Skrayling Tree: The Albino in America
By Michael Moorcock
Published by Warner Books
March 2003; 0-446-53104-9; 352 pages
Hearing I ask from the Holy Races, From Heimdall's sons, both high and low; Thou wilt know, Valfather, how well I relate Old tales I remember of men long ago.
I remember yet the giants of yore, Who gave me bread in the days gone by; Nine worlds I knew, the nine in the tree With mighty roots beneath the mold.
I am Oona, the shape-taker, Grafin von Bek, daughter of Oon the Dreamthief and Elric, Sorcerer Emperor of Melniboné. When my husband was kidnapped by Kakatanawa warriors, in pursuit of him I descended into the maelstrom and discovered an impossible America. This is that story.
With the Second World War over at last and peace of sorts returned to Europe, I closed our family cottage on the edge of the Grey Fees, and settled in Kensington, West London, with my husband Ulric, Count Bek. Although I am an expert archer and trained mistress of illusory arts, I had no wish to follow my mother's calling. For a year or two in the late 1940s I lacked a focus for my skills until I found a vocation in my husband's sphere. The unity of shared terror and grief following the Nazi defeat gave us all the strength we needed to rebuild, to rediscover our idealism and try to ensure that we would never again slide into aggressive bigotry and authoritarianism.
Knowing that every action taken in one realm of the multiverse is echoed in the others, we devoted ourselves confidently to the UN and the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which H. G. Wells had drafted, in direct reference to Paine and the U.S. Founding Fathers, just before the War. The U.S.A.'s own Eleanor Roosevelt had helped the momentum. Our hope was that we could spread the values of liberal humanism and popular government across a world yearning for peace. Needless to say, our task was not proving an easy one. As the Greeks and Iroquois, who fathered those ideas, discovered, there is always more immediate profit to be gained from crisis than from tranquillity.
By September 1951, Ulric and I had both been working too hard, and because I traveled so much in my job, we had chosen to educate our children at boarding school in England. Michael Hall in rural Sussex was a wonderful school, run on the Steiner Waldorf system, but I still felt a certain guilt about being absent so often. In previous months Ulric had been sleeping badly, his dreams troubled by what he sometimes called "the intervention," when Elric's soul, permanently bonded to his, experienced some appalling stress. For this reason, among others, we were enjoying a long break at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed summer house of Nova Scotian friends currently working in Trinidad. They were employed by the West Indies Independence Commission. When they returned to Cape Breton we would then leave their airy home to visit some of Ulric's relatives in New England before taking the Queen Elizabeth back to Southampton.
We had the loveliest weather. There was already a strong hint of autumn in the coastal breezes and a distinct chill to the water we shared with the seals, who had established a small colony on one of the many wooded islands of the Sound. These islands were permanently fascinating. The comings and goings of the wildlife provided just the right relaxation after a busy year. While Ulric and I enjoyed our work, it involved a great deal of diplomacy, and sometimes our faces ached from smiling! Now we could laze, read, frown if we felt like it and stop to enjoy some of nature's most exquisite scenery.
We were thoroughly relaxed by the second Saturday after we arrived. Brought by the local taxi from Englishtown, we had become wonderfully isolated, with no car and no public transport. I must admit I was so used to activity that after a few days I was a trifle bored, but I refused to become busy. I continued to take a keen interest in the local wildlife and history.
That Saturday we were sitting on the widow's walk of our roof, looking out over Cabot Creek and its many small, wooded islands. One of these, little more than a rock, was submerged at high tide. There, it was said, the local Kakatanawa Indians had staked enemies to drown.
Our binoculars were Russian and of excellent quality, bought on our final visit to Ulric's ancestral estate in the days before the Berlin Wall went up. That afternoon I was able to spot clear details of the individual seals. They were always either there or about to appear, and I had fallen in love with their joyous souls. But, as I watched the tide wash over Drowning Rock, the water suddenly became agitated and erratic. I felt some vague alarm. The swirl of the sea had a new quality I couldn't identify.
There was even a different note to a light wind from the west. I mentioned it to Ulric. Half asleep, enjoying his brandy and soda, he smiled. It was the action of Auld Strom, the avenging hag, he said. Hadn't I read the guide? The Old Woman was the local English name for the unpredictable bore, a twisting, vicious current which ran between the dozens of little islands in the Sound and could sometimes turn into a dangerous whirlpool. The French called her Le Chaudron Noir, the black cauldron. Small whaling ships had been dragged down in the nineteenth century, and only a year or two before three vacationing schoolgirls in a canoe had disappeared into the maelstrom. Neither they nor their canoe had ever been recovered.
A harder gust of wind brushed against my left cheek. The surrounding trees whispered and bustled like excited nuns. Then they were still again.
"It's probably unwise to take a dip tomorrow." Ulric cast thoughtful eyes over the water. He sometimes seemed, like so many survivors of those times, profoundly sad. His high-boned, tapering face was as thrillingly handsome as when I had first seen it, all those years ago in the grounds of his house during the early Nazi years. Knowing I had planned some activity for the next day he smiled at me. "Though sailing won't be a problem, if we go the other way. We'd have to be right out there, almost at the horizon, to be in real danger. See?" He pointed, and I focused on the distant water which was dark, veined like living marble and swirling rapidly. "The Old Woman is definitely back in full fury!" He put his arm around my shoulders. As always I was amused and comforted by this gesture.
I had already studied the Kakatanawa legend. Le Chaudron was for them the spirit of all the old women who had ever been murdered by their enemies. Most Kakatanawa had been driven from their original New York homeland by the Haudenosaunee, a people famous for their arrogance, puritanism and efficient organization, whose women not only determined which wars would be fought and who would lead them, but which prisoners would live and who would be tortured and eaten. So Auld Strom was a righteously angry creature, especially hard on females. The Kakatanawa called the conquering Haudenosaunee 'Erekoseh', their word for rattlesnake, and avoided the warriors as conscientiously as they did their namesakes, for the Erekoseh, or Iroquois as the French rendered their name, had been the Normans of North America, masters of a superb new idea, an effective social engine, as pious and self-demanding in spirit as they were savage in war. Like the vital Romans and Normans, they respected the law above their own immediate interests. Normans employed sophisticated feudalism as their engine; the Iroquois, a shade more egalitarian, employed the notion of mutuality and common law but were just as ruthless in establishing it. I felt very close to the past that day as I romantically scanned the shore, fancying I glimpsed one of those legendary warriors, with his shaven head, scalp lock, war paint and breechclout, but of course there was no one.
I was about to put the glasses away when I caught a movement and a spot of color on one of the near islands among the thick clusters of birch, oak and pine which found unlikely purchase in what soil there was. A little mist clung to the afternoon water, and for a moment my vision was obscured. Expecting to glimpse a deer or perhaps a fisherman, I brought the island into focus and was very surprised. In my lens was an oak-timbered wattle-and-daub manor house similar to those I had seen in Iceland, the design dating back to the eleventh century. Surely this house had to be the nostalgic folly of some very early settler?
There were legends of Viking exploration here, but the many-windowed house was not quite that ancient! Wisteria and ivy showed how many years the two-storied house had stood with its black beams rooted among old trees and thick moss, yet the place had a well-kept but abandoned look, as if its owner rarely lived there. I asked Ulric his opinion. He frowned as he raised the binoculars. "I don't think it's in the guide." He adjusted the lens. "My God! You're right. An old manor! Great heavens!" We were both intrigued. "I wonder if it was ever an inn or hotel?" Ulric, like me, was now more alert. His lean, muscular body sprang from its chair. I loved him in this mood, when he consciously jolted himself out of his natural reserve. "It's not too late yet for a quick preliminary exploration!" he said. "And it's close enough to be safe. Want to look at it? It'll only take an hour to go there and back in the canoe."
Exploring an old house was just enough adventure for my mood. I wanted to go now, while Ulric was in the same state of mind. Thus, we were soon paddling out from the little jetty, finding it surprisingly easy going against the fast-running tide. We both knew canoes and worked well in unison, driving rapidly towards the mysterious island. Of course, for the children's sake, we would take no risks if the pull of Le Chaudron became stronger. Though it was very difficult to see from the shore through the thick trees, I was surprised we had not noticed the house earlier. Our friends had said nothing about an old building. In those days the heritage industry was in its infancy, so it was possible the local guides had failed to mention it, especially if the house was still privately owned. However, I did wonder if we might be trespassing.
To be safe we had to avoid the pull of the maelstrom at all costs, so we paddled to the west before we headed directly for the island, where the gentle tug actually aided our progress. Typically rocky, the island offered no obvious place to land. We were both still capable of getting under the earthy tree roots and hauling ourselves and canoe up bodily, but it seemed an unnecessary exercise, especially when we rounded the island and found a perfect sloping slab of rock rising out of the sea like a slipway. Beside it was a few feet of shingle.
We beached easily enough on the weedy strip of pebbles, then tramped up the slab. At last we saw the white sides and stained black oak beams of the house through the autumn greenery. The manor was equally well kept at the back, but we still saw no evidence of occupation. Something about the place reminded me of Bek when I had first seen it, neatly maintained but organic.
This place had no whiff of preservation about it. This was a warm, living building whose moss and ivy threatened the walls themselves. The windows were not glass but woven willow lattice. It could have been there for centuries. The only strange thing was that the wild wood went almost up to its walls. There was no sign of surrounding cultivation-no hedges, fences, lawns, herb gardens, no topiary or flower beds. The tangled old bracken stopped less than an inch from the walls and windows and made it hard going as our tweeds caught on brambles and dense shrubbery. For all its substance, the house gave the impression of not quite belonging here. That, coupled with the age of the architecture, began to alert me that we might be dealing with some supernatural agency. I put this to my husband, whose aquiline features were unusually troubled.
As if realizing the impression he gave, Ulric's handsome mouth curved in a broad, dismissive smile. Just as I took the magical as my norm, he took the natural as his. He could not imagine what I meant. In spite of all his experience he retained his skepticism of the supernatural. Admittedly, I was inclined to come up with explanations considered bizarre by most of our friends, so I dropped the subject.
As we advanced through the sweet, rooty mold and leafy undergrowth I had no sense that the place was sinister. Nonetheless, I tended to go a little more cautiously than Ulric. He pushed on until he had brought us to the green-painted back door under a slate porch. As he raised his fist to knock I noticed a movement in the open upper window. I was sure I glimpsed a human figure. When I pointed to the window, we saw nothing.
"Probably a bird flying over," said Ulric. Getting no response from the house, we made our way around the walls until we reached the big double doors at the front. They were oak and heavy with iron. Ulric grinned at me. "Since we are, after all, neighbors"-he took a piece of ivory pasteboard from his waist-coat-" the least we can do is leave our card." He pulled the old-fashioned bell-cord. A perfectly normal bell sounded within. We waited, but there was no answer. Ulric scribbled a note, stuck the card into the bell-pull, and we stepped back. Then, behind the looser weaving of the downstairs window, a face appeared, staring into mine. The shock staggered me. For a moment I thought I looked into my own reflection! Was there glass behind the lattice?
But it was not me. It was a youth. A youth who mouthed urgently through the gaps in the weaving and gestured as if for help, flapping his arms against the window. I could only think of a trapped bird beating its wings against a cage.
I am no dreamthief. I can't equate the craft with my own conscience, though I judge none who fairly practice it. Consequently I have never had the doubtful pleasure of encountering myself in another's dream. This had some of that reported frisson. The youth glared not at me but at my husband, who gasped as one bright ruby eye met another. At that moment, I could tell, blood spoke to blood.
Then it was as if a hand had gripped my hair and pulled it. Another hand slapped against my face. From nowhere the wind had begun to blow, cold and hard. Beginning as a deep soughing, its note now rose to an aggressive howl.
I thought the young albino said something in German. He was gesticulating to emphasize his words. But the wind kept taking them away. I could make out only one repeated sound. "Werner" was it? A name? The youth looked as if he had stepped from the European Dark Ages. His unstirring white hair fell in long braids. He wore a simple deerskin jacket, and his face was smeared with what might have been white clay. His eyes were desperate.
The wind yelped and danced around us, bending the trees, turning the ferns into angry goblins. Ulric instinctively put his arm around me, and we began to back towards the shore. His hand felt cold. He was genuinely frightened.
The wind appeared to be pursuing us. Everywhere the foliage bent and twisted, this way and that. It was as if we were somehow in the middle of a tornado. Branches opened and closed; leaves were torn into ragged clouds. But our attention remained on the face at the window.
"What is it?" I asked. "Do you recognize the boy?"
"I don't know." He spoke oddly, distantly. "I don't know. I thought my brother-but he's too young, and besides. . ." All his brothers had died in the First War. Like me, he had noticed a strong family resemblance. I felt him shake. Then he took charge of his emotions. Although he had extraordinary self-control, he was terrified of something, perhaps even of himself. A cloud passed across the sinking sun.
"What is he saying, Ulric?"
"'Foorna'? I don't know the word." He gasped out a few more sentences, a nonsensical rationale about the fading light playing tricks, and pulled me rather roughly into the bracken and back through the woods until we arrived at the shore where we had drawn up our canoe. The wild wind was bringing in clouds from all directions, funneling towards us in a black mass. I felt a spot of rain on my face. The wind whipped the turning tide already beginning to cover the tiny beach. We were lucky to have returned early. Ulric almost hurled me into the canoe as we pushed off and took up our paddles, forcing the canoe into the darkness. But Auld Strom had grown stronger and kept forcing us back towards the shore. The wind seemed sentient, deliberately making our work harder, seeming to blow first from one side then another. It was unnatural. Instinctively, I hated it.
What irresponsible idiots we had been! I could think of nothing but my children. The salt water splashed cold on my skin. My paddle struck weed, and there was a sudden stink. I looked over my shoulder. The woods seemed unaffected by the wind but were full of ghostly movement, shadows elongated by the setting sun and hazy air pursuing us like giants advancing through the trees. Were they hunting the young man who was even now running down the long slab of rock and into the water, his braided milky hair bouncing on his shoulders as he tried to reach us? With a grunt and a heavy splash Ulric gouged his paddle into the water and broke the defenses of that erratic tide. The canoe moved forward at last. The wind lashed our faces and bodies like a cowman's whip, goading us back, but we persevered. Soaked by the spray we gained some distance. Yet still the youth waded towards us, his eyes fixed on Ulric, his hands grasping, as if he feared the pursuing shadows and sought our help. The waves grew wilder by the moment.
"Father!" The birdlike cry blended with the shrieking wind until both resonated to the same note. "No!" Ulric cried almost in agony as we at last broke the current's grip on us and found deeper water. There was a high sound now, keening around us, and I didn't know if it was the wind, the sea or human pursuers.
I wished I knew what the youth wanted, but Ulric's only thought was to get us to safety. In spite of the wind, the mist was thicker than it had been! The young albino was soon lost in it. We heard a few garbled words, watched white shadows gathering on the shore as the setting sun vanished, and then all was grey. There was a heavy smell of ozone. The keening fell away until the water lapping against the canoe was the loudest sound. I heard Ulric's breath rasp as he drove the paddle into the water like an automaton, and I did what I could to help him. Events on the island had occurred too rapidly. I couldn't absorb them. What had we seen? Who was that albino boy who looked so much like me? He could not be my missing twin. He was younger than I. Why was my husband so frightened? For me or for himself?
The cold, ruthless wind continued to pursue us. I felt like taking my paddle and battering it back. Then the fog rose like a wall against the wind which roared and beat impotently upon this new impediment.
Though I felt safer, I lost my bearings in that sudden fog, but Ulric had a much better sense of the compass. With the wind down, we were soon back at our old mooring. The tide was almost full, so it was easy to step from the canoe to the house's little jetty.
With some difficulty we climbed the wooden staircase to the first deck. I felt appallingly tired. I could not believe I was so exhausted from such relatively brief activity, but my husband's fear had impressed me.
"They can't follow us," I said. "They had no boats." In the bright modern kitchen I began to feel a little better. I whipped up some hot chocolate, mixing the ingredients with obsessive care as I tried to take in what had just happened. Outside, in the darkness, there was nothing to be seen. Ulric still seemed dazed. He went around checking locks and windows, peering through closed curtains into the night, listening to the sound of the lapping tide. I asked him what he knew, and he said, "Nothing. I'm just nervous." I forced him to sit down and drink his chocolate.
"Of what?" I asked.
His sensitive, handsome face was troubled, uncertain. He hesitated, almost as if he were going to cry. I found myself taking him by the hand, sitting next to him, urging him to drink. There were tears in his eyes. "What are you afraid of, Ulric?"
He attempted to shrug. "Of losing you. Of it all starting again, I suppose. I've had dreams recently. They seemed silly at the time. But that scene on the island felt as if it had happened before. And there's something about this wind that's come up. I don't like it, Oona. I keep remembering Elric, those nightmarish adventures. I fear for you, fear that something will separate us."
"It would have to be something pretty monumental!" I laughed.
"I sometimes think that life with you has been an exquisite dream, my broken mind compensating for the pain of Nazi tortures. I fear I'll wake up and find myself back in Sachsenhausen. Since I met you I know how hard it is to tell the difference between the dream and the reality. Do you understand that, Oona?"
"Of course. But I know you're not dreaming. After all, I have the dreamthief's skills. If anyone could reassure you, it must surely be me."
He nodded, calming himself, giving my hand a grateful squeeze. He was flooded with adrenaline, I realized. What on earth had we witnessed?
Ulric couldn't tell me. He had not been alarmed until he saw what appeared to be his younger self at the window. Then he had sensed time writhing and slipping and dissipating and escaping from the few slender controls we had over it. "And to lose control of time-to let Chaos back into the world-means that I lose you, perhaps the children, everything I have here with you that I value."
I reminded him that I was still very much with him, and in the morning we could stroll the few miles down to Englishtown, call Michael Hall and speak to our beloved children, who were happily going about their schooling. "We can make sure they're well. If you still feel uneasy, we can leave for Rochester and stay with your cousin." Dick von Bek worked for the Eastman Company.
We had his permanent invitation. Again he made an effort to control his fear and was soon almost his old self.
I remarked on the distorted shadows we had seen, like elongated mist giants. Yet the youth's outline had remained perfectly clear at all times, as if only he were in full focus! "The effects of fog, like those of the desert, are often surprising."
"I'm not sure it was the fog. . ." He took another deep breath. That distortion of perspective was one of the things that had disturbed him, he told me. It brought back all the worlds of dreams, of magic. He remembered the threat, which we must still fear, from his cousin Gaynor.
"But Gaynor's essence was dissipated," I said. "He was broken into a million different fragments, a million distant incarnations."
"No," said Ulric, "I do not think that is true any longer. The Gaynor we fought was somehow not the only Gaynor. My sense is that Gaynor is restored. He has altered his strategy. He no longer works directly. It is almost as if he is lurking in our distant past. It isn't a pleasant feeling. I dream constantly that he's sneaking up on us from behind." His weak laughter was uncharacteristically nervous.
"I have no such sense," I said, "and I am supposed to be the psychic. I promise you I would know if he were anywhere nearby."
"That's part of what I understand in the dream," said Ulric. "He no longer works directly, but through a medium. From some other place."
There was nothing more I could say to reassure him. I, too, knew that the Eternal Predator could hardly be conquered but must forever be held in check by those of us who recognized his disguises and methods. Still I had no smell of Gaynor here. The wind had grown stronger and louder as we talked and now banged around the house tugging at shutters and shrieking down chimneys. At last I was able to get Ulric to bed and eventually to sleep. Exhausted, I, too, slept in spite of the wailing wind. In the night I was vaguely aware of the wind coming up again and Ulric rising, but I thought he was closing a window.
I awoke close to dawn. The wind was still soughing outside, but I had heard something else. Ulric was not in bed. I assumed that he was still obsessed and would be upstairs, waiting for the light, ready to train his glasses on that old house. But the next sound I heard was louder, more violent, and I was up before I knew it, running downstairs in my pajamas.
The big room was only recently empty. There had been a struggle. The French doors to the deck were wide open, the stained glass cracked, and Ulric was nowhere to be seen. I dashed out onto the deck. I could see dim shapes down at the water's edge. The ghostly marble bodies were obviously Indians. Perhaps they had covered their bodies with chalk. I knew of such practices among the Lakota ancestor cults but had never witnessed anything of the kind in this region. Their origin, however, was not the most pressing question in my mind as I saw them bundling Ulric into a large birchbark canoe. I could not believe that in the second half of the twentieth century my husband was being kidnapped by Indians!
Calling for them to stop, I ran down to the grey water, but they were already pushing off, the spray causing odd distortions in the air. One of them had taken our canoe. His back rippled as he moved powerful arms. His body gleamed with oil, and the single lock of hair decorated with feathers flowed like a gash down his back. He wore unusual war paint. Could this be one of those old "mourning wars" on which the Indians embarked when too many of their warriors had been killed? But why steal a sedentary white man?
The mist was still thick, distorting their shapes as they disappeared. Once I glimpsed Ulric's eyes, wide with fear for me. They were paddling rapidly directly towards Auld Strom. The wind came up again, whipping the water and swirling the mist into bizarre images. Then they were gone. And the wind went with them, as if in pursuit.
My instincts took over my mind. In the sudden silence I began to quest automatically out and into the water, seeking the sisterly intelligence I could already sense in the depths far from the shore. She became alert as I found her and readily accepted my request to approach. She was interested in me, if not sympathetic. Water flowed into my entire consciousness, became my world as I continued to bargain, borrow, petition, offer all at the same time, and in the space of seconds. Grudgingly, I was allowed to take the shape of the stately old monarch who lay still and wise in the deep water below the tug of the current, receiving obeisance from every one of her tribe within a thousand miles.
The children of the legendary piscine first elemental Spammer Gain, the Lost Fishlings of folklore are a community of generous souls to whom altruism is natural, and this lady was one such. Her huge gills moved lazily as she considered my appeal. It is not my duty to die, I heard her say, but to remain alive. And one lives through action, I said. Is one alive who does nothing but exist? You are impertinent. Come, your youth shall combine with my wisdom and my body. We shall seek this creature you love.
I had been accepted by Fwulette the Salmon Wife. And she knew the danger I meant to face.
Such ancient souls have survived the birth and death of planets. Courage is natural to them. She let me swim with extraordinary speed in pursuit of the canoes. As I had guessed, they were not heading back to the island but directly towards the whirlpool. While I could feel the current tugging me inwards, I was too experienced to fear it. I had gills. This was my element. I had followed thousands of currents for millions of years and knew that only if you fought them could they harm you.
I was soon ahead of the canoes, swimming strongly towards the surface with the intention of capsizing the larger one and rescuing Ulric. I was as long as their vessel and did not anticipate any hindrance as I prepared to leap upwards under them. To my dismay, my straining back met massive and unexpected resistance.
The thing was far heavier than it had seemed. I was winded. Already, as I tried to recover from the self-inflicted blow, the canoe's prow began to dip as she was taken down by the pull of the maelstrom. The whole scale appeared to have altered, but I had no choice. I followed the canoe as it was sucked deep into the center of the vortex. My supple body withstood all the stresses and pressures I expected, but the canoe, which should have been breaking up, remained in one piece. The occupants, though gripping hard to the sides, were not flung out. I got one clear view of them. They had the fine, regular features of local forest Indians but were dead white, not albino. Their hair was black against oiled, shaven skulls, hanging in a single thick strand. Their black eyes glared into the heart of the maelstrom, and I realized they were deliberately following it to the core. I had to go with them.
Deeper and deeper we went into the wild rush of white and green while all around me great boulders and pillars of rock rose up, their scale shifting back and forth in the unstable water. This was no ordinary natural phenomenon. I knew at once that I had effectively left one world and entered another. It was becoming impossible to orient myself as the rocks changed size and shape before my eyes, but I did everything in my power to continue my pursuit. Then suddenly the thing was before me, the size of the Titanic, and I had been struck a blow directly to the head. I felt myself grow limp. I thrashed my tail to keep my bearings. Then another current was pushing me up towards the surface, even as I fought to dive deeper.
Unable to sustain the descent, I let the current take me back towards shore, exhausted. Fwulette knew we had failed. She seemed sad for me.
"Go with good luck, little sister," she said. The Salmon Wife returned to her realm, her head slightly sore and, for reasons best known to herself, her humor thoroughly restored. Fwulette thanked, I called for my own body and returned to the house as fast as I could. We had no telephone, of course. The nearest was miles away. I had no other means of pursuing my husband's abductors, not a single hope of ever seeing him again. I was not the only one whose life had changed totally in the last few hours, but this understanding made my loss no easier. I felt horribly ill as I began looking for my clothes.
Then I saw something I had not noticed in my haste to rescue my husband. Ulric's kidnappers had lost something in the struggle. Presumably I had not seen it earlier because it had fallen down the slats in the stairs and now stood upright against a wall: a large round thing, with the dimensions of a small trampoline, made from decorated deerhide stretched on wicker and attached to its frame with thongs. It was too big for a shield, though the handles at the back suggested that purpose. I had seen the Indians carrying similar shields but in closer proportions to their bodies. I wondered if it was what was called a dreamcatcher, but it lacked any familiar images. It might even be a holy object or a kind of flag.
Made of white buckskin with eight turquoise stripes radiating from a central hub, at the boss was what appeared to be a thunderbird framed by a tree. The entire thing was painted in vivid blues and reds. Ornamented with scarlet beads around the rim, with more colored beads and porcupine quills throughout the design, it was of superb craftsmanship and had the feel of a treasured possession. Yet its purpose was mysterious.
I left it leaning against the wall while I went upstairs to bathe and get some clothes. When I returned to the main part of the house, the sun was everywhere. I could hardly believe I had not been dreaming. But there was the huge deerskin disk, the cracked glass, and other signs of the fight. Ulric must have heard them come in and delivered himself straight into their hands. There was no note. I had not expected one. This was not an attempt to get ransom. I was now ready to walk to the filling station. I could do it in under an hour. But I was also reluctant to leave, fearing that if I did so I would miss some important sign or even Ulric's return. It was possible that he could have escaped from his captors after all and been dragged up to the surface as I had been. But I knew this was really a forlorn hope. As I prepared to go, I heard a sound like a car approaching, and then came a knock at the front door. Hoping in spite of all realism, I ran to open it. The gaunt figure who raised his bowler hat to me was dressed in a neat black overcoat, with black polished shoes and a copy of the local newspaper under his arm. His hard black eyes shifted in the depths of their sockets. His thin, peculiar smile chilled the surrounding air. "Forgive me for coming so early, Countess. I have a message for your husband. Could I, do you think, see him for a moment?"
"Captain Klosterheim!" I was shocked. How had he known where to find me?
He bowed a modest head. "Merely Herr Klosterheim, these days, dear lady. I have returned to my civilian calling. I am with the church again, though in a lay capacity. It has taken some time to locate you. My business with your husband is urgent and in his interest, I think."
"You know nothing of the men who were here in the night?"
"I do not understand you, my lady." I loathed the idea of being further involved with this villainous ex-Nazi who had allied himself with Ulric's cousin Gaynor. Was he the supernatural medium Ulric had sensed? I doubted it. His psychic presence was powerful, and I would have detected it before now. On the other hand he might be the only means I had of discovering where they had taken Ulric, so I drew on my professional courtesy and invited him in. Entering the big main room he immediately went towards the huge artifact the Indians had left behind. "The Kakatanawa were here?"
"Last night. What do you know?" Scarcely thinking, I took a double-barreled Purdy's from the cabinet and dropped in two shells. Then I leveled the gun at Klosterheim. He looked around at me in surprise.
"Oh, madam, I mean you no ill!" He clearly believed I was going to blow him apart on the spot.
"You recognize that thing?"
"It's a Kakatanawa medicine shield," he said. "Some of them think it helps protect them when they go into the spirit lands."
"The spirit lands? That's where they have gone?"
"Gone, madam? No, indeed. They mean here. These are their spirit lands. They hold us in considerable awe."
I motioned with the gun for him to sit in one of the deep leather armchairs. He seemed to spill across it. In certain lights he became almost two-dimensional, a black-and-white shadow against the dark hide. "Then where have they gone?" He looked at the chair as if he had not known such comfort were possible. "Back to their own world, I would guess."
"Why have they taken him?"
"I am not sure. I knew you were in some kind of danger, and I hoped we could exchange information."
"Why should I help you, Herr Klosterheim? Or you help us? You are our enemy. You were Gaynor's creature. I understood you to be dead."
"Only a little, my lady. It is my fate. I have my loyalties, too."
"To my master."
"Your master was torn apart by the Lords of the Higher Worlds on Morn. I watched it happen."
"Gaynor von Minct was not my master, lady. We were allies, but he was not my superior. That was mere convenience to explain our presence together."He might even have been a little offended by my presumption. "My master is the essence. Gaynor is merely the vapor. My master is the Prince of Darkness, Lord Lucifer." I would have laughed if I were not in such bizarre circumstances.
"So do you come here from Hell? Is that where my husband is to be found-the Underworld?"
"I do come from Hell, my lady, though not directly, and if your husband were already there, I would not be here."
"I am only interested in my husband's whereabouts, sir." He shrugged and pointed at the Kakatanawa artifact. "That would no doubt help, but they would probably kill you, too."
"They mean to kill my husband?"
"Quite possibly. I was, however, referring to myself. The Kakatanawa have no liking for me or for Gaynor, but Gaynor's interests are no longer mine. Our paths parted. I went forward. He went back. Now I am something of a watcher on the sidelines." His cadaverous features showed a certain humor.
"I am certain you are not here through the promptings of a Christian heart, Herr Klosterheim."
"No, madam. I came to propose an alliance. Have you heard of a hero called Ayanawatta? Longfellow wrote about him. In English 'Hiawatha'? His name was used for a local poem, I believe." I had, of course, read Longfellow's rather unfashionable but hypnotic work. However, I was scarcely in the mood to discuss creaking classics of American literature. I think I might have gestured with the gun. Klosterheim put up a bony hand.
"I assure you I am in no way being facetious. I see I must put it another way." He hesitated. I knew the dilemma of all prescient creatures, or all those who have been into a future and seen the consequence of some action. Even to speak of the future was to create another "brane," another branch of the great multiversal tree. And that creation in turn could confuse any plans one might have made for oneself to negotiate the worlds. So we were inclined to speak somewhat cryptically of what we knew. Most of our omens were as obscure as the Guardian crossword.
"Do you know where Gaynor is?"
"I believe I do, in relation to our present circumstances and his own." He spoke with habitual care.
"Where would that be?"
"He could be where your husband is." An awkward, significant pause.
"So those were Gaynor's men?"
"Far from it, my lady. At least, I assume so." He again fell silent. "I came to propose an alliance. It would be even more valuable to you, I suspect. I can guarantee nothing, of course. . ."
"You expect me to believe one who, by his own confession, serves the Master of Lies?"
"Madam, we have interests in common. You seek your husband and I, as always, seek the Grail."
"We do not own the Holy Grail, Herr Klosterheim. We no longer even own the house it is supposed to reside in. Haven't you noticed that the East is now under Stalin's benign protection? Perhaps that ex-priest has the magic cup?"
"I doubt it, madam. I do believe your husband and the Grail have a peculiar relationship and that if I find him I shall find what I seek. Is that not worth a truce between us?"
"Perhaps. Tell me how I may follow my husband and his abductors." Klosterheim was reluctant to give away information. He brooded for a moment, then gestured towards the round frame. "That medicine shield should get you there. You can tell by its size it has no business being here. If you were to give it the opportunity to return to where it came from, it might take you with it."
"Why do you tell me that? Why do you not use the shield yourself?"
"Madam, I do not have your skills and talents." His voice was dry, almost mocking. "I am a mere mortal. Not even a demon, madam. Just a creature of the Devil, you know. An indentured soul. I go where I am bid."
"I seem to remember that you had turned against Satan. I gather you found him a disappointment?"
Klosterheim's face clouded. He rose from the chair. "My spiritual life is my own." He stared thoughtfully into the barrels of my shotgun and shrugged. "You have the power to go where I need to go."
"You require a guide? When I have no idea where they have taken Ulric? Less idea than you, apparently."
"I lack your grace." He spoke quietly, though his jaw tightened as if in anger. "Countess, it was your husband's help I sought." Something struggled in him. "But I think it is time for reconciliation."
"Possibly. I opposed my master as my master opposed his. I scarcely understand this mania for solipsism or how it came about. Once half our lives were spent contemplating God and the nature of evil. Now Satan's domain throughout the multiverse shrinks steadily." He did not sound optimistic.
I thought him completely mad with his weird, twisted pieties. I had made it my business to read old family histories long before I decided to marry Ulric. Half the von Beks, it seemed, had had dealings with the supernatural and denied it or were disbelieved. A manuscript had only recently been found which claimed to be some sort of ancestral record, written in an idiosyncratic hand in old German; but the East German authorities, unfortunately, had claimed it as a state archive, and we had not yet been able to read it. There was a suggestion that its contents were too dangerous to publish. We did know, however, that it had something to do with the Holy Grail and the Devil.
Again he gestured towards the medicine shield. "That will take you to your husband, if he still lives. I don't require a guide. I require a key. I do not travel so easily between the worlds as you. Few do. I have given you all the information I can to help you find Count Ulric. He does not possess what I want, but what I want is in his power to grant me. I hoped he would have the key." I was losing interest in the conversation. I had decided to see what the Kakatanawa medicine shield could do for me. Perhaps I should have been more cautious, but I was desperate to follow Ulric, ready to believe almost anything in order to find him.
"Key?" I asked impatiently. "There is another way to reach the world to which he's been taken. A door of some kind. Perhaps on the Isle of Morn."
"How did you think Ulric could help you?"
"I hoped the door through to that world is on Morn and the key to that door would be in your husband's keeping." He seemed deeply disappointed, as if this was the culmination of a long quest which had proven to be useless. "I can assure you we have no mysterious keys."
"You have the sword," he said, without much hope. "You have the black sword."
"As far as I know," I told him, "that, too, is in the hands of the East German authorities." He looked up in some dismay. "It's in the East?"
"Unless the Russians now have it."
He frowned. "Then I have bothered you unnecessarily."
"In which case. . ." I gestured with the shotgun. He nodded agreeably and began walking towards the front door.
"I'm obliged to you, madam. I wish you well." I was still in an appalling daze as I watched him open the door and leave. I followed him and saw that he had come in a taxi. It was the same driver who had brought us from Englishtown. I had a sudden thought, asked him to wait, and went inside. I wrote a hasty note to the children, came out, and asked him to post it for me. As Klosterheim got into his cab, the driver waved cheerfully. He had no sense of the supernatural tensions in the air, nor of the heartbreaking tensions within me, the impossible decision I had to make.
After watching them drive off, I returned to the house and picked up the medicine shield. I had no interest in Klosterheim's ambitions or any conflict he was engaged in. All I cared about was the information he had given me. I was prepared to risk all to let the shield take me to my husband.
Almost in a trance, I carried the thing through a blustering wind that tugged and buffeted at it, down to the jetty. Then I stripped off my outer clothes, threw the shield into the water and gasped as I flung myself after it. Feeling it move under me, I climbed onto it, using it like a raft. The wind wailed and bit at my flesh, but now the shield had a life of its own. It felt as if muscles began to form in the skin as it moved rapidly across the water out towards the island we had visited. I expected it to follow its owner into the maelstrom.
Had the medicine shield come completely alive? Did it have intelligence? Or did it intend to fling me against the rocks? For now it seemed to protect me as the cold water heaved and the cold wind blew.
My fingers dug deep into the edges. Even my toes tried to grip parts of the frame as it bucked and kicked under me. Then I felt it lift suddenly and move rapidly out to sea, as if it hoped to escape what threatened us. My fingers were in agony, but I would have clung on dead or alive. My will had molded me to that huge woven frame.
All at once it was diving. I had no time to catch my breath, and I no longer had gills. It was going to drown me! I saw the high jagged pillars of rock coming up towards me, saw massive dark shapes moving in the swirling water. I cursed myself for an irresponsible fool as my lungs began to fail. I felt my grip on the shield weakening, my senses dimming, as I was dragged inexorably downward.Copyright © 2003 Michael Moorcock and Linda Moorcock
Reprinted with permission.
Book synopsis(back to top)
Michael Moorcock is a vanguard author, pioneering editor, journalist, critic, and rock musician. Editor of the controversial magazine New Worlds, he provided a haven for authors who would go on to win accolades as prestigious as the Booker Prize. Moorcock's own novels, of which there are about a hundred, have won the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the British Fantasy Award, among others. He received a platinum disk for his work with Hawkwind on Warrior on the Edge of Time, the band's bestselling Eternal Champion concept album. His "Black Blade" is one of several songs produced with Blue Oyster Cult.
Michael Moorcock lives in Texas.