Novel Excerpt: Interstices

A few years ago I started a novel, made it about 200 pages in, and abandoned it for other projects. Here’s an excerpt. If you like it, drop me a line and let me know. Feeling like people have an interest makes it easier to keep going with this sort of thing – CJC

Melantha saddled her skeletal horse. The only joy left to it was to run. It did not eat or sleep or participate in the cycle of sexual congress. It was eager to leave.

She drank from the flask she carried with her. It tasted like dirt but it served to keep her mind moored to her body. Nothing hurt anymore, nor did anything feel good. She knew she existed and that was the whole of the matter. Any pleasure she derived was purely intellectual.

The other animals stabled with her mount were desperately frightened. Some of them could talk and those that did had a high opinion of themselves so they masked their fear by hurling invectives at her. She didn’t care and neither did her horse. 

She walked him out into the night. There was little chance that it would ride again. Only will held it together and the will was hers. She felt that perhaps she was once a woman who would have cared about such a thing, but now there were simply facts and likelihoods. They weren’t deserving of worry.

She pulled herself onto its back, ribs showing through where the hide had worn away. There was ancient straw spilling out of the bottom of its flanks. They cantered through the city. It was rare that anything from the necropolis came here. People stopped. They stared openly. Her last journey through these streets would make its way into many nightmares. But she knew little of nightmares. She never slept. 

The gates opened and she allowed the horse the freedom of his stride, faster than any living animal and with no need to stop for water or air. They rode through the night. She knew where the folds in time and space were and they thundered through these abysses where tremendous eyes opened and watched them pass. She had always wanted to linger and confront these voyeurs but that would be a task for another. Perhaps the boy would try, but they would have no time together before she died her second death. 

She arrived in the necropolis before dawn. She didn’t know why she hated the light of day. She suffered no harm from it other than a keen sense of loss. But she did not know what it was she had to lose. Very little, she was certain. All the same, she felt a profound sense of relief as she rode amongst the tombstones and ossuaries. There was a groomsman, still in his first life, who helped her down and guided her to her favored mausoleum, the one where she had first risen. 

The city predated the current world but she doubted that it was the first. She had heard talk of older trees. Of a massive skeletal cactus casting an eternal shadow over dancing dead in the vast deserts over the mountains. Of a stump in a woodland slowly eroding to nothing where the living trees bowed down in reverence. 

She would have liked to visit these places and to pass out of existence somewhere on the journey but it was not to be. She found it curious that the living were so disinterested in the places that predated their world. Surely there must be something here for the conclave. Some piece of information that could assist them in their nebulous and endless quest to map the world. Not that she didn’t care for them, not even that she was unwilling to help them, but the dead know futility better than the living. 

There were stairs that led down into the catacombs and she descended. The dead who lingered whispered secrets. Mostly it was an endless confession. Boring. She listened but it was tedious. Perhaps this was the punishment meted out to minor sinners, to endlessly dwell on transgressions lost to any remembrance. But on this day the dead who kept watch in silence were speaking as well. 

Warnings and guidance, hopeful prayers. They told her that the broken bridge was not so broken and that the roots went down forever. That there was always more than one tree, one world, one apocalypse and that was why it was always possible to escape. Even they would live again given infinite time and infinite space.

She walked and walked and never tired until she arrived at the center of things, the hub from which the spokes of the city of the dead radiated. The thick roots of the tree made the ceiling and the walls, sheathed in the questing filaments of the fungus that fruited above. A stone slab occupied the center of the room and on it was a boy, perhaps ten when he died. His skull was pushed in above his right eye. 

He was dry now. She had placed stents in his abdomen, in his chest, driven a shunt into the back of his head. She had carried him into the hateful sun day after day for months. He was a small boy and it had been an easy thing to do, and now he was ready. She wrapped him in shedded dragon skin, translucent and clean. With her small crank driven drill she had made holes in his joints and then ever so gently driven screws in. One could live a second life without these labors but it was a messy affair. Out of love for the boy she oversaw the craftwork herself. Her own rebirth had been ugly, and out of a sense of propriety that she scarcely remembered she spent her days and nights in hiding. She liked to think that she had instilled in the living keepers of this place a greater sense of decorum over the years. 

The bowls that collected the dew of the world tree were full now, the fluid as clear as the liquor distilled in the walled city but much sweeter. She drank of it herself when she felt life ebbing from her. There were times when she became incapable of remembering and one of the groomsmen would have to walk her down through the endless tunnels and give the water. Afterward she would wonder if a choice had been taken from her. She poured a quantity of it into two wineskins for the boy. One to rise and one to keep. 

That mattered little now. She would leave this body and that was fine. She felt no regret. Her second life had been one of duty for the most part, staring into the spirits as they struggled to shed their bodies and leading them to their points of exodus. The world of the dead was a nighttime purple opening onto deltas, mountains, endless plains. Filaments descended from the sky. The world tree found its way into all of existence. To her knowledge this place was infinite or at least so large that there was no other phraseology that did it justice.

She lifted the boy, so light now, a sack of bones and dust, and walked some miles to the nearest stairway. She could see through the mausoleum doors that the sun was setting. She waited until twilight then walked in the gloom to the tree. It was massive, visible throughout the necropolis, its sparse canopy a mix of dead and dying branches with living foliage scattered throughout. Out of respect, lightning gave it a wide berth. Nonetheless it was dying in the slow way that trees do. Fungus was devouring it in places. Insects that spoke the language of humans made their nests there. No matter. It insisted on life and Melantha felt a kinship with it as it lost portions of itself. 

There had been rain not too long ago, a pounding torrent typical of late summer. The mushroom, as old as the tree itself, had emitted its squat little ejaculate in a fairy ring. The aroma was intoxicating and it drew the inhabitants of the necropolis. The squatters who would inevitably become groomsmen lolled on the ground laughing. Several of the attendants were in a stupor at the base of the tree weeping. The carrion wolves and coyotes had abandoned their endless territorial disputes and were preparing to make pups that would challenge that divide as they grew to adulthood. Melantha was singular. The necropolis refused to make more than one of her kind. 

All here were familiar to her. She had been present when they were born and they all expected her to be present when she died. Those who were not too far into their trance watched as she approached the tree with the boy in her arms. She could feel the intoxication setting in. She would have to move quickly or she would lose her way.

She laid him on the ground with his poor damaged head upon the roots. She folded his hands on his chest and twined his fingers together. She straightened his legs so that they pointed in the direction of the conclave. He was in the best clothes that could be found. Some of the attendants were skilled with fabric and she thought he looked quite sharp. Decorum was important when you were neither dead nor alive. 

Her attention was slipping. She caught herself laughing her dusty laugh at the improbability of all things. The world seemed a cosmic joke and she laughed in time with the universe then collected herself. The eyes were what was important. She drew the box from her pocket and fell to her knees. She thought she might lose them and then stop caring that they were lost. 

Snapping the box open she took them out. Blue and gold and red. Etchings that she could not decipher had been painstakingly blown into the orbs with molten silver, now cooled into free flowing whorls that abruptly transitioned to geometric patterns. 

She lost track of the moments she spent looking into them. She knew she shouldn’t waste time. She knew she shouldn’t rush. She fitted the first into his left eye socket and the second into his right. He almost looked alive. The world was changing dramatically now, visions of the tree in its youth and of a future denuded of life. Her grasp of things was slipping. 

They were in full fruit, she only needed to grab them. She did not taste any longer nor have the means of digesting. Eating these was important for what it represented, an attempt to encompass a dead world and what it left behind. They tasted of nothing, but she felt the long gone urge to gag all the same. She placed a solitary fruit in his mouth. It was almost done. 

She stumbled to his side and lay next to him. She propped her head next to his, pointed her legs towards the city and intertwined her fingers on her chest. There was relief that managed to wash over the giddy sadness of the mushroom smell. The visions were coming on. 

She saw the boy alive, truly alive, sitting on a log over a deep pool of water. The wound that had killed him was still there. He turned to look at her and smiled. White filaments grew from his shattered skull. She watched as they clothed him in delicate silk. He walked towards her, a gossamer sheen like spider webs catching morning dew on his face.

He fell against her and embraced her in the way that only a child that is truly yours can, and she realized abruptly that she was alive. It felt wonderful. It felt horrible. She wondered how people spent a lifetime holding these things in tension. Perhaps it was that tension that made it possible. 

The boy grew into her and there again was the tension, this time between horror and joy. The stabbing and itching of its filaments was counterbalanced by blossoms of relief, the feeling of an itch well scratched. She hugged him back fiercely. If they were to be glued together then that would have to do. 

With the realization of her return to flesh came a flood of memories. She’d had a little boy much like this one, back in the prior age. She was somewhat relieved to discover that this former her was not a happy woman. She had loved and experienced all the things that come with love. Frustration, disappointment, they had all ridden side saddle to the people she held close. Nonetheless it was a world in which she had belonged. 

The little ones were here. She could sense them but they had yet to show themselves. There was a steady murmur around them. This seemed right. It felt appropriate. If there was any place that they could retreat to it was here in the land of the dead. The boy pulled away. The rhizae of the world tree tore and it hurt her deep in  her heart. Both she and the boy were breathless from it, stooped over, hands on their now-living legs. 

Finally the little ones emerged, marching in unison out of nowhere in death masks. They were stronger here, not subject to the madness that seemed to afflict them elsewhere, with synchronized steps and uniform bellowing. It made her want to dance herself but her eyes became transfixed. The sky was opening and not in any metaphorical way. It ripped like a cutpurse’ slit at the bottom of a bag of coins and things began to pour down, things that made no sense- perplexing vehicles and gasses, dead animals and sugar, bodies, bodies, bodies and then these bodies lifted themselves up, pulverized but alive, and began to assemble another world, one so loud and fast that all she could do was look to the boy, her screaming drowned out by the war rhythms of the little ones.

He turned to look at her as she turned to look at him. There was terror and hope in his eyes and the little ones were so thick in the air and their rhythm so rapid that it had become hard to find herself. She watched the boy’s wound open like a flower as it received the tiny dancers. They filled him up and after a time she realized that there was an unreality to her now and while she felt more than she had in many prior years she knew that she was being disassembled. They were not just entering the boy but rather they were carrying her inside, a block of memory at a time.

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