A Darksome House of Mortal Clay

By: Matthew Brady

“‘Burn sacrifices once a year to magic
Horror away from the house, this little house here
You have built over the ocean with your own hands
Beside the standing boulders: for what are we,
The beast that walks upright, with speaking lips
And little hair, to think we should always be fed,
Sheltered, intact, and self-controlled? We sooner more liable
Than the other animals. Pain and terror, the insanities of desire; not
accidentals but essential,
And crowd up from the core’…”

– from “Apology for Bad Dreams” by Robinson Jeffers

 

I

           Out of the darkling air the seahawks would resolve from the bronze cast of every newly burnished morn, only to dissolve once more into the shroud of the following night as though, all along, the darkness itself had put them there. Monochrome calligraphers of cloud and mist that would hunt along the black, spray-beaten crags of granite, diving to spear the fish between the rocks before braking with the keel of their breasts against the mane of sea foam to disperse in a whistling parabola. With hard golden eyes that yielded neither fear nor malice, they would survey the gray and ochre lands of mountain and plain. Mute sentries of ancient weathers that beheld with accipitral patience from their perches the trafficking of man below. Those children of the ape who often stalked in packs the old trails that scarred the earth.

           Astride the long-fetlocked plow horse they came now, clopping through a wood of winedark cypress. A company of broad-backed men in procession behind and ahead of the lone rider on his mount. Each of them slung with sword and bow, each of their faces concealed behind a mask of black clay like thespians of an otherworldly chorus. Tradition and breathless days of the trek through meadow and stream, valley and shore, had sworn them all to silence. By day they marched and hunted wild game, and by night they camped in blushing rings of torchlight. Come dawn, the rider would ready the horse, fastening the girth and swinging up into the saddle, and the men would hoist the boy up onto the seat along with him. The boy whose head was covered in a burlap sack and whose wrists were chafed red from the coarse knotting of rope. In earlier years they would bind the ankles as well, but tradition had quickly taught the men that the children never ran.

           Past the wood of cypress, they found themselves on unforgiving footing of scree and stone. Jagged cliffs soared around them as far as the eye’s reach, standing against the raging sea wind like salt-scoured lances of war. The crashing of the waves miles below them resounded through the ravine in which they found themselves. The men shook their heads and the rider heeled the horse’s flanks in a signal to quicken their pace. The boy mumbled something from inside his hood, but the words could not weave through it, and the rider only tightened his grip on the reins.

           At the end of the ravine, the steep walls of stone parted, and all that was left to cross was a bridge spanning from the cliffs all the way to their intended destination: a solitary temple of granite that seemed to have been hewn into the mountain itself by an immemorial hand. Here the wind howled over a gulf of mist that caught flecks of the sunlight like shining scales, laced with rainbows, and the men shivered but proceeded across the bridge. The boy heard the saddle he was seated upon creaking in the morning cold, felt the cool caress of mist on his aching wrists and sore shoulders, and heard the heavy breathing of the masked rider inches behind his head.

           Eventually the clop of hooves came to a halt, and the horse whinnied and snorted. The boy vaguely heard, or sensed, the anxious movement of men around him, and then rough hands had once again seized him before placing him gently on the hard ground.

           Someone took his wrists, and he heard the whisper of a knife’s edge sawing through rope.

           The knots of rope fell soundlessly at his feet, and he rubbed his wrists tenderly. The sack was then removed from his head, and he stood blinking in the blinding glare of a new morning. The masked men were all watching him until there came a sound that the boy recognized as the first word he had heard in days. The rider had spoken and was now dismounting the horse, handing the reins to the man standing nearest him.

           “I will take him.”

           “Chieftain, are you sure?”

           “I have done this enough.”

           So saying, the rider approached and laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder, turning him around to face the boulder of a door that towered before them all.

           “Open it,” he ordered them, and it took each man grabbing the iron handle and straining with every measure of strength to make the door move. Slowly, laboriously, it finally opened wide enough to allow them passage, and the men bent, panting, with hands on their knees. The rider prodded the boy forward into the awaiting darkness, but not before the boy looked over his shoulder one last time; gauging the distance of the bridge, the sharp edge of the men’s swords and arrows. Noticing the sky dances of the hawks and gulls. He swallowed heavily, the sour sting of bile in his throat, and returned his gaze ahead of him to face the oncoming dark and the last slash of sunlight on the floor from outside.

           Someone passed the rider a torch, which he lit. There was a mephitic reek of pitch, and horned shadows were soon flickering on the walls. He guided the boy down a cavernous hall, where the plunking melody of dripping water seemed magnified. Many times the boy almost slipped on the uneven floor, but the quick arm of the man was there to steady him. At the end of the hall they reached a large wooden lift that dangled over a black precipice. The boy stepped onto it, heart threatening to burst out of his chest, while the man busied himself with the system of ropes. He handed the boy the torch to carry and soon they were descending, the man grunting with exertion as he fed the rope through the pulleys with their weight. The boy clutched the torch and the railing with trembling hands.

           When they reached the bottom the man stood in silence for a moment, catching his breath. He then took the torch from the boy and told him to turn around and not to look at him. There was a rustle of motion and the boy knew the man had removed his mask.

           “Do not be angry with us," he spoke to the boy’s back. The boy heard this man’s words crackling in his head like the flames of the torch. “It must be this way. Every village of this land lives by this law. Sacrifices must be made. There can be no life without death. Go now. Seek whatever comfort you can.”

           Then he told the boy to open his hand, and pressed something cool and heavy into it. The boy looked down to see his own eyes staring back at him from the glinting steel of a dagger: twin edged and tapered to a deadly point. A sleek drinker of blood, tempered by life for the purpose of devouring it.

           The man placed his mask back upon his face and stepped back onto the lift. The boy stood agape and watched as the man ascended away from this place, robbing him of the last of that precious light until he stood in total blackness. With a mounting constriction in his chest, he slid the dagger into his pocket, turned around and placed his arms at length in front of him, feeling for anything he could touch. He felt the moist stone walls and ran his palms over them for minutes until they brushed against something different. It felt like iron, and after a few seconds’ probing he realized it was a handle. He pulled at it with all the strength he could summon to his small arms, and beheld with astonishment as a door grinded open before him. A layer of light, thin and soft as a feather, flowed into the room: just enough to keep the darkness from being absolute.

           He stumbled through the threshold like a drunk and found himself in a narrow corridor. The floor here was paved with flagstones, and it was just as he was noticing this that he fell upon it. His leg had struck something solid, something that gave a startled cry, and this made him cry out as well. A slender arm flailed out to strike him, and only through a wild flailing of his own was he able to catch it in his grip. It was terror that kept him fastened to it above anything else, and it wasn’t until a high voice spoke out to him that he released it.

           “Who are you?” the voice asked. It was a sweet voice, but taut with worry. A voice of bitter honey. “What do you want?”

           The boy swallowed before replying. “I was brought here. By my village. As a sacrifice.”

           There was a silenced lapse in the darkness. But finally the voice spoke.

           “Me too… A sacrifice.”

           “They’ve always done it. But I just never thought it would be me.”

           “Nor I.”

           “Where are we?”

           “No one brought here knows where this is. Only that there is no leaving it.”

           “Are there others here with us?”

           A pause. “Yes. But I try to stay away from them.”

           The boy climbed to his feet and extended an arm as though in invitation. “If there are others here, maybe they can help us find a way out. They must know something, right? Come with me. Let us go together… Please.”

           He stood in the echo of his solicitation there in the stony depths, hoping dearly that this vague form sitting in front of him would accept. After what must have been minutes, the shape rose from its spot and took his hand in its. The palm softly enclosing around his brought him to mind of a flower’s petals, and when the soft voice whispered its yes beside him he knew it was a girl holding his hand.

           “I’ll show you the way," she said, leading him through the gloom.  She was taller than him and so he had to step quickly to match her stride. “Soon there will be more light.”

 

I I

 

           Past another door, up a flight of crumbling steps, and the two of them emerged into the dwarfing vastness of the temple. They stood blinking like newborns on the paved floor as brilliant sun rays ignited the earthen works around them. A circular place, with a stone slab of an altar at its center, where pillars stood shouldering the vaulted roof. Rows of idols stood on plinths against the ensconced walls. There were no doors save for the one they had just walked through, but there were plenty of mullioned windows for light to stream through.

           The boy pointed at them. “Could we not leave through the windows and climb down to the bridge below?”

           But the girl shook her head. “There is no rope here, and the wall outside is sheer and wet. No one could survive the fall.”

           It was as she said this that the boy noticed them for the first time. Men and women huddled in corners and against walls in filthy raiment like anchorites. They regarded the girl and boy with no particular expression. Perhaps a languid apathy. One of them, an old man bearded with age, limped over to them with shaking steps and looked them up and down. He smiled brokenly with blackened gums and stubs of teeth.

           “They get younger every time,” he said in a voice roughened to an off whisper. “What village are ye from, boy?”

           He told him.

           “Ah, the people who follow the great Shepherd of Tides!” the old man said. “Bless ye, boy, I am of the same flock! Come and sit by us, your people, in these final hours. We are gathered by the Shepherd’s idol.”

           But the boy squeezed the girl’s hand. Under this old man’s gaze, he did not wish to let it go. Instead, he asked, “Is there no way to leave this place?”

           “None at all, boy. We were brought here to die, and die we shall. Which village do ye hail from, girl?”

           She told him.

           The old man frowned. “A follower of the Thunderer? The avenger enthroned in the winds who smites the infidels with a spear of lightning? Ye are of a different ilk than I then, girl. But it’s all the same to me. The Shepherd of Tides knows only love and forgiveness.”

           So saying, he turned and tottered away to rejoin his group. The boy and girl stood together, still hand in hand without even realizing it, before deciding to rest themselves against an unoccupied pillar. They sat side by side, each glancing at the other when they thought the other wasn’t looking, until a man and a woman, quite clearly wife and husband from the way they moved together, strode over to meet them.

           “Will you two help us carry the empty vessels over to the windows?” the man asked gently.

           “We’ve been catching rainwater with them for the last few days since we’ve been here,” the woman explained. “It’s not much, but we won’t last long without it.”

           The girl and the boy agreed, and if only for a moment, their suppressed despair was forgotten as they busied themselves with the work. The vessels were heavy and ceramic, and soon the empty ones were lined under the windows; the ones filled with rainwater were taken to the center of the temple. As they were finishing, a pair of muscled young men shouted at them all, eyes flashing with the cruel gleam of certainty.

           “Why do you fools busy yourselves with prolonging the inevitable? Don’t you know that our glorious Firebringer already provides for us? He will come on a flaming chariot to deliver his chosen elect through his transcendence!”

           The couple ignored the shouts, but the girl and the boy watched these young men of passion with unease as they prowled over to their idol.

 

I I I

 

           The day bled away like an open wound until the night threw the temple into a darkness that would have been consummate were it not for the torches flaring in their sconces. The doomed people who had not quite accepted the notion of doom just yet formed a line behind the vessels of water, like beggars in an almshouse, each laving an apportioned handful into the cups of their hands and sipping reverently before disbanding back to their groups. The boy and the girl sat together by the couple they had helped earlier that day. The nacre disc of the moon was lit in the black heavens like a candled conch, and under its veil they spoke among themselves while the couple slept.

           “Do you really follow the Thunderer?” the boy asked.

           The girl looked at him. “Does it matter now?”

           “No. No I guess not.”

           “Are you a follower of the Shepherd?”

           “My village was. I used to be too, I guess. But lately I’ve been going back and forth so much that… Like you said, it doesn’t really matter now.”

           “The women and men of my village were great hunters,” she said, slowly, as though her words were stones she was picking from a streambed. “They, more than anyone, knew that nothing can live without being at cost to another. Life moves as a whole to sustain itself, yes. But its parts, they are gluttonous for each other. Life hungers for other life.”

           “What are you telling me?”

           She stared at him, eyes bright with the moon they’d taken captive. “You asked me if I was a follower. But followers believe in purpose. Some higher order. But I already know what the beasts know before they are slain: that the only order in this world is that which is left over in bones between the hungers.”

           She moved closer to him, and with an almost timid deliberation laid her head against his shoulder. “Will you stay here with me? At least for tonight?”

           He breathed in the scent of her hair, feeling the warmth of her cheek on his skin. Her breath on the ridge of his collarbone.

           “Yes.” he said. And thought, Please…

 

I V

 

           Rainless days to follow thereafter. A muted panic to thicken in the mould of each drained vessel. It happened in only a matter of days. Days. The ages of civilization and the civilized heart the ape child struts and prides in: it all bursts to a trickle with the last handful of water. The laurelled works, the highest towers, all of them built on breaking foundations. They reach the heights of thundering cataracts and plunge just as mercilessly. The fountain of the heart parches with the body and pools in the dregs.

           The lines no longer formed quietly behind the vessels. The people shifted and growled under their breaths. Looked on with glares as the ones ahead of them had to tip the vessel with its lip almost flush with the floor to pour out just a puddle. The boy and the girl’s mouths began to feel like sand, their tongues bloating with thirst. When their turn came in line, the girl helped the boy with his portion. It was the last few drops of another vessel, with only one remaining now, and when he saw her licking her dry lips he stood up and offered his cupped hands to her.

           “Here,” he said. “You drink first.”

           But the man behind them was pacing back and forth like a penned beast, and when he realized another vessel had been spent by these children in front of him, an angry grunt escaped his throat and he shoved past the boy to drag the last vessel to the center of the temple. The man’s frame and weight jostled the boy’s balance, and the water he had cupped in his hands, more precious than sapphire, spilled onto the floor. The splash echoed from the hard stones like a slap across the face, and the people’s glares became grinding teeth.

           “A waste!” a woman shrieked at him, pointing. “You defile the bounty, the few remaining gifts, of the divine Earthmaker with your waste! His way is just, the one who breathed life into the clay! He sets all bent paths straight, and he will duly punish those who misuse his creation!”

           And then:

           “He will not punish me, wretch!” a young man shouted, standing up from his resting place near his idol. “There is no one to bow to but the Firebringer! All else is but smoke and vanity! His flames will cleanse the worthy and purge this world of the nonbelievers!”

           “You are the fool if you believe that!” cried another, and now no person was sitting. Each was standing among a different group, by a different idol, staring with silent wrath as one among each of their numbers spoke. “The Thunderer of the sky will buffet the heathens and dash their brains against the stones! And we will be smiling beside him at his throne while he thunders his clarion upon the wicked!”

           “And the false messengers will lie with seething tongues!” cried the old man whom the boy and girl had spoken with the first day. “Their lies begin as sparks, harmless in themselves, but then from which whole villages may burn! But the Shepherd of Tides will drown the blasphemers with his righteous swells! The faithful will be quenched!”

           The boy and the girl had stepped away from the gathering masses and stood close together behind one of the pillars, watching it all unfold. The groups were mobs now, bristling and single-minded, and they were slowly converging on each other. Their shouts were ringing louder and louder off the stones until there came a piercing shatter that startled everyone to silence.

           In the center of the temple, glistening at the people’s feet, were the shards of what had been the last vessel of water.

 

V

 

           Those who had not yet drank that day shouted a cry of alarm and threw themselves upon their hands and knees to lap up with their tongues whatever they could from the floor, some of them cutting themselves on the ceramic shards. Drops of blood, bright as holly, swirled in with the puddles of water, but no one cared. Instead they were rising back to their feet, and many were pointing at the couple who had thought to catch the rainwater with the vessels to begin with.

           “This is their doing!” a voice hissed. “The vessels were their charge. If they had been watching, this wouldn’t have happened!”

           “Yes, they weren’t watching,” another voice agreed. “And now they’ve killed us all the sooner.”

           “They’ve killed us!” more people chanted, and now they were thronging around the helpless couple. Edging the two of them against the mullioned windows. “They’ve killed us, and now we need justice. Life for life.”

            There was a hum of approval and then a silence that the boy and the girl instantly recognized as the calm before the storm. The boy made to move to the couple’s defense but the girl grabbed his arm and squeezed it tight, shaking her head. A minute later, their instincts proved correct and they watched as a large man emerged from the mob and walked toward the cornered couple. He moved for the woman first, and her husband naturally stepped between her and their assailant. But the man smiled and caught him full in the face with a casual punch. The blow resounded like a whipcrack through the temple, and the woman shouted hopelessly as her husband staggered and bent over. The man met this posture with a sharp kick to his prey’s stomach and ribs. The woman threw herself at the man, battering with fists and knees, but the man simply looked at her and struck her hard against her jaw. The crowd laughed comically at her pained yelp. The pair of them was both on the floor now, moaning and bleeding and reaching for each other, and then the man bent over and plucked a jagged shard from the floor. He held it up to the crowd for them to see. They cheered in collusion, all individual accountability submerged now beneath the will of the group.

           The couple did not scream or plead or cry out for help. They did none of the things that might have reminded the gathered mob that this was a woman and a man, not small game to be butchered. Instead, they only watched in a huddled vulnerability that was bound to arouse greater bloodlust. Only watched with horrified quivering lips as the man reached out with a hand that dwarfed their heads, twisted the husband’s hair around his knuckles, jerked back his head to expose his neck, and slid the pointed shard into his trembling throat. Not even with malice or fury, but with a cold and curious force. The blood, freed from its thin veil of flesh, cascaded its errant course as the body it once belonged to slumped over in a gurgling, kicking heap.

           A hush had overtaken the mob. The man turned to face the woman, standing and waiting patiently with the dripping shard as she tenderly touched the back of her husband’s neck and stood up slowly. She faced the mob only once and then turned around. And then, with an intentness that almost seemed leisured, she climbed up onto the ledge of the mullioned window, her body framed radiantly against the arched light, and threw herself into the churning abyss below.

           Her body never made a sound.

 

V I

 

           The night was sleepless. The people had long since tossed the man’s corpse over the sill so that they did not have to behold their work, a few of them laughing and calling it poetic. But the iron reek of blood now cloyed the temple, staining dryly into crimson strata, and when those who had lapped the water from the floor earlier that day gazed upon these stains, dark passions flowed into their heads like squirming shadows of water thrown on a grotto wall. The people no longer mingled among each other. They studied each other with the wariness of snared beasts, each of them clustered around one idol or another. The only ones who sat apart from everyone else were the boy and the girl, their backs to a pillar and their eyes dark and hooded with exhaustion.

           “We have to get out of here,” the boy said.

           “We can’t,” she replied. “There is no way out. Not alive, anyway.”

           “We can’t die like this.”

           “It’s very possible that we can. The struggle comes from trying to shape the world to our wishes.”

           “But I just met you.”

           She looked at him. Her lips parted as though she meant to speak but then decided against it. She put her hand on his and said, “You sleep first. I’ll keep watch.”

           “I don’t want to leave you alone.”

           “You can’t be alone in a dream.”

           “What?”

           “It’s what my mother used to tell me. Before I’d fall asleep at night. Our lives are just the dreams that happen in that brief space between birth and death. She said we shouldn’t be afraid of death, because we were in its care before we were even born.”

           The boy laid his head upon her lap, and slept.

 

V I I

 

           He heard screaming from what must have been the depths of a nightmare, but then her voice and her hands were shaking him awake and he realized that it was no phantom sound. He saw her fearful eyes above him and then the both of them were on their feet in an instant. A man was on fire and thrashing across the temple floor, his shrieks already hoarsening as his flesh blackened like paper. Behind him stood a group of men bearing the torches they’d taken from the sconces on the walls, making the light dance erratically.

           “Only sacrifice will deliver us now!” they cried before moving through the temple, shoving their torches against whoever they could find. “May the one true god guide our hands to winnow the wheat from the chaff! The heathens’ blood will quench the thirst of the righteous!”

           The other people, for their part, were scrambling madly to scoop the broken shards from the floor. Many were successful, and with cries like the torchbearers began the work of butchering any flesh they could find. Soon it was nothing but a den of shadow and firelight, blood and bellows, bared teeth and contorted faces. The boy and the girl ran through it all, hands joined tightly together, sprinting for the other side of the temple to hide behind the stone slab of the altar. They were nearly there when a bloodied arm struck out with serpent speed and seized the girl’s wrist. She cried out in pain as the man twisted it, but the boy threw the whole of his weight against the man’s body. There was a frustrated grunt, and then a swooning burst of pain on the side of the boy’s head where the man had clouted him with a great buffeting fist. He saw, between the bright spangles popping in and out of his vision, the man dragging the girl over to the altar, a deadly shard gripped in his hand.

           But her frantic cries roused the boy back to his feet, and with all the terror and compulsion of a cornered animal he took the dagger from his pocket and, half leaping, half stumbling, raised the blade high before burying it to the hilt in the back of the man’s neck. It breached the flesh without any resistance, and there was only a thin, short cry from the man as his body collapsed with a jarring thud and the blood began to bloom around the lodged steel. The boy didn’t even bother to remove the dagger. Instead he could only stare in silence, mind and body reeling.

           The girl took his arm and shepherded him over behind the altar. She spoke not a word, for their shaken hearts were in a place where words could no longer reach. All they could do was sink to their knees to conceal themselves, and wait for the end.

 

V I I I

 

           But before the end could come by fire or edge, a whistling gale met the children’s faces instead. A gale that smelled of salt. The girl felt it on her face first, then the boy. Realizing what it meant, they hunted wildly, covetously, for its source, until they saw the crack in the floor at the altar’s edge. The girl’s face spun to meet his.

           “Push!” she told him. “As hard as you can.”

           Their slender arms heaved against the stone with all the strength they could ever remember summoning, and when the stone would not budge and their faces were lustrous with sweat they doubted they’d ever be able to summon such strength again. But the screams and the blood-cries of the people were still echoing through the temple, and when they looked pleadingly into each other’s faces one last time they realized why they had to push again. And so they did, with burning, quaking muscles until, inch by grueling inch, the stone altar grinded away from its resting place; until there was a clearance wide enough for the children’s bodies to crawl through.

           Hand in hand, they quit that cursed place.

 

I X

 

           Down a flight of crumbling steps they trod, down the throat of the mountain so darksome that time could not measure the duration of their descent. They followed a cycle of rest and descent until, at last, a layer of light, thin and soft as a feather, flowed up to meet them: just enough to keep the darkness from being absolute. The shadows of water flowed up on the walls around them, and they found themselves in the mouth of a grotto. White sunlight maned the breaking waves. They stood together at the water’s edge and looked on at the cove shore only a short swim away.

           He looked at her. “Do you have the strength?”

           “No…or just enough, I think.”

           And together they waded out into the cold embrace of the ocean. They breast-stroked through the murky surf, the schools of startled fish shooting away from them like living silvered tapestries. They swam until their knees dug against the shallows, and they surfaced with a grateful breath of the raw air. Their small bodies haggard and exhausted, at first they could only crawl on all fours on the flinty sand, sending an iridescent lizard scampering into the brush to escape the approach of these strange creatures. They felt the sun on their necks, and this prompted them to slowly rise to their feet until they could stand fully erect. Drinking the air sweetly into their lungs, they surveyed the breadth of the land before them, the sea dripping from their bodies. The cliffs and the waterfalls, the brush and the cypress groves. And just beyond that…

           “Look! A spring!” the boy cried. The thought of cold water made the whole of his aching body burn with thirst, and so he ran. But he only took a few steps when he looked back and saw that the girl was just standing there, watching him. He stopped.

           “What’s wrong?”

           She shook her head and frowned. “It’s just that…where do we go now? What do we do?”

           Her words brought back the weight of all they’d seen and all they’d done, and for a moment they were anchored in silence. But the boy looked ahead of them and saw that the spring was still there. He hadn’t imagined it. The water was waiting for them. So he walked over to the girl and gently took her hand in his.

           “Now we do what the beasts have always known,” he told her. “We live.”

           She watched him for a moment, coming to a decision inside, and then smiled. On the cliffs above them, the seahawks danced.