LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

At the Hand of Every Beast, by Premee Mohamed

At The Hand Of Every BeastAs it walked, the cathedral dropped strange detritus—torn hymnals in unreadable tongues; mouldering surplices; broken candles whiter than teeth. Madness also it left in its wake, and a great black gouge across the tame fields of Nivernais, then Bourbonnais. The rich earth wept out its blood as if it had been slashed in a duel.

When it passed into Auvergne, the rumbling awoke a small boy sleeping in a thatch hut at the edge of the woods. As he crawled into the light, still rubbing his eyes, he cried out to see the monster bearing down upon his forest, advancing in silence save for the wrenching moan of the torn soil. For a moment he wondered whether he had gone mad, or was dreaming, or both—whether he had had a dream so terrible he had gone mad, a dream of this angular-shouldered beast of indeterminate size and age—but he recovered swiftly, and rushed to climb a tree. From the safety of its branches he watched in dismay as the crest of earth smothered his home.

The cathedral flung forth buttresses and galleries before and behind itself, seizing and crushing trees, stones, animals. A unicorn bolted from the woods and into the thing’s shadow, and screamed as it too was seized and destroyed, leaving no more than the splintered shards of its horn like pearl buttons.

When the building seemed to be safely gone, and only bones and branches remained, the boy climbed carefully down and walked after it. He was dazed; he could not think of what else to do; he had never seen a monster before, and certainly not one composed of stained glass and dressed stone that grew taller even as he watched. Keeping his distance, he evaded its grasping limbs, and when it foundered briefly in a stream he was able to climb a relatively immobile colonnade and enter the monster’s body.

Within, the uneven darkness was relieved by vivid patches of stained glass; the boy moved through these cautiously, as if they were stepping stones. A prodigious oculus in the eastern wall admitted the most light, compelling him to pause and examine it. Its scene appeared to be a nativity, though resembling nothing in his little local church—the holy mother’s face was distorted with fear as she looked upon the manger in which lay a squirming nest of serpents, their mouths open to strike. Above them, rendered in lapis blue, the great star of Bethlehem burned not alone, but as one of a pair—eyes, the boy realized as he recoiled.

Half in tears, he stumbled on, details emerging as his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. The arched ceiling, of impossible height, rose gracefully in a multiplicity of curves into a space where all light failed. Statues turned to watch as he tiptoed onwards and froze again as a voice rang out: “Who are you? What business have you here?”

This might have been the voice of God. The boy was not sure, and paused in the central aisle, wringing his hands in fear. “Hello?” he called back. “My name is Emile.”

“How come you to this place, child?” the voice cried, wild with despair.

Emile crept down the aisle, and at last arrived at the altar, draped with bloodied furs and the broken antlers of stags and bulls. Behind it crouched an old man in a torn canvas robe, who beckoned him near.

“My home was destroyed by this thing,” Emile said after a moment. “I thought I was dreaming… And yourself, sir?”

“My name is of no import,” the man said, passing a hand over his weary face. “You may, I suppose, call me Monsieur Vauquelin, for that is the name of someone I knew once, long ago… And you are no madder than I, boy, or we are mad then together.” He rapped his knuckles on the altar in emphasis, to show that both it and he were solid.

The boy nodded politely, but before he could offer to help the old man down from this monstrosity, M. Vauquelin began to speak again, eagerly, as if he had only been waiting for a living ear to hear his story, and had been telling it to the statues and the stones in the meantime.

“I am the creator of this cathedral, though not its builder, for as you have seen, it builds itself, day by day, village by village. I cannot count the dead behind us, nor can I soothe the cries of the mad who survive its footsteps and awaken buried in the earth. Yet not so long ago I was merely a man with a dream to create something beautiful and grand, as they do in the south and the west—the churches that touch the sky, that offer a semblance of praying hands to the eyes of God—”

“But you have not,” Emile replied, horrified. “How did this happen?”

“Wait! Only wait, be less impatient. Do not be like me. For I wished my cathedral to surpass all others, and more swiftly, not in sixty or seventy years, for I am already old, and the old grow selfish, we forget how to prostrate ourselves before the living God. One night, I prayed to whomever could fulfil my wish, whomever, do you understand? Come closer, boy, and listen.

“My plea was answered, but not by God; instead arrived the one of whom we cannot speak, the one you learned about in church, yes, I see from your face you know him, the Unfaithful, the Cast-Down, He Who Lies, how many names we have given him over the years! Is that not a sign of love, rather than hate?”

“No,” Emile whispered, but the old man galloped on.

“He promised me the greatest church ever built, ever witnessed, for all of time—not merely my lifetime, not merely yours, but forever. I placed my name upon his parchment, and he used a knife to—do you see here the scar upon my bosom, which has scarcely healed?—place blood beside my name. The agreement he left with me, here, you cannot read, can you? Never mind. Look at it, behold the hand of the Devil himself! The next morning, two stones appeared in my workyard. I thought I had dreamt it, I begged, I prayed, I declared the agreement void…”

“I do not believe it can be,” the boy ventured. “The priest tells us that if you would sin in a dream, it is the same as in waking.”

“And he is correct! I became entombed within this beautiful shell, no one responded to my cries for mercy save he himself. In my dreams, he laughs, weeps, dances, sings…he offers me a place in Hell, tells me I will design his next palace in the great city of Pandemonium, and in my chamber I will hear the screams of the damned. ‘My new friend, my beloved friend,’ he tells me, ‘I was not cast down for rebellion, I did not revolt against your God, and not for pride either, but because I too greatly loved this world; I am no sinner, I am as pure a creature as yourself, and wish only to remake this world in the image of the holy Paradise in which I was raised.’”

Emile nodded, and moved by a great pity, sat next to the old man, who now openly wept. “Monsieur Vauquelin, is there any way I may be of service? Let me at least help you to—”

“No! No!”

Taken aback, Emile stared at the old man, wondering if the mark of the Devil were upon him, and he too might be corrupted. It might have been that, if Emile were abandoned by God, no sign would be given, except for this thing walking free upon the innocent earth.

“In these many days, no one has said such a thing,” M. Vauquelin murmured. “No one dared to climb into the belly of the beast, nor dared to meet the maker of the beast—”

“But you cannot live here forever,” Emile pressed him. “This is not a home.”

“No! And it was not meant to be a home! This is my monument, my masterpiece, the bane and curse of my life and my family, should they ever find out. No one, in all the many millennia of the world, till the Apocalypse and the Second Coming, will ever create such a grand and glorious thing! My name will go down in history!”

“You will destroy all of France! Perhaps this thing is the beast of which John of Patmos spoke, and it will cause the Apocalypse itself!”

“Let it, then! Nothing in the world is so beautiful and worthy a thing as this cathedral; my wish has been granted a thousandfold over. A great church, boy, speaks not merely of how esteemed man holds God, but also the honour of its parish, the skills of sculptors, stonemasons, scaffolders, glassmen, weavers, dyers, carpenters; like a magnificent book, it captures the history of man’s love for beauty and majesty. To fling it aside would dishonour such knowledge, would lose it forever. Perhaps later, even wise men will not be able to read it, but now all may do so, even the simple, who know every word merely by gazing upon it.”

“You say the Devil’s sin was not pride,” Emile burst out, “but you have said also he is the Prince of Lies! His sin was certainly pride, and so is yours, for esteeming this thing above the people it has destroyed.”

“You are too young to speak of pride!” the old man said testily. “You know nothing of it yet—an urchin, living in the woods like an animal! Unschooled, unlearned, you have not travelled to the other cathedrals, seen them reaching for God like beseeching hands, a cry to the heavens, you have not whispered in their depths, seeking mercy…”

“No,” Emile said. “But if even I, who you say is so unlearned, can see it, then it is clear to all that your vanity has rendered you unfeeling. Your name may go down in history, but as a villain and a monster!”

“But still it will go down!” the old man cried, and stubbornly clung to the altar. Beneath his powerful, wrinkled hands, the hard white stone shifted and blossomed into carven designs, skulls and cruel faces, laughing with upraised claws and long fangs. A woman’s head sprouted, her tongue lasciviously lolling.

Emile cringed as the stone creaked far above them in the strain of growth. “It does not reach for God!” he said, hands over his ears. “It wishes to reach past Him! See what you have done!”

“I have done what no one else could!” the old man shouted.

Before Emile could reply, the floor tilted, heaved, and slid them from behind the altar, fetching them up against a statue’s base. A roar emerged from the entrance, where chips of stone rained upon the stained glass and rebounded with soft thuds, as if it were flesh. Emile ran down the aisle, staggering and weaving as if drunk, and raised himself to a windowsill to look.

He knew not how far the cathedral had walked, and recognized nothing of the village far below him. But its denizens were screaming and rushing for cover, cutting the tethers of their horses and unyoking their oxen so they too could run from the oncoming monster. The bridge over their tiny stream was crushed into powder, sending shards and dust up so high that Emile coughed and tears streamed down. For the briefest moment he spotted a church, a tiny one of planks and thatch, before it vanished under the monster. In the upturned earth appeared the relentless rain of candles, Bibles, chalices, all ejected from some unseen place on the monster’s corpus and dooming to madness any survivors. Emile cried for them to touch nothing, to take only their children and go, but knew he could not be heard.

When the village was consumed entirely and the cathedral crept silently over the fields again, he walked back to the altar. He was confused and sorrowful rather than angry, for it had been truly astonishing to witness and, for the blink of an eye, as the greater church consumed the smaller, he had glimpsed the old man’s heart, filled with joy at having created something so powerful and so strange. For this cathedral was not like unicorns or basilisks or dragons, which littered the countryside like stones; this was the only one of its kind in the entire world, and surely would ever be.

But he remembered once more the faces of the villagers below, and his own little house, and he stooped next to M. Vauquelin again. “This is no monument to your greatness, sir,” he said gravely. “It is a monument to yourself; and you will fall no less far than the Angel of Light, and into the same place. This place must be destroyed!”

“It cannot be, I tell you! And it must not be! You speak madness!”

“Like the word of God?” Emile said bitterly. “Like dealing with the Devil? That is a madness upon which we all agree, but the mad who are left behind by this thing do not! We must do something! We must try!”

When the old man fell silent and hid his face with a bloodied fold of hide, Emile growled in frustration, walked away, and set to work.

Newly fed, the cathedral heaved and birthed fresh horrors as he prowled about seeking for weaknesses; the wooden chairs that lined the nave righted themselves and transformed into bones, their seats the flared moths of pelvises, perversely welcoming; on the western wall, a long and beautifully rendered Stations of the Cross flaked from the stone in great sheets, revealing Christ and his disciples as demons and cockatrices and wolves, the Blessed Virgin as a sea-monster with gaping mouth, Mary Magdalene as something so terrible that Emile could no longer bear to look. Pontius Pilate became a satyr beside her and danced and gestured with a spear between his legs, dripping holy blood and rich oils.

Emile hurried away from the quivering mural and wrenched at one of the chairs till a tremendous bone came loose, perhaps a legbone, but not human—from the Nefilim, he thought grimly, or another monster from the Bible. With this bludgeon he began to batter all he could see, striking statues, faces, stained glass, lit candles, tapestries, paintings, crucifixes, hymnals. Upon the floor, the candles melted at once into greenish wax, flickering with low flames that refused to consume parchment or cloth.

Worse yet, his efforts at desecration seemed to inflame the monstrous thing; it strove ever more rapidly across the landscape, light flickering through the windows. The interlaced ribs of the beautiful ceiling became snakes of stone, writhing and glaring at him with eyes of green gems. Emile stopped, panting, and glared back at the cathedral as it twisted with pleasure.

Despondent, he returned to the altar, which had doubled in size and was far too tall for any priest to preach behind. “Well, perhaps your pride has won the day,” he said to M. Vauquelin. “The thing cannot be defeated from within.”

“No, as man cannot be defeated from within,” the old man murmured, withdrawing his head from the ragged hides. “But…if…”

“If what, monsieur?”

“To pray, to burn, to beat, these all have no effect,” he said, and stood, taking the boy’s shoulder for balance. “But what if it could be propelled from the top of a mountain? Surely nothing could survive that, whether infernal or no. Or into a lake? Or a river?”

Emile blinked, hope returning to his heart. “Do you think so? You have changed your mind, then?”

“You do not know it, boy,” the old man said sadly, “but there is blood upon your face, and it is not your own. How many have died under this thing while I prayed and wept? I have been cruel, more than cruel. You are right that I am a villain and a monster; I am unworthy of God’s assistance. Therefore, we must help ourselves.”

“Yes!” Emile said. “Oh, but how?”

“The high must be brought low,” announced M. Vauquelin, and together they reached the entrance of the cathedral, and looked cautiously upon the swaying landscape below. Trees creaked and snapped, fragrancing the air with sap. Screams echoed from unseen animals or people.

“Not a moment to lose!” the old man said. “We must think!”

“Where are we?” Emile wondered.

“I no longer know; but there, look! Would that mountain not fit our purposes very well?”

Emile was not sure, but he nodded and chewed his lip, clinging to the windowsill as the cathedral swayed through the forest. How might they induce the thing to turn, though, let alone climb?

“Perhaps,” he said, “one of us can run out in front of it, like a hare before the fox? It cannot move so very fast through these trees, and will slow yet further once it reaches the slope.”

“My boy, my boy,” sighed M. Vauquelin, “I am too old to climb down; can you not see how my legs tremble?”

“Then I will go,” Emile said uncertainly, “and perhaps it will work.”

“But you are young,” the old man said, seizing his arm. “Your whole life awaits! You might perish in the attempt, and no one might ever come in here again!”

“But as you say, you cannot climb down,” Emile said. “And unless we can think of something else, I must try! Did David not defeat Goliath despite his youth and size?”

“So they say,” the old man said, but there was sadness in his voice, and he watched anxiously as Emile took his leave and carefully descended from a side door, plunging into the thick leaves of the forest and disappearing from view.

It was difficult to orient himself once inside the dense trees, within which, Emile thought, no axe had ever swung; the bushes and thorns of the undergrowth were tangled and thick, and constantly falling near him as the cathedral tore them from their roots. Perspiring and frightened, he repeatedly leapt aside to evade these obstacles, till at last he reached a clearing and was able to race ahead of the monster, hoping it would turn.

And turn it did, by mere inches at first, but at the end of perhaps two leagues it was unmistakably following Emile. He kept up a fast trot, searching frantically for a way up the mountain chosen by the old man. In fact it was not truly a mountain, he realized, heart sinking, but a mere hill, and the slope would surely not be enough to topple the cathedral. But he ran on, breathing deep, clutching his side, and when he reached the hillside he dropped to his hands and knees and began to climb like a goat.

He prayed as he went, for what little good he now believed it would do. The great building creaked and groaned in pursuit, spilling over its false idols, its sickly-sweet scented candles. As he could not read, he did not fear looking at the dropped books and parchments, scribed with their ominous writing, but he still swept them away when the wind carried them up the slope. “O God, if you are there, hear me!” he begged, hearing the buttresses biting into the slope close behind him. “Help me vanquish this abomination from Your world, even if it was once Your will! Surely you cannot intend for your children to suffer so! Surely you cannot watch us die at its feet!”

But no voice thundered from the heavens, no bush burned, no ass spoke; the Devil, too, did not appear to protect his creation. Emile scrambled and jumped, the monster so close behind him that his bare feet were struck by the clods of earth thrown up by its grasping limbs. It seemed a thousand years before he reached the summit, and he threw himself flat upon the thin turf and bare stone, gasping for air. He had outpaced, for a moment or two, the monster, but as it began to draw level with his face—a cornice here, a gargoyle there, turrets and slates, tails and wings—he rolled away and began exhaustedly to jog to the far side of the hill.

The old man called his name, his voice small and feeble, but Emile dared not pause to listen; if he could just reach the other side of the hill, he thought, the cathedral might stumble down the slope; it was quite steep on the far side, he could see it already. The land below was beautiful, bright in spring russets and greens, the morning’s mist burned away by a clear sun, the fields untouched by the terrifying dark gouge into the earth that led to this spot. Never had he been so high, nor so far from home. But already the farmers below had spotted the points of the thing slicing the sky and were shouting in alarm.

“Monsieur!” Emile called over his shoulder. “Can you climb down?”

“No, boy! But run! And keep running! The end is near!”

“Then jump!” Emile cried, and turned, just dodging a great heap of flying masonry. “There is still time!”

“There will be time in Hell,” the old man said, his last words as the cathedral crested the hill, paused for a moment, blocking out the sun, then began to sag. By inches, in reverse, the thin soil crumbling under its weight, at last a great slab of the hill gave way and the entire structure plummeted into the valley, as slowly as a falling feather.

Had God witnessed that too? Emile wondered. The way He saw the death of every sparrow? Would He rejoice, mourn? For it had all been done in His name, had it not?

“Monsieur?” Emile called tentatively after the dust settled, and the last slates had musically fallen from the heap of rubble and ruin. A tapestry flapped in the damp breeze. “Monsieur Vauquelin? Are you there?”

But there was only silence, and the slow beginnings of birdsong. Perhaps, Emile thought as he sadly descended, it had sounded the same after the fall of the Angel of Light; perhaps God could not speak for the depth of His grief, or His shame that He had created such a thing to speak His name evermore in glory, and they had all failed, all. Glory remained only in those left behind.

*

Issue 17 (Spring 2018)

Story copyright © 2018 by Premee Mohamed

Artwork copyright © 2018 by P. Emerson Williams

Premee Mohamed is an Indo-Caribbean scientist and spec fic writer based in Canada. Her work has been published by Automata Review, Mythic Delirium, Pseudopod, Nightmare Magazine, and others. She can be found on Twitter @premeesaurus.

P. Emerson Williams is an artist, musician, actor, and writer who works on a creative continuum that draws upon an interest in the arcane and esoteric. His passion is for embodying the mythic in visual media and melding visual art with narrative form. He has collaborated with writers James Curcio and Nathan Neuharth, and illustrated Bedlam Stories: The Battle of Oz and Wonderland Begins, the first novel in Pearry Teo’s series. As a musician he has worked with SLEEP CHAMBER, Jarboe, Manes, and kkoagulaa among many others.

 

 

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2018 by in Stories.
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