.
The wagon jolts through a rut. Moontree grips the desk while the puppets, wide-eyed, seem to delight in a moment of weightlessness.
He crosses himself, muttering the Riddle of the Moon.
Again, the Baron glances up. “DiiNarael will find us a place to settle down for the night.”
In these mountains? Aloud: “Yes, Baron.”
“Send our Preacher in here. And tell Cor the plans have been changed by necessity―Oppidum instead of Caigen, arriving in three days, not tonight.” He draws out a small bronze cage.
“And thank you, for your continued good work.” Opening the cage door, Prazeel nudges the puppet inside. “I’m told your resourcefulness saved us two weeks during the recent engine breakdown.”
The Baron is not one for compliments. Surprised, and vaguely troubled, Moontree nods. “Merely thought to use pneumatics and bilobyte ingots, Baron, from an old Orfoos. Bypassed the problem easily.”
That had been in the middle of nowhere, south of the Albemuths, where the ground was actively volcanic; a route almost impossible to navigate without the Preacher’s eyes.
“Nonetheless, an artful resourcefulness. Perhaps we should develop your talent in a different direction.” The puppet crashes against the cage, as Prazeel leans close. “You have all the skills of a puppeteer. A promotion. Under the proscenium arch, in time for the winter season.”
Green and gold, the eyes, as the Baron smiles.
Moontree shakes his head. “I’ll leave that to you and Corvis, and Miss Joale, gladly.”
He nearly adds, Your shows are often frightening, even from a familiar distance. “I’ll send the Preacher in directly.”
Ignoring the Baron’s oblique regard, he backs out the door onto the porch under black tassels, past the hanging sandfink shell―a totem bearing a blood-red ideoglyph of Mars.
Moontree has seen forty-one Martian winters; six less than Prazeel, ten less than Sieur Corvis. His brown hair is sparse. A nose broken at an early age imparts a slight dignity, along with a firm jaw and curling close-cropped beard. Moontree, who often feels like a maniken puppet himself, pulled and prodded by the Owner’s designs as by its fields, is destined for the widening future, this eve. It waits in the apple-wine dusk of the Albemuth Turnkpike, for Hallowe’en to descend; it waits, too, for a little man to speak the truth of ancient tongues, and for a gift offered up and held in trembling hand to be declined, even as death wraps its black twine around an unlikely throat. The widening future, and the end of ancient days; these things Moontree might spy in the shadows of the road, were he to truly look.
But he, plied by duty, does not.
Holding onto the rail, he waits a moment, watching the passing white pebbles, then steps down to the left and walks alongside the coach, favoring his right leg due to pain in his left.
The air is brisk and revitalizing. He’s glad to be outside, with the announcement over and a decision reached. Though Sieur Corvis, he reflects, will be angry he went to Prazeel directly, and will make a show of his anger.
Ludicrous as it is, for so small a company―smaller still since this last month.
Staring down, he thumbs the end of stiff wire behind his left earlobe. Then presses the nub at his throat. “Decan? Wren?” He lets go.
“Wren. Aye.” In his ear.
“Mac? Got news?” Decan.
Decan drives the first coach, Wren the second. Both are Moontree’s charge.
He presses the nub. “Baron wants to break for camp. Soon as Preacher finds us a site.”
Decan: “No all night drive? Show’s canceled?”
“It is. Seems Caigen Enclave’s having themselves a little war with Dogekin Eighteen.”
They mull that over. Moontree has time to notice the lack of gorse and hayflower: they’ve ascended above the last of the vegetation.
The air smells moreso of apples.
“Want us to speed the coaches back up?”
“Keep it slow for now. Enjoy the scenery, eh?” Thumbing the wire a second time to break connection, he strides past the Pantomime Horses, which are jet-black and fancily-maned, with flaring nostrils and glittering eyes. They seem to chuckle as they roll up the highway, sharing the large black wheel between.
Sniffing their way along the trail, as Joale likes to say.
The road looks wet as it climbs. Above, where serrated peaks might be a false summit, clouds are ragged. Sunlight strikes the red rock, finding orange.
Breeze might carry those clouds away, Moontree muses. Might be an icy night on the mountain.
He yawns to clear his ears.
DiiNarael, if asked, could recite their exact elevation, and tell the likelihood of inclement weather or Storm particles.
He eyes the shadow stalking the second coach.
Even at this pace, it appears to move in a different gravity.
The Preacher looms two meters over Moontree’s good height. Its long arms and legs are strangely jointed, and built for worlds outside the Wilderness. Its skin, when in direct sunlight, reflects a lustrous blue, banded with ochre at the narrow neck, marked there with helioglyphs, tiny yellow characters in prayer to the suns.
At evening―or in overcast, as now―the Preacher becomes lustrous black.
As it moves, it faintly chimes.
The Preacher’s oblong head turns, though its stride does not falter. Wide gray eyes, flecks of cloudlight, stare down. The mouth is ridged on the mobile top lip, through which a silver voice says, “I witness you, Moontree.”
Its voice is a sad instrument.
The eyes, the slitted nostrils, dour mouth, all give a sense of indifference.
Might be looking down from the sky, Moontree tells himself. Looking down from those dead metallic eyes in orbit.
Soon to find us a good camp site.
He throws the rifle higher on his shoulder. “Got word from Prazeel. He’d like to see you in his office.”
The Preacher glances up.
In idle moments, DiiNarael could recite the names and numbers of those ancient satellites as they soar overhead, hundreds of them, relics of Old Mars.
It could see what the weather’s like on the other side of the planet; or whether a volcano has risen up where there wasn’t one before.
“Understood, Moontree,” it says. “I will visit Prazeel.” Pronunciation is distinct: Praht-Zeel.
But the Preacher is already loping to the side of the road. It waits for the Baron’s wagon to pass then darts over. The wagon sinks slightly; Pantomime Horses lifting their front hoofs from the gravel. Since DiiNarael cannot fit inside the wagon, it will fold itself on the porch, and speak with Prazeel through the open door.
Facing forward, Moontree remembers the task at hand―alerting Corvis in the first coach.
He decides to detour.
He jogs to the end of the second coach, climbs eight stairs to the deck. A slight tingle to the air is a repulsor field, as he opens the door and steps into the dim, rattling compartment―Moontree’s kingdom; entirely his own since Prazeel fired the stagehands back in Colm.
On a shelf beside the door, the shortwave hisses.
He palms a wall switch. Three lamps light the clutter.
Ahead, the narrow space stretches for twenty paces, with boards and scrims secured on either side, and light filtering through familiar scenery. Painted slats of black volcanoes, of serene yellow cloudscapes, of Pulnicella’s golden throne, of Perro’s blue flying ship, and the green trees of Myiepa hoarding their colors in the gloom. Halfway down, he steps behind the giant foamplast fingers of the Hesiarch’s hand to the weapons rack. Three rifles and machetes hang on hooks, with a lockbox below containing eighteen boxes of ammunition as well as a powerful weapon called a graal, given them by the Krater enclave, unnecessary ever since the Preacher joined their troupe.
Moontree lifts his rifle onto the rack.
The aisle ends at his worktable, where tools hang meticulously on pegs, a precious horde of wrenches, hammers, laser prongs, faintly chiming like a metal choir.
Aware of the ache in his right knee (from all the steps, he decides), he climbs to the stool. He quenches his thirst with a canteen from the cooler, pondering the empty night ahead. Any work can be postponed. Difficulties would arise only when they reach the Oppidum enclave, where set-up might be arduous without the stagehands, and with only Wren and Decan, and perhaps their amiable designer Cedentrus, to unpack lights and machineries.
He squints up at a map on the wall.
From Krater in the east to Brodkey-Thoris in the west, tiny silver dots are enclaves, one-hundred-ten scattered across the equatorial region, all of it threaded by hand-drawn lines forming the caravan’s trail, and the path of his eleven years with Prazeel.
As fair a job as can be found, he often reflects.
In his travels, he sees more than do most of the populace huddled behind fundament walls. He is part of a rare group whose commodity allows it to move peacefully among the enclaves. Their goods are history, myth, and tiny splendors to dazzle the crowd, with vivid presentations of Truth and Terror, as the Baron likes to call it.
From this vantage, Moontree is able to glimpse the celebrated or feared enclave leaders, discern the curious natures of their worships, of hierarchies both ancient and modern, and, most importantly, is able to leave after.
Is usually, in fact, happy to leave.
Often, he thinks that Prazeel and Company are somehow blessed―that they’ve been granted the duty of bringing essential wonder to the world, and therefore exist apart, loosed from gravity somewhat like DiiNarael, so that this caravan wasn’t really moving at all. Instead it was Mars that moved beneath the troupe, under the wheels of their coaches and the Baron’s wagon, under Pantomime Horses; the enclaves a processional carried to and away by the wounded landscape, each partaking however briefly in the Baron’s strange and tiny entertainments.
Under wheels and engines which Moontree himself maintains.
On the map, the Albemuths are stained purple, meaning a zone of ancient Storm activity. Such activity is one of the reasons for the shortwave’s static, out of which came the faint voice from Caigen clan not long ago, with news of the local war.
Squinting up, he finds Caigen and Dogekin Eighteen roughly sixty clicks north of their position, and ponders putting a black pin there―war. Then his thoughts digress. To drink.
It’s an empty night ahead.
Three bottles of shine remain. Madame Glolia might offer some precious nepenthe.
In the meantime, perhaps a different intoxication is required―a cup of strong caffe. A gift of beans from the Benthus enclave, honoring Joale’s performance in Alissia and the Golden Bough. She shares it with Moontree in trade for various mundane chores.
Some minutes later, in the rattling cabin, caffe is a lure. Even with the threat of Corvis and his anger.
Walking back between colorful scrims, he thinks of Oppidum and a particular woman, whom he’ll see sooner than expected, perhaps tomorrow, thanks to war in Caigen.
He switches off the shortwave. Shutting the door behind him, he feels slightly lighter of step.
Pantomime Horses tilt toward the sky, as they climb: DiiNarael is still with the Baron.
Carefully, he steps down onto passing gravel, to the left. He tests his knee, then hurries forward past the massive balloon wheels, under a faded panorama of Alissia on her horse, of Dayblown Phobos and the Hesiarch, of the three Witches of Cerberus Nine, and the legend: PRAZEEL’S FABULOUS UNCANNY MANIKIN SHOW.
Not many years distant (he often thinks) the turning world for him will halt, when he steps off. In Oppidum. Five years, maybe ten. He’ll step off, let gravity take hold, and watch both troupe and caravan roll away.
He waves to the high cab, where Wren sits at the controls.
Wren―white-haired, though he’s only twenty-five―points to his ear.
Moontree slows. He activates his headset. “Bored?”
“Mac, there really a war in Caigen?”
“That’s what the message said. Caigen attacking the local Dogekin.” He looks to the lumbering end of the first coach and the door that waits above wide and gleaming stairs.
“Not DOGE, Wrenny. Not that mouthful. Simple Dogekin.” Moontree wonders if the man knows the difference. The drivers tend to believe whatever Sieur Corvis says on the subject, that there’s a link between that ancient organization and the today’s sad, shabby enclaves.
“Wait ‘til I get into the first coach, then we’ll speed things up a bit. Hear me, Decan?”
Moontree jogs ahead.
He eyes the coach’s door and lamplight glowering behind stained glass. The partitions are drawn back. The troupe’s Artists―Madame Glolia, Miss Joale, Cedentrus―will witness his announcement, and possibly his reprimand.