The Wind Through the Keyhole (Dark Tower), Page 2Stephen King
“Will’ee eat?” Bix asked them. “What I have is poor and rough, but such as there is, I’d be happy to share.”
“With thanks,” Susannah said. She looked at the overhead cable that ran across the river on a diagonal. “This is a ferry, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Jake said. “Bix told me there are people on the other side. Not close, but not far, either. He thinks they’re rice farmers, but they don’t come this way much.”
Bix stepped off the big raft and went into the boathouse. Eddie waited until he heard the old guy rummaging around, then bent to Jake and said in a low voice, “Is he okay?”
“He’s fine,” Jake said. “It’s the way we’re going, and he’s happy to have someone to take across. He says it’s been years.”
“I’ll bet it has been,” Eddie agreed.
Bix reappeared with a wicker basket, which Roland took from him—otherwise the old man might have tumbled into the water. Soon they were all sitting in the wicker chairs, munching popkins filled with some sort of pink fish. It was seasoned and delicious.
“Eat all you like,” Bix said. “The river’s filled with shannies, and most are true-threaded. The muties I throw back. Once upon a time we were ordered to throw the bad ’uns up a-bank so they wouldn’t breed more, and for a while I did, but now . . .” He shrugged. “Live and let live is what I say. As someone who’s lived long himself, I feel like I can say it.”
“How old are you?” Jake asked.
“I turned a hundred and twenty quite some time ago, but since then I’ve lost count, so I have. Time’s short on this side of the door, kennit.”
On this side of the door. That memory of some old story tugged at Roland again, and then was gone.
“Do you follow that?” The old man pointed to the moving band of clouds in the sky.
“To the Callas, or beyond?”
“To the great darkness?” Bix looked both troubled and fascinated by the idea.
“We go our course,” Roland said. “What fee would you take to cross us, sai ferryman?”
Bix laughed. The sound was cracked and cheerful. “Money’s no good with nothing to spend it on, you have no livestock, and it’s clear as day that I have more to eat than you do. And you could always draw on me and force me to take you across.”
“Never,” Susannah said, looking shocked.
“I know that,” Bix said, waving a hand at her. “Harriers might—and then burn my ferry for good measure once they got t’other side—but true men of the gun, never. And women too, I suppose. You don’t seem armed, missus, but with women, one can never tell.”
Susannah smiled thinly at this and said nothing.
Bix turned to Roland. “Ye come from Lud, I wot. I’d hear of Lud, and how things go there. For it was a marvelous city, so it was. Crumbling and growing strange when I knew it, but still marvelous.”
The four of them exchanged a look that was all an-tet, that peculiar telepathy they shared. It was a look that was also dark with shume, the old Mid-World term that can mean shame, but also means sorrow.
“What?” Bix asked. “What have I said? If I’ve asked for something you’d not give, I cry your pardon.”
“Not at all,” Roland said, “but Lud . . .”
“Lud is dust in the wind,” Susannah said.
“Well,” Eddie said, “not dust, exactly.”
“Ashes,” Jake said. “The kind that glow in the dark.”
Bix pondered this, then nodded slowly. “I’d hear anyway, or as much as you can tell in an hour’s time. That’s how long the crossing takes.”
Bix bristled when they offered to help him with his preparations. It was his job, he said, and he could still do it—just not as quickly as once upon a time, when there had been farms and a few little trading posts on both sides of the river.
In any case, there wasn’t much to do. He fetched a stool and a large ironwood ringbolt from the boathouse, mounted the stool to attach the ringbolt to the top of the post, then hooked the ringbolt to the cable. He took the stool back inside and returned with a large metal crank shaped like a block Z. This he laid with some ceremony by a wooden housing on the far end of the raft.
“Don’t none of you kick that overboard, or I’ll never get home,” he said.
Roland squatted on his hunkers to study it. He beckoned to Eddie and Jake, who joined him. He pointed to the words embossed on the long stroke of the Z. “Does it say what I think it does?”
“Yep,” Eddie said. “North Central Positronics. Our old pals.”
“When did you get that, Bix?” Susannah asked.
“Ninety year ago, or more, if I were to guess. There’s an underground place over there.” He pointed vaguely in the direction of the Green Palace. “It goes for miles, and it’s full of things that belonged to the old people, perfectly preserved. Strange music still plays from overhead, music such as you’ve never heard. It scrambles your thinking, like. And you don’t dare stay there long, or you break out in sores and puke and start to lose your teeth. I went once. Never again. I thought for a while I was going to die.”
“Did you lose your hair as well as your chompers?” Eddie asked.
Bix looked surprised, then nodded. “Yar, some, but it grew back. That crank, it’s still, you know.”
Eddie pondered this a moment. Of course it was still, it was an inanimate object. Then he realized the old man was saying steel.
“Are’ee ready?” Bix asked them. His eyes were nearly as bright as Oy’s. “Shall I cast off?”
Eddie snapped off a crisp salute. “Aye-aye, cap’n. We’re away to the Treasure Isles, arr, so we be.”
“Come and help me with these ropes, Roland of Gilead, will ya do.”
Roland did, and gladly.
The raft moved slowly along the diagonal cable, pulled by the river’s slow current. Fish jumped all around them as Roland’s ka-tet took turns telling the old man about the city of Lud, and what had befallen them there. For a while Oy watched the fish with interest, his paws planted on the upstream edge of the raft. Then he once more sat and faced back the way they had come, snout raised.
Bix grunted when they told him how they’d left the doomed city. “Blaine the Mono, y’say. I remember. Crack train. There was another ’un, too, although I can’t remember the name—”
“Patricia,” Susannah said.
“Aye, that was it. Beautiful glass sides, she had. And you say the city’s all gone?”
“All gone,” Jake agreed.
Bix lowered his head. “Sad.”
“It is,” Susannah said, taking his hand and giving it a brief, light squeeze. “Mid-World’s a sad place, although it can be very beautiful.”
They had reached the middle of the river now, and a light breeze, surprisingly warm, ruffled their hair. They had all laid aside their heavy outer clothes and sat at ease in the wicker passenger chairs, which rolled this way and that, presumably for the views this provided. A large fish—probably one of the kind that had fed their bellies at gobble o’clock—jumped onto the raft and lay there, flopping at Oy’s feet. Although he was usually death on any small creature that crossed his path, the bumbler appeared not even to notice it. Roland kicked it back into the water with one of his scuffed boots.
“Yer throcken knows it’s coming,” Bix remarked. He looked at Roland. “You’ll want to take heed, aye?”
For a moment Roland could say nothing. A clear memory rose from the back of his mind to the front, one of a dozen hand-colored woodcut illustrations in an old and well-loved book. Six bumblers sitting on a fallen tree in the forest beneath a crescent moon, all with their snouts raised. That volume, Magic Tales of the Eld, he had loved above all others when he had been but a sma’ one, listening to his mother as she read him to sleep in his high tower bedroom, while an autumn gale sang its lonely song outside, calling down winter. “The Wind Through the Keyhole” was the na
me of the story that went with the picture, and it had been both terrible and wonderful.
“All my gods on the hill,” Roland said, and thumped the heel of his reduced right hand to his brow. “I should have known right away. If only from how warm it’s gotten the last few days.”
“You mean you didn’t?” Bix asked. “And you from In-World?” He made a tsking sound.
“Roland?” Susannah asked. “What is it?”
Roland ignored her. He looked from Bix to Oy and back to Bix. “The starkblast’s coming.”
Bix nodded. “Aye. Throcken say so, and about starkblast the throcken are never wrong. Other than speaking a little, it’s their bright.”
“Bright what?” Eddie asked.
“He means their talent,” Roland said. “Bix, do you know of a place on the other side where we can hide up and wait for it to pass?”
“Happens I do.” The old man pointed to the wooded hills sloping gently down to the far side of the Whye, where another dock and another boathouse—this one unpainted and far less grand—waited for them. “Ye’ll find your way forward on the other side, a little lane that used to be a road. It follows the Path of the Beam.”
“Sure it does,” Jake said. “All things serve the Beam.”
“As you say, young man, as you say. Which do’ee ken, wheels or miles?”
“Both,” Eddie said, “but for most of us, miles are better.”
“All right, then. Follow the old Calla road five miles . . . maybe six . . . and ye’ll come to a deserted village. Most of the buildings are wood and no use to’ee, but the town meeting hall is good stone. Ye’ll be fine there. I’ve been inside, and there’s a lovely big fireplace. Ye’ll want to check the chimney, accourse, as ye’ll want a good draw up its throat for the day or two ye have to sit out. As for wood, ye can use what’s left of the houses.”
“What is this starkblast?” Susannah asked. “Is it a storm?”
“Yes,” Roland said. “I haven’t seen one in many, many years. It’s a lucky thing we had Oy with us. Even then I wouldn’t have known, if not for Bix.” He squeezed the old man’s shoulder. “Thankee-sai. We all say thankee.”
The boathouse on the southeastern side of the river was on the verge of collapse, like so many things in Mid-World; bats roosted heads-down from the rafters and fat spiders scuttered up the walls. They were all glad to be out of it and back under the open sky. Bix tied up and joined them. They each embraced him, being careful not to hug tight and hurt his old bones.
When they’d all taken their turn, the old man wiped his eyes, then bent and stroked Oy’s head. “Keep em well, do, Sir Throcken.”
“Oy!” the bumbler replied. Then: “Bix!”
The old man straightened, and again they heard his bones crackle. He put his hands to the small of his back and winced.
“Will you be able to get back across okay?” Eddie asked.
“Oh, aye,” Bix said. “If it was spring, I might not—the Whye en’t so placid when the snow melts and the rains come—but now? Piece o’ piss. The storm’s still some way off. I crank for a bit against the current, then click the bolt tight so I can rest and not slip back’ards, then I crank some more. It might take four hours instead of one, but I’ll get there. I always have, anyway. I only wish I had some more food to give’ee.”
“We’ll be fine,” Roland said.
“Good, then. Good.” The old man seemed reluctant to leave. He looked from face to face—seriously—then grinned, exposing toothless gums. “We’re well-met along the path, are we not?”
“So we are,” Roland agreed.
“And if you come back this way, stop and visit awhile with old Bix. Tell him of your adventures.”
“We will,” Susannah said, although she knew they would never be this way again. It was a thing they all knew.
“And mind the starkblast. It’s nothing to fool with. But ye might have a day, yet, or even two. He’s not turning circles yet, are ye, Oy?”
“Oy!” the bumbler agreed.
Bix fetched a sigh. “Now you go your way,” he said, “and I go mine. We’ll both be laid up undercover soon enough.”
Roland and his tet started up the path.
“One other thing!” Bix called after them, and they turned back. “If you see that cussed Andy, tell him I don’t want no songs, and I don’t want my gods-damned horrascope read!”
“Who’s Andy?” Jake called back.
“Oh, never mind, you probably won’t see him, anyway.”
That was the old man’s last word on it, and none of them remembered it, although they did meet Andy, in the farming community of Calla Bryn Sturgis. But that was later, after the storm had passed.
It was only five miles to the deserted village, and they arrived less than an hour after they’d left the ferry. It took Roland less time than that to tell them about the starkblast.
“They used to come down on the Great Woods north of New Canaan once or twice a year, although we never had one in Gilead; they always rose away into the air before they got so far. But I remember once seeing carts loaded with frozen bodies drawn down Gilead Road. Farmers and their families, I suppose. Where their throcken had been—their billy-bumblers—I don’t know. Perhaps they took sick and died. In any case, with no bumblers to warn them, those folks were unprepared. The starkblast comes suddenly, you ken. One moment you’re warm as toast—because the weather always warms up before—and then it falls on you, like wolves on a ruttle of lambs. The only warning is the sound the trees make as the cold of the starkblast rolls over them. A kind of thudding sound, like grenados covered with dirt. The sound living wood makes when it contracts all at once, I suppose. And by the time they heard that, it would have been too late for those in the fields.”
“Cold,” Eddie mused. “How cold?”
“The temperature can fall to as much as forty limbits below freezing in less than an hour,” Roland said grimly. “Ponds freeze in an instant, with a sound like bullets breaking windowpanes. Birds turn to ice-statues in the sky and fall like rocks. Grass turns to glass.”
“You’re exaggerating,” Susannah said. “You must be.”
“Not at all. But the cold’s only part of it. The wind comes, too—gale-force, snapping the frozen trees off like straws. Such storms might roll for three hundred wheels before lifting off into the sky as suddenly as they came.”
“How do the bumblers know?” Jake asked.
Roland only shook his head. The how and why of things had never interested him much.
They came to a broken piece of signboard lying on the path. Eddie picked it up and read the faded remains of a single word. “It sums up Mid-World perfectly,” he said. “Mysterious yet strangely hilarious.” He turned toward them with the piece of wood held at chest level. What it said, in large, uneven letters, was GOOK.
“A gook is a deep well,” Roland said. “Common law says any traveler may drink from it without let or penalty.”
“Welcome to Gook,” Eddie said, tossing the signboard into the bushes at the side of the road. “I like it. In fact, I want a bumper sticker that says I Waited Out the Starkblast in Gook.”
Susannah laughed. Jake didn’t. He only pointed at Oy, who had begun turning in tight, rapid circles, as if chasing his own tail.
“We might want to hurry a little,” the boy said.
The woods drew back and the path widened to what had once been a village high street. The village itself was a sad cluster of abandonment that ran on both sides for about a quarter mile. Some of the buildings had been houses, some stores, but now it was impossible to tell which had been which. They were nothing but slumped shells staring out of dark empty sockets that might once have held glass. The only exception stood at the southern end of the town. Here the overgrown high street split around a squat blockhouse-like building constructed of gray fieldstone. It stood hip-deep in overgrown shrubbery and was partly concealed by yo
ung fir trees that must have grown up since Gook had been abandoned; the roots had already begun to work their way into the meeting hall’s foundations. In the course of time they would bring it down, and time was one thing Mid-World had in abundance.
“He was right about the wood,” Eddie said. He picked up a weathered plank and laid it across the arms of Susannah’s wheelchair like a makeshift table. “We’ll have plenty.” He cast an eye at Jake’s furry pal, who was once more turning in brisk circles. “If we have time to pick it up, that is.”
“We’ll start gathering as soon as we make sure we’ve got yonder stone building to ourselves,” Roland said. “Let’s make this quick.”
The Gook meeting hall was chilly, and birds—what the New Yorkers thought of as swallows and Roland called bin-rusties—had gotten into the second floor, but otherwise they did indeed have the place to themselves. Once he was under a roof, Oy seemed freed of his compulsion to either face northwest or turn in circles, and he immediately reverted to his essential curious nature, bounding up the rickety stairs toward the soft flutterings and cooings above. He began his shrill yapping, and soon the members of the tet saw the bin-rusties streaking away toward less populated areas of Mid-World. Although, if Roland was right, Jake thought, the ones heading in the direction of the River Whye would all too soon be turned into birdsicles.
The first floor consisted of a single large room. Tables and benches had been stacked against the walls. Roland, Eddie, and Jake carried these to the glassless windows, which were mercifully small, and covered the openings. The ones on the northwest side they covered from the outside, so the wind from that direction would press them tighter rather than blow them over.
While they did this, Susannah rolled her wheelchair into the mouth of the fireplace, a thing she was able to accomplish without even ducking her head. She peered up, grasped a rusty hanging ring, and pulled it. There was a hellish skreek sound . . . a pause . . . and then a great black cloud of soot descended on her in a flump. Her reaction was immediate, colorful, and all Detta Walker.