I always thought it was odd the way the pilgrims used to celebrate. Once or twice a year they would arrive, winding through the valley along the banks of the little violet river, brightly costumed, banners waving amid cloudbursts of music. Some even danced but no matter how much joy they tried to force into the emerald serenity of the ancient place they always fell silent before the gate. The wind abandoned the banners. The people lost all strength to dance. Invariably they would fall to the ground, tossing dust upon their shaven heads. They were people after all and people are no match for death.
After they had shattered themselves against the silk and paper gate of the Sanctuary, their pretense and piety deflated as the banners they would resort to the same ritual as all other pilgrims. “Mhun Yon-Jaig!” one would wail as he tore his red brocaded robe, “Age of the Diamond Peace, third year of the fifth sovereign!” Out would fly the bird from the darkest vault, her delicate ruby claws wrapped like a child’s fingers around the cut glass vial holding the tears of the mourners who had stood before the pyre of Mhun Yon-Jaig in the third year of the fifth sovereign of the Age of the Diamond Peace. Thus would continue names and years, night and day until the mourners were spent and The God was permitted no doubt about the scars His Servant had left upon the world.
Even in those days pilgrims were rare. The valley is difficult to reach. But the sky was never empty as the birds, tireless in their devotion, heart crushing in their beauty brought the vials from before every pyre in every country of the world. Sometimes they came with rain when none was forecast and this was odd because in the rest of the world the weather machines were never wrong. I could see no significance. The religious regarded raindrops as the tears of The God as well as the token of His Own Heavenly Beauty but I could not believe He favored some in this way. Would He not be petty if He looked only to the great of the rushing world? Can there even be such a God?
When I was small the celestial sisters brought me to the Dead Sanctuary to begin my apprenticeship to the Master of Sorrows. I didn’t want to come. The Sanctuary was so remote and the celestial convent was pleasant. But I had no family and the sisters could not let a man live with them. When they brought me through the silk and paper gate one of the younger sisters began to cry but stopped when the abbess looked at her sternly. I hated the harsh gray and silver abbess but when I began to understand people I wondered why such a frail being would make such a difficult journey. Later, after my instruction was complete, hers was the first vial I received and I was shocked by the sting of sorrow’s icy fangs.
How long ago! Such a gulf for people, who reckon time; a chirp in dreamless sleep for the birds, who reckon nothing. Do we not spend our lives chasing the knowledge they are born with? Do we ever attain to their faultless understanding?
Apart from receding memories of the convent I have no experience of the rushing world and desire none. Pilgrims brought news. I was always respectful but never permitted their shards of glass and bits of dirt to find rest within me. I could not care what the angry Satrap did as he ruled the planet from the Hall of Snows, forgetting that he governed under the Sovereign God. The acts of corrupt ministers or the odd behavior of our neighbors on the worlds of our star system meant nothing to me. The gardens of the Sanctuary, the quiet of the violet river and the tranquil communion of the mourning spirits of the Sorrowful Stream are delights not to be found on the harried paths of my brother beings and I am content in my solitary occupation. My hands are never empty as I maintain the machines which keep up the grounds and help me catalogue and inter the never ending waves of vials. My thoughts are bright as I consider the history of each entry I add to the Register, which is the record of every birth, life, death and final disposition since the ancient family emerged from the water in the distant Sapphire Age. I am satisfied with the beauty of the birds and the significance of my purpose.
Can other men say the same?
One day there were no birds.
I knew before I was awake that they had not come. The dream of their absence woke me. But I could not believe it until I stepped out of my cell into the topaz dawn and found only the whisper of the river and the spotless shape of the sky between the shadowed mountains.
I held my breath as the tea stones rumbled in the kettle, expecting an interruption. I bathed with a nervous eye toward the sky, ready to grab my amber robe and dash to the Morning Court to receive the arrivals. I sat quietly on the flagstones of the terrace, playing the paper flute while the machines trimmed and weeded around me. Exasperated, I went to the little kitchen garden to prune the pepper vines and tap on the luscious rose melons swelling in the violet canals.
A thought occurred as I sweated in the beat of the morning sun. What if probability had stumbled and no one had died? Was it impossible? The flow of arrivals waxed and waned; what if it had simply waned to nothing for a short while?
The sun climbed. The sun fell. There were no birds. They did not come the next day.
On the third day I awoke to acknowledge the obvious. This was no work of probability. Clearly something had happened. Had there been some medical breakthrough? Had the customs of the world changed in a flash? Had storms prevented the passage of the birds from every place in the world?
Had The God recalled His Servant?
With trembling hands I opened the scroll of The Only Book Of The God. It may seem odd for one of my vocation but I have never been devout and so had trouble finding the passages I sought. It wasn’t until the end of the book of the eighteenth prophet that I found this:
“Am I the servant and not The Master, saith He, that Death should overcome all I have made? On that day shall I not say to her it is enough; go forth no more?”
“I saw these things and this word is true, saith the witness. There is no mystery and no interpretation. The day will come when Death shall cease her labor and men will die no more.”
“His Day is at hand; all who look to Him awake with joy for the world is made new. Sin shall be no more and the work of Death is complete.”
No pilgrims came to tell me good or bad. Why would they? If there was no more death men would soon forget the dead and so they should. If men no longer die they are a new kind of life, unrelated to the departed.
I fell to the floor and praised Him Who had brought the new day. I could think of nothing else to do.
That evening was like no evening I have ever seen. The splendor of the setting sun reduced me to tears and the indigo night was so clear that every planet seemed close enough to touch. Even Thraff, the most distant of the worlds glowed with an orange vitality that could almost be felt like the warmth of the sun. What will they do with their new immortality I wondered? How will they pass the ceaseless years upon their snowy mountains and jade fields?
As I drifted across the shoals of sleep I recalled the celestial convent of my youth. I thought of the gracious young sister whose tears have never left me. I considered returning to the world of men for without death there could be no sorrow and no need for a Master of Sorrows.
The next day was hot and dry. Clouds billowed between the mountains, strangely iridescent and beautiful but without rain. I happily busied myself in the little garden, always my favorite occupation and now there was time to do it properly.
Shortly after noon the wind picked up and the clouds grew thicker, moving low along the river. It was fascinating to watch the wondrous colors rolling in upon themselves, creating fantastic shapes and shadows. Were these new clouds for a new world? I stood transfixed, forgetting my work and as I gazed into the brightly elegant disorder my heart jumped.
A speck. A tiny shape racing before the advancing chaos.
I ran toward the Morning Court, throwing off my rude farmer’s coat and grabbing my amber robe as I passed my cell. I was overjoyed to see the bird; I had missed their beauty and wondered if they could be found easily in the rest of the world. But as I watched I saw that her path was erratic, as if she didn’t quite know where to go. Maybe she was injured. She passed high overhead and I saw sunlight glinting from the vial as she glided toward the southern mountains, then turned to head back.
As she passed over again the clouds from the river broke upon us like the waves of a ferocious sea. The wind driving them was intense, knocking me to the ground. The substance of the cloud was not mist at all. It was gritty like dust. The smell was pungent like smoke and ash, choking in its density. I pulled myself to my feet just in time to see her caught in a downdraft and dashed upon the flagstone of the court.
I ran to her, fighting the diminishing wind. Their work done, the clouds retreated to their path along the river. Peace and beauty were restored.
Miraculously the vial was undamaged but the bird… The bird was not a bird at all, not a real one. It was a machine. Pieces were scattered. Artificial feathers, ruby colored sensors for eyes. An outrage! I’ve never seen anything so hideous.
The vial presented another outrage and another puzzle. It was clearly identified but empty. No tears had been shed at the pyre of this departed soul.
I grabbed the vial, seething with anger and disappointment. Did this mean that death remained after all or had the lifeless imposter simply flown aimlessly for days and days, delaying the repose of death’s final victim? And why a mechanical bird? Could anything be more disgraceful?
Recalling my duty I mastered myself. The spirit of the man could not rest until he was properly mourned. The tiny memory coil affixed to the vial contained a few details about his life but was very sketchy, ending with this perplexing description of his demise:
“The last to die before the first to be killed.”
What did it mean? What could it mean?
The preparations for the ceremony were simple and it was oddly comforting to return to the familiar mysteries of my vocation. I was concerned that the days of leisure might have dulled the intensity of spirit necessary for communion with the Sorrowful Stream but as I began the chant grief shattered me as never before. I lost consciousness and awoke the next morning to find the vial overflowing.
The night spent on the flagstones of the Morning Court left me stiff and sore; tuning in to the Register was difficult. My head hurt and it was hard to concentrate. I sighed as the columns of data finally appeared. I had made a mistake; the names were dark and could barely be read. I would have to try again.
Once more the dark, ghostly image of the names scrolled before me so I read them as they were, searching for the unmourned man, unsuspecting, confused, disbelieving, finally grasping the horror of the truth before me.
Every name awaited my confirmation of interment.
Everyone in the world was dead. There were no more people anywhere.
Since that shocking day I have lived like a machine, my silent hatred for the insidious God mechanical in its perfection and inevitability. Have I been spared so that He might have a soul to torment in the red dust of the mortal world? Are the hells too full?
Was the grief I was impressed to bear not enough?
The rose melons have shriveled on the sandy bottoms of the dry canals. There has been no rain. The emerald valley is gray and the violet river a trickle, choked here and there with the rotting bodies of fish. I don’t know what happened in the rest of the world but my end is to be one of starvation and thirst. I will not be mourned. My passage to the next place will be silent and empty, attended by no sorrowful spirits nor even the gracious substitution of a kind stranger.
I will not be mourned!
A blazing afternoon. Blazing! I sat in the tattered shadow of a dead tree, playing the paper flute, counting mirages. I had learned a few of the lively sailors’ tunes over the years and as I sat piping to the distant sea I thought of the men swept to the depths, their sinful flesh never burned upon the pyre, their spirits never refreshed and lightened by the ceremony. Did The God have His path for the sailors? Was it not His storms, the floods of His “tears” that washed them into the abyss, where no priest presides and no friend mourns?
A man was approaching, staggering across the wasted valley. I numbered this vision with the mirages but it persisted unchanging, climbing the steps of the terraces and collapsing at my feet.
I played on.
Eventually the man stirred. He sat up painfully. I have never seen such a man. Skin was peeling from his face, leaving ragged edges of red and green, here and there exposing bone. One arm convulsed violently. The constantly twitching hand was covered with sores and blisters. His eyes were dull and gray. I wondered if he was blind.
“Don’t speak to me! You’re not here; all the people are dead!”
“Not you. How did you survive it?”
“Survive what? What happened?”
“How could you… The war! There has been a war! Do you really not know? I am the Minister of Rites. The people have gone to live in holes, a few, very few… I’ll tell you everything but first…” He took a vial from his pouch, holding it as the moon holds the sea.
The sun was hot, so very hot. The ground burned my feet through my thick sandals The glare of the hard soil was blinding.
I took it from him like the filthy thing it was, ashamed that I lacked the courage to smash it on the flagstone. Holding it out behind me with two fingers I passed it to a robot and washed my hand in the dirt.
“What… what do you mean?” he gasped, his whole body trembling like the twitching hand. “It is the Satrap! It is the Satrap!”
“We have been one people since the ancient family survived the deluge. There is nothing to fight about and no one to fight with! How can there be a war? Who did the Satrap fight against?”
He fell to the ground, completely spent. “We fought against Thraff,” he wheezed as Death closed her scarlet fingers around him, “and we prevailed…”
“No rain for the Satrap,” I observed. “Or his minister.”
The rain became a puzzle. Why did it rain for some and not others? The machines were never wrong, never! Why would The God thus interfere with the natural operation of His Creation? Who mattered to Him?
I examined the records as far back as my waning energy permitted but found only insignificant names associated with unpredicted rain. It was as I suspected. The God cared for nobody.
Now the river is dry. The garden is empty. I am starving. Clouds gather but they are dust and ash. Maybe there are still people living in holes as the minister said but what can that matter here? There are no more pyres, there are no more birds and men, if any survive, will never cease to mourn. They cannot make enough vials and the sanctuary could never hold them.
I will sit on the terrace, turning to dust like the world around me. Red dust of mortality; hunger no longer hurts, the sun no longer burns, the God does what He does…
A bird, strong and beautiful glides out of the sun. The clouds along the river reach but she cannot be touched. She lands beside me, my final joy in the crumbling world.
The vial has a few tears. There are two names. A single vial with two names? One is mine, the other…
It cannot be!
The other is the name of the young sister who cried as I passed through the silk and paper gate so many lifetimes ago.
Even in those distant days, when the world was a tender shoot pushing through the fragrant soil I felt the morning breezes of attraction, perhaps love. As I gazed at her for the last time, my heart already starting its long journey into death she smiled, averting her beautiful amber eyes.
I had no tears. I convulsed with sobs but there were no tears. I groped along the vanishing ground for a stone, a shard of glass.
A piece of steel left from the mechanical bird.
Trembling with the passion of a new lover I punctured a vein. A single drop tinted the tears in the vial and I fell to the ground, unable to rise as the scarlet fingers closed around me.
The last thing I felt was the rain.
From The Mountains of the Eldritch Sea,