D. F. Lewis
As you enter the first Sign, you notice the guards, in ramshead helmets, their stares being harder to by-pass than the sparkle-topped spears which they wield. They do not move to stop you but, all the same, you know full well that you are committing a series of prohibited acts in one: since this is the only access to the other eleven Signs. There, await paths you hope to tread, whilst the hope is really cosmic dread...
"Welcome, Phillips, we don't often have beings through here carrying all twelve burdens of the Elder Zodiac on a single pair of shoulders."
The speaker was an old man, dressed in his own body hair. It was wrapped around him, a close-knit wickerwork of plaits, pigtails, beards, pubes and sweat-mops. Although he held out his arms in greeting, the way he pronounced the word "Welcome" was as if it contained too many consonants and syllables much like the way the welsh say Cthulhu, whilst weaving skeins of anger upon this fragile loom of spoken protocol.
He then took you by the hand. It felt as if you were held by a cross between a claw and an ankh. His lips curled as he guided you through the sheep-keeps, tool-houses, blacksmith forges, disused slaughter-sheds, houseless fireplaces and lime-dumps. The curator of such a hard-bitten museum land was certain to be surly. Indeed, you began to forget his words since they were said with such pinch-hearted grudging. So hard-won in the battle of conversation but so easily abandoned to the later adjustments of history behind you. In many ways, you doubted whether this character really belonged to the Sign you currently crossed - what with the head-dress and the way he seemed bemused by unseen forces...
He showed you between two giant vulture statues which guarded the entrance to the second Sign, whilst belonging to the first. Typical, you thought. Forcefulness and charm slept ill in the same bed, but the old man left you behind with a smile ... as it was he the old man who continued onwards to the next Sign, instead of you.
You are the old man, now. You have shed your anger. It's high time to deal with the greed. Too long in the tooth for change, you consider. But that is soon put out of your mind by the gold-drenched meadow, grazed by droning cows. Once called cattle, they're now the separate beasts that once made up the herd. You sense that the Outer Gods do not form such a herd but a distinct power.
A low sun spreads twirling spokes of burnished light through the distant orchard to herald the changing of shifts - the syncromesh of day and night. You gradually emerge from the old manís cocoon of hair-shirts and the swarthy gear that had so too easily become nothing but sleek fur, surprised how supple, bronzed and simply young your limbs have now become. All to the good, perhaps since, crouched beneath the scrumpable appleful arms that the meadow brings you towards is a naked girl, wide-eyed face raised to meet yours. She is a windfall with pippin breasts. Your love for her is only matched by your lust.
"Where did you live before you entered the Signs?"
Her voice is one of high-pitched lowing. She must resent her own nudity, as if it takes your attention from the real thing she truly is.
"This is the present, this is the past," is your only answer. It was as if you knew Yog Sothoth personally, by virtue of such.
"But the past is a place, too, is it not?"
You nod, without agreeing.
She returns the nod, gathers herself up and scampers between the honeyed floaters of the sunset ... and enters the next Sign disguised as your twin ... leaving a pile of gold coins like feces where she'd squatted.
But it is really you, is it not? Or it was.
You have sloughed off greed, by satisfying it.
Now with your ambitions forgotten and yet another past away on the shadow's wing, you will wander handcuffed between the chortling branches of a fairy forest. This is not the third Sign, nor the first, nor the last, it is simply the way things are, have been and ever will be.
There are edges to the forest by which you test the path - viewing small granary-towns nestling in distant valleys, with steepled knells sounding even this far to your double ear. Soon, at the wayside, you find one who is your spitting image.
It is as if he expected you.
"How did you know I was coming?"
"They weave rumours and scandals and whispers and hearsays and even hard news around here like it never went out of fashion. You are indeed as sweet and shapely and winsome as they predicted."
"Who are 'they'?"
"Oh, only people like us."
You feel the need of embracing him. Even a passionate kiss between men does not seem unnatural in the circumstances. But you didn't, for he still seemed full of talk.
"You regretted the past, crave the present, but all the time it will be the future that matters. And here I'll be."
He stands with strangely jointed legs, upon which he prances towards the next Sign. You squat in his place, wholly content with the present moment, having no doubt about your own destiny. If nothing else, you have slipped off the shackles of duplicity.
Some maidens sit in a nearby clearing, singing of fruit fairs.
And although I do not believe in fairies, I suspect that one day they'll cast their spell on me and I then will.
But you have no time to moither.
You were already wandering a new Sign, beyond the gates of the Moon. It was indeed that banana blusher in the night sky that half-lit the tributary marsh through which you now waded. The stars were diamonds, but too small to count.
You lost interest in the cosmetics of negress sky, for it was to another kind of beauty you were here to face - Death and its handmaid Age. You needed to shell your chrysalis, before continuing along the path into the remaining Signs; thus duly prepared to encounter things that would be more beautiful, yet crueller, than Death itself.
Yes, amid the weeds and bulrushes, there slowly snuck out a wizened crone who somehow said that she was once your daughter. You hold her tight to your chest. It was the least you could do in the circumstances. Blood was thicker than water, after all.
She hard squeezed your balls between her bone-bent digits, the consequent exquisition of pain spreading through the muscles of your body one by one. So as to proceed through the rituals of torture and love, you stripped her of the only clothes she wore - the loose hangings of her flesh. It was erotic to uncover the red-crazed maps of her pulsing underpulp ... until you realised that it was only your dream of Death.
The one who had called herself your daughter, now younger and prettier even than the girl with pippin breasts, failed to hear the squelching and heavy sobbing in the marsh behind her. She is already in the next Sign, yearning to find the young man she will once have loved.
Golden-maned, you pad the sun-baked hills, trying to ignore the ruins of fun-palaces and the tilted slabs of anachronistic henges. You pad across the ill-balanced boards, those makeshift bridges over disused bomb craters.
You feel female, but your loins are beefy with muscle, and indeed you carry a rattling bag of what feels like plum-stones between the tops of your hind-legs. Having changed parts as often as lady dowagers change underwear, you feel uncertain as to your identity. However, you are still the same soul, even if the throes of experience have entirely altered the angle of consciousness. It is as if a fog is lifting from a valley and slowly revealing the shadowy hulks and jagged silhouettes of a town or shipyard or, perhaps. an alien landscape quite beyond the reach of description. Hopefully, you will soon descend into that valley and discover one that is truly you or yours, fast in dreams. You shake off pride as if it's just another heat-bug, for why should you of all people be so chosen? Nobody else has ever been granted such a wondrous, eye-opening nirvana.
The roar upon which you open your mighty jaws wakens the very dead. From between the leaning entrance-sides of crumbling Regals and Odeons lurch the smudge-faced clowns and bent stand-up comedians ... their skeletons heard clacking from beneath their fancy-dress flesh. They are as mindless as the jokes they once told. Such zodiacal zombies tread the teetering boards towards you with all emotions fleeting out of control across their slow-dripping make-up.
Having been dealt a whole pack of jokers, you swiftly slip out of your own costume (which tumbles to the ground in a flurry of fur and claws) and escape, only by the skin of your teeth, into the next Sign.
You wondered what it was all about, this passage through Signs or Zones or whatever you thought they were called. Nothing like real life, more in the manner of dream, or somewhere between the two. One good thing, though, whatever was incapable of explanation needed not to be bothered with for long ... which was a relief because the Sign in which you now found yourself was full of wandering nubiles, of both sexes or either or, even, neither. One in particular was straightforwardly female, with pert unbridled breasts just under-swelling from a midriffless blouse. The greatest sculptor in art history could never have copied her legs (so perfectly shaped whilst slender), whether his medium be wood, stone or even flesh. You would be surprised if God Himself could manage such a good job, which, you supposed, He must have done.
She cast merely one taunting flirt of a glance behind and ran like a gazelle ... through the metropolis. Yes, at last, you were aware of the surroundings. It came as a bit of a shock. You chased her, past the dingy municipal works, the forgotten Red Cross hospitals, the railings of unseen parks, strange in-city cornfields, malt-houses, communal pantries and combined grocery-bookshops.
It really must have been a dream, after all. And, if so, she surely must have been a dream as well. Honestly, could there be perfection in real life? The fact that you had to ask this very question meant that the answer must be "No!".
You sobbed bitterly against the wide-ribbed skeleton of the railings, expecting a response but, of course, receiving none. It was then you spotted the beautiful creature you had assumed unblemished by anything, even reality. She was squatting inside the park, children in the swings pointing with evident glee at the reddy-brown puddle slowly spreading around her rump.
You desperately looked for the entrance to the next Sign, all too ready to cut your losses. But, a complete stranger, of indeterminate humanity, let alone sex, took the only place in the last queue for Libra - taking advantage of your momentary lapse of concentration...
But it is not your own concentration about which we are now concerned. You are passe, defunct, irrelevant, forgotten. The whole cycle has shuddered to a halt between unconnected karmas. I am the one who has donned your mantle. Surely you can understand how I was able to escape the same plight in the previous Sign. It was all a trap of one called Murkales, me, myself, I. I led you on a wild goose chase, tempting you through half the Signs with dubious titbits, so that I could take your place midway in the rite of passage, where I too was once abandoned pressed against the railings, sobbing, sobbing...
Perhaps, one day, you will be released from this unshakeable destiny. It may take another eternity or, on the other hand, it may not.
I wander through the windmill clusters and saw-pits, considering the pro's and con's of having reached this watershed or way-station of my destiny. I cannot countenace that this had been at the cost of yours own destiny. When two souls are in the balance, the scale pans level out, for who can judge the weight of sin?
Gods and Goddesses, truths and lies, male and female, evil and good. Only one who stands outside the comparisons can tell between them. I am in two minds, as I find that the exit and the entrance between Signs are also one. And I cannot decide to leave or stay.
You emerge slowly into a painting that Hieronymous Bosch would have kept hidden in his attic.
Swampland, as in the fourth Sign, but worse...
You can remember! You can make comparisons! You feel yourself all over. A hot head, but it is certainly you. The continuity runs through like a vein between Siamese twins. The doubt has disappeared with the changing of Signs. Your two minds have become one healthy thought process.
But to where has destiny now upended you? Low dank gardens, septic quagmires, creeping cesspols, ill-smelling ponds, sluggish swill-streams, slaughterhouse-churches perched on hardened dung-hills, strange tenantless chemical-factories, untended seeping conveniences, inscrutable incinerating-plants, slum hospices, tumbledown tanneries ... and crematories so over-used only half of each corpse can be economically dealt with.
You are toiling alongside several others, as you pile torso after torso into carts for trundling to the tanneries. The whole economy of the place depends on the cycle of death and on the way corpses are sliced up by the Vicar-Surgeons. One false cut and the thicker blood hereabouts clogged the drainage systems ... and the edible meat went bad ... and the crematories were faced with burning off more than just the useless grits and offal.
"There ought to be a bone-mill round here," you whisper to the labourer who is in harness with you, thus to prevent you from escaping, and you him.
"The economy round here does not seem to be in perfect balance." You have a passion for getting things right, an ambition towards self- and mutual fulfilment that literally eats away at your vitals.
"What the hell would the mill-wheel grind the bones into, mate?" He claws at his head, digging drowsy scarabs from the thatch.
"Glue ... meal..."
"Blimey, mate, you're a clever sod!"
A half-mangled corpse apparently still has the use of one arm and it makes a grab for your companion's privates as he tries to load it into a cart.
He has had enough of this palaver, and so have you. You both scuttle off on eight limbs towards the next Sign, before you can say "Knife".
"Blimey, mate, where are we?"
You looked at him quizzically. This was the first time you had entered a Sign in tandem, as it were. Had you changed his destiny? Or he, yours? Or perhaps the confluences were so close as to make no difference. The Powers That Be must have waved you both through on the nod.
Taking the opportunity to gather your bearings, you surveyed the scene - it seemed to be a race-course for horses, vast airy undulant downs with a wide reckless river acting as the water-jump in the hurdle chase. Along the brow of a hill were steeds taking their exercise, and you half-saw, half-imagined their hunter girths, opulent stirrups, archer eyes, defiant brows, nabob manes, gambler tails and rich muscalature. You yearned merely to touch their oedipal swelling genitalia, their sweaty buoyant breasts. Even from here, you could sense the stench of opportune dung, the nourishing redundance of behemoth bowels. You envied their sporting prowess and enterprise.
So bemused, you had not noticed your companion's antics. He was fighting tooth and claw with what seemed at one moment to be a frightful monster and at next to be yourself!
The harness around you both transported here from the previous Sign made such hand to hand combat more than a little difficult. You tried to feel yourself all over and there were streamers of fur poking from your mouth, gagging upon it, bones lifting flesh into awkward contours, heart thumping like a sledgehammer as it engorged, hind-legs dislocating into sprung prehensile power, flesh roasting in its own sweat.
Your companion's physical struggle against you suddenly ceased, stuck halfway as he now was to the waist in your hairy maw.
You gambolled across the paddock, with him poking out of you. He screamed to get his head off, so insane had he grown. You are both tantamount to a single creature, now gallopping across the windswept downs.
You heard the bellow of alert, while those who had lurked redskin-like against the unseen flanks of their steeds popped up like targets at a fair. But it was their aiming the arrows, lines of bowmen ranged against the prey ... at you! YOU were the beast. You were the sport, stopped and quivering in your tracks. Your man's chest took the full force, sprouting a splay of spikes...
You lie, still quivering, out of sight of the bow-men ... in the next Sign.
You find it difficult to divest. The lion's skin in the fifth Sign was a mere pantomime's tarramadiddle, with zip-up front and eye-slits in the neck. THIS is more like re-birth, emerging from the lips of the womb, with coils of mother's tubing still attached. You abandon the top man-half to the darkness as a mother would a miscarriage. Your own brown cocoon of bones it is just possible to shuffle along with the residue of belly muscles still in your possession, the now vestigial rear legs falling away in the process.
It is cold. You can sense it through the nostrils of your snout. The land is emaciated, funereal, rigid, monumentally haggard. Gradually, the rim of a frugal sun rears above barren hills, flinty light beckoning shape into the skeletal ice-scape. You recognise, in the seeping glow, the bulks of soundless prison walls grouped around the deaf bones of tenantless sepulchres, vaults and unknelled oldster chapels, thorn plots, deep bitter pits edged with black frost, long-cut lumber, deserted goat-pens, leaning gravestones, urns of primitive earth and petrific hill monasteries. These, to a huge leathery grub like you, are sediments of mock delight. If you could but comprehend the words...
One pen does have a billy in it, picking at the dreadful ground for the last weed it saved from yesterday. It then sees a pulsating dark shape lodged between the jaws of two gravestones - which is you.
Leaping the scrubby pen-fence, it decides that cornucopia is its to have just for the taking. No longer the scapegoat, it can see a feed that may last it, dare it think, a lifetime!
It need not be satisfied with what it had considered its lot to be. But as it nuzzles the large wrinkled sac, you swallow HIM instead, in one gulp through a newly discovered aperture you decide must be your mouth - or as near to one as you will ever have.
But food usually never struggles once it has been eaten - the goat's legs burst through your belly and you both topple into a freshly dug slot in the earth...
Dawn in the next Sign makes the previous one seem like dusk. You have only two further burdens to shed before you reach your final goat.
The word should be goal! Goal! Goal! The cheers and chanting are frightening. You look down across a sea of over-turned faces - watching a few pin-pricks on a distant green rectangle bashing a leather bladder beneath towering pylons of light. Could this be sport, like the archery to which you were once bait? This time, nobody is threatening to kill anybody else, but it looks only a matter of time. In fact you vaguely think the ball is the baby grub to which you once gave birth on a previous journey through the Signs.
But, no, it is not a sport, it is religion. The fervour of the crowd, swaying as one vast creature, shimmering and shuttling in one rhythmic wave, is tangible, and the only way you can sense it is through your pores. The rest is a dream created by Sign transition. You are reflected in the ceiling mirrors. You are perched on an altar-table of marble, gnarled goat-legs splayed from a bundle of throbbing mucus and hide.
"This creature is one of God's."
The celebrant pronounced the word "creature" as if it had filth on each syllable that only by passing through his mouth could it be cleansed.
"This creature ... has been born from the Holy Virgin ... God moves in mysterious ways..."
He lays his two healing hands upon your body. Lightning forks from each of the eight corners of the vast cavernous cube of a cathedral's interior. Roars of Alleluias erupt from the tiered congregation. The celebrant intones words you do not understand, now knowing him to be Murkales the Reincarnator. You have seen the light or, rather, the water, whilst Murkales babbles of green fields.
The wall-mirrors melt and the flood that human flesh has become carries you upon its placental tides...
You were indeed the Holy Virgin.
The sea surrounded you, sweeping in and out of your veins with each heartbeat. Religion was not a matter of countless thrusting Alleluias - it was one of meditation, contemplation, percolation, marination - seaweeds dancing with the idle currents - the gentle nodding of mermaids silently teaching each to each - perfect nirvana.
But you learned that perfection was impossible unless it was unreal. You glanced at the gentle fishes that stared sideways at you, mouths opening and shutting upon each renewal of awe. A salt-green eye in the sky reminded you of times you could not quite place. Each bubble you breathed would seem to last an eternity to someone who had never lived.
There was one perfection, however, which dawned on you at the very end of your life. A single soul was the universe. A single cultured pearl.
What of the fishes? They were merely your own thoughts made form, some pretty like angels, others ugly as monks.
You cried, but if there had been anybody else to watch, they could not have told the sea from the tears.
You had travelled through the Signs, the earlier ones via the official entrances and exits, the latter ones by means of the increasing fluidity and emjambement of your experience. You cried, no doubt, because you did not recall the journey nor the removal of each burden from your shoulders.
Nirvanas were like that.
Well, who- or whatever you once were remains stuck halfway in the previous Sign, thus allowing only a blurred vision of this the last one.
Rest assured, you were never the centaur, my dear. Centaurs do not have pretty pippin breasts. But do not weep when I tell you that you are never the Holy Virgin. It will have been too easy, too glib. Your fish-tail composite of legs has yet of course to atrophy; and martyrs really do have to earn their wings.
As you have now shared my journey to its end, the Labours of Murkales are complete and I can finally rest. You, however, must go on until your skin falls off.
D. F. Lewis (born 1948) was the recipient of the British Fantasy Society Karl Edward Wagner Award in 1998. For full details of this author and editor, please see: http://www.nemonymous.com