My father’s house, which he shares with his fifth wife, a full pure-bred (indigenous inhabitant of this place that we call The New World), is a funnel-shaped tower in the preferred style of his new, aerially-inclined family. It sits atop a gentle and verdant hillock with a nearby copse of pine trees. Where the earth flattens out is a short stretch of sand dunes leading to a calm blue sea. The beach is shaded with mangroves and palms. These were always dad’s favourite types of locale.
The inside of the tower has been modified with a chaotic latticework of ladders, spiral staircases and wooden ramps to cater for my father, two children from a previous marriage (neither he, nor they, remember which) and any visitors. I suppose I was of the latter category. This gives it the aspect of an abandoned vault, lived in by spiders. Or so had been my first impression upon entering, standing at the base and gazing upwards at the endless ledges and balconies. Beams of dusty sunlight and distant-relatives floated back and forth, trailing streamers of shimmering blue.
“Have you ever lived for five-hundred years before?” asked my father.
Like all corpses, (the name lovingly applied to us by the pure-breds) whether by an act of will on all our parts or just as a general law of this land, none of us know; he had taken on the form of his twenty-five to thirty-year-old self. “Have you even lived past a hundred yet?” he continued.
I said nothing.
“If you live long enough, memories start to fade. And then they’re gone entirely.”
“I know, I watched it happen to mum,” I said.
“That’s not what I meant!” he barked, banging his fist upon the rich mahogany desk that he sat behind. His room near the top of the tower, from the efforts to reach which I was still recovering, was a remnant of his other life. His study. The one part of his life with us that remained with him in The New World.
“You don’t understand. You are clearly incapable of understanding. You just haven’t lived here long enough”
“Please, explain then.”
“You use her name against me as if it should mean something to me.”
“Yes, I do. You put me in her womb. You raised me and my sisters“.
“So you say,” he said, turning his face to the window. “Why don’t you go find this mother of yours?” he continued after a while, “bring her here. Perhaps it’ll jog my memory. If, that is, she is who you say she is. And you are who you say you are.”
“I can’t seem to find her the same way I found you.”
“Yes, you never did tell me how you did that. Most curious.”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I just…knew you were here”.
I broke eye contact with him.
A brightly coloured Toucan flew into sight through the window, seemed to hover there staring at us and then wheeled around to sail off into the distance.
Over the next hill.
“Well, she’ll be in the city if she’s anywhere,” father said, absently gazing after it.
“There’s a city?” I asked.
“They made a go of it. It’s mostly deserted now. So I hear.”
He studied me a moment from behind his desk. “Through the swamp. Three days across the desert. Place is probably a bloody death-trap. Crumbling at the foundations. But, if it’ll give you something to occupy your time…”
Who had built it? And how?
Were they trying to get back what they had lost? What all of us have lost?
“Perhaps, I will,” I announced.
Father just grunted and went back to his papers. I was dismissed. God knew what kind of paperwork he thought there was to do here.
Trying to get back what is lost.
I stopped suddenly at the door, “How did you know?” I said.
“Know what?” he asked, cocking his eyebrow.
“How did you know mum would be in the city?”
He said nothing. Just frowned. I allowed myself the glimmer of a smirk.
Taking my small victory with me, I left.
That was the last I ever saw of my father.
That was three days ago. Now Kronos and I are trudge through a peat bog. Our path leads to The Desert, which Kronos informs me is just over the next hill.
Always just over the next hill.
He hovers through the air in the usual manner of his kind.
“Your corpse legs fare poorly upon this terrain, father,” he says
“Still, I suppose it makes a change…”
“Why, taking in the pungent yet surprisingly picturesque delights of this canopied carpet of rotting flora. Soaring o’er the tree-tops, as is my most oft-practiced mode of transit, I would ne’er have thought to…”
“You’re doing it again,” I interrupt
“What mean you, pray tell?”
“Now, now, just because your culture of origin turned its back on the beauty of language, doesn’t mean I bloody well have to!”
“Now you’re doing the other thing.”
“Talking like me. You know it bothers the others.”
“Well, fuck ‘em!” He pronounces after a moments thought, “I’m your son, aren’t I?”
“Aye, that’s the problem.”
My son…. I think to myself, oh so very privately.
Jacinta, Kronos’s mother, although technically a half-breed, thanks to her – and my – corpse father, has all the characteristics of a purie, as does any child born of a pure-bred. Her skin has the look of smoothed, glossed ebony wood. Her eyes are the colour of a horde of gold ingots reflected off of a pool of water, and her hair, which she ties in a thick braid, was the blue that the Hindu-Indians had used to paint their pictures of Vishnu.
I remembered my primary school teacher telling me once that this colour was lost forever from the world.
But not here.
Kronos is now six years of age and Jacinta counsels us not to develop a bond; the culture of this place views these things as unseemly.
On a hard-packed road, in the shadow of the mesa, crimson in the pink light of evening, we meet a solitary traveller. She is a corpse, like me. She has built a fire by the roadside and sits cross-legged, roasting a gopher which she has speared on a stick.
“Howdy, traveller,” I say as we approach, “Mightn’t two weary pilgrims share the warmth of your fire?”
She smiles warmly but with a sardonic curl of the lip; “Well ain’t that a thing?” she says, “out here in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of time and space itself, and lo’ and behold, who should cross my path but an old settler.” Her voice is soft and low and seems a part of the land and the fire.
It occurs to me that this stranger may well have been alive in The Old West as I take a seat opposite her. The night is settling in and the world around the flames is becoming smaller.
Her name is Molly. She tells us that living in the desert is all that keeps America alive in her, and that as soon as she sets foot upon verdant meadow or wanders into the shadow of the tall pines, she starts to forget. She thinks she once had a family, maybe even more than one. But America: the land, the life…at least she can keep that.
Kronos asks what makes her so determined to hold onto the days before. Why not embrace The New World?
But this is his world. And with the fire painting a black canvas over the scene around us, it is easy to imagine that I am in The Settler’s. And for now, I wish to stay there.
She tells Kronos that once hers had been a ‘new world’. And having seen two already, she had no interest in seeing another.
I share out some of our provisions. Some purie food; a sort of edifying loaf which I refer to as lembas bread (which of course goes right over everyone’s head). We eat in contemplative silence, like frontiersmen and I wonder how long before London will be gone from me; is just a word that triggers nothing but the slightest flicker of recognition.
Kronos glides away into the night and as Molly and I curl up into our bedrolls she says to me “You’re not really from my time are you’?”
“No,” I say, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s no matter,” she says, “the pretence was nice. I Thank you.”
That night I dream of London in the fog. Of standing at the bottom of my street, looking up, and watching the road, the houses and the trees disappear into the swirling mist.
“Are you ready?”
I wake. Groggy. There is a bright, blinding light. A purple streak writes itself across the sky like a silken shooting-star, and fades like ink across wet paper. I have been noticing these ever since we left the swamp behind us.
“What time is it?” I mumble, sandily.
“Phoebus hath wended his fiery path through climbs far beyond the yard-arm, friend!”
“If you’re gonna be Shakespearean, at least be so in iambic pentameter.” I say as I kick myself out of the bedroll and reach into my pack.
“I am just risen from mine slumbers now, should’t please you some space would not go amiss!”
I try to rouse The Settler, who is still completely inert.
Large amounts of lembas and The Settler’s whiskey seem to have knocked us out way into the afternoon.
Baking under a hot sun.
“Kron, we’re both gonna need water, lots of it! How’s your supply?”
“You forget who you’re talking to,” he says as he undoes his satchel and pulls out an empty plastic container in the shape of an Italian wine-gourd.
“You sure about that?”
“Sure,” he says, “there’s an oasis about an hours walk from here. Three minutes as the pure-blood flies,” he says with a wink as he begins the long, intricate process of unbinding his rich blue braid.
“Is it gonna be okay?”
“Will it drain you too much?”
“Nah!” he says as he starts to wring his hair out into the container. As he does so, the gossamer locks start to gradually lose their length and his glossy, onyx skin takes on a dark-grey sheen. The container fills with a sparkling liquid, the colour of the pale sky.
The Settler stirs awake.
Kronos takes us in a new direction, towards the mesas and arroyos. This path does not lead to my father’s fabled City but he insists that there is a person in the mountains who I must speak to. He says that this person is the source of the purple streaks
He is getting noticeably fatigued.
The well is dry.
A few thirsty looking palm trees, their leaves various shades of golden-brown are dotted around a wide and shallow depression. A bowl of hard cracked dirt. If Kronos had flown here and come back to join us on our path, we might have known sooner, but then he would likely be in even worse shape. Nevertheless, he is wracked with guilt and my heart goes out to him at the crestfallen look in his eyes. At his now pale-grey face. I place my hand on his shoulder.
He starts once more to untie his already shortened braid.
“Look, I’ve thought about this. If I give you and Mol the lion’s share, it should get you there. Then He can help us.”
“Who can help?”
“The guy I’ve been taking us to. The man in the sky, who do you think?”
“It’s a man?”
Kronos nods, as he begins straining the pale blue elixir out of his hair into the nearly empty container.
“Who is he?”
“I don’t know.” He stops straining, “I just call him The Scribe, but I reckon it could be…..you know…Him.”
I ponder this for a while as Kronos resumes filling the jug. His hair is now almost as short as mine. Here is where ‘He’ would be I suppose. If anywhere.
“The Scribe?” I ask
“Because he makes patterns across the sky?”
“That’s very poetic, Kron”.
A very small amount of Kronos’s Elixir gives one a burst of energy and well-being, but before long you are flagging. It is necessary to ration it strictly while keeping oneself constantly topped-up as soon as one starts to feel the comedown kicking in. We had left Kronos at the dried-up oasis with a decent supply along with a few parcels of lembas that should keep him alive for two days, as long as he stays still and in shade.
“You call him son,” says Molly.
“You two…you have something. People don’t have that anymore.”
We walk in silence for a time, our footfalls echoing across the flat plain, the dirt crunching under our feet.
“Not even family?” I ask after some time.
“Especially not family,” she replies.
Prairie turns into foothills and soon we are navigating trails in the shadow of forbidding mesas and jagged peaks, trying to follow Kronos’s directions. Knowing that if we get lost, we will all be dead before the next sunset.
And then where will we go?
As Molly and I pace our way across the hard-packed dust, we discuss the nature of time in this place. I tell her that I once did the maths in my head:
Assuming that my father is more or less correct in his assertion that all of his time spent in both The Old World and The New adds up to – give or take – five-hundred years, in Old-World time; that I deem myself to be thirty-six in Old World years, having come here at age thirty; and that father came here when I was twenty-four and he seventy-one. Assuming also that time here operates at a constant speed relative to the Old World and isn’t either in a process of gradual acceleration or just zip-zapping around without rhyme or reason; it would mean that when a year passes back there, about seventy-one-and-a-half years have gone by here.
Molly tells me I think too much.
A long valley eventually opens up into a short plateau of red earth. The evening sky overhead is an attractively malicious orange. The flat stretch of ground ends in a wall of crimson rock. We can’t see it from here, but if Kronos is right, there is an opening somewhere in that solid face. A narrow canyon through the mountain.
We stop for a drink before crossing.
Half way across Molly stops me with a gentle touch to my elbow. She is looking at me intently. She casts her eyes pointedly up to the sky. It is covered in a thick layer of brilliant stars. She looks back at me. A quirk appears at the corners of her lips as she presses her body closer to me, our hips meeting.
We stop for the night.
Under the brilliant stars.
In the morning we enter the shadow of the canyon. All the sounds of The Desert are suddenly muted and the air becomes still and cool. Our footfalls echo as if we are walking across marble. The pale-blue sky is a narrow bar above us.
“Well, this sure is unsettling,” whispers Molly.
“Yeah,” I whisper back.
But Kronos had passed through here four times if he was to be believed, and he said he had never come upon any danger.
We both take a mouthful and carry on through the passage.
Somewhere along the way, The New World comes crashing down onto our heads.
The thick smell of dust.
I tear my eyes open and everything is hazy. The small world around me is smothered in a thick orange cloud. The slow journey through the canyon has become a blur and it comes gradually back to me in flashes.
The path is blocked.
I start to frantically scrabble in the ground around me.
“Molly?” I call.
My hands touch something soft. A sleeve of rawhide.
“Mol?” I croak, the dust caking my throat. I find her body in the dust cloud and cradle her head in my hands. She has dust in her nostrils and caking her eyebrows. Her light-brown hair is now blonde with sand.
Her eyelids start to flicker.
She opens her eyes and looks at me. I smile down at her as reassuringly as I can manage.
“Looks like a rockfall, but I think we’re okay. For now at least. I think we should -“
I am interrupted by Molly as she begins to roar. The roar turns into a howl.
“My legs! My fucking legs! Oh god in heaven!”
By the time the dust has settled, Molly has been in and out of consciousness. Each time waking to howls of agony. The fifth time I was able to calm her down with a liberal bolt of elixir. Now she breathes heavily and her face is wet and pallid. After a while I was able to see where her legs went out of sight beneath heaped boulders.
I turn my face away so that she can’t see my tears.
When my eyes are dry and my soul numb and purged, I take a deep pull of Kronos’s elixir and I begin my climb.
I close my eyes and picture Kronos’s courage coursing through me in the clear blue elixir. And then I set my teeth. My brows knot into a savage furrow and I find my first foothold.
It has been a while since I went rock-climbing in Kentish Town, and I almost lose my footing when I realise, alarmed, that my memory of that place is growing foggy. Like my dream.
Another place that is fading: The Grand Canyon. I had never been but in my minds eye, it does not seem much taller than the cliff-face. I resolve to put just as much effort into not looking up as I am into not looking down. With each new handhold, I take a moment to steady my breathing. Trying to gain control of the trembling that starts in my elbows and threatens to take over my entire body. In the still moments, I pray that the wall does not betray me and crumble under my feet.
The scramble leaves me with shredded palms and a drunken stagger. The elixir’s push is gone. My journey across daisy-dotted meadows on the surface is a frantic sleepwalk. Somewhere on the face of the mountain in the distance, hidden deep in the shadow of the fir trees, is a cave. So Kronos has told me. But The New World has already proven itself to be fatally unpredictable.
I march ahead.
Like a corpse.
“It’s already started,” Molly had said as we lay on our backs in our shared bedroll, staring up at the brilliant stars.
A lifetime ago.
“But we’re still in The Desert,” I said.
“Yes. It’s being with you and Kron, I think.”
“I’m sorry,” was all I could manage.
A shooting-star arced across the midnight canopy.
I turned to her. Her face was lit by the starlight.
“Not this time,” she said.
Somewhere a fire crackles and I can sense the warm glow in my periphery. I can smell wet stone and moss.
The elixir had carried me some of the way. Something else has carried me the rest. Someone else.
How long have I been out?
Has my son already expired under the hot sun?
Have I lost him, too?
“I can sense your thoughts. Your most pressing ones anyway, so don’t be alarmed. Your friends are not beyond salvation.”
Is this the voice of God?
I bolt upright, sending my head spinning.
“Are you Him?” I blurt.
“If by ‘Him’ you are referring to the one young Kronos calls The Scribe,” the voice says with a good-natured chuckle, “then the answer is yes.”
“Now, what did I just say about your thoughts? Rest assured, your friends will be quite safe. Depending on the choice you are soon to make.”
“Yes,” says The Scribe, “how very interesting…” He continues when faced with my silence.
“That you stopped to listen rather than leapt to insist that you shall take whatever choice will result in the deliverance of your friends. It suggests that maybe some other consideration competes with them in your mind”.
I have nothing to say.
“Fear not, you are by no means peculiar in this. Nor am I casting judgement on you. You see, everyone who has come to this place has been met with the same disappointments as you have. And they all react in similar ways. Despite your apparent complexity, you remain a predictable species, even here.”
“Yes. Mother. Even knowing that the chances of her remembering you any more than your father does are close to naught, you still cling to that insatiable urge to be reconnected with your last remaining loved-one.”
“And you’re going to make me choose between them?”
“I do not offer this out of some perverse desire to test and meddle in the affairs of mortals, so to speak. I am just…how should I put it…drawn rather thin this evening. Run ragged, you might say. My powers, those such as I have, are finite and I have my survival to think about. But, and it remains an eternal mystery as to just why; something in my make-up, in my DNA as you call it, compels me to be ever helpful towards your kind, especially when they find their way to this little lair of mine. Usually at great expense to themselves.
“So help you I shall, but I only have the wherewithal to do so in one of three ways.”
I say nothing.
He leans closer to the fire and I can make out shining purple irises in deep-set eyes.
“I bring your new family – a most rare and wonderful thing, in this world – here. I use what power I have left to revive them. The three of you may rest here until you are ready to resume your travels.”
“And the others?”
“I help you to complete your quest. I take you to your mother. You can be reunited with her and likely face again the disappointment that makes such emotionally crippled, solitary wanderers of all of your kind.”
I say nothing.
“The final choice: and this is the road most travelled by. I take you somewhere else.”
“Clear white tundra. Tropical island. Deep in the heart of the rainforest. Somewhere you can forget. Put behind you all these disappointments. Seek the solitude that all here eventually come to crave. Put aside The Old World, embrace The New and find what happiness you can.
“Take what time you need to make your decision.”
“No…I’ve made it.” I say.
The trees in this new place stretch ever upwards to disappear into the mist. Their barks are dark, almost black. From somewhere and by some means, a blue-green light penetrates through the canopy to bathe the surface in the most beautiful glow. This has always been my favourite type of locale.
I sit with my back against one of these wooden giants and for the first time in years, I feel truly and blissfully alone.
Perhaps moving in with a large family was not the best way to start my life here. Not the best way to begin to adapt to this new existence.
This new eternity.
I take in a deep breath of my solitude.
“Ahoy down there! What ails thee so that thou sitteth so morosely against yon o’ergrown bole?”
Still, what did they always say? Three is company…
I shake Molly awake to begin the days journey.
Perhaps on our travels, we will come upon a city. And perhaps there will be people in this city. And perhaps mother will be there. And, living in this city, perhaps mum will have kept alive the memory of her beloved London. And perhaps, if she remembers London, perhaps…just perhaps…she will remember me.