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The Book of Cthulhu, Page 2

Neil Gaiman

  “The earthquake? Merry, that was eight years ago. You were still just a baby, that was such long time ago,” and then he picked up a shell and turned it over in his hand, brushing away some of the dark sand stuck to it. “People don’t like to talk about the earthquake anymore. I never heard them say much about it.”

  “Oh,” she said, not sure what to say next but still full of questions. “Father says it was a sign, a sign from—”

  “Maybe you shouldn’t believe everything he says, Merry. It was an earthquake.” And she felt a thrill then, like a tiny jolt of electricity rising up her spine and spreading out across her scalp, that anyone, much less Avery, would question their father and suggest she do likewise.

  “Have you stopped believing in the signs?” she asked, breathless. “Is that what you learned in school?”

  “I didn’t learn much of anything important in school,” he replied and showed her the shell in his palm. Hardly as big around as a nickel, but peaked in the center like a Chinaman’s hat, radial lines of chestnut brown. “It’s pretty,” she said as he placed it in her palm.

  “What’s it called?”

  “It’s a limpet,” he replied, because Avery knew all about shells and fish and the fossils in the cliffs, things he’d learned from their father’s books and not from school. “It’s a shield limpet. The jackmackerel carry them into battle when they fight the eels.”

  Meredith laughed out loud at that last part, and he laughed, too, then sat down on a rock at the edge of a wide tide pool. She stood there beside him, still inspecting the shell in her hand, turning it over and over again. The concave underside of the limpet was smoother than silk and would be white if not for the faintest iridescent hint of blue.

  “That’s not true,” she said. “Everyone knows the jackmackerel and the eels are friends.”

  “Sure they are,” Avery said. “Everyone knows that.” But he was staring out to sea now and didn’t turn to look at her. In a moment, she slipped the shell into a pocket of her sweater and sat down on the rock next to him.

  “Do you see something out there?” she asked, and he nodded his head, but didn’t speak. The wind rushed cold and damp across the beach and painted ripples on the surface of the pool at their feet. The wind and the waves seemed louder than usual, and Meredith wondered if that meant a storm was coming.

  “Not a storm,” Avery said, and that didn’t surprise her because he often knew what she was thinking before she said it. “A war’s coming, Merry.”

  “Oh yes, the jackmackerel and the eels,” Merry laughed and squinted towards the horizon, trying to see whatever it was that had attracted her brother’s attention. “The squid and the mussels.”

  “Don’t be silly. Everyone knows that the squid and the mussels are great friends,” and that made her laugh again. But Avery didn’t laugh, looked away from the sea and stared down instead at the scuffed toes of his boots dangling a few inches above the water.

  “There’s never been a war like the one that’s coming,” he said after a while. “All the nations of the earth at each other’s throats, Merry, and when we’re done with all the killing, no one will be left to stand against the sea.”

  She took a very deep breath, the clean, salty air to clear her head, and began to pick at a barnacle on the rock.

  “If that were true,” she said, “Father would have told us. He would have shown us the signs.”

  “He doesn’t see them. He doesn’t dream the way I do.”

  “But you told him?”

  “I tried. But he thinks it’s something they put in my head at school. He thinks it’s some kind of trick to make him look away.”

  Merry stopped picking at the barnacle, because it was making her fingers sore and they’d be bleeding soon if she kept it up. She decided it was better to watch the things trapped in the tide pool, the little garden stranded there until the sea came back to claim it. Periwinkle snails and hermit crabs wearing stolen shells, crimson starfish and starfish the shape and color of sunflowers.

  “He thinks they’re using me to make him look the other way, to catch him off his guard,” Avery whispered, his voice almost lost in the rising wind. “He thinks I’m being set against him.”

  “Avery, I don’t believe Father would say that about you.”

  “He didn’t have to say it,” and her brother’s dark and shining eyes gazed out at the sea and sky again.

  “We should be heading back soon, shouldn’t we? The tide will be coming in before long,” Meredith said, noticing how much higher up the beach the waves were reaching than the last time she’d looked. Another half hour and the insatiable ocean would be battering itself against the rough shale cliffs at their backs.

  “‘Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,’” Avery whispered, closing his eyes tight, and the words coming from his pale, thin lips sounded like someone else, someone old and tired that Meredith had never loved. “‘Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep and full of voices, slowly rose and plunged roaring, and all the wave was in a flame—’”

  “What’s that?” she asked, interrupting because she didn’t want to hear anymore. “Is it from Father’s book?”

  “No, it’s not,” he replied, sounding more like himself again, more like her brother. He opened his eyes, and a tear rolled slowly down his wind-chapped cheek. ”It’s just something they taught me at school.”

  “How can a wave be in flame? Is it supposed to be a riddle?” she asked, and he shook his head.

  “No,” he said and wiped at his face with his hands. “It’s nothing at all, just a silly bit of poetry they made us memorize. School is full of silly poetry.”

  “Is that why you came home?”

  “We ought to start back,” he said, glancing quickly over his shoulder at the high cliffs, the steep trail leading back up towards the house. “Can’t have the tide catching us with our trousers down, now can we?”

  “I don’t even wear trousers,” Merry said glumly, still busy thinking about that ninth wave, the fire and the water. Avery put an arm around her and held her close to him for a moment while the advancing sea dragged itself eagerly back and forth across the moss-scabbed rocks.

  January 1915

  Meredith sat alone on the floor at the end of the hallway, the narrow hall connecting the foyer to the kitchen and a bathroom, and then farther along, leading all the way back to the very rear of the house and this tall door that was always locked. The tarnished brass key always hung on its ring upon her father’s belt. She pressed her ear against the wood and strained to hear anything at all. The wood was damp and very cold, and the smell of saltwater and mildew seeped freely through the space between the bottom of the door and the floor, between the door and the jamb. Once-solid redwood that had long since begun to rot from the continual moisture, the ocean’s corrosive breath to rust the hinges so the door cried out like a stepped-on cat every time it was opened or closed. Even as a very small child, Meredith had feared this door, even in the days before she’d started to understand what lay in the deep place beneath her father’s house.

  Outside, the icy winter wind howled, and she shivered and pulled her grey wool shawl tighter about her shoulders; the very last thing her mother had made for her, that shawl. Almost as much hatred in Merry for the wind as for the sea, but at least it smothered the awful thumps and moans that came, day and night, from the attic room where her father had locked Avery away in June.

  “There are breaches between the worlds, Merry,” Avery had said, a few days before he picked the lock on the hallway door with the sharpened tip-end of a buttonhook and went down to the deep place by himself. “Rifts, fractures, ruptures. If they can’t be closed, they have to be guarded against the things on the other side that don’t belong here.”

  “Father says it’s a portal,” she’d replied, closing the book she’d been reading, a dusty, dog-eared copy of Franz Unger’s Primitive World.

  Her brother had laughed a dry, humorless laugh and shake
n his head, nervously watching the fading day through the parlor windows. “Portals are built on purpose, to be used. These things are accidents, at best, casualties of happenstance, tears in space when one world passes much too near another.”

  “Well, that’s not what Father says.”

  “Read your book, Merry. One day you’ll understand. One day soon, when you’re not a child anymore, and he loses his hold on you.”

  And she’d frowned, sighed, and opened her book again, opening it at random to one of the strangely melancholy lithographs—The Period of the Muschelkalk [Middle Trias]. A violent seascape, and in the foreground a reef jutted above the waves, crowded with algae-draped driftwood branches and the shells of stranded mollusca and crinoidea. There was something like a crocodile, that the author called Nothosaurus giganteus, clinging to the reef so it wouldn’t be swept back into the storm-tossed depths. Overhead, the night sky was a turbulent mass of clouds with the small, white moon, full or near enough to full, peeking through to illuminate the ancient scene.

  “You mean planets?” she’d asked Avery. “You mean moons and stars?”

  “No, I mean worlds. Now, read your book, and don’t ask so many questions.”

  Meredith thought she heard creaking wood, her father’s heavy footsteps, the dry ruffling of cloth rubbing against cloth, and she stood quickly, not wanting to be caught listening at the door again, was still busy straightening her rumpled dress when she realized that he was standing there in the hall behind her, instead. Her mistake, thinking he’d gone to the deep place, when he was somewhere else all along, in his library or the attic room with Avery or outside braving the cold to visit her mother’s grave on the hill.

  “What are you doing, child?” he asked her gruffly and tugged at his beard. There were streaks of silver-grey that weren’t there only a couple of months before, scars from the night they lost her mother, his wife, the night the demons tried to squeeze in through the tear, and Ellen Dandridge had tried to block their way. His face grown years older in the space of weeks, dark crescents beneath his eyes like bruises and deep creases in his forehead. He brushed his daughter’s blonde hair from her eyes.

  “Would it have been different, if you’d believed Avery from the start?”

  For a moment he didn’t reply, and his silence, his face set as hard and perfectly unreadable as stone, made her want to strike him, made her wish she could kick open the rotting, sea-damp door and hurl him screaming down the stairs to whatever was waiting for them both in the deep place.

  “I don’t know, Meredith. But I had to trust the book, and I had to believe the signs in the heavens.”

  “You were too arrogant, old man. You almost gave away the whole wide world because you couldn’t admit you might be wrong.”

  “You should be thankful that your mother can’t hear you, young lady, using that tone of voice with your own father.”

  Meredith turned and looked at the tall, rotten door again, the symbols drawn on the wood in whitewash and blood.

  “She can hear me,” Meredith told him. “She talks to me almost every night. She hasn’t gone as far away as you think.”

  “I’m still your father, and you’re still a child who can’t even begin to understand what’s at stake, what’s always pushing at the other side of—”

  “—the gate?” she asked, interrupting and finishing for him, and she put one hand flat against the door, the upper of its two big panels, and leaned all her weight against it. “What happens next time? Do you know that, Father? How much longer do we have left, or haven’t the constellations gotten around to telling you that yet?”

  “Don’t mock me, Meredith.”

  “Why not?” and she stared back at him over her shoulder, without taking her hand off the door. “Will it damn me faster? Will it cause more men to die in the trenches? Will it cause Avery more pain than he’s in now?”

  “I was given the book,” he growled at her, his stony face flashing to bitter anger, and at least that gave Meredith some mean scrap of satisfaction. “I was shown the way to this place. They entrusted the gate to me, child. The gods—”

  “—must be even bigger fools than you, old man. Now shut up, and leave me alone.”

  Machen Dandridge raised his right hand to strike her, his big-knuckled hand like a hammer of flesh and bone, iron-meat hammer and anvil to beat her as thin and friable as the veil between Siamese universes.

  “You’ll need me,” she said, not recoiling from the fire in his dark eyes, standing her ground. “You can’t take my place. Even if you weren’t a coward, you couldn’t take my place.”

  “You’ve become a wicked child,” he said, slowly lowering his hand until it hung useless at his side.

  “Yes, Father, I have. I’ve become a very wicked child. You’d best pray that I’ve become wicked enough.”

  And he didn’t reply, no words left in him, but walked quickly away down the long hall towards the foyer and his library, his footsteps loud as distant gunshots, loud as the beating of her heart, and Meredith removed her hand from the door. It burned very slightly, pain like a healing bee sting, and when she looked at her palm there was something new there, a fat and shiny swelling as black and round and smooth as the soulless eye of a shark.

  February 1915

  In his dreams, Machen Dandridge stands at the edge of the sea and watches the firelight reflected in the roiling grey clouds above Russia and Austria and East Prussia, smells the coppery stink of Turkish and German blood, the life leaking from the bullet holes left in the Serbian Archduke and his wife. Machen would look away if he knew how, wouldn’t see what he can only see too late to make any difference. One small man set adrift and then cast up on the shingle of the cosmos, filled to bursting with knowledge and knowing nothing at all. Cannon fire and thunder, the breakers against the cliff side and the death rattle of soldiers beyond counting.

  This is where I stand, at the bottom gate, and I hold the key to the abyss…

  “A world war, father,” Avery says. “Something without precedent. I can’t even find words to describe the things I’ve seen.”

  “A world war, without precedent?” Machen replies skeptically and raises one eyebrow, then goes back to reading his star charts. “Napoleon just might disagree with you there, young man, and Alexander, as well.”

  “No, you don’t understand what I’m saying—”

  And the fire in the sky grows brighter, coalescing into a whip of red-gold scales and ebony spines, the dragon’s tail to lash the damned. Every one of us is damned, Machen thinks. Every one of us, from the bloody start of time.

  “I have the texts, Avery, and the aegis of the seven, and all the old ways. I cannot very well set that all aside because you’ve been having nightmares, now can I?”

  “I know these things, Father. I know them like I know my own heart, like I know the number of steps down to the deep place.”

  “There is a trouble brewing in Coma Berenices,” his wife whispers, her eye pressed to the eyepiece of the big telescope in his library. “Something like a shadow.”

  “She says that later,” Avery tells him. “That hasn’t happened yet, but it will. But you won’t listen to her, either.”

  And Machen Dandridge turns his back on the sea and the dragon, on the battlefields and the burning cities, looking back towards the house he built twenty-five years ago. The air in the library seems suddenly very close, too warm, too thick. He loosens his paper collar and stares at his son sitting across the wide mahogany desk from him.

  “I’m not sure I know what you mean, boy,” he says, and Avery sighs loudly and runs his fingers through his brown hair.

  “Mother isn’t even at the window now. That’s still two weeks from now,” and it’s true that no one’s standing at the telescope. Machen rubs his eyes and reaches for his spectacles. “By then, it’ll be too late. It may be too late already,” Avery says.

  “Listen to him, Father,” Meredith begs with her mother’s voice, and then she lays a
small, wilted bouquet of autumn wildflowers on Ellen Dandridge’s grave. The smell of the broken earth at the top of the hill is not so different from the smell of the French trenches.

  “I did listen to him, Merry.”

  “You let him talk. You know the difference.”

  “Did I ever tell you about the lights in the sky the night that you were born?”

  “Yes, Father. A hundred times.”

  “There were no lights at your brother’s birth.”

  Behind him, the sea makes a sound like a giant rolling over in its sleep, and Machen looks away from the house again, stares out across the surging black Pacific. There are the carcasses of whales and sea lions and a billion fish and the bloated carcasses of things even he doesn’t know the names for, floating in the surf. Scarlet-eyed night birds swoop down to eat their fill of carrion. The water is so thick with dead things and maggots and blood that soon there will be no water left at all.

  “The gate chooses the key,” his wife says sternly, sadly, standing at the open door leading down to the deep place beneath the house, the bottomless, phosphorescent pool at the foot of the winding, rickety steps. The short pier and the rock rising up from those depths, the little island with its cave and shackles. “You can’t change that part, no matter what the seven have given you.”

  “It wasn’t me sent Avery down there, Ellen.”

  “It wasn’t either one of us. But neither of us listened to him, so maybe it’s the same as if we both did.”

  The sea as thick as buttermilk, buttermilk and blood beneath a rotten moon, and the dragon’s tail flicks through the stars.

  “Writing the history of the end of the world,” Meredith says, standing at the telescope, peering into the eyepiece, turning first this knob, then that one, trying to bring something in the night sky into sharper focus. “That’s what he kept saying, anyway. ‘I am writing the history of the end of the world. I’m writing the history of the future.’ Father, did you know that there’s trouble in Coma Berenices?”