Friday, April 5, 2013

Arkham Cycle

Arkham Cycle
Bobby Derie

Carter stared into the banks of the Miskatonic. The dark, deep waters ran as they did in his youth, before the stench of industry had tainted the valley’s lifeblood with chemical poisons. When he was a lad of eight or so, he would sit on the curbed masonry bank as the river entered into the Arkham city limits, and dangle his toes in waters that had known Dunwich and would turn south toward Kingsport before finding the ocean again. Lining this bend of the river were the old Georgian houses, bright as he had never seen them with the fresh colors they must once have worn, and high looming gambrel roofs in good repair. Even the smells here were of an Arkham he had never known—the clear, clean smell of a north wind before the snow, baking bread upon the morning hearth, fresh hay and tobacco from the outlying farms, and among it all the strong clear salt-scent of the sea.

There were people here, too. Old townies he had met, friends of his father and grandfather he’d thought dead or gone, neighbors of yesteryear smiling and about their business. Carter walked among them, and they smiled to see him, their eyes a little sad as they asked after his family, old acquaintances long dead and still fondly remembered. Here he fell in again to a half-forgotten civility of long use and ancient practice, tipping his hat to the ladies as his grandfather did, bidding good morrow to citizens as his grandmother had taught him to do. The streets of Arkham were the old cobbles, so rare these days, and the sidewalks slabs of stone cut and brought in from the quarry that had sat used and abandoned when he was a child, and here and there an iron ring had been bolted down for horses to be tied, and there were horses too, at some of them.

Cater reached for one horse, a pale gelding with a shock of blond hair that he swore he’d seen once, on some friend’s farm from yesteryear, when the bells of the churches rang, the somber Episcopal chiming the hour, and the Baptists and Quakers not far behind. With each toll the city seemed to come away from him a little. The sun shone less, as if evening was setting, and in the shadows that grew the streets grew darker and populated by more villainous characters. By the seventh toll, Carter felt as if he stood in the shadow of the Arkham he knew; the river seethed with a nightmare of cuttlefish, and the handsome houses and roofs were rotten from within, ready to collapse and let loose some fetid horror, like evil fungi waiting for a sudden act of violence to release their spores. Monsters walked the town streets in human clothes, but did not have the human shape to do more than ape the movements and sounds of man, and more than one terrible limb slid out to kiss and caress Carter as he ran through the broken streets.

The eighth bell tolled, and the lights went out on Arkham.

Carter rolled over and turned off the ringing alarm clock, more tired now than he had been when he went to bed the night before. He lay awake for some time as the sounds of the world filtered in through the thin, ill-fitting windows of his apartment. There was the sound of a man outside, a busker mystic on a milk carton, laying out his spiel.
“Perhaps it is my country upbringing, but I had never shaken the unease that can be found when visiting a city. Whenever I would venture out into those teeming streets I felt as if I lost myself to some quiet hex from the old country, bustled and hustled against my desires, forced to submit to a will greater than my own. At night and the wee hours of the morning, when the streets were empty, it was even worse. I felt an interloper in a place devoid of human occupation, an intruder on a grave or some other holy place—and yet I did not feel alone there. Always as I made my way down the harsh pavements I felt the gentle stirring of the city beneath me, felt the exhalation of its breath on my cheek, and the almost subaural sound of its continued life and activity.”

The speaker’s voice was a greater soporific than any opium Carter had ever known, yet he struggled to stay awake. There was something in his words that rang true, and he wished to hear it to the end.

“Every city is different thus. I have been to
Boston and to New York, and would care to visit neither of them again, but I must admit that each possessed a distinct identity unto itself, vast as the metropolis itself and yet intimate. To be in such a city is to feel as an ant under the magnifying glass, praying that an errant shaft of sunlight does not result in your own total destruction. Stranger but no less invasive is the personality of the larger towns like Arkham and Kingsport, which if they lack the vaster power of the great cities make up for it with a subtle corruption that is all the more insidious. Arkham I know better, for business has forced me there more often than any other urbanity and it as if something has displaced the native genius loci, replacing them with a force which is at once requiring of and antithetical to human existence. Mark me well, for I say that Arkham but waits its time, and we two-legs who stride its streets are all but visitors allowed to stay on its forbearance, yea even those who were born there. Arkham waits, and one day its purpose will be realized, and we shall not walk its streets anymore.”

There was a sonorous lull as the street-speaker stopped, and Carter closed his eyes once more. Yet some echo of that voice seemed to follow him in sleep, and he found himself before the crowd, speaking with that same broken voice to address a crowd of strange faces with familiar features.

Once, I knew a world outside the limits of Arkham. Now there is only the city. I have walked for days along avenues that were all of Arkham town, and followed the Miskatonic in an infinite loop that would make Escher laugh and claw at his eyes to see. There are alleys here with old, strange names, filled with quaint shops that sell things we had no names for when I was a boy. There are quarters of town I never dreamt of, where the mere physical and spiritual laws of my own world are all overturned, inverted, torn down and replaced by strange logics. My mailman has three eyes, and thinks nothing of his deformity, for it is quite common among the Arkham he hails from; the baker's mouth is replaced by a horror of feelers, strange pseudopods that kneed the dough to make my daily bread, and not one customer in a hundred blinks at this, but downs their hex-marked snickerdoodles with every sign of pleasure.”
Carter felt a fervor stir in his breast as he spoke, for all that he said he found evidence of in the crowd before him. All the slight deformities he might have attributed to age, disease, or industrial accident he saw now were no ordinary deviations, but hints of some profound teratology. Not a one seemed wholesome and fully human to his eye, and his speech became more frantic as he felt the weight of their stare upon him.

“There is the ocean here, but it is not the eternal
Atlantic I once knew. In some places it is red, in others green and weed-chokes, and under one damnably violet sky I saw it a milky golden color, and things frolicked on beaches of black and silver sands which I cannot rightly describe, but they were dressed as children. There is the University as well, and it is a sprawling affair, with each corridor leading to some other and stranger place, to departments without number and fields far beyond the education of any right-thinking men. And there are strange houses, on streets with almost-familiar names, of curious materials and every scheme of planning and building, but always with some mocking feature of the Arkham I knew. So there may be great round-houses of ceramic brick, six stories high with gambrel roofs, and slate-colored mud huts on stilts above a noxious swamp, with signs pointing to Dunwich and Kingsport, and fabled manses of faery glass of red, and blue, and green. All this and more is Arkham, always Arkham.”

The first stone came from a six-fingered claw that might have belonged to a Whateley, and Carter fell as it struck, tasted the blood as it ran down his face. The blood pounded in his veins as he fled that baying mob, human speech mixed with such tones as he never imagined a human throat might bear. He sought escape in the tangled alleys that backed Arkham’s grid of streets, the tiny twisting foot-lanes that survived, strewn with trash or tall grass between the buildings, then slowed and caught his breath, listening for the pursuit. Satisfied there was none, Carter stepped once more into Lich Street, and what caught his eye there nearly stopped his heart.

She was a witch-woman, Carter could see that clearly. He had emerged into a back-alley bookstall, and half-took the city for a shadow among the quaint old brickwork. Her dress was modern, but the materials and fixings were old-fashioned - wire rim spectacles from another century, a homespun cotton blouse with buttons of 17th century elephant ivory, real hobnailed boots, and a dress black as Arkham's darkest alley. She moved in step with the crowd, and each movement of her skirt echoed some distant siren or factory whistle, each tread could be felt under the boots as the passing trolley or automobile. Some instinct possessed Carter to watch, and he followed as best he could as she left the booksellers and went into an alley, hobbed boots clacking on the pavements. Soon he was running to keep up with her, though she had never broken out of a sauntering walk, and came almost to her shoulder. Her hair, this close, was a tangle of widow's weeds that a rat or something worse might lie in, and when he caught a draft of her perfume he gagged, and ran face-first into a wall. It was the city streets at night - humid, sweet and sick like something dying in a gutter, with the faint breath of the ocean and beer underneath.

Carter stood back, stunned, nose bleeding, and looked up at the bare apartment building. Her shadow was on it, a witch's silhouette writ large. From the roof, there was the sound of chanting... and an arm slipped into his, taking him by the elbow. He allowed himself to be led, struggled to compose himself.

She led him to the Arkham Drogue, the old anchor-stone that first settlers had brought and planted here. Carter recalled the old story, not so much told but hinted at in the books of Arkham’s founding—how this has all been Indian land once, a sizable town devastated by plague, and those strangely fervent colonists had come up to find fields neatly cleared into gardens, and chose to found their town on that spot. There was a plague-pit in Arkham, they said, older than the first buildings, because the first thing those faithful men and women did is gather all the dead and bury them certain fathoms deep, and marked the spot with the anchor-stone, in accordance with the old superstitions. Yet he wondered why she had led him here—she who was, in Carter’s mind at least, the personification of Arkham, with all her old grace and terrible wickedness. What strange spirit might the colonists have trapped here with their anchor-stone, Carted wondered. Like a dryad bound to its tree, a hungry spirit kept for centuries, only to manifest as this…woman.

Arkham laid him down then on the browning turf; his head propped up against the cool stone, and placed her hand on his head where the rock had struck him. Her fingers came back sticky with blood, which she wiped across her lips. Carter felt the strength leave him, as though he were one with the earth and the stone, and did not resist as her hand moved down to his belt, or when she lifted her skirts to reveal the spider’s nest there, and lowered herself upon him. He hissed and groaned with each bony thump as she drew him into her. She offered a pale neck, and Carter leaned forward and gently sank his teeth into it. Arkham trembled above and beneath him, the trees on the avenue shaking off their leaves though no wind blew, and a whole shudder seemed to run through the streets that made the windows vibrate. And when they had each spent, she raised herself from him, and gave one last bloody kiss before fading into the night.


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