Another piece I did for Legends Magazine. I wasn’t to excited about this one. I didn’t care to much for the story and this is all I could come up with for a drawing.
Anyway, it was published with Silver Apples of the Moon in Legends Magazine issue 154 from December 2005.
See the transcript area for the full story in case Legends Magazine ever goes down.
On this world of the believer – a deep-seated religion in the hearts and minds of men – the moon is the only witness to a broken rule. Its white glow highlights the slender hand that picks of the forbidden fruit. Its silver cast glistens in the tears on the girl’s cheeks, turning each drop of moisture into a precious jewel.
This world also has its stories and its fables and a tale told to children of a ‘man in the moon’ – and it seems as though this mythical being is grinning at the tragic scene played out before it. All because of a belief that suffering has meaning, and endurance shall earn its own reward, in a place they call Empyrean.
“Tell me again,” the pained, whispered words of the invalid rasped through a ravaged throat.
The woman’s gaze roved helplessly over the contents of the room in which they lived such a pitiable life – trying to find something beautiful in the surrounding horror, something that might inspire her to create a vision in the telling.
Her husband’s head fell back to rest against the chair and his eyes closed. The only peace in his life to focus on was her sweet voice.
She began obediently to take up the tale, though the words threatened to choke her, for she was no longer certain if she could believe in them. It was a story of death and a brilliant light. A light so powerful, a white-hot fire, that it could turn the eyes of the living blind. A light that would guide the deceased to everlasting peace.
“And once there…”
Another rasping whisper from the gnarled being, and the woman was thankful that his eyes were closed and that his vision was failing, for he could not see the constancy of her misery.
“And we shall step into this light and it will guide us and at the high mountain we shall all begin a climb unto Empyrean. For some of us the climb will be easy. For others it will be hard. But in the end, all shall succeed. All shall reach the summit. And at the top of the mountain there we shall behold a great plateau.”
The girl was suddenly reminded of the power of the story. Her beloved gripped her hand with a fierceness she could remember in him not so long ago, but she knew that this was the last of his strength. She forced herself to speak the words even though she doubted them, for part of her still wanted, needed to believe, and she supposed that this was the power of the preachers.
“The silver grass…”
“Yes,” she smiled awkwardly and returned the tight grip of his hand. “Yes, the silver grass, and even the rocks and boulders will have a silver sheen, and the light will reflect onto these surfaces and cause the very air around us to shimmer.”
And she continued to speak of the drawing to the centre, of the three silver trees, and the way their leaves would twist in the breeze and sparkle in the starlit clearing. She addressed the picking of the fruit: choosing one silver apple from each of the trees, the taking of a single bite from each.
“And all shall be revealed…” the man said, with a faith and wonder in his voice she could scarce remember. Yet, she continued with the telling, with the promise that the first apple would reveal the wisdom of all worlds; it would make all wise and good. The second would let the soul pass through into the spirit world, where all would meet with those they had loved and even those they had hated, for they too would be changed and made wise.
A bite from the third apple would allow that essence to split asunder, and a part of that being would remain there to greet those that came after, while a small part, a part that would understand all things under Empyrean, would revisit the world so that mortal man could grow and develop.
That wisdom would be passed into a new-born child and – although the essence would not be aware of it, no more than the child just born – that wisdom would go on to live another life, in a new generation. That wisdom would grow with each reincarnation and eventually it would put an end to all war, to all suffering. Then all would be free to return to the living world and there all would become as one.
“And it will be glorious.”
“Yes, my love. So glorious.”
“So glorious…” he repeated, and she watched while he slipped away into sleep.
She sat and minded him and wiped his brow, listening to the whispers of a dying man driven almost insane with pain.
They had only been married a year when the disease took him: a virulent form of parasite that delighted in condemning its victim to the worst of all possible deaths. Now, the man, who was in their years no more than thirty, had the appearance of a man who had lived well beyond his time. No quick predator this illness, no merciful death in short duration. This killer took pleasure in the slow, drawn out measure of the clock. This killer liked to turn youth into the dust of the ancient.
She had watched his skin begin to tighten and stretch over the bones, until it tore and wept rivulets of blood, like tears. Then it had begun to stretch and sag as the flesh beneath begun to shrink. Inside, she had been told, his organs would ulcerate and visceral lesions would consume him from within. His bones would soon begin to turn to powder. The very air he breathed would become as poison to his lungs, until he would struggle to draw each stolen breath.
Eventually, a single touch would kill him – the slightest pressure on a hand or an arm would cause that limb to disintegrate before her very eyes – but by that time, he would be deranged with pain. They had warned her he would not know who she was or even know his own identity. But, they had told her, he would not be able to scream … and that would be a blessing – for to hear his cries would be to be drawn down into the very depths of madness.
There was no cure, no end to this nightmare. She would simply have to wait for the day his body mummified and turned to dust, for then she would know he had begun his journey to the valley of the Silver Apples of the Moon.
“Can you do nothing for him?”
The old man shook his head sadly. “I have given him something which will help him to sleep, but soon his body will be unable to digest anything, and then no painkiller will have any affect.”
Or poison, she thought, but kept that thought to herself. More tentatively, she asked, “Can we not end his misery?”
The Doctor looked at her sharply. “Believe me when I say that I understand the reason for this outburst, but you know that it is out of the question. It is unethical and immoral.”
“And is it anymore ethical to let a man die in such agony? Can you not understand that I love him so much that I would gladly take his place to end his misery?"
The Doctor calmly closed his medical bag. “If you could experience being in his place for a moment, if you really knew what that would mean, then I seriously doubt that. And there are times, such as these, when my position in the saving of life comes under question, by others and by my own soul. But I, nor you, nor anyone, has the right to take away his place in Empyrean.”
“And is it divine will that he suffer so to get there?”
“Who are we to question? You know one must die a natural death to be allowed into the valley.”
“Is this natural, this slow, torturous descent into madness? What can be more unnatural than this? More unnatural than rotting away like a corpse while one still lives!”
The Doctor sighed heavily. “I grieve for you, but have faith and be calmed by the fact that his pain is but momentary in the scheme of things, while the joy that awaits him is forever.” He touched the rim of his hat and smiled his farewell. “It will,” he said, “be glorious.”
But there was nothing glorious to see in the withered soul that lay in the chair before her. It had reached a stage where they dare not move him and so he would sit and die in this chair – the only way to leave it being a ‘turn’ to powder, which could be swept away like so much accumulated dust. She reached out and touched the cheek of the man she had wed, and had to force herself not to cringe at the feel of his dry wrinkled skin. The sound her touch made was like the dry whisper of paper.
“What?” She leaned close to him to hear his hoarse murmur. For a moment, his eyes flickered open and she was shocked to see the pallid gaze and the blood-streaks his tears made as they fell from his eyes.
“No strength. I cannot … climb…” And then he fell asleep once more.
His whimpers in the night awoke her and in many ways they were worse than his screams would have been. This, she knew, was a man in torment, who could not even curse or cry out his pain.
His gaze roved the room until it settled on her and for one brief moment, they connected. For one moment, he knew who she was, and where he was, and what was happening to him, and there was such love and terror in his eyes that it chilled her. Then the pain swept him away once more and even though she knew he was suffering, it was almost a relief to have that gaze torn from her.
Her hands trembled as she carried the basket. The beat of her heart pounded in her ears. She set the basket down at his feet and looked up into the face of her sleeping husband. His features were twisted and grotesque even in sleep and yet she loved him still.
For one of their thirty-three minute hours she sat there and watched the face of the man she loved. For an hour, she shared every spasm of pain. For an hour, she argued against the conflicts of reason. But by the time he opened his eyes her arguments were as dead as his gaze.
“Tell me again…” the rasping whisper so quiet now it could barely be heard, but she had heard this request so often that she would have known what he required without it.
“When we die…” she began obediently to take up the story, this time the words without force of threat to choke – for this time she had cause to conjure a vision the like of which could be seen in a dying man’s eyes. She spoke of the light, so intense it would blind any mortal – a light so welcoming and pure it would wipe out the ills of the world…
“I cannot make it. So tired.”
“No, my love. You have made it. Here.”
She pressed into his palm a single round globe of fruit and watched the aged man as he tried to focus on what was being offered him. As she had hoped, in his pain he was unable to reason that the fruit was not the fruit of his dreams. In his pain, he had set his heart on one thought alone, and he believed because he wanted to, needed to, that the Silver Apples of the Moon had been delivered.
With a cry of joy that must have burned his throat, he sank his broken, crumbling teeth into the sweet-tasting flesh. She watched as he devoured the first bite and then reached for the promise of the second and the third. She could see the light of hope in his eyes, the desperate need for deliverance. And then with a garbled cry he fell back into his chair.
She lay there for some time, her head in his lap, her eyes staring at the limp hand that had fallen to hang lifeless by his side. She wondered if Empyrean looked down upon her and cursed her for her sin. She had taken a life. She had fed the one person she loved the apples of the their mortal world: the only fruit that was said to be so sweet and intoxicating, their scent was enough to make some swoon … but any who should take a bite would die.
She had soaked the fruit in an oily fluid that would adhere to the skin, and would cake and dry when exposed to the cool night air and to this marinade, she had added a hint of silver. To any normal, healthy person they would have been seen for the lie they were, but to a dying man whose only hope lay in a religious belief, to one whose eyes were milky orbs like the eyes of a cooked fish, they had seemed promise enough.
Had she done wrong? Had she cheated him out of tasting the true Silver Apples of the Moon? Was the taste of such fruit worth all the pain he would have suffered to get there? Had she condemned him, in truth, to oblivion? Perhaps. But surely peaceful oblivion was better than sentient pain?
She glanced down into the bowl of fruit and took up one of the apples. She stared at it in wonder. It was beautiful; it was moon-washed.
They would come soon and discover her crime, and the law would require her to be locked away in a room without windows, sentenced to exist with only her own soul, her own guilt for company – her true penalty a slow difficult climb of the mountain. There she would be fed through a slot at ground-level only enough food for her to survive. They would condemn her to die a wretched thing, unwashed and as unclean as her soul – though in such a place death would surely be welcome.
The thought terrified her. The idea of confinement and what if, when she eventually died, it were only to discover that after death all that the preachers had said was true? If so, her beloved would not be there to greet her and the suffering of her life would be without meaning. Perhaps it would be best to follow him down into darkness. There was time to decide, but not much…
She stared at the deadly apple in her hand, and considered that there was a little time left in which to choose.