Volume 4 Number 2
Moses, of the Tsmishian people of the Pacific Northwest, told Franz Boas many years ago about the Stone and the Elderberry Bush, but much of this tale is now lost. Moses said that a little before the Stone gave birth, the Elderberry Bush gave birth. For that reason, people die quickly. If the Stone had given birth first, this would not be so. His people were much troubled by this.
I will tell you something. In the beginning of the world, there were creatures uncounted by Livy, da Vinci, or Britannica. The world mutters memories of them, echoes: the Nephilim and the Titans, the Wildmen of Babylon, thunderbirds, green men, bogies, centaurs, dryads, piskies, werewolves, tricksters. Not much remains of them. They had their place, then diminished. The wars that ended the ages of talking others rent the fabric of space-time; their weapons slashed holes in the aether; their battles wore the anchor-strings of light threadbare. So the world faded and we seldom see, waking, the stuff of dreams.
Yet some places of power and -- shall we say? -- magic remain. Kept secret from angelic wrath and human tragedy, they linger just a glance away from life, somewhere within the multifoliate dimensions of substance and energy. Just a leaf away from here, where you sit and read.
There is a fir tree deep in the hills. Beside it grows an elderberry bush. Though many things have forgotten themselves, this bush has not. It is old, very old. It remembers the days of thunder and parch, when after the deluge the skies roiled with fright at their exposure to the sun's harsher rays, and the land groaned like an overloaded sponge and yet went unfed. It knew the primal pain of germination in blasted soil, of rootling down after a long and chancy wait within the flotsam of ages lost forever.
The elderberry bush remembers the grinding passage of water, the searing flow of dust as the earth spun its way through years and atmospheric changes. And it sighed deeply with relief when the land around it settled, and grew again, with sage and fir trees on its hillsides, and orchards in its valleys.
Time moves like a cruel smooth intertwining of a mesh, like the weaving of an unknown pattern, weft sunk deep into the flesh of being. Stars count the signs, burning lower than they once did.
But one star does not change. She sits forever low to the horizon, visible to only a few. To see it, one must breathe the elderberry blossoms. Some, having studied the mysteries of the human body and interchange of oxygen between the air and lungs' ripe and delicate alveoli, say that to smell a thing is to admit it into one's blood: and so forever it is built into the interstices of cells vibrating with growth.
A fir tree, an elderberry bush, a star. A place of refuge.
There was once a woman. It was said of her that, when she breathed, birds sang; when the sun rose, it looked for her hair first of all things. She was not entirely human. There must have been faery blood in her, a branchling from the Greater Fey.
Their blood, half eternal, was red and sweet as roses. The Fey were raped of it in the second fall of man -- like wine, it poured in libation to their fallen kings. Not all of them were entirely mortal, either.
But Albha, though fey in form and full of grace, did not possess the faeries' inclination to meddle in affairs beyond one's ken. She loved the earth and the stars, and walked the earth watching growing things grow and lights move in the heavens. She taught the younger lights to speak. The sunlight gloried in her hair, not gold and fire like Sol, but rather grey, grey as embers burnt to ash, and shining. That was her beauty.
There was a monster, who loved her.
That monster, that Titan, was Morgdi, and he was as clever as he was evil. In his youth, he climbed a Tree from earth to the heights of the universe and wrestled the gods of air for wings. He did not win, but returned with something stronger than the flight of dawn: a hatred for all things airy and graceful.
He, though not human, joined in their plots of overweening malice, and built things with them that ran on power more blinding than the detonation of subatomic particles. For many hundred years, he fought and built, crafting and inventing all manner of attempts to reach as high as heaven without following the long journey of Tree's branches.
Above all else, he wanted Albha. He deconstructed in his labs the things she loved -- vials of brightness collected from the heavenly lights, cuttings from the earthly growing things -- to find her secrets. Always, he failed. Dragonfly wings pulled apart and pinned lost their lustre; leaves peeled lost their voice; starlight placed in a centrifuge and separated became volatile and caustic. Morgdi grew to be a mass of scars from his experiments. Strange radiations and fumes filled his mind with bitterness.
Ever, Albha paid him little heed. She called the stars to sing more loudly, to drown the noise of Morgdi's work. He watched her little in the first hundred years of his research. But, as his plans and machinations fell always to naught, he began to look round him in envy. Trees, that lift their branches with such natural effort, intertwining air with their twig-tendril lungs. Birds, whether flighting wide or flittering low. And Albha, who, by her music, drew the light of stars down upon her face.
He set his mind to a new craft. He began to weave a tower, tall and fair, and in his cynicism, made it of gold and precious alloys, stones and crystal, ivory and glass, believing that preciousness is power (for then, even more than now, great jewels and costly substances were a signal of might). In it, he built fair courts, full of mosaics of the flowers of the world, some in themes of red or mauve or golds and oranges or fuchsias and blues. He caused fountains to flow, spewing silver mercury or liquid ruby; he made great likenesses of the children of spirits and mankind, resplendent in their voluptuous and many-limbed perfection. In overlapping flanks encasing the tower, he placed spiraling ribbons of ivory, made from the horns of unicorns hunted down by his armoured sibyls. And this tongued and pronged façade reached ever upwards. Ever higher.
For seven generations, Morgdi slaved over his tower, building it deep within his sharp mountain land where few creatures ventured, though traffic between it and the world increased, as he ever sought new devices, arts, and pleasures for the tower. Mankind worked hard to offer these, and the evils of the world worsened, so that, at Morgdi's behest, cruelties and pursuits made in the name of newness and splendour blossomed like suppurous red cancers in the earth.
In the end, the tower was built and shone lofty and bright, brighter than the noonday sun on snow. Morgdi looked upon it and saw that it was fair. Fair, but empty. For the true spirit of the tower, Albha herself, had never set eyes upon it. It was Morgdi's heart's desire to place Albha in the tower forever, to bottle her essence within its crystal mirrors, and with her beauty create a beam of light to heaven so marvelous that all the stars would fall upon their knees before him, a new maker.
And so he sent his servants and thralls into the hills, forests, fields, draws, rivers, marches, cliffs, and mountains to seek out Albha, whom he had let fall from his sight, busy with his tower. He sent a few of his crueler and braver minions to the coastal marketplaces and ports, and the dark places dry and electric with man's latest machines. But Albha seemed nowhere in his reach.
A cloud of obscurity was around Albha, placed by the deft hand of one stone witch -- one of the old creatures, to be sure, very wise and strong, but no older than Morgdi. This was her first gift. She had seen, in her quartz and malachite mirrors, his strange tower, a burning glimmer on the horizon, and had run to Albha to give warning more than five years before the tower was completed.
The stone witch found Albha deep in the estuaries of Aethiopia, singing to certain pink marsh mallows as she wove them deep into the soil, where they settled, well-watered and content. It froze the witch's heart to see her unconscious of any threat of evil. But the stone witch was wrong, for Albha did know evil, like a stain of mold across a leaf, a jarring in the turning spheres of heaven, the weight of Morgdi's thoughts on her back. And she was fighting it, in her own way. Perhaps she had seen the outline of her fate long before.
As the stone witch watched her with eyes like granite -- hard and grey, yet with a twinkle -- another figure came into her focus the way the wind slowly sighs its way into one's hearing. It was a warrior, tall and dark and stern, a Spartan god if ever there was one. Vir. He met the witch's eyes with fierce concentration. She looked at him and saw fire. But it was bad manners to scry another's future unsolicited, and she held her tongue, something she was far too good at. The witch thought to herself that she had seen his look before on the faces of those who die for causes.
He was a spirit of a fir tree nearly cloven in two, many years ago. Albha found him seared by lightning, stretched naked beneath his tree. She felt something new as she looked at his face, a still portrait of agony. Kneeling, she spat on her fingers, took a fingerful of sap-blood from the rent fir, mixed the two, and smeared the stuff, fragrant with pitch and something else, onto his lips, eyelids, thumbs, and toes. She sang of rising, stars mounting in the sky, birds taking flight, clouds racing. When he opened his eyes, he saw love. He began to accompany her across the lands, a dark guard, and his rough, branchy-corded voice harmonized with her music.
The stone witch told them only of Morgdi's plans, of his tower like a burning brand, a feverously rich and coiled trap. She begged them to hide, for Albha to flee, and Vir to stand guard forever with the fell sword she had brought on her back, made of sharpest obsidian, best for striking once and hard.
He unsheathed the proffered sword, impressed, for it was the stone witch's finest work, wrought with fire, patience, and all her art. It was honest, piercing the eye just by looking, able to flay bone from its marrow. Every atom was perfectly aligned. The stone witch loved it, and, for that reason, asked Albha and Vir to take it and use it. There was a garden in the farthest east. Go there, she advised, and enter between two flaming angels and a dragon with three heads. There they would find rest and safety, for no evil was permitted to enter that place until the end of all ages. Her sword would keep them safe on the way, the ancient angels' sword would shut very hell out behind them.
But Albha would not run. In her heart, the stone witch was glad, for, while she could make rocks echo to the centre of the earth, and lava grow many-hued crystals, neither she nor any other could bring the world to the pitch of being as Albha could. Vir took the sword, the stone witch's second gift, and wrapped it in his cloak, and the stone witch went back to her cliff-side halls with promises to perceive Morgdi's every move. She had reason to worry: she was expecting a child, and so was Albha.
When Morgdi at last went forth himself in search of Albha, he could not find her because she was within his own lands, under his very nose. She and Vir made their way to his mountains, following the path of what needed remaking most, reminding grass and flowers, trees, animals, and stars overhead of the joy without which the universe would fail.
They stopped in a dry, deep valley only a few leagues from Morgdi's bright tower because Albha was near full term. Vir hid her in a little cave beside which a trickle of untainted water flowed. He stood close by, obsidian sword ready. The days were slow while Albha waited. Around her, red anemones sprouted, pear-cacti grew higher, and ice plant, thick and tendriled, overhung the cave and, underfoot, softened her slow way from morning sun to afternoon shade.
By these signs of life, Morgdi found them. How could desert lilies blow, and unfearing little mule deer suddenly appear in his cruel region, without Albha's help? At last, in the heat of an afternoon summer sun, he and his creatures fell upon them. Though Vir killed many gruesome warrior-slaves, the obsidian sword broke at last against Morgdi's misshapen hand. One fir tree warrior, in love, cannot give more death than a demon Titan; at last Albha and Vir were bound and dragged into the cool darkness of the underground labyrinths of the Tower.
Albha awoke alone. She had been lifted up by Morgdi's servants from the lowest reaches of the tower to the highest. She held her belly and realized her labour. She pulled herself off a pallet of furs and skins, over a cold marble floor to the only window in the room. Looking down, she saw clouds like sheep wander across the indistinct ground, and heard the turkey vulture's cry echo up the orifices of Morgdi's tower to her ears. She could half hear, half feel, a subtle grinding beneath her feet and in the walls, as if great cogs and cranks all gloated like a cloud of locusts at her arrival. Food, they whispered. We're hungry. Let us drink you. The air smelled of wax and perfume, oil and ambergris.
"Hungry?" asked the Titan. Albha turned and gazed into the face of something once flesh, now hardened into scabs of armor, like a hundred different carapaces layered one over the other, a beggar's cloak. She swallowed, said nothing. She looked up at the ceiling, embedded with a sharp and gleaming mosaic in monochromatic reds.
Morgdi picked her up and, though she burned him like a brand, walked his tower up and down with her in his arms, talking all the while about his masterpiece, his creation, gloating in the set look on Albha's face as she endured the slow initial contractions of childbirth. His breath stank of smoke and sinew, his voice cracked with envy even as he held her in his arms, for he saw she hated his work, yet did not fear him. Children's teeth and carved mammoth-tusk symbols of power and protection, fey blood baptizing every wall and stair, glistening carbuncles of citrine, pearl, sapphire, and diamond seemed very shabby as he walked her by.
His wrath grew as he climbed again the stairs to her chamber, the star in the crown of his tower, the ground shaking under him. She would not love or fear him. He could not hold her. Did something else contain her? Something beyond his comprehension? Very well. He would do as he was most fit. He would open her up and find the vessel of her light, her heavenly reach, her source.
He laid her upon a table, an altar of plain stone in the centre of the room. His knife ascended, fell. Darkness gathered overhead, and, through it, the red mosaic seemed to dance, a jangled mockery of plasma. Albha looked upwards and felt the baby scream inside, voicing her fear. She looked up, and up, and saw in her mind's eye the stars overhead, frozen in their dance, waiting for her.
She called them. She cried out in a loud voice, so loud and full of anguish that Morgdi's eardrums were pierced, and he could not hear. The night sky appeared through hairline fractures in the ceiling above. The cracks grew, and the tower shrieked within its compromised ribs. Stars' light bled down onto Morgdi, spreading like ink over him, destroying him. The tower shivered, began to crumble.
But there had been poison on Morgdi's knife, spreading from Albha's wound. It passed through her heart and out, into her arteries, into her body. Yet starlight continued to descend, bathing her, rippling candescence around her body. As she underwent a final contraction, dark hands received her child. It was Vir, released from Morgdi's power, aflame and crackling from torture. The child took in breath and cried her first as Albha cried out her last. Her ashen hair circled round her, limning the dark air. The stone witch in her halls of mirrors cried as well, shrieking with the horror of Albha's dying. The world wanted to end.
Then something new began. The tower, drenched with Albha's wound and birth blood, fell to ruins. It rotted like compost, reached itself back into the land, and was silent. Morgdi, the Titan of his age, fell to dust, and with him, that evil age.
Clouds gathered in all the skies. Thunder shook.
The stone witch had only a moment to stand, tall and great one last time, and thunder out an incantation like no other, before she and her unborn child were snuffed into something else.
Her words of power, her third and last gift, whistled like arrows over the land until they found their mark. One each, three in total. At one word, Albha's child was a nimbus of light, and white-red, then blue, flashed once, twice, and was gone, high, higher than the tower, into the sky with other stars, low on the horizon. Another word waited to become a lone fir upon sere hills of clay and granite. One more waited for the elderberry bush to be deep and fragrant with flowers and fruit for the healing of illness.
It began to rain.
Today, above and eastward of an elderberry bush and a fir, a red and blue star shines faint across the hills. Some say that, from the right angle, there may be seen a path of radiance between them, pollen-motes lit in a shaft of starlight.
Men now live short lives. They, like Morgdi, build and fall, but keep building, keep falling. They seek a power similar to his: they climb the heights of heaven, strip the skin from earth and atom, plumb the world's roots. Who can tell when it will end? Not I -- such things are closed to such as me. Though longing to look into them, I am a rock now, a mountain. My children came later, after the reshaping of the world. I helped with that, I and my children. But we cannot lengthen the lives of men, strong and old as we are. That is, I see now, a good thing. The elderberry bush, healing and sweet, is a better guide for those who seek peace.
And there are a few. Always a few, who look out past their cities, upwards and outwards. They will not find the strangeness of days gone by -- not right away. But if they look. If they would only look. For those who have ears, listen to me, and find the meaning in these old things.
|Author Bio: Jasmine Johnston lives in China with her husband and several heavy books. She maintains a speculative weblog that is the only site to yield both "ratus ratus" and "seed pearl" on Google. It includes phonetic transcriptions of Mandarin ("pu-toong-hwa") as well as lively anecdotes involving smog and/or wonton soup ("hoon-doon").|