Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tales From the Trunk: "Chrono de Se"

Not every unpublished story made it into Irregular Verbs, and there's a good reason for that. "Tales From the Trunk" looks at those stories that didn't quite make it: today it's "Chrono de Se."

I picked "Chrono de Se" to go with "Beyond the Fields You Know" because they're both the closest I've ever come to writing horror (on purpose, anyway.) I decided not to include it because while it has some nice imagery and a modestly clever idea, a SFnal twist on a contemporary phenomenon that I haven't seen done elsewhere, it didn't quite manage to walk the fine line between being too obvious and too obscure. There's also not a lot of character here, which may be less of a problem for a short horror piece than it would be otherwise but still led to me deciding to leave it in the trunk.

But hey, what do I know? Judge for yourself.

(By the way, for those who care about such things, this is a sort-of prequel to "Outside Chance.")

"Chrono de Se"

            Jeff swam in nothingness, cradled on all sides by the dark. He reached a hand out and somehow felt soft grass; looking around he saw a double-image of a garden, flowering shrubs and trees. It was not real, he knew, but only the product of his imagination. Here, where nothing existed, he could summon whatever reality he chose, or simply sink into the balm of sweet nothingness, safe beyond all harm.
            He did not know what he had done to deserve this. Had he, after so much searching, achieved some kind of enlightenment? Or was his whole life before -- his parents, his flight from the path they had laid out for him, all his travels -- an illusion that had finally faded to reveal the truth?
            Suddenly the darkness cracked: a fierce light burst in, small at first but expanding to fill the universe. He was cold now, and wet. Something was pulling him towards the light, rough hands laying him coughing and choking out on the grass. The unfamiliar sunlight burned his eyes, and he blinked away the hazy ghosts that filled his vision. After a few moments they resolved themselves into the face of an old man, his long beard white against his dark skin.
            "Rest," the old man said. He was squatting on his heels next to Jeff, holding out a china cup so fine the sunlight glowed amber through it. "Drink this, and rest. You have had a great loss."
            Jeff took the cup carefully, drank the cool tea inside. "Was I dead?" he croaked.
            The old man smiled kindly, shook his head. "The paradise is not to be found there," he said. "What you have tasted is oblivion, true nothingness, and it is not to be reached through death."
            Trying to sit up, Jeff felt his balance shift, and he reached out a hand to stop his fall. His vision had cleared, but his head still felt fuzzy, as though he were in the moments between being asleep and awake. "I -- why did I have to leave it?"
            The old man stood, reached out a hand to help Jeff to his feet. "Because I wished it," he said. "You are not ready to stay there yet -- but I will show you the way."
            Jeff smiled at the warmth of the old man's hand. He could now see he was in a small, simple garden twined through with gravel paths. His mind was still fuzzy, but memory of the void drew him like a buoy at sea. "What do I have to do? What do I have to become?"
            "Nothing," the old man said. "Nothing."
            Was it weeks that had passed, or years? Or was it only a handful of days? The sun rose and set, Jeff knew that, but he could not manage to keep track of how many times it did so. Any time he tried to focus his memory to a particular moment he remembered only the hot, sharp sun of noon and the scent of ever-blooming flowers.
            On this day he and the Old Man were walking in the garden. At the moment it seemed like they did that every day, though Jeff could not be sure that was true. Sometimes it seemed as though they spent every day drinking tea together, at other times that they did nothing but share the cool smoke of the water pipe. Always, no matter what they were doing, they would talk, the Old Man patiently answering all of his questions.
            "The paths are here because we tend to them," the Old Man was saying. They were standing at a crossroads in the garden, where one of the paths split off from the one they were on. "The grass would reclaim them if our feet did not tread them, if we did not pull it up when it left its bounds. But if we cut off a path --" He rubbed a line across the branching path with his slippered foot -- "we will no longer tend to it, and over time the grass will return. It will be as though it had never been."
            Jeff nodded. "It goes back to nature. To nothing."
            "All the world is only a garden," the Old Man said, "filled with the paths each of us treads. So long as that path exists we suffer pain. Our enemies. . . "
            He sighed. The Old Man would often refer to their enemies, though Jeff did not know who they might be. For that matter, he did not know who 'we' were, other than himself and the Old Man; he sometimes thought he heard other voices, saw fleeting shadows, but had never seen anyone else within the garden.
            "Our enemies are those who want us to suffer. They use the tools we do, but to preserve the paths, not erase them. They are so certain that their pain is important that they will do anything to maintain it -- and that is why you could not remain in the paradise."
             "Can I -- can we fight them?"
            "Each of us who finds the paradise strikes a blow against them."
            "I'm ready," Jeff said. "Please."
            The Old Man shook his head. "Not yet," he said. "You are not yet ready to sacrifice everything."
            Jeff closed his eyes, was able to summon only the barest shade of the feeling he had had in the void. "I am. I'll die if I have to."
            "I told you, death is not the door. What is your puny life worth? You must give up everything."
            "I'm sorry, I don't understand," Jeff said. A bitter taste was in his throat, and as he looked at the garden the sight of it was thin and watery, as though it was mocking his memory of the paradise. "Every day you explain this to me and I still don't get it. I feel like every day I know less than I did the day before."
            The Old Man smiled. "That," he said, "is a beginning."
            After that Jeff stopped trying to count the days, stopped trying to remember whether he was always drinking tea or always walking in the garden. When he saw the shadows or heard the voices he did not look or listen. He did not ask any more questions, but listened only, letting the Old Man's words wash over him, smoothing him into glass, and every night he knew less than he had that morning.
            One morning he awoke to find he had forgotten his name. He ran right away to the Old Man to tell him he was ready.
            "Not yet," the Old Man said. "You have not yet forgotten your name, only the word for your name. I can still see it floating around you like a ghost, waiting to reclaim you."
            "What can I do?"
            "I will give you a new name, to drive that one away. You will be Adam, as Adam was the first and last."
            Adam smiled. The name was good, it fit; it felt vaguely familiar, but he knew not to pursue that memory. "And now?"
            "Now you must forget me," the Old Man said. "Forget everything except the paradise, and the one thing you must do to return there."
            The Old Man sat Adam down on the grass, and whispered to him what he must do. Adam closed his eyes, nodded slowly, and when he opened them again the Old Man was gone. The garden was gone, too, and even the sun; pale light came from somewhere out of sight, dimly illuminating the room in which he now stood. On one wall stood a three-sided box, man-sized, made of metal wire. Forgetting each step as he took it Adam walked over to the box and stepped inside.
            A moment later and he was in another darkened room. He heard the sound of someone breathing, softly, in their sleep. His eyes, dark-adjusted, picked out a bed nearby, a man lying in it face down. Adam stepped over to it. There was a knife in his right hand. It had always been there.
            The man stirred, and Adam kept himself perfectly still. After a moment the man rolled over to face Adam, still asleep. He was a young man, with dark hair and a mustache.
            A memory was nipping at Adam's heels. He had seen that face; not in life but in a photograph, one taken before he had been born. This face did not bear any of the lines that came from fatherhood or responsibility, from the stress of looking after family and country. This was the face of a man without cares.
            The memory found and banished, Adam drew his knife-blade across the man's throat. The knife clattered to the floor; he felt the skeins of his life unravel, until he had never been.


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