It was the twenty-third day of Dusk.
Lowly the dying sun clung to the eastern skies, a pale and bloody fist grasping at the jagged peaks of World’s Spine. Its light was the colour of blood and honey, beautiful to behold but empty of life’s warmth, silken, almost liquescent, spilling onto the world as in libation.
Beneath that bright mournful light, the earth, long since withdrawn from the dying sun, all its rooted children withered and drained of colour now, took on the appearance of something half-formed, not altogether real but still palpable, still and yet not altogether lifeless, like something the gods of creation might have dreamt of before setting out to their work.
But this half-world, too, Horace Shaw knew, standing atop a low country hill and leaning lightly on his walking stick, would soon vanish with the wayward sun. When the sun drowned in Sinner’s Gulf in less than a week’s time, when even this meek, beggarly light of Dusk ceased to be, Night would come and engulf the world. Surely as one lived and died.
He was a tall man heading into his fortieth year on earth, with wide shoulders and long, muscular limbs. His hair was coarse and black and cropped short. The beginnings of a mostly dark beard framed an angular face, high-cheeked and dark-eyed. He wore a fraying coat belted at the waist and a pair of worn leather boots. A large rucksack slumped from his shoulders.
Six days he had been on the road, coming from a small farm hidden in the depth of forests of Paletree Downs, and in those six days he had seen nary a soul. Only empty houses, empty villages, and deep tracks on the road of men, cattle, and wheels, like aged scars.
He had helped himself into the empty walls for shelter and whatever was left to eat and drink. It seemed, he’d thought more than once, that the world of men had simply disappeared and left him to inherit all that was left.
That wasn’t true, of course. Only an idle thought. He knew where people had gone. When the Vigil’s beacons sent up dark plumes to the sky to signal the beginning of Dusk, twenty-three days ago, all settlements outside of a Flame’s reach had been swiftly evacuated. All across Providence, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to one of the eight cities that could shield them the coming Night. For Horace and all those whose dwellings he had gone past or into, it meant the city of Havertham: the bulging, twisted heart of Providence. The people hadn’t left him to live out his days alone—they had merely gone ahead. The leavings of the world of men were not for him. He was only the last sheep in timeless transhumance.
The knowledge did little to dispel his sense of utter solitude, however.
It had made him want to sing, the feeling that he was alone on God’s wide earth with no one to hear him but himself, but he’d shied away from the impulse. He was not an impulsive man by nature. Once, perhaps, when he was young and unbloodied, ambition leaping in his veins like a wild horse, wanting to rise above the station of his birth and take what he wanted from life. Those days were long past. Another life, almost.
He had been alone too long, he knew. He’d spent most of the long year in that forest in Paletree Downs, tending the farm, watching the poppies grow even as his own life shrunk into a rigid pattern of sleep and work, work and sleep, except for a handful of visits to a nearby village to trade for supplies and hear news from the city. In such a life, crystallized by the combined weight of solitude and wilderness, thoughts had a way of getting loud in one’s head. Very loud, in fact, until they were almost entirely a voice not your own.
It always spoke of the past, the way ghosts might, dry and uncaring, exhuming memories he had buried away, memories he would have preferred remain buried, and forcing him to scrutinize the makings of his own wretchedness. So many failures and deaths, where so little goodness could be found.
Presently, as he made his way down the hill and toward a turn in the road, the voice spoke of Antor of House Sirramark, a boy of nineteen years, who had died in his arms shortly before he left the city for the farm in Paletree Downs. Hands clutching at his throat, desperate and vain, soft hands, unmarred by a day of labour in all his days, blood leaking through the fingers. Mouth agape in horror, showing those immaculate teeth now stained red, trying to scream but only able to gurgle and hiss. He had told the boy, not ungently, who he was and why the boy was choking on his own blood in an alleyway not far from his father’s mansion. Sheer, utter disbelief in his eyes then. The boy could not believe what was happening to him even as the light departed from his eyes and he crossed the threshold between life and death. Then he was just a body, rolled into the canal with an unceremonious plop to be carried into the river and found a day or two later, among a score of waterlogged bodies that washed up on the banks of Mother Forlorn each and every day.
He had thought about the subject often in the past year, in those pale hours between sleep and waking, about the unintended, unforeseen chain of events in the wake of the boy’s death that had led to open violence in the streets of Havertham and ended with the public beheading of one of the most powerful figures in all of Providence. And, of course, about the part that he had played in all of that, however unwittingly, as a pawn in the labyrinthine schemes for power and influence among the Old Bloods.
But he had never, he realized, not once, actually thought about the killing itself. Until now. Well. He searched within—that was what the inner voice demanded, always, implicitly—and found, for once, that there wasn’t any regret, now as then. And why should there be? The boy had deserved to die for what he did to Abelia. One life for another. That was fair. Just. Perhaps, the voice pointed out then, he had acted in vengeance, not justice. But what did that matter, if he had? He’d served one by serving the other; they were two sides of the same coin, justice and vengeance, or had been, at least this once. One life for another. Fair. Just. Righteous. Sometimes—and this was the hard truth of his existence—the end justified the means. Dictated it.
What had followed that death could not have been his responsibility. Not even remotely. Those deaths, those days of chaos and murder he had only heard about, that was not on his soul. He had ruminated on this point over and over during his exile, whenever his thoughts turned to Antor of House Sirramark or Abelia, the boy and the girl linked forever in his mind by two acts of violence, because he had wanted, needed to know that he had arrived at this conclusion not through cowardice. And he was certain, as certain he could ever be in a matter such as this, that he hadn’t been manipulated to kill the boy. He had acted alone, and not impulsively. Had weighed the risks and accepted them, and then planned, carefully picking the right place and the right moment for the deed: halfway between the hippodrome and the Sirramark mansion, in the frenzied aftermath of the final race of the season. The only exposure he had risked was punching an elated Whites supporter to start a brawl outside the hippodrome, to separate the boy from his entourage, which, as it turned out, had hardly been necessary. If certain people had seized upon the boy’s death and altered the balance of power in the city and beyond, then the death must have been a serendipitous occasion for them, not an engineered one.
But there was something else now, in the place between the absence of regret and the hard, grim satisfaction of justice met. He remembered the boy’s blood on his own hands, hot as broth, and his own voice, steady and low, not unlike the one that had developed in his head of late, asking the boy if he recalled a young prostitute by the name of Abelia. Then he saw in his mind’s eye, looking into the boy’s mortal ones across the chasm of memory, a flicker of regret. It was gone almost instantly, swallowed up by the shock and disbelief and the agony of death, but Horace saw it and was certain that it had been there when he took the boy’s life.
He was surprised to feel pity then, a great surge of it, which was not for the boy, or himself, or even for Abelia.
It overwhelmed him, that pity. Uprooted him from the hard place where he had laid his soul all those years ago and left him on muddy grounds, confused and weak. Why, he demanded of himself, what was the point of this? He wanted to weep, wanted to scream. Had to stop in his tracks and fight to regain control. A deep breath, a soldier’s curse, and a drink of water from his leather canteen.
Only later, much later, he would look back on this moment on a dark road far from the city, only a torchlight separating him and his charge from Night’s unfathomable darkness, and realize, much too late, that he had forgiven himself, of himself, of the imperfect, fractured world that had made and unmade him so, alone on that hillside under a bleeding sun on the twenty-third day of his final Dusk.
I am dying
Of all the pretty girls
all the pretty boys
all the pretty lips
and all the pretty hips
all the fit jeans
all the lit screens
all the lean meats
and all the thin eats
all the neat ads
all the chic fads
all the rad scenes
and all the mad memes
all the dim lights
all the grim sights
all the tight porn
and all the right corn
all that is wrong
all that is wrong
all that is sold & bought
for fuck’s sake
all that recklessness
all that heartlessness
all that disingenuous
speaking in tongues
I love them all
I love them all
all the pretty things
all the pretty things
We’re getting poorer
and fatter all of the time.
I think Heaven is a mouth that does not speak
and this city has no ears, no eyes.
Dear Mr. Weatherman, please;
Tell us what the sky holds
and for whom the rain falls—
we hear its music
and do not understand.
It is time. He steps up to the pulpit and adjusts the microphone. The eulogy is in his breast pocket. He shouldn’t need to have it out, he knows all the words, but he takes it out anyway, unfolds and flattens the pages on the pulpit. The first word is “I.” The second one is “loved.” He pronounces them in quick succession into the microphone, but the speakers put out a harpy’s shriek instead, an ugly electric cackle that makes everyone flinch. He takes a step back while someone from the funeral home fixes the soundboard. And when he steps forward again, he is suddenly aware of the quiet, the deadened calm, the reverent waiting. He searches out Emily’s face among those of family and friends and colleagues and other acquaintances, and finds her eyes unsympathetic. Yes. All she can do is stare inwardly at her own pain. She can do nothing for him, nor he for her, that which has bound them together all the long years is gone—their son is dead. But it’s not the same, he thinks, honey it’s not all the same, you’re not the one standing here expected to talk to all these people about Milton in the past tense, when he is lying just five feet away from me in the confined darkness of ash and oak, wearing the two-piece suit I had custom made for his eighteenth birthday, looking as though he’s just sleeping, except his complexion is all wrong, they’ve made him too pale, the morticians who worked on him in Seoul, they’ve turned him into an Irishman almost, when he had so much of me in him…
He opens his mouth, and his tongue is a fat ashen larva: when he speaks he will speak in moths, and they will flutter through the air and then fall dead on the carpet like last week’s rose petals.
He stares at the eulogy, all his words neatly typed out on five creased pages, single-spaced and back-to-back, written in the vacuum of time between the boy’s death and his body arriving at the airport, three weeks, three maddening, harrowing weeks that might as well have been three years. And it stares back at him, the eulogy, with all the sanctimony and indifference of Times New Roman twelve points. It is inadequate, woefully inadequate. Thirty years would not have sufficed, no amount of time would have, he might have tried until the end of time and still fallen short, miserably short, of doing his boy justice, of bringing him back to life, resurrected through language and love, language that is love, if only for the fifteen minutes that would take him to deliver the eulogy. It is one thing to talk about people through the miracle of fiction, through all its tricks and secrets and necessary falseness, but how to address a person whose sanctity you wish to preserve, is your duty to preserve, because that person is your son, and he has taken his own life at the beautiful age of twenty and three? How not to fall silent then, other than to utter utter bullshit?
So in the end he cannot bring himself to read from the page, or recite from memory, because it will be too painful to hear those words spoken aloud, because his heart is a wretched, fragile thing that can only kill him. So he wings it, delivers a meandering speech about how wonderful Milton was, how kind, athletic, smart, and visionary his son was, Milton he himself can no longer recognize, a Platonic Milton, expunged of all life’s shadows and delights, who is clearly not the same Milton that took his own life, because, how could he be, this perfect dead thing, his son? He was too good for this world, he tells the mass, though it was not pride, no, he was a humble person, always, since he was a child, but rather I think it was just a sense of… of unbelonging, a sense of being set apart, yes, you could say he was holy, in the biblical sense of the word, qadosh…