Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lingering Things

Bathed in the reddish-orange light of the gallery, Irene and Peter rested limply at the open mouth of the tunnel. Their hands wound together.

Blood whistled in Peter’s ears, pounding in vessels placed by nature far too close to his tympanic membranes. Was something hemorrhaging? Of course not. Filthy and bitten, he raised his free hand and without thinking extended a finger to his ear, meaning to stretch the canal out a bit. But he stopped. What if one of the horrible insects had lodged in there? What if it was now unable to fulfill Irene’s command? It would be thrashing, piercing the gentler internal layers of his sensory organs with its tiny bug-hooves and many-spiked leg segments. His finger would push in, piling wax under the nail. The black bug, separated from its brood, would kick. A claw would scrape the ridges of Peter’s fingertip.

Peter relaxed his hand, which had become tense, poised at the side of his head. What would the struggles of a stuck insect sound like? And with the arrival of this thought, Peter became sure that there was no bug in his ear. He was reassured that it was merely the blood circulating in his own skull; it was a noise that had always been there. Peter was, rather, healthily paranoid about the possibility of stray insects buried in his hair, his clothes, his person. An old instinct, inherited from furred ancestors thousands upon thousands of generations ago. The nature of those ancestors was yet debatable. Were they bat-like? – two-breasted with long fingers so adaptable that they might take to flight as easily as tool-making? Or, perhaps they bore the stereoscopic facial configurations and nimble clinging hands of the tarsiers, tiny predatory primates of Asia? But, whatever the case of his origin, the instinctual aversion to insects had been carried with the first ape-man from his very birth, from the moment he had slid out from some hairy womb. And with that instinct came the need for a companion to pick out the lice.

With her face pressed into the crook of Peter’s neck, Irene found minute solace. The mental noise of the styrgae’s clatter finally began to recede from her conscious mind. Yet – just as the swarm itself had only withdrawn deeper into the shaft from which Peter had emerged, their calls did not and could not fully vanish. There had been in her mind, as in all human minds, a film stretched across the abyss. By dark magic, this film had been pierced, and there would always be a scar. Through this aperture the styrgae’s echoes continued to reverberate. Something else echoed through this rupture too, marking the disparity between the current and former woman –

The pain was sharp and sudden for Peter. His immediate response to it was to slap his free left hand down over the tear in the back of his right. He felt it then, in his palm, between Irene’s thin fingertips. He had been right: something had been caught in his person. In a wound on Peter’s hand, an insect had remained. Camouflaged in the general soreness that had wrapped his body all round, Peter had not noticed the pressure of the unmoving creature – until it finally did squirm. Now it kicked as he had imagined it would. The sensation of claws against the unprotected inner flesh of his hand proved more terrible than his imagination could have prepared him for. Peter suppressed a high pitched note, short and not unlike a bark. It came out as something like a hiccup.

Her attention drawn from the comfort of his shoulder, Irene moved her entire body to bring Peter’s hand before her. As she shifted her feet beneath her, she pushed the dust of the library floor into a little pile against Peter’s knee. She felt it too now, a body moving just below Peter’s skin. It was blindly struggling, still trying its best to obey her, but horribly misinformed about the proper direction to take. She pressed her fingertips more tightly against the bones in Peter’s hands. She felt the tiny intruder nudge against her knuckle. Peter bit his lip. Only moments ago he had been enveloped in pain, his entire corpus had been chewed, and he had somehow persevered. But this single sting . . .

His eyes began to well with moisture. Irene saw the sinews in his neck become tense. She massaged the beetle. It seemed to respond to her touch. Peter lifted his left hand from the wound and locked it around Irene’s wrist. He looked first to the fidgeting lump in his skin, and then to Irene, who was concentrating, and then back to the remnant beetle.

Something short and black and jagged emerged: a mandible. The other, broken and opened wider than its twin, dragged alongside the creature’s head, slightly tearing the acute edge of the wound as it passed from Peter’s flesh. An antenna sprung into the orange light, like a stiff hair. The other was missing. Peter could stand to watch no more – the lost antennae must have been rested somewhere inside his right hand. Irene’s concentration remained unbroken. Having this task, into which she could pour herself – this helped.

Freed from its confusion, the bug fell into the dust. Neither Peter nor Irene could have smashed it. Devoid of the strength required for anger, neither of them would have garnered any satisfaction from killing it. The insect writhed and righted itself. It scurried from Peter’s knee, across the miniature dune created by the pressing of the two giant primates’ thighs. It left a trail as it fled. Tiny footprints kicked the dust into a series of chevrons that seemed to point the way to the lip of the shaft, and over the edge.

Above them, the shelves loomed, filled with the relics of even greater beings.

Beneath them, the chatter of the styrgae had faded into a soft murmur. Other sounds rose. A lapping, almost of waves; then a disturbingly familiar sound. “It’s all right.” Peter’s own voice was calling to them from below. “It’s all right. I’m right here.” Irene’s brow furrowed and her lower lip curled into a bunch. She looked to Peter – but what could he say? – then into the tunnel. “It’s all right now.”


  1. "It is," Peter grimaced, "the librarian."

    "There is something down there I need to find," he explained to Irene. "A steed, or mount of some kind. Agisthiya's steed, whatever that means. I don't even know what it does, but I intuit that it is useful. Nay, necessary."

    "The librarian was leading the way when-- when I was overcome. I feel I must continue going foward," he continued, "but if you cannot follow, then I will wait, I will remain here with you until you are ready, or as long as it takes to find a way to get you home safely."

    "The librarian is not a pretty sight to behold," he cautioned, "and more likely than not untrustworthy. It is a foul, insistent thing, and I know not what Master it may serve or what motives it may conceal. Let us hope that it has remained shrouded, that we may at least be spared the full horror of its countenance..."

  2. Agasthiya…familiarity pricked Irene’s battered consciousness, but comprehension was elusive. She couldn’t even hazard a guess as to what this steed was or why that term (or name?) sounded familiar, but the idea that they needed to be carried out of here by another power seemed reasonable—though why, she could not say.

    But she did not relish a meeting with this librarian. Considering Peter's description, he would doubt render the insidious, parasitic styrgae nothing more than troublesome gnats. And yet she could not stay here on her own. If Peter had not been able and willing to clasp her in his arms and speak to her so gently in the comforting language of humanity, Irene was certain she would have been lost the moment that she made contact with the winged devils. Peter was her sole link to humanity.

    “We must keep moving,” she said, the soft breath scraping like sharpened steel against her dry throat. “I do not know if I can keep up with you, but we must not separate. Not now. Not yet. If the moment comes when I cannot move, however, then you must go on without me.”

    Yet if she faltered and he was forced to leave her—for his finding this creature was paramount—then what was to stop this whole terrifying scenario from repeating itself, their roles reversed? Would this be their lot for all eternity? One stumbling into the abyss and the other rushing in heroically until both succumbed?

    No. The protestation was hollow, but was swiftly followed by another, and this one stood up as tall and sturdy as a spear. Irene followed suit, though she moved very slowly and would have made a very crooked lance indeed.

    “I have a confession of my own,” she said, cognizant that sharing information, no matter how esoteric, was essential. “I was not alone when I found you, Peter. Indeed, I would never have located your prison had I not been guided by a voice in my head. While it did aid me, I cannot help but feel that its master is in fact a treacherous creature who acts according to its own agenda. And what is worse, Peter, it spoke to me in the real world as well as in this one.” A slight tremor shook those final words. “It spoke to me in Harappan.

    “I do not claim to know the significance of that, but don't think it could have been the librarian, do you?”

  3. (Irene has passed an idea roll, an archaeology check, and a Sanskrit check. The archaeology roll and the Sanskrit check have been made possible by Irene's trip to the British Museum in the interim since last encountering the name.)

    As lucidity was slowly restored to Irene, she began to recall that she did indeed once speak with Peter about this name, Agasthiya. It had been in April, back in Peter's room at Ayub's hospital. So many dreadful things had taken place there in the shadow of the babul tree, but it all seemed very far away now. What understatement! In this place, she thought, the memories of even those horrors at Ihsaan-Waahaan might pale and lose their significance.

    As snips of that conversation with Peter came back to her, she remembered encountering the name, or one like it, at the British Museum. Agasthiya - Agasta, Agastya, Agasthya - there had been different versions of it, different transliterations into different languages. The Sanskritic roots of it were easy enough to decipher: it meant something like "thrower of mountains". That could easily have been a name of Hanuman, the monkey god of faith, who once carried a hill from the Himalayas all the way to Rama's battlefield in Lanka. It could just as easily be, as she remembered Peter remarking, another name for Shiva - it was just the sort of epithet one might ascribe to the god of destruction. (Then again, the disorganized thoughts of her working consciousness suggested, isn't Hanuman an incarnation of Shiva? And aren't all the gods and goddesses but One God, to whom each of the long ages of man are but blinks of an immense impersonal eye?)

    Another notion came to mind. Something she had seen written up in an unbound sheath of paper in the stacks. A statue had been recovered from somewhere in Central India. Near Nagpur, she thought. Perhaps it had been sitting in a cave, perhaps in some maharaja's private collection. It was ninth century, she knew that much, and she also remembered the description: "a pot-bellied rshi." Why couldn't she recall the author or the excavator? The statue had been identified as one Agasthiya.

  4. Peter pressed his lips to Irene's forehead. "You are braver than anyone I know," he confided.

    "I doubt the voice you heard was that of the librarian," he said, suddenly abashed by his display of affection. "Though not impossible, I have found it can only mimic voices that it has already heard. Would that it could communicate otherwise, for to hear it regurgitate my own voice was.. well, unsettling."

    He helped her to her feet. "Here, lean on me. We will go down together. Keep your eyes on your feet; I will watch the path ahead."

  5. Irene couldn’t believe that she was the bravest person of Peter’s acquaintance, but she did believe that he believed it. A small smile tugged at her lips, and might have pulled the corners up to their full reach had not dry skin stretched and threatened to break. Irene was not eager to taste blood, as the salty liquid would only remind her of and thereby increase her desperate need for hydration; so, she let the muscles relax and used her tongue to moisten the skin as Peter finished speaking.

    She nodded at his directives and obediently fixed her gaze downward, trusting that his sharp eyes were sharp enough to spot any danger around them.

    At first, Irene’s full attention was on her feet; she was still feeling woozy and unstable, and it was taking all her willpower and concentration to find purchase with each step. After a little while, she grew confident that her legs could move well without her constant, intense focus. It was at that point that her mind wandered back to England…

    “Peter, I remember,” Irene said, her voice thin and raspy by the time it escaped her throat. She swallowed, coughed gently and tried again. “Agasthiya, the 'thrower of mountains'. When I was at the British Museum, I came across the name and a reference to a statue from…from someplace near Nagpur, I think. I can’t remember who found it and I don’t recall a reference to a steed.”

    Irene sighed, then immediately regretted letting out that very precious air so precipitously. She drew in a deep breath along with quite a few particles of dust, but managed to stave off a coughing fit.

    “I wonder if these names really matter,” she mused. “We thought about this before, the idea that different gods—like Hanuman and Agasthiya—and their epithets seem may really be incarnations of Shiva. And perhaps the line can be traced further, to a God whose name has been lost in time.”

    She wasn’t sure why she was bringing that up; there was not anything inherently helpful about that suggestion. Yet there was something to be said for grasping hold of inspiration and running with it. The only way that they would eke meaning out of this seemingly nonsensical adventure was to continue to throw wood on the fire in the hopes that one or more amongst the ideas would spark a billowing flame.

  6. Peter went first. He consciously closed his mouth and pulled his breath in through his nostrils. The back of his sinuses felt dry. Crouching, he turned his back to the hole and exhaled. It was not easy extending his leg back down into the shaft which had nearly claimed his life. He hesitated before letting his toe touch one of the shallow ledges in its almost vertical throat, and then he paused to give the passage a moment to decide whether it would swallow him whole – or just take his leg.

    Irene waited nervously until Peter had reached a place where he could help her down. Under other circumstances it would have been just another tolerable masculine gesture, but now she really did need contact with him. Long were the moments that Peter took to lower himself into the passage below. His fingers and toes stirred the dust as they searched for holds. The soft sounds of Peter’s descent seemed to be projected from the passage and into the greater chamber all around Irene. Resonating against the shelves, and echoing into the interminable mist of the ceiling, Irene’s sense of distance from the man whom she had just rescued was heightened. The gallery was colder and more barren without him. Again, she wondered where the voice in her head had gone.

    When Peter reached the bottom of the throat, he stood and faced the horizontal channel from whence the black bugs had come. He couldn’t see them, but the dark borders of the grayish glowing terminus of the tunnel shimmered slightly. It was the swarm.

    Peter turned to guide Irene down. Looking up, he at first saw nothing – no giant shelves, no walls, nothing – but the outline of an alien figure standing ominously against an orange sky. As his eyes adjusted to read the shadows cast across Irene’s visage, he noticed that she did not seem to be absorbed by the overall radiance of the place. Peter and all the other beings and objects that he had encountered here had seemed positively imbued with, soaked in, the orange glow of the terrain, but Irene was, somehow, dampening it.

    He offered his shoulder to her as an extra handhold. When she rested her hand on it, Peter noted the contrast between his still slightly orange-glowing shoulder and the dark sink of Irene’s. She joined him in the darkness below. Only after they had taken a number of cautious steps towards that tiny aperture did Irene dare to look up from her feet.

    She took only a glance. And there it was, in a cavity to the right of the presumed exit from the tunnel. At a distance, its visage was not as terrible to Irene as she had thought it would have been, though she did not for a second doubt Peter’s assessment of the creature’s loathsomeness. In the dim light, she could see that its general form was something like a slightly sagging column. She looked back down at her feet, and they moved nearer to it. Again, Irene lifted her head, and she saw that the librarian was moving. It gently rocked between a quarter-bent position and a more upright one. Against her will, Irene recalled walking a path in the Jardin du Luxembourg one evening a few years ago, and being suddenly faced by a man in a long coat. She recalled the foulness of his breath, which she could smell from several feet away, and the way his member had pulsed into an erection – almost exactly as the librarian was bowing and swaying. Irene stifled a gasp and allowed herself to fall half a step behind Peter, who had dealt with this thing before. Her eyes fell back to her feet. She had no desire to make out its finer features, but she also had little confidence in her ability to avoid seeing more of it. Willfully this time, she remembered Orpheus, and the price he paid for his lack of discipline while escaping the Underworld.

  7. Until then, Irene hadn’t registered the sounds coming from the end of the tunnel. But now, with her eyes firmly fixed upon her shoes, she could and did hear the low sounds that were rumbling into the passageway. The first explanation for the noises that came to her mind – that they sounded like a tide – was immediately rejected as too banal. Instead, she thought that they might be the breathing of the librarian. But in the grey light there was some oceanic quality, the promise of something vast beyond the tunnel.

    Still a dozen yards from the creature, Peter saw it straighten. Though it was merely a shadow, Peter got the impression that the librarian had turned towards him. He could not see whether or not it had managed to maintain its shroud in the wash of styrgae, but he did see that at the point in the passage where it was standing, the path actually branched off into the black stone. There was no light shining from this ancillary channel. Peter heard the librarian speaking softly. To itself? he wondered.

    “Salts. With enough effort,” it said in English tainted with a Francophone accent, “I can change what I’m dreaming. Protein ribbons. Of.” It expanded and contracted as if sighing – and indeed, Peter and Irene heard a wet rasping sound as it did so. Then it emitted a sound like that of a needle running through a scratch on a worn record, or a voice being twisted in a faulty telephone wire, and it spoke again. The librarian was louder now and more assertive as it hailed the pair of travelers. The librarian had taken on the cadence of an American rustic. “Sorry ‘bout that! Friend! Goddamn sea of bugs!” The librarian’s new cadence loped along like a lame animal. “C’mon – hello? What the hell. Are you?”

    Irene thought it was addressing her. She heard Peter say, “I am. A man. What are you? Protein ribbons shredded on salt?” He sounded so distant – the voice was, certainly, the librarian using Peter’s intonations. It broke again into the American accent. “C’mon, c’mon!” it repeated. “Down here pardner!”

    Just beyond the librarian, Peter could see the styrgae on the walls, on the floors, on the ceiling, and trailing outward into the grayish light.

    (Irene has passed a sanity check to fend off the worst effects of her brief glimpse of the librarian.)

  8. "Continue," Peter instructed the quasiphallic librarian thing. "We will follow."

    "Let's go," he urged Irene quietly.