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The Cold Death of Papa November

by Sunny Moraine

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Narrated by the author

 

Every one of the lights of Budapest is an eye, and every one of those eyes is staring at him. He turns his own eyes to the river, ribbon of darkness cutting through a sea of flying photons, but even the river is not dark; tilt your head this way and that, laddie, this way and that and the river looks at him with the reflected gaze of all the lights of the city, his own reflection in the glaze of a dead man’s stare.

This way and that. Hands on the old pocked wood of the balcony door. His fingers slide into depressions barely covered by new paint. Head turning, turning. No peace here. Behind him, the shortwave sits on its little table like a gargoyle, glowering at him with its own inscrutable gaze.

Down on the street five stories below, a crowd of people, laughing, happy. Her voice for a moment, in the way that all voices are her voice, in the way that all gazes are her gaze. The world is haunted by her.

The shortwave crackles and he tenses as if for a blow, not turning.

Achtung. Achtung. Der Achte. Der Zwei. Der Achte. Der Sechste. Der Drei.

A woman. Not her. His shoulders relax into limpness. He looks out at the city and the city looks back, questioning.

So what did you come here for?

• • •

Home, years ago, months ago, hours and minutes; time is more fluid now than it used to be. He marked the passage of time with breaths, heartbeats; he used hers, because she had mattered that much. Then she was gone, and now he’s alone with his own rhythms, and they stutter and shake. They seem unreliable. Time slips away. His perception is a sieve and the time passes through.

He takes phone calls, at first — sympathies and commiserations that seem like mockery. He doesn’t want to listen, so at last he doesn’t. The phone sits off the hook and he and it sit together in silence. There are pictures of her all over the house, looking at him. Her eyes; his own eyes reflected in hers. He used to kiss her with their eyes open. He used to look into her eyes as their mouths slid together, memorizing each gold fleck, each vein of green, irises like unpolished mineral from the secret heart of a stone.

I love you, she whispers into the silent house, the gathering dark and the gathering dust. What’s happening to you?

He wanders the halls, leans against a wall, slides down to the floor and buries his face in his hands in a vain attempt at sending her away. He wishes he were brave enough to scratch out her eyes.

Love, grief; in a hellish kind of alchemy they transform into hate. The hate turns inward and festers. He is living in a giant wound. He is a giant wound.

He sells the house, and says goodbye to no one when he goes. Before he does, he finds himself in the attic, the contents of an old box strewn out all around him, the old shortwave in his lap. He had forgotten it. He’s not sure now that he remembers it, holding it in his hands as though he’s only seen it before in dreams. The batteries should be dead but it turns on. Dead air. Crackle, shiver, solar breaths, shifting sunspots.

Ready. Ready. Six. One. Two. Five. Eight. Six. Ready. Ready. 

The light bulb explodes with a soft pop. He sits there in the dark for a very long time after the voice goes silent. He’s not ready. He never could be.

• • •

Have you ever seen a lassie, a lassie, a lassie? Have you ever seen a lassie? Start looking, asshole.

Seven eight five one six five seven.

You’re not ready for anything.

• • •

He hears the song in his dreams. Increasingly, he hears it when awake. He first heard it as most people hear such loose bits of the mass culture, something sung by a relative or on a CD of children’s songs, or in school. He heard it as a small boy and it stayed with him, wedged into the crevices of subconscious and memory. Then many years later he heard it again, crackling and indistinct, echoing weirdly in the bare-wood emptiness of an attic not yet filled with the detritus of years of occupancy.

She had been sitting curled around the radio, holding it to herself like she was cradling the child she wouldn’t ever have. She heard him — a breath, a creaking board, or maybe she just felt the beat of his pulse, the rhythm by which she kept her own time drawing near — and she looked up. Her eyes... that gaze.

Someone else’s gaze.

“I’ll be right down,” she had whispered. The crackling was gone. Somewhere in those moments, breath and heartbeat, she had turned the thing off. “I’ll be right down, I’m just, I’m going through some things. Okay?”

Desperation in that last word. He had felt weirdly ashamed, like he had walked in on her masturbating, except that even that wasn’t something he felt shame regarding anymore. He had turned, left the attic, and later she hadn’t spoken about it and he supposed he had felt that it was for the best.

I can’t tell you about what I do, she had said the night he asked her to marry him. I just can’t. Okay?

Okay. That same okay. Flash in her eyes like that same empty, alien gaze. Later — or earlier, he’s no longer sure with how malleable the time has gotten — lying in bed in the dark, an empty patch of cool sheet to his left. Single notes in the night, so soft, the lost echoes of a lost child’s music box.

Have you ever seen a lassie. A lassie. A lassie. Have you ever? Seen a lassie?

Go this way and that.

• • •

When he walks out of the house for the last time, he has the shortwave under his arm. It’s mid-November, and the trees are shaking themselves naked in the rain. He doesn’t look back. There are no lights in the windows of the house, and every one is a dead eye. The worst of them, the attic window, he imagines that he might look back at it and see her there, watching him go, her eyes dark holes in her head.

In his imagination — just a dream, never really happened — she opens her mouth and out come the music-box notes, tinny and lost.

If something happens, she had said once, naked and curled around him, I’ll get a message to you somehow.

Had she been lying?

What are lies? How do you know them when they happen?

Hours later he’s on a plane over the Atlantic, looking out at a blessedly eyeless dark — except for his own gaze reflected dimly back to him, and his eyes look empty as the night outside.

• • •

Budapest is cold. Budapest is bright. He hadn’t expected the brightness. Bright, clear winter days, nights violently lit. He sits in his rented flat on the banks of the Beautiful Blue Danube and wonders if he might have better luck with a cabin in the woods. No one knows him here. Either way he’s just as alone. But really, that’s not true at all.

He sits on the balcony with the shortwave; he sits on the floor, on the narrow bed; he curls himself around it as he’d seen her do, protective. Except for some clothes and toiletries, it’s all he’s brought with him. All he has of her. No photos — but she is everywhere. He doesn’t need any.

She is everywhere, but here in his arms is still the majority of her. The pulsing little secret at the heart of her life.

Achtung. Achtung. Another woman’s voice — a different woman. He closes his eyes against the lights. Attention: You won’t find her here. Not on this station, not in this ether. You could blame the sunspot cycles, the alignment of satellites, the weather, but what it comes down to is that she’s gone. 

Der Zwei. Der Drei. Der Ende.

Two days later he’s on a plane again, pushing north, voices dancing in the air all around him.

• • •

Station change. Little girl’s voice, repeating numbers like she’s not sure of them, like she’s asking a question. Is this one right? How about this one? Station change. Single horn blare, piercing, painful; instead of turning it off he turns it up and presses his ear against the little speakers. Moscow is colder than Budapest had been, and Moscow is just as bright. As he moves north, it seems that there is less day and more brightness. Moscow isn’t right either. He only stays there for three days and pushes north again. Saint Petersburg is full of night and more full of light than any city he’s yet been in, and he cowers in the corner of his sterile hotel room, radio to his ear, listening so hard that he doesn’t entirely feel like he’s listening with his ears anymore — he’s listening with his skin, his cells, the double-helix of his DNA vibrating with sound.

He doesn’t even know what he’s listening for. He doesn’t know how he’d recognize it if he heard it. He’s going on faith. If there’s a line between faith and desperation, it’s a thin one.

• • •

It’s strange to marry someone and have no idea what they do for a living. Except he knew, or he suspected, and in either case there had been the cover story, the open-air story, and he knew that one, so introducing her at parties had never been awkward. What had been awkward were the long nights alone, the times when she’d vanish for days with no word, the flat, gray afternoons sitting in the silent living room and wondering if this time might be the time when she didn’t come back.

After all that, cancer had seemed like such a mundane way to go. It hadn’t seemed worthy of her.

So there had been denial, and now denial looks like a thin man with thin hair, lost in a cold-lit night that doesn’t even end with the rising of the sun, listening to the chimes and whispers and mad gibbering that aren’t meant for him, waiting for the one message that will be.

And it will come. Because none of this makes any sense. In the absence of coherence, he waits for revelation.

• • •

It comes with dawn on Saint Petersburg, like the sun is bringing it. He’s asleep, and at first it feels like a dream, and it sounds like something out of a dream as well: a crackle, a mutter, a great screaming wall of sound exploding out of the tinny little speakers, grinding and clawing its way into the room. He jerks, rolls, sits up with his eyes wide, too shocked to cover his ears. Later he’ll regret it; it’s loud enough to hurt, drilling into his brain with the high frequencies, blunt force trauma with the low. It rises and swirls and falls, like wind, like fire, like the agonized wail of things in pain. Not human things. No human ever made this noise.

He breaks the stasis of the shock and lunges for the radio, twisting the dial and turning it down. But not off. He can’t lose this. It feels closer than he’s yet been, though maybe not to what he wanted. The lights seem fainter and weaker and the shadows in the corners of the room are closing in, putting out their cold fingers and reaching for him. She might be there, in any of them, darkness pouring out of her eyes and mouth.

At the end, her eyes had looked hollow. Like her flesh was already going insubstantial, her bones the only solid things left.

He presses his ear to the moaning thing and listens.

At first there’s nothing. Or rather, there’s something, but it’s more of the same, the rolling screams and mechanical grinding, the sharp twist of feedback. Then, there, under it, flowing beneath the noise like a dark river passing beneath a city. He’s groping for it with his brain, slogging through thick sonic mud and trying to reach it before it slips away again. If she’s trying to reach him, maybe she has to fight to do so. Maybe she has to fight for that message she promised him.

He’s standing in the hall of the old house, staring at the mirror; his eyes are empty pits. Her face is nowhere. There is grinding in the walls.

His face twists with pain; he barely feels it. He’s forcing the sound aside like thick curtains, only these curtains are spiked and razor-edged, and they slash at his hands. He’s forcing his way upward, up stairs that no longer creak but scream in rage every time his foot lands on them. Up, up past the point at which he might have wished he could stop, but what’s carrying him on now is not under his own power.

There’s light coming through the cracks in the attic door. Open it; it pours through into his brain.

Ready? Ready, baby? Here it comes. It snaps inside him like an orgasm, like when she’d wrench them out of him with her mouth and her hands. He is conscious of nothing. At some point he opens his eyes; thin morning light streaming in through the windows. He is curled on the floor, the radio lying to the side.

Shattered.

He gropes for it, breath frozen. Not wanting to believe it, even as some part of him feels a heavy pulse of relief, free, but it all fades quickly, because of what’s under the broken pieces, plastic and wire, scrawled on a torn shred of newspaper.

67.133056 39.666667

“Numbers,” he whispers, and laughs for an hour.

After that, he’s moving again.

• • •

The light fades, transmutes into a seemingly never-ending twilight. The lights of Saint Petersburg, of Moscow, of Budapest, they all feel very distant now — and they are, but being and feeling are not always the same. He drives out across a pale country that rolls and swells like a gentle sea, and it lulls him. It’s the first thing like peace that he’s felt in weeks. The first thing like quiet, but for the rumble of the truck’s engine. And there are no eyes here.

There is ice, and the road, and the low, low sun.

He watches the numbers roll on the dashboard GPS, edging toward what he wants. The numbers are like voices, drifting down to him from spinning eyes too far above to see, but they’re quiet voices and they only mean to help.

He sees birds, once, a great cloud of them spinning away south over a row of low hills. He watches them — no need to focus too much on such an empty road — their long necks and graceful wings, always pushing up and up, crying to each other. Crying messages. Direction? How do they all know where they should be?

He drives. The snow thickens. Once or twice, he sees low buildings in the distance, but there are no lights and he meets no one. His lips move in the darkening stillness. Old songs like benevolent ghosts.

Have you ever seen a lassie? Go this way. This way.

This is the way. He can feel it pulling at him.

• • •

At dawn, he passes into the zona without realizing that he’s done so. There are no signs, no markings. The place is not identified on any map that he carries, not on any map in the world. He would assume, if he stopped to consider the matter, that there are people who know why to stay away, and people who do not know why, but the avoidance is common to everyone. There are places in the world that scream wrongness, that warn even the birds away. That carry no light.

Yet, he doesn’t hear the wrongness when he passes into it. It could be nights of sitting with the shortwave pressed against his ear, so much wrong that now he’s deafened to it. It might be none of that. Regardless, what he sees is not wrongness but a vast spread of land, the same as he has everywhere, naked trees and patchy earth blanketed in most places by snow. It’s early winter yet but this far north every winter is a hard winter, and now there may be no break in the snow for many months.

Not that he cares. Not that he plans to wait around to see.

What he does notice, if not the wrongness in the very earth, is the quiet. Deeper quiet than before. He hasn’t seen people in miles, but life grips even in the emptiest places, and there has always been the feeling of life unseen. Small life. Birds and rodents, rabbits, foxes, secret and strange.

Not here. Nothing here.

Buildings on the horizon. All the roads have been icy but now this road is falling to pieces as well, and he bumps and rattles along, fixing his eye on the squat blocks. Beyond, rising into the bloodless sky, towers like the fingers of a giant’s outspread hand.

He leaves the truck in an empty parking lot, steps out into the snow and starts to walk, head cocked, listening. The buildings rise all around him like thicker trees, empty, windows blasted and glassless, torn curtains flapping in the wind. Even with the wind, such total silence — in a world of people it should be impossible. But this is not a world of people. This is a world without people. They’ve left their structures and their signs — words he can’t even pretend to read, though she would naturally have been able to — but the trees have grown up over their streets, up through their walls and floors, and the snow covers everything. He stops in a clearing that might once have been a park — broken swingset poles like dead tree trunks — and turns, head thrown back and eyes closed, listening. He feels no gaze on him.

He sings. It’s a moment or two before he’s really aware that he’s doing it. Have you ever? Have you ever? 

This way.

A two-headed bird lands in the snow in front of him, enormous and black, its second head shriveled and half-formed on the hulk of its shoulder. It looks at him for a moment or two with its good eyes — a black gaze with no weight behind it, a ghost-look — opens its mouth, and a long grinding scream fills the dead air.

He knows, without having to see any evidence, that she was here.

He knows he won’t be leaving.

He sits down in the snow. The bird sits down with him. There are other places like this in the world, he thinks. Pacific atolls, Japanese cities, deserts of melted glass. Known and secret. Hungry place, the zona, and what it doesn’t kill with fire it kills with slow poison. It pulls into itself, gathering its children. But it still lets them sing in the dark.

He sings, static and the shriek of steel on steel, the scream of breaking atoms. The bird sings with him. Night and the temperature fall together, and the zona is hospitable. It won’t turn away a weary traveler. And in the shadows, perhaps, she is waiting.

Have you ever? Here.

Now you have.

 

 

Sunny Moraine is a carbon-based humanoid creature of average height. To date, she has published numerous pieces of fiction of varying lengths in various places, including Shimmer, Icarus, and Strange Horizons. When she was younger she would dress up as her family’s pastor, but now she writes stories about ghosts and space and ghosts in space, as well as stories that would make her pastor blush horribly (you’ve come a long way, baby). She lives with her husband in the suburbs of Washington DC where she writes sociological analyses of violent events and dreams of mountains and Mars. Online she can be found at sunnymoraine.com, among other places.


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ISSUE #21

September 2011

FICTION

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