Preservation

Issue #11

Fourteenth Day of the Meridian, Third Quarter

Today I met with Mrs Karbunck, a customer rendered most distraught by the passing of her tangle-footed lizard, Valor—an evil-featured old creature if ever I saw one. I have recorded my words to her below as they had great effect upon her and I may wish to repeat them:

“Welcome to Casselback and Son, experts in the complex art of taxidermy. Inside these humble walls the march of time is no longer inevitable. Inside these walls we can preserve a single unchanging instant forever.

“Today, using the time-tested traditional techniques my father taught me before his untimely demise, I can preserve (here insert animal’s name if known, otherwise state ‘your loved one’) in any pose and moment of expression that you desire. Whenever you are plagued by dolorous thoughts of his (or ‘her,’ never ‘its’) passing you may simply turn your gaze to your mantelpiece and your spirits will be raised as you see him (or ‘her’) captured eternally in a moment of zestful energy.”

She seemed quite moved by all this prattle, and I have the animal now.

In other matters, my left hand, which has been giving me some trouble for the past few days, appears to have developed a small purple-red spot. I may need to consult a physick. The business of Mrs Karbunck’s lizard, however, means that it shall have to wait.

I must go now. Mother is calling.

Fourteenth Day of the Meridian, Third Quarter—Evening

Mother is most trying. She insists that this latest bout of ill health will be the death of her.

“The sands will claim all things,” she tells me, false teeth clattering, “and they come for me now. I feel the desert’s breath upon my neck. Fetch Entropan Klumner for me. Let us begin the rites of passing.” And all this with a broad smile upon her face, constantly playing with the hourglass around her neck. She is a devout woman—more devout by far than I, and she chastises me for it often—but I fear her beliefs have the better of her.

Fifteenth Day of the Meridian, Third Quarter

An uneventful day except for one vexing incident. I was selecting a pair of eyes for Mrs Karbunck’s lizard when my concentration was interrupted by a whining, nasal, and singularly irritating voice emanating from the street outside. It was certainly not a voice that should have been subjected to the rigors of public oratory, and yet this was the exact purpose to which it was being put.

“Ladies! Gentlemen! Girls! Boys! Gather all. Come hear me for I am the bearer of portentous news. Everything is about to change. The past is dead. The present is but fleeting. There is only the future, that forbidding land of uncertain possibilities. But the future is no longer uncertain. We can define change. We can bring it about ourselves. Hear me. Science can elucidate the greatest mysteries of our lives. It can tell us every change to come.”

Unable to ignore this singularly irritating interruption, I turned my gaze to through the window of my storefront. There I saw a man of narrow frame dressed in an ill-fitting suit. In one long-fingered hand he clutched a fistful of handbills, which he thrust at anyone who approached within a few yards. And many did, for, about him capered the most absurd creation: a clockwork man. It was an ungainly, spindly thing, capable of walking around the orator and performing numerous tasks, such as bowing, sitting, folding its arms, and cocking its copper-cylinder head as if caught in deep and ponderous thoughts.

All in all, the thing quite turned my stomach. Indeed, so affected was I by this creation and by its owner’s blathering that I went outside to tell him, in no uncertain terms, to move along. However, the ballyhoo turned the mob gawping at his machine against me and I was forced to return to my shop, fearing that their jeers would turn to violence.

On top of all this, my left hand continues to bother me. The purple-red spot, if anything, is bigger.

Sixteenth Day of the Meridian, Third Quarter

A mixed day.

It began inauspiciously. Upon returning with groceries for mother and I, I discovered that she, and I am wholly unable to guess how, had managed to alert Entropan Klumner of her morbid fascinations, and he was waiting for me in my workshop when I returned. She had, of course, convinced him of the terminal nature of her ailment. I tried my damnedest to free him of this false notion, but, again, the fatalistic nature of our religion showed itself.

“The sands claim all things, Bertrand,” he said, laying a hand upon my shoulder. “The old must give way to the new. That is the core belief of our faith, and yet I appreciate that, at times like these, it can be difficult to accept.” Again he squeezed my shoulder in a most familiar manner. “Now,” he said, “let us make arrangements for the rituals to begin.”

I am afraid to report that I quite lost my temper at this and used language that I now regret. And yet the gall of the man! How should he like it if I went to his residence and started to pronounce his loved ones at death’s door?

He left after this outburst, and I, still in a passion, went to express my displeasure to mother. She ignored me utterly, lying with her eyes closed and not saying a word. I informed her that I found this behavior childish, but still she made no response and so I left her.

To get away from her and to cheer myself up I went to watch the Expulsions. It took place at the Northern airlock. We gathered with the sun behind us refracted over and over in the glass Dome that encases our city, that preserves it from the ravages of the Badland sands beyond.

Representatives from all the major religions were there: dour Dian priests, faces painted with the colors of their faith; Pantheonist masque-bearers; Aquan water-bearers still dripping from their immersion in the waters of the Oasis, that life-blood of our city; and several Entropans—dressed in golden robes as bright as the Badlands in the midday sun.

Of late, however, I have found the Entropan speeches please me least of all the readings. With their talk of constant flux, and the “irrevocable processes of decay and rebirth,” they seem to become less and less relevant to my life. To me it seems our whole lives are a struggle against the encroaching sands, to preserve what we have. To fix it as if in amber.

I must hope that mother never reads that passage.

However, my insignificant sacrilege is nothing compared with those who were to be expelled from our city: the mutates. Their sin was writ large upon their flesh. One man’s face was half eaten away, sagging into his shoulder, a mess of muscle and bone. From another’s sleeve draped a long tentacular ream of flesh that elicited a violent shudder from even the strongest of men. One woman near me fainted clean away.

Thus were paraded the faithless, those who have abandoned the divine and therefore have sacrificed the integrity of their form. Seeing them so spurned by the gods, we pelted them with refuse and rotting vegetation, called down curses upon their heads, and sent them out into the merciless baking sands. It was a marvelous spectacle and served to raise my spirits considerably.

Sixteenth Day

Oh! Oh, oh, and oh! Oh how does one howl on paper? How does one pluck the knife from one’s heart?

She will not rise. She does not hear me. Not my lamentations. Not my cries. She is gone, quite gone.

Mother is dead.

Sixteenth Day of the Meridian, Third Quarter—Night

I cannot take my eyes off her. She lies there, quite still. Beneath her paper-thin eyelids, her eyes rest in their sockets. She appears to be quite peaceful.

Oh, how deceptive nature is.

Already, although I cannot yet perceive it, she begins to change. The subtle processes of decay, of destruction are setting in. Slowly her joints stiffen, her flesh tightens, whitens. The blood pools. And then will come the hint of green, at the extremities of her skin, the dark patches that cannot be bruises. The first hint of a foul odor. The muscle will erode. The skin will sag. Her eyes will become opaque silver. She will stink. The flies will appear. Maggots will crawl through her flesh. They will take her eyes, her nose, her ears. They will erode her features until she is nothing more than a shapeless lump of decaying flesh.

Except....

No, I dare not even think it.

...except I have the power to stop it, the power to capture a moment, to preserve her in the zest of life.

No.

No, I dare not even write it.

Later

I have begun. May the sands forgive me, I have begun.

I thought at first my hands would shake. The ever-swelling spot upon the left hurts me very much. But when I reach to cut mother, to make the incisions, they are calm. There is peace in the process.

Seventeenth day of the Meridian, Third Quarter

Despite several unforeseen difficulties, a productive day.

Mother’s skin is tanning, and, generally, I am pleased with my work. I have never worked on a hide quite so large and there were several intricate (even intimate) areas where I feared my blade would fail me, but, by dawn’s light, I had her free from her musculature.

I thought I would need to stop at that point to sleep, but I was filled with an indescribable lightness of being, my head clear, the air in my lungs sharp. And so I was able to carry on, measuring mother’s muscles, mapping their minutiae. The rigor was setting in and necessitated that I break several joints. I regret it, but I believe it was necessary. Her eyes, I removed and placed in formaldehyde. I am certain that I have seen the perfect replicas in a drawer downstairs.

Measuring mother was a complex task, requiring significant patience and concentration. The mold I create must be perfect. Thus it was with great irritation that I once more overheard the orator of the other day proselytizing in the streets outside.

“Together a great community of scientists work to elucidate the Great Equation. You too can join them, can work towards mapping out the future, calculating the changes to come. As the shape of progress is revealed we may discard the old, the useless, and embrace the new. Constant forward motion!”

I did my best for close to a half hour to ignore this ranting, but eventually I could bear it no longer. A quick glance out of the window told me that his clockwork machine had once more drawn a considerable crowd. In order to avoid a repetition of our previous encounter, I took one of my larger blades with me.

Our altercation was louder, briefer, and considerably more bloody this time. Its conclusion was much more to my satisfaction. He departed and the crowd dispersed. I have thrown his infernal machine into the basement beneath my workshop. I don’t believe he will return to collect it.

Things went considerably more smoothly after that. The only subsequent distraction has been my left hand, which, around midday, began to shake uncontrollably. I have neither the time nor inclination to visit a physick and so I was forced to splint it myself. Wrapped in bandages as it is, it hinders me slightly, but I have always relied more heavily on the right.

It is evening now and I shall rest soon. My mold of mother is proceeding well.

Nineteenth Day of the Meridian, Third Quarter

No time to write yesterday, I worked so industriously.

I sit now by the stove. Mother reclines opposite me, a glass of dry sherry in her hand. She is just as I remember her, a subtle smile playing across her features, one tooth glinting where the lips part slightly. Her eyes gaze off dreamily. She is dressed in her finest.

It is done. Time cannot touch her. She will remain unchanging forever. She would be so proud. She would take me in her arms and thank me. I can, I think, see it in her expression. She radiates peace and it fills me to the brim.

Twentieth Day of the Meridian, Third Quarter

A disquieting visit from Entropan Klumner today. I must concede that I have been so absorbed in my work that I ignored several knocks at my door. It appears quite a few were caused by the Entropan’s hand and that he was anxious over mother’s state. He said again that he desired to speak to me of starting the rites for mother. “If it is not already too late,” he said.

I responded to this doom-saying with a hearty laugh. “It is certainly not too late,” I said. “While she was in a worse way than I originally believed, she is now quite recovered.” I then made some excuse about tending to her so attentively that I had had no time to come to the door.

Entropan Klumner stated that he was much relieved to hear this news, which, quite frankly, I doubt. He seems quite obsessed with death, in a manner that far extends the purview of his religious faith.

Entropan Klumner then asked to see mother.

It is not that what mother and I have done is wrong. I am quite sure of that. My inner peace, my refreshing nights all attest to the correctitude of my path. But I am concerned that a zealot like Klumner may have difficulty seeing things from my perspective, that he might cause an undesirable fuss.

I made an excuse, telling him mother was sleeping, that, while she was quite recovered, the sickness has left her quite exhausted. He was very insistent about returning tomorrow. I am unsure how to proceed.

Later

I cannot sleep. What am I to do?

Twentieth Day of the Meridian, Third Quarter—Later

The orator’s clockwork machine lies stretched out in front of the fire between mother and myself. Its bronze form reflects the light dully.

“It is up to you, mother,” I say.

She does not reply.

Of course she does not reply.

Of course....

But I see the answer in her eyes.

Later

It is halfway done and I begin to believe that I will succeed. It is hard work, especially one-handed, but I am as certain as can be that my cast will be strong enough. I have a few pieces of metal around the house that I can use to reinforce the structure. I can articulate her limbs, her waist. Yes, it is all quite possible.

I laid her skin face- down on the bed so that she could be afforded some modesty, but I feel her eyes boring into me, willing me to succeed. We both depend upon my skill. I am exhausted but I must press on.

First Day of the Descendency, Third Quarter

It is done.

It is beautiful.

It is the apotheosis of the taxidermist’s art.

I slaved all night, my eyes and limbs heavy with exhaustion, unpicking my stitches, carefully peeling mother’s skin from the cast once more. Then, carefully, so carefully, I eviscerated the mold, carved a space for the orator’s machine-man, and placed it in the space. Thankfully none of its mechanisms were damaged during our confrontation.

I used a bone saw to cut joints into the cast at the machine’s points of articulation, making room for the full limit of the machine’s movements. I ensured the cast would move freely without obstruction. I then began to replace mother’s skin. At the places where there were gaps in the cast, I stuffed cotton balls. I was forced to cut a hole in mother’s back so that one can turn the key for her mechanism, but she does not mind this minor imposition on her form, not considering the freedom it grants her.

And, oh, when the key turns. It is beautiful. It is barely within my power to describe it. She walks, she bows, she sits, she stands with arms folded, and head cocked as if deep in thought.

She is deep in thought.

As if....

She....

Wait. There is the knock at the door. Entropan Klumner must be here. Mother will be so happy to receive him.

Evening

I think I am safe here.

I think they won’t find me.

That here, in the detritus of our city, I may

Later

It is quiet now. They have left me alone, the beggars, the children. The night air is cold. There is little light. I will write what I can while my pen and nib last. Thank the inhabitants of the Beyond that I held fast to them when Entropan Klumner came.

Entropan Klumner....

I shall do my best to set down here events as they occurred to me. Not all is straight in my mind.

I remember being in almost an ecstatic state when I greeted Entropan Klumner. I was giddy. He enquired after mother and whether she was well enough to receive visitors.

“Of course,” I gushed.

On the way up the stairs he asked after the nature of the injury done to my arm. I had wreathed it entirely in bandages. I do not wholly remember why. It pains me terribly and, in all honesty, I am afraid to look. I believe I told him it was a work injury.

We achieved the upper landing and I escorted him into the room in which mother was cavorting. Before descending I had wound her mechanisms very tightly to ensure she would....

I cannot....

I must. I am sorry.

I had wound the mechanism very tightly to ensure that she would perform for the entire duration of the Entropan’s visit.

The effect she had on Entropan Klumner, as he entered the room and saw her walking in her tight circles, was very pronounced.

He screamed.

It was a blood-curdling sound, one of pure and unadulterated horror. He started back, clutching at my clothing and throat.

“What have you done?” he asked me in a state of utter shock. “What in the name of the sands have you done?”

His eyes were half out of their sockets, the skin around them stretched thin and white, the blood vessels quite visible. His nostrils were splayed wide and flared with each breath. His lips were curled back exposing his teeth and gums, tight lines etched around his mouth, emphasizing the appearance of that orifice. I remember his appearance with remarkable clarity.

I was perfectly calm. “See?” I said. “She is quite recovered.”

Entropan Klumner struck me at that moment. He attacked me with a ferocity I could not comprehend. He beat me long and hard and left me bloody, barely comprehending, in the ashes of the grate. He was shouting the scripture at me, spitting it in my face. When he had dealt with me he seized a poker from the fireplace and brought it down with sickening force on mother’s spine. There was the crunch of plaster and the whine of metal. Mother spasmed soundlessly. He struck her again and again, still yelling the truth of our faith. I screamed at him to stop, that he was killing her, but I was too weak to stop him. I was far too weak.

Eventually mother stopped moving. Entropan Klumner discarded the poker, panting. Mother sagged forwards, arms drooping to the floor. One of her glass eyes fell out and rolled across the floor. Her skin was dark and ugly looking, discolored by the tanning process. Her tongue, black and stinking, stuck from between poorly affixed teeth. A line of thick, clumsy stitching ran down her neck to a gaping hole in her back from which protruded the stub of a bronze key.

And my screaming sounded like the roar of sand engulfing me, clogging me, stopping me up, filling me.

My scream died then and I sobbed, for in that moment, in her second death, I saw her for what she was: a grotesquery; the work of a mad-man.

My work.

Mother, forgive me. You told me. You told me the sand claims all things, that all things must give way and be replaced. I finally saw that truth in my hideous attempt to keep you safe from the tide of time. We cannot stop the sweep of the clock’s hands. To stand in its path is futile. So utterly futile.

I ran then, once that realization came to me. Entropan Klumner was still advancing upon me, still shouting the scripture. I should have stayed, I should have begged forgiveness. But the shame, oh, the shame.... I ran.

My jaw was bleeding. One eye was almost swollen shut. I tumbled pell-mell through the city. I cannot be certain of my route. I fell from one place of degradation to another. I was harried by the detritus of the streets—beggars and itinerant workers. I was desperate for a hiding place, but I cannot hide from myself.

Now I sit in the refuse of this city and of my life. I must repent. I must go to the Entropans and be cleansed of my sin.

Mother, you must forgive me.

Second Day of the Descendency, Third Quarter

How to describe such a day? How to describe such emotions?

I write from a cell. They have let me keep my diary, my pen, and the last of my ink at least. Entropan Klumner has taken pity on me.

I came to him at dawn’s light. I begged him to allow me to make my repentance. Over and over I told him that my remorse was genuine, that I can embrace the shifting of life’s seasons. I begged him. “For mother’s sake,” I said. Eventually he took me in and made arrangements for the ritual to begin.

In a chamber, in a spot of brilliant light, I stood at the center of a circle of Entropans. Piece by piece I removed my ragged clothes, stripped down until I was as naked as the day I came into the world, as naked as I shall be when I leave it.

But I shall not leave this world as I entered it. I cannot.

There was no pain as I took the bandages from my left hand.

No, it is not a hand any more. It is a mass of tentacular flesh, knotted with thick blue veins. Fibrous tendrils extend where once my fingers were.

I stared at my arm, my hand, my sin, my faithlessness imprinted upon my flesh. I raised it, flexed it, feeling unfamiliar muscles contract. I watched strange fluid pulse beneath the surface of swollen, membranous skin. It is utterly new. It is flesh I have never seen before. It is horrifying.

It is beautiful.

The Entropans ceased their chanting. There were cries of horror, of outrage. They cast me from their chamber. There can be no forgiveness for me now. I shall be expelled from the city. I shall be sent out into the Badlands.

Even they cannot accept this change in me.

Sometimes I cannot either. Sometimes I weep. Sometimes, when I think upon the fact that I shall be expelled in five days time, I am convinced that I will be unlikely to survive more than a day in the badland sands. Sometimes I believe that I will die and will lie as still and dry as mother’s tanned skin.

And yet, at other times....

Sometimes I think I may live. Sometimes I look upon my arm, upon my changing flesh, and I think that it may not be so terrible to let the sands take me where they will.


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Jonathan Wood is an Englishman living in New York. He writes odd little things that show up in odd little places, such as Chizine, Weird Tales, and Fantasy Magazine. He regularly contributes flash fiction to www.dailycabal.com and co-edits Behind the Wainscot. He can be found on-line at thexmedic.livejournal.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Kreisler’s Automata” by Matthew David Surridge
“The Mathematics of Faith” by Jonathan Wood

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Comments & Scrivenings
4 Comments on “Preservation”

4 Responses to “Preservation”

  1. Guest says:

    03-02-2009, 04:18 PM
    Guest

    Did I creep everyone out, or just non-plus them?

    JW

  2. The_Slow_Train says:

    03-02-2009, 08:41 PM
    The_Slow_Train

    Nice.

    Is this a setting we can see more of?

  3. Guest says:

    03-03-2009, 02:41 PM
    Guest

    Depends if anyone wants to buy the novel I set in Bellacost…

    JW

  4. boonofdoom says:

    03-04-2009, 02:16 PM
    boonofdoom

    Very cool setting! And a fun character. I definitely see the novel potential here.

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