By Michael Shea
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Michael Shea and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
Warning: This story involves mature themes. Reader discretion is advised.
An elderly woman named Maureen, neatly dressed and manicured, sat on a bus-stop bench in San Francisco. She was watching the leisurely approach of an old shopping-cart vagabond up the sidewalk. Maureen believed in being courteous to everyone, but the vagabond woman strongly irritated her, perhaps because Maureen had put her dear little Buddy to sleep not so long ago. And the gaunt, sunburned wild-haired tramp was pushing, along with other things in her cart, a box with a tiny, sick-looking little dog in it. A whippet.
Maureen and her friends in her church Discussion Group had been talking about Speaking Out lately, about not being so courteous when something hurtful was done. About protesting in the name of decency.
“I’m sorry,” said Maureen, a little loud and unsteady at the newness of this, “but I just think it’s disgraceful. Whyever you’ve chosen to degrade yourself, I think it’s terrible to subject that poor little animal to this existence! It’s unforgivable!”
The old cart-pushing dame paused — she had a long stark tendony frame. In her baggy jeans and denim jacket she was deep-seamed old, but one of those bionic oldsters, tight and sound as a banty rooster. “Hey,” she said. “We’ve spent his whole life walking around this city. You think because he’s dying he doesn’t wanna get around any more? I’m his chauffeur!”
“But you should put him to sleep! Look how decrepit he is!”
“He’s going to sleep. You think I wanna rush him along, who’s been my friend his whole seventeen years? You’ve gotta excuse me, I’m taking us home for a bath right now.”
“You have a home… ?”
“What am I, wearing a label? You see me dressed for walking, you think I’m Homeless?”
And on she went, her cart rattling softly. Maxie was her name. Her hair was white, but luxuriant still. She wore its shag like a plumed battle-casque hooding her brow, head and neck. It tendrilled like tree-roots on her gaunt denimed shoulders. Her ancient whippet though, Ramses, was aged beyond all vigor. She bent her face to him as she pushed, and Ramses, a living skeleton, raised, in palsied dabs, his tiny muzzle towards her, sniffed too, now and again, the early autumn air…
In the front of the cart was a kitchen-box of goods and utensils, and next to it the bedding-and-clothes box. Last night they had shared their sleeping-bag among the trees below the Legion of Honour. Had a twig fire in her firecan — invisible from twenty feet away. Had soup and tea for them both, and then some blazing stars to look at above the Golden Gate. Ramses had gone to sleep. Maxie had reread and relished Mitchell Smith’s Due North by her tiny reading light.
Here they were back at their building. Maxie’s home, Butler Street County Housing, was sited in the hills above the Panhandle, the neighborhood at least a nice one. The building had its own little parking lot, and well-kept plantings all around. She had a niche in these where she always tucked her cart. She took the knapsack of her and Ramses’ dirty laundry, put her two days’ dirty dishes and cooking pan into its side pockets, and slipped it on. Had already slipped on the child-carrier pouch frontwards, and tenderly hoisted Ramses, holstering him against her chest.
Her apartment was on the third floor, and there was a lot of hallway-life on the third floor, hang-around kids and young men with drugs to sell each other, and attitude to maintain in front of each other. Everybody poor and desperate enough to make violence always an uneasy possibility. Inside the entry she turned hard right for the stairs. The tough element always claimed the elevators. The stairs were faster anyway, and better exercise.
She emerged in the hall of her wing, and found her local, mainly Hispanic crew on duty. Their lead rapster, in a sideways-billed cap, was a guy she thought of as Dog. That’s what he called Maxie because of her always carrying Ramses, and what he called her now:
“Hey Dawg! Dawg’s back! Wassit gonna be? You need to pay you police services fee. Now iss twenny aweek, Dog, why you don’t pay up? You gotta pay the vig, Dog! You gotta pay the Vig!”
This was the way it was supposed to go: Maxie would reply I’m not payin’ anything! Get outta my way! She would say this, but not try to get past them. Then Dog would push his bullying little riff again, and then Maxie would refuse again — all while his audience just sort of idly enjoyed the show of Dog putting Maxie her through her paces. And then, at last, they’d let her pass.
But this afternoon Maxie was wrung out. That crazy woman had ticked her off, reminded her that truly, Ramses was near death. Scared, weary and pissed, she snapped, “Leave me alone! Get your lazy candyass outta my way! You moron! Vig is interest on a loan! You’re trying to extort Protection from me, you ignorant asshole!”
That stopped Mr. Dog hard for a moment, took him like a punch, her steely contempt where he’d thought himself comfortably feared.
If Dog hadn’t had his whole crew with him, if it had been just him and another one he particularly hung with, a guy they called Carne who had sick dreamy eyes, then he would have hit her, certainly cracked her jaw, or some part of her body.
As it was, he shoved her, the heels of his hands to her shoulders, and she stumbled backwards, fighting to keep her feet under her, and Ramses safe in his carrier. Back she came, marched past them to her doorway, got inside…
As she ran the tub full, Maxie faced it: a line had been crossed. They’d laid hands on her, and it might come readier next time. These kids had nothing, possessed not even the barest information about their world. They would cling to whatever sad debris life brought their way. Would seize and cultivate any contest that got started in their hallway world.
It was on the chilly side in the bathroom. She put Ramses in the electric blanket while she bathed and washed her hair. Bathed him next, while their tomato-soup-with-cheese-melted-in was cooling — Ramses’ vitamins mixed in his, Maxie’s in hers. After they ate, there were all the utensils to be scoured and re-packed in the pockets of the knapsack. She cleaned and flossed her teeth, and then hung Ramses in a clean carrier on her chest and took up the knapsack of wash. Time to check out the laundry room.
She cracked her door open. The corridor was empty. She made quick time to the stairwell and slipped inside it. Stood listening.
Ten flights of metal stairs and scarred pipe-railing above her, a zig-zag of six flights below her. From the laundry room door would well the echoes of any activity. Nothing.
She always listened before descending. People partied down there, dealt, OD’d occasionally, and Maxie always stood ready to turn on a dime and truck on out to a laundromat in the neighborhood — more expensive but hassle-free.
She started down quietly. Got down four of the six flights, the laundry room and the maze of storage lockers that surrounded it sounding perfectly empty… and then there came one very soft little resonance of metal.
So minor a sound, like the slightest tap against the hollowness of one of the big washers or driers down there. Listening, listening… she heard nothing more.
It could have been the stir of someone… hiding down there.
She peered into Ramses’ face, checking as she’d done through the years for his reading of a risky vicinity. He looked up at her, feebly alert, but inscrutable. Ah, how her little sidekick’s life had waned…
A flare of anger started Maxie down again. She was sick of dodging around this gloomy, risky place. But old persons, well, the whole world was bigger and scarier for them all. If she was tired of ducking and maneuvering in the world’s brutal bigness, Maxie should just give up, right? The fact was, she would save two bucks using these machines. That was an extra cocktail at Pete’s tonight. So. Was she getting so chicken-shit that she didn’t dare go down there and win herself a bit of luxury?
The stairwell door hung open, and the laundry room beyond it was deserted. She walked down both aisles to be sure, and checked the bank of driers. The long-defunct machine back in the corner still stood with its door open, though the band of yellow plastic tape across it had been broken…
She approached it down the damp concrete aisle, where suds lay on the floor by the bank of washers opposite. A faint, ragged noise rose from the pouch. Ramses was growling a warning… and there was something big inside the drier’s black drum.
A person. A woman? Yes. A little Latin woman, curled up as if asleep. Was she asleep… ? And as Maxie leaned her head inside, Ramses’ little growl grew echosome.
Asleep. She breathed softly, the little brown moon of her face childish and candid, seeming to dream…
On drugs? Drunk? Whatever, leave her be. You stick tight to your own business in this place. She backed quietly from the drier, and something squishy crackled under the heel of her Nike. She turned around.
One of the big washers behind her had shut down mid-cycle, had a load of unmoving suds in it, while the door of the one beside it hung open, thick suds dripping from the door’s glass eye. She’d trod in the mess of foam it had shed on the floor. There was her shoe-print in the suds, and something small and dark crushed in its midst.
A slug? It always smelled so earthy down here, and right now more than ever. The dense dirt the whole building was rooted in, you could feel it right outside these concrete walls.
She went into the other aisle, got all their wash into one load, and set it going. She put Ramses down on the floor, and was folding his pouch into a little mat for him, when he got up and tottered off. Maxie smiled. Sometimes the earthen aura down here persuaded the old Ramses that he was outside where he could take a dump. Let him. It would be small and dry and easily scooped. She watched his trembly progress.
Damn that self-righteous old bitch, but it was true: her poor friend was on his way out. Maxie had gotten him for Jack in those last two years Jack was dying. Jack had named him, for his habit of ramming blindly into things as an impetuous pup. Fifteen years dead, the dear man. How she missed him still! And now old Ramses here, the last piece of life they’d shared, was passing out of the world…
Maxie opened The Guns of August, and fell right into it, re-entered that vast machine of long-ago armies locked in stasis, locked in butchery…
She would allow herself an extra cigarette today — six, not five. Her regimen iron-fast these last ten years, her six-smoke days were an indulgence earned by its rarity. She lit one up, and gorged on the satiny entrails of a Marlboro’s smoke as she read…
Going to dry her load, she saw Ramses down at the end of the aisle, sitting before the little Latina’s odd dormitory, his gaze alternating between it and the lush suds still undecayed on the floor. When Maxie started her own dryer, it roused no stir from the sleeper. How strange to have a little dreaming neighbor like this. What kind of life would the girl step back into when she woke? What dangers, disorders, unmet needs? How many years did she have left? Far more than Maxie had, no doubt.
Maureen had one of those decent-sized little backyards some houses have out in the Avenues, and she and Muffin were out in it, watering their flowerbeds. The dog two yards over, King, that dreadful big mastiff of Wyatt and Eve’s, was barking again. His relentless barking had long ago worn a blister on Maureen’s patience, and then the blister had become more like a callus, though sometimes it was more like a blister again…
Meanwhile little Muffin, also vocal, was yipping incessantly at the hose. Maureen thumbed the water into a fan and moistened the trilliums, finding Muffin’s puppy-relentlessness a little trying after all. Maureen had been younger when she’d broken in her beloved Buddy. But if you loved small dogs, you had to handle that hyperness that goes with them, especially at first.
No one could replace Buddy of course. The grief for Buddy, whom she’d had to put to sleep, came to her again, as Maureen had long ago accepted it would. She gazed down upon Muffin, trying to see in him the dear companion he would become in future years… and as she was musing in this way, the hose she held gave a kind of lurch in her inattentive grip, twitched sideways and sent a stronger stream down on Muffin, drenching his head in mid-bark. The dog shook himself, and then began to lick his chops, while Maureen looked closer at what seemed to be a thicker kind of water now coming out of her garden hose. It felt slicker to her thumb and fingers, and it splattered rather than splashed on the soil…
And against the background of the soil, into which it quickly soaked, it was hard to tell… but weren’t there, like, little black clots in the water? They soaked in too fast to be sure.
Then the water ran normal again. Some bit of debris in the line…
“I don’t drink that much Maxie,” Vera said, stabbing the bar with her forefinger, “and I saw what I saw. You enjoying that drink?” Vera had a sharp nose for a black lady, and little tufted, alarmed-looking eyebrows that made her eyes seem on the brink of outrage.
“I am enjoying it, and I am listening.”
“What number is that?” Referring to the cigarette Maxie was unlimbering.
“Two. I get six today. I might smoke two in a row, sitting on this very stool.” Maxie waved another round from Pete. She had Ramses in the sling — would have wanted to bring in his box and put it on the stool next to hers, but Pete drew the line. “The dog can come in, but not in his bed for Chrissake! I already let you park your goddam bag-lady cart out back, Maxie! This is a bar! Jack would have said the same!”
“Jack loved Ramses!”
“This is a bar, all right,” put in Vera, “but this is a Neighborhood Bar. It celebrates Neighborhood Diversity, including the whackadoo practices of the local seniors.” Elbowing Maxie’s ribs here. They had been neighbors for seven years, and then Vera had protested against the decline of the Butler Street Housing. She had agitated and done the red tape ‘till she was re-lodged in a better building. And now, that building was already as bad as Butler, if not worse.
“So. What do you think, girl? About what I saw? Look at me. Do you think I’m drunk?”
“Well this is exactly how I was last night crossing the Panhandle. So you going to just dismiss what I told you?”
Crossing the Panhandle at about two a.m., Vera had seen a man lying on a bench under one of the pathway lamps. He was passed out, it seemed, as she approached, still a block away, but then the man suddenly appeared to be struck by seizure. His legs started violently kicking out as he lay there
Vera hurried forward, the path curving and some trees blocking her view for several long moments as she limpingly picked up speed, striding as fast as her bad left hip would let her…
When she came back into view just yards from the bench, the man lay quiet again, totally still, his eyelids shut, his face slack, his left arm hanging off the bench — and one of the legs of his trousers flat and empty on the slats of the bench.
“I like to’ve wet myself,” were Vera’s words. She had seen both legs kicking in the dim lamplight… and now this empty fabric tube…
And just then, she heard a scraping, as of rough skin wrestling through undergrowth… She caught a blur of movement off in the grass to her right.
“And it reached some bushes, and right where it left the grass and pushed in between ‘em, I saw something big and thick worm itself across, with like pebbly skin!”
Vera pursued, too astonished to do otherwise, and the grass, uncut for some time, snagged her jerky gait. There was a curious tearing sound and then a vigorous, receding slither. She groped into the bushes, and threaded her way into the clear again. Between the trees along the Panhandle’s border she glimpsed, across Fell Street, something big moving low to the ground, reaching the far curb just ahead of an oncoming truck, and diving into the darkness beneath a parked van…
And Vera, in the weeds near where she stood, found a shoe, its laces still tied but the whole shoe ruptured, a bouquet of tatters attached to a sole. Dazed, unwillingly, she returned to the bench. There was no sign of the man. In a cluster of bushes not too distant, she heard a muffled thrashing. “I thought it over, but then I headed home. No way was I messin’ around in them bushes.”
Vera glared at Maxie, awaiting her response.
“Well,” said Maxie. “I can only say… that’s strange. And I have to add… that last night was obviously one of those occasional nights when you get a little drunker than you think you are.”
Vera looked at her gloomily. She didn’t seem to want to challenge this, but didn’t seem able to believe it either.`
Maxie cruised down the pleasant asphalted lanes of Golden Gate Park, trending down seawards. The sun, while still an hour high, sank into a rising layer of mist, and dimmed to a Martian wafer, brick-red. A sharp wind came up and started driving the mist inland through the Park, draping streamers of fog through the towering cypresses, and tangling it in the eucalypti’s blown cascades of grey-black foliage. Shreds of mist licked her face and she tucked Ramses more warmly in his box. The weather-shift stirred her. In the white-out of driving mist, the great trees rippled like coral reefs in a streaming sea of air.
Wind always excited Maxie, though it bit her harder in her lean old age… Ramses seemed stirred too, looked livelier up at her from his thick swaddling, relishing the silver rush of the air. “Put you to sleep?” she scoffed. “Crazy bitch! Isn’t this an amazing evening?” She crossed the Great Highway, and walked along the seaside promenade, pushing their cart’s rattling prow into the wind. A surprisingly thick foam churned on the surf, the caked yellow froth of hard-lashed seas. Copious fragments of it came tumbling and winging across the broad beach. They climbed the embankment, to fly in chunks and tatters across the promenade, scud out into the Great Highway, and plaster the passing traffic here and there with rags of dirty bubbles…
The cold spray licking Maxie’s cheekbones felt dense and glutinous. And, through all this wind and the sharp sea-smell, there was a haunting swamp scent, a fetor that belonged to dark murk and deep jungle, not at all to windblown coasts… Yet here it was, eddying inside the cowl of Maxie’s parka, probing her nostrils with the smell of putrefaction…
She trudged up past the Cliff House, past the guano-bleached crags just offshore in the surf’s crash. Even this high above the sea the dirty blizzard still blew past her, crossing the pavements… Tonight she’d go into those trees again, up beyond the pits of the old Sutro Baths…
Soon it was falling dark, but by that time they were snug in the lee of two close-growing trees, lying back half-propped on a mattress of dry needles and fern-fronds, she and Ramses snug in their waterproof fiberfilled mountain bag. Plenty of hot-burning cypress twigs lay broken and stockpiled, while the tiny trail-stove housed a hot little blaze at their side, and heated her cocoa in an enameled tin cup. They lay back looking from the gaps in the trees down on the narrowing waters of the Golden Gate, the Bridge ankle-deep in the steel-gray sea. The vista grew dimmer, as the headlights rivering atop the Bridge grew brighter. Beyond the Bridge, mist filled the Bay, and muted the glints of the city-lights along its eastern shore…
Maxie lit her fourth cigarette of the day — two more still to come! — and congratulated herself, not for the first time, on her long-ago inspiration to take to the streets, to spend two thirds of her days and nights outdoors. How much better the night sky was than any ceiling! And how much better to be moving around! Where in the world was there a more beautiful city than San Francisco? Why lie in any box in the time you’ve got left, eh old girl?
Her shopping cart had been an inspired idea — a declaration of poverty, a protection against thieves. She’d found the perfect way to go abroad in the world. She took a deep drag, and streamed it up towards the first shyly appearing stars. Sipped her cocoa. It would be sweet to have Jack beside her now. They could describe to each other how grand and impossible the Bridge looked, bestriding the sea…
“I miss you, my love,” she said quietly. It always hurt her to say it aloud, and always had a sweetness too, as if Jack just might hear it…
Within the murmur of the wind in the trees, within that restless commotion, she felt wrapped in the conversation, the hum of the forest’s green life… was that a trickling sound she heard?
There was a moon well up in the misty night, and when Maxie peered into the trees for the sound’s source, her eye caught a glinting something in the ferns a few yards to her left.
A little seepage from the loam? Maybe something a little more profuse than seepage — she saw a silvery little braid of movement there. It was months since any rain…
She finished her cocoa and got out her second-to-last smog. Snapped it alight, and blew the satin smoke from her nostrils… The sound of the night had changed around her. The hillside seemed restive in a new way, not just with the wind’s passage, but stirred by little secretive movements everywhere, a host of small half-hidden lives all working in the earth and in the leaf-mold and among the roots of the trees, the roots right under her…
She consumed the cigarette, cupping the coal between drags so the wind wouldn’t accelerate its burn-down. And by the time she’d finished it, had decided that, when she’d gathered ferns and needles for her mattress, there had been no seepage over there, where now she saw one. She weighed her comfort against her curiosity.
In the end, that restlessness in the earth goaded her to action. She extracted herself carefully from the bag, resettling it closely around Ramses. Stepped into her jeans and her Nikes…
Only a glow of embers came from the square mouth of her tin-can stove. She stepped across springy earth into deepening shadow…
Here was a shallow cleft in the sloping soil, and a leakage, not of water, but of a loose viscous fluid, bubbly with strong curdlike bubbles that put her in mind, somehow, of the suds dripping from that open washer door this afternoon.
“You oughta watch out for that stuff.”
The voice was calm but so unexpectedly nearby that Maxie had a neural meltdown.
“You sonofabitch! Don’t you have the manners to greet someone? What’re you doing, sneaking up to me?”
“I been standing here ten minutes. I thought you saw me.” But there was a sour humor in this old man’s eyes that confessed he’d enjoyed making her jump. He was small and lean in dark sweatshirt and jeans, helmeted in a black wool cap with a tiny brim and earflaps, his face all gaunt in there. But he had a major handlebar mustache that was remarkably thick for a man this old. The ‘stache made Maxie think of a ragged white alleycat draped over a fence.
“So why are you standing here! There’s plenty of room on this hill. We want our goddamn privacy!”
“You shouldn’t be lyin’ here! That’s what I’m tellin’ ya! You gotta watch out for this stuff, for anything comes from the water table.”
“For anything that comes from the water table?”
“You speak English, doncha?”
“Better than you.”
This made the handlebar man mad. “Maybe so, but you don’t know shit. Just do yourself and everyone else a favor and don’t step in it, if that’s not too complicated for ya.”
And he walked off into the trees — pretty quiet and quick in his movements too, and soon gone from sight and hearing…
Maxie crouched down over the seepage, stirred around in it a little with a twig. It was clotted, with little shadows in the clots. She’d grown up in the Central Valley. “Frogspawn,” she said. Or toadspawn, up on these moist hillsides. That’s all it was. The ‘stache man was an urban whack, freaked out by unfamiliar Nature. She sighed, and went back to her sleeping bag.
Snuggling down and cradling Ramses, she told him, “That guy seemed almost sane at first, didn’t he?”
But, deeper in the night, Ramses’ movement woke her. He had climbed her shoulder, and stayed there with his muzzle aimed at the seepage. And remained so, after she had fallen back into sleep.
Maureen had fallen asleep in her barcalounger, snug in quilts with the clicker at hand and Muffin curled on her lap. It was Muffin’s sleeping there that had put Maureen under, and now it was his gentle movements in her lap that awakened her. She had a vague sensation of small, light forms dispersing across her thighs…
Her wakening was hazy and slow, for she’d had one of her nice pills before she and Muffin settled down. She raised her head, so comfy and heavy. Yes, there he was in her lap, his adorable little muzzle thrust up inquiringly towards Maureen’s face, and his little fawn-colored flanks so fluffy. But…
Maureen hoisted herself a little higher. Muffin blinked calmly back at her. But Muffy had no legs. No legs at all. Muffin was only his head, his fat fluffy little torso, and his tail. He looked perfectly sleek, like he’d never had legs… !
Maureen was utterly, albeit groggily, astonished.
And just then she felt a delicate movement across the slipper on her right foot.
The shock of it gave her the hydraulic lift to sit all the way up. A slender little jointed shape jackknifed off her slipper, and vanished.
Scooping up Muffin, Maureen surged to her feet in astonished terror. Here was her dog! As smooth as a little guinea pig, but without even a guinea pig’s tiny legs! He was just a plump, furry tube! His tail wagged in response to Maureen’s hands, but lackadaisically. His jaws were slightly parted, and he seemed very lightly to pant.
Maureen set him on the couch, rushed, whimpering softly, to the phone, and punched out her vet’s number from memory. Soon she was in a frantic altercation with the vet’s answering service, Maureen crying banshee-like that an ambulance must come for Muffin and herself and that Dr. Groner had to come in to meet them at the pet hospital at once! Maureen encountered, within a suede glove of courtesy, an iron fist of refusal — and then was galvanized to discover, in her pacings, that Muffin had disappeared from his nest of cushions. But how could the poor dog move?
In a panic she dropped the phone, and searched under the sofa. Down the hall behind her, came the little clap of the backdoor pet-door. It was only ‘Tasha, Maureen’s cranky old portly little Persian, waddling dourly toward her. Still in shock, Maureen responded by rote, went to the kitchen to be sure ‘Tasha’s dish was full. The kitchen was dark but a slant of light from the barcalounger lamp showed the shadow of food in the dish. Wasting no energy on greeting, ‘Tasha padded a beeline to her supper.
Trembling with determination, Maureen took up the phone again. If it had to be 911, so be it.
A thump and a slithery scrabbling and the rattle of spilt kibble brought her head round. ‘Tasha lay — half in shadow — thrashing mightily, and what looked like long tapery fish with froggy skin, three of them, were eating her legs! Three of her legs as the cat kicked and thrashed them in the air, and clawed at them with her one free paw, but the fish, muscular, powerful, swallowed her legs into their froggy tubes with great gulps, lurching closer to her torso… four of them now! For Tasha’s tail was also taken, by yet another of the little monsters that lurched suddenly from the darkness! Oh dear God in Heaven what was Happening?
A commotion rose from the back of the couch and she whirled. Around from the back and over the top poured another one of these toadskinned fish, much bigger than the other four. Maureen screamed and leaped backwards, stumbled and fell back into her Barcalounger. And saw that atop this bigger monster’s toadlike skull, there were two little tufted peaks, and instantly recognized those dear little saliences: they were the tips of Muffin’s ears. But already they were no longer like ears. They were melting, sinking to a tarry substance which seemed to weave itself into the toadskin hemisphere, melting to a dark resin that was already merging with the monster’s amphibious skin. This had been Muffin! This hideous fish! It launched itself, and the creature — big as a cat itself — seemed to have only ‘Tasha in its sights. It launched to the floor and thrashed across it, pushing itself along by — Maureen saw them now — the thrusts of four little legs that looked almost like fins with little clawed feet…
A strange calm fell upon Maureen. All of this was so impossible that it was… fascinating. Maureen’s religion had a dimension of true feeling in her heart. The world’s dazzling multiplicity often moved her deeply with reverence and awe. And often she inwardly exclaimed, Behold the wonders of God’s creation, for how can man conceive any end to their variety?
For look! The lesser fish had fled to the shadows already, and now ‘Tasha had only one leg, and no tail. Gamely, Tasha hoisted her head to encounter the big toad-fish’s advance, its glossy parabolic jaws gaping wider, wider, as it thrashed its way across the floor, and leapt, and engulfed ‘Tasha right up to her remaining leg. Then it reared up its toadlike gullet, and bolted ‘Tasha’s leg down too.
Maureen watched in awe. And terror too, of course, but encompassing the fear was a bemused sense of privilege for being honored with a revelation. She was being shown a miracle. She was not the futile, undistinguished woman she had, unknown to herself, feared that she was! She was being shown a miracle, and it filled her with gratitude.
Or perhaps this terror simply had made her insane?
But she did not feel insane. She felt… tingly. Her thumb itched, and from it a kind of heat seemed to flow out and into all the rest of her body. She lay back watching ‘Tasha’s devourer calmly. The creature seemed slightly to swell, to change — its tail a bit shorter, its legs a bit bigger and more clearly jointed. It waddled its way down the hall, out of her view. There was a clatter of the pet-door. And Maureen felt herself alone in the house.
Her body was quite comfortable really. And this was just exactly what she should be doing. After such a revelation, she should be lying here comfortably, meditating upon the wonder of it, and raising hosannas in her heart to a beneficent God capable of such wonders, and loving her enough to share them with her…
At sunrise Maxie rose and broke camp. Went upslope to the cluster of trees where she’d hidden her cart, and then down to the coffee shop just above the Cliff House. Here they accepted her with Ramses in his sling. She had a couple eggs and a cup of coffee. Went to the restroom. One thing about walking around all day was, you were regular as clockwork.
She had a second cup (having laid out her money with a dollar tip — as always) and savored it as she looked from the window. Watched the waves rolling in below the bare foundations of the vanished Sutro Baths. There was still a lot of foam on the waters…
It drew her attention. No gale now to froth it up, but big yellowish mats and ridges of this lather mantled the waves. And still, on this morning’s milder breeze, it blew ashore, even way up here. Little rags of it tufted the dead water of the two square tarns that had been the Baths…
Outside, she got Ramses into his box-bed, and rolled him on down to the paths that networked the site.
When she was closer to the pools, she saw that the froth lay unmelting. Odd. Come to that, it was odd there was so much water in those pits. What was the norm for October, after months without rain… ?
She pushed to the path beyond the site, and out a ways around the shoulder of the bluffs… The foam lay in a shore-hugging band, not that wide, really, and seeming to narrow as it wrapped around the headland, towards the Golden Gate. Like a great decorative scarf flung round the cliffs’ base…
“It’s me. Over here.”
Again calmly spoken… but this time the Handlebar man stood fifteen feet up slope from her.
“That’s much better,” Maxie said. “I hate being snuck up on. So, you talk about the water table… you know about water in general? Like all that foam down there? There’s no wind to whip it up… ”
“Ocean’s part of the water table. You don’t think it honeycombs the whole damn peninsula here?”
He let a silence follow.
“OK,” she said. “So… ?”
“I’m not good at explaining. I hafta show you. You’ll hafta park the cart and bag the dog.”
“Have you been spying on me? How do you know I carry him in a sling?”
“Hey. I know every walker in this city. I get around. I keep my eyes open. So do you wanna believe, or do you wanna bury your head?”
“… In the sand?”
“In the sand.”
“Lead on. I’ve got a knife,” [true] “and I’ve got a gun,” [untrue] “and I know how to use them both.” [untrue — neither one].
He led them back up into the trees. She parked her cart under cover, slung Ramses on her chest. Ramses looked alert and eager, as if today an added amperage coursed through him. The little whippet had always been her warning system, and he was telling her to follow this man.
“I’m Leon.” He didn’t look back at her, leading them upslope through the trees, rounding the shoulder of the headland… As they advanced northeasterly, the northern pylon of the Golden Gate just peeked into view, until the woods got thicker and the ground got steeper and she had to give all her attention to the trail.
Petrov’s route, scarcely a proper path itself, crossed many a clearer path descending steeply to the beach below. This crooked deer-trail moved only gradually down the bluffs as it arced round them…
Now the bluff got quite steep, and the hillside in-folded deeply. And within this seam, a sharper, deeper gully lay. It was bare dirt, running perhaps a hundred yards down the bluff, heavily overgrown along its crests to either side, but in its depth just bare rock and the reddish clay of the cliffside’s flesh.
“Steep here,” said Leon quietly, stopping, turning to her. “You up to it? We gotta go down to that outcrop by the lower angle — see it?”
“I’m up to it,” Maxie snapped.
Still, it was steep, and the earth had to be worked with the heel to furnish footholds, and the shrubs used for steadying handholds. Ramses stirred in his pouch, and his muzzle probed the cold blue morning air.
The rim shelved a little. Petrov called a halt, and they looked down into the gully. A damp breath welled from it. He pointed towards its apex, upslope of them. “Looka there. You see the stream creeping out of this thing?”
The earth seemed moister round a seam in the clay up there, and yes, she could now see that a thin sheen threaded its way all the way down along the gully’s floor, and into the shrubbery below it.
“I don’t see any flow.”
“Look at that slickness. It’s transparent but it’s like thick, right?”
“OK… there’s some moisture I guess… So what?”
“This gully right here is where all that foam along the beach is comin’ from.”
“Hey. Leon. You’ve gotta be kidding.”
“No. But since you don’t know shit, a course you’d say that.”
“Hey. I don’t like your mouth. I don’t like your moustach either. It looks like the whiskers on a walrus’s ass.”
“You’ve seen the whiskers on a walrus’s ass?”
“A white walrus’s ass.”
“OK. OK. Why should you trust me? But I’ll tell you what. Come back here just before dark tonight, and get into some cover, and stay hidden, and watch this ravine. You won’t watch long, before you see exactly what I’m talkin’ about.”
The morning sun slanted through the kitchen windows. From her Barcalounger, Maureen gazed dreamily at ‘Tasha’s dish, the scattered kibble on the linoleum… and not even a whisker of ‘Tasha herself. Tasha had been eaten by… what Muffin had turned into!
Amazing as this was, it was just a beginning. Maureen had lain for hours perfectly calm, except that her calm wasn’t exactly calm, it was richer than that, more powerful. She felt a golden wholeness, a physical sense of completeness and purpose. Felt utterly relaxed, and utterly vibrant.
And, stranger than this, she felt… multiple. More than having thoughts now, she seemed to be having a chorus of them. It dawned on Maureen for the first time in her long life that her mind was not really inside her body, not exactly, but that rather it was bombarding her body with constant queries and tests from more or less outside it.
And this dawned on her precisely because for the first time she felt that her mind was inside her body, or was inside three separate parts of it. There was first her upper body, and she knew it from within. She was inside her ribcage. She didn’t picture her ribcage — she was in it, enveloped in its blood-slick membranes, in the blood-swollen loaves of her lungs…
And her wonder at this was echoed, for she was also inside her legs, separately inside each one, her knowledge tendrilled round their long bones like a ghostly ivy, marveling at the architecture of muscle and tendon and vein.
Never had Maureen felt so complete unto herself — felt herself to be such an exotic construction of bone and meat and soul! A wonderful coolth flushed through her tripart self, as if she had been dipped in a tarn of the blackest, deepest, purest water…
So within herself — within her three selves! — did she feel, that she did not at first realize that her eyes were closed and she lay in a sun-shot darkness. She willed her eyes to open, and it was revealed to her that she had no eyelids, nothing answered the movement of her will. At the same time, this seemed to matter not at all, so gorgeous was the architecture of tissue and vein she lay bathed in, wrapped in…
She tried to touch herself, to learn how she was changing, and it was revealed to her she had no arms… while it seemed her feet were bulging, swelling (with a distant noise of ruptured slippers) and her legs’ junctures with her waist were thinning, twisting, and her waist itself was doing likewise… .And at the end of this vigorous unbraiding, it seemed three linked tails disengaged…
And Maureen’s legs thrust muscularly forth, and they (and her other selves in them) departed, surging reptilically down the hall and bursting — first one, then the other — with a slick whispery sound of passage out through the pet door.
While she who remained in the Barcalounger lay with tail thrashing to a metabolic rhythm, lay enthralled by the great strength blossoming in her newly potent shape.
Transfiguration! And accelerating now. Her flesh became whip-taut and cool. In smooth convulsions, her head and jaws usurped all the mass of her erstwhile body from the ribs up. And her eyes came back! My god, how they came back! Maureen could see all the way around her, her great orbs swiveling like greased ball-bearings, eyes big enough to hold the world, catch every least movement in it.
Then, huge-jawed, her skin a glossy armor tough as leather, she wrenched free of her robe. She leapt, in a cavorting dolphin’s arc, from the Barcalounger, and hit the floor with the four surprises of little legs and clawed feet to break her impact. She scrabbled and slithered toward the front door.
By God in Heaven, Maureen was hungry! It was a raging void in her, a cyclone of need. But her head was too huge for the pet-door, and her forefoot too crude for the knob. She rammed the door, cracking it lengthwise, but also hurting her head. She mustn’t use her head as a ram yet. Her instinct told her that food was strength, and she would grow mightier with eating. The kitchen window should be easier than the door. She craved something large to eat, and the thought of the back yard — even as she toiled swiftly back down the hall — brought instantly to mind what she wanted to eat. It was when she was out back gardening, that she was most tormented by King’s barking.
She leapt up onto the kitchen table. Perched on the table, her legs seeming to grow with every passing second, she gathered herself for a mightier leap — straight at the double panes above the kitchen sink.
Erupting into morning sun, in a sparkling spray of glass, Maureen dropped splay-legged — whumph — onto her deep, lush lawn.
King lived two yards over. Even now he was barking, with deep, baying deliberation…
She regarded her sturdy plank fence. She sensed that a moment was coming, not too distant, when she would have hind legs that could launch her right over it… But for the present, she began to ram and claw her way into the soft earth at the base of the fence.
She made rapid progress into the soil. As she worked, she heard the strains of Barry Manilow. That was why King was so vocal — his people, Wyatt and Eve — were out in their Jacuzzi on the back deck, enjoying the day with him…
With her cart stashed, knapsack packed, and Ramses in his sling, Maxie headed down one of the steep trails to the beach. Ramses was lively, head up out of the pouch, turning the little wand of his muzzle left and right. And there was a scent of something. A cool October day, a shred or two of cloud across the blue, but it didn’t smell as fresh as it looked. There was a rankness that flirted with her mind.
Ramses got even livelier. Had to be put down. Tottered to a tree and peed on it. He seemed… conscious of some adversary here, one he meant to meet. She put him in the sling the rest of the way down, but when they reached the narrow beach, he insisted on getting down again and tottered, zig and zag, ahead of her.
Maxie climbed the rocks a little way, and saw the yellow, curdled foam mantling the sea for a hundred yards offshore, an unbroken collar arcing eastwards, curving round back towards the Golden Gate. In that direction the creamy expanse narrowed. Would it taper finally to a point of origin?
Ramses was already well ahead of her. She hurried after. Look at the life and purpose in him today! Put him to sleep? The idiocy of that woman…
They picked their way across rock-shelf and gravel bar. Maxie found Ramses’ unflagging energy as astonishing as she did the foam, which was indeed tapering, narrowing, ‘till they came to a sharp invagination of the bluffs’ wall.
Rounding this, they confronted a vertical cleft that vanished into the vegetation overhead. It was reminiscent of the much higher one Pterov had taken her to, but its cleft was moister, and faintly foamy, and from its juncture with the barnacled rocks, a thin, milky threadwork branched out into the sea… The whole great stream of foam rose here!
Her clawed feet seemed to grow in strength with use — they gave Maureen a surprising amount of leverage in the earth. But it was her massive muscled head, and sinewy fish-like thrust, that enabled her momentum through the loam.
Surfacing in a spray of Marigolds (Miss Saunders’ largest bed of them it looked like) she charged to the next fence, and dove again against the earth, the dense soil a medium almost as yielding as water to her miraculous new shape…
And erupted in front of King’s sizeable little house, which was in the corner of the yard the dog most loved — for from here he could bark at houses on every side of him. Maxie rose like a geyser of hunger, a craving void that must obliterate this beast. King had spirit. He yelped, he snarled, he lunged — into Maureen’s widening, up-rushing jaws, which possessed his forelegs, head and chest, and lifted his struggling hindquarters skywards.
The game brute was chawing ferociously on Maureen’s tongue, a massy organ which felt not pain, but tingling imminence, and then that tongue swelled and thrust more deeply into King’s throat, a thick, expanding root that exploded King’s skull within her mouth. She heaved him back, and yet again back, bagging the dog — near inert now, just tremoring — all the way down her gullet.
For an indeterminate time she crouched there, hidden by King’s house from Wyatt and Eve in their Jacuzzi. Crouched there while Barry Manilow swelled suavely overhead. Crouched there discovering that King within her, though the architecture of him was dissolving in her corrosive stomach acids, though the brain and the bone shell that had held his heartbeats, his thoughts, were dissolving in her hunger, King himself was not dissolving, the animal’s spirit emerged intact within her as his fleshly structure crumbled away. She felt, in the darkness of her digestion, the barking brute’s horror and dismay, to find himself existing within the black sphere of her belly.
And as if this doleful incarcerated life in her were some kind of dynamo, an imperative deep in her new body, Maureen’s bones branched creaking to life, and the muscles of her legs bulged along these bones. Almighty god in Heaven! I behold your wonders and I cry Hallelujah unto you! Behold I open like a blossom under your radiance!
Swelled — in moments! — to half again her size, Maureen could just overlook the roof of the doghouse. In her almost spherical gaze, how shapely did Wyatt and Eve look, waist-deep in their Jacuzzi, drinks at their elbows! And… how she hungered for them! Their fleshiness. In them lay her own more lordly stature! Behold the greatness the Lord declared that she had earned! To snatch them into her need’s whirlwind would be to tower like a colossus when the meal was done. Still her hind legs grew, her steel-spring knees jutting higher to her sides, the muscles swelling like melons. And now, low though she squatted, Wyatt saw her.
She met his gaze. Such a square, fleshy young man, very intimidating whenever she’d gone to him with her faint, courteous complaints about King’s barking. At present he didn’t look threatening, looked astonished… and suddenly Maureen absolutely knew that she could splash down into that hot tub with a single leap —
And as she thought it, launched it, thrust old bony mother earth so powerfully beneath her that she hung on air, a weightless bubble sailing the blue sky, and hit the water swallowing, Wyatt already socketed in her vast mouth, so that she reared his legs high in a crown of spray, and got him all down with a gulp.
She sat in the water with Eve, pinning her against the tub’s rim. Maureen and Eve both sat astonished — Eve at Wyatt’s vanishing, and Maureen at Wyatt’s arrival within her, for as her cauldron belly’s acids licked him swiftly to bone, his mind, his memories coalesced within her own. She knew him inhabiting her, and he, thus pent, knew her.
Loving Lord! You show me, unworthy, your wonders! Your glory is as a feast you set before me!
She was saddened to find that she could not communicate this gratitude to Eve, and tell Eve how she was not going to be annihilated, but was to live again within Maureen. Her attempt at explanation produced only a long sticky amphibious hiss, at which poor frightened Eve cried out, and peed in the tubwater. Maureen gripped Eve with her forefeet, and thrust the young woman headfirst into her jaws. Soon, once she was dissolved, Eve would understand, would know it was all right…
For almost an hour longer, her globed eyes dreaming, her body sunk in metabolic meditation, she squatted in the foaming water. It seemed her mind half dozed, while her body grew so vast that stars were coming out inside her, winking on here and there, a visceral swarm of tiny suns…
Then Maureen came more awake. These stars she felt inside her. These myriad points of light… they were her eggs. She had to find her way to water — big water, in the dark earth. She had to meet someone…
Ramses squirmed to be put in his bed-box in the cart’s prow. Not to curl up, but to sit propped on his rickety forelegs, sniffing the air, his attention drawn everywhere. Her little protector was back… but what kind of danger could waken him so? She walked along California, up Arguello to its end, crossed the Park, thence along Waller (Haight itself, though she liked to scope all the people and what they were wearing, took too much steering of her cart), and then down along Divisadero to the Castro. Went into the Gin and Beer It, which had a back alley where Yves let her park her cart between his dumpsters.
“How’s our little man?” Yves leaned his beaky nose down to Ramses, who dabbed his answering muzzle from the sling. To Maxie, setting up her gimlet, he said, “Why didn’t you tell me you had a new friend?”
“I don’t have a new friend.”
“Well, Leon said to tell you, if you showed up, to stick around a little and he’d be back.”
“A scrawny whacko with a white ‘stache?”
“So you do know him. I’ve known him for years. He’s a walker, like you. And here he is! Well Howdy, Miss Dee.” This to Leon’s companion. A gray-haired woman with a handsome face — gray eyes and gaunt cheeks. She carried an old-fashioned walking stick with a brass head.
Petrov said, “Maxie, this is Dee. Let’s take a table — you gotta talk to Dee, Maxie.”
“Don’t be so abrupt.” Dee poked his shoulder. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Maxie. I’ve seen you around. The thing is, I do have to talk to you. Would you please? Can I buy you another gimlet?”
“Well, sure. Yes you can, Dear.” It was fun using the old-ladyism “dear”. She had the right, had maybe fifteen years on Dee, and liked her too, liked her eyes, both kind and tough. It occurred to her Jack had been just around this woman’s age when he died…
At the table Leon sat opposite Maxie, and while Dee got some books from her little backpack, Maxie asked him, “What are you staring at?”
“I’m just keepin’ my mouth shut ‘till you’ve heard her an gone through all the usual changes.”
A comeback died in Maxie’s throat. For some reason, his sarcastic conviction called sharply back to her Vera’s two a.m. vision in the Panhandle. Vera was not the hallucinating type. A cold, cottony sensation moved delicately down Maxie’s spine, recalling white rags of sourceless sea-foam, tumbling before the wind…
“There’s no way to ease into this,” Dee told her. “Please. Just listen. And after a while, I’ll tell you what I’ve seen with my own eyes.” And she began to read from a battered gray book.
“’Our little earth is beset by Titans. In the infinitude of space and time, the Great Old Ones swim like krakens through the deep. Time and again they find us, in worlds that have been, and worlds that have yet to be… anywhere and anywhen they find, have found, will find us, time without end, but in this present time, in the cosmic deep they navigate, there hangs one particular window of light and color that draws them. Like a stained-glass pane high above, it tempts the titans’ appetites with a flash of rainbow radiance. And that is the window on our Twenty-First century.
“’For now, in our age, it is this Queen of Cities, skirted by her seas, it is this jewel among metropoloi, crowned with towers, limbed with mighty bridges, robed in lushly architected stone… it is San Francisco that beguiles the Titans’ mossy megalithic eyes, as they drift through the cosmic Benthos.
“’In our present time, it is towards San Francisco they converge, hither they swim! Hither they glide, drawn to this radiant window on the rest of our world.
“’Of the Great Old Ones, the mightiest, dread Chthulu, is among us already. He appropriates our souls, possesses our wills. Legions of his minions, his devout Ganymedes, already infest our corporate boardrooms, our governments, our churches.
“’Dagon too is among us already. He feeds more frankly on our flesh. His benthic zombies come dripping ashore to harvest our bodies in the night, while offshore his vast hands can seize the greatest vessel and crack it for the nutmeats of its crews.
“’Tsathoggua too is among us already… ’”
Here Leon laid an interrupting hand on Dee’s arm. He leaned toward Maxie and told her, “Tsathoggua. That’s the one you can meet for yourself, right where I showed you. You can meet him tonight. Then you’ll know some shit!”
Maureen moved through the foliage of Golden Gate Park in the dusk. She went by leaps and lurks, vaulting through the dense cover, and crouching with rubbery resilience through more open ground — and freezing, seizing, and feeding wherever sudden occasion presented itself. She consumed a jogger, a small, quick woman in black spandex. She launched the elastic shroud of her tongue and snatched a wildly kicking cop off his motorbike and down her throat…
And went on, seeking water. Her body knew the touch of water all around her. Each wart on her great surface (she was big as a VW bug now) sensed every molecule of water in a radius of miles. Just west, of course, the mighty Pacific foamed on the beach, but no, this water was too turbulent to receive her tender spawn.
She sensed already the smaller, stiller pool she sought. Sensed too that she would soon meet, her mate-to-be. He drew even now towards the selfsame spot. The eggs within her seethed to be born, and thus it was, just as the first few stars were coming out, that she muscled through the foliage around the rim of Stow Lake.
The paths, the little plaza, the parking lot were deserted, but out on the oil-black lens of the lake there was movement, and a muted, hilarious commotion. A couple kids had broken the lock on a paddleboat and ridden it from its corral out to the open water. Bottles glinted, and hoarse guffaws broke out, imperfectly muffled. The little scamps! Maureen hungered fiercely for them!
But even as she advanced, a glittery black hugeness erupted near the boat, and overturned it. Two human shapes thrashed spray and foam… and were engulfed as one by wide, inhuman jaws.
It was He, and his feeding was her own — she felt it in her own bowels, and her unborn young rejoiced in the feast. Maureen and He were already one, were two halves of a host on the very threshold of being born. Maureen slid down into the lake.
In the silken dark, buoyant as bubbles, they met. They clasped foreclaws and spun and tumbled and spiraled in the satiny deep. For the first time in her life, Maureen knew Love, and knew its consummation was at hand. She broke their grip and swam towards the lake-rim. A muddy cove she found, curtained by leafy vines, and into this she climbed, leaving only her hindquarters in the water. And waited His advent.
His great smooth underbelly surged onto her back. He locked his forelegs round her throat, his hindlegs round her mighty thighs. His cloacum hung just atop her own, still shallowly submerged.
In a delirium of fulfillment, Maureen unpent her eggs, and felt them bubble unendingly from her cloacum.
Each bubble was an atom of her own raging hunger, and that hunger in herself was not diminished by its ejection, its diffusion over the black lake. With this birthing her own hunger was vastly magnified, enlarged into this spreading fan of spawn.
For as she spawned, her mate’s sperm joined its stream to hers, the sperm like a gelatinous explosive, a viscous dynamite that individually detonated each little globe of her greed, and woke it to life.
Long was their transport! Long their embrace! Long and long the sweet effusion of their kindled brood upon the waters!
Until, at length, they lay spent, lay piggybacked as one in a curious, tingly hiatus… which became a growing expectancy of something else, something more awaiting them, something vastly larger than the miracle they had just performed.
Maureen knew they had just begun, not ended, something grand and glorious. Of course her tadpoles even now a-forming, would within this very night sprout limbs and disperse into the surrounding greenery, would radiate from the Park in all directions and find their way into stormdrains and sewers and backyards and gardens all over San Francisco. But none of this now seemed half as important as what lay before her.
She and her mate crouched, cold to the wonder they’d worked. A greater marvel beckoned them now, a radiant immensity drew them to itself, commanded their nearness as a shining planet commands its moons.
Her mate unclenched her, and slid crunching away through the foliage. Maureen followed him.
Leon led them along the path he had shown Maxie this morning. They talked low, and interruptedly, for by moonlight the path was even trickier. “The thing to hold onto… ” Dee said, “… is to know they can be hurt. Can be fought.”
“ I have to be honest, “ said Maxie. “I don’t think… I quite believe… what you’ve told me.” Back in the Gin and Beer It, Dee had told her a very great deal indeed, as night fell outside, and the time drew on to come here.
Ahead, Leon growled, “No problem. You will.”
They smelled it just before they reached the gully’s edge: a coldly yeasty breath of swamp. He brought them to a place where the rim of the gully shelved slightly. There was crouching room here where the scrub grew more sparsely. The seam was a darkness below them, save at its upper end where the moon angled in and glinted on the seepage from the cleft clay there.
Too old to crouch, Maxie sat on the coarse grass, and set Ramses down between her legs on a pad made from his folded pouch, for he whined to be set free. He sat there alertly, still galvanized by that vitality he’d shown all day.
“Just remember,” Leon growled. “Don’t do anything. We’re just here to see. So you’ll know.”
Maureen had seen a print of a wonderful religious painting somewhere, where all these souls were rising up a shadowy shaft, rising into a circle of glorious radiance above, their faces and arms lifted in love and acclaim towards the eternal light that drew them up to Itself.
That image had stayed with her for years, sometimes made her eyes misty, just thinking of that moment when God lifted his chosen ones straight up to His everlasting bosom.
And this was happening to her. The shadowy shaft was this dense night-black undergrowth she climbed through, and her mate, some ways upslope, climbed before her. She toiled her bulk up through the lightless tangle of this World Below, and there was a great light, a Sun above her that she climbed to. Its radiance had not yet burst forth, but it was near, so near! Just ahead up this steep bluff at whose foot they had emerged from the sea…
Tears welled from Maureen’s huge globular eyes. She had always known this was coming to her! Yes she had! Not out of pride, but because she had always taken the teachings of her church to heart, had always done the right thing, had walked steadfastly on the higher path…
Now the foliage yielded to a deep bare gully, an incision up the flank of the bluff. Ahead there in its blade-shaped pool of shadow, was her mate: a mottled, muscled sheen toiling toward the apex of the fissure. The gibbous moon peeked in up there to show his goal: a muddy seam in the clay not unlike her own cloacum…
There lay her re-birth. Her life unending! She climbed in awe. Her mate thrust himself into the fissure, his great bulk smoothly, incredibly received by the dense earth, ‘till shortly only his herculaean hind legs were visible. They pistoned once, twice — and he had vanished into the cliff-side.
Maureen’s heart took wing. She leapt forward, but was still some thirty yards short of her own apotheosis, when something small and snarling hurtled down upon her from the gully’s rim. Agony collided with her left eye, and tiny teeth tore at it. This dwarfish but excruciating assault severely trauma-ed her ecstatic soul. She seized the attacker in her foreclaws — a tiny dog! — and crushed its life out, even as she thrashed and rolled side to side, battering the walls of the gully in her pain.
It caused a kind of rapture, to see the Impossible so plainly. As Maxie watched the huge amphibian claw its way into the earth, something stirred far away inside her, a primitive jubilation in her soul. It was true! The life in her exulted to know for a fact that the universe was a miracle in progress.
And then she realized there was another monster, following the first one up the gorge. In her rapture she rose to her feet — all three of them were standing, as if they were invisible, looking on from another world. There was a commotion in the grass at Maxie’s feet, and suddenly there was Ramses, a stripe of moonlight across the last glimpse of him Maxie ever saw, diving into the dark, his little fangs bared. The dauntless whippet plunged straight down upon one of the second monster’s eyes!
The brute thrashed explosively, down there in its darkness, its glossy hide flashing in its throes. “Ramses,” Maxie whispered, seeing her little friend killed then, stepping to the gully’s extreme brink.
Up where the first brute had penetrated, the moonlit earth moved. The clay tremored, and the seam in it spread, and from this aperture, a geyser of glittering flesh erupted into the moonlight. An immense tongue leapt ninety feet down the gorge and snatched back from it, and into the moonlight, the titan toad that seemed titanic no longer: the brute Ramses had died defending her from was mummied in tongue up to its eyes. The moonlight flashed on the rill of blood that glittered from its wounded eye, and then it was snatched peremptorily into the cliffside.
In a dim green light, in an immense cavern within the cliff, Maureen — so silkily bandaged in tongue, like a fetus undelivered! — was lifted higher, higher… to hang above an alien planet, a single cyclopean Eye. Its pupil was a tarn of absolute black, ringed with a thin golden iris. The black void fractionally contracted as it studied her, making the pupil seem like an unearthly maw taking tiny bites of her…
And perhaps this was the mouth that spoke to her, for its words murmured stickily in the very center of her mind:
All you’ve seen and done is mine. All you know I will forever know.
And then Maureen was snatched into a different cavern, a Carlsbad of unearthly flesh, where a sunless sea of acids foamed.
There followed a dreadful passage for Maureen, a purgatory really! Wherein she swam in acid in perfect darkness. Wherein her meat and her blood and her bones turned to smoke, and drifted away from her thrashing and astonished soul.
But then… then she was whole and calm. She was… cleansed. Was purely and only her own immortal soul! In fact, she was Reborn, as her Pastor had always promised! And all her memories, all her feelings, were still minutely, eternally hers, delivered out of the body’s griefs and woes…
For an immeasurable time she lay in this blissful revelation. But gradually, a tiny question kindled. Why was Eternity… so dark?
But no. No, it was not dark exactly. Dimly intricate visions swarmed round her, dizzying glimpses that her reaching thought could touch in all directions. Dear God! There was a multitude around her. No darkness this, but a Matrix of other souls. Wherever she turned, she met a streaming traffic, a mob of other minds.
Wonder filled her, followed by the remotest little tingle of… unease. This wasn’t exactly like paradise. Wasn’t it a bit more like… being stored in a tank? Maureen struggled to understand the Benign Intent here…
Perhaps the fault was hers. Yes. She was supposed to reach out completely, to participate in her apotheosis. She must really look about her. Really commune with her angelic company.
And when she really reached, dear God, she found a wealth indeed! She entered an astonishingly detailed landscape, sunsets on planets unknown, wars fought in alien bodies, unspeakable grapplings of these indescribable bodies… Entered grieving reminiscences, entered the beloved winds of a carven ice-world where wolvish beings skated on paws of polished bone and exultingly drank moonlight forever gone, entered amoebic manta-rays winging like gossamer through maroon oceans of methane, balletically copulating within a gas-giant homeworld forever gone, entered long-fingered saurians, graceful as butterflies on water-wings like great ribbed fans, farming the continental shelves of amber seas forever gone…
And suddenly she heard, understood the ghostly tumult of remembered voices arising from this multitude. It was a stentorian chorus of woe everlasting.
As this understanding dawned, an alteration moved through this whole mosaic of pent minds. An impalpable wave arose, and its front was sweeping towards her… and seized her. She was lifted, was hung in an acid bath of searing light, and every instant of her sixty-five years flashed through her, was lived again in one unending moment. And with her own life, all the lives she had collected were also evoked within that searching illumination — King, Wyatt, Eve, the little jogger, the kicking cop — each intricate detail of their being flowered in her devourer’s possessive gaze…
And then Maureen subsided again into that vast anonymity of captured lives, that universal hubub of unsleeping memories.
Now she understood. Now Maureen knew it all. Oh, how they had lied in that church of hers! How blackly and solemnly and piously her Pastor had lied! This was not an eternity in glory! This was not a Beneficent God!
The sun was well up. They sat on a slope below the Legion of Honor, backs leaning against different sides of a cedar’s trunk. They had fallen asleep in these postures some time near dawn, and now awake, they still sat silent for a long time, gazing into space. At length Dee sighed, and took out her battered grey book. “Margold says some things about Tsathoggua… ” She turned pages. “Yes. Here, right after this passage about Dagon. I told you I’ve… seen Dagon myself, or part of him.” She read aloud. “’Dagon has cruised our world before, came up into the Sunless Sea beneath the Mountains of Madness and fed upon the Elder Race, and in another eon he dived from the skies upon Earth in the ancient Deluge that drowned it, and swam in those storm-tormented waters, snatching into his jaws the flood-doomed nations clawing at the surface, clinging to their rafts and spars and shards… ’”
Silence fell. Dee’s eyes were somewhere else.
Maxie prompted, “That’s Dagon.”
Dee blinked. Again she read aloud. “’But of these Titans, Tsathoggua’s is the deepest, most chthonic hunger. His meal is meat and minds. The populations he’s plundered seethe in his belly, time without end, their spirits intact, a mighty choir of woeful souls, each life a self-knowing cell of the toad-god’s entrails, wherein the greedy movement of their devourer’s mind sweeps through them, as Tsathoggua, again and again, relishes each life individually, like a miser gloating on his hoard.’”
They sat propped against the tree as on an axis of sanity, remembering the night just past.. A very old tomcat stepped out of the bushes: tattered ears, shabby white fur with tabby patches, he came up slowly but purposefully, mere locomotion clearly enough work for him that he wasted no energy on cautious approaches. Came up to Maxie and stood looking at her.
“I wonder if he likes cheese,” she said, dubious. Cats weren’t her animal. She peeled open a cheese-and-cracker packet from her knapsack.
“Cats love it,” Leon said.
This one seemed to. And it turned out he didn’t mind Ramses’ bed-box either, nor the rattle of the cart, once he realized he could lie safely at ease in it and look around. He had very scrutinizing yellow eyes. Maxie, looking back into them, was thinking, Why not? He needs a friend.
It was a long walk to Pete’s, but no one objected to it as a destination. None of them thought of separating, of being alone with what they had seen.
The bar was empty, and Pete agreed to let her park her cart in the back-corridor to the rest rooms, so the cat wouldn’t be startled into running off. Not a word was said of Ramses — Pete appeared to understand.
They took a table, three doubles, and a pitcher of beer. They drank in sips, looking into one another’s eyes from time to time, wordlessly, just confirming what they had seen last night, what they sat there still seeing, again and again…
In walked Vera, purposeful, climbed a stool and pointed at the bar in front of her with a look at Pete. Swiveled the stool and sat looking thoughtfully at Maxie and her two new friends. Maxie gestured her over, but Vera stayed on her perch.
“I was just over at Butler looking for you,” Vera said. “Big to-do. Copcars in the parking lot. Down in the laundry room this morning? Still dark? That Dawg and his twin, that Carne creep. They were clocking smack down there — Community Market night down in the laundry, right? You know that Ramon asshole from up on four? Well he said he was goin’ down to do laundry, but of course he was goin’ down to cop was what it was. He told the cops when he went in, he saw some big animal eating Dawg! Eating him whole! And Carne nowhere in sight — just one of his kicked-off shoes!”
No one said anything, though behind the bar, Pete’s hands froze for a moment on the glass he was polishing. Vera gazed with dawning surprise at the unsurprised gazes of the three tired old folks staring at her from the table.
Leon said, “You ought to come over, sit here with us, Miss. Set here by me why doncha?” Maxie and Dee looked at him. In the bony terrain visible behind his great shaggy ‘staches and eyebrows, they were amazed to discern an attempt at suavity on Leon’s…
The four of them talked for a considerable while, during which Pete gave up on the glasses and just leaned there on his bar, listening to them. A short silence followed.
“I think I’ll have to move out,” Maxie mused.
“Move in with me,” Dee said. “A room to yourself, though you might share sometimes with my young friend Scat. We should all be drawing together anyway. All of us who know.”
His collections include Polyphemus (1987), The Autopsy and Other Tales (2008), and Copping Squid and Other Mythos Tales (2010).
“Tsathoggua” originally appeared in Copping Squid and Other Mythos Tales, edited by S.T. Joshi (Perilous Press, October 2009).