You are seated across from a man of questionable age and blocky musculature. You have entered his home without notice or permission. You knew not why, but that the streets are dark and full of silence. Still, you could see just well enough to make it through the mist which billowed forth, rendering as you strayed into this unknown quarter of town. It is unclear whether this fog be a permanent fixture of the streets, these streets a permanent fixture of the city, or perhaps they traveled together on the howling northern draft. Perhaps they will drift on elsewhere tomorrow.
Perhaps all will evaporate in the morning light.
As for this man, he cares to know none of this. His eyes are calm, narrow, possibly closed in the subtle light emanating from the walls, or above—that is, with no apprehensible source. Below these hidden eyes, a flat, wide nose, prominent eyebrows and prominent mustaches—a solid knot of gray, but for wandering points where his jowls are indented. The blue folds of his cassock and wide, pillowy hat drive home a peculiar quality of drooping, and yet possessing their space without an ounce of flexibility, as though he emerged from a painting. Like this room, he is sharp-featured, spare and historical, bearing dents and dirt with the same immortal dignity as their surfaces.
He speaks cartoonishly, in bold white text, from a granite-shaded rectangle dominating half your field of vision. It appears out of bare space.
“I suppose you'll be wanting to hear about my life.”
Foregoing custom, you are offered no choice. He begins straight away, as soon as the question is understood.
“With corrupt death twisted in the hands of Fate, my father unavenged, in an unmarked grave, the kingdom in shards, and the homeland thrust toward reckless injustice by the black beating heart of my still-breathing rival, as exiled, presumed dead, I have visited the caverns of Valai, and left them unlooted, comforted the mother of the lost child's ghost, a neutral friend to the warring nations at Reu Çé, the death of numerous wild, violent beasts—even, in short, as my life's work lies around 26%, near wholly untouched, unaccomplished, altogether unfinished—life itself tires me, of late.”
In a pause, he rises, pacing slowly to the dim wall of bookshelves. Hunched with his back to you, before a low, perfectly round table, the small pop of a match sounds, a cloud of light, then he straightens, a silhouette studying the volumes' spines.
“Perhaps right away I have lost you. I mean so not in the sense of the young man, jaded, worrying in the endless search of new and sensual entertainment, nor of enlightenment dissipating the search.”
You would like to gasp, “How have you found one of those?” for as he moves aside, a candle is revealed that dances as a neon sign, in four repeating, static positions of red, orange, yellow, and white (for though no collector of perennial junk, you've discerning taste enough to recognize a great rarity when you see one), but he cuts you off, already lighting another at an identical table further down the line of shelves.
“I mean I have seen everything that exists. I mean I am old and I have no regrets, but I have long since tired of this waking dream. Even now, approaching level 73—” He turns then, finally catching your surprise with a soundless laugh. “Oh yes. Please. Come and have a look.”
It is quite amazing—a thing that appears in full detail, opaque at any distance, only to enlarge with proximity. Thus is this candle. Light falling up the books confirms your suspicion: they are marked not in letter, but only in a meaningless network of scrawls. Yet, in the attempt to understand, a new rectangle opens, listing the titles casually in the same white, bold, intelligible text.
The Iron Soul. Divided Lands. Anthology of Swordsmanship. A Definitive History of Secrets.
Would you like to continue reading?
“Yes,” he says, interrupting your scrutiny with words of his own. You notice for the first time a certain tic of nodding his head always precedes speech. You recall hearing of such archaic manners, intended to notify others who is speaking. “In spite of this world's acceleration, the evolving complexity of its problems, and so forth and so on, I cannot help noticing that its composition has remained generally the same—idle threats, redundant awards, doled by a universe amoral and senseless.”
In the space between words, in the dimness, the sound of rain washes down, roaring and trickling—perhaps this is the illusion of unified sound heard time and again, and outdoors, the individual play of droplets an illusion—a pattern on the surface of the flagstones, in the air itself, endlessly animated. Perhaps, and yet, in the cloud of rain, in the thickness of nostalgia, beyond all certainty, you sense this place is charmed by infinity. For every repetition is new—each drop unique among innumerable cousins, sliding down gutters, widening to streams by the walk—even as all plays within the boundaries of resemblance.
“I mean, in this forgone plane, in time outside time and space beside space, always my heart has—” he breaks off, again miming laughter, “No. None of that. But now I am tired.” He collapses, or rather, instantly conforms to an armchair nearby, one arm supporting his head in a cupped hand, utterly still. Perhaps he would fall asleep; but he raises his other hand in the air, imploringly. “I mean, the crying rage of youth has died out of me! And what do you expect? What does it matter now, to you?”
A roll of thunder sounds, a swell in the storm. You are obliged now, regardless of interest or fatigue. You settle yourself, angled in an identical chair. Quickly you realize its comfort lies in submission. Despite sharp edges, a lack of depth, it requires no shifting of weight or clothing. With a bit of will, the process is complete. You are one, quiet and quite at peace.
Your companion raises his arm again. With this shift, his features change noticeably, refined in sharpness and shading, refashioned as with the absurd care of a kingly mosaic. He retains this posture as long as he speaks, as if proffering the gift of conversation.
“We have heard of the fools’ cheats, all of us, and the fools who believe in them. Oh, I believe in them—that is, there can be no doubt of their existence. One need look no further than Clod...” His gaze wanders in a vague space somewhere behind your head or at the rug between his feet. Perhaps it is different now. Let us bear witness of time—that time-honored truism: history is defaced by reality. In these times, you might be expected to swindle and trick your way, to unplug the machine in order to turn its gears, receding into the background, overtaking the foreground. Perhaps there is no end, or better yet, a proper end, an ending whether you die or not. Perhaps there is no danger anymore...” Once more, he pauses, as if exhausted or waiting for an answer. His arm jerks, lowering only to rise with renewed vigor. “I profess no expertise of the law and trends in your part of the world. In ours there was one world, one land, one time and one life—that is, one play on the wheels of chance, and cause to caution, or else... But that may be an excuse.”
These words hold for a long time before your eyes, then he interrupts himself, addressing a question you have not asked.
“Clod? Oh yes! A friend of mine. A great one. He enabled 'Maximum Gore' for a laugh. As a joke, you see. Certain enough, in battle he was a sight! Lopping off arms and heads to glorious, gushing fountains. Even on the receiving end, you couldn't help joining in the mirth. And in the pub, slitting his short finger with a feather, filling an eight-gallon jug in seconds (and not a trace of pallor), soaking through seventy or eighty towels before the flow was stemmed. That, you see, was the problem.
“After two weeks, sealed in a crimson crust, fresh red running in beads from his scalp, dried guts of enemies hanging off, a horrendous odor rising as he traversed the field and streets in the midday sun, the joke lost much of its appeal then. Imploring the Menu for 'NONE,' feeling himself finished with gore altogether, dear Clod only found, as is—was—often the case, that settings wield no power anymore.
“He went on, of course, world saturated in a comic violence that grew more frustrating, the better it was understood. No merchant wanted his shop dowsed in the vital juices, to say nothing of the restaurants, inns. Even the public houses turned him out, and all around people tired of the flies, the smell, and cleaning up after him. Yes, the smell! Surprisingly enough, we all had a very acute sense of smell...
“Anyway, as is the way with people, many treated him cruelly out of fear—believe, for example, that he was contagious, or that they might bruise at the sight of him. At such times, you learn who your friends are. Of those he knew, only I would speak to him—he and his band of lepers—willing compatriots ruined by similar mistakes, stranded with enormous heads, moving at twice or half the regular rate of motion, inverted in their color schemes, one or two able to do naught but levitate six inches from the ground, flailing their arms, even over water (this, of course, was an ailment, not a cheat, but similarly self-inflicted, contracted by leaping from a certain tower at the right time of day, in the right part of life, landing directly on the head of a certain weapons dealer). Even among these, few would accompany him on his objectives, sallies, or practice.
“Solitary he was, in the old sense—I know you mean to say, what is so fearful in that? It is the way of the hero, paladin or mercenary. He was solitary in a deeper, more complete sense—revolting to be seen and revolted against, for his own work, wrought by his own hands.
“That is all to say, I understand completely the irritation brought on by a bad joke over-repeated. The same of schoolchildren, copying answers to counterfeit knowledge. If the sake is fame or honor, it is a sham, but if the perfect score alone, that one time, earns some reward—say, ice cream or eternal love—then it deserves one backward glance.” Another peal of thunder rumbles by—different than the first? It is gone before you can take note. In the window the street remains empty, gray, still with the chaos of droplets across it. The streetlamp burns on, motionless, casting no shadows here within.
“Breaking the rules has never enjoyed a handsome reputation. The great moralists—royalty, preachers, and aging sportsmen—all have been poorly disposed to us outlaws. That is the way with idealists,” he fixes his gaze at last to your own, one hand posed unflinching in the darkness. “The fact at bottom is I've survived this long, longer than they, seen the essential wonders (and a great many besides), learned better truths of love and loss—in all, that we are the only ones left, here in this slab of existence, because we started cheating a long time ago. Will you hear my account on this matter?”
Now, you are offered a choice. Your choices are “Yes.” and “I do not understand.” Choosing the latter, unnerved by his use of the term “we,” you find he only shakes his head, saying, “Come now. I am an old man with only this to tell, and few to listen. Surely you can benefit from the wisdom of your elders.” He reiterates the question, with the choice once more, only to repeat himself, you understand.
Illustrations provided by Alex Di Stasi of Corpseruncomics.com